Armchair guide to Coptic religion

Egypt has begun to restore historic Coptic buildings in urban, rural and desert.  The completion of restoration work at the 1,600-year-old St Anthony’s Monastery, the world’s oldest Christian monastery (located in the Eastern Desert) was unveiled in early February this year by Zahi Hawass.  The 9-year project cost $14.5 million.  During the restoration the oldest known Coptic monk’s cell was discovered under St. Anthony’s Church,  dating to 400 AD.  The announcement of the restoration followed Egypt’s worst incident of sectarian violence in over 10 years when a shooting on a church on Orthodox Christmas Eve killed seven people.  Egypt has been criticized about its handling of the tensions between the Muslim majority and the Christian minority.  The restoration of the Coptic heritage is seen as one of the ways in which Egypt can perhaps address some of the grievances of the Egyptian Copts.

In the light of the recent articles about Coptic heritage management, I thought that it might be useful to provide a swift summary of Coptic history.  This is a ridiculous simplification of the history of the Coptic religion, but as I add articles about the occupation of desert areas by monastic Copts from the Graeco-Roman period onwards I thought it might be useful for some readers who aren’t familiar with the Coptic religion to have a bit of background, even one as sweeping with this!

The word Copt is an English word taken from the Arabic Qibt or Qypt, which simply means Egyptian.  The Egyptian Church was a part of mainstream Christianity until theological differences divided it from the Byzantine authorities.  The visit of the Holy Family is seen as a key event in the development of belief, because the 3 years  and 11 months that they spent in Egypt conferred on the country the status of Holy Land, and a number of points along the Nile are now places of pilgrimage. However, St Mark the Evangelist is usually given formal credit for establishing the Coptic Church during the 1st Century AD.  It is thought that St Mark was probably martyred during one of the phases of Roman persecution – one tradition says that he was killed by worshippers of Serapis.

The Coptic religion appears to have originated in Alexandria but it is unclear when it spread beyond Alexandria.  There is evidence that it reached the Faiyum depression by the 2nd Century, in the form of the Rylands Papyrus 457 (New Testament fragment) and it seems clear that it took off in the Nile at least by the beginning of the 4th Century.

After St Mark the first well known name in Coptic history is St Demetrius, Bishop of Alexandria 189-232.  Coptic religion spread under his influence with 3 bishoprics in the Nile Valley, and 20 under his successor Heracles.  A number of key figures formalized the Coptic religion within Christianity, and Alexandria became second only to Rome in terms of theological thinking and influence.  In 180 the School of Alexandria was established –  a community of teacher sand scholars that attracted a number of thinkers who later became famous.  Dionysious of Alexandria was one of these and was partially responsible for calculating the date of Easter.

During the 3rd century the rise of Christianity was seen as a threat by the Roman Empire and a series of persecutions began, with the worse early persecutions taking place under Septimus Severus in 202 and Decius and Valerian following him.  One response to threats in the third century by persecuted Christian individuals was to retreat into the desert lands to adopt one of two lifestyles – Hermitic or anchronitic.  Both established communal worship in settlements.  Fluctuations in their fate followed, with edicts for and against them.  The Edict of Milan issued by Constantine I in 313 ushered in a new era, permitting Christians to worship.

The best known of the early Coptic anchorites was St Anthony withdrew from society not to escape persecution but to lead a religious life consistent with his beliefs who became the first of the Desert Fathers.  He was impelled to return to a state of purity and to become closer to nature, denying possessions and acquisitive behaviour.  His period of withdrawal from solitude c.305 to teach and guide his disciples formed the foundations of anchoritic monasticism.  Young monks lived in a secluded but self contained monastery with an older role model to guide them.  Unlike St Antony, St Paul did withdraw to the Eastern Desert in response to the Decian persecutions but took up the life of solitary contemplation when he did so.

There were two forms of monasticism – Anchortic and Cenobitic.  Anchoritic monasteries all worked to a formula.  Each had an senior person to guide others, each had a church (later more than one), and as they were self-sufficient they required workshops, refectories, a well and walls and fortifications.  Fortifications were required to prevent, or at lest deter, the desert-living bedouin who regarded all other desert occupants and travellers as fair game.  In the 320s and 330s other monasteries were established in the Wadi Natrun and Nitria, which became famous.  Some were established near urban areas to enable monks to sell produce. Some were located in former Pharaonic settlements.  They were successful enough to survive the Arab conquest.

Cenobitic monasticism was established by Pachonius who was a pagan from Esna who converted to Christianity whilst in the army, which he joined in 312. He began as an anchorite but then established a community at Tabennisi which focused on routine, rules, communal activities, and sought to balance hard work with prayer and solitude with communal work. There was great emphasis on helping the needy. 9 monasteries were established for men and 2 for women (one of which was run by his sister).  It was very successful, with 1000s of monks by the year 400, but it was not to survive the Arab conquest.

Theological issues began to ruffle feathers in all camps in the early 4th century.  In the fourth century the Bishop of Alexandria, Alexander and the theologian Arius disagreed over the nature of Jesus Christ.  Alexander though that Christ was both human and divine (Christ as Logos) with the two co-existant whereas Arius thought that Christ was created by God but not equal with him, and that the view held by Alexander meant that there was more than one god.  The argument didn’t go away even after a council ruling against Arius.

After his death, Alexander’s deputy Athanasius became bishop and took up the cause, preaching that God was fully one with Christ (cosubstantial).  This was opposed by Asian bishops who saw the two natures of Christ as separated.  The Nicene Orthodoxy which he supported was rubber stamped by a council in 381, which further stated that the Holy Trinity was formed of a single entity, but three persons.  Patriarch Cyril and the Patriarch of Constantinople Nastarius disputed the nature of Mary.  Nestarius refused to refer to Mary as the Mother of God on the grounds that this caused confusion about the divine nature of Christ.  Cyril supported the term because he felt that Christ’s human nature could not be separated from his divinity. Eventually the Council of Chalcedon ruled that there were two sides to Christ, a fact that was denied by some of the Egyptian Copts who were termed Monophysites. No absolute resolution was ever reached, and Copts were again persecuted but this time by other Christian factions.

Christianity became the Eastern Roman Empire state religion in 391. The tables were turned for the pagans in 391 when Theodosius I outlawed paganism.  Unfortunately, the Christians behaved much as the pagans had before them.  The temple of Serapis in Alexandria was destroyed, pagans were persecuted and lynched and the Jews were expelled in 412.  Patriarch Cyril became very powerful.  The Church was organized into episcopates which were in turn divided into dioceses and parishes, with the bishops in charge recruited from wealthy families.  Recruitment from monasteries more or less established celibacy for bishops by stealth.

The Arab invasion was not resisted by Copts because the Islamic invaders gave Copts the freedom to practise their religion.  There were mixed fortunes under Islam for the Copts, with periods of stability and persecution. One of the more subtle persecutions involved a tax called the djazaa which was obligatory only for non-muslims, and on which the state budget depended. During times of drought, many Copts were forced to convert to Islam

The language of the Copts was demotic. It is written using mostly the Greek alphabet and is still used in their Church liturgy.  It is probably best known amongst those interested in Ancient Egypt as being present on the Rosetta stone.  By the 15th century, due to persecution and restrictions, it had ceased to be used as a spoken language.

St Anthony's


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