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Coptic Egypt: background Information

The first centuries of Christianity

There are few sources of information on the beginning of Christianity in Egypt. According to tradition, Saint Mark brought the new faith to Egypt. There may have been a second missionary in the first century AD, named Apollos. Only from the time of the bishop Demetrius (AD 189-221/2) are there more substantial sources for Christianity. These early sources indicate that the new religion was beginning to flourish in Alexandria. A catechetical school was founded at about this time, and soon became an important centre of theological research. In the second century AD there seems to have been only one bishop in Egypt, at Alexandria. Later in his career Demetrius ordained three bishops, perhaps one for each of the Greek cities in the country (Alexandria, Naukratis, Ptolemais). Over the following century the numbers increased massively; in AD 320 bishop Alexander of Alexandria was able to assemble 100 bishops in a synod, and 94 Egyptian bishops are known to have attended the synod at Serdica (AD 342) . After AD 325 the archbishop of Alexandria also had authority over areas outside Egypt, in the province of Libya. Alexandria was always an important theological centre, sometimes even more important than the new Christian capital Constantinople. Disputes between these centres seem rooted more in their views of one another, than in the substance of their beliefs and expressions of belief; mutual suspicion seems to have been the main cause of the growing rifts between churches. In AD 451 at the council of Chalcedon the teaching of the archbishop Dioscorus was condemned as monophysite, and so heretical; according to the council, archbishop Dioscorus held the views of Eutyches, whose monophysite or "one nature" teaching maintained that Christ had a single nature, and was not simultaneously human and divine. This accusation was rejected by Dioscorus, and the Coptic Church does not consider itself monophysite in the manner portrayed at Chalcedon: the end of the Coptic liturgy declares that the two natures "human" and "divine" are united in one "without mingling, without confusion, without alteration". This makes the conflict around the Chalcedon council all the more regrettable. The result was a lasting schism: the patriarchy of Alexandria became separated from the official line of the Roman Empire and its Church. From this time there are two rival patriarchs at Alexandria: a monophysite patriarch and a dyophysite (or Melkite) patriarch. In AD 482 the emperor Zeno attempted to reconcile the two factions, but without success.


Persecution and establishment

Before Christianity became a state religion under Constantine, the Egyptian Christian community suffered heavy persecution. An important part of Roman state religion was the cult of the emperor. For Jews and Christians, who both believed in one god, this practice presented a problem. However, the Jews received special exemption: they did not need to join the ruler cult, for religious reasons. The Christians were first seen as Jews, but when they became a separate religious group, they did not receive the same status. In the third century AD persecution of the Christians grew particularly intense, for example under Septimius Severus in AD 201. In the reign of Decius in AD 249 there was the first persecution across the whole empire. Under Gallienus (AD 253-268) the persecutions were reversed by an edict, by which the Christians received their freedom. However, under Diocletian (AD 284-305) there was again in AD 300 heavy persecution, so intense that the Coptic Church dates its years not to the birth of Christ (BC-AD) but to the 'Era of Martyrs', starting from the first year of the reign of the persecuting emperor Diocletian. The oppression ended finally only on the 30th April 311, when an edict was released establishing Christianity as a permitted religion (religio licita).

Under Byzantine rule, the monophysite strand of Christianity was also subject to persecution, as the imperial authorities struggled to impose orthodoxy from Constantinople. The division between monophysite and orthodox Christianity has been seen as a major factor contributing to the defeat of Byzantine forces in Egypt and Syria in the mid-seventh century, at the Arab conquest of Egypt in AD 639-642.


Christian Egyptians in the Islamic Period

During most of the Islamic Period, Christian Egyptians formed the backbone of the country's administration and many, along with people of other faiths such as Jews, rose to ministerial positions. Like all non-Moslems they paid a special poll tax. At certain periods, and despite clear Islamic teachings on tolerance, they endured certain restrictions, often because of complaints over their undue influence. Their conversion to Islam was a long process: according to the geographer Al-Muqaddasi, Copts were still in the majority in the 10th century, almost four centuries after the Moslem annexation of Egypt. The European Crusades, instigated by Pope Urban II in 1095, must have had a particularly negative impact: the local Christian population probably sided most often with their Moslem compatriots, while some Moslems sided with the Frankish invaders. The Crusades may be one main reason why more Egyptian Christians converted to Islam. Nowadays about 10 % of Egyptians are Christians following different churches, mainly the Coptic Orthodox Church. Despite sporadic times of discord, as in the reign of the eccentric but brilliant Fatimid ruler al-Hakim, the story of the Copts in Egypt reflects a generally tolerant country by comparison with the fate of religious minorities in medieval and later Europe.


The Egyptian language in Byzantine and Islamic Egypt - Coptic

The main language in the eastern part of the Roman Empire was Greek, also used by the Egyptian Christians (Copts). Some Egyptians had started to write their own language using Greek letters (old Coptic) before the advent of Christianity; Coptic later became the principal script and language of Christian Egypt below the official Greek (then Arabic) level, and it remains alive today in the Coptic Church, for liturgical use. Greek was the state language used for administration and education, until replaced by Arabic at the end of the 7th century. In the first century after the Moslem annexation of Egypt, documents might be produced in three languages, Greek, Coptic and Arabic. Coptic enjoyed a revival under Islam: most of the Coptic books in collections today date to the Islamic Period. Contrary to the common perception that Coptic was only used for liturgy, there are many Coptic texts in medicine, mathematics, and alchemy. From the 11th century onwards, Arabic was used to write Christian material often side by side with Coptic, producing biligual texts which were instrumental in the process of the European decipherment of Egyptian language by Kircher and successors such as Champollion.

Further reading:

Gabra 2002: 11-18 (introduction)


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