An informative and interesting overview about the Coptic Orthodox Church from the perspective of an outsider. James Gaffney, professor of religious studies at Loyola University in New Orleans, wrote this article after studying and travelling Egypt in the summer of 1992 under a fellowship from the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations.
A long walk or short ride from the center of modern Cairo lies that city’s old Coptic Quarter, strangely combining monumental grandeur and contemporary squalor, where a wonderful museum and majestic ancient churches, Greek as well as Coptic, various mosques, and a once dilapidated but currently redecorated synagogue bestride narrow alleys, several meters below the level of major streets. It is often flooded and in places awash with tides of sewage. For a summer visitor, the cool and the quiet partly compensate for the unwelcome odors.
Although this subterranean neighborhood is starkly poor and other foreigners had told me it was sinister, I experienced only cordial responses to my garbled Arabic greetings and eagerness to help with my even more garbled seekings of directions. I never met a beggar there, and when I offered my sole stick of candy to a tattered and skinny child he promptly broke it into three pieces, consuming one, giving another to a very old woman and the third to a very young puppy. That these people were not Coptic Arabs became clear with their response to the prayer call from a neighboring minaret.
The Coptic population of the Coptic Quarter has grown small and continues to diminish. In the midst of this rather labyrinthine urban habitat is a walled courtyard through whose open gate appears the open doorway of a large stone building inscribed, in Arabic and French, Coptic Convent. Entering with some diffidence, I was immediately greeted in fluent French, and then, when my accent was noted, in equally fluent English, by one of two habited nuns seated at a small table in the center of a large, otherwise unfurnished room. As I talked, at considerable length, with this highly articulate, witty, well- informed, widely-traveled modem woman, costumed like a figure in a medieval painting, it happened again and again that small groups, each comprising a man, woman and one or more children, crossed the room, disappeared into a sort of tunnel, and later reappeared and exited.
Noticing my obvious curiosity about these silently recurring visits, my hostess asked me if I should like to see what they were doing. She took me into the stone corridor, just inside of which was a shrine, whose central decoration was a massive iron chain hung over spikes in the wall. These were, I was told, according to legend, the shackles of St. George, now a cherished relic associated with a local ritual. When a family entered the little chapel, the father took the chain and laid it first across his own shoulders and then across those of his wife and of each child. Feeling the weight of the chain, they prayed for the saint to protect them and sustain their courage and faith in time of persecution. When I asked the nun if the rite was much used, she replied, with a sad smile, that she could not remember a time when it was so much used as now. Only then did she ask me if I was a Christian, then if I should like her to lay the chains on me and if, while she prayed for me and my family, I would offer a prayer for her people “in this terrible time.”
I knew, of course, what she meant, and had already visited towns in Upper Egypt where Muslim attackers had driven Coptic residents from ancestral homes and left others in constant dread of renewed harassment. I had also learned how crudely and cruelly our easy references to “Islamic fundamentalism” tar with a single brash various groups of religiously motivated reformers, many of whom deplore violence and most of whom exert themselves in tasks of compassionate social improvement. But the terrorists are there, apparently in increasing numbers and with decreasing restraint.
Assaults on tourists, politicians and intellectuals tend to monopolize the headlines, even in Egypt, but conversations with Muslims as well as Copts leave no doubt of the extent to which epidemic violence has shattered the interreligious harmony that was for so long a basis of pride in Egyptian civilization. Among thoughtful Egyptians everywhere one finds both shame at these sad developments and fear that measures will be taken to deal with them that will only compound the atrocity.
Somehow, it was that hidden ritual of martyrdom in the little Cairo chapel of St. George that impressed upon me more than anything else how profoundly one of the oldest Christian communities on earth is pervaded by a sense of ever-present and ever-growing menace. Copts are extraordinarily conscious of their antiquity, and their pride in peaceful coexistence with Muslims is partly pride in the solid spiritual strength that was theirs for so many centuries before Muhammad was born.
It is interesting to linger in the entryway of a Coptic church in Cairo and look over the army of pamphlets and books set up for sale along with devotional objects. Prominent among them, in Arabic and European bilingual texts, but in formats clearly intended for popular consumption, are detailed historical, philological and theological analyses of the great Christological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries that led, after the Council of Chalcedon, to the separation of Egyptian Monophysite Christianity from the Roman communion. Leaflets are on sale containing extracts from the “Father of Church History,” Eusebius, testifying to the Egyptian church’s founding by St. Mark the Evangelist. There are countless pamphlets, some designed for very young children, about ancient saints of the Egyptian church and their worthy successors in recent times, and an abundance of material, writings, photographs and maps devoted to the revered establishments in the desert, southwest of Alexandria and the Nile delta, where Christian monasticism was born, thrived and reached maturity so many hundreds of years before St. Benedict.
There in the western desert, connected by roads to Alexandria and Cairo, the monasteries still stand, some on original foundations, many on ancient ones and some expanding with new construction. A vast new ecclesiastical structure, designed for pilgrims, rises on the supposed burial place of the: revered third-century martyr, St. Menas, loved and popularized by the last pope of the Coptic church. Ironically, a few miles away, archaeologists have identified and excavated the real ancient site of Abu Mina (Menas), where legends of an oasis, fed by a miraculous spring that rose up when the saint’s body was laid to rest at a place indicated by two camels, have been amazingly reinforced by discovery that a well-watered settlement did indeed exist beneath the present surface of utter aridity.
Over the well-maintained roads that lead beyond Wadi Natrun to these revered strongholds of Coptic spirituality, the worshipers and pilgrims do indeed come, in crowded buses, private cars and on the backs of camels and donkeys. I found crowds of great diversity at Sunday services–the ancient liturgy of St. Basil, surrounded by icons of the illustrious Egyptian fathers of the church–and the monks eager to escort even persons as foreign as myself into the very thick of their worshiping throng. After the liturgy, laypeople sit or stroll in the monastery gardens and guest quarters, all of them in earnest conversation with one or more of the monks.
Strangers like myself, if they show an interest that seems to go beyond picturesque snapshots, are entrusted to linguistically appropriate novices. On commending my escorts on their colloquial mastery of my native tongue, I was told that all the novices were competent at that sort of thing, because the monasteries accepted only college graduates, and many novices held graduate and professional degrees. My evident surprise and my further question whether many candidates could be found possessing such qualifications provoked a polite smile and the assurance that over the past decade vocations had increased enormously, more than tenfold in some of the most thriving monasteries, despite the new demanding academic qualifications for admission. Yes, they had heard that clerical vocations were sharply declining in the Roman church, although they had not known the decline also affected monasticism. To my questions about what had occasioned the burgeoning of monastic vocations among them, they replied only in terms of an atmosphere of intensifying spirituality, a kind of religious awakening, combined with an immemorial conviction that monasticism lies at the very heart of Christian religion.
It was only among older monks and educated laypeople that I heard a further attempt to explain this reinvigorated monasticism. They associated it with the intensification of Muslim religious concerns, and also with that aspect of Islamic renewal which had erupted in violence against their own community. There was among religious Egyptian Christians, they felt, no less than among Muslims, a growing revulsion from secularity, a growing suspicion of Western culture as having discarded its spirituality, and a growing need for immersion in an unambiguously religious milieu. Political Islam, Sufi revivalism and Coptic monastic flourishing seemed to them different ways of responding to an essentially common fear and a common hope, a fear of that “death of faith” which seemed to pervade the West, and a hope for “spiritual life” in an environment that nourished such life. That was why the pilgrims and worshipers came. That was why the novices stayed.
And that was even, it was suggested, why some Muslims terrorized their people in a tragically perverse way. It was a craving for concentrated, purified religious community, and a corresponding resentment of diversity and dilution, that were blamed for so many social and spiritual ills. The persecution was wicked and wrong-headed, and yet it was perceived even by some of its victims as the distortion and perversion of motives and insights originally sound.
But here, too, I was more than once reminded, there is a paradox that Coptic Christians must not forget. Did I know from what point in history the Coptic church dated its birth? No, it was not 451, when the Council of Chalcedon drove them into separation to preserve their orthodoxy. And no, it was not some first-century date associated with St. Mark the Evangelist’s establishment of the church in Egypt. No, the Coptic era is understood to have begun in the year 284. The significance of the year escaped me, and I was only more puzzled at being reminded that that was the year of accession of the Emperor Diocletian. Yes, it was Diocletian who brought to birth the spiritual community of the Copts, and he did so by unleashing upon them the Great Persecution. Out of that cruel and bloody time arose a real church, one that could call the cross its standard without hypocrisy, one that had learned how much one can afford to lose if one finds and keeps Christ. It was out of that lesson of martyrdom that they had learned the importance of monasticism for keeping the lesson alive. A terrible time, yes, unquestionably. But also, I was several times reminded, a fruitful time.
It was a classics professor at Alexandria-himself a Muslim, with whom I shared these observations–who recalled the appropriate text: Sanguis martyrum semen Christianorum (“the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians”). “Is not that what Christians say?” he asked.
Yes, that is what they say. There are, among the Copts, many who appear to mean it.