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School of Religion brings the Coptic Encyclopedia online and up-to-date

School of Religion brings the Coptic Encyclopedia online and up-to-date

The Copts are native Egyptian Christians, with a population between 12 million worldwide, though their importance can hardly be measured in numbers. For centuries, Coptic civilization has influenced Christianity and Western culture, all of which–and much more–can be found in the new online Claremont Coptic Encyclopedia (CCE), a project led by scholars at the School of Religion (SoR).

The original Coptic Encyclopedia, published by Macmillan in 1991, is an eight-volume work on Coptic culture and religion. Its 2,800 entries, written by 215 scholars, took 13 years to compile. But as a paper-bound document it was only available to a limited readership and nearly impossible to amend. In 2008-09, SoR Professor Karen Torjesen (then dean) led the negotiation with The Gale Group of  contract rights to the encyclopedia for the purpose of updating it and making it available to anyone with an Internet connection worldwide. Gawdat Gabra, visiting professor of Coptic Studies, and S. Michael Saad, chair of the SoR’s Council for Coptic Studies, participated. SoR Dean Anselm Min signed the contract in August 2009. In early May 2011, CCE went live.

With roots going back to Ancient Egypt, Coptic civilization is one of the oldest still in existence. According to Saad, this puts it on par with Chinese or Indian civilizations, and makes Coptic culture vital for understanding the ancient world, or any of the modern institutions it has influenced.

For instance, Coptic Christianity (which, according to Coptic tradition, Saint Mark the Evangelist brought to Egypt in the first century) made great contributions to the practice of Christianity in Europe. One of the most prominent was monasticism. Saint Athanasius’ biography of Saint Antony (both were Copts) detailed the ascetic ideal and inspired the creation of Europe’s Christian monasteries.

And from Western monasteries came universities, which were first created in the tenth and eleventh centuries. These European centers of learning subsequently served as models for much of contemporary higher education. CGU is no different; the university’s design comes directly from the Oxford model.

Coptic history also provides unique insight into ancient art and music: “Coptic music is one of the most ancient genres still known today, because it has roots in Ancient Egyptian music,” said Saad. “The only way for us to know how humans used to sing 4,000 years ago is through Coptic music. And there are already 33 pages on Coptic music in our encyclopedia.”

Those 33 pages are sure to increase, though, as Torjesen and Gabra, co-editors-in-chief of CCE, are putting out calls to approximately 300 Coptology scholars to submit new work. These contributions will be peer-reviewed and controlled by an editorial board to ensure the academic stature of the encyclopedia. “This is not Wikipedia, where anyone can edit and create entries,” said Saad, managing editor of CCE. “But each article has a section for comments, so we will be looking for feedback.”

Unlike the publication of a book, Gabra does not see an endpoint to this project; they envision an expanding encyclopedia that will be continuously updated and amended as events and new research dictate. The International Association for Coptic Studies holds an international congress every four years, and this gathering should be an especially fruitful time to generate new scholarship. The 2008 congress was held in Cairo and the 2012 congress will be held in Rome, but the launch of CCE has emboldened the School of Religion to vie for holding the 2016 meeting in Claremont.

“By supporting the Coptic encyclopedia, Claremont is serving the world and at the same time gaining respect and stature as a world center for Coptic studies,” said Saad.

Anyone interested in world politics should be especially interested in the forthcoming new entries. Copts played a substantial role in one of the biggest events of the year: the Egyptian revolution. On January 1, 2011, the bombing of a Coptic church in Alexandria led to protests that further destabilized the faltering government.

The updated version of The Claremont Coptic Encyclopedia will include information on this and much more on the modern history of the Middle East. The original encyclopedia contained little on events post-1950, which leaves out volumes of details on the evolving and sometimes contentious relationship between Christians and Muslims in that region.

“This is more than half a century of a very hot time,” said Gabra. “This is important, and not just for Christians and Muslims, but just about anyone in the world.”

Meanwhile, work continues converting all of the information from the paper version to online HTML and PDF versions (both of which are made available for free). This conversion, which includes flagging the key words for every entry and replacing black-and-white images with color (when possible), is being carried out by SoR students Ian Sundwall-Byers, Mary Ghattas, Prinny Miller, Sarah Morocs, and Donald Westbook.

Of course, this project also would not have been possible without the partnership between CGU and the Coptic community, manifested by SoR’s Council for Coptic Studies. In addition to the encyclopedia, the council fulfills its vision of promoting a deeper understanding of the Coptic religious experience through conferences, lectureships, and cultural events.

The Claremont Coptic Encyclopedia is hosted by the Claremont Colleges Digital Library and can be accessed at For more information on the Council for Coptic Studies, visit

Pull-quote: “By supporting the Coptic encyclopedia, Claremont is serving the world and at the same time gaining respect and stature as a world center for Coptic studies.”


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