In AD 641, Muslim Arabs completed their conquest of Egypt, expelling the former Byzantine rulers. The native Christian Copts embarked on a grueling centuries-long struggle for survival. Their ordinary disadvantages of second-class dhimmi status were interspersed with periods of exceptional severity, notably under Mamluk rule (thirteenth to fifteenth centuries), with its deadly combination of state repression and mob violence. In our day, we witness the horrifying spectacle of mass-casualty Islamic State attacks on the Copts. As a result, Egyptian Christians, an overwhelming majority in the seventh century, now make up only 10 percent of the population.
An important new book by Jennifer A. Cromwell, Recording Village Life: A Coptic Scribe in Early Islamic Egypt, sheds new light on the early stages of this grinding down. Cromwell, a research fellow at the University of Copenhagen, details the work of a Coptic scribe named Aristophanes (though nothing he wrote is particularly funny). He was active in the eighth century AD in the village of Djeme (or Jeme) near Thebes (modern Luxor). Aristophanes found himself working for Egypt’s Islamic rulers some 70 years after the Muslims had wrested the country from the Byzantines.
Important books are rarely page-turners, and Recording Village Life is not an exception. Aristophanes wrote on papyri or ostraca; hence his works are studied by papyrologists. Cromwell mentions a joke T-shirt created by one of the leading lights of the field, the late Leslie MacCoull, bearing the motto “Papyrologists do it recto and verso.” Unfortunately, they also “do it” in a manner that outsiders are likely to find tedious. Thus, lengthy comparisons of the minutest details of Aristophanes’ handwriting to those of other Coptic scribes, though no doubt necessary for the discipline, will probably leave non-specialists in the cold.
Most of Aristophanes’ documents involved the administration of the jizya, the poll-tax levied on non-Muslims. Aristophanes’ tax documents—tax demands indicating the amount to be paid and tax receipts documenting payment—were written between 724 and 730. These documents were in Coptic and interspersed with rote phrases in Greek. The Arabs mandated this Greek and Coptic format, which was the so-called Hermopolite style, named after the administrative district in Egypt where it seems to have been developed. Already back in 705, a decree from the Arab governor of Egypt made Arabic the country’s official administrative language. However, as the historian Maged S.A. Mikhail notes, Greek proved “resilient and simply too ingrained in the administrative apparatus to be easily replaced.”
Coptic had a shorter history as a legal language—about a century. Ironically, the conquering Arabs first used Coptic for legal purposes on a large scale to facilitate collection of the new taxes. These revenues supported the advance of Islamic arms westward into North Africa and Spain. In the long run, however, the decree in 705 sealed the fate of both Greek and Coptic as administrative languages. They were mere stopgaps to be used only until Arabic became dominant.
The sources show evidence of the Copts’ passive resistance to the new measures Muslims imposed. The naval duty, by which Copts were ordered to serve as rowers in the fleet waging continued war against Byzantium, was particularly unpopular (Aristophanes wrote one document on this topic; the bulk of the evidence comes from elsewhere in Egypt). Copts who confronted this demand were prone to flee or substitute a monetary payment for service. During the great Arab assault on Constantinople in 717–18, Coptic rowers abandoned their masters and joined the Byzantines.
Tax evasion was also an issue. Arab authorities responded by initiating a system of internal passports. People undertaking long-distance travel within Egypt were required to carry a permit certifying they had paid their taxes. Aristophanes wrote one such travel permit for three local monks who needed to travel north to the monastic complex of the Fayum (southwest of modern Cairo). The Greek section of the document included a verbal description of each of the men. Yet even this measure did not solve the problem. Not only did “passive-aggressive Coptic administrators” (in Mikhail’s words) drag their feet in implementing it, but Coptic villages “defiantly concealed fugitives.”
In response, in 718 the Arab rulers began to replace local Coptic officials with Muslims. The change was gradual at first. Mikhail notes that “while the number of Arab Muslims at all levels of the bureaucracy dramatically increased during the first quarter of the eighth century, Christians and Jews continued to be gainfully employed in significant numbers.” The change caught up with Aristophanes around 730. Cromwell notes that after that year, he does not appear to have written any tax-related documents (he tried to compensate by writing Coptic-language legal documents for his fellow villagers). Nor was Aristophanes the only Coptic scribe so affected. Cromwell notes that “no known Coptic tax demand can be dated later than the 730s.”
An icy air of futility congeals around Aristophanes. The apparent revival of Coptic as an administrative language turned out to be a false dawn. Cromwell succinctly summarizes the situation in eighth-century Egypt: “As the processes of Arabization and Islamization of the administration progressed, Coptic was replaced by Arabic, and local Egyptian officials were replaced by Arabs.” All Aristophanes managed to do was to help facilitate this change before he was tossed aside, a discarded pawn.
Richard Tada (1961–2019) held a PhD in Greek and Byzantine history from the University of Washington.