Written Culture of Christian Egypt: Coptic Manuscripts from the University of Michigan Collection

Curated by Alin Suciu and Frank Feder (Göttingen Academy of Sciences and Humanities), with the collaboration of Pablo Alvarez (Special Collections Research Center)


The dry climate of the Egyptian desert offers an ideal environment for the preservation of ancient artifacts. As the sands of Egypt have preserved numerous Coptic manuscripts, the transmission of the literary heritage of Egyptian Christians can be documented fairly well from its beginning in the 4th century until its decline in the 12th and 13th centuries, when it was completely superseded by Arab culture. 

With the exception of two codices written on parchment, Mich. Ms. 166 and 167, the artifacts on display are all fragments of various sizes that were once part of different codices (bound books) with their leaves made of papyrus or parchment (animal skin). Aside from two bilingual fragments, written in Coptic and Greek, the rest of the manuscripts in this exhibit are written in the Coptic language, which represents the last stage of the Egyptian language, and whose alphabet was mostly adapted from the Greek alphabet in the 2nd century BCE. In brief, different Coptic dialects (Akhmimic, Lycopolitan, Mesokemic, Fayyumic, Sahidic, and Bohairic) were used by these early Christian communities not only for ordinary worship but also for the written transmission of the Bible and other religious works. This laborious task of the early difussion of Christian texts is well exemplified by one of the highlights of our display: The works of Shenoute of Atripe (ca. 347-466). The extant manuscript fragments with works by Shenoute  held at the University of Michigan were all copied at the White Monastery, which was located just outside the town of Atripe (now the city of Sohag, Egypt).