Article A Musical Inheritance: Coptic Cantors and an Orally Transmitted Tradition

Image: Cantor
Mikha'īl Jirgis al Batanūnī. Photograph courtesy of Laurence Moftah.

Coptic chant has been largely preserved due to the role of mu'allimūn (plural for mu'allim), or church cantors, who orally transmitted hymns from one generation to another, yet very little is known about them before 1850. According to scholars such as Hans Hickmann, the use of blind professional cantors is one of the musical traditions that, along with the long, florid singing of vowels and the use of percussion instruments, Copts inherited from their ancient Egyptian ancestors. More so, even their teaching techniques closely followed the chironomy, or the traditional use of hands to represent melodic motion, depicted in ancient Egyptian art.

It was during the influential patriarchy of His Holiness Pope Cyril IV (1853-1861) that mu'allimūn officially emerged as the gatekeepers of Coptic liturgical music. Known throughout Coptic history as the "the Reformer," Pope Cyril was one of the first church figures to address formally education among the clergy. He founded the Coptic Patriarchal College in Cairo and, extending his reform to the laity, opened the Great Coptic School for high school students. Besides their routine curriculum and taking instruction in other languages, students also had to learn their native tongue, Coptic. He then tackled the ailing state of Coptic music. Troubled by the errors made by uneducated cantors, the Pope sought out mu'allim Takla, a blind teacher at the Coptic school and, believing him to have an astute memory and ear, officially assigned him the duty of collecting and revitalizing the correct rendition of the Coptic hymnody.

Much like a contemporary folklorist, mu'allim Takla then traveled between Upper and Lower Egypt, gathering and memorizing these hymns. Upon his return to Cairo, he published the very first edition of The Service of the Deacons in 1859 with the help of Iryān Jirjis Moftah, Ragheb Moftah's paternal great uncle and Coptic instructor at the Patriarchal College. This significant book, outlining the order of the hymns to be sung throughout liturgical services and other church rites, was to become a canonical publication with frequent editions published to this day. It was also one of the first major works to be widely disseminated after Pope Cyril purchased an Arabic printing press from Austria.

Among his other duties, mu'allim Takla was not only consecrated as a deacon, but he also performed his own Coptic compositions in the homes of the Ottoman elite. The Khedive, Ismail Pasha, who ruled Egypt from 1863 to 1879, was so impressed by one of Takla's patriotic works in Coptic that he bestowed on him the prestigious title of bey.[1] As a teacher and a church cantor, mu'allim Takla orally transmitted his knowledge of the Coptic hymnody to seven students, two of whom were to become the teachers of mu'allim Mikha'īl Jirgis al Batanūnī, otherwise nicknamed "mu'allim Mikha'īl the Great" for his contribution to Ragheb Moftah's project.

Born on September 14, 1873, Mikha'īl Jirgis al Batanūnī was the student of mu'allim Murqus of Matāyand mu'allim Armanyus. He first learned some introductory praise hymns (tasabīh) and the Coptic language from his local kuttāb or neighborhood elementary school. He also studied the Arabic language and grammar at Al-Azhar University. According to oral folk history, Pope Cyril V (1874- 1927), recognizing his talent as a child, used to hide him under his patriarchal seat when other cantors chanted for him. Gifted with an impeccable memory, he soon memorized many Coptic hymns. Under the instruction of mu'allim Murqus and mu'allim Armanyus, he was later consecrated as archdeacon of the Coptic cathedral at the age of 19. Under the auspices of Pope Cyril V (1874-1927), mu'allim Mikhā'īl began teaching chant and theology at the newly established Saint Didymus Institute for the Blind at the Theological Seminary in 1893. There, he established a Braille system for the Arabic and Coptic alphabet to aid blind singers, and trained seven cantors who would also become well-known mu'allimūn, or appointed cantors, in their local Coptic churches. Among his students were singers such as mu'allim Tawfīq Yūsuf, mu'allim Fahīm Jirgis, mu'allim Sādiq Atallah, Yūssuf Mansūr, and mu'allim Faraj 'Abdel Massīeh. During this time, mu'allim Mikhā'īl also worked on translating the Coptic liturgy into Arabic with the help of archpriest, Father Faltā'us Ibrahīm, himself a well-versed teacher of Coptic dogma and theology.

It was his work with Ragheb Moftah that earned him the nickname mu'allim Mikha'īl Jirgis al Batanūnī al-kabīr, or Mikha'īl Jirgis al Batanūnī the Great. In 1928, mu'allim Mikha'īl was among the cantors that Moftah introduced to the British violinist and composer, Ernest Newlandsmith. Upon hearing him sing, Newlandsmith agreed to notate mu'allim Mikha'īl's singing, and all three worked together for the next nine years. Mu'allim Mikha'īl would sing and repeat parts of the Coptic hymnody, while Newlandsmith patiently transcribed the complete liturgy of St. Basil as well as 25 major season hymns.

Mu'allim Mikha'īl was the leading singer that Ragheb Moftah featured in all of his early recordings, including those presented at the influential 1932 Congress of Arab Music. This conference included the attendance of influential figures such as Béla Bartók, Paul Hindemith, and Henry George Farmer. By the time the Higher Institute of Coptic Studies was founded in 1954, mu'allim Mikha'īl was 81 years old. There, he became the first professor of Liturgical Chant, with Moftah serving as Head of the Coptic Music Department. Despite his advanced age, Moftah insisted that mu'allim Mikha'īl record the liturgy of St. Basil because of his clear rendering of the hymns. Little did he know then that these recordings would become a milestone in preserving Coptic liturgical heritage and would be archived at Library of Congress. At the time of his death on April 18, 1957, mu'allim Mikha'īl was the Dean of cantors of the Coptic Church. Not only was he teaching at two of Egypt's most prestigious Coptic institutions, but he also served as the mu'allim al-kabīr, or the Great Cantor of St. Mark's Cathedral, the most revered position for all mu'allimūn.

Today, while blind mu'allimūn are still visible at the front of many churches in Egypt, their vocation has been largely replaced by recordings of older singers and, in immigrant communities, by head deacons similar to the notion of section leader in some Western churches. It is interesting to note the shifting status of these cantors who, since Moftah's work, have gained both popularity and a better social standing due to their work. During the lifetimes of mu'allimūn Takla and Mikha'īl, they were not as highly regarded or as respected as they are today. More so, there is now a growing number of singers who are not blind, including Mu'allim Ibrahim 'Aayād, one of the most famous contemporary cantors in Egypt. Presently, he is the mu'allim al-kabīr, or the Great Cantor of St. Mark's Cathedral in Cairo.

We are especially indebted to Jan Lancaster, Multimedia Specialist at the Library of Congress, who kindly translated into English a biography of Mikha'īl Jirgis al Batanūnī in Musique Arabe: Le Congrès du Caire de1932. Cairo: CEDEJ, 1992, pp. 371-373. This allowed us to provide a more complete overview of the most significant figures in Ragheb Moftah's project, and the role of other mu'allmīn in transmitting Coptic liturgical music.


  1. Ragheb Moftah and Martha Roy, "Cantors, Their Role and Musical Training," in The Coptic Encyclopedia,ed. Aziz S. Atiya. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1991), vol. 6, p. 1737. [back to article]


Moftah, Ragheb. "The History of Recording Coptic Hymns in the 19th and 20th century," translated by Shenouda Mamdouh. Cairo: El-Keraza Magazine, 1975.

Moftah, Ragheb and Martha Roy. "Cantors, Their Role and Musical Training." In The Coptic Encyclopedia. Ed. Aziz S. Atiya. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1991, vol. 6, pp. 1736-1738.

Sedra, Paul. "Class Cleavages and Ethnic Conflict: Coptic Christian Communities in Modern Egyptian Politics." Islam and Christian Relations 10, no. 2(1999).

"Ma'allem Mîkhâ'îl Girgis al-Batânûnî Bey." In Musique Arabe: Le Congrès du Caire de 1932. Cairo: CEDEJ, 1992, pp. 371-373.

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A Musical Inheritance: Coptic Cantors and an Orally Transmitted Tradition
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Ramzy, Carolyn M. (author)
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-  Songs and Music
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Wassif Boutros-Ghali, President, Société d’Archéologie Copte, Cairo, for permission to reproduce articles on O.H.E. Burmester by Otto Meinardus, an atlas of Christian sites in Egypt by Meinardus, a photograph of O.H.E. Burmester, and a brochure on a map of Christian Egypt by Burmester, all published by the Société d’Archéologie Copte. 

Yasmine El Dorghamy, Turath, for permission to reproduce the article on Ragheb Moftah by Dr. Raymond Stock from Turath, August 2008.

Estate of John E. Gillespie, for permission to use two articles by John Gillespie and to reproduce the Gillespie correspondence in the American Folklife Center.

Chi Keat-Man, Syndication Account Manager, Telegraph Media Group Limited, London, for permission to reproduce three 1931 and 1932 articles on Newlandsmith from The Daily Telegraph

Claire Lamont, The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London, for permission to reproduce Oriental Hymn Tunes by William Henry Temple, 1930.

Karen Lee of Cengage Learning, Belmont, California, for permission to use a selection of texts from The Coptic Encyclopedia.

Father Charles Libois, S.J., Collège de la Sainte-Famille, Cairo, and Lebanon, for photographs of Fathers Jules Blin and Louis Badet, as well as biographical sources on them.

Stephen McArthur of Multicultural Media, for permission to digitize four tracks from Echoes of the Nile: Aspects of Egyptian Music.

MVF - Michael Video, Heliopolis, for permission to reproduce film of Moftah’s funeral, 18 June 2001.

Simon O’Neill, Group Editor, The Oxford Mail and The Oxford Times, for permission to reproduce two articles on Newlandsmith’s lectures in England in  May 1931.

Alan Powell, The Star, Sheffield, for permission to reproduce an article on Newlandsmith in the Sheffield Mail, 1931.

Sinead Porter, NI Syndication, London, for permission to reproduce an article on Newlandsmith from The Daily Herald, 1931.

David Ramm, Editor-in-Chief, AMS Press, Brooklyn, New York, for permission to reproduce The Coptic Morning Service for the Lord’s Day by the Marquess of Bute.

Dr. Geoffrey Rutowski and Dr. Carl Zytowski, University of California, Santa Barbara, for permission to reproduce their memorial article on John Gillespie.

Father Thomas Sable, S.J., Director, Center for Eastern Christian Studies and Editor of Diakonia, The Theology Department, University of Scranton, Scranton, Pennsylvania, for permission to reproduce Marian Robertson’s article on Newlandsmith’s transcriptions, and for giving us a copy of Diakonia.

His Grace, Bishop Serapion, Bishop of Los Angeles, and His Grace, Bishop Youssef, Bishop of Southern USA, for permission to reproduce The Divine Liturgies of Saints Basil, Gregory and Cyril, 2001.

Youssef Sidhom, Editor-in-Chief, Watani Newspaper, for permission to use the documentary film, Eminent Copts in Egyptian History: The Power of Coptic Music, Ragheb Moftah 1998, which includes an interview with Moftah by the late Egyptian musicologist, Dr. Adel Kamel.

Welcome Video Film, Cairo, for permission to reproduce film of Moftah’s 100th birthday, 21 December 1998.

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