Featured photo: Popko van Meekeren, a Coptic cross pendant.
Author: Cornelis Hulsman
The word Coptic comes from the Greek word for Egypt: Aegyptos. Thus Coptic means Egyptian. The Coptic Orthodox Church traces its history to the preaching of St. Mark in Alexandria in the first century AD. At this time, Egypt was a province of the Roman Empire.
The land of Egypt plays a major role in the Bible. After Israel, it is mentioned more than any other country. Egypt is the country in which the Hebrew patriarchs Abraham and Jacob found refuge when drought forced them to flee their homeland. The book of Genesis records Jacob’s son Joseph rising from slavery to become the second man after Pharaoh. The Israelites grew in number in the land of Goshen, in the eastern part of the Nile Delta. Their increase in numbers caused fear and they were subsequently oppressed by the ruling Egyptian dynasty. They built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh (Exodus 1: 11). The ruins of these cities can still be seen today.
The Egyptian Museum hosts the stele of Pharaoh Merneptah who ruled Egypt between 1213 to 1203 BC. The stele provides the first written record of the people of Israel outside of the Bible. 1 Kings 14:25-26 mentions that king Shishak attacked Jerusalem and seized the treasures of the Lord’s temple and the royal palace. Shishak in the Bible is identified with pharaoh Shoshenq 1. His tomb is found in Tanis, in the land of Goshen, and many of his treasures can be seen in the Egyptian Museum. Many know this story from the well-known Indiana Jones’ film Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).
Israel’s prophets chronicle the Babylonian conquests in the sixth century BC. The prophet Jeremiah found refuge in Egypt when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians and the Israelites were taken into captivity. The prophet Ezekiel writes in chapter 30 about the fall of Pelusium, Thebes, Memphis, Heliopolis and Bubastis, all major Egyptian cities, at the hand of the Babylonians.
The prophet Isaiah speaks about the great upheaval caused by the shifts of power in his day: the might of Pharaonic Egypt was in decline while that of the Babylonians and later Assyrians and Persians was growing. Isaiah, however, not only speaks of gloom and destruction but proclaims a message of hope. While his fellow Israelites believed that there was no more hope, Isaiah told them to have hope. The prophecy of the Tree of Jesse, son of David, mentioned in Isaiah, refers to the end of the Kingdom of Judah in 586 BC and the continuation of the royal lineage with the promise that one day a greater king would be born. Jesus was this greater king.
In line with this tradition, Coptic monk Father Philoxenos el-Muharaqi traces the history of the church in Egypt to the prophecy of Isaiah about Egypt (Isaiah ch. 19) which prophesied around 600 BC about the coming of Jesus to Egypt (verse 1 speaks about the Lord coming to Egypt). This is the only Church whose foundation is prophesied in any prophetic writing. In verse 19, the prophesy speaks about an altar in the middle of Egypt which refers to the Church in Egypt and in verses 23-25 the prophesy speaks about peace between Egypt, Israel and Assyria.
In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The Assyrians will go to Egypt and the Egyptians to Assyria. The Egyptians and Assyrians will worship together. In that day Israel will be the third, along with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing[b] on the earth. The Lord Almighty will bless them, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance.
The Gospel of Matthew refers to the flight of Jesus, Joseph and Mary to Egypt and states that Jesus’ stay in Egypt was the fulfillment of the prophecy of Hosea (11:1) “out of Egypt I called my son.”
out of Egypt I called my son.
Egypt is thus a Biblical country of great importance with an active Church that helps one reflect on the significance of Egypt’s Biblical history.
Persecution and perseverance
During the first centuries of Christianity in Egypt, Christians suffered periodic persecutions by Roman Emperors and/or their appointed governors. St. Mark and many thousands of Christians have died for their faith over the first centuries of the Christian era. The Coptic Orthodox Church is therefore known as the church of the martyrs. Many of the saints revered in the church today, such as Dimyana, Mina and others, were actually martyrs in these first centuries. It was customary in the days of the Roman Emperors that the calendar started with year 1 of a particular emperor. Coptic Christians start their calendar with year 1 of Emperor Diocletian who ruled the empire between 284 to 305 AD and call this year Anno Martyrum. One sees the calendrical reference “Anno Martyrum” on many altar screens, books and objects.
The Church in Egypt grew in spite of persecutions. Alexandria had become a major city for Christian learning. Christian thinkers such as Clement, Didymus and Origen played a major role in the formation of the school of Alexandria that developed its own theology. These were Christian thinkers who challenged the dominating beliefs in their days.
The Roman Empire was not able to destroy the Church. Instead, the Roman Empire was Christianized. In 306 AD Constantine the Great became emperor and moved the capital from Rome to Byzantium. For this reason the Empire also became known as Byzantine Empire.
Constantine’s mother Helena was Christian. Before Constantine came to power he was engaged in a civil war with his opponents. He allied himself with the Christian minority of his empire and after he had overcome his enemies he gave Christians freedoms that they never had before. He also called for the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD that aimed at unifying all Christians. The Egyptian Church played a major role at this council. The towering theologian from Egypt at the time was Athanasius who had a major influence on the formation of the Christian creed.
Athanasius had a major influence on the Christian creed.
The Council of Chalcedon of 451 AD split the Church over the discussion about the nature of Jesus Christ. Who is he? Son of God? What is meant by the title ‘Son of God?’ Or was he a human, albeit a remarkable human being? The great schism caused ongoing fights in the church. The Coptic Orthodox Church turned from the leading church into a church persecuted in the Byzantine Empire.
In the seventh century AD the prophet Mohammed preached that Jesus was the most important prophet humanity had witnessed. Christians during the first generation of Muslims thought they were dealing with Arians, a group in Christianity that also believed Jesus was fully human.
The history of the Church under Islam is one of the periods of great persecution. However, under the Fatimids and Ayyubids (909-1260), Christianity flourished. During the rule of Muhammad Ali (1805-1849) discriminatory laws against Christians were abolished and Protestant and Catholic missionaries entered the country resulting in the beginnings of the Protestant and Catholic churches in Egypt.*
Since the late 1990s the Egyptian government has made great efforts to stimulate Christian tourism to Egypt. There are numerous activities focused on Muslim-Christian dialogue.
With its impressive history, Egypt is a great country with much to learn concerning its role in the Bible, the beginnings of Christianity, early Christian martyrs , and contemporary Muslim-Christian relations. The hospitality and friendliness of the Egyptians is truly impressive. The Coptic Orthodox Church is a very traditional church that helps one better understand early Christianity. Ancient monasteries for both male and female monastics, the oldest of which date back to the 4th centuries are open for visitors. A pilgrimage to Egypt can thus be an extremely enriching experience, both for Christian believers as well as for those who want to experience a vibrant ancient Christian culture.
* Read more about the history of Christians under Islam in Cornelis Hulsman and Ramez Atallah (head of the Egyptian Bible Society) in Egypt – the Church under Pressure, in: Gravaas, H.G., Sauer.C., Engelsviken.T., Kamil,M. Jørgensen, K. (Eds), Freedom of Belief and Christian Mission (Regnum Edinburgh Centenary Series), Oxford, 2015.