Egypt, new dimensions, new frontiers

Introduction - Facts for the travellers - Where to go, what to see? - History: Pharaonic history -
Coptic history
- Islamic history - Modern history - Holy Family - Useful Arabic

Coptic History

According to tradition, Saint Mark brought Christianity to Egypt in the reign of the Roman emperor Nero in the first century. Some of the early converts to the new faith came from within the Jewish community in Egypt, which represented the largest concentration outside of Palestine at that time.

Christianity spread throughout Egypt within half a century of Saint Mark's arrival in Alexandria, as is clear form the New Testament writings found in Bahnasa in Middle Egypt, which date around the year 200 AD, and a fragment of the Gospel of Saint John, which was founded in Upper Egypt. The Gospel is written in Coptic and dates back to the first half of the second century.

The word Coptic is derived from the Arabic corruption of the Greek "Aigyptas" which was derived from "Hitaptah" one of the names for Memphis the first capital of ancient Egypt. The modern use of the term Coptic refers to the Christian Egyptians.

In its early years in Egypt, Christianity was engaged in a lengthy struggle against the indigenous pagan religious practices descending from ancient times as well as against Hellenism which had started in Alexandria and other urban centers. To counter the appeal of Greek philosophy the Christian leadership in Egypt established the Cathecal School of Alexandria (the Didascalia) which provided intellectual refutations of Greek philosophers and sophisticated advocacy of Christianity. Nonetheless, the transformation of Egypt into a Christian country was not an entirely smooth process. There was resistance from the pagan and Hellenized elements of the population, and there were divisions within the Christian Church itself between advocates of the various theological schools evolving at this time, due to several incidents that occurred (the burning in 391AD of the pagan cult center). It is obvious that the dominance of the new religion was gained at the expense of the intellectual heterogeneity that had distinguished the city.

The pre-Islamic period for the Copts was marked by two major events, the beginning of the Coptic calendar in AD 284, in commemoration of the persecution suffered by Egypt's Christians and the establishment of an independent Egyptian Church in 451 AD, following the council of Chalcedon which condemned the monphysite theology. Thereafter the relations between Egypt's Copts and Constantinople were strained as the Copts refused to recognize the religious authority of the Patriarchs of Alexandria appointed by the Byzantine State. These clerics were given widespread administrative power, in 550 AD, against the political and the religious dominance of Egypt by the outsiders. This opposition may in part account for the Copts acceptance of the Muslim conquest in 640 AD who saw the Muslims as liberators from the Byzantine yoke.

Coptic Religion

In its spread in Egypt, Christianity had seen the development of hermeticism; the voluntary retreat of religious men and women in Egypt. The monastic tradition in fact antedated Christianity in Egypt. The Christian anchorites were distinguished from the Jewish ones by the extremes of asceticism the pursued. Such individuals as Anthony (AD 252-357) and Paul (AD 235-341) led lives of total deprivation cut off as much as possible from all human contact.

In the 4th century, monasticism developed as an organized movement under the direction of Pachomius. Pachomius gathered monks into religious communities under strict discipline and the direction of a spiritual head. These communities were located in both urban and rural settings. They had two forms; monasteries where the monks lived together as a group, and Lauras cells isolated from the main monastery physically but under its jurisdiction.

Aside from their religious and theological role, the monasteries became in time a part of the Egyptian economy during the Christian era, producing items which its quality were highly priced. By the time of the Muslim conquest the monasteries had also assumed a role in local administration as tax collectors and overseers of government policy in rural areas.

Coptic monasteries survived down to modern times as places of contemplation, learning, scholarship and retreat, though in the twentieth century far fewer young men have been drawn into the monastic life.

Coptic Art

The history of Christian Art in Egypt may be divided into two periods presenting entirely different characteristics. The first extends from the beginning of the fourth century to the Arab conquest (640-642), the second from that date to the present time. During the first period, Egypt was a province of the Byzantine Empire in the domain of art. Its art exhibits the close relations between the Nile Valley, the capital, and other provinces especially Syria. At that time Alexandria was one of the most important cities of the world as it had a remarkable position in the history of commerce, beside its eminence in the history of civilizations. Thus the artistic influences of Asia found easy access to spread throughout Egypt.

Christian art in Egypt was profoundly and almost essentially a decorative art. Walls, columns, and capitals were covered with paintings and frescos. Like the Alexandrian art, the Coptic art is extremely fond of realism, the so-called Faiyum portraits and which we find again in frescoes of Saqqara and Barvit. The Hellenistic style shows itself persistently in the decoration. Plinths have paintings in imitation of marble encrustation and friezes with circles and lozenges framing flowers, fruit baskets, birds and even portraits or symbolical figures and genre-figures.

During the second period of Christian art, Christian decoration art became in a state of complete decadence due to several political and social changes. Stone sculpture disappeared almost entirely after the 8th century; few slabs crudely droned with interlacing patterns and capitals of a very simple type are found. By the 11th Century, work in stone was completely abandoned.

Of the painting of the period we can find some examples at Deir Suryani and Deir Abu Maqar and at the Monastery of St. Simeon near Aswan, but all these frescoes show strong foreign influences mainly Armenian.

Decorative effort focused on the carving and inlay of wood. The ikonostasis of the Church of Abu Sargah of the 11th century with others formerly in the Church of El-Muallaqa, now in the British Museum, are the best examples of their kind. By the 14th century Coptic art may be said to be extinct, neither its buildings nor its decorations show sufficient character to distinguish them from the productions of Islamic art.

Coptic Langage

The Coptic language is derived from Late Egyptian, though its script is based on the Greek alphabet with the addition of seven Demotic (late Hieroglyphic) characters.

Its origins date to the third century AD when it was developed to make the Christian scriptures available to the Egyptians. It became the liturgical language of the Coptic Church after the council of Chalcedom in 451AD when the Coptic Church officially broke away from the Orthodox Church.

Subsequently Coptic was used for theological writing, liturgy, and religious purposes of a more general nature. It developed four to five regional dialects and was used to translate many Greek and Gnostic manuscripts as a spoken language. In Upper Egypt spoken Coptic appeared to persist among the Christian communities there until about the seventeenth century.

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© World INvestment NEws, 2000.
This is the electronic edition of the special country report on Egypt published in Forbes Global Magazine.
August 7th 2000 Issue.
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