A Summary of Coptic Christian History

I was looking up the Copts, since I planned to have them in one chapter in my next science fiction novel.

Let me quote from Fr. Adrian Fortescue, a scholar of remarkable accomplishment, who wrote one of the seminal histories of the Eastern Churches:

The fourteen centuries of Coptic history are one long story of persecution. From the time the Egyptian Monophysites organized their Church after the Council of Chalcedon (452) till the English took over Egypt in 1882 they have been cruelly persecuted. For the first century they were persecuted by the Roman Empire, which tried to make them Orthodox. The interludes of this persecution are the moments when they got the upper hand and retaliated by murdering their oppressors. In 639 the Moslem Arabs conquered Egypt and persecuted both the rival Churches of Copts and Orthodox. For three hundred years Egyptian Christians groaned under the tyranny of Amirs of the Sunni Khalifs (at Damascus and Bagdad). From 969 to 1171 Egypt has a Shi ah Khalif (of the so-called Fatimid House) of her own. The Fatimids are, on the whole, a shade less outrageous in their treatment of Christians ; but one of them, the unspeakable Hakim (996-1021), is the worst persecutor under whom Egypt, perhaps any country, ever suffered. In 1171 the great Saladin restored the Sunni faith, and set up a line of practically independent Sultans. His descendants (the Aiyubids) persecuted too. In 1250 the slave-guard (Mamluks) get the upper hand; their officers reign for two centuries and a half, during the latter part of which time anarchy and misrule of every kind reduce the country to utter misery, and the Copts suffer again untold misfortunes. In 1517 the Ottoman Turks conquer Egypt and give the Christians, not real toleration nor even decent treatment, but a rather better tyranny than they had yet known. It was not till the 19th century that European interference at last brought peace to the Copts.

During all this time the line of Coptic Patriarchs, from Dioscor and Timothy the Cat, continues unbroken, side by side with that of their Orthodox rivals. Both lines can show a long series of pontiffs who bore appalling ill-usage for their faith. The Coptic clergy and people keep alive the Christian religion almost miraculously through the long centuries of ill-usage. Their old language died out, except in the liturgy ; they all learned tospeak Arabic. Enormous numbers apostatized during the continual persecution, but not all. The comparatively small number which remain are those who, bearing everything with that extraordinary meekness which is characteristic of the native Egyptian, yet never let the faith of Christ be quite stamped out. What they have borne for it we can hardly conceive. Honour to the countless unknown Coptic martyrs who shed their blood, to the still greater number of confessors who bore poverty, imprisonment and torture for the Lord of all Christians. For, when the last day comes, weightier than their theological errors will count the glorious wounds they bore for him under the blood-stained cloud of Islam.


I thought this precis of history quite striking in its brevity and pathos: the history of these people for a millennium and a half is one of relentless persecution, relieved only during a brief Indian Summer of Imperial domination by French and British power, collapsing back into bloodshed in the recrudescence of barbarism risibly called the modern age. This was once the most civilized land in the world, the home of scholars and saints (including St. Augustine, the most influential thinker of the Middle Ages) astronomers, geometers, and mathematicians, the seat of the translators of the Septuagint.

Previously in this space, I referred to an article in the news from overseas, one receiving not much attention in the American press, of the arsons committed Christmas Eve to Coptic churches and of the brutal mass murders of the congregations by “youths” belonging to a religion not polite to mention by name, it not being Christian and therefore conceivably the source of any of the world’s ills. As would any civilized man, I expressed outrage, and wondered why the Christians living freely in the West did not bestir themselves to protect these martyrs and victims of ruthless persecution by the Mohammedans.

One angry and astonished reader wrote in to comment that I was being paranoid: what evidence did I have (he demanded condescendingly) that the Mohammedans were doing as their religion commands, and making holy war on the Christians? Surely they were attacking all and sundry, so why should Christians be picked out for my special sympathy?

I could not shake the suspicion, as unsupported as it was, that in the back of the writer’s mind hovered the thought that it was wrong and narrow of me to be concerned for my coreligionists. To belong to a nation, or church, or faction, to feel the stirrings of sympathy for members of one’s own community, communion, nation, tribe or race is, by modern standards, the worst because it is the only sin, called by the various names of tribalism, patriotism, nationalism, racism. The postmodern post-thinker thinks (or, rather, he feels, since thinking is “inauthentic”, hence no longer in fashion) that only cosmopolitan and globally-minded enthusiasms are permitted, and that the truly enlightened always side, not with the side in the right, but only with the side not his own. As I say—I merely report this as a suspicion of mine, no doubt due to my suspicious nature, and not based on what the commenter actually commented.

His actual comment was to accuse me, no doubt merely as a non-literal rhetorical flourish, of a mental disease. It is paranoid to assume the Copts are being persecuted. I would very much like to know if that selfsame commenter, reading a story about men in white hoods chaining a Negro to the bumper of the pickup truck and dragging him to death, would immediately dismiss as paranoia the supposition that race hatred motivated the crime? I mean, surely murderers from time to time are merely lifting wallets or running extortion rackets or terrifying gamblers into paying debts. Why get all paranoid about race? No one said the men in the white hoods were not Hmong or Tibetan or Eskimo! Gangstersmurder everybody! But such an dismissals would be singularly unconvincing to anyone who knew the history of the Ku Klux Klan.

Likewise, here. My reader can be excused, because the history of the Copts is almost as unknown in the West as the history of the Dravidians.

Now, does it prove anything one way or another to see a crime in the context of a longstanding history of crimes? No, not a proof that would stand in a court of law. But it lends weight to a suspicion if a random act of violence is placed in its context as one in a century-long or millennia-long sequence.

Without saying anything further about that particular reader, allow me to wax indignant over a more general psychological and philosophical problem unique to the modern age: the problem of temporal parochialism. One would assume that semi-illiterate tribesmen living in semi-starvation in semi-nomadic conditions  would have less of an idea of conditions in the long-ago or far away as a modern or postmodern man: but even a primitive man did not have the optimism (or the arrogance, take your pick) to think the world and man’ s place in it so infinitely plastic, so amenable to improvement under the hands and tools of enlightened social engineers, that no previous condition of history (even history recalled, in primitive times, as myth) could limit the possibilities of the future. Because they could not limit, and because they were unsightly, to the postmodern mind the conditions of the past are simply seen (or not seen) as insignificant and irrelevant. Our forefathers might not have had a clear chronology of the years that severed their present day from the time of the Fall of Troy or the Deluge of Noah, but they did not dismiss their own foundational legends as rubbish. What they received from their fathers they sought to pass to their sons: the idea that the current generation were like the autochthons, a race that sprang full grown from the soil without parents, sterile and having no obligation to carry on a generation after, this is a psychopathology unique to the wealth, self-absorption, self-indulgence, and contempt for reality characteristic of postmodern modernity. 

The difficulty of addressing (or understanding) the modern and postmodern mind is that such post-thinkers have entered an immaterialist world similar to the fictional world of Tlön as described by Jorge Luis Borges. Their post-enlightenment philosophy renders them unable to contemplate any continuity between past and future. Since it is always Year Zero to the golden children of the eternal revolution, the past has no power in their imaginations either to instruct or shape the future. Having dismissed the superstitions of cause and effect in political economics, they live in chaos, where events happen for any reason or no reason: but it is usually the White Man’s fault, whatever happens. There is only one narrative event in history, which is the oppression of the Other by the Heterosexists White Male Christianist Bigot, and only one resolution to that event, which is to give the government ever more power, so as to rectify the defects created by that oppression.

The idea that one group of brown-skinned men living in Egypt could be oppressing another group of brown-skinned men living in Egypt does not fit into this simplistic narrative of one event. Other cannot oppress Other! Only Conservatives oppress Other!

The mentally defenseless postmodern, reading about Islamic oppression of Christians is as helpless as a fan of Supergirl comics reading an issue where Jimmy Olsen commits a crime. It is not just impossible, it is inconceivable, because it offends the formula. Surely he must have been controlled by the Mind-Rays of Lex Luthor!

The understanding of the postmodern mind is greatly aided if we regard the postmoderns as literary critics who treat reality as if it were a novel, a virtual reality sim, or The Matrix.