Coptic collections

St Michael the Archangel
St Michael the Archangel, British Library Or. 7021, f. 1r

The British Library holds approximately 1,600 Coptic manuscripts with some early specimens dating from around 300 AD in addition to printed and other materials on Coptic studies.

About the collection

Coptic is the language spoken by the Egyptians of the Nile valley and delta during the Christian era. Its two main dialects are Sahidic, used from from the 3rd century AD, and Bohairic, used from the 11th to the 12th centuries AD onwards.

The British Library’s Coptic manuscript collection was one of the earliest to reach Europe, and includes a wide range of texts on papyrus, leather, vellum and paper.  The earliest acquisition in 1795 was a Gnostic work - Pistis Sophia (Add MS 5114) known as the Askew Codex after its former owner, the physician and bibliophile Andrew Askew.  The bulk of the manuscript collection, however, was assembled through Sir Ernest A.T. Wallis Budge, who in the late 19th century acquired a large share of the library of the White Monastery of Shenoute at Atripe (Athribis), as well as much material from the monasteries of the Wadi al-Natrun and the Fayyum. Important subsequent additions have included:

  • documents found at Aphrodito in 1901
  • codices  from the Monastery of St. Mercurius at Edfu sold by Robert Rustafjaell  to the British Museum in 1907
  • legal papyri from Jeme near Luxor
  • the Robert Curzon collection
  • the Wadi Sarga fragments

A particular strength of the manuscript collection is its wide representation of illumination, miniatures, and palaeography. There is also an interesting corpus of early Coptic binding fragments.

Our collections also include early imprints as well as modern editions of texts and critical studies, mainly on the manuscript holdings and the Christian art of Egypt. We also have western journals relevant to Coptic studies.

What is available online?

Details of the printed holdings relating to Coptic studies are mostly available in the Library’s online catalogue Explore the British Library  

Two manuscript catalogues are available online: 

At present the following Coptic manuscripts have been digitised:

  • Papyrus 98, Greek and Old Coptic Horoscope with Hyperides' Funeral Oration over Leosthenes
  • Papyrus 1442, containing a tax register from early Arab Egypt
  • Or.6801, Miscellany in honour of St Mercurius
  • Or.7029, Miscellany including the Life of Aaron of Philae

We are, however, planning further digitisation which will be available on Digitised Manuscripts (search for Coptic).

Collections items are sometimes described in our Asian and African Studies blog to which you can subscribe if you want to receive regular updates. We also tweet information on news, discoveries, bibliographical resources and collection items on Twitter @BLAsia_Africa.

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

The Asian & African Studies reading room is where you can consult printed materials, manuscripts and archives. Some especially valuable or fragile material is restricted and available only in exceptional circumstances. Self-service photography is allowed for certain categories of material, provided that its condition allows this.

All our Coptic catalogues are available in the Asian and African Studies reading room. This includes:

Layton, Bentley. Catalogue of Coptic literary manuscripts in the British Library acquired since the year 1906 (London, 1987). Lists 297 manuscripts and fragments added between 1907-1982.

What is available in other organisations?

Other important collections include:

UK and Ireland

Overseas

How to guides

Find Arabic manuscripts

Details of Arabic manuscripts are to be found in a number of catalogues

Find Persian manuscripts

Details of Persian manuscripts are to be found in a number of catalogues

How to get a Reader Pass if you are under 18

How to apply for an under 18 Reader Pass

How to order images

Instructions on how to order images of the British Library's collections from our Imaging Services

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