Coptic in print – a history

The story of Coptic typography begins with a pilgrimage from Oppenheim to the Holy Land in 1483 by Bernhard von Breydenbach, Canon of Mainz and Dean of its Cathedral. Bernhard von Breydenbach was accompanied to Jerusalem by many nobles, among them the Dutch artist Erhard Reuwich who produced a series of impressive woodcuts of the places they visited along their jouney, people and beasts they encountered and oriental alphabets. On the conclusion of their pilgrimage, Breydenbach and Reuwich published an account of their journey in 1486 entitled Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctam. First published in Latin and printed in Mainz, it was the world’s first illustrated travelogue and such was its popularity that it went on to be printed in several European languages. Among the alphabets Breydenbach and Reuwich produced in woodcut was the first printed Coptic alphabet (Fig 1).

Fig 1. Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctum (Mainz: originally 1486; this 2nd Latin edition printed in 1490 by Peter Drach in Speier, 59 recto)

The Coptic alphabet was printed alongside other scripts used in the Holy Land, namely the Arabic, Greek, Syriac, Hebrew, Ethiopic and Armenian alphabets. However, it was referred to as the ‘Jacobite alphabet’ and added to a section on the Jacobites (De Jacobitis et eorum erroribus, ‘Of the Jacobites and their errors’), who were said to reside in Nubia, Ethiopia and an area extending as far as India, but not in Egypt. Breydenbach probably learned of the Coptic alphabet from inmates of the Coptic convent in Jerusalem. The company also travelled to Sinai, Cairo and Alexandria, which allowed Reuwich to produce perhaps the first printed view of Cairo and environs (Fig 2), illustrating some of the most notable landmarks of fifteenth century Egypt.

Fig 2. A woodcut map from Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctam showing Mount Sinai and St Catherine’s Monastery in the background, Cairo (Chayru) to the east of the Nile, the pyramids to the west and Alexandria at the bottom right corner. Taken from Davies’ (1911) reproduction, plate 28.

The reproduction of the Coptic letters is quite accurate and evidently Bohairic from the inclusion of the letter ϧ (labelled hachi in the woodcut). Their number is correct at 32 (including the letter for the number 6) as is their order, which not all subsequent attempts could boast. The names of the letters provided is interesting. As one of the earliest recordings of the names of the letters of the alphabet in a foreign language, in this case medieval Latin, it provides valuable evidence for the pronunciation of Coptic letters during the fifteenth century. I’m not aware of any study on Coptic phonology which has taken this important piece of primary evidence into account, the earliest Western source considered being a Latin phonetic transcription of Psalm 1 in the Bohairic dialect published by Theodorus Petraeus in 1659.

The following century saw three further scholarly attempts to block-print the Coptic alphabet in the European tradition of alphabet-collecting. The next two scholars to pursue Coptic Studies were the Italian priest Teseo Ambrogio degli Albonesi and his friend, the Frenchman and polymath Guillaume Postel. By all accounts, both men were remarkable linguists and both visited the Levant. Guillaume Postel claimed to have learned of the Coptic alphabet in Istanbul, but he also received copies of the Coptic alphabet that Ambrogio had acquired (Hamilton, 2006). Of the two, the Frenchman was first to publish producing in 1538 his Linguarum duodecim characteribus differentium alphabetum, introductio printed in Paris. Among the alphabets included was the Coptic alphabet (Fig 3), which was called the ‘Georgian, Jacobite alphabet’ (Alphabetum Georgianorum & Iacobitarum) and claimed by Postel to be used by the Georgians in a region extending from Egypt to Central Asia (Hamilton, 2006). It seems that Postel like Breydenbach never came into contact with Copts in their own land leading to confusion as to their alphabet’s provenance.

The following year, Teseo Ambrogio produced a better book in Pavia entitled Introductio in Chaldaicam linguam, Syriacam, atque Armenicam, et decem alias linguas, which included two very similar Coptic woodcut alphabets (Figs 4 and 5). The first was called Iacobitarum (of the Jacobites) and the second ascribed to the Cophtitae (Copts), who he correctly placed in Egypt. Thus, Ambrogio became the first scholar to accurately credit the Copts with the Coptic alphabet and place them in their homeland. Ambrogio also discussed the Jacobite/Coptic vowels (11 verso) and consonants (48 verso – 51 recto) in some detail, rendering his work more scholarly than his predecessors. However, he also published two further ‘Egyptian’ alphabets which are nothing of the sort (205 recto).

The second (‘Coptic’) alphabet (Fig 5) Ambrogio printed seems to be almost identical in form to that of Breydenbach produced almost 53 years earlier including its peculiarities, with some small changes to the names of the letters. The first (‘Jacobite’) alphabet (Fig 4) offers a generally truer likeness of the form of the Coptic letters, particularly improving on the letters ⲋ, ⲑ and ⲓ with the exception of ⲛ. Another advance Ambrogio may be credited with is perhaps the first representation of Coptic words in a Western publication. Handwritten below the ‘Jacobite’ alphabet are six Coptic words taken from the Gospel of Matthew (chapters 1-8) along with Arabic equivalents transliterated into Latin (Fig 6), demonstrating first hand knowledge of Coptic manuscripts. The words appear to have been scribed in spaces left by the printer.

Towards the end of the sixteenth century, Pierre-Victor Palma Cayet published Paradigmata de quatuor linguis orientalibus (Paris: 1596), which included a woodcut reproduction of 1 Timothy 1:17 (Fig 7). However, it is clear from his attempted transcription and translation (177-183) that he was not familiar with the values of the Coptic alphabet nor its grammar. Nevertheless, he can be credited with the first printed Coptic verse in the West.

The next milestone in Coptic typology came with Pietro Della Valle, a wealthy Roman noble. Della Valle travelled extensively in North Africa and Asia collecting antiquities and manuscripts. During a period towards the end of 1615 and the beginning of 1616 he was in Egypt where he came across the Coptic, a language with which he was unfamiliar. Apparently under the illusion that he had discovered a hitherto unknown language, he procured four Coptic manuscript, two of which contained several medieval Coptic grammars (muqaddimat) and lexicons (scalae) written in Arabic by Copts in an attempt to save their language from oblivion in its final days. On his return to Rome ten years later, Della Valle searched for a scholar who might edit his manuscripts and also commissioned the printing house of the Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (‘Congregation for the Propagation of the [Catholic] Faith’) to cast a Coptic font. In 1630, the Propaganda Fide produced the first publication in movable Coptic type, Alphabetum Cophtum sive Aegyptiacum in Rome (Fig 8). The short pamphlet, produced without a frontispiece, marked a revolution in Coptic typology. It contained the Coptic letters, their names in Coptic and Latin, phonetic values, comments on their pronunciation, Psalm 45 and the beginning of a syllabary.

Fig 8. Alphabetum Cophtum sive Aegyptiacum (Roma: Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, 1630)

Within 16 years, the Jesuit priest Athanasius Kircher would institute the modern study of the Coptic language with his grammar Prodromus Coptus (Rome, 1636) and later his Lingua Aegyptiaca restituta (Rome, 1643), both printed using the type cast by the Propaganda Fide. The West’s scientific interest in the Coptic language had truly begun.


  • Davies HWM (1911). Bernhard von Breydenbach and his journey to the Holy Land 1483-4: a bibliography, London: J & J Leighton.
  • Emmel S (2004). Coptic Studies before Kircher. In: Coptic Studies on the Threshold of a New Millennium. Proceedings of the Seventh International Congress of Coptic Studies. Leiden, August 27 – September 2, 2000, Vol 1. Ed. M Immerzeel, J van der Vliet. Leiden: Peeters, pp. 1-11.
  • Hamilton A (2006). Athanasius Kircher and his Shadow. In: The Copts and the West, 1439-1822: The European discovery of the Egyptian Church. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 197-228.
  • Roper G, Tait J (2002). Coptic typography: a brief sketch = Koptische Typographie: eine kurze Skizze. In: Middle Eastern languages and the print revolution: a cross-cultural encounter = Sprachen des Nahen Ostens und die Druckrevolution: eine interkulturelle Begegnung. Ed. E Hanebutt-Benz, D Glaß, G Roper. Gutenberg Museum Mainz, Internationale Gutenberg-Gesellschaft. Westhofen: Skulima, pp.117-121.
  • Stolzenberg D (2003). Catholic Cosmopolis: Kircher in Rome 1633-1650. In: Egyptian Oedipus: antiquarianism, Oriental Studies, and occult philosophy in the work of Athanasius Kircher. Stanford University, Dissertation in partial fulfillment of PhD, pp. 73-139.

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