The Roots

The Roots of the Modern Copts

The Term “Copts”

The term “Copts” is equivalent to the word “Egyptians.” It is derived from the Greek “Aigyyptos,” which in turns is derived from the ancient Egyptian “Ha-ka-Ptah,” i.e. “the house of the spirit Ptah,” a most highly revered deity in Egyptian mythology. From the Arab conquest and until today, This term refers to the Christian Egyptians to distinguish them from the native Muslims.

SONS OF PHARAOHS

The Copts as the successors of the ancient Egyptians are defined as the modern sons of the Pharaohs. They played an essential role in the whole Christian world, especially during the first five centuries.

Their religious background helped them to accept Christianity with eagerness and to enjoy its depth through their ascetic life, meditation and studying of the Holy Scripture.

In this topic we wish to throw some light on the ancient Egyptian culture and how it reacted towards the new Christian faith.

 

    1. Their religious background: It is well known that nature and upbringing have religiously minded ancient Egyptians since the very early times. Herodotus states that “The Egyptians are religious to excess, far beyond any other race of men.” Their religious curiosity was satisfied by the Christian faith that puts no limits to spiritual progress, for it raises the believers towards the bosom of the Father that they might enjoy the likeness of God, fast communion with Him and acknowledgment of the eternal divine mysteries.
    2. Their high scientific background: Modern science achieved unceasing progress, particularly in the last century. Many of the ancient Egyptians’ scientific work which took place thousands of years before Christ are still considered to be obscure secrets; for example the pyramids with their scientific wonder and mysteries, the art of embalming, the art of carving, colored painting on walls etc. All of these arts are still under research to the extent that some believe that the ancient Egyptians were working under the guidance of superhuman (coming from the outer space), or from other stars. Some consider that man would have conquered space much earlier if the library of Alexandria had not been burned, which led to losing scientific secrets of great importance.
      In any case, the fact is that the ancient Egyptians put their scientific abilities at the disposal of the religious thinking (such as the building of the pyramids, embalming etc.). It had influenced the Copts. They looked to science not as an enemy of religion or contrary to it, but that science acts in favor of religion. Therefore, the school of Alexandria opened its doors to the scholars and philosophers, believing that science and philosophy could serve the true spiritual life.
  • Their religious dogmas:
    1. Each major town in ancient Egypt used to recognize some kind of a triad. But these triads were too alien from the Christian Holy Trinity.
    2. Their philosophers believed in One Supreme Being; the best example is King Ikhnaton (1383-1365 B. C.).
    3. While the majority of the ancient civilizations were preoccupied with the earthly life, seeking temporary pleasures, the Egyptian mind was absorbed in the world to come, and in the resurrection. When they were converted to Christianity, they became involved in awaiting the advent of the Risen Christ, through their lengthy hymns, excessive fasting, enduring and suffering with joy. This eschatological attitude has its effect on our worship, liturgies and even in our daily life.
    4. The Cross: Egyptians tended to identify the Cross with their own sign of eternal life, “the Ankh,” which was held in the hands of the immortals such as gods and pharaohs. The “Ankh” sign took the shape of a cruciform with rounded tip, which was readily adopted and used by the Copts from the very early times.
    5. In addition to this, the Egyptians seem to have had an idea of the unity of God, His eternity, His infinity, as well as His loving kindness.

The Holy Family in Egypt

Egypt in the Holy Bible

The Holy Bible concentrates on “Jerusalem” which means, “land of peace,” or “vision of peace” as center of the promised land, where God declares His dwelling among people. And a holy temple was established in it in His Name, where people worshipped Him, offered Him sacrifices and offerings, and celebrated many feasts as a symbol of the heavenly joy. This is Jerusalem, the symbol of heaven, that is called “Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all” (Gal 4:26). On the other hand, we find Babel and Egypt; Babel represents disobedience to God, violence, vainglory (tower of Babel, Gen.11), opposing God through His believers (the Babylonian captivity), adultery and abominations (Rev. 17:5). Egypt was well known for its abundant cops, and its king (Pharaoh) to whom Israel and Jude used to refuge against Babylon. Therefore, Egypt was a symbol of loving the temporary things and trust in human hands (1 Kings 18:21).

Egypt was a refuge to many people, especially in famines. Abraham visited Egypt (Gen. 12:10). So did Joseph who became the second man after Pharaoh, offering crops to all the neighboring countries. Jacob and his sons came to Egypt where they lived as a family and grew as a nation. It was the birth –place of the nursery of the people of God. Their first leader, Moses, the great prophet and his brother Aaron the first chief-priest appeared in Egypt to grant them freedom. St. Stephen says, “And Moses was taught in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and was mighty in words and in deeds” (Acts 7:22).

Among the prophets who visited Egypt was Jeremiah who implored people not to flee to Egypt, but in vain, for they forced him to accompany them in their journey to Egypt (Jer. 41:1, 43:7). He uttered his last prophesies in Tahpanhes of Egypt (Jer. 43:8-44:30).

Thus, Egypt became a representative of the Gentiles to whom Christ came to establish His Church and form His new people.

Blessed Be Egypt, My People

Hosea, the Prophet, foresaw the Son of God going out of Bethlehem and fleeing to Egypt, where He found a welcome in the hearts of the Gentiles. Through Hosea, God the Father uttered this prophesy, “I called my son out of Egypt” (Hos. 11:1).

Isaiah the Prophet gave us more details, saying “Behold, the burden of Egypt, the Lord rides upon a swift cloud, He shall come to Egypt, and the idols of Egypt shall be moved at His presence. In that day there shall be an altar to the lord in the midst of the land of Egypt” (Isa. 19:1). St. Cyril the Great interpreted this prophecy saying:

“The glittering cloud which carried the child Jesus to Egypt was His mother, St. Mary, who suppressed the cloud in purity. The altar which was established in the midst of the land of Egypt is the Christian church which had replaced the temples of paganism as the idols collapsed and the temples were deserted in the presence of the Lord Jesus.”

The Holy Journey

The important stations where the holy family took shelter are:

 

Bubastis Hill
The holy family left Bethlehem on its way to Egypt through Sinai. They followed the Southern Caravan way along the Mediterranean coast, passing through Gaza-Raphia (Rafah)-Rhinocolura, (now El-Arish), and then to Ostrakini which became a diocese of Bishop Abram who joined the council of Ephesus 431 A.D.
The last station for the Holy family in Sinai was Pelusium (now Al-Farma) which is located between El-Arish and Port-Said and which is considered the key entrance to Egypt from the eastern side.
From Pelusium they crossed to Bubastis (Tel-Basta), where they rested under a tree, that is said to have survived until 1850 A.D. Here, at Bubastis Hill, a spring of water erupted, from which the holy family used to drink; and its water healed many from their sickness.
Soon after the Holy Family resided in the city, the pagan statues began to collapse and this consequently aroused the anger of the pagan priests against the Holy Family. Therefore, the Holy Family left to the outskirts of the city to a place now called “Mastard.”

 

Mataryah
The Holy Family traveled to Bilbais, then to Miniat-Genah (now Miniat Samanoud), crossing the River Nile to Samanoud and from there to Borolos. They crossed the River Nile to the Western bank to Sakha, and then they traveled westward along Wadi-el-Natroun (Natroun Valley), south of the “Sheheet” widerness. This wilderness became a paradise of monks, the earthly angels.
The Holy Family then traveled to Heliopolis, to a district called “Mataryah,” where they took shelter under a tree, known as the “St. Virgin Mary Tree.” The Coptic Orthodox Church is taking care of this tree which is still blossoming despite its old age. Near this tree is a spring of water shot and balsam plants are still growing. These plants are added to the ointments used to make the Holy Chrism (Oil for confirmation).
Pilgrims in the middle ages used to visit “Mataryah” and “St. Mary’s Tree” regarding them as sacred places. Until today tourists come to visit them.

 

Old Cairo
Old Cairo is considered the third station for the Family. Here we have St. Virgin Mary’s Church and a nunnery which are both located at Zwayla lane. But the most attractive landmark is the cave in Babylon in Old Cairo in which there is an altar and a niche. It is probable that the Holy family might have used this cave as a place for the Child Jesus to sleep. Above this cave, a church had been built in the fourth Century and is known as the St. Sergius Church (Abu-Sarga).
Within a week, the idols of the pagan temples began to collapse, the pagan priests aroused with anger, forced the foreign family out of the city. Thus, the holy family left for Memphis then to Maadi where St. Mary’s Church has been built. Perhaps, this church was a Jewish Temple. The present structure with its attractive triple granary domes is known from the thirteenth century.

 

    1. In Upper-Egypt
      The Holy family crossed the River Nile to Upper Egypt and headed east to Bahnassa (near Beni-Mazar), they then crossed to the eastern bank, where they stopped at Gabal-el-Tair (Mount of Birds) near Samalout.
      From Gabal-el-Tair, the Holy Family went to Ashmounin near Malawi, then to a village called Philes, about 20 km south of Ashmounin. They traveled to Qoussieh (Qousqam) where they were treated harshly and were driven away by the very people who saw that their stone idols had fell before Jesus. The Holy Family escaped to the village Mirah (now Mir), whence they took to the Qousqam Mountain on which the famous Monastery of the Holy Virgin, known as “Al-Muharraq” stands. There, at that mountain it had been revealed to them by Spirit to return back to Jerusalem. They followed a way that took them to the South up to Assyout Mountain where they took shelter for a while in a cave known now as St. Virgin Monastery at Assiout.

St. Virgin Mary’s Church at Zaytoun

The Holy Family might have passed through Zaytoun, a suburb of Cairo. On the domes of St. Mary’s church at Zaytoun, a good number of St. Mary’s apparitions occurred (from the 2nd of April 1968 until 1971). Such wonderful apparitions occurred successively and were obviously seen by thousands of people.

St. Virgin Mary’s Closet At El-Ezrawia

It is said that the Holy Family passed by a watermelon farm where seeds had just been sown. St. Joseph asked the farmer to tell the soldiers, who were chasing them, that the Holy Family passed by his farm at the time when he was sowing his seeds. Two days later, when the soldiers arrived at the farm, the watermelon had blossomed and some fruits were visible. This made the soldiers believe that the Holy Family had passed by this place several months before. Therefore the soldiers slowed down the chase after the Holy Family.

Palm (El-Kaf) Mountain

It is said that while the Holy Family was crossing the Nile to Gabal-el-Tair a huge rock from the Mountain was about to fall on their boat. St. Mary was afraid but her Son – who has power on nature – stretched His hand thus prevented the rock from falling, and left his palm print on it. Queen Helen, mother of Emperor Constantine, ordered that a church should be build at this place. In the twelfth century (1168 A.D.), when Almeric, King of Jerusalem invaded Upper-Egypt, he cut away the piece of the rock and took it back to Syria.