Coptic Orthodox Church
The Coptic Church is the ancient church of Egypt;
the name Copt derives from the Greek Aiguptioi (“Egyptians”).
According to tradition within the church, its founder and first patriarch was Mark the Evangelist, who first preached Christianity in Alexandria in the 40s of the 1st century CE.
For several centuries the new faith interacted in various ways with Judaism, traditional Egyptian religion, Hellenistic philosophy, and Gnosticism, amid sporadic waves of Roman persecution.
The consummation of the persecutions came under Diocletian, from the beginning of whose reign in 284 CE the Copts began their own calendar “of the martyrs” (1 Anno Martyrum). This church calendar remains in use to the present day.
Biblical and other Christian texts preserved in 2nd and 3rd century papyrus manuscripts are testimonies to the penetration of the new faith into Egypt long before the end of the age of persecutions.
With the Edict of Milan (313), whereby the emperor Constantine guaranteed freedom of worship to Christians, Alexandria gained in prestige as a major Christian ecclesial and theological centre.
The catechetical school of Alexandria, which appears to have taken shape late in the 2nd century, became a centre of Christian scholarship under the leadership of some of the greatest Church Fathers:
Pantaenus (died c. 200), credited with being its 1st head, is reported to have travelled as an Evangelist as far east as India.
Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215), who succeeded him, advocated the reconciliation of Christian doctrine and the Bible with Greek philosophy.
The school of Alexandria came of age under Origen (184 – 253), one of the most prolific authors of all time, whose exegetical, philosophical, and theological writings had broad influence on the early church,
including such pillars of orthodoxy as his pupils Heraclas (patriarch 230-246, and the first in the annals of the Coptic church to bear the title “pope”) and Gregory Thaumaturgus (c. 213 – 270),
- as well as Antony, Athanasius (c. 296 - 2 May 373), the Cappadocian Fathers / Basil the Great (330–379) , Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335 – c. 395) Gregory of Nazianzus (329–389) /, and Jerome (c. 27 March 347 – 30 September 420).
The School of Alexandria proved to be an arena of free scholastic endeavour, defending the “catholic” faith in a “pagan” environment, offering the first attempts at a Christian systematic theology, and paving the way for ecumenical developments in the early church.
An ecumenical movement intended to unify the church and combat heresy was inaugurated by Constantine the Great with the Council of Nicaea (325):
At this and subsequent councils, “orthodox” teaching was defined for theological questions concerning the (triune) identity of God and the (divine and human) person of Christ.
Alexandria played a major role in the early councils, in which the teachings
- that the Son is homoousios (“of one being”) with the Father (championed by Athanasius, patriarch 326-373),
- that the incarnate Word is one Lord and one Son, and
- that Mary is therefore the Theotokos or “God bearer” (championed by Cyril, patriarch 412-444) were upheld.
Alexandrian authority appeared to have been cemented at the 2nd Council of Ephesus (449) - dismissed as a “Robber Council” by Rome - which was dominated by Cyril’s nephew, Pope Dioscorus I of Alexandria (patriarch 444-454).
However, a change of Emperors and an alliance of the sees of Rome and Constantinople challenged the Alexandrian ecclesiastical hegemony:
The new, pro-Western emperor Marcion called a Council in Chalcedon in 451, which promptly condemned Dioscorus (although not on doctrinal grounds), who was consequently deposed and exiled.
Henceforth, the place of the Coptic Church in the Christian world was curtailed. 2 parallel lines of succession to Mark the Evangelist gradually came into existence:
1) One, allied to the Byzantines (and eventually labelled Melkite), accepted the “two nature” formula of the Council of Chalcedon for describing the divine and human Christ;
2) the other, which gained strong local support, held to Cyril’s “one nature of the incarnate Word” formula, a position called monophysite by its opponents.
Though several social and economic factors must have played a role in accelerating the withdrawal of Egyptian Christians to the desert,
it remains true that early monasticism was principally a movement of piety that, in its earliest stages, was practiced close to home by “village anchorites.”
Early Christian imagination was captured, however, by the figure of Antony (c. 250-356), who fled to the solitude of the eastern desert from his native village on the Nile after hearing Matthew 19:21:
“Jesus said to him, ‘If you wilt to be perfect,
go, sell what you possess and give to the poor,
and you will have treasure in heaven;
and come, follow me.”.
Others followed Antony’s example and a monastic colony arose around his cave in the Red Sea Mountains. There they practiced a life of austerity, prayer, and meditation on scripture.
Although committed to solitude, they found it spiritually profitable to be within sight of their great mentor for guidance, and advantageous in a variety of ways to be within reach of other brothers.
These circumstances led to the development of a form of monastic life that may be called communal eremitism.
This form of monastic life is familiar from many of the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (including such giants as Macarius the Great), many of whom inhabited the monastic centres of Nitria, Kellia, and Scetis (present-day Wādī al-Natrūn), to the west of the Nile Delta.
Another form of monastic life, the cenobitic, is associated with the name of Pachomius (d. 346):
Originally a pagan legionary, he was inspired by the goodness of Christian villagers who ministered to the needs of the soldiers and was baptized a Christian.
After spiritual training by a desert ascetic, Pachomius developed a community and subsequently an original rule:
The rule prescribed a carefully regulated communal life and stressed productive labour in addition to the study of scripture, prayer, meditation, and discussion.
Pachomian monasteries multiplied rapidly during their founder’s life, including foundations for women as well as men, and attracting persons from afar.
The holy men and women of Egypt came to be a source of inspiration throughout the Christian world. Athanasius wrote the Life of Antony, which provided a new model of holiness for the world.
Visitors to the monks in the late 4th century included
- Rufinus of Aquileia (344–411), who made a Latin translation of the History of the Monks in Egypt,
- Melania the Elder (ca. 350-410/417), a great monastic leader and “female man of God;”
- Palladius of Galatia (b. 363 died 420–430), who compiled the lives of the Desert Fathers in The Lausiac History;
- Saint John Cassian (c. 360 – 435), who wrote the Institutes and the Conferences in order to bring Egyptian monasticism to Gaul;
- and Jerome (347–420), who translated the Rule of Pachomius into Latin.
Those who brought the way of life of the Egyptian monks to their homelands may be regarded as unchartered ambassadors of early Egyptian Christianity, but, further, Egyptian Christians themselves were active in an extensive missionary enterprise:
The sphere of influence of the Patriarch of Alexandria came to include the easternmost part of Libya (the Pentapolis), Nubia, and Ethiopia.
The influence of Egyptian Christianity on Nubia, in the upper reaches of the Nile, is confirmed by archaeological excavations.
While the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (r. 527-565) aimed at winning the northern Nubian kingdom of Nobatia to the Chalcedonian cause,
Egyptian anti-Chalcedonians, with the support of the empress Theodora, were able to arrive in the Nobatian capital before the Chalcedonian delegation, and won the Nobatian king for the “one nature” Christian confession.
The conversion of the kingdom of Ethiopia took place in the 4th century:
2 Syrian Christian brothers, shipwrecked on their way to India, were taken into the household of the Ethiopian monarch:
One of them, Frumentius (died circa 383), was eventually ordained bishop by Athanasius himself, beginning a long association of the Ethiopian Church with the See of Saint Mark.
Isolated cases provide instances of Egyptian missionary work in Asia:
As mentioned earlier, Pantaenus (died c. 200) is said to have preached the gospel in India.
Eugenius of Clysma also known as Mar Awgin (died 363 AD), according to legend, had been a Pachomian monk before he became the founder of monasticism in Mesopotamia.
In Europe, the ideals of the Egyptian desert ruled in the monasteries of southern Gaul and elsewhere, and spread widely: sea, forest, and swampland often played the role of “desert.”
A popular story concerning Egyptian Christians in present-day Switzerland is that of the Theban Legion, a group of Christian legionaries from Egypt led by Saint Maurice (b. in Thebes, Egypt, died 287 in Switzerland):
They were martyred by Maximian (286-305) for refusing to sacrifice to Roman deities and for refusing to kill Christian converts.
Verena, a saintly woman who had accompanied the legion, is commemorated for healing the sick and baptizing new converts in the region of Zurich.
3 martyred saints who were baptized in defiance of imperial command are the subject of the coat of arms of the city of Zurich.
In late antiquity Egypt boasted one of the great Christian pilgrimage centres of the Mediterranean world, the shrine of the Egyptian martyr Saint Menas (285 – c. 309, southeast of Alexandria). Earthenware ampulla bearing the image of the saint have been discovered throughout Europe, bearing witness to the great number of European visitors who flocked to his shrine, especially in the 5-6th centuries.
The Council of Chalcedon in 451, with its condemnation of the Alexandrian Patriarch Dioscorus
and with its dyophysite (“2 nature”) interpretation of Cyril’s Christological legacy contrary to the miaphysite (“one nature”) interpretation of many of Cyril’s most ardent supporters,
- led to the cleavage of Christendom into 2 divergent camps.
To this day, Chalcedon is bitterly remembered by the Copts of Egypt, as well as by others (the Syrian, Ethiopian, and Armenian Orthodox).
The outcome of Chalcedon was immediately felt in Egypt:
the Byzantine Emperors who aimed at unity within the Church as the primary bearer of cohesion in the Empire attempted to impose that unity through imperial sanction and military support of pro-Chalcedonian patriarchs.
In opposition to this, the majority of Egyptian bishops remained faithful to the anti-Chalcedonian position of Dioscorus and elected patriarchs accordingly, although these patriarchs seldom led an untroubled existence:
- Pope Timothy II (“the Cat”) spent much of his tenure (457-477) in exile,
- while his successor Peter Mongus (477-490) spent years in hiding until an imperially promulgated doctrinal compromise (the Henoticon of Zeno, 482) allowed him to surface.
In the next century, under the pro-Chalcedonian emperor Justinian, the anti-Chalcedonian patriarch Theodosius spent long years (537-566) in exile in Constantinople.
On the other hand, Coptic tradition recalls that his contemporary, the pro-Chalcedonian patriarch Apollinaris (551-570), began his patriarchate by revealing the priestly robes under his military uniform.
The early 7th century was a period of great disruption in the life of the Egyptian Church:
a period of Persian occupation (616-629) was followed by Byzantine recovery and the reassertion of coercive pro-Chalcedonian policies in Egypt by the emperor Heraclius, who appointed Cyrus, a bishop from the Caucasus, as Chalcedonian patriarch (631-642).
For 10 years his anti-Chalcedonian rival Benjamin (patriarch 622-662) was a fugitive within Egypt, moving from monastery to monastery.
With the Arab conquest of Egypt in the early 640s, however, a new era began for Egyptian Christians (who were called al-Qibt (Copts) by the Arabs):
The Arab Muslims promised significant religious freedoms to the “People of the Book,” that is, to Christians and Jews, in exchange for acceptance of Arab Muslim rule and the payment of the poll tax or jizyah.
In fact, after the fall of Alexandria, the conquerors offered the fugitive Coptic patriarch Benjamin honourable safe-conduct and possession of churches hitherto held by the Chalcedonians:
the frequently retold story of the friendly meeting between Benjamin and the Muslim general and governor Amr ibn al-Āṣ (c. 585-664) is foundational to the modern Egyptian discourse of al-waḥdah al-waṭaniyyah, “national unity” or good relations between Muslims and Copts.
Muslim rule created a new barrier between the Christians of the “East” and those of the “West”:
for Byzantine Christians, or those of the Latin West, the Coptic church (and its Christological teachings) now fell on the other side of the border and largely out of mind.
Within the Islamic Empire or Dar aI-IsIām, Christians had to adjust to what turned out to be not a temporary incursion like that of the Persians, but a new Islamic world order.
Coptic civil servants carried on in their work for new superiors, while church leaders learned new forms of interaction with Muslim governors (and their demands for revenue).
The monasteries became more important than ever as centres of Coptic identity and spiritual power, even as Christianity in Alexandria and in the Delta, in particular, began a long period of decline.
Periodic Coptic revolts in the Delta (between 725 and 831) failed, and with their failure the Islamization of the region accelerated.
In the mid-9th century, pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Menas effectively came to an end (as did the revenues it brought the bishop in Alexandria).
In the 10th century, the patriarchal residence was displaced from the city of Alexandria to the Delta.
The Shī'ī Fāṭimid dynasty (969-1171) appears to have ushered in a period of stabilization and recovery for the Copts:
Coptic civil servants enjoyed high positions in the Fāṭimid administration and Coptic craftsmen flourished. The patriarchal residence was eventually established in churches near the Fāṭimids’ new city of al-Qāhirah (Cairo).
At the end of the 10th century, bishop (and former civil servant) Sāwīrus ibn al-Muqaffa became the 1st Coptic theologian to write extensively in the Arabic language,
while in the late 11th century both clergy (including patriarchs Christodoulos and Cyril II) and leading laymen (such as Mawhūb ibn Manṣūr ibn Mufarrij)
contributed to a project of translation of fundamental documents, including the accounts that became the History of the Patriarchs (a primary source for Egyptian church history), from Coptic into Arabic.
The process of Arabization of the Copts (and their literature) continued through the 11-12th centuries, a period marked with difficulties from the chaos at the end of Fāṭimid rule, periodic drought and famine, and Crusader incursions.
At the beginning of the 13th century there was a nearly 20-year vacancy in the patriarchate (1216-1235).
These factors make all the more remarkable the cultural flowering that took place within the Coptic community at that time,
in which the patronage of wealthy Copts, a revival of patristic tradition, cross-fertilization by outside Christian traditions available in Arabic,
and the extraordinary theological, artistic, and scientific talents of clergy (such as Bishop Paul of al-Būsh) and laity (such as the renowned Ibn al-Assāl brothers) came together to usher in a golden age of Copto-Arabic theology, history, and philology,
as well as a period of great accomplishment in art (gloriously on display in the recently restored wall paintings in the Monastery of Saint Antony, in the eastern desert near the Red Sea).
The Mamluk era (1250-1517 CE) was difficult for the Copts:
Coptic administrators were indispensable but resented, and Copts were frequently the victims of excessive taxation, discriminatory legislation, or even mob violence (especially in 1321 and 1354) in which churches and monasteries were destroyed.
Many Copts converted to Islam.
In terms of literature, the brilliant creativity of the early 13th century gave way to compilations and encyclopaedias, and then to only the very occasional original work.
We have but short notices about the patriarchs of this era,
with the exception of the saintly Pope Matthew I the Poor (1378-1409), a burst of holiness in the midst of a precarious and sometimes chaotic existence.
The Mamluk era came to an end with the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517. Egypt became something of a political and cultural backwater under Ottoman administration.
However, the Coptic nobility gained influential administrative and financial positions close to the local decision-makers, and by the 18th century were able to provide patronage to numerous activities within the community
including the building and restoration of churches, the copying of manuscripts, and the painting of icons, with results that can be seen throughout the churches and monasteries of Egypt today.
The French expedition of 1798-1802 marks the beginning of intensive Egyptian contacts with the West.
Under the modernizing policies of Muhammad Alī (r. 1805-1848) and his successors, Copts came to be treated as full Egyptian citizens:
- in 1855 the jizyah was abolished (and soon Copts were for the first time conscripted into the Egyptian army), and in 1879 the full equality of all Egyptians was declared.
Pope Cyril IV (1854-1861), known as “the father of reform,” provided impetus to a Coptic “awakening” - one in which the Coptic laity played a major role - that led to the establishment of schools and a theological college, benevolent societies, and book production.
Competition from Protestants and Catholics (who established Coptic Evangelical and Coptic Catholic communities, with schools, hospitals, development agencies, and theological institutions) also challenged the Coptic Orthodox community to effective organization, teaching, and literary endeavour.
In the early 20th century, Copts could aspire to full participation in Egyptian social and political life:
Butrus Ghālī Pasha served as prime minister from 1908 to 1910, and the Copts openly aired their grievances at a Coptic Congress in 1911.
Copts participated with Muslims in the nationalist movement and (after World War I) the struggle for Independence and the development of democratic politics: 2 Copts were in the cabinet that nationalist hero and Wafd Party leader Saad Zaghloul formed in 1924.
The liberal experiment, with its hope of “the nation for all,” did not live up to its early promise:
Following the revolution of 1952 the position of the Copts was affected by reforms that cut into the Coptic elite’s landholdings, wealth, and dominance in certain professions.
The Copts’ sometimes precarious sense of national belonging was challenged by a revival of the politics of specifically Islamic identity in Egypt,
beginning with the remarkable growth of the Muslim Brotherhood (founded in 1928) and continuing throughout the century with demands for the implementation of the Islamic Sharī‘ah and the development of specifically Islamic institutions and forms of life.
Incidents of inter-communal violence increased in frequency in the 1970s and still flare up from time to time, while in the 1990s a militant Islamist insurrection in Middle Egypt sometimes claimed Coptic lives and property.
If the political road beyond the heady accomplishments of the nationalist movement was strewn with disappointments for the Copts, the community was energized by other developments:
A Coptic “Sunday School Movement” begun in the mid-1950s led to the rise of a cadre of remarkable leaders, many of whom (including Pope Shenouda III, who became pope in 1971) became monks and contributed to a monastic revival.
Pope Cyril VI (1959-1971) was a charismatic monk who has come to be revered as a saint and miracle worker.
Since the 1960s the number of monastic professions has soared, monasteries have been greatly expanded, deserted ones have been repopulated, and new ones - including convents for nuns - have been established.
Throughout the country, Coptic sacramental life, catechesis, artistic production, and charitable work have been enlivened. New bishoprics have been established, and totalled around 80 in Egypt and the Coptic diaspora in 2004 (up from 32 in 1977).
Bible studies (such as those regularly led by the Pope) and other educational opportunities draw great crowds,
while centres of scholarship and publication (such as the Orthodox Centre for Patristic Studies and the Saint Mark Foundation) are admired for their work both at home and abroad.
The role of the Egyptian Church in the ecumenical movement has been resumed, with active Coptic Orthodox membership in the World Council of Churches and the Middle East Council of Churches.
Beginning in 1973, joint Christological statements have been arranged with Chalcedonian Christians of Orthodox, Catholic, and Reformation backgrounds.
A very significant development of the late 20th century is the internationalization of the Coptic Church:
while Coptic emigration has posed the challenges of brain drain to the community in Egypt,
the church has moved vigorously to establish bishoprics and scores of congregations in Europe, the Americas, and Australia, while continuing missionary activity in sub-Saharan Africa.
In many cities around the globe, the Coptic Orthodox Church has become part of the local Christian mosaic.
The re-invigoration of Coptic identity in the 20th century in many ways reflects phenomena in the Muslim community:
As Christians and Muslims in Egypt increasingly find their identity in their specific religious traditions rather than in a sense of shared Egyptianness, the possibility of conflict remains;
a challenge for the 21st century will be the discovery of renewed content for the old slogan of al-waḥdah al-waṭaniyyah.
Egyptian Christians look to the future, however, with a remarkable record of survival, aided by several factors:
They have developed a profound spirituality, rooted in scripture and tradition, nourished by the stories of saints and martyrs, and given concreteness by sacred geography - the network of ancient churches and monasteries blessed by the saints and, indeed, by the holy family itself.
As the largest Christian community in the Middle East (with an estimated 7 million adherents), Copts are bearers of a torch that they are determined to hand on to posterity.