The name “Copt”, like the name “Egypt”, is derived from Greek Aigyptos which is formed by the Greeks upon the name of the principal sanctuary in the North of Egypt, called Hi-Ku-Ptah, i.e. the House of the Ka (spirit) of [the god] Ptah, which is an epithet for the Old Egyptian Capital, Memphis.
In effect, the word “Copt” served to distinguish the native inhabitants of Egypt, the great majority of whom were Christians, from the conquering Arabs, who were Muslims. So, the term “Copt,” [although philologically means Egypt/Egyptians, yet it] took on, and has kept, a meaning that is inseparably ethnic and Christian.
A Synopsis of the History of the Coptic Orthodox Church
The Coptic Orthodox Church is an Apostolic Church which is steeped in history. It was founded by St. Mark the Evangelist around the middle of the first century. It is known as the Church of Alexandria or the See of St. Mark. The role of the Coptic Church in the development of the Christian faith and the Christian doctrines was illustrious and unparalleled; yet, for over a thousand years, it had been either forgotten or minimized by Western scholarship.
The major contributions of the Coptic Orthodox Church to world Christianity during Christianity’s formative years can be summarized in the following few points:
As early as the middle of the second century and during the severe persecutions of the Roman authorities against the Christians, the Catechetical School of Alexandria had developed to be quite a reputable theological university. It was the first theological institution in Christendom. Its deans, mentors, and graduates produced the most renowned works of explanations and defended the Christian faith against numerous heresies, primarily Gnosticism in the early centuries. In less than two hundred years, the school presented to the world thousands of extensive books in all aspects of Christian disciplines. It was in Alexandria that the basis of any theological curriculum was formulated.
The fourth and fifth centuries may be defined as the age of the Ecumenical Councils which set the basis of the
Christian Creed. Here, the role of the Copts was supreme. Their theological and philosophical contributions to Christian doctrines and dogma were unsurpassed. The Ecumenical Movement began with the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.) where the towering personality of the young Coptic deacon, Athanasius, amazed the Council members. He was still in his mid twenties when he refuted the arguments of the heretic philosopher Arius. Thus the Council entrusted him with the formulation of the creed which has stood the test of time. Athanasius was around thirty when he was enthroned Pope of the Coptic Church. Even while he was exiled, he preached at the Papal Curia in Rome and spread the Coptic ideas and ideals in Gaul (France) and Germany. Athanasius is but one example among many. Pope Timothy, the 22nd Patriarch of the See of St.
Mark, was one of the influential figures who attended the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople (381 A.D.). In fact, the answers that he gave to various questions posed to him were documented and accepted by the Universal Church as canon. The Third Ecumenical Council (431 A.D.) was presided by Pope Cyril, the 24th Patriarch of the See of St. Mark, who was the primary defender against the Nestorian heresy, the reason for the calling of this council.
Monasticism is the gift of Egypt to Christendom. It came into existence in the third century, and from there it spread over the whole world. The characteristics of Coptic Monasticism are (a) the urge to pray without ceasing; (b) the hunger to meditate on the word of God; and, (c) the disciplining of one’s self by fasting, vigils, celibacy, the subduing of the fleshly desires, willful poverty, and the renunciation of worldly concerns. As a movement, monasticism was started by St. Anthony (251-356 A.D.). In a few decades, pious men from many parts of the world flocked to the Egyptian deserts to sit at the feet of these spiritual giants to learn the art of monasticism. Among them were the Palestinian Hilarion, the Italians Jerome, and Rufinus, the Cappadocian Basil the Great, and the Scythian John Cassian who settled in France. They all introduced monasticism into their lands based on the monastic order learned in Egypt established by St. Pachomius, the founder of the coenobitic, i.e. community, way of life. In fact, the Roman Catholic St. Benedict’s monastic order was based on that of St. Pachomius.
Christianity is a missionary religion. St. Mark’s preaching in Egypt was a living testimony of this fact. Many Copts followed in his footsteps. From Pope Athanasius to Verena the simple nurse; they all witnessed to Christ in different lands. That nurse who was accompanying the Theban Legion, preached the Gospel of Christ to the Swiss women while teaching them basic hygiene. St. Verena has become until today, their matron saint. Coptic missionaries reached as far as the British Isles, Europe, Libya, Nubia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Arabia, and India.
The Copts Under Late Byzantine and Arab Rule:
After the Council of Chalcedon
The first major schism in the Apostolic Church occurred at the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.). Although the Nestorian heresy had been condemned in the Council of Ephesus (431 A.D.), Nestorianism and crypto-Nestorianism continued to permeate throughout the Church. Unfortunately, after continuing to defend the faith against this heresy, the Patriarch of Alexandria, Pope Dioscorus (25th), was excommunicated under the decision of this Council and exiled after being tortured by decree of the Emperor. The Byzantines then forcefully installed an Imperial Patriarch. The Copts retaliated by electing a native rival Coptic Patriarch as the successor of St. Mark. The Byzantines, aided by the civil authorities, persecuted the Copts very severely by massacring them even as they worshipped inside their churches. The aftermath of Chalcedon was one of the saddest periods in the history of Coptic Christianity.
The Arab Conquest (642 A.D.)
After the Arab conquest of Persia, Syria, and Jerusalem (636 – 638 A.D.), they turned towards Egypt to invade it. ‘Amr Ibn-al-As’, the general of the Arab army captured Sinai, the eastern cities and took over the fortress of Babylon near Cairo. At that time Cyrus the Caucasian (al-Muqauqas) was both the civil governor and the Imperial Patriarch in Alexandria. Hearing about the advancement of the Arabs, he surrendered the city hoping that he would be rewarded and be installed by the Arabs as Patriarch of the Coptic Church of Egypt. His dream did not come true. By 642 A.D., Egypt had passed from the Byzantine Emperors into the hands of the Arab Muslims; neither were Egyptian. Throughout 14 centuries, the Copts suffered under Arab rule all forms of treatment, from considerable tolerance to severe persecution, depending on the ruler at the time.
The Coptic Church at Present
In the early centuries, the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria extended outside of her national boundaries and established the Coptic Orthodox Church of Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Sudan. During the present time and under the leadership of H.H. Pope Shenouda III, her mission work has expanded and has reached a large number of African countries, being the only Apostolic African Church. Simultaneously, her work in North America, in both the United States and Canada grew beyond recognition, and her mission in Europe and Australia flourished prosperously beyond all expectations. Thus, the Church has come out of isolation.
Pope Shenouda is devoted to restoring the unity of the Church. He is the first Alexandrian Pontiff to visit the Vatican since the major schism of 451 A.D. On May 7, 1973, together with Pope Paul VI, he signed a common declaration in which they expressed their mutual concern about church unity. Other visits were exchanged between His Holiness and the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople, the Orthodox Patriarchs of Moscow, Rumania, Bulgaria, and Antioch, and with the Catholic Patriarchs in the Middle Eastern countries. These are in addition to the several visits to the other Oriental Orthodox Patriarchs of the Syrian, Armenian, Ethiopian, and Eritrean Orthodox Churches.
As for the number of the Coptic members from various nationalities around the world, a precise estimate is difficult to obtain. No published statistics are available yet. However, a moderate estimate numbers them to be well above thirty million people. The revival of the Church continues to take place in all aspects of her life, whether spiritual, educational, evangelical, ecumenical, or otherwise.