Anthony Alcock: translation Wansleben’s1671 account of Coptic church

Anthony Alcock has translated a curiosity for us: an account of the state of the Coptic church in Egypt made by a certain Johann Michael Wansleben, and published in 1671.[1]  Wansleben was a Lutheran traveller who hoped to reach Ethiopia.  His book is an account of Egypt as it then was.

Here is Dr Alcock’s translation of Wansleben’s account:

Such an early account must be of great interest.  Indeed it would be nice to have all of Wansleben in English.  Thank you, Dr. A., for translating this section.

Here’s a taster from the end, which is interesting in its own right for how Coptic books tended to be alienated from their holders, and why so many Coptic churches were in a disgraceful state when the British arrived in the 19th century:

The Turks genuinely allow each person a free conscience, not only in Egypt but in all their countries, provided it does not affect them. Nonetheless they often deprived Christians of their best churches and monasteries. Some years ago the Monastery of the Raven in Manfalut was turned into a mosque.

Similarly the late Pasha Ibrahim, three years ago, built a mosque in the village of Matariya outside Cairo five miles away where the was a small chapel; behind it a porphyry appeared to foreigners, on top of which the Virgin used to stretch out the clothes of the baby Jesus to dry them after washing. Nearby is the spring that miraculously started to dispense water, thanks to the omnipotence of Jesus, when on His arrival in Egypt he was suffering from great thirst. To this day it still dispenses water so sweet that surpasses in goodness all other waters, whether from the fountains of Cairo or the Nile itself. The Pashas themselves, notwithstanding the distance from their castle or being enemies of Christians and their things, used this water in their refectories. Past the chapel the way leads down to a garden with the fig tree behind which, according to an ancient tradition, Our Lord hid during the persecution by Herod. Opening in the trunk by itself, the fig wove spiders’ webs so thick and old in appearance that they concealed Our Lord from his enemies as they went by and did not look for him. Today no Frank is allowed to visit these places since it is now a mosque.

The Turks also took the Church of Anastasius in Alexandria from the Copts and turned it into a mosque. They make no effort to restore churches fallen into ruin as a result of penalties. Indeed, the Christians are not keen on removing the spiders’ webs for fear that Turks find them attractive.

Moreover, the Turks tax the churches and monasteries heavily, as happened with the Abyssinians in Cairo fourteen years ago. The Pasha of that time, out of a certain apprehension he felt towards them, threatened to take away their churches if they did not pay a certain large sum of money. They were forced to sell the property of the church and their manuscript books to pay this tax, These books, about forty of them, had been sent by Father Eleazar, a Capuchin, to Mgr Pierre Seguier the Great Chancellor of France, in whose house I saw them. That is also the reason why I was able to find almost no Ethiopic book in Cairo, except for four in the possession of the Father, which I copied. These taxes gradually began to annoy the Christians so much that they were no longer able to resist. The number of Coptic churches is constantly being reduced, and I have no doubt that the Turks will soon confiscate the remainder. The Franks are in a better situation than the Copts, because the Turks not only allow them to attend church services without harassing them, but they also have more respect for the missionary Capuchins and Franciscans, who both have their chapels behind their place of residence, each wearing the dress suitable to their order.

All of this harassment and discrimination was normal in Egypt, then as now, as we find from accounts in the History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandrai.  It was intended as a means to induce the Copts to convert to Islam.  It is remarkable, if we consider that they have suffered thirteen centuries of it, that the Copts have managed to remain in existence.

  1. [1]J. M. Wansleben, Relazione dell Stato presente dell’Egitto. 1671.  Online here; PDF via here.

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