A Letter from Colonel Robert de Rustafjaell

Some time ago, I bought on the internet a bibliographical rarity: Robert de Rustafjaell’s The Light of Egypt from Recently Discovered Predynastic and Early Christian Records (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1909).

I had been looking for a long time to buy this book because it offers interesting details concerning the Coptic parchment and paper codices which belonged to the Monastery of St. Mercurius at Edfu, in Upper Egypt.

The circumstances of the discovery of these manuscripts are not clear. According to some early reports, they were unearthed at the very beginning of the 20th century by an Egyptian peasant in the ruins of a Coptic monastery situated near Edfu. Soon after their discovery, the manuscripts came into the hands of a dealer, from whom some of them (seven, if I remember correctly) were purchased by Robert de Rustafjaell, aka Colonel Prince Roman Orbeliani, an aristocrat interested in ancient Egypt. In November 1907, Rustafjaell sold them, in turn, to the British Museum. Here the manuscripts were studied and edited by Ernest A. T. Wallis Budge during his tenure as Keeper of the Department of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities. Finally, the Edfu codices were later transferred to the British Library where they are found today. If you want to know more about these manuscripts, you should check Bentley Layton’s “Introduction” to his Catalogue of Coptic Literary Manuscripts in the British Library Acquired Since the Year 1906 (London: British Library, 1987).

One cannot overestimate the importance of the Edfu codices for our knowledge of Coptic literature. They are well-preserved manuscripts which offer us not only complete texts but also a glimpse into book production in Medieval Egypt.

Now, I was surprised to find inside the cover of Rustafjaell’s book a handwritten dedication letter sent by him to a certain “Miss Green.” The letter was sent from the Royalton Hotel, on 44 West Street in New York (which is still there!), and it is not dated. As to the mysterious recipient simply called “Miss Green,” I not sure who she is. Can she be Belle da Costa Greene, John Pierpont Morgan’s private librarian? That’s a possibility.

Here is the photograph of the letter and its transcription. I deciphered it only through the help of Paul Leopold (Stockholm, Sweden), as the handwriting was otherwise nearly illegible to me.

8 April

Dear Miss Green

           I have now unpacked my books and should be pleased to send you a copy. Needless to say that I would esteem it a great compliment if you will accept same.

Yours very truly
R. de Rustafjaell

And now here are the plates of Rustafjaell’s book, which contain some beautiful Greek, Coptic and Nubian manuscripts. Enjoy!


About Alin Suciu

I am a researcher at the Göttingen Academy of Sciences and Humanities. I write mostly on Coptic literature, Patristics, and apocryphal texts.
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16 Responses to A Letter from Colonel Robert de Rustafjaell

  1. ergamenis says:

    Really enjoyed it!
    For the information of your readers, the two first Old Nubian leafs are from the Miracle of Menas and the third from the Canon of Nicea.
    Although for the latter the works by Griffith (1913: Nubian Texts of the Christian Period, pp. 15-24) and Browne (1983: ’Griffith’s Nicene Canons’, The Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 20, pp. 97–112) remain the standard, the editions by the same scholars (Griffith 1913, 6-15 & Browne 1983, ’Griffith’s Miracle of St. Menas’, The Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 20, pp. 23–37 – revised in 1994 in BzS, Beiheft 5) have been very recently updated in the work of Vincent WJ Van Gerven Oei & El-Shafie El-Guzuuli (http://www.uitgeverij.cc/publications/the-miracle-of-saint-mina/).
    Will soon make further comments in the Medieval Sai Project blog too!
    Thanks for this post Alin!

  2. Richard Budelberger says:

    It is dated (« 8 April »), “only” the year is missing !

  3. Vaisamar says:

    Turns out you can decipher Coptic handwriting, but not English. 🙂

  4. Very interesting, Alin!

  5. The author had three personalities during his lifetime. He was born Robert Fawcus-Smith, and changed his name to Robert de Rustafjaell to become the great Egyptian explorer. Finally, he moved to Arizona, and become the pioneer, Col. Prince Roman Orbeliani! (Actually, he was a geologist by training).

    • Alin Suciu says:

      Thanks, Christian, and congratulations for your book! I look forward reading it.
      Concerning Rustafjaell, do you happen to know if he really was of noble birth?
      After he became Prince Roman Orbeliani he claimed to be of Georgian descent, but I am not sure this was true.

  6. Pingback: Texts online « Medieval Sai Project

  7. Tor Eigil Rössaak says:

    “Shoud”? I think it’s meant to be “should”. And definitely “would”, with the -l-.
    Belle da Costa Greene? I doubt the suggested identification, he writes “Green”, not “Greene” – is he likely to have been so careless with the lady’s name? (But perhaps the biography by Ardizzone might shed some light?)

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