By Dr. Carolyn M. Ramzy
Associate Professor, Carleton University

A (Gendered) Coptic Music Culture

Coptic music culture is all encompassing. Liturgical hymns known as alḥan (s. laḥn), paraliturgical spiritual songs known as taratīl or taranīm (s. tartīla, tarnīma), praise doxologies (madā’ḥ) and audible whispered prayers are among the genres that forge the regular soundtrack of Coptic pious life. Babies are baptized as official members of the Church between the contrapuntal prayers of their families, a singing priest, a responding deacon, and an echoing sha’b, literally the people. Then, these tiniest and newsiest Orthodox Copts—boys at 40 days, and girl at 80 days – are musically inducted into the community too, right after they take their first communion. This moment of celebration is a bustling soundscape of celebratory ululations, the racing hand-held cymbals keeping time, and a deacon’s florid playing on a small metal triangle as young families parade their babies around the Church three times. Children are dressed in crisp white dress with a thin red sash, symbolising their new purity through the ultimate sacrifice and crucifixion of Christ. Often, little boys are dressed in embroidered and golden vestments that mirror a Coptic priest, forecasting their role as spiritual leaders and social servants (khadim) in their families and communities. In turn, little girls are dressed in miniature and flowing bridal dresses, symbolizing their roles as “the Brides of Christ.” This metaphor, often used to describe the Coptic Orthodox Church, forecasts Coptic girls and women’s expected roles as the next generation of mothers, teachers, nuns, and social servants (khadima) in the Church. To bring this message home, these newly baptised members will hear the same baptismal hymn, “Eporo” that initiated them as official members of the Coptic Church at their next major rite of passage in the Orthodox community, their wedding day.

Baptism is considered one of the holiest sacraments of the Orthodox Church. It also marks just how early Copts are enculturated in a deeply gendered (music) culture. Note the delay of induction of Coptic girls to Coptic boys by 40 days; it draws back to Orthodox interpretations of Leviticus 12: 2 – 6, where a woman is considered unclean for 40 days after birthing a son, and 80 days after birthing a daughter. According to the Coptic Diocese of the Southern US, this delay for girls’ indication into the Orthodox Church is also a reminder to Coptic believers that it was a woman, Eve who was the first to fall into temptation and introduce sin into the world (1 Tim 2:13 – 15; Pet 3 – 7). During this time, mothers do not partake in the holy sacrament of the Eucharist, though they can continue in congregational singing. Finally, it is during the baptism that priests pray an absolution over the new mother titled “the Absolution of the Mother” so that they may be purified from the uncleanliness associated with birth, and finally allowed to rejoin the congregation as fully participating members. For the full English text of this rite, go here and for an explanation of all Coptic rites, including baptismal rites and the absolution of birth mothers, go here.

Besides Coptic rites of passage, Orthodox holidays are also ushered in between long and thoroughly sung services each season. Outside of Church, Taytas or grandmothers are known to bake butter laden kaḥk and pitifour cookies in anticipation of the feasts (eid) to exchange with neighbours and friends, and they do so to the tunes of Arabic taratīl cassettes or streaming recordings of Coptic liturgical hymns. Taratīl and taranīm are non-liturgical Arabic (and translated songs) where women often lead the singing; note how the young women in the spiritual song “My Coptic Orthodox Church” lead and outnumber the male singer here. As these cookies take hours if not days to prepare, many women sing to pass the time and to ease the labour. In other words, Coptic music accompanies every passage, twist, and turn of Coptic pious life: every birth, every wedding, every death, and every cookie in between is marked by sound and praise. Importantly, every song also marks Coptic gendered experiences and expectations, constituting not only a gendered soundscape, but also gendered selves that shape how Copts interact with each other, the world, and the important labour of singing for a Coptic afterlife.

But, like that Wikipedia entry that offers a passive definition of Coptic music, without indicating who exactly is singing and playing, these virtual archives implicitly offer a gendered understanding of who does the doing of Coptic music in the Orthodox Church. Almost all recordings of Coptic liturgical hymns in these archives feature male cantors, priests, all-male choirs, and male teachers, revealing a liturgical exclusion of women’s singing and teaching voices, especially in official and leadership contexts.
A Coptic woman “visits” the icon of St. Mary at the back of St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church of Washington D.C. The Blessed Virgin is one of the most celebrated saints in the Coptic Church; As a reoccurring trope in liturgical hymns, spiritual songs, and saint doxologies, the songs often praise her humility, purity, and submission, setting the standard on expected gender roles and comportment in the Coptic community. Photograph by the author.
In this video broadcast by the Coptic satellite CYC (Christian Youth Channel), the Whispers of the Heart Team from St. Mary and St. Antonios Coptic Orthodox Church of Queens, NY sing one of the most popular spiritual songs (taratīl) in English. Translated from Arabic, “My Coptic Orthodox Church,” illustrates the importance of a Coptic baptismal day and the official Christening that marks official entrance into the community.
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