James Gaffney



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

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 modern  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 brush 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 array   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.

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

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.


   Gaffney, James.
     Among the Copts. (Egyptian Christianity)
     America v169, n10 (Oct 9, 1993):15.