(By Dr. Jackie Ascott, Ph.D.)



The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria is a very conservative Church,
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
Pentapolis (*).

       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
and learning.

       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).