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The cataloguing of the newly-digitized Coptic manuscripts of the British Library

A collaboration between the Digital Edition and Translation of the Coptic-Sahidic Old Testament Project and the British Library

By Chrysi Kotsifou

In May 2019, I visited the British Library to work on some Coptic Old Testament manuscripts from their collection. It was also then that I met for the first time with Dr Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator of the Hebrew and Christian Orient Collections. I was very glad to find out from her that the British Library would be starting a project of digitizing selected manuscripts from their Christian Orient Collections. Ilana Tahan had already created the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project and now with the Eastern Christian Manuscripts Digitization Project, her department would be digitizing for the first time selected Coptic, Armenian, and Syriac manuscripts. This project has been part of the Heritage Made Digital (HMD) programme initiated and funded by the British Library. For Ilana Tahan it was imperative that the selection of the manuscripts to be digitized reflected the diverse fields of knowledge represented in each collection. Besides religious texts, the selection included secular topics such as linguistics, sciences, philosophy, and various others.

She asked me if our project would be willing to assist her in the selection of the Coptic manuscripts to be digitized. It was a great opportunity and honour to be part of this very important endeavor, especially if we consider that so far, the British Library has online only four items, namely Papyrus 98, Papyrus 1442, Or.6801, and Or.7029, and these newly-digitized manuscripts will be made available to everyone online for free. Ilana Tahan had already a list of selected Coptic manuscripts and immediately in May 2019, we offered her our recommendations and additions to that list. In the years to follow, I maintained a continuous collaboration with Dr Tahan and was able to follow how this project evolved and is now close to its completion. The years of the pandemic certainly delayed matters but the digitization project managed to carry on. With the first list of Coptic manuscripts having been established, the British Library then needed to proceed to the conservation of these items. Some of these manuscripts are papyrus and some parchment and many items are mounted in glass frames, especially the papyrus ones. All issues of conservation of the selected items needed to be addressed, before any digitization took place. In April 2021, I also contacted Prof. Siegfried G. Richter (then at the Institut für neutestamentliche Textforschung at Münster University) who also recommended to us more Coptic manuscripts to be digitized.

During my second visit at the British Library in May 2022, Dr Tahan was very happy to inform me that most of the Coptic manuscripts had already been restored and digitized. Unavoidably before any of these manuscripts could be made available to the public, they needed to be newly-catalogued and have all their metadata updated. Our project offered then to Dr Tahan that we undertake the task of creating this new catalogue. The digitization of the Coptic manuscripts was concluded by the winter of 2022; our project and the British Library signed a Memorandum of Understanding in February 2023; and in the months to follow we received in numerous batches the digital images. Here is the list of the Coptic manuscripts that have been digitized:

  • Add MS 5114 (Pistis Sophia)
  • Add MS 5996 (Lectionary)
  • Add MS 5997 (Lectionary)
  • Add MS 17725 (The Euchologion)
  • Add MS 18997 (Bohairic Proverbs, Job)
  • Add MS 19902 (Sahidic NT Fragment)
  • Or 424 (Bohairic Pauline Epistles)
  • Or 425 (Four Gospels Coptic & Arabic)
  • Or 429 (The Euchologion)
  • Or 433 (Baptismal service)
  • Or 438 (Consecration of the Holy Oil)
  • Or 1241 (Liturgical and Biblical Fragments)
  • Or 1314(1) (Bohairic Minor Prophets, Daniel)
  • Or 1314(2) (Bohairic Minor Prophets, Daniel)
  • Or 1315 (Four Gospels)
  • Or 1318 (Pauline Epistles)
  • Or 1319 (OT Isaiah, Corpus Ieremiae)
  • Or 1320 (Canons of Apostles)
  • Or 1322 (Services for the consecration of Monks & Nuns)
  • Or 1325 (Arabic-Coptic grammars and vocabularies)
  • Or 3381 (Four Gospels)
  • Or 3579A (Sahidic OT)
  • Or 3579B (Sahidic NT)
  • Or 3581 A (Homilies)
  • Or 4844 (Psalms)
  • Or 5000 (Budge Psalter)
  • Or 5001 (Budge Homilies)
  • Or 5287 (Misc. Coptic Fragments)
  • Or 5984 (Wisdom Books)
  • Or 5987 A–C (Magical Charm)
  • Or 6010 (Prochorus, Acts of John)
  • Or 6019 (A charm)
  • Or 6695 (Pauline Epistles and John)
  • Or 6781 (Ps.-Theodosius of Alexandria)
  • Or 6783 (Miscellany)
  • Or 7021 (Encomium of Theodosius)
  • Or 7029 (Life of Aaron)
  • Or 7594 (Biblical Misc. Papyrus)
  • Or 8799 (Miscellany)
  • Or 8800 (White Monastery fragments of Shenoute)
  • Or 8802 (White Monastery palimpsest fragments)
  • Or 8808 (Psalms)
  • Or 8810 (White Monastery fragments)
  • Or 13825 (Book of Sirach)
  • Or 14149 (Gospel Fragments)
  • ORB.99/260 (Book bindings)
  • Papyrus IV (Deed)
  • Papyrus 91 (Letter)
  • Papyrus XLVIII (Job)

A priority list of Coptic manuscripts to be catalogued has been established in our contract with the British Library. These are the 46 underlined shelfmarks in the list above. Alin Suciu and I will carry out this first phase of the cataloguing. In the meantime, Alin Suciu has been in contact with Michael Erdman in the British Library and together they have updated the British Library Metadata Template to reflect better the cataloguing needs of Coptic manuscripts, especially the ones that are dispersed piece by piece in numerous countries and collections. This new catalogue will certainly be a welcome addition to Walter E. Crum’s Catalogue of the Coptic manuscripts in the British Museum, London, 1905, and Bentley Layton’s Catalogue of Coptic literary manuscripts in the British Library acquired since the year 1906, London, 1987. Besides cataloguing, in due course our project will also edit all the newly-digitized Old Testament manuscripts on our Virtual Manuscript Room (VMR).

Last but not least, I would like to mention that the British Library also digitized the book bindings of the Coptic manuscripts in their collection. We received those photographs, as well, and I intend to catalogue them after the priority phase of the cataloguing is completed.

This collaboration is ongoing for five years now and there are still goals to be achieved. Our project believes that the British Library and Ilana Tahan undertook a very worthy cause and we are pleased to be part of it and to assist in any way possible towards its completion. Coptic studies are bound to be enriched in numerous ways when all the above-mentioned manuscripts will be made available to the public. But also, the contemporary Coptic communities in Egypt and abroad, whether lay or monastic, will be thrilled to see their heritage so carefully and scientifically treated and easily accessible to them.

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