History of Patriarchs also a history of Egypt

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Tuesday 17 Apr 2012

Sawiris Bin El-Mokafaa was amongst the first to record the history of the Copts, and to interweave it with the social, political and religious conditions in the whole country

History of the Patriarchs

Tareekh Al-Batareka (History of the Patriarchs) by Sawiris Ibn El-Mokafaa, verified by Abdel-Aziz Gamaleddin, Cairo: General Organisation for Cultural Palaces (GOCP), 2012. 10 volumes

The General Organisation for Cultural Palaces (GOCP) deserves praise for publishing an affordable edition of History of the Patriarchs by Sawiris Ibn El-Mokafaa. This move enables the average reader access to a detailed history of Egypt from the early part of the first century AD until the end of the 20th century.

The volumes have been continuously updated since the foundations were laid by Sawiris Ibn El-Mokafaa in the 9th century.

History of the Patriarchs was long regarded simply as a book about Christian popes, beginning with Saint Mark. In fact the book is an entire encyclopedia of Egyptian history in addition to being a voice for Copts who are rarely registered in conventional histories of Islamic Egypt.

The author, Sawiris Ibn El-Mokafaa, was born probably around 915 AD, originally called Abul-Bashar and his father was El-Mokafaa. He was not related to the famous author with a similar name – Abdulla Bin El-Mokafaa who lived during the 8th century AD and who translated into Arabic the famous books, Kalila wa Demna (Animal Stories and Parables) to Arabic.

The Arab invasion of Egypt happened in 639 AD and Sawiris Ibn El-Mokafaa wrote his works three centuries later, as confirmed by Abdel-Aziz Gamaleddin who verified the book. According to Gamaleddin, Ibn El-Mokafaa was had the kind of education that was typical for intellectuals at the time, combining natural sciences with religious sciences and philosophy. He worked in various official posts and one of few who were promoted in the service of the state due to his knowledge of Arabic that was still fairly new at the time. When he reached the highest possible post, he resigned and decided to join a monastery to become a monk and dedicate his time to writing. Later, he was chosen as the bishop for Ashmonin (a city in the south of Egypt) and his name changed from Abul-Bashar to Sawiris, after the pope of the time.

It is odd that Ibn El-Mokafaa does not feature in most histories of that period. The only exception was another bishop, Father Michael, at the time of Khalifat Al-Mo'ez, who registered that Ibn El-Mokafaa wrote some 20 books. Unfortunately none of them have reached us. Bishop Michael was among those who continued documenting the history of the patriarchs after Ibn El-Mokafaa passed away.

As explained in the book, it was Khalifat Al-Mo'ez  who tasked Ibn El-Mokafaa with writing the history of the popes. In doing so, Ibn El-Mokafaa visited most of Egypt’s monasteries to collect information and news, in addition to translating documents from Coptic and Greek into Arabic. In his writing about the Egyptian popes since the days of Augustus Caesar until the Fatimid Khalifat, Sawiris also wrote about the social, political and religious conditions and news of the time, describing the gradual move of Egypt from central rule to independence during the Tulunid and Alakhchidah eras, and until the Fatimid Khalifat.

Considering the book now, is also to realise that its long-neglect has been such a loss to the study of Egypt’s history. Ibn El-Mokafaa describes in detail days of affluence and times of drought and famines; writes about the relation between the Coptic popes and the rulers of Egypt and the Arab princes; the status of Egyptians under Islamic rule and religious freedoms; names of Copts who held high positions in the state, especially in relation to state finances and management where they particularly excelled, given their heritage of the pharaonic state with its ancient bureaucracy.

According to Ibn El-Mokafaa, most Egyptians eventually converted to Islam in order to avoid the Gezia (a tax on non-Muslims paid in return for Muslim protection). Meanwhile some of those who refused to convert instead left the country to avoid the tax, leaving behind their land and agriculture since the times of Al-Waleed bin Abdel-Malek the Ummayad (705-714 AD). This running away only increased with subsequent rulers.

Ibn El-Mokafaa thus recorded in depth what is barely registered in other histories, such as the Bashmouri revolution that started in the early 9th century AD in the Delta. He also recorded much of Alexandria's history since it was the base of the Coptic pope, noting that until the time of Alakhchidah it was nearly considered an independent part of Egypt, and that prince Ahmen bin Tulun was the first to rule all of Egypt, including Alexandria, and that was through a special ruling by the Abbassi Khalifat.

The Crusades were handled by Ibn El-Mokafaa the way an Egyptian thinker would do it; despite being a Christian clergyman, he never considered these wars to be between Christianity and Islam. Rather, he described the Crusaders as invaders and enemies of the East.

The book is full of details and historical stories from the entire nation, never limiting itself to the popes of the Church. Subsequent historians took on the responsibility of continuing the registration of Church history until the late Pope Shenouda. It was Ibn El-Mokafaa who laid the foundations of this work. He began the translating the church’s manuscripts into Arabic and touring the monasteries.

Abdel-Aziz Gamaleddin's task of verifying the book was no mean feat, and of not less value that the material in the book itself. Not only did he explain meanings of words, but added a huge set of references and annexes by great historians who also recorded the history of Egypt and the internal conditions under the various eras.

Last but not least, the value of the book comes in the way it looks at Egypt's history as a fusion mixing ancient Egypt with Coptic Egypt and Islamic Egypt in one story.

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