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Groups of books in Coptic Egypt

Under Byzantine rule, and then as a minority culture in Islamic Egypt, the Christian population in Egypt had access to two types of library: the civic libraries established in the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods, and the church libraries particularly at monasteries throughout the country.

Sources for both are rather limited. For monastic libraries the following may be noted:

1. the Nag Hammadi codices, 5th century AD, a group of perhaps four collections of Gnostic treatises found in a jar near Nag Hammadi, (1) codices 4, 5, 8; (2) codices 2, 6, 9, 10, 13; (3) codices 1, 7, 11; (4) codex 3 (Mokhtar et al 1984, 86)

2. painted inscriptions on the walls of a chamber, perhaps the library, in the White Monastery of Shenute, 5th century AD, at Sohag

3. a papyrus brought back by Petrie from the Fayum, and now in the British Library, records a list of books titled 'the list of books which we have marked' - referring to the task of adding diacritical marks to the letters in Greek and Coptic manuscripts; in the first edition Crum interpreted the list as recording at least 105 separate works, in an unclear sequence, that he summarised as follows (Crum 1893, 60-62):

Of these, most are presumably Coptic, as 1 Psalter, 5 copies of the Gospel of St Matthew, 2 copies of the Catholic Epistles, and the 'Mystikon' are stated to be in Greek. The list distinguishes the material, but the identification of each word is not certain; the words membranum and apes are used for leather, and the word chartes refers to paper, presumably papyrus paper, as that is the material on which the list itself is written.

Crum interpreted the list as the inventory of part of a library, and could cite only one parallel.

4. manuscripts retrieved by Petrie in 1907 from clearance of a monastery of St Apollo, Deir Balyzeh, south of Rifeh 'around the ruins of which the MSS were scattered'; the find comprised 'hundreds of disconnected parchment and papyrus fragments' and was outlined as follows in the preliminary report (Crum in Petrie 1907, 39-43) - the finds date to the 6th-7th centuries AD unless otherwise stated:


Reading in Coptic Egypt

The book lists above indicate the overwhelming preponderance of Biblical and Christian liturgical content; this reflects the location and findplaces of the sources, monastic sites in Upper Egypt and the Fayum. Book ownership and reading practice in the cities may have continued along classical lines, but, as for ancient Egypt, the libraries have all perished and the indirect sources need to be brought together in future research. The differing proportions of intensive and extensive reading can then be better assessed.




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