Christianity was introduced into Egypt in the 1st century and found itself in competition with two other religions: Judaism and the Hellenized native religion. By the 4th century, Christianity was the religion of the majority of the people in Egypt. By the end of the 5th century, the last of the ancient temples and priesthoods were gone.
Christianity originated as a sect of Judaism and, consequently, shares similar traditions and myths. St. Mark brought Christianity to Alexandria early in the first century, which at that time had a large Jewish population. Not surprisingly, early Christianity established itself first among those Jews. Christianity also had a mythology that was similar to many aspects of Egyptian mythology. The stories of Osiris, Isis, and Horus in many ways parallel the Christian story of God, Mary, and Jesus: Jesus defeats Satan and is the champion of his father, God; Horus defeats Set and is the champion of his father, Osiris; Both Jesus and Osiris are killed and resurrected, and so on. The ability to find common ground with Judaism, and with the native Egyptian religion, gave Christianity an advantage that no doubt contributed significantly to its eventual success.
Some religious practices already in Egypt influenced Christianity when it was introduced. Philo described an ascetic community that existed in Egypt during the 1st century near Alexandria that was probably Jewish. Also, the life of priests and priestesses in the native Egyptian religion was cloistered and ritualized in some ways that later Christian monastic practice would emulate.
Christian monasticism began in Egypt during the latter part of the 3rd century. The increasing tax burden imposed by the government, and the practices of the civil religion, which were repugnant to many Christians, along with increasing persecutions of Christians, caused many people to leave the cities and villages for the wilderness. Some of those people moved into even more remote areas to lead solitary ascetic lives. People flocked to many of these desert hermits as they developed reputations as healers and teachers. A type of religious revitalization ensued during the beginning of the 4th century that resulted in monastic practice first being institutionalized, and then taking control, within the Orthodox Church in Egypt.
Two types of monasticism developed in Egypt. The first type began with St. Paul (ca. AD 228-343) and St. Antony (ca. AD 251-356), the two earliest ascetic hermits in Egypt. They established the pattern for later anchoritic practice, where monks lived alone in the desert. The second type began with St. Pachom, who instituted a communal, or cenobitic, form of monasticism in AD 320, in Upper Egypt, by building a monastery organized according to military-like rules and order. Both forms of monasticism quickly merged to form a semicenobitic kind of monastic practice that is still practiced today. Monks in contemporary Egyptian monasteries spend some of their time in solitary spiritual pursuits, often still in caves or shelters in the desert, while the remainder of their time is spent living as part of a community within a monastery.
Many monks of the Coptic Orthodox Church are also saints. There is an extensive oral and written hagiography of the lives of many of those desert fathers. Coptic monks, in general, are depicted as champions of orthodoxy, and historically, the monks of Egypt did, indeed, defend the church against numerous heresies. Coptic monks were important participants in the first four Ecumenical Councils.
The development of the Coptic Orthodox Church and Coptic Orthodox Monasticism took place during four major periods. The first period was from AD 284 to AD 451. During that time, Coptic Monasticism was institutionalized, and the first four Ecumenical Councils defined the doctrines of the church. The Coptic Orthodox calendar began in the year AD 284. The second period was from AD 451 to AD 1517. During that time, Coptic culture in Egypt flourished until the Islamic conquest in AD 642, after which Egypt was ruled by a succession of Islamic dynasties. The Coptic language, a form of late Egyptian spoken during Pharonic times, was eventually replaced by Arabic as the spoken language. Coptic was relegated to liturgical use in the church. The third period was from AD 1517 to AD 1798. During that time, the ethnic and cultural identity of the Coptic people was forged under Ottoman rule. The fourth period, from AD 1798 to AD 1920, saw European influence dominate Egyptian culture and, eventually, the rise of Arab nationalism as the Ottoman Empire collapsed.
Today, the Egyptian Christian Church is referred to as the “Coptic Orthodox Church.” The name came from the Greek words Aigypt/Aigyptios (Egypt/Egyptian), which became qibt/qibtii in Arabic, and Copt/Coptic in English. The Patriarch of Alexandria (currently Baba Shenouda III) is head of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Upon the death of the patriarch, a new patriarch is chosen from among the monks of Egypt’s monasteries by the bishops of the church. The bishops are also monks who have been chosen and appointed to their sees for life. Consequently, monks, who are also priests, control the entire upper hierarchy of the church. Parish priests, who oversee the operation of the churches and who serve the more immediate liturgical and spiritual needs of Coptic congregations, are married and form a separate hierarchy within the church.
Although exact numbers are impossible to determine and official numbers vary in terms of reliability, there are probably nearly 10 million Copts in Egypt today, about two dozen or more monasteries, and over 1,000 monks in the Coptic Orthodox Church. There is also one Coptic Orthodox monastery in Southern California.
- Jones, R. R. (1997). An ethnohistory of Coptic monasticism. Doctoral dissertation, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI.
- Yonge, C. D. (1993). The works of Philo. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.