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Book of the Week – A Coptic Conundrum

When the name of Western Americana, Rare Books, and University Archives was changed to “Special Collections” in 1971, it reflected a major shift in the holdings. In addition to the growing emphasis of rare books, Special Collections Director, Everett Cooley, was also made responsible of the impressive Middle East Library – under the premise that it was a “specialized” collection. The Middle East Library had been established alongside the Middle East Studies program in 1959 with the arrival of Dr. Aziz Suryal Atiya.   

Dr. Atiya was a prominent scholar, writer, historian, and librarian whose expertise spanned the fields of the Crusades, as well as Islamic and Coptic studies. Born in a small village in Egypt, Atiya received a diploma from the Higher Training College in Cairo before moving on to the University of Liverpool in England, and later the University of London, where he completed his Ph.D. in Arabic and Islamic Studies. After briefly teaching in Germany, Atiya returned to Egypt and began a tenure as Professor of Medieval History at Cairo University. However, an extensive lecture tour in the United States during 1950-51 convinced Atiya to go abroad again. He served at the University of Michigan, Columbia University, Indiana University, and Princeton before coming to the University of Utah in 1959.   

In addition to his role as Professor of Languages and History, Dr. Atiya was tasked with building a center for the study of Arabic and Middle East cultures. Fortunately, Atiya had brought his already sizeable library collection to the University of Utah. Furthermore, he was provided funds to purchase additional books and manuscripts. While making numerous visits to his homeland of Egypt, Atiya was extremely successful in acquiring large quantities of books at very low prices.

According to Asiatic scholar John H. Watson, it was Dr. Atiya who introduced the words “coptology” and “coptologist” to the English language. His research on the subject was published over a period of thirty-five years and approximately twenty-five books, many of which are multi-volume projects. Among his many publications, he is particularly remembered for his History of Eastern Christianity (1969) and the eight-volume Coptic Encyclopedia, which he was preparing to publish at the time of his death. The publication was completed under the direction of Mrs. Atiya in 1991.

The rare books collection holds several Coptic manuscripts from Dr. Atiya, including a bilingual lectionary known as the Qatamarus – a word derived from the Greek katameros signifying ‘in parts’ or ‘in turn.’ The Qatamarus is a collection of readings drawn from the Old and New Testaments to be read on certain days and occasions – a particular office or mass and various feasts and celebrations. This illuminated manuscript was in copied in Egypt in the seventeenth or eighteenth century and reveals the traditional methods of production (on rag paper) that required years of painstaking labor by monks as an act of devotion, or by scribes commissioned by devout families for presentation to the congregation. Among the illuminations are decorations with horseshoe arch forms and animal motifs, showing the influence of Egyptian traditions on Christian art. 

Another bilingual manuscript found in the collection is seen here. Cataloged as “#3 Atiya 1989,” this manuscript was written in Coptic and Arabic and conditionally identified as being from the thirteenth century. A brief description of the manuscript suspects it was created “in an ancient Coptic monastery at a time when the Copts, though still speaking Coptic, learned literary Arabic and used it side by side.” A final colophon provides the date as the sixth of the Coptic month of Baramudah, the year of the martyrs inscribed in Coptic figures, or the equivalent of a year in the thirteenth century. The manuscript includes text from the Offices of the Holy Week, prior to the Easter season practiced in the Coptic Church.  

The access to many of the holdings in the Aziz Atiya Middle East Library is often supported by researchers and their ability to identify, translate, and analyze the materials.  A challenge to this access lies in the conservation and preservation needs of certain manuscripts, with great concern for the care and handling of such fragile items. The Coptic manuscript in question has suffered serious loss due to water, mold, and insect damage – resulting in hundreds of loose fragments, some of which have been adhered together. The majority of the loss is found in the front of the book and diminishes toward the back. The manuscript moved between the shelves of the rare books collection and the preservation lab from 2014 until 2017, when Joyce Tuia and Tomomi Nakashima, former book and paper conservators in the Preservation Department, performed initial treatment. Further conservation has been completed by Jeff Hunt. Due to the damage, a complete translation of this manuscript would be incredibly difficult, if not impossible.  

In order to encourage further inquiry and exploration, we look toward new technologies found in AI, machine learning, and language coding programs to assist with the recovery of the lost text. The completed conservation treatment of this manuscript has allowed the Rare Books Department to carefully scan the folios in order to perform a “digital” analysis by the new technologies, which have recently become available. Combined with the efforts of our expert researchers, such technologies would allow us to more accurately identify the contents of the manuscript, catalog the manuscript into the Library’s database, and broaden accessibility to a global audience. 

The collaborative effort of the Rare Books Department and the Preservation Department are accompanied by the expertise of Allie McCormack, Original Cataloger for Special Collections, Todd Samuelson, Associate Dean of Special Collections, and Harish Maringanti, Associate Dean for IT and Digital Library Services. 

As research libraries at higher education institutions continue moving toward digital spaces, an entirely physical collection, such as rare books, must consider potential opportunities for collaboration and exploration. Rather than shy away from digital technologies, we should seek to adapt, use, and take advantage of the possibilities new technologies may present. Projects like this have already been underway for some time. A recent example includes a 2,000-year-old “lost book” discussing the dynasties that succeeded Alexander the Great, which may finally be deciphered through machine learning nearly two millennia after the text was partially destroyed in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. There is also the ongoing Sphaera Project – working in collaboration with a team of researchers at the Berlin Institute for the Foundations of Learning and Data (BIFOLD) – which uses a digitized collection of 359 astronomy textbooks published between 1472-1650 to trace the evolution of European knowledge toward a shared scientific worldview. A quick search of AI helping historians pulls a number of other results. A research library, such as ours, would do well to join in the innovative research new technologies can offer.

Do you want to learn more about the current Coptic Manuscript Project or share your insight and expertise with our team? Please contact Rare Books Curator, Lyuba Basin for information.


1 Comment
  • Alexander Jolley
    Posted at 16:42h, 16 October Reply

    The AI methods being used to read these old texts, such as the Herculaneum papyri, is craziness. So much history might have to be rewritten in the coming years!

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