The history of Christianity in Egypt dates back verily to the beginnings of Christianity itself. Many Christians hold that Christianity was brought to Egypt by the Apostle Saint Mark in the early part of the first century AD. Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, in his Ecclesiastic History states that Saint Mark first came to Egypt between the first and third year of the reign of Emperor Claudius, which would make it sometime between AD 41 and 44, and that he returned to Alexandria some twenty years later to preach and evangelize. Saint Mark’s first convert in Alexandria was Anianus, a shoemaker who later was consecrated a bishop and became Patriarch of Alexandria after Saint Mark’s martyrdom. This succession of Patriarchs has remained unbroken down to the present day, making the Egyptian Christian, or Coptic, Church one of the oldest Christian churches in existence. Evidence for this age comes in the form of the oldest Biblical papyri discovered in remote regions of Upper Egypt. These papyri are written in the Coptic script and are older than even the oldest Greek copies of the Bible ordered by Constantine in AD 312. The Egyptians before Christianity had always been a deeply religious people, and many readily embraced the young religion, having had their old beliefs effectively destroyed by the coming of the Roman Empire and the final dethroning of the god-king Pharaohs. Many of the concepts of Christianity were already familiar to the Egyptians from their ancient religion, such as the death and resurrection of a god, the idea of the judgement of souls and a paradisiacal afterlife for the faithful. The ankh too, the Egyptian symbol for eternal life, is very similar to that of the cross revered by Christians (especially in the form of the Coptic cross, seen at right), itself also a symbol for eternal life. Furthermore, the belief that God had chosen Egypt as a safe place for His infant son to hide him from Herod was a great source of pride to the Egyptian Christians. It was through Christianity that the Egyptian culture survived the Roman Dominion.
The Church Suffering and Victorious
Yet these formative years were not without problems. Throughout this time Christianity in Egypt was locked in an often deadly struggle against the polytheistic religions of the Greco-Roman culture as well as the Hellenistic movement that began in Alexandria spread to other large cities. To counter Hellenistic philosophy that often criticized the young religion the Christian leaders in Egypt established a catechetical school in Alexandria, the Didascalia, founded in the late second century AD. This school became the heart of what can only be called Christian philosophy, and great teachers and orators such as Clement and Origen were able to battle the Hellenistic philosophers on their own ground and advocate Christianity in an orderly and intellectual manner. It was also in this great university of Christian learning that Christianity first underwent rigorous studies that created its first theology and dogma, as well as making the new faith accessible to all. Pantaenus, the founder and first dean of the Didascalia, helped the Egyptian people bridge the gap between Dynastic Egypt and the new era by promoting the use of the Greek alphabet instead of the Demotic (“cursive” hieroglyphics) in translations of the Bible as well as in the writing of religious theses and letters. Additionally, the school educated everyone who came to it in Greek, opening the study of religion to just about everyone, and making as many people as possible literate.
Yet the greatest persecutions on the young religion came at the hands of the Roman government. Emperor Nero had set the precedent in AD 64, about the same time as the martyrdom of Saint Peter. It was unusual, for the actual offense was simply to be a Christian or to profess the Christian faith, rather than any kind of criminal acts that might go along with it (such as those later falsely attributed to Medieval heretics). An arrested Christian could receive a pardon simply by offering incense on a Roman altar, but many refused to do so, citing scripture passages urging faith in the one God. Thus the true “crime” of the persecuted Christians was their refusal to do homage to the Roman gods, including the emperor. Those who did refuse to bow to the Roman religion were imprisoned, often tortured, thrown to the wild animals in the coliseum, or suffered execution by any number of other means. Rather than discouraging the Christians, these actions encouraged them and reinforced their faith, echoing the words of Jesus that those who suffered persecution because of his name were truly blessed. These heroes of the Christians were called “martyrs,” a word that means “witnesses.” In the first century this persecution was largely done by the government, though after a few decades they seem to have lost interest (or become fearful of the sect) and in the second and early third centuries the mobs took over the persecutions. Decius and Diocletian, in the 250s and early 300s respectively, brought the imperium back into the persecution, but it was clear by this time it was a losing battle as Christianity had penetrated even into the highest levels of society.
It was in Egypt that some of the greatest defiances of the Romans by Christians were done. While their Roman counterparts worshipped in catacombs and underground vaults, the Egyptian Christians built their churches openly and performed their ceremonies in full view of the Empire. And for every one that the Empire struck down, more would be converted by the example of the martyr. Diocletian was particularly brutal, executing so many Christians in 284 alone that the Coptic Church dates its calendar, the Calendar of the Martyrs (Anno Martyri) from that time. Despite these persecutions, Christianity seems to have grown rapidly in Egypt, spreading to Fayoum in 257 via Anba Dionysius, and in 260 even down into the Thebaid. But in 306 something happened that would change the destiny of Christianity forever: Constantine became emperor.
Actually, he became one of the emperors. The Roman Empire of the time used the Tetrarchy, or Rule of Four. There was one Augustus and one Caesar each for the eastern and western parts of the Empire. One of Constantine’s first acts as Augustus was to end the persecution of Christians where he had been campaigning in Gaul (France), Spain, and Britain. It is unknown where Constantine got his initial respect for Christianity, but it is thought that his mother was a Christian. Shortly afterwards Galerius, the Eastern Augustus, issued an edict of toleration for Christianity, ending persecutions in Greece and the surrounding area. Maximinus Daia (not to be confused with Maximinus the Thracian) however, responded by increasing persecutions in his territory of Egypt.
The story is told that once before the Battle of Milvian Bridge (by which Constantine took complete control of the Western Empire) when the odds were greatly against him, Constantine beseeched God for help, praying in the Christian fashion, and won the day. He later adopted the Chi-Rho, a stylized monogram of the first letters of “Christus,” as his standard, and led his armies to victory after victory. Because of this, Constantine was even more well-disposed towards the Christians, though he himself was not baptized a Christian until his deathbed. In 313 together with Licinius, the eastern Augustus, he developed a policy of religious tolerance throughout the Empire and for the first time in many many decades there was a social peace. People were free to worship as they pleased and the Christian Church was allowed to own property, making it much easier to build permanent churches. Additionally, Christianity was made the official state religion, freeing it at least from persecution by the Imperium. Constantine’s order giving religious freedom to all under his rule is known as the Edict of Milan or more properly, the Edit of Tolerance, and was the forerunner of other religious laws such as those found in the American Constitution and the Lateran Treaty of 1949, part of which created Vatican City.
Feeling that his power in Egypt was threatened, Maximinus, still carrying out his persecutions against the Christians there, marched an army across Asia Minor into Europe and confronted Licinius. Licinius, following Constantine’s example, prayed in the Christian fashion with his army before the battle and defeated Maximinus. With this, Licinius brought the new Roman policy of religious tolerance to Egypt and ended the persecution of the Egyptian Christians.
After this, Constantine became more and more involved in the workings of Christianity. His dream was to travel to the Holy Land and be baptized in the Jordan River, but this was abandoned when he discovered that the eastern churches were in upheaval, mostly due to the stir caused by the beliefs of Arius, now called the Arian Heresy. In 325, in response to this disharmony, Constantine ordered the Council of Nicaea. This council was the largest gathering of Christian bishops in the history of the Church so far, and though the majority of those present were representing the eastern churches of Egypt and Greece, there were delegates from Rome, and thus the sobriquet “ecumenical” (meaning “of the whole world”) was attached. Constantine attended as well, describing himself as “bishop of external things,” and kept a secular position on the issues, but it was clear that he wanted Christianity to be united and harmonious. The Nicene Creed, the great contribution of the Council and a prayer still used by Christians to this day, was composed by Saint Athanasius, a young Egyptian deacon who would later follow Alexandros as patriarch of Alexandria.
The Foundations of Monasticism
Egypt is regarded by many Christians, regardless of denomination, as the home of Christian monasticism, and it is very easy to see why. The sheer number of Christian monasteries scattered about the East is astounding, from the 300 that were in Constantinople alone to the isolated Saint Catherine’s at Mount Sinai. Yet it was Egypt that was seen as the heart of the monastic idea. The anonymous work, History of the Monks in Egypt, written at some time in the fourth century, says of Egypt:
There is no town or village in Egypt or the Thebaid that is not surrounded by hermitages as if by walls, and the people depend on their prayers as if on God Himself…Through them the world is kept in being.
Christian monasticism emerged as a genuine movement during the early fourth century, but the spirit of monasticism was already present in Christianity with its ideas of asceticism and moderation. For the Christian East, the monk was by definition a solitary role, and there have been more Christian hermits in this area than in any other in the world.
It is Saint Anthony of Egypt who is credited with the founding of monasticism, along with his fellow countryman Saint Pachomius. Yet even they were only expanding on an idea that had already existed. After the death of his parents in the 270’s, Anthony had entrusted his younger sister to a parthenon, or convent of women. Thus priories of what are today called nuns were already established long before Saints Anthony and Pachomius even began their work. Indeed, it is women who are to be truly credited with the origin of the monastic vocation. Yet Anthony still deserves the praise due to him, for his true innovation was to move the monastic community away from the distractions of society and the city and into the wilderness, which he did, founding his first hermitage in AD 305.
Unlike monasteries in the West, the monasteries of Egypt and the surrounding area had no centralized orders, rather, each one was an autonomous unit. Many of the early monasteries in the East were founded and maintained by the rulers and nobility, others by groups of the citizenry wishing to have prayers said for themselves and their families. The size of the monasteries also varied greatly. Some were highly organized enterprises, owning large amounts of land and commercial interests, while others were hermitages of only three or four members. After Saint Anthony, there were two basic types of monasticism in Egypt, and later on, the world. There was the eremetical, or hermit, style and the cenobitic, monasteries in which the residents led a communal life.
These Egyptian ascetics each lived very similar lives to the others of their type. They took vows of chastity and poverty, and if part of a monastic community, obedience to the abbot. They practiced long and frequent fasts, some abstained from alcohol and meat, and they supported themselves by doing services for the lay people nearby, such as helping with labor or the selling of some small handicrafts. The largest monasteries were often self-sufficient, owning farms and herds, as well as making everything they needed, from the clothes they wore to the bread that was on their table. If they did make any money for anything they did, they kept only what they needed to subsist and gave the rest to the poor. While crowds of the poor often joined monasteries (vows of poverty being nothing new to them, and at least they would have food, clothing, and shelter), later on many of the upper class joined as Christianity spread across class and caste. Quite a number of the latter were educated and were employed by the Church in various intellectual occupations such as catechists, clerks and doctors. From the very beginning, the early Christian Church had a place and a task for everyone.