Biographies Martha Roy

Image: Martha Roy
[Martha Roy, head-and-shoulders portrait]. Photograph courtesy of Laurence Moftah.

Martha Roy is fondly remembered by many Egyptian school children in Luxor, and later in Cairo, as a monument in their childhood. Others remember the tall, Egyptian-born American teacher as a presence in the back of their Coptic churches, quickly jotting down the Coptic texts and transcribing Coptic melodies during the liturgy. Today, she is not only recognized as a great educator and an ethnomusicologist, but also as the person who meticulously transliterated the Arabic and Coptic texts, and provided the English translation of the liturgy in The Coptic Orthodox Liturgy of St. Basil with Complete Musical Transcription compiled by Ragheb Moftah and transcribed by Margit Tóth.

Born on March 27, 1913 to American Presbyterian missionaries, Martha Roy spent a total of about six years outside of Egypt. She was born in the American Hospital of Tanta, just north of Cairo, as there was no American hospital in Alexandria, where her parents were working at the time. As a young girl, she was educated at the Lycée Français in Al-Attarin, and finished her high school studies at the Schutz American School of Alexandria, where her father held a teaching post. There, she also began to study piano and later traveled to the U.S. to pursue a Bachelor's degree in Music and French at Muskingum College in Ohio. Upon returning from her studies abroad in 1935, she became a music teacher in Luxor, teaching young Egyptians about Western classical music and about the music of their own folk heritage.

Martha Roy began to dabble in the field of ethnomusicology during her sabbatical for her Master's at Columbia University Teachers College from 1967 to 1968. For her trip to the U.S., she brought along the recordings of three Egyptian folksongs and decided to transcribe them for an ethnomusicology elective course she was taking at school.[1] Her professor was so thoroughly impressed by her work that he encouraged her to pursue these studies further and provided her with an impressive recommendation letter. In turn, Martha Roy approached His Grace, Coptic Bishop Samuel (1921-1980) of the growing Coptic community in New Jersey, who also supported her interests. Back in Egypt with her Master's degree, she was appointed to teach at the Helwan University Faculty of Music. It was at this time that Martha Roy regularly visited Coptic churches on Sundays and began recording, transcribing, and analyzing the rites that she heard. She also started learning Arabic. Many of these recordings, made during her field research and dating all the way back to 1977, are now at the University of Indiana Archive of Traditional Music.

Martha Roy also studied at the Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, where she learned about liturgical history under the hand of Dr. Cyril Richardson. In her on-going studies of Coptic rites, she discovered that the Coptic liturgy followed the very same form as those in Western church services. After her return to Egypt, she encountered Dr. Ragheb Moftah, and requested to learn more about Coptic hymns. By then, she had also relocated to Cairo, where she became the deputy principal at the American College of Girls, which had been renamed Ramses College in 1967. In addition to her teaching post, she started studying Coptic language and history with Coptic historian, Dr. Shaker Basilios at the Institute of Coptic Studies and Coptic hymnology with Dr. Ragheb Moftah. Then, she herself became a lecturer on Coptic liturgy at the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Cairo.

In response to her interest and the quality of her work, Moftah enlisted her in his project of preserving Coptic hymns around 1988, and she worked with him until the publication of The Coptic Orthodox Liturgy of St. Basil with Complete Musical Transcription ten years later in 1998. Throughout that time, she not only worked closely on the manuscript with Hungarian ethnomusicologist, Margit Tóth, but she also published her own work on Coptic music. They include "Koptische Kirchenmusick" in the second edition of the Geschichte und Gegenwart (Kassel: Barenreiter, 1996), and also the "The Coptic Orthodox Church and Its Music," in The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music: The Middle East (New York: Routlegde, 2002). Currently, at the age of 95, she still resides in Egypt.


  1. Please see the video, Laurence Moftah Interviews Margit Tóth and Martha Roy, March 13, 2002, from the Ragheb Moftah Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress, where Martha Roy talks about how she became interested in studying Egyptian folk, and later Coptic music. [back to biography]


Abdel-Malek, Moushira. "Martha Roy: A Hymn on the Nile." Al-Ahram Weekly, no. 475, 30 March - 5 April 2000.

Danielson, Virginia. "Review: The Coptic Orthodox Liturgy of St. Basil with Complete Musical Transcription by Ragheb Moftah, Margit Tóth, Martha Roy." Notes, 2d ser. 57(December 2000): 481-482.

Laurence Moftah Interviews Margit Tóth and Martha Roy, March 13, 2002. Videotape in the Ragheb Moftah Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

"Martha Roy Library Display." New Concord, Ohio: Muskingum College Library, 2005. (accessed 16 August 2008).

Moftah, Ragheb, Martha Roy, and Margit Tóth. The Coptic Orthodox Liturgy of St. Basil with Complete Musical Transcription. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 1998.

Roy, Martha. "The Coptic Orthodox Church and Its Music." The Garland Encyclopedia of World Music: The Middle East. Edited by Virginia Danielson, Scott Marcus, and Dwight Reynolds. New York: Routledge, 2002, pp. 219-224.

Sharkey, Heather. American Evangelicals in Egypt: Missionary Encounters in an Age of Empire. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.

Selected Works at the Library of Congress

About this Item

Martha Roy
Contributor Names
Ramzy, Carolyn M. (author)
Subject Headings
-  Roy, Martha, 1913-
-  Biographies
-  Songs and Music
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online text
Biography. Sharkey, Heather. American Evangelicals in Egypt: Missionary Encounters in an Age of Empire. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.
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Stephen McArthur of Multicultural Media, for permission to digitize four tracks from Echoes of the Nile: Aspects of Egyptian Music.

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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.

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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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