This article will deal with the Coptic culture and its effect on Christians living in Egypt. “Copt” refers to the Egyptian Christians evangelised by St. Mark the Apostle in the first century AD. The word probably originates from the old Egyptian word Hwt-Ka-Ptah which means the “House of the God Ptah“. While the Greeks used Aigyptos for Egypt, the Copts used the Coptic term Kyptos.
Christianity was well established in Egypt by the end of the second century, although pockets of paganism continued to co-exist with the new Faith. By 190 AD, the Church of Alexandria was exchanging Paschal epistles with the Churches of Jerusalem and Antioch concerning Easter. Forty dioceses under the authority of Patriarch of Alexandria, in the country’s north, in the Delta area. By 202 AD, there were also Christians in the whole Thebaid, in Upper Egypt, 800 km up the Nile Valley. In his Festal letters, Saint Athanasius mentioned that there were also Christians in the small and large oases in the heart of the desert.
Church of Martyrs
Historians have named the Coptic Church the `Church of the Martyrs’ because of their significant number and desire for martyrdom. They did not hide in the catacombs when prevented from worship but worshipped openly. Many went from place to place, seeking the crown of martyrdom, not considering it as death but rather as entry into the new life.
Waves of Persecution
The first wave of persecution occurred in the first century when the Apostle Saint Mark suffered martyrdom in Alexandria by the pagan Egyptians. Commencing from 202 AD and continuing for seven years, the Coptic Church also suffered persecution under the reign of Septimus Severus. When he visited Egypt and found that Christianity had spread, he ordered the ruler to increase the persecution and prevent preaching at any cost. Consequently, the School of Alexandria was closed, and its dean, Saint Clement, was compelled to flee.
Roman Emperor Decus
During the reign of the Roman Emperor Decus, a proclamation was issued to re-establish the state religion by any means. In 257 and 258 AD, Emperor Valerian issued edicts to destroy the Church, leading to the arrest and exile of Pope Dionysius of Alexandria.
In 302 AD, the Roman Emperor Diocletian began his persecution of the Christians by dismissing every soldier from the army who refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods. On 23 February of the following year, he issued his famous edict against the Christians. He believed that if he could crush Christianity in Egypt, it would be easier to eliminate it from the rest of the world. Hence the persecution of the Christians in Egypt was more intense than in any other country; about 800,000 men, women and children were martyred in Egypt.
For this reason, the Coptic Church determined to start its calendar from the year of Diocletian’s accession to the throne in 248 AD, calling it the “Calendar of the Martyrs”.
Throughout these waves of persecution, many spiritual leaders devoted themselves to strengthening the martyrs and confessors, visiting them in prisons, accompanying them in their trials, and even to the place of execution. Some of them cared for, buried the saints’ bodies and wrote the biography of their hardships and martyrdom as eye-witnesses, calling their accounts’ The Acts of the Martyrs’.
Among the famous martyrs were Saint Mena the Wonderworker, Saint Reflca and her five children, Saint Catherine, and the Thebean Legion (numbering almost seven thousand soldiers) who refused to sacrifice led by Saint Maurice to the gods and were all martyred in Switzerland. The list of the martyrs of the Coptic Orthodox Church is endless.
In the fifth century, an archimandrite of a monastery near Constantinople named Eutyches began to spread a new heresy, denying the human nature of Christ, saying that His body was but an ethereal body which passed through the womb of the Virgin Saint Mary.
Second Council of Ephesus
Eutyches appealed to all the bishops of Christendom and Emperor Theodosius the Younger, resulting in the Second Council of Ephesus being held in 449 AD, attended by 130 bishops, under the presidency of Pope Dioscorus of Alexandria, together with Juvenal of Jerusalem and Domnus of Antioch. Subsequently, a local Council was convened by seven bishops, led by Flavianus, Bishop of Constantinople, and supported by the Tome (exposition of the Dogma) of Leo I, Bishop of Rome, which condemned Eutyches as a heretic. Eutyches submitted a full written confession, affirming the Nicene Creed, and was found to be Orthodox, thus was acquitted. Based on Leo’s Tome, the bishops who had passed a verdict on Eutyches were excommunicated. Later, however, Eutyches proclaimed his heresy once again, and this time he was condemned and excommunicated by a local Coptic council.
Council of Chalcedon
Two years later, in AD 451, another Council was convened by Emperor Marcianus at Chalcedon. This Council was characterised by political factors, shameful prejudices and conspiracies against the Church of Alexandria and its Patriarch, Pope Dioscorus.
Alexandria was merely a city under the rule of the Eastern Roman Empire whose capital was Constantinople; Rome was the capital of the Western Roman Empire. Nonetheless, the patriarchs and popes of Alexandria played a leading role in theology in the first centuries of Christianity.
At the Council of Chalcedon, the Coptic Church was misquoted, and its teachings were wrongly deemed Eutychian. The Patriarch of Alexandria was accused of being Eutychian. The reason, he had presided over the Second Council of Ephesus, which had absolved Eutyches. Although a later Coptic council had condemned the teachings of Eutyches, and despite the proved Orthodoxy of Pope Dioscorus who, in defending his Orthodox Faith, gave his famous analogy:
“f a piece of iron, heated to white heat, be struck on an anvil, and although the iron and the heat form an indivisible whole, it is the iron which receives the blows and not the white heat. This unity of the iron and the white heat is symbolic of our Saviour’s Incarnation, whose Divinity never parted from His Humanity, not even for a moment, nor the twinkling of an eye.
Though His Divinity parted not from His Humanity, their union was without mixing, fusion, or change, like the iron and white heat union. This unity is defined as ‘the One Nature of God the Logos Incarnate’ and is synonymous with Saint John’s saying, “The Word became flesh”. As for me, I steadfastly uphold the Faith of the Orthodox Church, the one, holy, Universal and Apostolic Church. Neither Eutyches nor any other person can make me swerve from this holy Faith”.
Procedures Versus the Egyptian Church
When Pope Dioscorus’ Orthodoxy could not be questioned, other accusations were raised, centring around material issues such as the question of preventing Egyptian corn from being sent to other parts of the Empire. Neither Pope Dioscorus nor the civil judges were present when the Council handed down the verdict deposing him. It was mainly for having excommunicated the bishop of Rome and not appearing at the Council session when summoned three times. Because of his Orthodoxy, Pope Dioscorus could neither be degraded of Ecclesiastic honour nor excommunicated. However, he was under house arrest at the time.
The Egyptian Church was labelled as ‘monophysite’ because of its emphasis upon the ‘One Nature of Christ’. Although this title was misinterpreted as covering either one of the Human or Divine natures of our Lord and ignoring the other, it is based on the assumption that the Coptic Fathers accepted the Eutychian view. In a later Council session, at which the Egyptian delegation was not present, the supremacy of the Church of Constantinople and Rome was granted to preside over the Church of Alexandria.
However, historical facts and the liturgy and doctrines of the Coptic Church prove the Orthodoxy of the Coptic Church until this day. Furthermore, it is now admitted by those who once accused the Coptic Church of being monophysite that it was a misunderstanding arising from a problem of semantics, the Coptic Church now being referred to as One Nature of God the Logos Incarnate.
Absence of the Representation
In the absence of the representation of the Church of Alexandria, the Council of Chalcedon passed statements concerning the two natures of Christ, and ecclesiastic laws, which have not been accepted, to this day, by the Coptic Orthodox Church and the other ancient Churches such as the Syrian Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolic, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Indian Orthodox Churches. Therefore, the Council of Chalcedon resulted in the first major schism of the undivided Christian Church. Today, however, most scholars have agreed that the unfortunate events and decisions at the Council of Chalcedon were based upon misunderstandings, a misinterpretation of terms and words rather than a question of Orthodoxy. Furthermore, the agreement has now been reached on the Nature of Christ.
However, the events of the Council were to have a long, far-reaching effect upon the Coptic Church, which suffered greatly at the hands of the Chalcedonian rulers. Furthermore, they remained isolated from the rest of the Christian World until the 20th century from this time onwards.
Exile of Pope Dioscorus
Pope Dioscorus was exiled to the island of Gangra, off the coast of Asia Minor, where he died. He led many to the Christian Faith during his exile and bought back numerous people to Orthodoxy. In his See in Alexandria, a Melkite (Greek) Patriarch was imposed but was not accepted by the people of Alexandria, who preferred to remain loyal to their exiled Patriarch. A wave of persecution arose in which an estimated 30,000 people lost their lives. The non-Chalcedonian Coptic Church continued to suffer persecution at the hands of the Byzantine rulers, and the rift within the Apostolic Churches widened.
For almost 150 years, under the rule of nine Byzantine emperors, Egypt experienced periods of fluctuating peace and oppression. However, after the death of Emperor Anastasius, an era of Byzantine persecution and oppression began, lasting for almost 120 years. During this period, patriarchs were banished, intruders were placed on the Patriarchal See, churches were destroyed, and people lost their lives and possessions. Emperor Justinian closed all the churches, placing guards on them, and continued persecution against the Coptic Church. As a result, Egypt was reduced to an impoverished state while the Byzantine world enjoyed luxury, freedom and wealth.
The Arab Conquest
When Islam entered Egypt, Pope Benjamin I, the 38th Patriarch, had been away from his throne for 13 years. Furthermore, another Patriarch was ordained and given all the churches to remove the `Monophysites’ Copts.
For the four centuries that followed the Arab conquest of Egypt, the Coptic Church generally flourished. At that time, Egypt remained predominantly Christian. Due to a large extent to the fortunate position that the Copts enjoyed, the Prophet of Islam preached an extraordinary kindness towards Copts.
The Copts, therefore, were allowed to practise Christianity freely, provided they continued to pay a special tax called Gezya’, that would qualify them as Ahl Zemma’ proteges (protected). Individuals who could not afford to pay the levy were faced with either converting to Islam or losing their civil right of military protection. In some instances, the new obligations meant being killed. Despite other costly laws imposed on them in 750-868 AD and 905-935 AD, the Copts prospered under the Abbasid Dynasties. By then, the Coptic Church enjoyed one of its most peaceful eras.
Throughout that period, the Coptic language remained the language of Egypt. Adopting the Arabic language as the everyday Egyptian language was so slow. Even in the 15th century, the Coptic language was still mainly used. It was not until the second half of the eleventh century that the first bilingual Coptic-Arabic liturgical manuscripts appeared. Up to this day, the Coptic language continues to be the liturgical language of the Church.
The Christian face of Egypt started to change by the beginning of the second millennium AD. It happened when the Copts, in addition to the `Gezya’ levy, suffered from specific limitations. Some of the regulations were serious and interfered with their freedom of worship. For example, there were restrictions on repairing old Churches and building new ones. These limitations extend to testifying in court, public conduct, adoption, inheritance, general religious activities, and even dress codes. Slowly but steadily, by the end of the 12th century, the face of Egypt changed from being a predominantly Christian to a predominantly Muslim country. The Coptic community occupied an inferior position and lived in expectation of Muslim hostility, which periodically flared into violence.
The position of the Copts began to improve early in the 19th century under the stability and tolerance of the Mohammed Ali dynasty. The Coptic community ceased to be regarded as an administrative unit by the state. In 1855 AD, the main mark of the Copt’s inferiority, namely the `Gezya’ tax, was lifted. Shortly after that, the Copts started to serve in the Egyptian army. The 1919 AD revolution in Egypt witnessed the harmony of Egypt’s modern society. Today, this harmony keeps the Egyptian community united against the religious intolerance of extremist groups, who inflict persecution, terror, and violence upon the Copts.
Despite persecution, the Coptic Church has never been controlled or allowed itself to control the governments of Egypt. This position of the Church concerning the separation between State and Religion stems from the words of our Lord Himself, Who says, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21 ). The Coptic Church has never forcefully resisted authorities or invaders and was never allied with any power, for the words of our Lord are clear: “Put your sword in its place, for all who take by the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).
Coptic art is the art of the indigenous people of Egypt after the tremendous Pharaonic civilisation. It stretches from the Greco-Roman period to the present day and covers all art forms, whether cultural, artistic or related to everyday life.
Coptic art is evidence of a new spirit that arose from ancient humanity. It is the link between Pharaonic, Greco-Roman and Islamic art. Despite Byzantine and Islamic influences, Coptic art attained a standard and originality which commanded attention and admiration.
Coptic art is pure, simple and beautiful, representing religious and daily life. It encompasses sculpture in stone and wood, ceramics and works in silver and gold. Every day, objects which by the perfection of their shape or decorative detail become in themselves works of art, such as tapestries woven from linen and wool. Thanks to the skill of second/third-century artisans, tapestries can be admired from both sides.
Frescoes and icons are highly representative of Coptic paintings of religious inspiration. The Copts were the first to use the Virgin Mary and the Infant Jesus images.
One feature of Coptic art is the simplicity with which the figures in painted icons and frescoes are portrayed. Eyes wide open, round cheekbones and a nose always take the same shape, with straight and circular lines. It is a form of art that inspires and evokes a sense of inner peace.
Customs and Tradions
The Coptic community has a comprehensive list of customs and traditions. Religious rituals and festivals form a big part of these customs and traditions. Baptism, marriage ceremony, praying, easter, New Year’s Eve, and death ceremony are among the main practises of Christians Copts.