COPTS TROUGH THE
(By Dr. Jackie Ascott, Ph.D.)
The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria is a very conservative
which preserves most carefully the Christian Faith, in its earliest and purest
form, passed on from generation to generation, unaltered and true to the
Apostolic doctrine and patterns of worship. It is a deeply spiritual and even
mystical Church, with an emphasis upon holiness, and the Mysteries of Faith,
but at the same time it is a strongly doctrinal Church, holding faithfully to
the canons of the Holy Scripture and the Apostolic and Orthodox Creeds and
Teachings of the Church Fathers of the first three Ecumenical Councils.
The Coptic Church is one of the most ancient Churches in the World
(along side the Churches of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Rome), having been founded
by Saint Mark the Apostle, during the first century A.D. (traditionally, in
43 A.D. or 61 A.D.). Eusebius states, in his Ecclesiastic History, that Saint
Mark came to Egypt during the first or third year of the Roman Emperor
Claudius (i.e. in 41-42 A.D. or 43-44 A.D.) and he visited Alexandria again,
to preach and evangelize, between 61 and 68 A.D.
Saint Mark's first convert was a shoemaker of Alexandria, Anianus, who
was consecrated a bishop, and later succeeded him as Patriarch. Saint Mark was
the first Patriarch of the Coptic Church, and he received his martyrdom in
Alexandria on the Feast of Resurrection (Easter) in 68 A.D. at the hands of
Pagan Egyptians who were celebrating the feast of Serapis in the great temple
of Serapium. The Patriarchs of the Coptic Orthodox Church have continued in a
line of unbroken succession from Saint Mark until the present day. The current
Patriarch, Pope Shenouda III, is the one hundred and seventeenth Patriarch to
occupy the Chair of Saint Mark in the See of Alexandria. The full official
title of the Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church is "Pope and Patriarch of
the great city of Alexandria, the Middle East, Ethiopia, Nubia, and the
Throughout the years the Coptic Orthodox Church has stood firm and has
remained faithful to her Apostolic Traditions and Orthodox Faith, despite
waves of fearful persecutions under pagan Roman Emperors, and to lesser extent
under Byzantine and Arab rulers, and in the face of serious heresies that
attacked the very fiber and essence of the Christian Faith and threatened to
split the Church and all of Christendom.
The Egyptians were a deeply religious race by nature and they responded
gladly to the preaching of Christian Faith, having been left with a deep
spiritual vacuum following the final dethronement of their Pharaoh and god,
and the decline of the ancient Egyptian Religion, with its symbol of Ankh, the
triads of gods, the eminence of the gods in the land of Egypt, the national
devotion to the goddess Isis and her son Horus, the death and the resurrection
of a god, and the concepts of future judgement and immortality, had done much
to prepare the people for the coming of Christianity.
The Egyptians were naturally proud of the fact that Christ has hallowed
their land with His presence, during His earthly life. Egypt was indeed
blessed by God, as His people (Isaiah 19:25; Hosea 11:1).
In 30 B.C., after the defeat of Mark Anthony at the battle of Actium,
Egypt has been incorporated into the Roman Empire, bringing an end to the rule
of Ptolemies and sounding the final death knoll for the great 3,000 year long
Ancient Egyptian Civilization. Egypt now became the granary of Rome, and a
source of personal wealth for the Emperor, which resulted in a serious drain
upon the resources of the land and the people. However, the external Roman
imperial conflicts and troubles over succession to the throne did not directly
affect Egypt, and she enjoyed a period of little political change, in which
the major event and development was the spread of Christianity throughout the
By the end of the Second Century, Christianity was well established in
Egypt, although there were still pockets of paganism existing side by side
with the new Faith. By 190 A.D., the great Church of Alexandria was exchanging
Paschal epistles with the Churches of Jerusalem and Antioch, concerning the
date of Easter, and there were about forty Bishoprics, under the Patriarch of
Alexandria, in the North of the country (in the Delta area). By 202 A.D.
Eusebius mentioned that there were Christians in the whole Thebaid, in Upper
Egypt, 800 km up the Nile Valley. Saint Athanasius states, in his Festal
letters, that there were Christians in the small and large oases, in the heart
of the desert, by 329 A.D.
During the first centuries of the Christian Church, the famous
Catechetical School of Alexandria was an important light and means of
instruction in the Christian Faith and the study of theology, as well as of
knowledge in the Sciences, and the need to discuss and interpret their faith
within the philosophical and intellectual milieu of Alexandria scholarship
The pre-Christian school had been founded by Ptolemy Soter in 323 B.C.,
and during the region of Ptolemy Philadelphus in 288 B.C., it was developed to
include, not only Greek philosopher, but also other nationalities, such as the
70 Jewish Rabbis who worked on the Septuagint Greek translation of the Old
Testament in Alexandria. The School of Alexandria contained the world famous
Library and Museum (the Pagan School), and it became the major set of learning
and philosophy for the whole of the Ancient Hellenistic World.
The Christian School of Alexandria (called Didascalium) offered
instruction in the Christian faith and theology, along side study of the civil
science, such as philosophy, medicine, physics, chemistry, anatomy, physiology,
mathematics, geometry, astronomy, history, geography, music, and ancient and
modern languages. It was open for Catechumens (pagans who believed in Christ
but who had not yet been baptized), and for Deacons or Christian students who
desired a deeper knowledge and understanding of Christian Doctrine and Faith,
as well as for pagans students who were still searching for the Truth.
According to Tradition, St. Mark had opened the first Christian
Catechetical School in Alexandria for the instruction of the new converts, and
during the following two centuries, the Didascalium developed and expanded
under the Deanship of great philosophers and doctors of theology, such as
Athenagoras, Pantaenus, St. Clement of Alexandria, Origen, St. Athanasius and,
St. Didymus the Blind.
Under the supervision of St. Pantaenus and St. Clement, the New
Testament was translated from Greek into Coptic, a translation which is still
highly respected and used to this day in the Coptic Orthodox Church. The
Catechetical School of Alexandria has also the Canon of Holy Scripture.
Several of the early Deans of the School also became Patriarchs, like Abba
Justus, the first dean of the School, who became the 6th Patriarch (132-143
A.D.); Abba Eumanius, 7th Patriarch (143-154 A.D.); Abba Markianos, 8th
Patriarch (154-163 A.D.); Abba Heraclus, 13th Patriarch (232-249 A.D.); Abba
Dionysius, 14th Patriarch (249-270 A.D.); Abba Petros, the "Seal of the
Martyrs", 17th Patriarch (293-303 A.D.), and Abba Archelaus, 18th Patriarch
(303 A.D.). Other distinguished teachers or graduates of the school became
Patriarchs of the Coptic Church, among whom were Abba Alexandros, 19th
Patriarch (303-326 A.D); St. Athanasius the Apostolic, 20th Patriarch (378-384
A.D.); Abba Kyrillos "The Pillar of Faith", 24th Patriarch (412-443 A.D.) and
Abba Dioscorus, "The Interpid Hero", 25th Patriarch (444-456 A.D.). These
early Patriarchs were considered the "Guardians of Orthodoxy" and their
learning earned them the reputation of "Universal Teachers".
Graduates from other theological schools, in other parts of the
Christian World, later came to study at the school of Alexandria, including
St. Gregory the Theologian (329-389 A.D.); St. Basil the Great (330-379 A.D.);
St. John Chrysostom (347-407 A.D.); St. Jerome (342-420 A.D.) and St. Rufinus
(345-410 A.D.). Thus the School of Alexandria became the Lighthouse of
Christianity, for a span of five centuries, until the reign of Justinian (529
A.D.). After 451 A.D. and the Council of Chalcedon, the Emperors of
Constantinople, in their persecution against the Copts, closed the school and
carried away most of the books, The main center of learning for the Coptic
Church was then transferred to the Monastery of St. Macarius, in the Wadi
El-Natroun desert, where it continued for several centuries.
The Church of Egypt enjoyed peace for almost the first two centuries of
her existence, until A.D. 203, when the Emperor Septimus Severus issued an
edict forbidding conversions to both Christianity and Judaism. Torture,
martyrdom, and the temporary closure of the School at Alexandria resulted.
Great persecutions were suffered under Emperor Decius (249-251 A.D.) and in
250 A.D., an imperial edict decreed the enforced offering of worship of idols
by every Roman subject, upon the penalty of execution. Cruel persecutions of
the Christians continued under Emperor Gaius (251-253 A.D.) and under Emperor
Valerian (253-260 A.D.), until the Edict of Tolerance, issued by his successor,
Gallienus (260-268 AD), which brought a temporary end to the persecution and
allowed churches to be built.
However, this period of peace was only a short respite, for with the
acceptance to the imperial throne of "Diocletian" in A.D. 284, the most severe
and bloodiest period of persecution of the Coptic Church began. In A.D. 303,
"Diocletian" issued a decree that ordered all churches to be demolished, all
Scriptures and sacred books be burnt and all Christians, who were not
officials, to be made slaves. This intense period of persecution resulted in
the widespread of torture and the martyrdom of thousands of Christians,
because of their courageous testimony for Christ. So many Coptic Christians
lost their lives during this period, for their faith, that the Coptic Church
dates her calendar from A.D. 284, the year of accession to the imperial throne
of Diocletian, and the beginning of the Era of Martyrs (Anno Martyri or A.M.).
After the Abdication of Diocletian and the succession of Galerius
(305-311 A.D.) and Maximinus Daia (311-313 A.D.), there was a brief respite
for Egyptian Christians, but it was not long before a new Edict of Persecution
was issued by these two rulers. Only after the accession to the imperial
throne of Constantine the Great, his conversion to Christianity and the Edict
of Tolerance in A.D. 313, after the Battle of Milan, did Christianity become
the recognized religion of the Empire, and the waves of cruel persecution
under the pagan Roman emperors finally ceased. The Martyrdom in A.D. 312, of
St. Peter, the "Seal of the Martyrs", 17th Patriarch of Alexandria, has set
the seal on this terrible period of persecution of the Egyptian Church.
The Coptic Synaxarion (selected biographies of Martyrs and Saints for
Each day of the year) and the Coptic "Difnar" (Antiphones for the Saint or
Saints of the day) are full of stories of these courageous Martyrs. The Feast
day of the martyrs is still celebrated on 1 TUT, the first day of the Coptic
New Year (11/12 September), to commemorate the faithfulness of these men,
woman and children martyrs, whose blood indeed became the "seed of the Church"
Between these waves of persecution however, Christianity spread through
Egypt quite rapidly, helped by the siege of Alexandria, which resulted in the
movement and importation of soldiers, many of whom were Christians, and also
encouraged by zealous and fearless witness of the Martyrs and Confessors. The
New faith spread first to Fayoum, which was visited by Anba "Dionysius" in
about A.D. 257, and then about 100 km further south. It does not seem to have
reached much beyond this until after the time of Decius.
After the edict of tolerance, issued by Gallienus in A.D. 260,
Christianity quickly spread further south into the Thebaid, and it was here
that the great persecutions of Diocletian were most greatly felt. However,
Christianity was still not the the religion of the majority of Egyptians, even
in the North, although by the end of the 3rd century, over one hundred
Bishoprics were established in Egypt. It was only during the 4th Century that
the pagan masses of Middle and Upper Egypt were in stages won to Christianity.
In A.D. 300, in Oxyrhynchus, there were still twelve Temples and only two
Churches. During the 5th Century the situation was reversed and by the 6th
Century there were thirty Churches in the vicinity.
After A.D. 313 and the Edict of Tolerance, issued by Constantine the
Great, Egypt entered into a new era in her history, now under Christian
Byzantine rule that was to last until the Islamic Conquest in A.D. 641,
Christianity was officially recognized in Egypt, as it was through the
Mediterranean world, and the Imperial capital was transferred from the West to
Byzantium, which was also renamed Constantinopole. With the new freedom of the
Church, a rapid growth of Christianity took place in Egypt, resulting in a
mass conversion of the pagan Egyptians to the Christian faith, as is
documented in the manuscripts of episcopal lists and monastic writings.
(*) It is conceivable that an addition may now be made to this title regarding
all the countries of emigration in which there are members of the Coptic
Orthodox Church. (Al-Keraza)
Source : Al-Keraza magazine 1(1), 1(2), 1(3).