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'Coptic' numerals and Genizah studies

T-S NS 98.11
Detail of T-S NS 98.11.
Author: 
Magdalen M. Connolly
Wed 2 Jun 2021

It has long been customary in both Genizah studies and Arabic codicology to describe the numerals frequently found in documentary texts as ‘Coptic’.[1] Recent work has shown that these curvilinear numerals may better be termed ḥurūf al-zimām (‘the letters of accounts/registers’) or ‘zimām numerals’ (Chrisomalis, 2010). In what follows, I will give a (very) brief overview of the Coptic alphabetic numerical system, ḥurūf al-zimām, and the related Mozarabic/Toledan and Rūmī/Fāsī numerals to explain why the Genizah Research Unit will be adopting this more accurate terminology in future cataloguing descriptions.

The Egyptian language variety of Coptic, written in an adapted version of the Greek alphabet, emerged in the third (Grossman and Richter, 2014; Fournet, 2020; or fourth century (Richter, 2009), remaining in use – albeit decreasing – until approximately the fourteenth century (Versteegh, 2014:129). A ciphered numerical system, also based on the Greek alphabet, was developed alongside the new writing system (fig. 1 Chrisomalis, 2010). These Coptic numerals were employed in conjunction with the pre-existing Greek alphabetic numerals. In general, the former was reserved for literary texts, while the latter was used in administrative affairs and documentary texts (Chrisomalis, 2010:148).

Figure 1. Coptic numerals

Figure 1. Coptic numerals (from Chrisomalis, 2010:149)

On the eve of the Arab conquest of Egypt, the majority of the population spoke Coptic. Greek was limited to a small, urban elite and for administrative purposes. Only in the early eighth century did Arabic begin to be seen alongside Greek and Coptic in administrative documents (Holes, 2004:30). In many of these Arabic administrative documents, Greek numerals are the most encountered numerical system (Grohmann, 1952:89). The Arabicisation of Egyptian cities was gradual (and even slower in rural areas). During the late eighth and early ninth centuries, Arabic had supplanted Coptic in some areas of society, but it was not until the tenth century that this became a widespread phenomenon (Rubenson, 1996).[2] It was during this century that a new numerical system – ḥurūf al-zimām (fig. 2) – was established (Chrisomalis, 2010:149–150) in administrative and commercial circles. These numerical symbols appear to draw on both the Coptic and Greek numeral systems in both structure and palaeographic form, but not to the exclusion of other influences (Chrisomalis, 2010:165). They are curvilinear, making them much easier to write at speed, which may explain why they were so widely and quickly adopted (Chrisomalis, 2010).

Figure 2. Zimam numerals

Figure 2. Zimām numerals (from Chrisomalis, 2010:150)

Although these numerals were devised by Egypt’s Christian community, they proved popular among Egyptian Muslim and Jewish communities. This is evident from the thousands of Arabic and Judaeo-Arabic accounts, documents, and lists, which contain these numerals in the Cairo Genizah collections (fig. 3, 4, 5, and 6). While their function was primarily commercial, these numerals also found their way into astronomical and calendrical texts and onto the leaves of manuscripts for foliation (Chrisomalis, 2010:150). Zimām numerals were used among Egypt’s Jewish communities alongside the Hebrew abjad numerals.

Figure 3. T-S AS 145.45

Figure 3. T-S AS 145.45 recto. Accounts listing names, underneath which are written amounts in zimām numerals.

Figure 4. T-S NS 306.115

Figure 4. T-S NS 306.115. List of simples, with quantities in zimām numerals.

T-S Misc.8.99

Figure 5. T-S Misc. 8.99. List of pledges by named individuals. The amounts pledged are written in zimām numerals.

T-S NS 98.11

Figure 6. T-S NS 98.11. Judaeo-Arabic calendrical text (f1 recto); calculations in zimām numerals (f2 verso)

Ḥurūf al-zimām are considered by some scholars to have influenced rūmī/fāsī numerals, the earliest manifestations of which (fig. 7) are found in manuscripts produced by Mozarabs in Toledo during the twelfth and thirteenth numerals (Levi Della Vida, 1933; Gacek, 2009:232; Chrisomalis, 2010:171). In their earlier form, these positional numerals are written left to right. The later manifestation (fig. 8), which were widely used in Moroccan legal and commercial contexts until approximately the 17th century CE, are generally written right to left.

Figure 7. Mozarabic/Toledan whole numbers

Figure 7. Mozarabic/Toledan whole numbers (Levi Della Vida, 1933:282)

Figure 8. Rumi/Fasi numerals

Figure 8. Rūmī/Fāsī numerals (Chrisomalis, 2010:171)

The proper identification and classification of the numerals encountered in Genizah documents is not merely a question of terminology. Knowledge of these numerical systems may be used by Genizah scholars to gain a more accurate assessment of the geographical and temporal origin of a text. In turn, the many documents which contain these zimām numerals in the Cairo Genizah collections are an unprecedented (and underutilised) resource for scholars in other fields, such as Arabic codicology, Coptic, or medieval economic and social history.

Bibliography and further reading

Artin Pascha, S. E. Y. (1889) ‘Signes employés dans la comptabilité copte en Égypte pour les transcriptions des fractions,’ Bulletin de l’Institute Égyptien, 10, pp. 285–298. Available at: https://digi.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/diglit/bie1889/0309.

Chrisomalis, S. (2010) Numerical Notation: A Comparative History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi: 10.1017/CBO9780511676062.

Déroche, F. et al. ([2006] 2015) Islamic Codicology: An Introduction to the Study of Manuscripts in Arabic Script. London: Al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation.

Fournet, J.-L. (2020) The Rise of Coptic: Egyptian versus Greek in Late Antiquity, The Rise of Coptic. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, pp. 1–39. Available at: http://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.1515/9780691201733-003/html (Accessed: 21 May 2021).

Gacek, A. (2009) Arabic Manuscripts: A Vademecum for Readers. Leiden; Boston: Brill.

Grohmann, A. (1952) From the World of Arabic Papyri. Cairo: Al-Maaref Press.

Grossman, E. and Richter, T. S. (2014) ‘The Egyptian-Coptic Language: Its Setting in Space, Time and Culture’, in Grossman, E., Haspelmath, M., and Richter, T. S. (eds) Egyptian-Coptic Linguistics in Typological Perspective. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, Inc., pp. 69–102. Available at: http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/cam/detail.action?docID=1652445 (Accessed: 28 May 2021).

Holes, C. (2004) Modern Arabic: Structures, Functions, and Varieties. Revised edition. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press.

Labarta, A. and Barceló, C. (1988) Números y cifras en los documentos arábigohispanos. Cordoba: Area de Estudios Arabes e Islámicos, Cátedra de Lengua y Literatura Arabes, Universidad de Córdoba.

Lazrek, A. (2006) ‘Rumi Numeral System Symbols: Additional Characters Proposed to Unicode.’ Available at: https://www.unicode.org/L2/L2006/06291-rumi-rev.pdf.

Lemay, R. (1982) ‘Arabic Numerals,’ in Strayer, J.R. (ed) Dictionary of the Middle Ages, vol. I, pp. 382–398.

Levi Della Vida, G. (1933) ‘Appunti e quesiti di storia letteraria araba’, Rivista degli studi orientali, 14(3), pp. 249–283.

Richter, T. S. (2009) ‘Greek, Coptic and the “language of the Hijra”: the rise and decline of the Coptic language in late antique and medieval Egypt’, in Wasserstein, D. J. et al. (eds) From Hellenism to Islam: Cultural and Linguistic Change in the Roman Near East. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 401–446. doi: 10.1017/CBO9780511641992.019.

Rubenson, S. (1996) ‘The Transition from Coptic to Arabic’, Égypte/Monde arabe, (27–28), pp. 77–92. doi: 10.4000/ema.1920.

Versteegh, K. (2014) The Arabic Language. Second Edition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.


[1] Also referred to as ‘Classical Coptic’ and ‘Graeco-Coptic’.

[2] The Arabic alphabetic (abjad) numerical system developed after the Arab conquests, most probably modelled on the Greek, Hebrew, and Syriac alphabetic numerical systems (Lemay 1982). For the Hindu-Arabic numerical system, its reception, use, and descendants, see Lemay (1982) and Chrisomalis (2010:213–227).

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