Monasticism began in the Coptic Church towards the end of the third Century, and flourished in the fourth. There were hundreds of monastaries and thousands of caves in the mountains of Egypt. For the monks, monasticism was the life of prayer, contemplation, solitude, worship, and purity of heart. They had nothing in their minds, hearts and feelings except God. They lived the calm and quiet life abiding in the Lord, detaching themselves from everything and everyone, in order to be attached to Him alone. Saint Paul, of the lower Thebaid in Egypt, was the first hermit. In 250 AD upon the death of his parents when he was 16 years old, he inheritred great wealth. He fled to the desert where he lived over 90 years. Each day, a raven would bring him one hald of a loaf of bread for his sustenance.
The most famous Coptic monk was Saint Anthony, who was born in Middle Egypt. He was 18 years of age when he entered a church and heard the words of the Gospel, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell all you have and give to the poor; and come follow Me.” (Matthew 19:21). In obedience, he sold his land, entrusted his sister to a community of virgins, and lived in a hut unde the guidance of a recluse. He visited Alexandria in 316 AD to assist the martyrs, and in 352 AD to help Saint Athanasius in his fight against Arianism. Saint Anthony was a great leader of thousands of monks in Egypt in the fourth cenutry, and many of his disciples also came from the West, after hearing of his inspirational life; for this reason he is considered all over the world, until today, as the “father of monasticism.”
Other famous Coptic monks include Saint Syncletica who founded the first monastic community for women in the world in Alexandria. Her biography and teachings were preserved by Pope Athanasius.
St. Anthony the Great
Coptic Monasticism is considered the most profound spiritual revival in the history of the Church. The news of the spiritual life of the monks spread to every part of the world despite the fact that they did not write about themselves, and for this reason, there is no Coptic history of the Coptic monks. Despite this fact however, people came from all over the world in order to hear a word from one of the monks, and to take it as a word of spiritual guidanc and benefit throughout their lives.
Saint Palladius visited many monks and wrote his famous Paradise of the Fathers from which we learn about these holy fathers. They were not preachers, but they were living sermons, and were examples of the true spiritual life. They were the image of God on earth.
In the fifth century, an archimandrite from a monastery near Constantinople named Eutyches began to spread a new heresy, denying the nature of our Lord, saying that His body was an ethereal body which passed through the womb of the Virgin Saint Mary.
Subsequently, a local Council was convened of seven bishops, led by the Bishop of Constantinople, and supported by the Bishop of Rome, which condemned Eutyches as a heretic. He appealed to the bishops of all Christendom which led to a second council in Ephesus in 449 AD, attended by 130 bishops, under the leadership of Pope Disocorus of Alexandria. Eutyches submitted a full written confession, affirming the Nicene Creed, and he was therefore acquitted.
Two years after the council of Ephesus, in AD 451, another Council was convened in Chalcedon. This council was characterized by political factors, leading to prejudices and conspiracies against the Church of Alexandria, and its patriarch Pope Dioscorus.
Politically, Alexandria was only a city under the rule of the Eastern Roman Empire whose capital was Constantinople, Rome being the capital of the Western Roman Empire. Theologically and ecumenically however, the patriarchs and popes of Alexandria played a lasting role in the first centuries of Christianity, and thus others envied them and began to create trouble, saying that the Church of Alexandria had nothing to do but to collect bishops for ecumenical councils and preside over these councils. By the time of the convening of the council of Chalcedon there was much prejudice against the Coptic Church.
At the council of Chalcedon, the Coptic Church was misquoted and its teachings were wrongly deemed as being Eutychean. The Patriarch of Alexandria was accused of being Eutychean because he had presided over the second Council of Ephesus which had absolved Eutyches, despite the fact that it was a Coptic council which had later condemned the heretical teachings of Eutyches once he had returned to them.
When Pope Dioscorus’ Orthodoxy could not be questioned, other accusations were raised, focusing on political issues such as the question of preventing Egyptian corn from being sent to other parts of the Empire. Neither Pope Dioscorus nor the civil judges were present when the council at Chalcedon handed down the verdict deposing him, mainly for having excommunicated the bishop of Rome. The verdict was passed down in his absence because he did not appear at the Council session after being summoned three times, although he was under house arrest at the time. Regardless of all this however, Pope Dioscorus could neither be stripped of Ecclesiastical honour nor exomunnicated because of his proclaimed Orthodoxy.
In a later session of the Council, at which the Egyptian delegation was not present, the supremacy of the Church of Constantinople and Rome was granted over the Church of Alexandria. The Egyptian church was labeled “monophysite” because of its emphasis upon the “one nature of Christ” (although this title was misinterpreted as covering either one of the Human or Divine natures of our Lord and ignoring the other), being based on the false assumption that the Coptic Fathers accepted the Eutychean view.
Historical facts, and the liturgy and doctrine of the Coptic Church prove the true Orthodoxy of the Coptic Church, until this day. Furthermore, it is now admitted by those who once accused the Coptic Church of being “monophysite,” that is believing in only one nature of our Lord Jesus Christ, that it was a misunderstanding arising from a problem of semantics, and the Coptic Church is now referred to as a “miaphysite,” that is recognizing both natures of our Lord, being joined inseparably in the “One Nature of God the Logos Incarnate.”
In the absence of representation of the Church of Alexandria, the Council of Chalcedon passed statements concerning the two natures of Christ and other ecclesiastical laws, which are not accepted by the Coptic Orthodox Church and the other Oriental Churches, such as the Syrian Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolic, the Ethiopian Orthodox, the Indian Orthodox, and the Eritrean Orthodox Churches. Therefore the Council of Chalcedon resulted in the first major “schism” or split, of the undivided Christian Church. Today, however, most scholars have agreed that the unfortunate events and decisions at the Council of Chalcedon were based upon misunderstandings and a misinterpretation of terms and words, rather than a question of Orthodoxy, and agreement has now been reached regarding the Nature of Christ between the Oriental family of Churches and the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and also the Catholic Church.
Unfortunately, however, the events of the Council of Chalcedon, were to have long-standing and far reaching effects upon the Coptic Church, which suffered greatly at the hands of the Chalcedonian rulers, and from that time it remained isolated from the rest of the Christian World, until the 20th century.
Pope Dioscours was exiled to the island of Gangra, off the coast of Asia Minor, where he died. During his exile, he led many to the Christian Faith, and returned numerous heretics to Orthodoxy. In his See in Alexandria, a Melkite (Greek) Patriarch was imposed but was not accepted by the people of Alexandria, who preferred to remain loyal to their exiled Patriarch. At this time, a wave of persecution arose in Alexandria, during which an estimated 30,000 people lost their lived. The “non-Chalcedonian” Coptic Church continued to suffer persecution at the hands of the Byzantine rulers and the rift within the Apostolic Churches widened.
For a period of almost 150 years under the rule of nine Byzantine emperors, Egypt experienced periods of fluctuating peace and oppression. After trhe death of Emperor Anastasius however, an era of Byzantine persecution and oppression began, lasting almost 120 years. During this period, patriarchs were banished, others were placed on the Patriarchal See, churches were destroyed, and people lost both their lives and possessions. Emperor Justinian closed all the churches, placing guards on them, and persecution against the Coptic Church continued. As a result, Egypt was reduced to an impoverished state while the rest of the Byzantine world enjoyed luxury, freedom and wealth.
THE ARAB CONQUEST
When Islam entered Egypt in the seventh century, Pope Benjamin I, the 38th Patriarch, had been away from the throne for 13 years, another patriarch having been uncanonically ordained in his place and given authority over all the Coptic churches, with a view to destroy the Copts, the so-called “Monophysites.”
For the four centuries that followed the Arab conquest of Egypt, the Coptic church generally flourished, and Egypt remained basically Christian. This was due to a great extent to the fortunate position that Copts enjoyed, for the Prophet of Islam preached a special kindness towards Copts, saying “When you conquer Egypt, be kind to the Copts for they are your protégés and kith and kin.” The Copts were therefore allowed to freely practice Christianity, provided they continued to pay a special tax, called “jizya” that would qualify them as “protected” protégés. Individuals who could not afford to pay the levy however, were faced with the choice of either converting to Islam or losing their civil right to be “protected,” which in some instance meant being killed. Despite additional costly laws that were imposed upon Egyptian Christians between 868 AD and 935 AD, under the Abbasid Dynasties, they prospered, and the Coptic Church enjoyed one of its most peaceful eras.
Throughout that period, the Coptic language remained the language of Egypt, and it was not until the second half of the eleventh century that the first bilingual Coptic-Arabic liturgical manuscripts began to appear. The adoption of the Arabic language as the language used by the Egyptians in their everyday life was so slow that even in the 15th century, the Coptic language was still largely in use. Up to this day, the Coptic language continues to be the liturgical language of the Church, and is still used as a living language by a small, but very dedicated number of individuals and families.
The Christian face of Egypt started to change by the beginning of the second millennium AD when the Copts, in addition to the “jizya” suffered from specific limitations, some of which were serious and interfered with their freedom of worship. For example, there were restrictions on the reparation of old churches and the building of new ones, as well as other matters such as: testifying in court, public conduct, adoption, inheritance, public religious activities, and dress codes. Slowly but steadily, by the end of the 12th century, the face of Egypt changed from being a predominantly Christian, to a predominantly Muslim country. The Coptic community occupied an inferior position and lived in some expectation of Muslim hostility, which periodically flared into violence.
The position of the Copts began to improve early in the 19th century under the stability and tolerance of the Mohammed Ali dynasty. The Coptic community ceased to be regarded by the state as an administrative unit. In 1855 AD, the main mark of the Copt’s inferiority, namely the “jizya” tax was lifted, Shortly thereafter, the Copts started to serve in the Egyptian army. The 1919 AD Revolution in Egypt witnesses to the harmony of Egypt’s modern society. Today it is this harmony which keeps the Egyptian society united against the religious intolerance of extremist groups, who inflict upon the Copts persecution, terror, and violence.
Throughout its persecution, the Coptic Church has never been controlled, or allowed itself to control, the governments of Egypt. This position of the Church concerning the separation between State and Religion stems from the words of our Lord Himself, Who says, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21).
Regardless of all the centuries of persecution which the Coptic Church has lived, it has never forcefully resisted authorities or invaders and was never allied with any power, for the words of our Lord are clear “Put your sword in its place for all who take by the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52), while at the same time we are taught that our strength and success lie in our spiritual lives, which will lead us to an everlasting life in the Kingdom of God.