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Edward William Lane and His Responsibility for Demonising the Copts, and Misguiding the British about the Copts

Edward William Lane, or Mansur Efendi, in Egypt, 1835, wearing the Muslim/Turkish dress

Edward William Lane, or Mansur Efendi, in Egypt, 1835, wearing the Muslim/Turkish dress

Edward William Lanewas a famous British orientalist, born in 1801, and began to show interest in Egyptat an early age, inspired by the explorations of the Egyptologist Giovanni Battista Belzoni (1778-1824) in Egypt. He learned Arabic, and in 1825 he went to Egypt, where he stayed there until 1828. This is the period of the Albanian Muhammad Ali (1811-1848), who was ruling Egyptthen, and welcoming Europeans in order to build his state, using European science and technology. Lane stayed most of his time there in Cairo, blending with the Egyptian Muslims, and living like a native. He dressed as a Turk, spoke Egyptian Arabic, followed Muslim customs and manners, and called himself Mansur Effendi. Taking pictures and detailed notes of what he had seen and studied in Egypt, he returned after two and a half years to London, and started writing a book about Egypt. He  needed to return back to Egypt in 1833, where he stayed until 1835, to collect more material, and then returned to London again, where he eventually published in 1836 his voluminous book Modern Egyptians (full title: An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians). Since its first publication, this book has never gone out of print. Lane reviewed it twice in 1842 and 1860.

Lane’s Modern Egyptians

Lane’s Modern Egyptians

The book comprises some 600 pages and 128 illustrations, and is divided into 28 chapters, with added appendices, and covers just about everything in Egyptian Muslim culture in the 19th Century. There is general agreement that in talking about Muslim Egyptian men, this book is a master piece of work – it is detailed, hugely accurate and very informative. However, Lane did not write in detail about Egyptian Muslim women, as he could not have easy access to them. For this reason, he sent his sister, Sophia Lane Poole, years later to Egypt, and by accessing hareems, and the private gatherings of women, such as at bathhouses, she was able to write The Englishwoman in Egypt: Letters from Cairo, written during a residence there in 1842, 3 & 4, with E. W. Lane Esq., Author of “The Modern Egyptians.” By His Sister. It must be mentioned here that Edward William Lane returned back to Egypt for the third time in 1842 and stayed there for a year, where his sister stayed with him. This book of his sister was to become the reference book for Egyptian Muslim women in the 19th Century. Much of the material in the book is thought to have been her brother’s own work.

Edward William Lanesays that he found difficulty in mixing up with Copts in order to study their lives and culture, and to write about them. Lane believed that the Copts were undoubtedly the descendants of the ancient Egyptians, though not an unmixed race as he says, and, therefore, writes, “The fame of that great nation from which the Copts mainly derive their origin renders this people objects of much interest, especially to one who has examined the wonderful monuments of Ancient Egypt.” But, he tells us that he found it difficult to access the Coptic community, and he gives his own explanation for that difficulty, for which he blames the Copts, and not himself, or at least tries to find, and understand, if there have been any reasons behind their reluctance to link up with him:

“… so great is the aversion with which, like their illustrious ancestors, they (the Copts) regard all persons who are not of their own race, and so reluctant are they to admit such persons to any familiar intercourse with them, that I had almost despaired of gaining an insight into their religious, moral, and social state.”1

After some time, however, his interest in obtaining some knowledge of the Coptic nation2 was met, somehow, through an act of luck, and the appearance of a rare character:

“At length, however, I had the good fortune to become acquainted with a character of which I had doubted the existence— a Copt of a liberal as well as an intelligent mind; and to his kindness I am indebted for the knowledge of most of the facts related in the following brief memoir.”3

So Lane tells us that through these “facts” about the Coptic nation which this character had supplied him with, he was able to add to The Modern Egyptians twenty eight chapters, all dedicated to Muslim Egyptians, a 32-pages Supplement, titled The Copts,4 that focuses on the religious, moral, and social state of the Copts, all second hand.5

Little did Lane know that by doing so he allowed himself to be the vehicle to the most offensive smear of the Copts, through the agency of somebody who was obviously anti-Coptic; who hated the Copts, their religion, their Church, and their patriarch; a character that, as one reads through the Supplement, cannot convince us that he belonged to the Copts, or that he was ‘liberal’. The information which Lane got from that character, and which he describes as “facts”, is clearly an opinion not a bundle of facts, as we shall see – opinion which was very prejudicial to the Copts. One wonders to what extent the venom which fills in the pages of the Supplement was obtained from that character, and to what extent it reflected Lane’s own prejudices.

Whatever the case may be, Lane’s defamation of the Copts, has been passed on to innumerable Britons, both authors and readers, who came after him, and being rightly fond of his masterly description of Muslim Egypt, took his report about the Copts on trust. And, as some of them were afflicted by a definite intellectual malaise, which was made worse by some racial and religious feeling of supremacy, the poor Copts found themselves unfairly demonised through the uncritical repetition and quotation of what Lane had to say about them in his book.

Edith L Butcher in her Story of the Church of Egypt assesses Lane’s work on the Copts:

Among the many European visitors for whom Egypt was a far safer and pleasanter residence than for the Egyptians came the well-known scholar Mr. Lane, whose book on the Modem Egyptians, though it would have been with more truth entitled Modem Cairenes, should still be read by everyone. It is, however, only valuable for knowledge of the Moslems, among whom he lived from 1825-28, and again from 1833-35. As he identified himself entirely with them, the Copts not unnaturally looked upon him with suspicion; and with the exception of one man who seems to have tried to win his favour by abuse of his own countrymen, Mr. Lanewas unable even to obtain speech with them. It is scarcely wonderful therefore that he managed to procure but little information about them, and that for the most part inaccurate.6

Mrs Butcher here explains why the Copts were not able to trust Lane, despite his English race – Egyptin the 19th Century during Muhammad Ali’s reign, and despite his enlightened rule, was still basically Islamic in culture and attitude. And even though he had opted in to his entourage some leading Copts who helped him to rule Egypt efficiently, the Copts were still dhimmis who were regarded as inferior; unequally treated; segregated and discriminated against; wore special dress to single them out for bad treatment; paid jizia, a hefty capital tax and a sign of subjugation, itself collected in extremely insulting and humiliating manner; and lost their lives at the slighted behest of the Muslims if they dared to set off their anger at them.  Naturally the Copts looked at their oppressors with suspicions, and did not associate with them – and Lane, who was masquerading as a Muslim Turk, would not be an exception. But Lane chose to ignore this simple fact, or to try to understand the religious reality of the Egyptian society then, and the socio-political dynamic that governed the relationship between its Muslim and Coptic nations.

Lane’s informer, who misled him, was, in fact, a convert to Islam from the Coptic folk, and he, therefore, had all motive to misinform his listener, and to denigrate the Copts and their culture. Theodore Edward Dowling, in his The Egyptian Church, agrees: “Lane’s familiar Modern Egyptians is practically valueless as regards the Egyptian Church and the Copts as a people, for this information was from a Moslem pervert (that is, convert).”7

Another Englishman who described the lives, culture and character of the Copts rather accurately in his book The Modern Sons of the Pharaohs, talks about Lane’s negative contribution, what he calls in a different location, Lane’s “cruel libels on the Copts”:8

Lane’s ignorance of the Copts, and the injustice of his characterisation, based on very slight evidence, may be put down to the secretive cunning of those Copts with whom he had dealings. While the Moslems gave Lane some confidence (although I feel perfectly sure they were never in doubt that it was an Englishman in native disguise who was taking such an abnormal interest in them), he only succeeded in gaining anything like familiar speech with one Copt a mean soul, whose abuse of his fellow-Christians carries the bitterness of its injustice to this day.

A great deal of the morbid prejudice against the Copts which marks the attitude of many Englishmen in Egypt of to-day takes its rise from Lane’s work, to which all inquirers about the Egyptian people are referred. This attitude again induces the old Oriental evasiveness, and so the abysmal English ignorance of these people gets little chance of remedy.9

The first page of the Supplement Modern Egyptians; Volume II; pp. 311-343:

The influence of Edward William Lane’s Supplement on the British opinion of the later generations on the Copts could sadly even in the late 20th Century – for instance, in 1988, the Scottish Barbara Watterson publishes her book, Coptic Egypt, and in which she included a chapter: The Copts Today. Here, instead of educating us about her own understanding of the Copts and their culture, she dedicates seven long pages of her book featuring Lane’s inaccurate and denigrating description of the Copts.10 And in 1958, Lawrence Durrell publishes the third volume of his The Alexandria Quartet, and describes Lane’s work as “the true Gospel of Egypt”.11 

Lane’s Supplement about the Copts can be divided into three parts:

In the first part, he talks about the Copts’ population size,12 ethnic origin, origin of their name, language, personal characteristics (physiognomy), dress,13 faith, religious orders, baptism, circumcision, schools, private prayers, churches and public worship, confession, fasts, festivals, pilgrimage to Jerusalem, abstention from eating swine, jiziya (he call it ‘gisyeh’), and the relatively better condition of the Copts under Muhammad Ali’s rule. In this section, Lane describes the Copts as possessing “a certain downcast and sullen expression of countenance which generally marks (them)” in comparison with the Muslims. Although he must have taken part of his information from old books, a large deal of it seems to have been hearsay as he keeps telling us “I am told”,14 “I am informed”,15 “I am assured”,16 and “I am positively assured”.1718 There are many factual mistakes in this section, which I will pass over most to point to two of the major fallacies and myths, which I believe he was an agent in propagating – namely, that the Copts are followers of Eutyches;1920  and that the Copts welcomed the Arab invaders, and fought with them against the Byzantines:21

The Copts, with the exception of a small proportion who profess the Romish or the Greek faith, are Christians of the sect called Jacobites, Eutychians, Monophysites, and Monothelites((This is another fault which he falls in, and pass on to others, that the Copts are Monothelities.)) whose creed was condemned by the Council of Chalcedon, in the reign of the Emperor Marcian. They received the appellation of “Jacobites” (“Ya’akibeh,” or “Yaakoobees”), by which they are generally known, from Jacobus Baradaeus, a Syrian, who was a chief propagator of the Eutychian doctrines. Those who adhered to the Greek faith were distinguished from the former by the name of ”Melekites” (“Melekeeyeh,” or “Melekees “), that is to say, “Royalists,” because they agreed in faith with the Emperor of Constantinople. The secession of the great majority of the Copts from what was generally considered the orthodox church gave rise to an implacable enmity between them and the Greeks, under whom they suffered much persecution, and with whom they would no longer even contract marriages. This enmity was, of course, more bitter on the part of the Copts: they gladly received the Arab invaders of their country, and united with them to expel the Greeks. Their revenge was gratified ; but they were made to bow; their necks to a heavier yoke : yet the hatred with which even the modern Copts regard the Greeks and all other Christians who are not of their Own sect is much greater than that which they bear towards the Muslims.22

In the second part, he talks about the Copts’ habits, marriage and wedding, character traits, professions and funerals. It seems that this is the part in which he relied heavily on the ‘character’ which he told us that he met, and supplied him with the “facts” that he needed to write his Supplement. He calls him here, “(t)he respectable Copt to whom I have already acknowledged myself chiefly indebted for the notions which I have obtained respecting the customs of his nation”,23 and adds that that character “gives me a most unfavourable account of their character”.24 And from this section came down to us most of the inaccurate and biased opinion about the Copts that are included in his book, and have been copied, often verbatim, in later books by other British authors:

One of the most remarkable traits in the character of the Copts is their bigotry. They bear a bitter hatred to all other Christians, even exceeding that with which the Muslims regard the unbelievers in El-Islam. Yet they are considered, by the Muslims, as much more inclined than any other Christian sect to the faith of El-Islam; and this opinion has not been formed without reason; for vast numbers of them have, from time to time, and not always in consequence of persecution, become proselytes to this religion. They are, generally speaking of a sullen temper, extremely avaricious, and abominable dissemblers; cringing or domineering according to circumstances. The respectable Copt to whom I have already acknowledged myself chiefly indebted for the notions which I have obtained respecting the customs of his nation, gives me a most unfavourable account of their character. He avows them to be generally ignorant, deceitful, faithless, and abandoned to the pursuit of worldly gain, and to indulgence in sensual pleasures: he declares the Patriarch to be a tyrant, and a suborner of false witnesses; and assures me that the priests and monks in Cairo are seen every evening begging, and asking the loan of money, which they never repay, at the louses of their parishioners and other acquaintances, and procuring brandy, if possible, wherever they call. ((P. 334-5.))

On the habits of the Copts, Lane rightly says that the Copts enjoyed, as other Egyptians did, their pipe and coffee; and that their meals and manner of eating were the same as those of the Muslims of Egypt. However, he, inaccurately, and perhaps with some malice, adds that they were taken to drink all day:

The ordinary domestic habits of the Copts are perfectly Oriental, and nearly the same as those of their Muslim fellow-countrymen. They pass their hours of leisure chiefly in the same manner, enjoying their pipe and coffee: their meals, also, are similar; and their manner of eating is the same: but they indulge in drinking brandy at all hours of the day; and often, to excess. ((P. 330.))

The reader of some of the British and American missionaries, who arrived in Egypt from around that time on, and who sought to convert the Copts to their form of Christianity, can count the many times they referred to the “moral degradation” of the Copts, a “fact” they often quoted Lane for; and, the reader, will not be surprised to find that one of the commonly cited sins of the Copts by these missionaries was their drunkenness – an allegation absolutely mistaken. This was the heritage of Lane for the Coptic nation.

The third part of the Supplement on the Copts deals with what he calls their history under the Muslim domination. This, he says, he has taken from the Muslim historian, al-Maqrizi, who died in 1442 AD. He does not use any Coptic historical resource, such as The History of the Coptic Patriarchs, which was available at the time in Arabic and, since 1713, in a Latin translation by Eusèbe Renaudot (Historia patriarcharum alexandrinorum jacobitarum). It is not surprising then that his summary of the Coptic nation came inadequate, inaccurate and representative of the Islamic point of view which he copies without any degree of critical assessment. Take, for example, his blaming of the Copts for some of the persecutions they suffered under Muslim rule:

It would be tiresome to detail all the troubles of the Copts under the tyranny of Muslim princes; but some particulars in the history of the persecutions which they endured in the earlier ages of the Arab domination may be here mentioned. The Copts are a people of indomitable presumption and intrigue, which qualities render them very difficult to be governed. They have often incurred severe oppression by their own folly, though they have more frequently been victims of unmerited persecution under tyrannical rulers and through the influence of private fanatics. ((Pp. 338-9.))

Two paragraphs later, Lane gives a wholly incorrect account of the motives behind the severe persecution of the Copts by the Fatimid caliph, al-Hakim bi-Amr al-Lah (996–1021), which raged for a whole nine years (1011-1020), during the Patriarchate of Abba Zacharias (1004–1032), and in which so many Copts lost their lives and livelihood; many forced to convert to Islam; and Coptic churches throughout Egypt closed or destroyed:

One of the bitterest persecutions that they ever endured, and one which was attributed to their pride, and their display of wealth, and contemptuous treatment of Muslims, befell them during the reign of that impious wretch the Khaleefeh El-Hakim.25

And as if to add insult to injury, he adds:

It should be observed here, that the cases alluded to form exceptions to the general toleration exhibited by the Muslims; and that the Copts who have been converted to El-Islam by oppression have been few in comparison with those who have changed their religion voluntarily. Many have done this through love of Muslim women.26

This is, of course, inaccurate. Studying the history of the Copts from one source, and for that sake Islamic, made Lane arrive at wrong conclusions. One of the cruellest comments by Europeans that Copts come across is that the Islamic rule was tolerant to them, and that the repeated persecutions formed the exception rather than the rule. This the Copts strongly contend, and they often produce evidence from their history with Islam There were indeed short periods of some respite, but the general nature of the Arab and Islamic rule of the Egyptians was one of oppression, suppression and persecution. Copts don’t feel puzzled at such unfounded assertions as much as hurt.

But the hurt which the Copts have experienced by the bigotry and the unfair characterisation which Edward William Lanedisplayed towards them is one thing, and the misguiding of so many generations after him by his false assertions and inaccurate statements is another thing. It is not my intention here to repudiate Lane’s assertions by quoting other Western reports on the Copts which were more accurate and fair, as this will make this treatise quite an impossible task. Suffice to say here that some of the best Western minds have given very favourable verdict on the character of the Copts, which is particularly impressive because of the degrading conditions under which they were made to live by the Islamic rulers for the last fourteen centuries. One can cite Alfred Butler, Henry Sayce, Ronald Storrs, Edward Wakin, Edith Butcher, and so many others, who are in contrast to the anti-Copts, have been true ‘philcopts’. Here I would like to end my article by quoting Amelia B. Edwards, an English traveller and Egyptologist, who was not particularly sympathetic to the Copts, and who, after having visited the Copts and bishop of Luxor, wrote in 1877, contradicting Lane’s assertions: “This interview was altogether very pleasant. The Copts are said to be sullen in manner, and so bigoted that even a Moslem is less an object of dislike to them than a Christian of any other denomination. However this may be, we saw nothing of it. We experienced, on the contrary, many acts of civility from the Copts with whom we were brought into communication.”27


Dioscorus Boles

  1. Edward William Lane: An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, written inEgypt during the years 1833, -34, and -35; Chales Knight & Co.;London; 1936; Volume II, p. 311.
  2. Lane does call the Copts a nation.
  3. Ibid; p. 311.
  4. Actually his Supplement is a bit longer than that, as it contains three sections: The Copts; The Jews of Egypt; and Of Late Innovations inEgypt. The section about the Copts, as mentioned in the body of the article, is 32-page long (from page 311 to 343 of Volume II).
  5. Lane did actually use some of his predecessors’ works to write this Supplement, such as Herodotus’ Egypt; Histoire de L’Egypte Sous Le Gouvernement de Mohammed-Aly (1823) by Felix Mengin; Researches on the Language and Literature of Egypt (1808) by Etienne Marc Quatremère; Mémoires géographiques et historiques sur l’Égypte… sur quelques contrées voisines (1811), again by Etienne Marc Quatremère; Arabic Proverbs, or the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1830) by Johann Ludwig Burckhardt; and Al Mawaiz wa al-’i’tibar bi dhikr al-khitat wa al-’athar by al-Maqrizi (whom he call, El-Makreezee), a Muslim historian who died in 1442. About al-Maqrizi, he mentions: “Since my extracts were made, El-Makreezee’s History of the Copts, contained in his Description of Egypt, has been edited and translated, in Germany, by Wustenfeld”. Footnote; p. 548 of the 5th ed.; 1860. These books might have provided him with some of his details (many inaccurate) about the history, rituals, etc., of the Copts; however, what comes in his Supplement as opinion rather than fact has come to him from the character he talked about in the Supplement.
  6. Edith L Butcher: The Story of the Church of Egypt, being an outline of the history of the Egyptians under their successive masters from the Roman conquest until now. Smith, Elder, & Co.,London; 1897; Volume 2, p. 372.
  7. Theodore Edward Dowling: Egyptian Church (1909), p. 4; quoted by Theodore Hall Patrick in his Traditional Egyptian Christianity: A History of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Fisher Park Press;Greensboro; 1996; p.142.
  8. S. H. Leeder: Modern Sons of the Pharaohs; a study of the manners and customs of the Copts of Egypt. Hodder & Stoughton;London andNew York; 1918; p. 107.
  9. Ibid; p. 306.
  10. Barbara Watterson: Coptic Egypt. Scottish Academic Press Ltd.; Edinburgh; 1988; pp. 161-7.
  11. See Lawrence Durrell: The Alexandria Quartet. Faber & Faber;London; 1974; p. 424.
  12. Of interest, Lane says that the Copts at that time composed less than one fourteenth part of the population ofEgypt; their number being more than about one hundred and fifty thousand. About ten thousand of them reside in the metropolis. Vol. II, p. 311.
  13. The dress is mainly about the distinctive dress imposed by the Muslims to make the Copts known to all Muslims, so that they are not given respect, and in order that the discrimination Sharia rules are imposed on them.
  14. P. 317, 320, 321.
  15. P. 321, 327.
  16. P. 322.
  17. P. 322.
  18. Lane tells us that once he heard a Coptic priest, standing before the door of the sanctuary in the patriarchal church inCairo, exclaim to a young acolyte (who was assisting him, I suppose, rather awkwardly), “May a blow corrode your heart!” (p. 539). He doesn’t tell us more than that, and he tells us also that a friend of his once witnessed, in the same place, a fight. He concludes from that “The (Coptic) priests and others are often guilty of excessive indecorum in their public worship”. Pp. 324-5.
  19. Eutyches ofConstantinople (c. 380-456).
  20. See, e.g., Amelia B. Edwards (1831-1892) in her A Thousand Miles Up The Nile. Longmans, Green, & Co.;London; 1877; p. 674.
  21. This myth has proven strong, and up to now one find it being copied, one way or the other, in published material. It is even spread by bloggers, often to appease the Muslims, such as Ginger da Costa who writes in a post dated 12 November 2009: “The Muslims helped the Egyptian Copts and the Egyptian Copts helped the Muslims fight against theByzantine empire and the Crusaders.” 

  22. Pp. 314-5.
  23. P. 334.
  24. P. 334.
  25. P. 339.
  26. See An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians; 5th ed.; 1860; p. 549.
  27. Amelia B. Edwards: A Thousand Miles Up The Nile; p. 678.

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