Egypt has an incomparable and well-documented history; it is the birthplace of one of the first civilisations and many historians have described its development, from the era of the pharaohs to modern times and everything in between. However, there is an important chapter that is given little attention for political, religious and social reasons.
The emergence of Christianity under Roman rule in Egypt, the struggle of new believers against Roman paganism and against the Byzantine Empire, the period known as the Coptic Era, is often completely neglected. Yet studying this period and delving inside the social structure of that time, as an integrated part of the whole Egyptian civilisation and not as the history of certain group or ethnicity, helps one understand many key components of the Egyptian social and psychological makeup that are still evident today.
The Coptic Era is defined by the Egyptian traits of courage, integrity, spirituality and artistic creativity as seen in the unique aesthetical structures and ornamentation of churches and monasteries around the country. This Egyptian character influenced Christian thinking and principles and has proven to be adaptable to stay true to its values throughout the different societies that came and went over the course of history.
Egypt has seen a diverse group of people groups in its long history; the rich, fertile soil along the Nile attracted civilisations like the Persians, Greeks, Romans and Arabs, many conquering the land to exploit its richness. However, none of these invaders had been able to affect the authentic culture of Aegyptus, as it was known in ancient Greek, throughout the country’s history.
According to many historians and researchers it is wrong to use the term Coptic Era or Coptic Egypt because the literal translation of the word Copt in ancient Greek is Egypt. The name Aegyptus changed during the time the Arabs arrived in Egypt in the seventh century CE into Copt; however historians use the term Coptic Era to signify a specific period in Egyptian history which witnessed the advent of Christian civilisation.
Due to its geography, its people and civilisation, Egypt was significant in spreading Christianity around the globe. For example, philosophical views and values of Christianity were taught and developed in Alexandria’s universities by Egyptian thinkers and philosophers. In his book, Egyptian Thought in the Christian Era, Professor Ra’fat Abdul-Hamid mentions that Egypt’s recognisable additions in developing the Christian doctrine was considered an offset for its political relevance represented in its subordination to Roman rule.
The Bishop of Alexandria at the time settled a number of controversial dogmatic matters and the Alexandrian Church and its bishops led the most significant world churches including those of Rome, Antioch and even Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, for a period of time.
Historians and researchers divide collective Christian history into two periods, before and after Emperor Constantine, because during his reign a significant incident took place which was partially responsible for reshaping the Christian faith forever.
Marcus, later called Saint Mark or Saint Mark the Evangelist is called Christ’s messenger, and is considered to be the first preacher in Egypt. The Egyptian church is still closely connected to Saint Mark, as he is considered to be one of the Seventy Disciples and the founder of the Church of Alexandria, which also reigned over the Ethiopian and the Old Libyan churches.
Christianity developed a respectable following in Egypt due to its first great preachers like Saint Mark and his successors; it swept through the country during the second century CE despite severe suppression by the followers of the traditional Egyptian and Roman religions. Saint Mark himself was martyred in a massive wave of violence against Christians in Alexandria, and to this day relics from his body can be found in the Saint Mark Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Alexandria.
“The first occurrence of the preaching of the Christian gospel started in Alexandria, which was the Egyptian capital at the time, after which it extended to the Delta region and Upper Egypt,” said Mohamed Abdel-Na’em, medieval history professor at Cairo University.
Egyptian society at that time consisted of many different ethnicities and religions; Egyptians still clinging to the old pharaonic gods like Isis, Amon and Ra, Greeks and Romans who had their own gods like Zeus and Apollo and Jews who played a significant role in society at that time. The Jews controlled important businesses and dominated several occupations in Alexandria and other prominent Egyptian cities; however they also suffered from discrimination and even violence by the Roman elite in several instances.
The Romans held political power and consequently awarded themselves with privileges and notable occupations. Joining the legions of the army or the senate was exclusively reserved for Roman citizens, while Egyptians were employed to farm the vast fertile agrarian areas of Egypt which provided the Roman Empire with badly needed grain.
Romans allowed religious diversity in their empire; they left Egyptians to practice their own rituals. Their tolerance was based on the deification of the Roman emperor, a concept Egyptians were very familiar with for this is how they viewed their pharaohs. However, the emergence of Christianity, particularly in Egypt, with its very different perspectives served to arouse Roman intolerance.
“The Roman prosecution of Christians stemmed from the Christians denial of the Roman emperor’s divinity, which was considered an integral part of the prestige of the Roman state, but they did not have contempt against Christianity as such; they simply regarded it as other Egyptian, Greek or Persian religions,” Abdel-Na’em said.
The policies of Roman emperors, before Constantine, toward Christians and Christianity differed but led to the same results. Some emperors waged war on Christians, describing them as traitors and conspirators, like Nero, the fifth Roman emperor, who accused Christians of burning Rome, and Decius, who ruled from 249 CE to 251 CE and ordered the killing of Christians as a sacrifice to the gods to stop the fatal epidemic of the plague that blighted his empire.
Others sought to reach a compromise, like Diocletian, the 51st Roman emperor who ruled from 286-305 CE. Diocletian, who is believed to have Egyptian origins, thought he could win the Christians’ compliance and subordination by declaring himself the son of the Roman god Jupiter and his apostle on earth, but the Christians’ denial of his self-proclaimed status provoked a witch hunt through all the provinces of the empire, including Egypt.
In this time the bloodiest and the most violent atrocities the Roman legions carried out against the Egyptian Christians took place, and it is remembered by the Egyptian church as “the age of martyrs.” Thousands were tortured and killed as a punishment for their beliefs, many churches around Egypt were razed to the ground, but to Diocletian’s surprise these harsh acts resulted in strengthening the Christian resistance and the number of Christian converts.
Early Egyptian Christians during this era were brought, on the orders of imperial prefects and governors, to Roman temples and forced to acknowledge and invoke the Roman gods’ statues as a test. However, many clung to their Christian beliefs despite the danger or form of punishment they would encounter if they refused to comply. The early Christians’ courage, persistence and conviction compelled many others to believe in their cause and convert to Christianity.
Relics and shrines are preserved in different areas around Egypt, marking the sites where great battles were fought, and many hold remnants of the first Egyptian Christians who sacrificed themselves for the Christian cause. Many churches are named after Egyptian martyrs who struggled against the Roman tide of suppression, like Saint Mena Church which is named after the Egyptian soldier Mena who served under Diocletian and embraced Christianity and was executed for openly proclaiming his faith.
Roman racism and discrimination against the native inhabitants caused many Egyptians to join the revolt of the Christians against Roman rule, which often led to their adherence to Christian thinking and teachings.
According to Abdel-Hamid’s book, the weakness of the mystic and pagan religions in comparison with Christian beliefs became apparent to all average Egyptian and Roman citizens which resulted in massive conversions to Christianity during the fourth and fifth centuries. Roman intolerance was not because of their profound belief in their religion but more an attempt to retain the prestige of their state and their prominent rank in Egyptian society.
Diocletian became the last Roman emperor to suppress Egyptian Christians, as the emperor following him, Constantine or Constantine the Saint as he is called in Christian chronicles, converted to Christianity. He declared Christianity to be one of the official religions and permitted its practice; in 313CE he issued the Edict of Milan which proclaimed tolerance of all religions throughout the empire.
Egypt and the eastern part of the empire did not benefit from this declaration of tolerance for a while, because the Roman ruler of the east, Augustus Maximinus, imposed strict regulation on Christians. Maximinus’ army was defeated by Constantine which marked the start of a new era in Egypt and the whole eastern part of the empire.
Egypt became a Byzantine province in 305CE and was subject to the Byzantine throne that stood in the newly built capital of the eastern Roman empire, Constantinople. “Christianity swept over the Egyptian population and Christians were allowed to practice their religion peacefully and build new churches during the era of Constantine,” Abd-El Na’em said.
During the reign of Theodosius, the Roman emperor who ruled from 379-395CE, Christianity was announced to be the only official religion of the state. In 393CE the emperor issued a decree banning all pagan rituals and many temples, images and pagan statues depicting the traditional Roman religion were destroyed, including the colossal Serapeum temple of the Egyptian god Isis and the Greek god Serapes in Alexandria. The temple was destroyed by crowds of Christians in 391CE under the patronage of Alexandria’s bishop Theophilus.
The unique Egyptian culture paved the road for Christianity to find an openhearted reception in Egypt; Christian beliefs of resurrection and afterlife had been common in Egypt many years before the emergence of Christianity, and the call of the new religion for morality and good manners was not new to Egyptians who were raised on the pharaonic concepts and values of justice and integrity. Many texts were found inscribed on the ancient tombs and monuments or in the form of papyrus manuscripts calling for respecting others and caring for the afterlife, like the writing of Ptah-hotep and Hor-moheb.
“If Palestine was the cradle of Christianity, Egypt is considered the incubator of Christian thought,” Youssef Zidan said in his book Arabian Theology. Alexandria, due to its sophisticated schools of philosophy and its prominent scholars and professors was considered the home of advanced Christian philosophy. Its bishops and preachers were treated with great regard in all churches and had significant roles in the famous Christian conventions, like Oregon, Augustin and the venerable Egyptian patriarch Athanasius, the 20th bishop of Alexandria. It is attributed to Saint Athanasius that he settled the first Christian controversy between Arianism and the Holy Trinity in the Nicaea First Council, convened by Emperor Constantine in 325CE.
Egypt has a long and proud history, and the Coptic era is an important part of that heritage. However, this important period of time is often neglected in official history books or by people who prefer to downplay its significance for their own political gain. Despite their efforts it is part of the very fabric of society and its heroes who fought with courage for integrity and free will stand for the best that Egypt has to offer.
- Mohamed Abdel-Na’em, Medieval History professor at Cairo University.
- The Egyptian Thought during the Christian Era, 2001, by professor Ra’fat AbdelHamid (1942-2001) Medieval History professor at Ain-shams University and head of the Middle East Studies Centre (1991-2001).
- The Arabian Theology, by Youssef Zidan.