The Metropolitan Museum acquired the book of Coptic prayers following excavations by a Museum team at the site of the Syrian Monastery (Deir al-Surian) in the region of Wadi an-Natrun in Egypt in 1919. It is not clear whether it was actually found at the site or acquired nearby, since there are no records and it does not present evident signs of burial. In a rapidly growing Arabic-speaking area, the Coptic text was supplemented with an Arabic translation on the right-hand side of each page, thus making this prayer book more accessible to a wider section of the population.
This collection of Christian exhortative texts for morning and evening communal devotions focuses on the Cross and the mysteries of salvation. Bilingual by design, it contains versions in Arabic and in the Bohairic dialect of Coptic Egyptian written in two adjacent columns. The original scope of the manuscript remains unknown, as the last extant page ends in the middle of a sentence and the covers are missing; the preserved canons (of prayers) are numbered 1 to 22, followed by five pages of a similar text in Coptic only. Although it is not illustrated, several pages exhibit elaborately drawn capital letters. The dating of the book depends entirely on external features, which can be very deceptive; while the Coptic scribal hand suggests the fifteenth century, the extant three-crescent watermarks indicate a later, Ottoman period. The text itself, however, is likely a copy of an older composition.
The acquisition of the manuscript is linked to the Metropolitan Museum’s excavations at the Monastery of the Syrians (Dayr al-Suriyan) in Wadi al-Natrun (ancient Scetis), where it was either found in the excavations or acquired from the library. Alternatively, it may come from the Monastery of Saint Macarius the Great (Dayr Abu Maqar), whose library was investigated by the same mission. Both monasteries belong to ancient foundations in Scetis that have remained active to the present day. After the first monastic communities were established in Scetis, in the fourth century the area developed into the premier Christian site of medieval Egypt. Monastery libraries grew accordingly to reflect the various Christian traditions represented in the area, including the Coptic, Syrian, Armenian, and Ethiopian.
The present manuscript testifies to the gradual linguistic change following the transformation of the country after the Arab conquest in the 640s. By the time it was penned, even the Egyptian clergymen were native speakers of Arabic, and their command of Coptic was rather poor.
Marek Dospěl in [Drake and Holcomb 2016]
1. The watermarks were first noticed by Metropolitan Museum conservator Yana van Dyke, Department of Paper Conservation.
2. The findings of the excavations were published between 1926 and 1933 by Hugh G. Evelyn-White in three volumes titled The Monasteries of the Wadi 'n Natrun. Headed by Stephen J. Davis, a project is currently under way to catalogue Coptic, Arabic and Ethiopic manuscripts at the library of Daye al-Suriyan.
3. Evelyn-White, Hugh G. Monasteries of the Wadi 'n Natrun. 3 pts. Egyptian Expedition. Publications of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Egyptian Expedition. 2,.7,.8. New York. 1926–33 part I. The present manuscript is not part of the selection introduced in the book but Evelyn-White recounts his visits to the library on pp. xli–xlii.
Excavated by the Egyptian Expedition of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1919, acquired by the Museum in the division of finds
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Jerusalem 1000–1400: Every People Under Heaven," September 26, 2016–January 8, 2017, 48.
Drake Boehm, Barbara, and Melanie Holcomb, ed. Jerusalem, 1000–1400: Every People under Heaven. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016. no. 48, p. 104, ill. fig. 48.
Artist: Date: recto: ca. 1645; verso: ca. 1630–40 Accession Number: 126.96.36.199 Date: recto: ca. 1645; verso: ca. 1630–40Medium: Ink, opaque watercolor, and gold on paperAccession: 188.8.131.52On view in:Gallery 450