John of Nikiû (fl. 680-690) was an Egyptian Coptic bishop of Nikiû (Pashati) in the Nile Delta and general administrator of the monasteries of Upper Egypt in 696. He is the author of a Chronicle extending from Adam to the end of the Muslim conquest of Egypt. John of Nikiû's Chronicle contains important historical details otherwise unknown.
There are two main sources for John's life. The first is the History of the Patriarchs by Severus, Bishop of Al-Ashmunyn (Heliopolis). This draws on two originally independent biographies that mention John: those of Pope Isaac of Alexandria (690-692 CE) and Pope Simeon I of Alexandria (692-700 CE). The second source is the Life of Isaac of Alexandria composed by John's successor as bishop of Nikiu, Mena of Nikiu, between 697 and 700 CE.: 6
According to the History of the Patriarchs, John lived under the Patriarchs John III, Isaac, and Simeon. But when John of Nikiû disciplined a monk guilty of some moral offense so severely that the monk died ten days later, the Patriarch Simeon removed John from his office.
The original editor of this text, Zotenberg, argued that John of Nikiû's Chronicle was originally written mostly in Greek, theorizing that some of the name forms indicate that John wrote the sections concerning Egypt in Coptic. Scholarly opinion has shifted, however, to the belief that this chronicle was probably written in Coptic. The work survives only in a Ge'ez translation. In 1602, an Arabic translation of the original was made. Sections of the text are obviously corrupted with accidental omissions. Most notably, a passage covering thirty years (from 610 to 640) is missing. The narrative, especially the earlier sections up until the reign of Constantine, has many obvious historical errors. This may be due to the copy errors, or a negligence on the importance of Pagan history. There are also many instances of myth and less a reliance on pure history. For instance, Julius Caesar's mother being cut open to birth him, resulting in a Caesarian section. This is an fable made up by later historians and bears no evidence to historical fact. The author, a catholic bishop, is more interested in telling moralizing tales and history from a religious perspective, than relating pure history.
John's view of the earliest periods of history is informed by sources such as Sextus Julius Africanus and John Malalas. The Chronicle is most noteworthy for its passages dealing with the early 7th century. John covers in detail the revolt of the Thracian armies in 602 and the subsequent overthrow of the Emperor Maurice by the usurper Phocas. His account adds considerably to our knowledge of the reign of Phocas and particularly to the successful revolt against him begun at Carthage by Heraclius. Unfortunately, the section dealing with the climactic Persian wars waged by Heraclius is not extant.
Perhaps the most important section of John's Chronicle is that which deals with the invasion and conquest of Egypt by the Muslim armies of Amr ibn al-Aas. Though probably not an eyewitness, John was most likely of the generation immediately following the conquest, and the Chronicle provides the only near-contemporary account. John describes the major events of Amr's campaign, such as the taking of the Roman fortress at Babylon, and the capture of Alexandria. Though the timeline is occasionally confusing, its narrative details are often vivid.
The main English translation of John's Chronicle is that of R.H. Charles. In it, John vividly records the fear that gripped Egypt during the Muslim invasions:
Then a panic fell on all the cities of Egypt, and all their inhabitants took to flight, and made their way to Alexandria, abandoning all their possessions and wealth and cattle.
He also makes several mentions of the Muslim atrocities committed against the Copts:
And these Ishmaelites came and slew without mercy the commander of the troops and all his companions. And forthwith they compelled the city to open its gates, and they put to the sword all that surrendered, and they spared none, whether old men, babe or woman.
And thereupon the Moslem made their entry into Nakius, and took possession, and finding no soldiers (to offer resistance), they proceeded to put to the sword all whom they found in the streets and in the churches, men, women, and infants, and they showed mercy to none.
John also reports the prohibitive new taxes placed on the native population. In some cases, the taxes were so burdensome that families were forced to sell their children into slavery. He also admonishes Egyptians who abandoned Christianity in favor of Islam. Writing from a miaphysite point of view — at odds with the diophysite Christology affirmed at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 — John describes the Islamic invasion of his homeland as divine punishment for the Chalcedonian beliefs which held sway in the Byzantine Empire. At the close of his Chronicle, John describes the despair felt by the conquered Alexandrians, writing:
None could recount the mourning and lamentation which took place in that city....And they had none to help them, and God destroyed their hopes and delivered the Christians into the hands of their enemies.
However, the account ends on a note of hope and faith:
But the strong beneficence of God will put to shame those who grieve us, and He will make His love for man to triumph over our sins, and bring to naught the evil purposes of those who afflict us, who would not that the King of Kings and Lord of Lords should reign over them, (even) Jesus Christ our true God. As for those wicked slaves, He will destroy them in evil fashion: as saith the holy Gospel: 'As for Mine enemies who would not that I should reign over them, bring them unto Me.'
- Felege-Selam Solomon Yirga, 'The Chronicle of John of Nikiu: Historical Writing in Post-Roman Egypt' (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Ohio State University, 2020).
- Booth, Phillip (2011). "Shades of Blues and Greens in the Chronicle of John of Nikiu". Byzantinische Zeitschrift. 104: 557.
- The 1883 translation by Zotenberg into French states, less precisely, ''translated from the Ethiopic'',
- Charles, Robert H (1913). The Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu: Translated from Zotenberg's Ethiopic Text, Chapter CXIII: paragraph 6.
- Charles, Robert H (1913). The Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu: Translated from Zotenberg's Ethiopic Text, Chapter CXI: paragraph 10.
- Charles, Robert H (1913). The Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu: Translated from Zotenberg's Ethiopic Text, Chapter CXVIII: paragraph 8.
- Charles, Robert H (1913). The Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu: Translated from Zotenberg's Ethiopic Text, Chapter CXXI: paragraph 7.
- Charles, Robert H (1913). The Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu: Translated from Zotenberg's Ethiopic Text, Chapter CXXI: paragraph 8–9.
Editions and translations
- Charles, Robert H. (1913). The Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu: Translated from Zotenberg's Ethiopic Text. London, UK: Williams & Norgate.
- Charles, Robert H. (2007) . The Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu: Translated from Zotenberg's Ethiopic Text. Merchantville, NJ: Evolution Publishing.; Introduction and English translation from Tertullian.org; Introduction and English translation from earlychristianwritings.com.
- "La Chronique de Jean de Nikioû", ed. and translated into French by H. Zotenberg in Notices et Extraits des manuscrits de la Bibliothèque Nationale, t. XXIV, I, pp. 125–605 (Paris, 1883) and also separately (Paris, 1883). (Online version in Gallica website at the "Bibliothèque nationale de France")
- Mingazov, S. 2012. Kubrat - pravitel’ Velikoy Bolgarii i Ketrades - personal Ioanna Nikiusskogo (‘Kubrat, the ruler of Great Bulgaria, and Qetrades, a character from the Chronicle of John of Nikiu’) (Kazan’: Iydatel’stvo Yaz, 2012).
- Yirga, Felege-Selam Solomon, 'The Chronicle of John of Nikiu: Historical Writing in Post-Roman Egypt' (unpublished PhD dissertation, Ohio State University, 2020).
- Catholic Encyclopedia: John of Nikiû
- English translation of the Chronicle (1916), hosted on tertullian.org