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Reviving an Eighth-Century Coptic Chronicle

Posted On September 24, 2020 | 12:46 pm | by ostmannj01 | Permalink
Felege-Selam Solomon Yirga shifts our understanding of what constitutes a Byzantine person

Felege-Selam Solomon Yirga, assistant professor of history at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, was a recent junior fellow in Byzantine Studies. His research report, “The Chronicle of John of Nikiu: Sources, Contexts, and Afterlife,” disentangled John of Nikiu’s voice from his sources and revealed the reception of the text in Ethiopia.


Q&A with Felege-Selam Solomon Yirga 

What makes the Chronicle of John of Nikiu unique?

After an amazing rise over 50 years, John was bishop of Nikiu in the late seventh century and held the title mudabbir, administrator of all the monasteries in Egypt. A conspiracy of other bishops removed him from this position after he beat to death a monk who had been accused of sexual assault. He spent his last days as a mere monk.

Likely written in the late seventh or early eighth century, his Chronicle draws from source material like the chronicles of John Malalas and Theophylact Simocatta. They represent a subgenre of Christian historiography called the universal chronicle, which emerged in late antiquity. John of Nikiu was writing in a post-Roman milieu, when the Byzantine empire had left Egypt, but his text focuses on Byzantine or Roman emperors.

John’s account of the Arab conquest of Egypt is one of the earliest non-Arab accounts of any Arab conquest of the Roman empire. He reveals how difficult these transitions in power can be on a subject population. 

Many authors suggest that besides the Arab conquest narrative, the Chronicle is basically derivative, a beat-for-beat copy of its sources. But I found moments where John emerges with a critical voice and commentary—the voice of the author tucked away in what is ostensibly a copy or translation of earlier Greek sources.

A unique historiographic view of the world emerges. For example, John inserts demons into the narrative wherever possible. The earlier Secret History by Procopius also had demons, considering whether Justinian is a demon who walks around at night as a floating head. But where John’s source material barely talks about how demons influenced, say, government policy, by possessing emperors or key court figures, John inserts those ideas from surrounding Egyptian monastic literature into the narrative. This creates something unique in Byzantine historiography at the time.


How do you know the Chronicle was written in Coptic?

It was translated into Classical Ethiopic (the predecessor of modern Ethiopian languages Amharic and Tigrinya) from Arabic. There are certain tells in the Ethiopic that point to a Coptic masculine singular article. Some proper nouns, like the names of people or a river, betray the use of this Coptic article that you wouldn’t find had it been written in Greek.

When John of Nikiu was writing, you had Coptic ecclesiastical histories, but not really any other political histories were written in Coptic. Coptic historians didn’t produce this kind of world history again until around the thirteenth century, and they were writing in Arabic.

When we imagine the histories of the Byzantine empire being recorded, we imagine Greek texts. When we imagine Byzantine people, we often imagine Greek speakers. But for a big chunk of the empire’s existence, much of its population spoke and wrote in languages like Syriac and Coptic. The Chronicle shifts our understanding of what Byzantine languages are and expands our notion of what constitutes a Byzantine person. It gets us away from imagining this person as a medieval Greek.


What is interesting about the afterlife of the Chronicle?

So many people at Dumbarton Oaks helped me work through these ideas, especially Thaïsa Way and Mikael Muehlbauer—the full list would exhaust the space I have here. The job talk preparation, primarily organized by Anna Stavrakopoulou, was critical to my interview at the University of Tennessee. 

I found the Chronicle of John of Nikiu had a variety of uses from when it was translated in 1602 until final copies were made in the eighteenth century. Initially, it was used as an anti-Catholic tract that could be presented to a young, impressionable Ethiopian king. The translators Gabriel and an Ethiopian scholar who assisted him, Mǝḫǝrkä Dǝngǝl, understood the text as an explanation for why the Roman empire lost control of Egypt. The translation could be used to say, we also have Muslims at our border, look at this history book that shows you what happens to a state that gives up anti-Catholic, Orthodox theology and takes up a Catholic theology.

Later on, when Catholicism was less of a problem, it was used as a source for information on the life of early church fathers, particularly John Chrysostom, a patriarch of Constantinople. The Chronicle was also frequently bundled with other texts on the history of the Roman empire and the Jews, and eventually copied into the same manuscript as the Kebra Nagast (The Glory of Kings), an Ethiopian epic written in the fourteenth century. After this happened, the Chronicle of John of Nikiu disappeared into the manuscript and mythology of the Kebra Nagast, and faded from popular and even from court memory. People forget there are other texts in this manuscript.


Julia Ostmann was 2018–2020 postgraduate writing and reporting fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by Elizabeth Muñoz Huber, 2018–2020 postgraduate digital media fellow.