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Coptic Orthodox Liturgical Chant & Hymnody


The Ragheb Moftah Collection at the Library of Congress

Image: Montage featuring Ragheb Moftah and Coptic Chant

With its roots in Ancient Egyptian music, Coptic Christian chant is one of the oldest liturgical genres still performed today. Drawing on the Ragheb Moftah Collection, this presentation explores some of the earliest music transcriptions by explorers, missionaries, and scholars in Egypt, highlighting Moftah’s efforts to notate, record, and preserve all Coptic Orthodox hymns. Learn more about current scholarship and what is happening in the Coptic community today.

Coptic Hymn – Hos Erouf

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About the Collection

The Ragheb Moftah Collection in the Library of Congress documents Moftah’s 75-year career as an ethnomusicologist who served as the chair of the Music Department at the Institute of Coptic Studies in Egypt from 1954 until he died in 2001. The collection includes 14 folios of Ernest Newlandsmith’s transcriptions, the work of a British violinist and composer whom Moftah sponsored to transcribe the Coptic liturgy of St. Basil and other seasonal hymns from 1926 to 1936. The collection also consists of correspondence between Moftah and other scholars, though the bulk of these letters outline Newlandsmith and Moftah’s working relationship for 10 years. Furthermore, the collection also contains Moftah’s recordings of the great cantor, Mu’allim Mikh«l Jirjis al-Batan«n«, between 1940 and 1957, and recordings of the St. Basil liturgy made by the Institute of Coptic Studies Choir starting in 1954.

Marian Roberston-Wilson’s Revised Guide to the Ragheb Moftah Collection of Coptic Chant accompanies the 21 converted CDs and provides the Coptic texts, transliteration, and English translation for the liturgy of St. Basil. There are also audiocassettes of the Liturgy of St. Basil as chanted by Mu’allim Sadek Atallah, as well as the Nativity Feast, the Great Lent, the Pentecostal Feast, the Midnight Psalmody, music of a wedding ceremony, and recordings of other Coptic Church occasions.

Additional materials from the Ragheb Moftah Collection include photographs and videos of Moftah’s centennial birthday party on December 21, 1998, his funeral on June 18, 2001 and final burial on April 25, 2002, autobiographical interviews conducted by Raymond Stock between 1996 and 1997, and Laurence Moftah’s interviews with Martha Roy and Margit T³th on March 13, 2002. The recordings and videos from the Ragheb Moftah Collection are housed in the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division. All other materials are in the Music Division.

In order to contextualize Moftah’s great contribution to the field of Coptic studies, and to understand more fully Coptic music, culturally and historically, this presentation also features materials from other divisions of the Library of Congress, such as books from the African and Middle Eastern Division, the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, and General Collections; historical maps of Egypt from the Geography and Maps Division; photographs of Coptic churches in Cairo from the Prints and Photographs Division; and the John E. Gillespie Collection of Coptic recordings, courtesy of the American Folklife Center.

Special Presentation: Timeline of Coptic Music

Created by Carolyn M. Ramzy

Moftah’s work emerged during a pivotal moment in Egyptian history at the beginning of the twentieth century. Egyptians were gaining a strong sense of national consciousness and a strong desire for a self-rule that they had not seen since the fall of the last Ancient Egyptian monarchy in 671 B.C. This nationalist fervor penetrated all aspects of their lives, including religious institutions such as the Coptic Orthodox Church.

This Timeline contextualizes these larger historical, political, and social developments in Egypt, leading up to Moftah’s project and his generous donation of his work to the Library of Congress. Also, the Timeline outlines other significant moments of Coptic music studies as a growing discipline, when early missionaries, explorers, and scholars first took note of Coptic liturgical chant. Though this Timeline certainly does not include a comprehensive listing of every person who has ever mentioned Coptic music in his or her work, it certainly highlights the historical and cultural framework that prompted and shaped their research.

The Timeline is divided into four parts:

Glossary 0f Terms

Image: Al-Kahin, Father Armia Toufiles
Al-KÄhin, Father Armia Toufiles.
St. George Coptic Orthodox
Church of Brooklyn, New York.
Photograph by Carolyn M. Ramzy

Though the following terms can be found in a series of articles by Ragheb Moftah, Marian Robertson, Margit T³th and Martha Roy, “Coptic Music,” in The Coptic Encyclopedia, they are also listed here for easy reference.

‘Ar«f: An ‘ar«f was an early ‘school master’ who taught in Coptic kuttb or village schools. Traditionally, many of them were blind. In their transcriptions of Coptic music in the late nineteenth century, Fathers Blin and Badet refer to working with these schoolteachers to notate Saint Basil’s Liturgy. Some of them were also cantors and teachers of Coptic chant, and were later called a mu’allim (pl. Mu’allm«n).

Daff: Though this is the Arabic term for a wide frame drum in other parts of the Middle East, this word is also used among the Copts to refer to the hand cymbals that accompany the Coptic hymnody. These hand cymbals are officially known as sanj,or sajjt in the plural.

hazzāt: Literally meaning, “motion” or “movement” in Arabic, hazzāt is a form of Coptic music notation that is emerging from within the Coptic community. As a series of dashes and dots over Coptic texts, this notation does not supply cantors with pitch, intervallic motion, meter, or a specific rhythm but, rather, reminds singers of the length ofmelismas, placement of words, transitions, the motion of extended melodies, and the upward or downward direction of embellishments.

al-Kāhin: This is the Arabic term for the officiant, or priest, who leads liturgical and other formal church services. Typically, their singing is characterized as the most ornate and rhythmically free.

Khidmat al-Shamms: Translated as The Services of the Deacon, this book was first published in 1859. Outlining the order of the hymns to be sung throughout liturgical services, seasonal hymns, and other church rites, it became 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.

al-Kh«lj«: Best translated as “Euchologion” in English, al-kh«lj« is considered the central Coptic Orthodox hymnbook. It lists the texts to most liturgical hymns, doxologies or hymns of praise, as well as prayers that are used throughout all Coptic services. As this is an entirely oral tradition, with the exception of mnemonic aids such as hazztused by deacons, there is no music notation in these books. Instead, there are only translations of the Coptic language into Arabic or, in immigrant communities, the language of their new homeland. In the case of the American diaspora, it is in English.

Lahn (pl. alhn): Best translated as “melody,” “air,” or “tune,” this is the Arabic word for the Coptic hymnody that Moftah collected extensively, recorded, and preserved. Though it is not exactly synonymous with the notion of an Arabic mode otherwise known as maqm, it implies certain melody-types that are identified according to the seasons or contexts in which they are performed. Among others, this includes lahn al-huzn or the ‘tune of grief,’ lahn al-farah or the ‘tune of joy,’ lahn al-tajn«z or ‘the tune of the dead.’ For more on this, please refer to Moftah et al. in “Coptic Music.” Alhn differ from other Coptic religious genres because they are generally transmitted in the antiquated Coptic language, predominantly performed by male clergy and deacons, and accompany formal church services.

Melisma (pl. melismata): Ragheb Moftah, Marian Robertson, Margit T³th and Martha Roy have differentiated between two forms of these embellishments, one of which is themelisma or melismata. Unlike the vocalise, a melisma is the elongation of a vowel in free rhythm that allows singers to improvise and illustrate their personal virtuosity. Typically, a melisma lasts ten to twenty seconds, whereas a vocalise can last up to a minute.

Mu’allim (pl. Mu’allim«n): Best translated as “teacher,” a mu’allim is a male church cantor who transmits Coptic hymns orally from one generation to another. They formally emerged as gatekeepers of the Coptic hymnody under the Patriarchy of Pope Cyril IV (1853-1861) due to the belief that their heightened memory and hearing compensated for their blindness and allowed them to memorize meticulously such a large repertoire of hymns.

Muthallath: Named after its shape, this metal triangle is one of the two percussion instruments that accompany Coptic hymns today. Along with the sajjt or daff(cymbals), it not only keeps time, but also produces an intricate rhythm that embellishes the vocal lines it accompanies.

Psalmodia: Besides the Coptic liturgy, this is another formal worship service that involves a large repertoire of Coptic hymns, as well as Coptic and Arabic doxologies praising Coptic saints, the Mother of God, and important church figures. Known in Arabic as “al-tasbihah,” this service is performed daily within Coptic monasteries, but only on Saturday evenings within lay communities.

qudds: This is the Arabic term for the “liturgy,” the holy service where the majority of Coptic hymns are sung and chanted. This Divine Liturgy, the center of Coptic worship, is essentially the reenactment of the Last Supper, which culminates with the distribution of Holy Communion to congregation members.

Image: Deacons at St. Mark's Coptic Orthodox Church
Deacons at St. Mark’s Coptic
Orthodox Church, Washington, D.C.
Photograph by Carolyn M. Ramzy

al-Shamms (pl. al-shammisah): Theshamms, or deacon, is responsible for leading congregational responses, as well singing responses to the priests solos during liturgical services. The singing of the shamms is typically characterized by an ornate style similar to that of the priest, but is generally not as rhythmically free as they are accompanied by the muthallath and the sajjt.

al-Sha’b: The congregation, or the sha’b, is the third party that performs during the Coptic liturgy. Guided by a choir of deacons, their responses are generally declamatory, less ornate, and sung in simple duple meters.

tarat«l or taran«m: Outside of alhn, this is the most widely performed genre of non-liturgical folk songs. Sung in the vernacular Arabic, these devotional songs draw upon indigenous folk metaphors, symbols, and contemporary popular music idioms, and are sung in informal contexts. Unlike alhn, this genre is predominantly performed by women and, at many times, also includes instrumental accompaniment.

Tasab«h and Mad’ih: Coptic religious music is comprised of three distinct genres.  Coptic and Arabic doxologies, otherwise known as tasab«h and mad’h, are usually performed in praise of Coptic saints, St. Mary the Mother of God, and Coptic Church forefathers. These genres are generally performed outside liturgical contexts but are still a part of formal church services such as the Psalmodia.

Vocalise: One of the two types of embellishment that Ragheb Moftah, Marian Robertson, Margit ³th and Martha Roy identify, a vocalise is an elongation of a particular vowel within a rhythmic framework of a Coptic hymn. Unlike a melisma, avocalise is usually transmitted and learned as part of the core melody of a Coptic chant, and a vocalis can last up to a minute, while a melisma lasts about ten to twenty seconds.


  1. The Coptic Encyclopedia, pp. 1715-1747, especially pp. 1719-1729.

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