Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism


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Lotus rising

Egyptian blue lotus

Egyptian blue lotus

The prominent Egyptian opposition leader Saad Eddin Ibrahim has nicknamed the popular uprising that has taken Egypt by storm the Lotus Revolution (ثورة اللوتس Thaurat el-Lotus). Naming popular revolutions after flowers has been the In Thing since the 2003 revolution that swept Mikheil Saakashvili to power in Georgia was dubbed the Rose Revolution (ვარდების რევოლუცია Vardebis Revolutsia), after his supporters demonstrated against the former president’s opening of parliament while holding roses to declare their peaceful intent. The meme continued with other popular uprisings (most being more-or-less peaceful). Ukraine had its Orange Revolution, which while not a flower (and not the fruit either) is comparable. After the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon experienced what is known as its Cedar Revolution (ثورة الأرز Thaurat el-Arz), after the national symbol. Back to flowers, Kyrgyzstan had its Tulip Revolution and Burma its Saffron Revolution (although that was named after the colour of the robes of the Buddhist monks). Briefly back to simple colours, Iran experienced its unsuccessful Green Revolution. Now, 2011 is definitely saying it with flowers, with Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution (تورة الياسمين Thaurat el-Yasmin) and now Egypt’s Lotus Revolution.

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An etymological history of ‘Pharaoh’

The word Pharaoh in Coptic, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Greek and Hebrew.

The word Pharaoh in Coptic, Egyptian hieroglyphs, Greek and Hebrew.

I recently received a copy of Bentley Layton‘s fairly new Coptic in 20 Lessons, a teaching grammar for Sahidic Coptic. Browsing through the first few chapters, I was reminded there of the Coptic word ⲣ̄ⲣⲟ (rro or erro) meaning ‘king’ or ’emperor’. It’s an odd word, but its origin becomes clearer when the Coptic definite article is appended, ⲡ-ⲣ̄ⲣⲟ (perro), ‘the king’. The word is taken from the Ancient EgyptianPharaoh‘. In spite of the fact that Coptic is the direct descendent of the Ancient Egyptian language, the initial ‘p’ of the word became mistaken for the definite article at some point in the word’s history, and Copts began to take the ‘p’ out of ‘Pharaoh’.

The Ancient Greeks, writing about the southern superpower, wrote the word as φαραώ pharaō, and the Hebrew Bible renders the name of the oppressor as פַּרְעֹה (parʿōh). Our Modern English spelling and pronunciation is a bit of both the Greek and the Hebrew. The Greeks seem to have used the letter phi to represent the initial sound of the word while that letter was still used as an aspirated stop //, before it became a fricative /f/, and so they contributed that sound change. The Hebrew spelling with the final ‘h’, which simply signal a final long vowel in Hebrew consonantal orthography, came into English spelling during the Reformation, when the Bible was being translated from the best available manuscripts in the original languages. This replaced the latinate spelling formerly used in English, ‘Pharao’ or ‘Pharaon’. The odd digraph ‘ao’ in the second syllable comes from the Greek too. We pronounce it as if the ‘a’ is not really there, which really confuses us when trying to spell. Well, the ‘a’ doesn’t seem to have been really there in the first place. It seems that the Greeks used the ‘ao’ spelling for an Egyptian sound that was a pharyngeal or glottal consonant that Greek doesn’t have followed by an ‘o’. Hebrew, being an Afroasiatic language like Egyptian, didn’t have a problem with this. I wonder whether the Coptic spelling with a double rho is actually meant to represent an ‘r’ sound followed by such an awkward consonant (in the same way that ⲙⲁⲁⲩ ma’u, ‘mother’, is spelt with a doubled vowel to stand for a vowel plus a glottal stop).

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Praising the philosophers: our place in religious intolerance

Tomorrow, 25 November, is the feast of St Catherine the Great Martyr of Alexandria (ἡ Ἁγία Αἰκατερίνη ἡ Μεγαλομάρτυς της Ἀλεξάνδρειας, hē Hagia Aikaterinē hē Megalomartys tēs Alexandreias). It is also the commemoration of Isaac Watts, famous hymnwriter, in the Church of England calendar (and surely those of other churches too).

Icon of Catherine of Alexandria

13th-century icon of St Catherine from Mt Sinai

Popularly, Catherine is associated with her eponymous wheel that makes it gyratory appearance at fireworks displays, symbolising the first attempted means of her martyrdom. Her legend tells of a young virgin woman who contended in dialogue with the pagan Emperor Maximinus Daia (308–13), successfully converting to Christianity his wife and courtiers, countering their philosophical arguments. The frustrated emperor ordered her tortured to death on the breaking wheel, which broke when she touched it, and so she was beheaded. Angels carried her body to Mt Sinai, where her tomb now lies. Continue reading