Coptic Orthodox Liturgical Chant & Hymnody
The Ragheb Moftah Collection at the Library of Congress
The Copts and Coptic Music: An Introduction
The Coptic Orthodox Christian community is the largest and oldest Christian minority in the Middle East today. While there is no accurate consensus of their size in Egypt, numerous accounts place them between 8 to 12 percent of Egypt's current population. Moreover, they are also a growing immigrant community in the United States, Canada, Australia, and throughout parts of Europe. Historically, the word Coptic is derived from the Greek word aigyptos, which is borrowed from the ancient Egyptian ha-ka-ptah, meaning "house of Ptah's spirit." Ptah was the god of Memphis, the very first capital of Lower Egypt and the first administrative center of a united ancient Egyptian kingdom in 3100 B.C. According to ancient Egyptian mythology, Ptah was believed to be the god who created the world.
Christianity was first introduced to Egypt sometime between 45 and 60 A.D., when St. Mark, the evangelist and author of the oldest canonical gospel, arrived in the city of Alexandria. Though the exact year of his entrance into the country is unknown, it is traditionally held that he began the unbroken succession of Coptic patriarchy in 61 A.D., and he is credited as the founder of Christianity in Egypt. Today, His Holiness Pope Shenouda III is the 117th successor of this Apostolic Seat of Alexandria.
Much like ancient times, most of Coptic life is celebrated musically. In the Coptic Church, all traditional rites and services accompanying major life transitions are sung. Even the afterlife is believed to be an eternal musical celebration in the presence of God. To understand the Coptic community better, one must understand the reigning spiritual metaphor that largely defines their faith, culture and, consequently, the music that expresses it: life on earth is a transient journey, with the human spirit always longing to return to God. After death, one may rejoin God in heaven where one will live in eternal tasbīh, or musical praise, as it is translated from Arabic. Musically then, Copts believe that their liturgical hymnody, as it is sung during worship services, helps to create momentarily a sense of heaven on earth, as music is the medium that bridges the everyday mundane life with a higher, spiritual realm.
Coptic religious music is composed of three distinct genres: alhān, or the Coptic liturgical hymns performed during church services and traditional rites; tasabīh and madā'h, Coptic and Arabic doxologies that are usually performed in praise of Coptic saints, St. Mary, the Mother of God, or God; and Arabic taratīl or taranīm, non-liturgical folk songs that are sung outside these formal contexts. These three genres do not include the newly emerging materials that immigrant communities are performing in the languages of their new home, such as translated Coptic hymns and Arabic taratīl, or Power, Praise and Worship songs borrowed from other Christian denominations. This presentation will highlight the Coptic canonical genre of alhān, the oldest and most revered of these three, now preserved in their entirety in the Ragheb Moftah Collection at the Library of Congress.
As early as the thirteenth century, the Coptic community had fascinated early explorers, missionaries, and scholars traveling to Egypt for, besides the many murals, excavations, and other tangible historical artifacts, Coptic liturgical chant was, and still is, regarded as the last living testament of an Ancient Egyptian artistic and creative process. In Egypt, writings by Coptic intellectuals such as Ishāq al-Mu'taman Abū Ibn Al-'Assāl and Yuhānnā Ibn Abī Zakāriyyā ibn Sibā' emerged in the thirteenth and fourteenth century describing Coptic music and Church ritual, but a recently discovered transcription dating to 1643 by the German Jesuit polymath, Athanasius Kircher, is among the very first transcriptions undertaken by Western scholars. This interest in Coptic music, though lingering through the eighteenth and nineteenth century, was strongly revived in the twentieth century with the efforts of musicologists such as Ilona Borsai, Hans Hickmann, O.H.E. Khs-Burmester, Marian Robertson-Wilson, and many others. However, no one has matched the efforts of Egyptian scholar, Ragheb Moftah, who dedicated his 75-year career to the collection, notation, and preservation of Coptic liturgical chant. With the help of Margit Tóth and Martha Roy, he published his monumental work, The Coptic Orthodox Liturgy of St. Basil with Complete Musical Transcription, in 1998.
- According to the 2006 census undertaken by the Egyptian State Information service, the population of Egypt is estimated at 72.6 million people. Numerous scholars have accounted for the neglect of an accurate Coptic census. Please see S.S. Hasan, Christians versus Muslims in Modern Egypt: The Century-Long Struggle for Coptic Equality. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003; and, Edward Wakin, A Lonely Minority: The Modern Story of Egypt’s Copts. New York: William Morrow & Company, 1963. [return to text]