MAA News – Race & Gender in the Global Middle Ages Working Group

Friday, October 20 at 12pm EST 

Felege-Selam Solomon Yirga, Assistant Professor of History
University of Tennessee, Knoxville

“A Roman in Islamic Egypt: Memory and Identity in the Chronicle of John of Nikiu”

The Chronicle of John of Nikiu, written in Coptic in the 7th century but surviving only in the form of a 17th-century Ge’ez translation of an Arabic intermediary, is often treated as an expression of an Egyptian identity rooted in miaphysite Christianity and some degree of antipathy towards and alienation from the Roman state. These readings are informed by a preconceived notion that there was a great degree of continuity between the Coptic church of the Early Islamic period and the Alexandrian church of the Roman empire, and a tacit belief that the Council of Chalcedon created an ideological rift between Alexandria and Constantinople. In this chapter, which will appear in my forthcoming book on the Chronicle, I argue that John of Nikiu’s text in fact reveals a historian who seemed to conceive of the historical Egypt as a core territory of the Roman empire by virtue of the province’s role in Christian history. Furthermore, he seems to view himself, and the Christians of Egypt, as in some way inextricably linked, even tacitly hinting that, should the government and church in Constantinople adopt an anti-Chalcedonian position, the Arab invasion of Egypt could be undone. The implication of this conclusion not only effects our understanding of the emergence of a distinct Coptic identity, but also challenges teleological notions of the inevitability of the long-term presence of Islamic hegemony over formerly Roman lands, which often pervade Islamic narrative sources, and which tend to inform modern scholarship on the subject.

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