The Copts and the West (1439-1822), by Alastair Hamilton

The Copts 9












The Copts and the West est un livre d’Alastair Hamilton, fruit de ses recherches sur les relations scientifiques, culturelles, ecclésiologiques entre les Coptes et l’Occident, sur la période 1439-1822

 Au moyen d’une narration riche en anecdotes biographiques, l’ouvrage aborde les tentatives d’union, le développement de l’Eglise Catholique Copte, la concurrence entre protestants et catholiques dans le développement des études arabes et coptes, les biographies d’humanistes coptes ayant enseignés en Occident et finalement le rôle des études coptes dans le développement de l’égyptologie.

 “The Copts and the West” is undoubtedly among the most meticulous and erudite books published on the subject of the history of the western discovery of the Copts. This book is the result of Hamilton’ study on the encounter between the Coptic Church and the West. Hamilton’s study concentrates on the role of the West – most of those concerned are missionaries and scholars - in the acquisition of knowledge about the Coptic community from the council of Florence (1439) to Champollion’s discovery of hieroglyphs in parallel with the Coptic language in 1822. So the book itself is less a study of “Coptic history” than one of western perception, comprehension and prejudices concerning the Copts and their Church, based on the reports of western travelers, missionaries and scholars.

Copts 1The methodology of The Copts and the West belongs to the historical field: Alastair Hamilton has collected an impressive sum of historical sources through biographical notes but also in all western scholarships studies on the Copts and their Church – from the council of Florence in 1438, through Protestant reformation and Enlightenment and up to the studies of Champollion in 1822. He has constituted an almost exhaustive study on the evolution of the western comprehension and relation to the Copts. The thesis of the study is not very explicit either original, it consists in the – de facto - demonstration of the importance of the role played by personal and accidental misunderstandings in the history of progressive accumulation of knowledge on the Copts.

The Copts and the West is divided into four parts, each subdivided into a number of chapters. The first part “The Copts in Egypt” briefly summarizes the emergence and development of the first Alexandrian Christianity into the Coptic Church and its life under Muslim Domination. The second part is devoted to western missions. Beginning with the council of Florence and the attempt of the Papacy to bring “back” the Coptic Church into the Catholic faith, the chapter proceeds to examine the first contacts between the Catholic Church and the Coptic Church until the emergence of the Coptic Catholic Church after the successful conversions of some Coptic clerics. The third part of the study is particularly scholarly: the author presents the progressive accumulation of knowledge about the Copts and demonstrates that this process relates to successive confessional controversies – between Protestants, Catholics and Copts. In the last part “The Coptic language” Alastair Hamilton discusses the study of Coptic and the use of Coptic manuscripts in Europe, particularly in relation to biblical studies or to Egypt’s ancient pharaonic history.

One of the most attractive points of Hamilton’ study may well be his taking into consideration of translation  and linguistic issues between westerners and Coptic Egyptians. The author demonstrates that an important part of the reciprocal lack of understanding stems from the low levels of skill in Arabic among the first western emissaries and missionaries, which often created significant theological or relationship misunderstandings.

The Copts and the West is without contest an unavoidable monograph for all those interested in understanding the encounter between the Coptic Church and the west.


Copts 10The Copts and the west, 1439–1822.
 The European discovery of the Egyptian Church.
 By Alastair Hamilton. (Oxford–Warburg Studies)


Alastair Hamilton is a Research Professor at the School of Advanced Study, London University, and Warburg Institute. He was also Professor of the History of Ideas at Leiden University. His favorite research theme is the history of Oriental studies in Europe.

Alastair Hamilton est Enseignant-chercheur à la School of Advanced Study, à l’Université de Londres et rattaché au Warburg Institute. Il fut précédemment professeur en Histoire des Idées à l’Université de Leiden. Son thème de recherche favori est l’histoire des études orientales en Europe.




>Further reading/Lire davantage > Voir:  'Christianisme celte, Christianisme oriental, Islam: la "Egyptian Connection"' par William Dalrymple