, Research Paper
The history of Christianity in Egypt dates
back verily to the beginnings of Christianity itself. Many Christians hold
that Christianity was brought to Egypt by the Apostle Saint Mark in the
early part of the first century AD. Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, in his
Ecclesiastic History states that Saint Mark first came to Egypt between
the first and third year of the reign of Emperor Claudius, which would
make it sometime between AD 41 and 44, and that he returned to Alexandria
some twenty years later to preach and evangelize. Saint Mark’s first convert
in Alexandria was Anianus, a shoemaker who later was consecrated a bishop
and became Patriarch of Alexandria after Saint Mark’s martyrdom. This succession
of Patriarchs has remained unbroken down to the present day, making the
Egyptian Christian, or Coptic, Church one of the oldest Christian churches
in existence. Evidence for this age comes in the form of the oldest Biblical
papyri discovered in remote regions of Upper Egypt. These papyri are written
in the Coptic script and are older than even the oldest Greek copies of
the Bible ordered by Constantine in AD 312.
The Egyptians before Christianity had always
been a deeply religious people, and many readily embraced the young religion,
having had their old beliefs effectively destroyed by the coming of the
Roman Empire and the final dethroning of the god-king Pharaohs. Many of
the concepts of Christianity were already familiar to the Egyptians from
their ancient religion, such as the death and resurrection of a god, the
idea of the judgement of souls and a paradisiacal afterlife for the faithful.
The ankh too, the Egyptian symbol for eternal life, is very similar to
that of the cross revered by Christians (especially in the form of the
Coptic cross, seen at right), itself also a symbol for eternal life. Furthermore,
the belief that God had chosen Egypt as a safe place for His infant son
to hide him from Herod was a great source of pride to the Egyptian Christians.
It was through Christianity that the Egyptian culture survived the Roman
The Church Suffering and Victorious
Yet these formative years were not without
problems. Throughout this time Christianity in Egypt was locked in an often
deadly struggle against the polytheistic religions of the Greco-Roman culture
as well as the Hellenistic movement that began in Alexandria spread to
other large cities. To counter Hellenistic philosophy that often criticized
the young religion the Christian leaders in Egypt established a catechetical
school in Alexandria, the Didascalia, founded in the late second century
AD. This school became the heart of what can only be called Christian philosophy,
and great teachers and orators such as Clement and Origen were able to
battle the Hellenistic philosophers on their own ground and advocate Christianity
in an orderly and intellectual manner. It was also in this great university
of Christian learning that Christianity first underwent rigorous studies
that created its first theology and dogma, as well as making the new faith
accessible to all. Pantaenus, the founder and first dean of the Didascalia,
helped the Egyptian people bridge the gap between Dynastic Egypt and the
new era by promoting the use of the Greek alphabet instead of the Demotic
(”cursive” hieroglyphics) in translations of the Bible as well as in the
writing of religious theses and letters. Additionally, the school educated
everyone who came to it in Greek, opening the study of religion to just
about everyone, and making as many people as possible literate.
Yet the greatest persecutions on the young
religion came at the hands of the Roman government. Emperor Nero had set
the precedent in AD 64, about the same time as the martyrdom of Saint Peter.
It was unusual, for the actual offense was simply to be a Christian or
to profess the Christian faith, rather than any kind of criminal acts that
might go along with it (such as those later falsely attributed to Medieval
heretics). An arrested Christian could receive a pardon simply by offering
incense on a Roman altar, but many refused to do so, citing scripture passages
urging faith in the one God. Thus the true “crime” of the persecuted Christians
was their refusal to do homage to the Roman gods, including the emperor.
Those who did refuse to bow to the Roman religion were imprisoned, often
tortured, thrown to the wild animals in the coliseum, or suffered execution
by any number of other means. Rather than discouraging the Christians,
these actions encouraged them and reinforced their faith, echoing the words
of Jesus that those who suffered persecution because of his name were truly
blessed. These heroes of the Christians were called “martyrs,” a word that
means “witnesses.” In the first century this persecution was largely done
by the government, though after a few decades they seem to have lost interest
(or become fearful of the sect) and in the second and early third centuries
the mobs took over the persecutions. Decius and Diocletian, in the 250s
and early 300s respectively, brought the imperium back into the persecution,
but it was clear by this time it was a losing battle as Christianity had
penetrated even into the highest levels of society.
It was in Egypt that some of the greatest
defiances of the Romans by Christians were done. While their Roman counterparts
worshipped in catacombs and underground vaults, the Egyptian Christians
built their churches openly and performed their ceremonies in full view
of the Empire. And for every one that the Empire struck down, more would
be converted by the example of the martyr. Diocletian was particularly
brutal, executing so many Christians in 284 alone that the Coptic Church
dates its calendar, the Calendar of the Martyrs (Anno Martyri) from that
time. Despite these persecutions, Christianity seems to have grown rapidly
in Egypt, spreading to Fayoum in 257 via Anba Dionysius, and in 260 even
down into the Thebaid. But in 306 something happened that would change
the destiny of Christianity forever: Constantine became emperor.
Actually, he became one of the emperors.
The Roman Empire of the time used the Tetrarchy, or Rule of Four. There
was one Augustus and one Caesar each for the eastern and western parts
of the Empire. One of Constantine’s first acts as Augustus was to end the
persecution of Christians where he had been campaigning in Gaul (France),
Spain, and Britain. It is unknown where Constantine got his initial respect
for Christianity, but it is thought that his mother was a Christian. Shortly
afterwards Galerius, the Eastern Augustus, issued an edict of toleration
for Christianity, ending persecutions in Greece and the surrounding area.
Maximinus Daia (not to be confused with Maximinus the Thracian) however,
responded by increasing persecutions in his territory of Egypt.
The story is told that once before the
Battle of Milvian Bridge (by which Constantine took complete control of
the Western Empire) when the odds were greatly against him, Constantine
beseeched God for help, praying in the Christian fashion, and won the day.
He later adopted the Chi-Rho, a stylized monogram of the first letters
of “Christus,” as his standard, and led his armies to victory after victory.
Because of this, Constantine was even more well-disposed towards the Christians,
though he himself was not baptized a Christian until his deathbed. In 313
together with Licinius, the eastern Augustus, he developed a policy of
religious tolerance throughout the Empire and for the first time in many
many decades there was a social peace. People were free to worship as they
pleased and the Christian Church was allowed to own property, making it
much easier to build permanent churches. Additionally, Christianity was
made the official state religion, freeing it at least from persecution
by the Imperium. Constantine’s order giving religious freedom to all under
his rule is known as the Edict of Milan or more properly, the Edit of Tolerance,
and was the forerunner of other religious laws such as those found in the
American Constitution and the Lateran Treaty of 1949, part of which created
Feeling that his power in Egypt was threatened,
Maximinus, still carrying out his persecutions against the Christians there,
marched an army across Asia Minor into Europe and confronted Licinius.
Licinius, following Constantine’s example, prayed in the Christian fashion
with his army before the battle and defeated Maximinus. With this, Licinius
brought the new Roman policy of religious tolerance to Egypt and ended
the persecution of the Egyptian Christians.
After this, Constantine became more and
more involved in the workings of Christianity. His dream was to travel
to the Holy Land and be baptized in the Jordan River, but this was abandoned
when he discovered that the eastern churches were in upheaval, mostly due
to the stir caused by the beliefs of Arius, now called the Arian Heresy.
In 325, in response to this disharmony, Constantine ordered the Council
of Nicaea. This council was the largest gathering of Christian bishops
in the history of the Church so far, and though the majority of those present
were representing the eastern churches of Egypt and Greece, there were
delegates from Rome, and thus the sobriquet “ecumenical” (meaning “of the
whole world”) was attached. Constantine attended as well, describing himself
as “bishop of external things,” and kept a secular position on the issues,
but it was clear that he wanted Christianity to be united and harmonious.
The Nicene Creed, the great contribution of the Council and a prayer still
used by Christians to this day, was composed by Saint Athanasius, a young
Egyptian deacon who would later follow Alexandros as patriarch of Alexandria.
The Foundations of Monasticism
Egypt is regarded by many Christians,
regardless of denomination, as the home of Christian monasticism, and it
is very easy to see why. The sheer number of Christian monasteries scattered
about the East is astounding, from the 300 that were in Constantinople
alone to the isolated Saint Catherine’s at Mount Sinai. Yet it was Egypt
that was seen as the heart of the monastic idea. The anonymous work, History
of the Monks in Egypt, written at some time in the fourth century, says
There is no town or village in Egypt
or the Thebaid that is not surrounded by hermitages as if by walls, and
the people depend on their prayers as if on God Himself…Through them
the world is kept in being.
Christian monasticism emerged as a genuine
movement during the early fourth century, but the spirit of monasticism
was already present in Christianity with its ideas of asceticism and moderation.
For the Christian East, the monk was by definition a solitary role, and
there have been more Christian hermits in this area than in any other in
It is Saint Anthony of Egypt who is credited
with the founding of monasticism, along with his fellow countryman Saint
Pachomius. Yet even they were only expanding on an idea that had already
existed. After the death of his parents in the 270’s, Anthony had entrusted
his younger sister to a parthenon, or convent of women. Thus priories of
what are today called nuns were already established long before Saints
Anthony and Pachomius even began their work. Indeed, it is women who are
to be truly credited with the origin of the monastic vocation. Yet Anthony
still deserves the praise due to him, for his true innovation was to move
the monastic community away from the distractions of society and the city
and into the wilderness, which he did, founding his first hermitage in
Unlike monasteries in the West, the monasteries
of Egypt and the surrounding area had no centralized orders, rather, each
one was an autonomous unit. Many of the early monasteries in the East were
founded and maintained by the rulers and nobility, others by groups of
the citizenry wishing to have prayers said for themselves and their families.
The size of the monasteries also varied greatly. Some were highly organized
enterprises, owning large amounts of land and commercial interests, while
others were hermitages of only three or four members. After Saint Anthony,
there were two basic types of monasticism in Egypt, and later on, the world.
There was the eremetical, or hermit, style and the cenobitic, monasteries
in which the residents led a communal life.
These Egyptian ascetics each lived very
similar lives to the others of their type. They took vows of chastity and
poverty, and if part of a monastic community, obedience to the abbot. They
practiced long and frequent fasts, some abstained from alcohol and meat,
and they supported themselves by doing services for the lay people nearby,
such as helping with labor or the selling of some small handicrafts. The
largest monasteries were often self-sufficient, owning farms and herds,
as well as making everything they needed, from the clothes they wore to
the bread that was on their table. If they did make any money for anything
they did, they kept only what they needed to subsist and gave the rest
to the poor. While crowds of the poor often joined monasteries (vows of
poverty being nothing new to them, and at least they would have food, clothing,
and shelter), later on many of the upper class joined as Christianity spread
across class and caste. Quite a number of the latter were educated and
were employed by the Church in various intellectual occupations such as
catechists, clerks and doctors. From the very beginning, the early Christian
Church had a place and a task for everyone.