The Copts and their contribution to Christian Civilisation



Occasionally, the Copts have been described as a schismatic eastern Christian minority, a lonely community in the land  of their forebears.  They have been forgotten since they chose living in oblivion after  the tragedy of Chalcedon (AD 451) which was  followed by a new  wave  of persecution inflicted upon them by fellow Christians and Byzantine rulers.  Though they were not unknown to mediaeval and  early modern  travellers  from Europe, Western  Christendom appears to  have  lost sight of   the Copts until  1860 when  a  Presbyterian mission came to convert  them to Christianity, and  the Coptic archbishop  of Asiut asked them  the rhetorical question:  “We have been living  with Christ for more than 1800 years, how long have you been living with him?”

However, since the rediscovery of  the Copts and their Christianity, interest has been intensified in the  attempt to explore  the religious traditions and the  historical  background  of this   most     ancient form of  primitive faith. Scholars  of all creeds were  stunned as the  pages  of Coptic history began  to  reveal   the massive  contributions   of the   Copts  to Christian civilisation  in  its formative centuries.   This brief essay  is intended to outline the  major segments of these contributions  and show the need for the rewriting of numerous chapters of early Christian history.

But  let me first define the  term Copt [1] and  introduce you to some of the relevant  data  about   that community. In   all  simplicity,  this  term  is equivalent to the  word Egyptian. It is  derived  from the  Greek “Aigyptos”, which  in turn is  a corruption of the  ancient Egyptian “Hak-ka-Ptah”, i.e., the house of the temple of the spirit of Ptah, a most highly revered deity in Egyptian mythology; this was the  name of Memphis, the  oldest capital of the unified Upper and Lower Egypt.

When  the  Arabs  came   in the  seventh   century,  Egypt  became   known as “Dar-al-Qibt”,  home of   the Copts,  who  were the   Christian Egyptians  to distinguish them from the native  Muslims. Ethnically, the Copts were neither Semitic  nor Hamitic,   but  may be  described  as    the descendants  of   a Mediterranean race that that entered the Nile  valley in unrecorded times. As such they are the successors of the ancient Egyptians, sometimes even defined as  the “modern sons  of the  Pharaohs” [2].   Traditionally, the Copts  kept together in the same villages or the same quarters of larger cities until the dawn of modern  democracy in the  Middle East during the  Nineteenth century, which  rendered their segregation quite meaningless.   Numerically, it is not easy  to give a precise  estimate of the Copts.   Whereas the official census tends  to  reduce  their number  to   less  than three    million [6% of  the population] for political and administrative reasons, some Copts contend that they are ten million [20%  of the population], which  may be an exaggeration. A conservative estimate may  be set between  six and seven million [12-14% of the  population], until an authoritative and  factual census conducted by the church reaches its completion.

The wider circle of Coptic obedientiaries who  are not ethnic Copts, however, includes at least  twenty million  Ethiopians, more  than  five million other Africans, and another   million  of    mixed   racial  origins  in   other continents. Doctrinally,  therefore,   followers of  the  Coptic  Alexandrine Christianity must be reckoned in excess of thirty million, making the Coptic Church one of the largest  units in Eastern Christendom.  [All the figures in this essay reflect the populations of 1978].

The origins of Coptic Christianity need  no great elaboration. Saint Mark the Evangelist is  its  recognised founder and  first  patriarch,  in  the fourth decade of the  first century.  During the first  two  centuries, there was a continuous admixture of paganism and Christianity in many parts of Egypt. But the fact  remains that  Christianity must have   penetrated the  country  far enough  to justify  the discovery  of the oldest   Biblical papyri in  Coptic language buried in the sands of remote regions in  Upper Egypt. Most of these predate  the  oldest authoritative Greek   versions of  the Scripture  in the fourth and fifth  centuries    including the  Codex Sinaiticus,  the Codex Alexandrinus, te Vaticanus, and the Codex Ephraemi Syri Rescriptus [3], which constitute in all probability four of  the fifty copies  of the Bible ordered by Constantine the Great after he declared Christianity the official religion of the state  by the Edict of  Milan in AD 312.  Fragments of  those papyri dating from  the second century,  both Coptic and   Greek are to be  found in numerous  manuscript   repositories  in   the  world.  The   most  monumental collection is  the Chester Beatty Papyri [4],  now in Dublin, Ireland.  These manuscripts have been dated by the classical scholar V.  Wilcken at about AD 200.   Another  staggering papyrus  collection,   this  time  in Sahidic  and Sub-Akhmimic Coptic  dialects, numbering fifty-one texts, thirty-six hitherto unknown, most Gnostic or apocryphal, was discovered far up the Nile Valley at Nag-Hammadi in the 1930’s [5].  The importance of   this discovery, which  is regarded by scholars  studying its contents as  peer and parallel to the Dead Sea  Scrolls, lies in  the fact that it  was found in  the  remote regions of Upper Egypt.   All this proves beyond  a  shadow of  doubt the  depth  of the penetration of the new faith among the Copts.

The Catechetical School of Alexandria


Catechetical School of Alexandria

In fact the  fiery activity  which  flared up in  the  field of Biblical  and theological studies in  Egypt must   be identified  with  the foundation  and development of the Catechetical   School of Alexandria  before AD 200.  The first mention  of it was in  the life of Pantaenus,  its first president, who died in AD 190. This is the earliest contribution  of the Copts to Christian civilisation and culture.  Created as a rival to the ancient pagan Museion of the Ptolemies which survived until the assassination of  Hypatia in AD 415, the Catechetical School became the first  great seat of Christian learning in the whole world.

We must  remember that primitive Christianity came  to the world and to Egypt as what  many have described as   an amorphous faith, based   on the life and sayings  or wisdom  of  Jesus without  formal  dogmatisation. It was  in this fortress of Christian scholarship, the Catechetical School, that Christianity and the Bible were subjected to the very rigorous studies which generated the first  systematic theology and the  most extensive exegetic  enquiry into the Scripture.  The   greatest names   of  the  era    are associated  with that institution,    which    continued to    flourish   in   the  age   of  Roman persecutions. Pantaenus  [6], the founding father  and first president of the School,  started by bridging the   gap between dynastic  Egypt  and the Greek Gospels  through the  propagation of the  use of  the  archaic Greek alphabet instead   of the cumbersome  Demotic  script, thus  rendering  the Bible more readily  accessible to  the Coptic reader.  His successor  was Clement [7] of Alexandria, a  liberal  who wanted to reconcile   Christian tenets with Greek philosophy. The School finally  came to age  under Origen  [8], a scholar  of pure Coptic stock who is thought to have been the most prolific author of all time. Six thousand  tracts, treatises  and other  works of considerable  bulk have been cited under his name by his old pupil, Bishop Epiphanius of Salamis in Cyprus, though his literary remains now are fragmentary and we must assume that this number could  have been possible only  by a collaborative effort of the whole School. His Hexapla [9], a  collation of texts  of the Bible in six columns from  Greek and Hebrew sources, is  only one instance of his gigantic contributions. His  labours in exegesis  [10] went beyond   those of any other expositor, for he wrote most  detailed commentaries on every  book of the Old Testament  and  the New.  He established  for  the  first time  in  history a systematic theology [11]  from which all  students of divinity  start to this day.  His philosophy [12]  generated much controversy,  not only in his time, but in succeeding  centuries. We hear of  the existence of two  camps bearing his name in subsequent periods:  the Origenist and anti-Origenist schools  of thought [13]. His pupils included some of the most illustrious divines of all time. Among them was  Heraclas, whose preferment to the  throne of Saint Mark carried with it the title  of “Pope” for the  first time in history and  long before the  Bishop of Rome (Episcopus Romanorum  Servus Sevorum  Dei) claimed that dignity. Another pupil was Didymus the Blind,  a forceful theologian and author who combated Arianism. Actually the well-known pillars of the faith in the Alexandrian  hierarchy were  both graduates  of the  Catechetical School, Athanasius the Apostolic and Cyril the Great. The  international panel of its scholars who contributed to Christian scholarship in  the Byzantine and Roman worlds  was represented by such  immortal  names as  Saint Gregory Nazienzen, Saint Basil, Saint  Jerome, and Rufinus,  the ecclesiastical  historian [14].

It  was a picturesque  age, an age  of great  saints and heretics,  an age in which the Copts worshipped openly in  defiance of their Roman persecutors and sought the crown of martyrdom rather than  pray in catacombs and subterranean galleries, an age in which paganism finally gasped its last idolatrous breath under Julian the Apostate  (AD 332-363)  and  in  which  the  Museion was liquidated as the  last refuge of Neoplatonist  pagan philosophy. In sum, the foundation of an institutionalised system of Christian divinity was laid down within   the  walls  of  the   Catechetical   School of   Alexandria  and  in deliberations and massive writings of its theologians. It  was on this foundation that  the  next universal movement could formulate Christian doctrines and dogmas through the official gatherings of the bishops of  Christendom in the General Councils  of the Church.  In  other words, the formal  emergence of Christianity  as an  organised  religious system  passed through two  stages   of evolution. The  first  took  place in the open and informal  philosophical-theological  arena of  the Catechetical  School, the equivalent  of the      modern  university  with its   free    and  unbridled thinking. This  stage  was in advance of  the  second, congressional phase of codification of   the  outcome  of those  deliberations.    in the   case  of Christianity, the  second phase is  described as the Ecumenical Movement, in which the hierarchy of all churches met to decide what was canonical and what was un-canonical in Christian beliefs and traditions.

The Ecumenical Movement


This movement began as  early as the  reign  of Constantine the Great, under whom Christianity was recognised as the religion of the state by the Edict of Milan in AD 312. With the disappearance of  Roman persecutions against which the Christians had had to present a unite  front, elements of disunity began to surface  among those same Christians in  matters of faith.  Heresies arose with the vehemence of intense piety  and split the  faithful into rival camps which imperilled   the  peace of  the  Empire.  Perhaps  the  most  dangerous situation occurred in Alexandria in the war  words which broke out between the followers of Arius and  Athanasius, for both  groups  claimed to  profess the only true orthodoxy, and each of them had a strong army  of adherents to the extent that both  factions had  penetrated the  inner circle of the imperial court. The problem was the principle of consubstantiation.  The “Homoousion”, signifying  that the Father  and the Son were  one and of the “same” essence, was the thesis of Athanasius  in  opposition to  Arius, whose conception  was that of the “Homoiousion” [16], indicating that the Son was of divine origin but only of “like” essence, begotten of  the Father as  an instrument for the creation of the world, hence the Father’s unequal  in eternity. Mark ye! That little “iota” in the middle of one word made all  the difference in the world and shook the Empire to its very foundations,  and  the peril  of civil war between the contestant  camps loomed on the horizon. In passing, it might be said that a  parallel of the  latter scheme of  thought predated Arius in the idea of the “demiurge” of late antique Neoplatonism and Gnosticism.

Amidst  all these confusions  and in order to  bring unity back to the Church and the Empire,  Constantine inaugurated the Ecumenical Movement by calling to order the Council  of Nicaea in AD 325 under the presidency of the old bishop of Alexandria. This was Alexandros (died AD 328), who came with a young and able deacon, the future Athanasius, destined to  follow him on the throne. Against some   accepted views in  the science of patrology, he   is revealed to  be Coptic  and not  Greek. Recently,  it   has been  found  that Athanasius wrote in Coptic, though most of his monumental works were composed in Greek. Greeks  knew  no Coptic and  had no  need  for using it [let  alone learning it]. But  the  educated  Copts  were  masters of  both  tongues, and Athanasius belonged to this class. Furthermore, Athanasius spent two years in one of   his five exiles in the   Red Sea wilderness   with Saint Anthony the Great, whose life he compiled in a famous Vita. It is well known that Anthony was an illiterate Copt and spoke nothing but Coptic, which was his only means of  communication  with his  illustrious  visitor.   It  is,  therefore,  not unreasonable   to relate Athanasian  contributions   to the native Church  of Egypt.

It is beyond  the limits of this  work to cover  the immensity of the Nicaean canons and the  literature in  which  they have been  discussed.  But certain criteria  are clear from  the   deliberations of  the  Council under  Coptic leadership.  First and  foremost, the Nicaean  Creed was sanctioned  by the Council. Composed  by  Athanasius,  it  remains  a triumph   for  Alexandrine theology to this day.  Of historic importance  was the creation for the first time of a    Bishopric of  Constantinople. A gift from a predominantly Alexandrine Council, the same bishopric  paradoxically joined forces with the Bishopric of Rome  two  centuries later  to  degrade the   former Alexandrine benefactor.

But let me  first  sum up the momentous   events in the field  of Christology which  occurred between 325  and 451, from Nicaea to  Chalcedon, to signal the parting of the ways between   East and West. In that period, three major councils were convened [17], one at Constantinople   (AD 318) and two  at Ephesus (AD 431 and 449),  and all seemed to be under  Alexandrine control. They dealt with two  new major heresies: Eutychianism, which denuded Christ of his  humanity, and  Nestorianism, which  relinquished  the unity of Christ’s divinity and humanity. Constantinople condemned Eutychius, though he was reinstated at  Ephesus II after abjuring his  former views. At Ephesus Nestorius clung to his view that Mary should be pronounced Mother of Jesus in the  flesh, not Mother of  God (Theotokos), a  thesis that implied a cleavage between the human and the divine nature  of Christ. Again under the influence of Discorus I, a  Coptic patriarch, the formula of  Cyril the Great  (AD 412-444) was accepted, and Nestorius and  his teachings were condemned, leading to the schism of the Nestorian Church. What matters here  was the question of Coptic leadership in definitions of  Christology. Saint Cyril was succeeded by his nephew, the  aforementioned Dioscorus I  (AD 444-454), a determined and active theologian whom the Copts describe as a pillar of the faith, while the Romans stigmatised him   as  the leader  of  a Robber  Council  (Latrocinium) because he had judged Eutychius without  reading the Tome  or letter of Leo I to Ephesus II.

Feeling was  running  high in Rome and    Constantinople, and the  change  of Emperors brought changes in imperial policies. Theodosius II was succeeded by Marcian and  his wife  Pulcheria,  a former   nun, who deplored   Alexandrine supremacy in  ecclesiastical matters. The  two capitals were  drawn nearer by the high-handed actions of Dioscorus, and Coptic patriarchs were described as the  “Pharaohs  of the  Church”,  which was  unpalatable to  the authority of Byzantium.  Thus Marcian  summoned  Dioscorus to  answer  for  his actions at Ephesus II and  to discuss his views on  Christology at Chalcedon [18] in AD 451. The Romans quickly  mustered a massive army  of bishops from the West to join the East European  prelates at Chalcedon  in Asia Minor, while Dioscorus was detained by the imperial  guard  under a kind   of house arrest, and  the Council  summarily  condemned and  exiled   him to the   island of  Gangra in Paphlagonia near the southern  shores of the Black  Sea  where he died  a few years later. In this manner, the Copts  lost their leadership  in Christendom.  Chalcedon of course was not recognised by them, and from that moment we begin two parallel lines of succession   from Saint Mark,  the   one a Melkite   obediantiary to Byzantium, and the other  proudly nationalistic of  native Coptic stock. Thus was inaugurated a new wave of merciless persecution to curb Coptic separatism and humiliate the so-called Monophysite  Christians, with disastrous  results on the eve of the Arab Conquest.

Monastic Rule


If the Copts lost their leadership  in the fifth century,  we must go back in time for a more enduring contribution  to Christian civilisation. Parallel to the Catechetical School and  the Ecumenical Movement, a  new and more stable institution had  evolved which must be regarded  as  a purely Coptic  gift to Christendom. This  is the monastic rule [19],  which was generated  by Coptic piety and the image of  Christ and the  Apostles. Social and economic factors played  a role as   well,  since persecution forced  many   to escape  to the desert.

From its humble beginnings  on the fringe of the  desert, monasticism grew to be a way  of life and developed  into cenobitic communities which became  the wonder of   Christian antiquity.  With  its introduction   to Europe, it  was destined to become the  sole custodian of  culture and Christian civilisation in the Dark Ages. However, like  all great institutions, Coptic monastic rule was perfected through a number of long and evolutionary stages.

The founding of this way of life is  generally ascribed to Saint Anthony [20] (died AD 336), though organised flights to the wilderness are known to have predated  his retirement   from the  Nile  Valley. A  certain  Frontonius and seventy  companions decided to reject the  world and espoused a celibate life in  the  Nitrean  desert  during  the   reign of   Antonius   Pius (died  AD 161). Anthony himself, while penetrating deeper  and deeper into the Eastern Desert, assuming that  he was  in  perfect solitude  with the Lord,  suddenly discovered Saint Paul  the   Hermit at the    age of 113 years  already  long established in that remote region.

Nevertheless, if we overlook these isolated instances, we can safely consider that the first definable phase in the genesis of monasticism was the Antonian way  of life  based  on solitude, chastity,   poverty,  and the  principle of torturing the body to save  the soul. How did  all this begin? An  illiterate twenty-year-old  Christian at the  village of Coma  in  the  district of Heracleopolis in Middle Egypt, Anthony  heard it said one  day in church: “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that  thou hast, and give  to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven” [Matthew 19:21]. A fundamentalist, he did just that  and  crossed  the Nile  for the  desert  solitude  where  he spent eighty-five years of increasing austerity and  asceticism. Though a solitary, he could not  hide his light of sanctity  under a bushel,  and, when his fame had spread so  as to reach the  imperial court, Constantine  wrote asking for his blessing. Even the  great Athanasius spent two years  with the  Saint and composed his biography. Others followed this “athleta christi” to the Red Sea Mountains and lived around his cave to seek  his spiritual guidance. Thus the second   phase in the evolution of the monastic  rule arose in  what may be termed   “collective eremiticism” where settlements   of solitaries sprang up around the person of a saint, not merely  for initiation and orientation, but also as a measure of self-defence in the arid desert. A disabled anchorite in this distant wilderness could perish  for lack of food and  water, if he were not   observed by another   neighbourly  solitary. Such  settlements  began to multiply in other  parts of the  country. Besides  Pispir in Eastern  Desert, others arose in the Thebaid in Upper Egypt as well as the Nitrean Valley [21] in the desert to the west of the Delta of the Nile.

Subsequently at  Tabennesis, the third stage  in the development of cenobitic life was already taking shape under  the rule of  Saint Pachomius [22] (died 346). Originally a pagan legionary in the armies of Constantine and Licinius, he was exposed  to the goodness of Christian  villagers during the wanderings of his battalion. They came to  wash the soldiers’  feet and broke bread with them despite their  harsh tax levies. Captivated by  their kindness  to their oppressors, he  decided, on his  liquidation from  the  service, to become a Christian.  After his baptism, he zealously followed  a hermit by the name of Palaemon for  training in the art of  sanctity and self-torture. An educated man with a background of military  discipline, he soon  perceived that self-inflicted torture  could not be the only way to heaven.  This signalled the inception of  one of the  greatest cenobitic doctrines  of all times. The new Rule   of  Saint Pachomius  prescribed communal  life   in a cenobium and repudiated the principle of  self-mortification. Instead, the brethren should expend their potential in useful pursuits both  manual and intellectual while preserving  the   monastic vow   of  chastity,  poverty,  and  obedience. The Pachomian system reflected the personality  of  the soldier, the  legislator, and the holy man. Pachomius aimed at the  humanisation of his monastic regime without  losing  the   Christian   essence  of  Antonian  or  Palaemonian sanctity. Every detail of a monk’s daily activities was prescribed within the walls of a given monastery. Each monk had to  have a vocation to make himself a useful human being to his brotherhood;  all must labor  to earn their daily bread, without losing sight of  their intellectual advancement; and each must fully participate in the devotional duties of monastic life.

Pachomian monasteries multiplied rapidly in their founder’s lifetime, and all were  enriched through wise administration  as  well  as honest and  selfless labor. in  his  famous   work   entitled  “Paradise of the Fathers”,  the fourth-century Bishop Palladius states that he found in one monastery fifteen tailors, seven smiths,  four  carpenters, fifteen  fullers,  and twelve camel drivers besides unspecified numbers of bakers, cooks, basket and rope makers, millers, weavers,  masons, instructors, and   copyist of manuscripts — all living in  complete harmony  and  perfect discipline  within a structure that looked like a vast Roman fortification.

To   preserve good   government  in  his   expanding  institutions, Pachomius established a   closely knit  Rule   to guard  against corruption  and  moral deterioration. Three or  four monasteries  within  reach of  each other  were united in a clan or a stake with a president elected from among their abbots, and all    of  the monks  in  the   clan met  periodically  to  discuss local problems. All clans were organised  under a superior-general who summoned the whole brotherhood to  a general council twice each  year: once  in the summer after the  harvest for administrative  and budgetary considerations, and again at Easter for making annual  reports as well as  for the announcements of new abbots and the transfer of office among the old  ones. The last meeting ended with an impressive scene of prayer and mutual forgiveness of sins.

The fame of Pachomian foundations spread far and wide,  not only within Egypt but also throughout the world.  Monks came to  live  with the fathers of  the desert  from many nations —  Greeks, Romans,  Capadocians, Libyans, Syrians, Nubians, and Ethiopians, to mention a few of those on record — and Pachomius devised a system of wards for each nation within every monastery.

The Coptic  cenobitic  rule became the wonder  of  ancient  Christendom.  The planting of the Coptic system in Europe and other continents of the Old World was achieved by some of the greatest divines  of the mediaeval world. We know that during one of his exiles in  Europe, Saint Athanasius spoke about Coptic monasteries   at the Roman  Curia  of Julius I (AD 337-352)  But the real apostles of Coptic monastic  rule  were celebrated personalities who  resided for years in Pachomian establishments in the Thebaid and sojourned as well in the  convents of Kellia, Scetis,  and Nitrea in the  Western Desert. To quote some  of the illustrious names  who made extended  pilgrimages  to the Coptic fathers of the desert,  we must begin with  Saint Jerome (AD 342-420), who translated the  “Regula Sancti Pachomii” into  Latin, which version must have been used by Saint Benedict of Nursia  (AD 480-550) in composing his famous Rule. Others included Saint  John Chrysostom (AD 347-407); Rufinus (AD 345-410), the renowned ecclesiastical historian; Saint Basil (AD 330-379), the Cappadocian author of the  great  Eastern liturgy  used  to this day and  the founder of a Byzantine monastic  order  on the model  of the  Rule of Saint Pachomius;  Saint John Cassian (AD 360-435),  the  father of monasticism in Gaul, who  is known  to have spent  seven  years in  the  Thebaid and Nitrea, Palladius (AD 365-425), Bishop of Helenopolis in Bithynia, who compiled the lives of the desert fathers in “The Lausiac History”; Saint Augen or Eugenius of Clysma, the father of Syrian asceticism; and many more from other parts of Europe  in addition to  some lesser known  persons from  Ethiopia, Nubia, and North Africa.

In reality,  the rule  of   Saint Pachomius continued  to influence  European monasticism beyond  the Middle Ages. Saint  Benedict failed to incorporate in his rule the Pachomian system of unifying the convents into clans with annual meetings for  mutual   surveillance of  their  activities. It  is  known that independent Benedictine houses became very rich in the long run, and that the Benedictine monks decided to discard  toil and live  luxuriously on the hired labor  of local farmers,  thus losing the virtue of the Pachomian system of surveillance by other members of the brotherhood. Only  the Cluniac reform of the tenth century was  able to remedy that rising evil by reverting to the spirit of the Pachomian rule. Subsequently most    newer European orders of religion  observed the  same  cooperative  system.  The Carthusians  and  the Cistercians in the eleventh and twelfth  centuries as well as the Franciscans and the Dominicans  were founded on  the basis of  union among their convents under  the  authority  of a  central  government.  Even   the  Jesuits in the sixteenth  century  appear  unwittingly to  have fallen  under   the spell of Pachomian dictates. It  becomes  quite obvious  that the contribution  of the Copts in the field of monasticism persisted until the modern age.

Missionary Enterprise


A by-product  of  historic significance  to the  monastic movement  among the Copts was their early  missionary endeavour. All the aforementioned  renowned names of men who spent years of  their lives in the  monasteries of Nitria and the  Thebaid must be regarded  as unchartered ambassadors and missionaries of that Coptic Christianity which  they  had experienced among  Coptic religious leaders. Meanwhile, the Copts themselves, at least  in the first four or five centuries of our era, proved to  be extremely active in  the spreading of the faith beyond their frontiers in practically every direction.

It is not inconceivable that Coptic relations  with North Africa, notably with Cyrenaica  or  the Pentapolis, took  place   with   the  introduction  of Christianity.  In his visitations from Alexandria,  Saint Mark must have been accompanied  to  the Pentapolis  by  Alexandrine  helpers. Educationally, the natives  of the   Pentapolis looked toward  Egypt.  Synesius   of Cyrene [25] (370-414),  bishop  of Ptolemais,  received his instruction  at Alexandria in both the Catechetical School and the Museion, and he entertained a great deal of reverence and  affection for Hypatia, the  last pagan Neoplatonists, whose classes he had attended. Synesius was raised to the episcopate by Theophilus, patriarch of Alexandria, in AD 410. Since the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, Cyrenaica had been recognised as  an  ecclesiastical province  of the See  of Alexandria, in  accordance  with the   ruling of  the   Nicaean Fathers.  The patriarch of  the Coptic Church  to his  day includes  the  Pentapolis in his title as an area  within his jurisdiction.  It is doubtful, however,  whether Coptic influence extended  further west in North  Africa, where Carthage  and Rome held greater sway.

The area were Egyptian  Christianity had its most  direct impact was probably in  the upper valley  of the  Nile, by the  southern  gate of  Egypt at Syene (modern  Aswan).  The ancient   Egyptians  had known   those parts since  the eighteenth dynasty, some fifteen hundred years  before   Christ, and their magnificent temples and  monuments  are spread all  over Nubia.  Two factors helped in  the steady flow of Christian  missionaries south of  Syene. First, the persecutions gave the initial incentive to  Christians to flee from their oppressors to the  oases of the Western Desert  and beyond the first cataract into  Nubia. Secondly,  the rise of    ascetic monasticism furnished  the new religion with pious emigrants who penetrated the southern regions as soldiers of Christ. Recent archaeological excavations in the lower Sudan prove  that Christianity had struck root  in those distant  regions by the fourth century [26]. In the fifth century, good relations are  recorded between the monastic order of  the great Saint Shenute whose  monasteries still stand at Suhag and the  Nubian and Baga  tribes  of the south.  At   the beginning of the  sixth century, there  was a    certain  Bishop Theodore  of Philae,   apparently  a Christian substitute to the Isis  high priesthood established on that  island from Roman  times. IN the  same  century, Justinian  (AD 483-565) issued a command that all  the pagan tribes on the  periphery of the Byzantine  empire should be converted to Christianity. The imperial order accelerated a process already  taking  place in Nubia,   though, as a  consequence, the monophysite Copts had to combat both paganism and the Chalcedonian profession of faith at one and the same time. It would appear  that the Coptic victory was completed by AD 559, and through the sympathy and connivance of Empress Theodora, and in  defiance of court injunctions,  a monophysite bishop,  Longinus [27], was consecrated for the see of Napata, capital of the Nubian kingdom. The ancient temples were progressively  transformed into Christian churches including the temple  of Dandur (now  at the Metropolitan Museum of  Art in New York City), and  new churches were constructed.  Furthermore,  monasticism was introduced among the Nubians,  who  founded numerous monasteries  on   the edge of   the valley. The  most outstanding example is that  of Saint  Simeon (Anba Hidra), which stood at  short  distance across the   Nile from modern Aswan. Though raided by Saladin’s Islamic armies in the  year 1172, its imposing ruins are still a testimony to architectural, artistic, and spiritual solidity.

Even more romantic than the conversion  of the Nubian kingdom to Christianity in  late  antiquity was that  of  the more distant  and   isolated kingdom of Abyssinia. According to an apocryphal  tradition, the Ethiopian court at Axum had long been  acquainted with monotheism.   The story of  the journey of the Queen of Sheba [28] to the court  of King Solomon in  the tenth century B.C., their marriage, and  the subsequent birth of Menelik I of Ethiopia,  though probably legendary, has given the Ethiopian monarch the title “Lion of Judah” [29].   Menelik’s visit to his  father in Jerusalem, and  his return with the Ark  of Covenant, said to  be enshrined in  the cathedral of Axum, belongs to the same tale [30]. The next contact  with monotheism occurred when the eunuch in the service of “Condace, Queen of the Ethiopians”, encountered the Apostle Philip on his return from Jerusalem by  way of Gaza  [31]. Here, however, the Nubian queen  is  confused with the  Ethiopian. Historic  evidence shows that Ethiopia remained pagan until the fourth century AD. when the authentic evangelisation   of  the kingdom took   place.  Two brothers,  Frumentius and Aedesius, residents of Tyre but originally from Alexandria, boarded a trading ship going to India and were shipwrecked on the Red  Sea cost near the shores of Erythria. They  were picked up by men  of the Ethiopian monarch,  probably King Ella  Amida [32], who took  them into his   service. Aedesius became his cup-bearer, and Frumnetius his secretary and tutor to the young crown prince, Aeizanas (Ezana), to  whom he doubtless  gave a Christian education.  When Aeizanas became king, he and his courtiers and  retainers were converted, and Christianity  was  declared the official religion  of  the state.  Afterwards Aedesius was  allowed to return to Tyre,  while Frumentius went to Alexandria to consecrate a special bishop  to watch over  the spiritual welfare of those distant Christians. The meeting  with  Athanasius was presumably  between AD 341 and 346. [33] The patriarch appointed Frumentius  himself under the name of Abba Salama, that is, “The  father of peace” [34]. The new bishop of Axum finally returned  to his see  in or before AD 356, no doubt accompanied by presbyters to help  in the process of  evangelisation of the kingdom and  the establishment of churches     in the country   [35].   In  356  the   Emperor Constantius, an Arian, wrote to Aeizanus to withdraw the Orthodox Frumentius, but without avail. After the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451, the Ethiopians adhered to the Coptic profession.

The winning of Ethiopia for the Gospel must have  been regarded as one of the most spectacular events in the  century, crowning the  labor of the Copts  in Africa [36]. Further east, the Copts emerged in the missionary field in Asia, though of course on a more  modest scale. It  is very difficult to generalise here on  the basis of   isolated instances, but there is   no doubt that  the Egyptians  moved  freely  to  many  parts of  Palestine,  Syria,  Cappadocia, Caesarea, and   to some  extent Arabia.  Origen,   the great theologian,  was invited to Bostra to arbitrate in doctrinal differences.  Mar Augin of Clysma (the  modern  Suez) was the  founder of   monasticism in Mesopotamia  and the Persian empire,  making  a considerable  impact  on both Syrian  and Assyrian Christianity [37]. As early  as the second century  the great  Pantaenus, who presided over the Catechetical School of  Alexandria, was chosen by Demetrius I, the Coptic patriarch  of Alexandria to  preach  the Gospel in India  [38]. After accomplishing his mission, he visited Arabia Felix (modern Yemen) where he   must have  continued    his  missionary enterprise.  Unfortunately our information on this  fascinating chapter is  extremely limited.  In the sixth century there was a further  Indian adventure by another Alexandrine,  Cosmas Indicopleustes [39], who later became a monk on  Sinai and left an account of his travels,  now in  Saint Catherine’s  monastery.   He speaks of  Christian communities with  their bishops  on the  Persian   Gulf,  the  existence of Christians in the island of Socotra, and the  yet more numerous Christians of Saint Thomas in  India. He is  reputed to be one of  the first  travellers to Ceylon. 

The role of the Copts in Europe may be  illustrated from the first two exiles of the  great  Alexandrine patriarch, Athanasius.  The  first exile  began in Constantinople and ended inTrier, where the saint spent parts of 336 and 337, and it is difficult to believe that he did not preach during all that time in his  new environment. Most of the  second exile, from 339  to 346, was at the Roman Curia as the guest of Julius I. Apart  from establishing good relations between Alexandria and Rome,  Athanasius carried out  some missionary work by introducing into Roman  religious life the highly  developed monastic rule of the Fathers of the Egyptian  deserts. This was an important  event in view of the magnitude  of the contributions   of the rising  monastic  orders in  the preservation of culture, and  in the progress of  European civilisation  as a whole [40].

In those days the  stream of pilgrims who  came from  the  west to visit the Egyptian wilderness with its hermits and monks  included many who may well be regarded as missionaries of Coptic religious culture, since they transplanted Coptic teachings to their native countries. One of  the most eminent of these was  John Cassian (AD 360-435), a native of  southern Gaul and  the son of rich parents who gave him  a good  education. He and   an older friend  named Germanus decided to undertake a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and in Bethlehem they  took monastic vows.  Then  they went to Egypt,   where they spent seven years visiting the solitaries and holy men of the wilderness of Scetis in the Nitrean valley as well  as the Thebaid  during the fourth  century. It was on that occasion  that John Cassian collected  the  material for  his two famous works, the  “Institutes” [41] and  the “Conferences”  [42].  These books deal with the life  and habits of the Egyptian  monks as well  as their wisdom and institutions, and both were widely  read in mediaeval Europe. Saint  Benedict of Nursia used them  when he codified his rule  in  the sixth century.  After spending some time with Saint John Chrysostom in Constantinople on his return journey, John Cassian was ordained priest, probably in Rome, before settling down in the neighbourhood of Marseilles, where he has been accredited with the introduction of Egyptian monasticism in Gaul. At Marseilles, above the shrine of Saint Victor, who  was martyred by  Emperor Maximian (AD 286-305) in the last Christian persecution, John Cassian founded a monastery and a nunnery on the model  of the  Coenobia,  which he  had witnessed in  Egypt [43].  In the catacombs below  present  day fort of  Saint  Victor will be  found  numerous archaeological   remains, including sarcophagi  with stone  carvings   and sculpture which  betray in animal  and  plant motifs the direct  influence of early Coptic art.  On the island  of Saint Honorat,  off the coast of Cannes, there is an  old monastery where the monks  explain to visitors that they use the rule of Saint Pachomius of the Thebaid. 

Wherever the  Roman legions went, they  apparently were followed by Christian missionaries. To Switzerland a mission from Thebes, according to local legend or tradition, arrived in the year AD 285 with the Theban legion. It was led by Saint Mauritius (Maurice or Moritz), who seems to have earned the crown of martyrdom for refusing  to sacrifice to the heathen  gods.  His statue stands today in one   of  the public  squares   of Saint-Moritz,  and   his body was enshrined in what later became  the chapel of an  abbey of Augustinian canons at Saint Maurice in the Valais.  His companions, a legionary named Felix, his sister Regula, and a  third called Exuperantius  hid themselves in the dreary wastes of the land of Glarus and ultimately reached the lake of Zurich, where they  baptised converts until  they were seized by the  emperor’s men and led before Decius, the Roman governor of the  region. On refusing to sacrifice to the gods,  they were tortured.  Tradition says that  as  they were beheaded a voice from heaven called to  them: “Arise, for  he  angels shall take you  to Paradise and set upon  your heads the martyr’s crown.”  The place  where they sleep underneath is now  the crypt of the Zurich Grossmunster. on the spot of their  martyrdom arose the Wasserkirche. The  Fraumunster cloister across the Limmat River has eight famous mediaeval frescoes  representing every stage of their story. The three saints with heads in hand are the  subject of the coat of arms of  the city of  Zurich.  A parallel story  with some  variations has been recounted about the town of Solothurn, and the name of Saint Victor (the Coptic “Boktor”) is mentioned as its hero and patron saint.

There is  little doubt  that  the Coptic missionaries reached  as far as the British Isles on the fringe  of mediaeval Europe.  Long before the coming  of Saint Augustine of  Canterbury in AD 597, Christianity had been introduced among the Britons. The eminent historian  Stanley Lane-Poole says: “We do not yet know how much we in the British Isles owe to  these remote hermits. It is more than  probable that to them we  are indebted for  the first preaching of the  Gospel in  England, where, till   the coming of  Augustine, the Egyptian monastic  rule prevailed. But   more important   is  the  belief  that  Irish Christianity,  the great civilising agent of  the early Middle Ages among the northern nations, was the child of  the Egyptian Church. Seven Egyptian monks are buried  at Disert Uldith, and there is much   in  the ceremonies  and architecture of  Ireland  in the  earliest  time that  reminds  one of  still earlier Christian remains in Egypt. Everyone knows that the handicraft of the Irish monks in the ninth and tenth centuries far excelled anything that could be  found elsewhere  in Europe;  and  if the Byzantine-looking  decoration of their splendid gold and silver work,  and their unrivalled illuminations, can be traced to  the influence of Egyptian  missionaries, we have more to  thank the Copts for than had been imagined” [45].

Even when we review Coptic heresies and heretics,  it behooves us to consider how these ardent sons of the Nile, forbidden to practice the beliefs of their sects  within the Pax   Romana, crossed the frontiers of   the empire to  the unknown realms of  the barbarians and  there freely  preached Christianity in accordance with their convictions [46].

Coptic Music


On the subject   of music, we are  constrained   to seek the   opinion of the specialist. In  1927 the esteemed English musicologist Ernest Newlandsmith († 1957) of Oxford and London Universities spent several months in Egypt listening to the old   native  chanters of the   Coptic Church  and  reducing   their tunes to notation. He managed to  compile a number  of volumes  and declared that  the results of his pursuit exceeded his wildest expectations. We can do no better than quote   his verdict. “What we   understand today as Oriental  music,” he proclaimed, “appears simply a degradation of what was  once a great art. This music, which has been   handed down for  untold  centuries within the  Coptic Church, should  be a bridge  between East and West, and  place a new idiom at the disposal of the western musicians. It  is a lofty,  noble, and great art, especially  in  the  element  of   the  infinite  which  is lacking   today.” Newlandsmith  is apparently  of the opinion  that, to  quote  his  own words, “Western music has  its origin  in ancient  Egypt”  [48]. If we believe  this renowned  English musicologist, then, we must  accept  the thesis that Coptic Church music is a bridge between the music of ancient Egypt and western music in some way. It is not inconceivable that the  Coptic missionaries who crossed over to  Europe  at the  dawn  of our  era could  have carried with  them the essence  of the native Coptic  chanting [49]. The  theory that there had been interaction between that Coptic vocal music and  the Gregorian chants, though still debatable, seems to have more than a little  historical support. At the present juncture, we can only say with  the eminent English musicologist that “Such  a basis of  music opens up a vista  quite  undreamt of by the ordinary musicians of the Western world.”

Coptic Art And Architecture


Akin to music is the field of  the Coptic arts  which have been shrouded in a blanket  of   oblivion for many  centuries.  In  recent times,   however, the discovery of Coptic art has aroused  a great deal  of excitement and interest among historians, archaeologists, and modern artists.   There is  hardly  a notable museum in the   world which has not    devoted a special   section or department to  exhibits    of Coptic provenance.  In    originality, depth of feeling, and  unusual  vigour, Coptic  art has earned   for itself a  position of independence in Christian antiquity.  The motifs of  Coptic art emerged in stonework,  painting,   woodwork,   terra-cotta,  ivories,   and,  above  all considerations, in the renowned monochrome and polychrome fabrics from Coptic looms. 

The Coptic textile industry has been attracting a great  deal of attention in recent years,  and specimens of embroidered fabrics of astounding beauty are on display in all major museums. The Coptic weaver’s dexterity produced fantastic scenes from classical   antiquity, which  were replaced, from   the fourth century or a little earlier, by Christian themes. In the early Islamic period, the figures became  increasingly stylised but retained their special vigour,  and   geometrical  designs  were  customary.   The  fabric and carpet collections, both public and private, have had their impact on the style of a number of great modern artists. They proved to be a  source of inspiration to some  masters  including  Matisse, Derain,  and  Picasso.  When  the American painter Marsden Hartley discovered Coptic textile portraiture,  he set out to build a collection  of his own, and his  style was strongly affected  by this contact. 

In the realm  of Coptic ecclesiastical architecture, we  can assume  that the genesis  of the basilical style in the Christian world may be traced to ancient Egypt with Coptic craftsmanship  the   bridge  between  the  ancient dynastic temple and the modern cathedral. At the beginning, the Copts were in the habit of transforming the ancient temples into Christian churches. Later, when the  Copts  started to erect their own  chapels independently,  it was normal for the Coptic architecture to copy existing models of their ancestral master builders of antiquity, more especially as these old structures appeared to fulfil the requirements of the new faith.

The   topography of   the  ancient Egyptian   temples   comprised three  main divisions.  First the outer gate  flanked with two   lofty pylons led into an open court lined   by  two rows of  columns  with  a narrow stone roofing. Secondly, beyond that huge quadrangle devoted to general worshippers, was the hypostyle. This  space   was  filled with   crowded  columns in   close  rows supporting  a massive stone  roof and reserved  for the  royal family and the aristocracy. The third  section  at the  end of the  temple  was a dimly  lit chamber, wrapped in  great mystery. This  was the inner  shrine, the “sanctum sanctorum”, or holy   of  holies, where   the deity  resided, and  which  was accessible only to the high priest or pharaoh.

The primitive Coptic churches  appear to have  retained this triple division, which may still be witnessed in some  of the historic  chapels of the ancient convents.  The innermost area    behind  the iconostasis was  the   sanctuary (“haikal”) where priests  and  deacons alone were  admitted to  officiate the mystery  of the Sacrament.  Outside the  sanctuary,  the central  part of the church was  reserved  for baptised Christians,  while a  third section at the narthex  (or  entrance) was left open  for  the unbaptised  catechumens. This architectural arrangement fits  the Coptic offices  to perfection. Indeed the Coptic liturgy is   divided into three  parts,   namely, the liturgy   of the catechumens,  the  liturgy of  the faithful,  and  the  Anaphora. Whereas the catechumens were expected to  depart after  the  first stage, the screen  was drawn after  the  second to conceal  the  mystery of sanctification  of  the Precious Body and Blood  before Holy Communion.  [This tradition is practiced no   more, except for  the  service on Palm Sunday   and Holy Thursday of the Pascha service (during Holy week)]. 

At an unknown date,  the  distinction between  the baptised faithful  and the unbaptised catechumens  began  disappear with  the elimination of  the latter through the the  spread of Christianity,  and it became meaningless to retain the three transverse  divisions of  the  church. Instead, the   perpendicular triple  divisions of  nave and   aisles  was substituted for  the  transverse sections of bygone days.  In this wise, the basilical  style began  to assert itself in Coptic  ecclesiastical architecture. Saint Mena’s cathedral, built by Emperor Arcadius  (AD 395-408)  in the  district  of  Mareotis west  of Alexandria,  the ruins of  the magnificent cathedral  at Ashmunayn in Middle Egypt, and the  majestic churches of the  Red and White Monasteries of  Saint Shenute at Suhag are  fourth and fifth century   examples of  this imminent change which was gradually adopted by the rest of  the Christian world.  It would, however, be a mistake to assume that  change was sudden even among the Copts. The    irregularity   of church  forms   in Old  Cairo  proves that the definitive style of the basilica must  have been an extended process. But it is  an inescapable  conclusion  that  these architectural  developments in Egypt are tied with basilical forms throughout Christendom. 

Oblivion and Rediscovery


One  of the most disastrous  events in Christian  annals came  to pass at the Council of Chalcedon in  AD 451. Its  condemnation  of the Coptic  patriarch Dioscorus I, and its interpretation of Saint Cyril the Great’s formula of the “physis” or “hypostasis”  of Christ contrary  to the Coptic profession led to the irreparable  cleavage  of Christendom  into   two hostile camps,  Eastern [better   labeled as   Oriental]  and  Western.  To   this  day, Chalcedon is acrimoniously remembered by the Coptic natives of Egypt and, for that matter, also by the Jacobite Syrians, the Ethiopians, and the Armenians, who followed the example of Egypt.  The immediate outcome of  Chalcedon, however, was more keenly felt in Egypt.  The Byzantine Emperors who  aimed at unity  within the Church as the sole  bearer of cohesion in the  Empire  stopped at nothing  to impose that unity by brutal force on the Egyptian people. It  was thus that a new wave  of gruesome persecution was inaugurated  to obliterate all vestiges of separatism in Egypt. For effective action, the Emperor combined the civil, military, and ecclesiastical  authority in the  hands of one man, the perfect Apollinarius, who was the governor, army general  and patriarch of Alexandria at one  and  the same time.   This offered him immense  powers  to force  the Chalcedonian  profession of  faith  on the obstinate  Copts  who were adamant against  the Greek  dictates.  In opposition to   this  military rule  of the Church,  the natives followed their own  national Pope elected on the seat of Saint Mark, who was pursued by the legionaries of the Melkite patriarch while he moved in secret from monastery to monastery. Unbearably excessive taxation together with  the most horrible torture and  humiliation were inflicted upon the Egyptians  throughout the  period  from AD 451 to 641 until the advent of the Arabs on the scene.

The  defeat of the Greeks   and the surrender   of Cyrus,  the last  perfect patriarch, to the Arab conquerors on Good Friday, 6 April 641, has often been ascribed to Coptic connivance with the invader  against their oppressor. But this is  not true. The  Copts merely took   a  neutral position between  the contestants. They had  nothing to lose  by changing masters. On the contrary, whereas the Byzantines inflicted servitude  on the Copts both religiously and politically, the Arabs  promised religious freedom to all  the people “of the Book” (ahl al-Zimmah), i.e., the Christians and the Jews.  In fact, after the downfall of the  last Greek bastion of Alexandria,  Amr invited the  fugitive Coptic Patriarch  Benjamin   II out of   his concealment  and offered  him an honourable safe-conduct  and the Melkite   churches which were  vacated by the Greeks.

In this  wise, a new chapter  opened for the   Copts and a  new barrier under Muslim rule  terminated the relationship between  the Christians  of the East and those of the West for more than a thousand  years. It is beyond the scope (and theme) of   this article  to   detail the  story   of the Church   under Mohammedan dynasties. The  main point here is  that the  Copts were gradually forgotten by Western Christendom   and lived in  oblivion  until the  dawn of their rediscovery by the French Expedition of 1798-1802. At that time the Copts     began  to  establish a   measure     of communication with  Western Christendom.  With  the birth  of democracy  and  the enfranchisement of  all Egyptians, the   Copts emerged from  their  closed communities and  opened to interaction with the West. With little to offer beyond their ancient heritage and  long-established traditions,  they   became curious objects  of interest vis-a-vis the searching Western mind. At the same time, increasing confidence in age-old enemies began the process of removing  the barriers erected by the misapprehension of other  Christians. This led  to gradual rapprochement with other Western creeds and  sects, thereby quietly bringing to  a close the old Chalcedonian  feud which  had broken out  fiercely  in  AD 451  between the “physis”   or  “hypostasis”  of   God’s   word  incarnate. Perhaps  the  most significant demonstration of the rebirth of interaction between East and West became ostensible  in the participation of  the Copts for  the first  time in this century   by means of  the dispatch  of a  delegation  consisting of one secular  and two  clerical representatives  to the World  Council of Churches convened at Evanston, Illinois,  in the summer  of 1954. An  amusing incident took  place at that  meeting when the  Copts vehemently protested against the gracious welcome accorded to them by  the delegates of Western Christendom as newcomers to ecumenicity. The Copts rejected the word “newcomers”. They had been participants in  a leading position  from Nicaea  in AD 325  until Chalcedon  and the parting of  the  ways in  AD 451.  The were just resuming their  role in ecumenicity after an  interregnum of 1,503 years. Since then, the Copts have  been active in  that  international body, notably  in Africa, where  their  mission is more  readily acceptable   to the Africans  than the Europeans and American missions of colonial days.

At this juncture it may be  fitting to ponder  the miracle of the survival of this most ancient Christianity. the explanation of this remarkable phenomenon may be found in a set of causes,  some  internal and   others  external. Internally, the Copts, in the historicity of their own Church, have developed a profound spirituality, watered by the blood  of their martyrs and confirmed by   the racial consciousness  of  their  remote ancestry  which extends over millennia, and which is  visibly represented by  the Church in  the Christian era, only the last of many earlier ages. Within the walls of that fortress of faith, they preserved  the purity   of  their  race against pollution from intermarriage  with the ceaseless waves of  invasion from outside. The Church proved  to be the   cementing ingredient among those  sons  of Ancient Egypt. Initially a way of worship, Coptism became in the end of a way  of life and a symbol of an old culture for those isolated Christians in  their ancient homeland. Consequently they  became  the bearers of   a torch which  had been ignited  in the first century  and which they were determined  to  hand on to posterity and keep aglow.

On the external level,  we have to admit  that the shrinking Coptic community of  the Middle Ages was  never underestimated by  its Muslim rulers. The Copt not only was accepted by the growing Muslim majority  but also was revered as a highly beneficial  neighbour  and an  honest  civil  servant of the   state. However,   at numerous  critical  moments in those lonesome centuries the depleted Coptic  minority was actively and   viciously  persecuted  by the overpowering  Muslim  majority. But the  facts of  history   have proven such persecutions  to be ineffective, and to  the  contrary, they have indubitably contributed to the realisation of Coptic survival.

On occasions in modern  times, the Copts were  offered integration with other Christian powers, but they chose systematically a  life of harmony with their Muslim compatriots.   Peter  the Great  (1689-1725) in the  eighteenth century offered a merger with the  Copts on the  condition that they become a Russian  protectorate.  The  reigning   patriarch  then asked the Russian delegation “Who protects the Tzar?” The reply was  “God.” The patriarch then answered that  the Copts are  under the protectorate of  He who  protects the Emperor. The matter was dropped  at that. The  Episcopalians of Britain tried the   same tactic  in  the   days  of colonialism   with  the  same response. Nevertheless,  in recent years, with  the increasing spirit of acceptance and dialogue among the  sects and nations  of Christendom, the  Copts seem to  be advancing   out of their prolonged  isolation  to participate in the widening circle of good faith among all Christians in anticipation of the discovery of their common Father.



Like a great and solitary Egyptian temple standing sorrowfully on the edge of the desert and weathering sandstorms over the years until it became submerged by the accretions   of time, the ancient Coptic Church led its  lonely life unnoticed on the fringe of Christian civilisation and was buried in the sands of time and oblivion. Like the same massive temple, too, it has proven itself to be indestructible though battered by the winds of  change. As an organism, its potential vitality, though enfeebled by  sustained fighting, has survived in  a latent form under  the weight  of accumulated  rubble.  In the last few decades, with increasing  security and liberty  from  within and support  and sympathy from without, its sons and daughters have started removing the sands of time from around the edifice, which has shown signs of shining again [51].

The miracle  of the survival  of the Copts in  a surging sea of Islam, coming after the black days   of Byzantine misrule since  Chalcedon  in 451  can  be explained  only by   the depth of   spirituality which  the genius  of  their forebears was able  to build  during  the   formative  ages of  Alexandrine Christianity. The religious contributions of  the early fathers of the Coptic Church have   remained unnoticed and  sometimes have   been ascribed  to  the Greeks, until  the  relatively recent  rediscovery  of the  Copts and their heritage. During the first four or five centuries  of our era, Egypt produced some of the most illustrious  names in Christian annals. Men such as Origen, Athanasius,  Cyril the Great, St. Anthony, St. Pachomius, Shenute the Great, and many  more have left their mark  on the history of Christian civilisation both within and outside Egypt. Whereas the Catechetical School of Alexandria was    the only centre  of Christian   scholarship in  the   second and third centuries, the Ecumenical  Movement was inaugurated  in the fourth and fifth to formalise decisions  on burning questions  of Christology. In both fields, the role of the Copts was supreme, and their enduring contributions became an integral part  of  Christian civilisation  for all   time. Perhaps even  more staggering  as a Coptic  contribution was the  monastic rule in its perfected form. Irrespective of  later views  on monastic life,  the  fact remains that monastic orders   have been instrumental  in the  preservation of culture and civilisation through the darkest ages  of European history. Furthermore,  the Coptic monks of   those early centuries were responsible for  an active missionary movement and the evangelisation of many parts of the Old World. In the south, the kingdoms of Nubia and Abyssinia were converted to Christianity by these  missionaries, and  in  the north,   missions from Thebes   and from Mareotis followed in the steps of the Roman legions to Switzerland, Gaul, and even  Britain long before   the advent of   St. Patrick and St. Augustine  of Canterbury.

The impact of Coptic Christianity may also have penetrated other fields which are still open   to other  enquiry.  The  interaction  between  Coptic  vocal chanting and the  immortal Gregorian  chants,  the basilical style in  Coptic ecclesiastical architecture and the standard cathedrals  of the West, and the minor arts  of the Copts are all  subjects which attract increasing attention by specialists    with  a promise   of revealing  hidden  influences  on  our civilisation.

In fact, the conglomerate  impact of these and  more  items has  awakened the searching minds of students of divinity and culture in  many countries of the West  to explore  this forgotten corner  of  a most  ancient Christianity for greater light. The foundation of  institutes of Coptic studies  independently and within the framework of noted universities  came as a natural response to this growing pursuit  of knowledge. Coptology was established as perhaps the newest branch of the humanities, parallel  to the other  disciplines of Egyptology, papyrology, and Islamology. Then in 1976, the Coptologists of the world convened in Cairo by the Egyptian Department  of Antiquities, and there they   created the   International Association of Coptic  Studies for  the coordination of  the expanding activities in  the  exploration of  the Coptic heritage. It   was also  on  that  occasion that  the  project of  the Coptic Encyclopaedia was hailed as  a much needed  and long overdue research tool in an unusual field and as a means of diffusing knowledge  concerning one of the most glorious chapters in the story of Christian civilisation.

Regarding the author: Aziz S. Atiya


Aziz S. Atiya was born in an Egyptian village  shortly before the turn of the twentieth century. His education began in Egypt and was continued in England, where he  secured a Ph.D. in  1933 from the University  of London and D.Litt. from  the University of Liverpool  in 1938. He was  awarded the Charles Beard Fellowship as well  as the Ramsay Muir Fellowship  in 1931 and the University Fellowship in 1932 from the University of Liverpool  for  outstanding scholarship in Mediaeval History.  In  America  he  was granted three  more doctorates in an honorary capacity: an LL.D. from Brigham Young University in 1968 and two  doctorates of Humane Letters,  from Baldwin-Wallace  College in 1962, and from the University of Utah in 1968.

Professor Atiya’s teaching career began with a Tutorship in the University of London  School of  Oriental Studies in  1934, followed  by a Professorship of Medieval (including Oriental)  History in the  University of Bonn in Germany from 1936 to 1939.  He returned to Egypt after  the outbreak of World War II, became the First History Inspector for Egyptian Secondary Education from 1939 to 1940, then Professor of  Medieval History in  Cairo University from  1940 and in Alexandria  University  from  1945 to  1954.  He was  elected   first Fulbright scholar from Egypt in 1951 and  as such acted  as Consultant to the Library of Congress as well as lecturing at many American universities.



  1. A.S. Atiya, “A History  of Eastern Christianity” (London, 1967, reprinted Notre Dame, Ind., 1968), p. 16.
  2. S.N.  Leeder, “Modern Sons of  the Pharaohs: A Study  of the  Manners and Customs of the Copts of Egypt” (New York, 1918).
  3. Jack Finegan, “Light from the Ancient  East: The Archeological Background of the Hebrew-Christian Religion” (Princeton, N.J. 1951), pp. 324ff., 340ff. 
  4. Frederic  A.  Kenyon,  “The Chester  Beatty   Biblical Papyri”, 14  vols. (London,  1933-1958);  idem,   “Our  Bible and  the  Ancient  Manuscripts  (London, 1940).
  5. “The Facsimile Edition  of the Nag Hammadi Codices”,  14  vols.  (Leiden,     1972).
  6. J. Quasten, “Patrology”, 3  vols.  (Westminster, Md., 1951-1960), II,  4; A. von Harnack, “Geschischte der Altchristlichen Literatur bis Eusebius”, 3 vols. (Leipzig,  1895-1904), I,  291-296;  G. Bardy, “Aux  origines  de l’Ecole d’Alexandrie, Recherches de sciences religieuses”, XXVII (Paris, 1937), 65-90. 
  7. J.E.L. Oulton  and H. Chadwick, “Alexandrine Christianity” (Philadelphia, 1956),  pp. 56ff.; J.  Quasten, “Patrology”, 3  vols.  (Westminster, Md., 1951-1960),   II,  4; A. von    Harnack, “Geschischte der Altchristlichen Literatur bis   Eusebius”, 3 vols.   (Leipzig,  1895-1904), II,  5-36; J.
  8. Patrick, “Clement of Alexandria” (Edinburgh, 1914), passim. 
  9. J.E.L. Oulton and  H. Chadwick, “Alexandrine Christianity” (Philadelphia, 1956),  pp. 171ff.; J. Quasten,  “Patrology”, 3 vols.  (Westminster, Md., 1951-1960),   II, 37-101; W.E.   Barnes,    “The Third  Century  Greatest Christian — Origen, The  Exposition  Times”,  no. 44  (Edinburgh, 1932-1933), pp. 295-300; W.R.  Inge, “Origen”, British Academy Lecture on a Master Mind (London, 1946). H.H.  Howorth, “The Hexapla and  Tetrapla of Origen”, Proceedings  of the Society  of   Biblical Archaeology, no.   24  (1902),  pp.  147-172; H.M.     Orlinsky,  “The Columnar Order of  the  Hexapla”, Jewish Quarterly, XXVII (1936), 137-149;  W.E. Staples. “The  Second Column of Origen’s Hexapla”, Journal of the American Oriental Society, LIX (1939), 71-80.
  10. A.  von   Harnack, “Der  Kirchengeschichtlische  Erfolg  der  exetischen Arbeiten des Origenes” (Leipzig, 1919);  F. Prat, “Origene le theologien et l’exegete”, 3rd ed. (Paris, 1907).
  11. W. Fairweather, “Origen and Greek Patristic Theology”, (New York, 1901); J. Quasten,  “Patrology”, 3 vols.    (Westminster, Md., 1951-1960),  II, 75ff.; A. von Harnack, “History of  Dogmas”, translation from 3rd ed. by N. Buchanan, 7vols. (London, 1987-1999), IV, 340ff.
  12. G.W. Butterworth, “Origen on First Principles” (London, 1936).
  13. L.B. Radford, “Three Teachers of Alexandria  — Theognostus, Pierius and Peter:  A Study  in the Early  History of  Origenism and Anti-Origenism” (Cambridge, 1908).
  14. A.S. Atiya, “A History of Eastern Christianity” (London, 1967, reprinted Notre Dame, Ind., 1968), p. 37-39.
  15. A.S. Atiya, “A History of Eastern Christianity” (London, 1967, reprinted Notre Dame, Ind., 1968), p. 55-59. 
  16. A.S. Atiya, “A History of Eastern Christianity” (London, 1967, reprinted Notre Dame, Ind., 1968), p. 42. 
  17. C. J. Helfe, “Connziliengeschichte”, English  Translation by W.R.  Clark as “History of the Christian Councils” (Edinburgh, 1871-1896), Vols. I-V (to AD 787); authorised French translation by H. Leclercq as “Histoire des Conciles”, 11 volumes in 22 (Paris, 1907-1952).
  18. R.V. Sellers, “The Council of Chalcedon”  (london, 1953); A.  Grillmeier and H. Bacht, “Das Konzil von Chalcedon”, 3 vols.  (Wurzburg, 1951-1954). 
  19. W.H. MacKean, “Christian Monasticism in Egypt to the close of the Fourth      Century” (London, 1920);   R. Draguet,  “Les  peres du   desert” (Paris, 1949);   Helen Waddell,  “The    Desert Fathers”  (London,  1936);  Otto Meinardus, “Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert”, (Cairo, 1961).
  20. R. Meyer, “St Athanasius — The  life of St Anthony”, (Westminster, Md., 1950).
  21. M.C. Evelyn-White, “Monasteries of Wadi’n  Natrun”, 2 volumes (New York,      1926-1933).
  22. A.S. Atiya, “A History of Eastern Christianity” (London, 1967, reprinted Notre Dame, Ind., 1968), p. 62, n.2.
  23. See references [41] and [42] below.
  24. C. Butler,  “The Lausiac    History of Palladius”,  2 vols.  (Cambridge, 1898-1904);  E.  A.   T. Wales-Budge,  “The Paradise  of the Fathers”, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1934). 
  25. H. L. Marrou, “Synesius of Cyrene and  Alexandrian Neoplatonism”, in the “Conflict between paganism and Christianity in  the Fourth Century”, ed. A. Momigliano (Oxford, 1963), pp. 126-50; Synesius of Cyrene, “Letters”, English translation by A. Fitzgerald  (Oxford, 1926); idem, “Essays  and Hymns”, 2 vols.  (London, 1930).  For  biographies of Synesius,  see  C. Lacombrade (Paris, 1951),  G. Grutzmacher (Leipzig, 1913), W.S. Crawford (London, 1901), and J.C. Pando (Washington, 1940).
  26. D. Dunham,  “Romano-Coptic  Egypt and  the  Culture of Meroe,” in Coptic Egypt   (New  York, 1944),   pp. 31-33; C.P.  Groves,   “The Planting of Christianity in Africa”, 4 vols, (London, 1948-58), I, 46-49; S. Clarke, “Christian Antiquities in the Nile Valley (Oxford, 1912).
  27. He appears to be the  true apostle of  Nubian Christianity, though it is said that he was preceded by another Julian, who seems to have converted the king and  the court of the tribe  of the Nobadae. Groves, I,  49-50; Zaher Riad,  “Kanisat   al-Iskan-dariyah fi Ifriquiyah   (the Church  of  Alexandria in Africa) (in Arabic; Cairo, 1962), pp. 159-65. 
  28. Meaning “Queen of the South”. 
  29. The figure of the lion became the coat of arms of the kings of Ethiopia.
  30. The story is  derived from a fourteenth-century MS.,  said to  have been  translated from  an Arabic version of an  original Coptic work  in Egypt and  prompted by Zague dynasty, which  ascended the throne in AD 1270, in an  attempt  to establish the  continuity  of the Solomonian  line in Ethiopia. A.H.M. Jones and E.  Monroe, “A  History of Ethiopia  (Oxford, 1960),  pp. 10-21; J. Doresse,  “Ethiopia”,  English translation by Elsa Coult (London, 1959), pp. 13ff. Acts of the Apostles VIII, 26-40. He reigned in about the  years AD 320 and 325. Archaeological evidence shows his  inscriptions to retain the pagan  character, whereas his sons refer to a monotheistic deity. Further, numismatic evidence is decisive.  Early coins of Aeizanas’ reign bear the pagan symbols, later replaced by a cross. Jones and Monroe, pp. 26-31; Doresse, “Ethiopia”, p. 30. J. Doresse,    “Ethiopia”, English  translation  by Elsa  Coult (London,      1959), p. 62. 
  31. Called  “Abuna” (our father),  also “Casate Berhan Salama”  (Revealer of Light). 
  32. The  Abyssinian tradition mentions Nine  Saints.  See Groves, 1,  53; J. Doresse, “Ethiopia”,  English translation by  Elsa Coult (London, 1959), p. 81. 
  33. It  is interesting   to note that   there  is a growing  tendency  among present-day  African  Christians  towards   affiliation with the  Coptic Church; see “Arab World”,   no. 110 (30   July 1962), p. 53. The  Coptic Church has a resident bishop in Nairobi. 
  34. See sections on  Jacobite and Nestorian  monasticism in Atiya’s “Eastern Christianity”, pp. 184ff., 291ff.
  35. The  geographical situation of India  was rather  confused in those days with those of Southern  Arabia and Abyssinia, but  it is quite  possible that  Pantaenus  reached India proper.  On  his return journey, Eusebius (Hist. Eccles., V., 10-11) tell us,  he recovered the original Gospel of Matthew  in Hebrew which  had  been brought to  the  East by the Apostle Bartholomew.
  36. Critical   edition of his   “Christian Topography” is  by  E.O. Winstedt  (Cambridge, 1909).
  37. A.S. Atiya, “A History of Eastern Christianity” (London, 1967, reprinted Notre Dame,  Ind., 1968), p. 39ff. 
  38. “De   insitutis coenobiorum  et de  octo  principalium  vitiorum remedis libri, XII. (see reference [42] below). 
  39. Collationes Patrum, XXIV; both works  by Cassian translated into English by E.C.S. Givson in the “Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers”, ser. 2, vol XI (1894),  pp.  161-641. Cassian wrote   another  but less  important work against Nestorius entitled “De Incarnacione Domini”. 
  40. H.I. Marrou,  “Jean   Cassien a Marseille”,   Revue du Moyen  Age Latin, I (1945), 5-26;  
  41. O.   Chadwick,  “John  Cassian: A Study    in  Primitive  Monasticism” (Cambridge,    1950);  
  42. L. Cristini,   “Jean  Cassien, ou la spiritualite’ du desert”, 2 vols. (Paris, 1946); 
  43. A  Hoch, “Die Lehre des Johannes Cassianus von Natur und Gnabe” (Freiburg, 1896). 
  44. A  measure  of  length  varying in  different  countries but   averaging approximately one yard or a little more. 
  45. “Cairo —  Sketches of Its History,  Monuments and Social Life” (London, 1898), pp. 203-204; F.H. Henry, “Irish Art in the Christian Period”, (London 1939). 
  46. E. A.  Thompson,  “Christianity  and  the Northern   Barbarians,”  in A. Momigliano,    “The Conflict between  Paganism  and  Christianity in the Fourth Century”, (Oxford, 1963), pp. 16-78.
  47. A.S. Atiya, “A History of Eastern Christianity” (London, 1967, reprinted Notre Dame, Ind., 1968), pp. 138-140.
  48. The London “Morning Post”, 22 April 1931.
  49. This may be  sampled in a   record prepared by  the Institute  of Coptic Studies in Cairo and published by Folkways (New York, 1960). 
  50. A.S. Atiya, “A History of Eastern Christianity” (London, 1967, reprinted Notre Dame,  Ind., 1968), p.  131-138; P. du  Bourguet, “The  Art of the Copts”, English translation  by Caryll H. Shaw  (New York, 1971);  Hilde Zaloscer,  “Die Kunst   in christlichen  Agypten”,   (Vienna and Munich, 1974), provides a copious bibliography on  Coptic art and architecture. 
  51. A.S. Atiya, “A History of Eastern Christianity” (London, 1967, reprinted Notre Dame,  Ind., 1968), p.  119. 

Selected Bibliography


This bibliography includes a brief selection of general books in English. For further and fuller reference to  the sources and  to special Coptic  studies, see W. Kammerer “A Coptic Bibliography” (Ann  Arbor, Michigan, 1950, reprinted 1969), and  also footnotes and    bibliography  of the “History of Eastern Christianity” (London, 1967, reprinted Notre Dame, Indiana, 1968).

  • Attwater, D. “The Christian Churches of the East”, 2 vols. Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1948.
  • Burmester, O. H. E. “The Egyptian or Coptic Church”, Cairo, 1967.
  • Butcher, E. L. “The Story of the Church of Egypt”, 2 vols. London, 1897.
  • Butler, A. J. “The Ancient Coptic Churches of Egypt”, 2 vols. Oxford 1884.
  • Duchesne,  L. “Early History of the  Christian Church, from its Foundation to the Fourth  Century”, English translation  by  Claude Jenkins, 3  vols. London 1950-51. 
  • Fortescue, A. “The Lesser Eastern Churches”. London, 1913.
  • Fowler, M. “Christian Egypt: Past, Present and Future”. London, 1901.
  • Groves,  C. P. “The  Planting of Christianity in  Africa”, 4 vols. London, 1948-58.
  • Hardy, E. R. “Christian Egypt, Church and People”. New York, 1952.
  • Iris Habib El-Masry “The Story of the Copts”. Cairo, 1978.
  • Kidd, B. J. “The Churches of Eastern Christendom, from AD 451 to Present Time”. London, 1927.
  • Latourete, K. S.  “History of the Expansion  of Christianity”, 7 vols. New  York, 1937-45. 
  • MacKean, W. H. “Christian Monasticism in Egypt to  the Close of the Fourth Century”. London, 1920.
  • Meinardus, Otto. “Christian Egypt, Ancient and Modern”. Cairo, 1965.
  • Neale, J.  M.   “A History of   the Holy  Eastern  Church: Patriarchate of Alexandria”, 2 vols. London 1897.
  • Waddell, H. “The Desert Fathers”. London, 1936. 
  • Wakin,  E. “A  Lonely Minority, The  Modern History  of  Egypt Copts:  The Challenge of Survival for Four Million Christians”. New York, 1969. 
  • Westerman, W. L., et al. “Coptic Egypt”. New York, 1944.
  • Worrell, W. H. “A Short Account of the Copts”. Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1949. 


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