Coptic history is the part of the history of Egypt that begins with the introduction of Christianity in Egypt in the 1st century AD during the Roman period and covers the history of the Copts to the present day. Many of the historical items related to Coptic Christianity are on display in many museums worldwide, and a large number is in the Coptic Museum in Coptic Cairo.
- Apostolic foundation
- Catechetical School
- Monasticism in Coptic History
- Edict of Milan
- Council of Nicea
- Council of Constantinople
- Council of Ephesus
- Council of Chalcedon
- Alexandrine Christology
- Arab Invasion of Egypt
- Arab-Muslim conquest of Egypt
- From the 19th century to the 1952 revolution
- Coptic Historians
Egypt is identified in the Bible as the place of refuge that the Holy Family sought in its flight from Judea: “When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod the Great, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt I called My Son” (Matthew 2:12-23).
The Egyptian Church, which is now more than nineteen centuries old, regards itself as the subject of many prophecies in the Old Testament. In Chapter 19, Verse 19, Isaiah the prophet says:
In that day there will be an altar to the LORD amid the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the LORD at its border.
The first Christians in Egypt were mainly Alexandrian Jews such as Theophilus, whom Saint Luke the Evangelist addresses in the introductory chapter of his gospel. When Saint Mark founded the Church of Alexandria during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero, many native Egyptians (as opposed to Greeks or Jews) embraced the Christian faith.
Christianity spread throughout Egypt within half a century of Saint Mark’s arrival in Alexandria. It is clear from the New Testament writings found in Bahnasa, in Middle Egypt, which date around the year 200 AD, and a fragment of the Gospel of John. The latter was written in Coptic, found in Upper Egypt and can be dated to the first half of the 2nd century. In the 2nd century, Christianity began to spread to the rural areas, and scriptures were translated into the local language, namely Coptic.
The Catechetical School of Alexandria is the oldest catechetical school in the world. St. Jerome records that St. Mark himself founded the Christian School of Alexandria. Around 190 AD, under the scholar Pantanaeus, the school of Alexandria became an important institution of religious learning. Students were taught by scholars such as Athenagoras, Clement, Didymus, and the native Egyptian Origen, who was considered the father of theology and was also active in commentary and comparative Biblical studies. Origen wrote over 6,000 comments on the Bible in addition to his famous Hexapla.
Many scholars such as Jerome visited the school of Alexandria to exchange ideas and to communicate directly with its scholars. The scope of this school was not limited to theological subjects; but to science, mathematics and humanities were as well. The question-and-answer method of commentary began there, and 15 centuries before Braille, wood-carving techniques were used by blind scholars to read and write.
Monasticism in Coptic History
Many Egyptian Christians went to the desert during the 3rd century and remained there to pray and work and dedicate their lives to seclusion and worship of God. It was the beginning of the monastic movement, organised by Anthony the Great, Saint Paul, the world’s first anchorite, Saint Macarius the Great and Saint Pachomius the Cenobite in the 4th century.
Christian Monasticism was born in Egypt and was instrumental in forming the Coptic Orthodox Church character of submission, simplicity and humility, thanks to the teachings and writings of the Great Fathers of Egypt’s Deserts. By the end of the 5th century, hundreds of monasteries and thousands of cells and caves were scattered throughout the Egyptian desert. Nowadays, many of these monasteries are still flourishing and have new vocations to this day.
All Christian monasticism stems, either directly or indirectly, from the Egyptian example: Saint Basil the Great Archbishop of Caesaria of Cappadocia, founder and organiser of the monastic movement in Asia Minor, visited Egypt around 357 AD, and the Eastern Orthodox Churches followed his rule; Saint Jerome who translated the Bible into Latin, came to Egypt, while en route to Jerusalem, around 400 AD and left details of his experiences in his letters; Benedict founded the Benedictine Order in the 6th century on the model of Saint Pachomius but in a stricter form. Countless pilgrims have visited the “Desert Fathers” to emulate their spiritual, disciplined lives.
An embroidered tapestry fragment was found in a Coptic tomb in Upper Egypt. Two thread types were used, but only the white linen threads have survived, and the red woollen threads have deteriorated.
Edict of Milan
The Edict of Milan issued by the Roman Emperor Constantine I 313 A. D. marked an end of anti-Christianity; afterwards, Constantine made Christianity legal, which may have led to the decline of many Pagan practices, including mummification in Egypt.
Council of Nicea
In the 4th century, an Alexandrian presbyter named Arius began a theological dispute about the nature of Christ that spread throughout the Christian world and is now known as Arianism (not to be confused with the Nazi ideology Aryanism). The Ecumenical Council of Nicea 325 AD was convened by Constantine under the presidency of Saint Hosius of Cordova and Saint Alexander of Alexandria to resolve the dispute and eventually led to the formulation of the Symbol of Faith, also known as the Nicene Creed. The Creed, Creedh is now recited throughout the Christian world, was mainly based on the teaching put forth by a man who eventually would become Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, the chief opponent of Arius.
Council of Constantinople
In the year 381 AD, Saint Timothy I of Alexandria presided over the second ecumenical council known as the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople, which completed the Nicene Creed with this confirmation of the divinity of the Holy Spirit:
“We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the father, who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified who spoke by the Prophets and in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. We confess one Baptism for the remission of sins, and we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the coming age, Amen.”
Council of Ephesus
Another theological dispute in the 5th century occurred over the teachings of Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople who taught that God the Logos was not hypostatically joined with human nature but rather dwelt in the man Jesus. As a consequence of this, he denied the title “Mother of God” (Theotokos) to the Virgin Mary, declaring her instead to be “Mother of Christ” Christotokos.
When reports of this reached the Apostolic Throne of Saint Mark, Pope Saint Cyril I of Alexandria acted quickly to correct this breach with orthodoxy, requesting that Nestorius repent. The Synod of Alexandria met in an emergency session when he would not, and a unanimous agreement was reached. Pope Cyril I of Alexandria, supported by the entire See, sent a letter to Nestorius known as “The Third Epistle of Saint Cyril to Nestorius.” This epistle drew heavily on the established Patristic Constitutions and contained the most famous article of Alexandrian Orthodoxy: “The Twelve Anathemas of Saint Cyril.” In these anathemas, Cyril excommunicated anyone who followed the teachings of Nestorius. For example, “Anyone who dares to deny the Holy Virgin the title Theotokos is Anathema!” However, Nestorius still would not repent, which led to the convening of the First Ecumenical Council of Ephesus (431), over which Cyril I of Alexandria presided.
The First Ecumenical Council of Ephesus confirmed the teachings of Saint Athanasius and secured the title of Mary as “Mother of God”. It also clearly stated that anyone who divided Christ into two hypostases was anathema, as Cyril had said that there is “One Nature [and One Hypostasis] for God the Word Incarnate” (Mia Physis tou Theou Logou Sesarkōmenē). Also, the introduction to the creed Creedormulated as follows:
“We magnify you O Mother of the True Light, and we glorify you O saint and Mother of God (Theotokos), for you have borne unto us the Saviour of the world. Glory to you O our Master and King: Christ, the pride of the Apostles, the crown of the martyrs, the rejoicing of the righteous, firmness of the churches and the forgiveness of sins. We proclaim the Holy Trinity in One Godhead: we worship Him, we glorify Him, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord bless us, Amen.”
Council of Chalcedon
When in 451, Emperor Marcianus attempted to heal divisions in the Church, the response of Pope Dioscorus – the Pope of Alexandria who was later exiled – was that the emperor should not intervene in the affairs of the Church. At Chalcedon, the emperor, through the Imperial delegates, enforced harsh disciplinary measures against Pope Dioscorus in response to his boldness.
From the perspective of the Alexandrine Christology, the Council of Chalcedon has deviated from the approved Cyrillian terminology and declared that Christ was one hypostasis in two natures. However, in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, “Christ was conceived of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,” Thus the foundation of the definition according to the Non-Chalcedonian adherents, according to the Christology of Cyril of Alexandria is valid.
In terms of Christology, the Oriental Orthodox (Non-Chalcedonians) understanding is that Christ is “One Nature—the Logos Incarnate,” of the entire humanity and divinity. The Chalcedonians understand that Christ is recognised in two natures, full humanity and full divinity. Oriental Orthodoxy contends that such a formulation is different from what the Nestorians teach. The doctrinal perception makes the apparent difference that separated the Oriental Orthodox from the Eastern Orthodox.
The council’s findings were rejected by many Christians on the Byzantine Empire’s fringes, including Egyptians, Syrians, Armenians, and others.
From that point onward, Alexandria would have two patriarchs: the non-Chalcedonian native Egyptian one, now known as the Coptic Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa on the Holy Apostolic See of St. Mark and the “Melkite” or Imperial Patriarch, now known as the Greek Orthodox Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa.
Almost the entire Egyptian population rejected the terms of the Council of Chalcedon and remained faithful to the native Egyptian Church (now known as the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria). Those who supported the Chalcedonian definition remained in communion with the other leading churches of Rome and Constantinople. The non-Chalcedonian party became what today called the Oriental Orthodox Church is.
The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria regards itself as being misunderstood at the Council of Chalcedon. There was an opinion in the Church that perhaps the council understood the Church of Alexandria correctly. However, it wanted to curtail the existing power of the Alexandrine Hierarch. Especially after the events that happened several years before at Constantinople from Pope Theophilus of Alexandria towards Patriarch John Chrysostom. Also, for the unfortunate turnouts of the Second Council of Ephesus in 449 AD, where Eutychus misled Pope Dioscoros and the council in confessing the Orthodox Faith in writing and then renouncing it after the council. In turn, it had upset Rome, especially that the Tome which was sent was not read during the Council sessions.
Even to make things worse, the Tome of Pope Leo of Rome was considered influenced by Nestorian heretical teachings, according to the Alexandria School of Theology, particularly regarding the definition of Christology. So, due to those mentioned above, especially in the consecutive sequences of events, the Hierarchs of Alexandria were considered holding too much power from one hand. On the other hand, due to the conflict of the Schools of Theology, an impasse was to be, and there was a scapegoat, i.e. Pope Disocoros.
By anathematising Pope Leo, because of the tone and content of his Tome, as per Alexandrine Theology perception, Pope Discoros was found guilty of doing so without due process. In other words, the Tome of Leo was not a subject of heresy in the first place, but it was a question of questioning the reasons behind not having it either acknowledged or read at the Second Council of Ephesus in 449 AD. It is important to note that Pope Dioscorus of Alexandria was never labelled as a heretic by the council’s canons.
Copts also believe that the Pope of Alexandria was forcibly prevented from attending the third congregation of the council from which he was ousted, apparently the result of a conspiracy tailored by the Roman delegates.
Before the current optimistic era of Eastern and Oriental Orthodox dialogues, Chalcedonians sometimes used to call the non-Chalcedonians “monophysites”. However, in reality, the Coptic Orthodox Church regards monophysitism as heresy. The Chalcedonian doctrine, in turn, came to be known as “Dyophysite”.
The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria believes that Christ is perfect in His divinity, and He is perfect in His humanity. Still, His divinity and His humanity were united in one nature called “the nature of the incarnate word”, which was reiterated by Saint Cyril of Alexandria. A term that comes closer to Coptic Orthodoxy is miaphysite, which refers to a conjoined nature for Christ, both human and divine, united indivisibly in the Incarnate Logos.
Copts, thus, believe in two natures, “human” and “divine”, that are united in one hypostasis “without mingling, without confusion, and alteration”. These two natures “did not separate for a moment or the twinkling of an eye” (Coptic Liturgy of Saint Basil of Caesarea).
Arab Invasion of Egypt
The Coptic history mentions that the Coptic Christians suffered under the rule of the Byzantine Eastern Roman Empire. The Melkite Patriarchs, appointed by the emperors as spiritual leaders and civil governors, massacred the Egyptian population they considered heretics. Many Egyptians were tortured and martyred to accept the terms of Chalcedon, but Egyptians remained loyal to the faith of their fathers and the Cyrillian view of Christology. One of the most renowned Egyptian saints of that period is Saint Samuel the Confessor.
Arab-Muslim conquest of Egypt
The Arab Muslim conquest of Egypt took place in 639. Despite the political upheaval, historians estimate that most Egyptian population remained Christian until somewhere between the 9th century and the middle of the 14th century.
There were significant persecutions during and following the Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (reigned 996–1021), and Copts were massacred during the authority of the Mamluks. Acceptance of Arabic as a liturgical language occurred under Pope of Alexandria Gabriel ibn-Turaik.
During Islamic rule, the Copts were required to pay a special tax, called the jizya, in return for defence from the Caliphate, as non-Muslims were not allowed to serve in the army. The payment of the jizya tax also meant that Copts were required to wear unique clothing to distinguish them from Muslims and that they could practice their own Coptic Law exempt from Shari’a law courts. This tax was abolished in 1855 under Sa’id Pasha.
From the 19th century to the 1952 revolution
The Coptic history witnessed an improvement of Copts position in early the 19th century under the stability and tolerance of Muhammad Ali’s dynasty. The state ceased to regard the Coptic community as an administrative unit, and by 1855, the Jizya tax was lifted. Shortly after that, Christians started to serve in the Egyptian army. The 1919 revolution in Egypt, the first display of Egyptian identity concerning the homogeneity of Egypt’s modern society with both its Muslim and Christian components, occurred.
Over the centuries, many Coptic historians recorded the history of the Copts and that of the Coptic Church. The most prominent of these Coptic historians are:
- John of Nikiu, bishop and historian
- Severus Ibn al-Muqaffa, bishop, theologian, author and historian first author of the History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria.
- Fr. Menassa Youhanna, historian and theologian.
- Iris Habib Elmasry, author of The Story of the Coptic Church
- Labib Habachi, Egyptologist
- Aziz Suryal Atiya
Notable non-Coptic historians include:
- Mrs Edith. L Butcher, author of ‘The story of the Church of Egypt’, 1897
- Otto F. A. Meinardus, author of Two thousand years of Coptic christianity