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The Coptic Contribution to

Christian Civilisation

 

 

 

By the late Prof. Aziz Surial Atteya

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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H.H. Pope Shenouda III, 117th Pope of

Alexandria and the See of St. Mark

 

 

 

 

 

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The Coptic Contribution to

Christian Civilisation

 

By the late Prof. Aziz Surial Atteya

 

 

 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

The  Copts  occasionally  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  (451AD), which  was  followed  by  a  new  wave  of  persecution  inflicted upon  them  by  fellow  Christians  and  Byzantine  rulers.  Though not  unknown  to  medieval  and  early  modern  travellers  from Europe,  Western  Christendom  appeared  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 and  introduce  you  to

 

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some of the relevant data about the 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 - 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 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”. 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, largely for political and administrative reasons,  some  Copts  contend  that  they  are  ten  million,  which may  be  an  exaggeration.  A  conservative  estimate  may  be  set between six and seven million until an authoritative and factual census,   now   being   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 Coptic Alexadrine Christianity must be reckoned in excess  of  thirty  million,  making  the  Copt  Church  one  of  the

 

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largest religious units in Eastern Christendom.

The  origins  of  Coptic  Chrisitianity  need  no  great  elaboration. St.  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 paganisms 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 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   Codex   Sinaiticus,   the   Codex   Alexandrinus,   the Vaticanus  and  the  Codex  Ephraemi  Syri  Rescriptus,  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 312AD. 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,   now   in   Dublin,   Ireland.   These manuscripts have been dated by the classical scholar V. Wilcken

at  about  200AD.  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.  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.

 

 

 

 

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THE 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 200AD. The first mention of it was in the life of Pantaenus, its first president, who died in 190 AD. 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 the Hypatia

in 415AD, 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 may be 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,  the founding  father  and  first  president  of  the  School,  started  by bridging  the  gap  between  dynastic  Egypt  and  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 of Alexandria, a liberal who wanted

to reconcile Christian tenets with Greek philosophy. The School finally came of age under Origen, 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

 

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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, a collation of texts of the Bible in six  columns  from  Greek  and  Hebrew  sources,  is  only  one instance  of  his  gigantic  contributions.  His  labors  in  exegesis 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 from which all students of divinity start to this day. His philosophy  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 anit-origenist schools of thought. His pupils included some of  the  most  illustrious  divines  of  all  time.  Among  them  was Heraclas (230-46) whose preferment to the throne of St. Mark carried with it the title of   “Pope for the first time in history and  long  before  the  Bishop  of  Rome  (Episcopus  Romanorum Servus Servorum 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 St. Gregory Nazienzen, St. Basil, St Jerome and Rufinus, the ecclesiastical historian. It as 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  (332—63)  and  in  which  the  Museion  was

 

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liquidated as the last refuge of Neoplatonist pagan philosophy. In  summary,  the  foundation  of  an  institutionalised  system  of Christian   divinity   was   laid   down   within   the   walls   of   the Catechetical School of Alexandria and in the 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 in its 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 Oecumenical Movement, in which the hierarchy of all churches met to decide what was canonical and what was uncanonical in Christian beliefs and traditions.

 

 

 

THE OECUMENICAL MOVEMENT

 

This movement began as early as the reign of Constantine the Great, under whom Christianity was recognized as the religion of   the   state   by   the   Edict   of   Milan   in   312AD.   With   the disappearance              of           Roman  persecution  against which                          the Christians  had  to  present  a  united  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 imperiled the peace of the  Empire.  Perhaps  the  most  dangerous  situation  occurred  in Alexandria  in  the  war  of  words  which  broke  out  between  the

 

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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, 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 is unequal in eternity. Note that the 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 Oecumenical  Movement  by  calling  to  order  the  Council  of Nicaea  in  325  under  the  presidency  of  the  old  bishop  of Alexandria.  This  was  Alexandros  (d.328),  who  came  with  a young  and  able  deacon,  the  future  Athanasius,  destined  to follow him on the throne of St. Mark. Athanasius was of course the  moving  spirit  behind  the  throne.  Against  some  accepted views  in  the  science  of  petrology,  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.  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  St.  Anthony  the  Great,  whose  life  he

 

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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, one at Constantinople (381) and two at Ephesus (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 I, 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 Dioscorus I, a Coptic patriarch, the formula of Cyril  the  Great  (412-44)  was  accepted,  and  Nestorius  and  his teaching was condemned, leading to the schism of the Nestorian

 

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Church. What matters here is the question of Coptic leadership

in  definitions  of  Christology.  St.  Cyril  was  succeeded  by  his nephew,           the                  aforementioned            Dioscorus    I    (444-54),    a determined and active theologian whom the Copts describe as a pillar  of  the  faith,  while  the  Romans  stigmatized  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  in  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  way,  the  Copts  lost  their  leadership  in  Christendom. Chalcedon of course was not recognized by them, and from that moment,  we  begin  two  parallel  lines  of  succession  from  St. Mark,  the  one  a  Melkite  obediantiary  to  Byzantium,  and  the other proudly nationalistic of native Coptic stock. Thus initiated

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.

 

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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 civilization.   Parallel   to   the   Catechetical   School   and   the Oecumenical 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, 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 into Europe, it was destined to become the sole custodian of culture and Christian civilization

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  St. Anthony (d.336), though organized 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  (d.161).  Anthony  himself,  while penetrating   deeper   and   deeper   into   the   Eastern   Desert, assuming that he was in perfect solitude with the Lord, suddenly discovered St. 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

 

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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 you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven." (Matt. 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-defense

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  the Eastern Desert, others arose in the Thebaid in Upper Egypt as well as the Nitrean Valley 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 St. Pachomius22  (d.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

 

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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 time. The new Rule of St. 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 humanization   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  copyists  of manuscripts   -   all   living   in   complete   harmony   and   perfect discipline  within  a  structure  that  looked  like  a  vast  Roman

 

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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 organized 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, Cappadocians, 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  medieval  world.  We  know  that  during one of his exiles in Europe, St. Athanasius spoke about Coptic monasteries  at  the  Roman  Curia  of  Julius  I  (337-52).  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

 

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fathers of the desert, we must begin with St. Jerome (ca. 342-

420),  who  translated  the  Regula  Sancti  Pachomii  into  Latin, which must have been used by St. Benedict of Nursia (ca. 480-

550)  in  composing  his  famous  Rule.  Others  included  St.  John Chrysostom     (ca.                       347-407);             Rufinus    (ca.    345-410),    the renowned  ecclesiastical  historian;  St.  Basil  (ca.  330-79),  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 St. Pachoniius; St. John Cassian23  (ca. 360-435), the father  of  monasticism  in  Gaul,  who  is  known  to  have  spent seven years in the Thebaid and Nitrea, Palladius24 (ca. 365-425), Bishop  of  Helenopolis  in  Bithynia,  who  complied  the  lives  of the  desert  fathers  in  "The  Lausiac  History";  St.  Augen  or Eugenius of Clysma (d. ca. 363), 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  St.  Pachomius  continued  to  influence European  monasticism  beyond  the  Middle  Ages.  St.  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

 

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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 who spent years of their lives

in the monasteries of Nitrea 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, St.  Mark  must  have  been  accompanied  to  the  Pentapolis  by Alexandrine   helpers.      Educationally,  the   natives   of   the Pentapolis looked toward Egypt. Synesius of Cyrene (ca. 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  of  the  pagan  Neoplatonists,  whose  classes  he  had attended.  Synesius was raised to the episcopate by Theophilus, patriarch of Alexandria, in 410.   Since the Council of Nicea in

325,   Cyrenaica   had   been   recognized   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

 

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this 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 where 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. In the fifth century, good relations are recorded between the monastic order of the great  St.  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  (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 the same time. It would appear that the Coptic victory was complete by

559,  and  through  the  sympathy  and  connivance  of  Empress

 

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Theodora, and in defiance of court injunctions, a monophysite bishop,  Longinus,  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  St.  Simeon  (Anba Hidra),  which  stood  at  a  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  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". 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.  The  next  contact  with  monotheism  occurred  when the   eunuch   in   the   service   of   "Candace,   Queen   of   the Ethiopians," encountered the Apostle Philip on his return from Jerusalem by way of Gaza. Here, however, the Nubian queen is confused  with  the  Ethiopian.  Historic  evidence  shows  that Ethiopia  remained  pagan  until  the  fourth  century  A.  D.  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

 

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India  and  were  shipwrecked  on  the  Red  Sea  coast  near  the shores   of   Erythria.   They   were   picked   up   by   men   of   the Ethiopian monarch, probably King Ella Amida, who took them into     his           service.                 Aedesius       became          his   cup-bearer,               and Frumentius 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 convey the news to the Patriarch Athanasius and to plead with him  to  consecrate  a  special  bishop  to  watch  over  the  spiritual welfare      of      those    distant  Christians.     The     meeting               with Athanasius   was   presumably   between   341   and   3463.   The patriarch appointed Frumentius himself under the name of Anba Salama,  that  is,  “the  father  of  peace34.  The  new  bishop  of Axum  finally  returned  to  his  see  in  or  before  356,  no  doubt accompanied                   by    presbyters         to        help    in         the       process               of evangelisation of the kingdom and the establishment of churches

in the country. In 356 the Emperor Constantius, an Arian, wrote

to Aeizanus to withdraw the Orthodox Frumentius, but without avail.  After  the  Council  of  Chalcedon  in  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 of the century, crowning  the  labor  of  the  Copts  in  Africa.  Further  east,  the Copts emerged in the missionary field in Asia, though of course on a more modest scale. It is very difficult to generalize 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

 

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founder of monasticism in Mesopotamia and the Persian empire, making  a  considerable  impact  on  both  Syrian  and  Assyrian Christianity37.   As   early   as   the   second   century   the   great Pantaenus  (d.  ca.  190),  who  presided  over  the  Catechetical School  of  Alexandria,  was  chosen  by  Demetrius  I,  the  Coptic patriarch  of  Alexandria  to  preach  the  Gospel  in  India38.  After accomplishing his mission, he visited Arabia Felix (the 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,  who  later  became  a  monk  in  Sinai  and  left  an account  of  his  travels,  now  in  St.  Catherine's  monastery.  He speaks  of  Christian  communities  with  their  bishops  in  the Persian   Gulf,   the   existence   of   Christians   in   the   island   of Socotra, and the yet more numerous Christians of St. 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 in Trier, 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 civilization as a whole.

In those days the stream of pilgrims who came from the west to visit   the   Egyptian   wilderness   with   its   hermits   and   monks

 

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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 (ca. 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 Institutes41 and the Conferences. 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 medieval Europe. St. Benedict of Nursia used them when he codified his rule in the sixth century. After   spending   some   time   with   St.   John   Chrysostom   in Constantinople   on   his   return   journey,   John   Cassian   was ordained priest, probably in Rome, before settling down in the neighborhood of Marseilles, where he has been accredited with the   introduction   of   Egyptian   monasticism   into   Gaul.   At Marseilles, above the shrine of St. Victor, who was martyred by Emperor Maximian (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.  In  the catacombs  below  the  present  day  fort  of  St.  Victor  will  be found  numerous  archaeological  remains,  including  sarcophagi with stone carvings and sculptures which portray in animal and plant  motifs  the  direct  influence  of  early  Coptic  art.  On  the island  of  St.  Honorat,  off  the  coast  at  Cannes,  there  is  an  old monastery where the monks explain to visitors that they use the rule of St. Pachomius of the Thebaid.

Wherever   the   Roman   legions   went,   they   apparently   were

 

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followed  by  Christian  missionaries.  To  Switzerland  a  mission from Thebes, according to local legend or tradition, arrived in the   year   285   with   the   Theban   legion.   It   was   led   by   St. Mauritius, 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  baptized  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. Legend says that as they were beheaded a voice from heaven called to them: "Arise, for the angels shall take you to Paradise and set upon your heads the martyr's crown." Thus the bodies  arose,  and,  taking  their  heads  in  their  hands,  walked forty   ells44     uphill   to   a   prepared   ditch,   where   they   sleep underneath what 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 medieval  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 variation has been recounted about the town of Solothurn, and the name

of St. 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  medieval  Europe.  Long before  the  coming  of  St.  Augustine  of  Canterbury  in  597, Christianity   had   been   introduced   among   the   Britons.   The eminent  historian  Stanley  Lane-Poole  says,  "We  do  not  yet

 

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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 civilizing  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.

Even when we review Coptic heresies and heretics, it behoves 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. Perhaps the most striking feature in the history  of  the  barbarians  as  they  descended  on  the  Roman Empire was the spread of Arianism in their midst. The Goths, Visigoths, Vandals, Burgundians, and Lombards must have had their apostles of Arian Christianity. Perhaps the best known is Ulphilas (ca. 311-83), apostle to the Goths, who was probably of Cappadocian birth, who knew the Gothic language as well as Greek, and who translated the Bible into the Gothic tongue for the first time. But Arianism, it must be remembered, was purely an  Alexandrine  creation,  and  its  founder  was  the  heresiarch Arius, a Libyan native of Alexandria. It is only logical to assume

 

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that  the  followers  of  Arius  or  their  disciples  were  responsible for the spread of that heresy from Egypt to the Germanic and barbarian tribes beyond the Danube and the Rhine.

 

 

 

COPTIC MUSIC

 

On the subject of music, we are constrained to seek the opinion of the specialist. In 1927 the great English musicologist Ernest Newlandsmith 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."  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.  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

 

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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   has   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 vigor, Coptic art has earned for itself a position of independence in Christian antiquity. The motifs


 

The arm of the Lord on the shoulder of St. Mina in friendship. 6 th century, The Louvre, France


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   weavers   dexterity   produced   fantastic   scenes   from classical antiquity, which were replaced, from the fourth century

 

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or  a  little  earlier,  by  Christian  themes.  In  the  early  Islamic period,  the  figures  became  increasingly  stylized  but  retained their  special  vigor,  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. In 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  architects  to  copy  existing  models  of  their ancestral master builders of antiquity, more especially as these old  structures  appeared  to  fulfill  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.

 

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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 baptized Christians, while a third section at