Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity

Motherland Lost: The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity

by Samuel Tadros


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817916442
Publisher: Hoover Institution Press
Publication date: 07/22/2013
Edition description: 1
Pages: 262
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Samuel Tadros is a research fellow at the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom and a professorial lecturer at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Before joining Hudson in 2011, Tadros was a senior partner at the Egyptian Union of Liberal Youth, an organization that aims to spread the ideas of classical liberalism in Egypt. His current research focuses on the rise of Islamist movements in Egypt and the implications for religious freedom and regional politics. Born and raised in Egypt, he received him MA in democracy and governance from Georgetown University and his BA in political science from the American University in Cairo. He has also studied at the Coptic Theological Seminary in Cairo.

Read an Excerpt

Motherland Lost

The Egyptian and Coptic Quest for Modernity

By Samuel Tadros

Hoover Institution Press

Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8179-1646-6


Sons of Saint Mark

An Altar to the Lord

It was his first day in Alexandria. He spent the day walking around the city bedazzled by its wonders. The small village site that Alexander the Great had chosen to build a city bearing his name had grown to equal Rome in its greatness. The largest city in the world, center of the Hellenic dream of the young conqueror, also housed the largest Jewish community. The city's library was unmatched with the largest collection of books in the world, and so were the great temples. Serapis, the ultimate symbol of the amalgam of Egyptian and Greek mythology, was the city's protector

He walked for the whole day hardly noticing his hunger and tiredness. By night the strap of his sandal fell off. He stopped at the first shoemaker. While repairing the sandal, the shoemaker accidentally pierced his finger. "Heis ho Theos (God is one)," Anianus, the shoemaker, screamed. The traveller took some mud from the ground, put it on the wound, and miraculously healed Anianus's hand. He began telling him how Jesus had died on the cross for mankind's sins and preached to him the message of Christ. The message fell on a welcoming heart. Anianus took him to his home and, with the rest of his family, converted. The visitor baptized them and in due time ordained Anianus bishop over the city.

Thus began the story of Christianity in Egypt. The man who arrived that day was St. Mark, one of the seventy disciples of Christ, according to tradition, and the author of the Gospel bearing his name, but Egypt and its people were no aliens to the biblical storyline. The patriarch Abraham had visited the land of the pharaohs for a short period seeking an escape from a famine in the Holy Land. A longer famine drove Jacob and his sons to Egypt where they were initially protected by Joseph's position, but then for their long enslavement. Even after their escape and return to the Promised Land, Egypt and Babylon remained the main antagonists and quintessential others of the Old Testament.

At the time of the first destruction of the temple and the beginning of the Babylonian captivity, a group of Jews escaped to Egypt, taking with them the prophet Jeremiah. Over the next centuries, these and other Jewish immigrants built a large Jewish community in Egypt. During his reign, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, seeking to complete his growing library, ordered the Jewish scriptures to be translated from Hebrew into Greek. This version, known as the Septuagint in reference to the seventy-two Jewish elders brought in from Israel to do the translation became the accepted text by the church.

But most important to the story, the Lord himself had come to Egypt riding on a swift cloud (the Virgin Mary according to Christian interpretation) as Isaiah 19:1 had prophesied. Joseph had been warned by the angel Gabriel that Herod sought to kill the child, and fled to Egypt with his family. According to later Coptic tradition, the Lord remained in Egypt for three-and-a-half years, travelling throughout the country and blessing it. Hosea had prophesied, "Out of Egypt I called my Son" (Hosea 11:1). This story later on became the center of the Copts' pride. "Blessed be Egypt my people" (Isaiah 19:25). No other people outside of Israel could claim such a connection and take pride in such a blessing.

Copts view themselves as the bearers of this tradition, both the inheritors of the greatness of the pharaohs and the heroes of Christianity. If some historical events are deemed still relevant in the Middle East, for Copts this is not ancient history, it is who they are.

Egypt at the time was under the rule of the Roman Empire and was its most prosperous province, the breadbasket that fed Rome. Cleopatra had conquered the hearts of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, and Augustus made Egypt part of his empire in the year 31 BC after the battle of Actium. The cities were Hellenized and Greek was the language of culture, but the countryside remained as Egyptian as it ever was. There the Egyptian language reached its final development in the Coptic language. Coptic was the last stage of the Egyptian language; it was written using the Greek alphabet and borrowing seven signs from the Demotic script to cover sounds not available in Greek.

Unlike in other parts of the Roman Empire, Christianity does not seem to have spread initially among Jews only, but more so among Egypt's native population. It remains an open question as to why Egyptians adopted the new religion with such speed and rose to defend it with such vigor offering themselves as martyrs for their newly acquired faith. Some attribute it to a closeness of the idea of the Trinity to ancient Egyptian mythology, others to an early form of native nationalism, but for Copts the answer was quite simple; the heart of Egypt had been touched by the Lord and they became his people. "So the Lord will make himself known to the Egyptians, and in that day they will acknowledge the Lord. They will worship with sacrifices and grain offerings; they will make vows to the Lord and keep them" (Isaiah 19:21).

One chapter remains before the story of Jesus and Egypt is concluded for Copts. According to Coptic tradition, after his resurrection, the Lord took the Virgin Mary and his disciples to Mount Koskam in the south of Egypt, a place he had visited with Mary and Joseph as a child, and there he conducted the first Mass. This site is today the Monastery of the Virgin Mary (Al Muhharaq) and there remains the altar believed to have been used by the Lord. Isaiah had after all prophesied, "In that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the heart of Egypt, and a monument to the Lord at its border" (Isaiah 19:19).

With their newly found passion for Christianity, Egyptians joined the new religion in droves. Fragments from the second century indicate a growing and thriving community. St. Mark returned to Alexandria and shed his blood there in the year 68 AD. Martyrdom would become associated with the Church of Alexandria more than with any other early Christian church, and would become a cornerstone of its identity. Anianus followed St. Mark on the papal seat. The chain continues to today with the selection of Pope Tawadros II as the 118th pope of Alexandria in 2012.

But St. Mark did not only give Egyptians his gospel and blood, he also gave them a cornerstone of their new faith: the Catechetical School of Alexandria. According to Coptic tradition, he established the school and appointed Justus as its first manager. Whether the story is true or whether the establishment of the school is a later development, it is no surprise that such a school would emerge in Alexandria. Alexandria was home to the greatest philosophers and pagan thinkers of the time. If Christianity was to succeed in finding a place for itself there, it had to be able to compete with Greek philosophy and defeat it.

The school's fame spread across the world of late antiquity. Its early deans included such distinguished philosophers and theologians as Pantaenus (died 200), Clement of Alexandria (150–215) and the greatest thinker of the early church, Origen (184–254). The school would continue to flourish well into the fourth century under the leadership of Didymus the Blind (313–398) who, fifteen centuries before Braille, invented a system for the blind to read. As the most outstanding theological school in the Christian world, it played a significant role initially in the field of Christian apologetic and later sought to reconcile Greek philosophy with Christianity. Later on, it became the most important Christian theological school in fighting heretics from the Gnostics to Arius. Western theologians such as St. Jerome would travel to Alexandria to drink from its fountain of wisdom.

The school, however, was not without its own controversies. Some of Clement's works were frowned upon by later theologians, but it was Origen who caused the greatest controversy. Perhaps the greatest theologian in the history of Christianity, Origen had both devoted admirers and many detractors among the fathers of the early church. His works were praised by such men as St. Athanasius and St. John Chrysostom while condemned by Pope Theophilus of Alexandria and Epiphanius of Salamis. His numerous works, his conflict with and condemnation by Pope Demetrius of Alexandria (r. 188–230), and his self-castration in a literal interpretation of Matthew 19:12 would become the center of debates within the universal church for centuries after his death.

Heresies and theological differences were a mark of the early church. Gnosticism was the greatest challenge of the second and third centuries and it was no surprise that it would find a receptive audience among Egyptian Christians. Egyptian Gnostics would leave the world one of the greatest treasures of ancient writings in the documents that were discovered in Nag Hammadi in 1945. That treasure included fifty-two apocryphal texts rejected by the early church fathers such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Truth, and the Gospel of Philip. These works have not only given modern scholars an incredible insight into the early church but have also helped ignite modern controversies and conspiracy theories such as that of The Da Vinci Code.

Martyrdom was a central theme of the first church, but nowhere was it to become the hallmark of its identity as in Egypt. It is difficult to overstate the importance of martyrdom to the Coptic Church both in its early years and until today as a pillar of how the church views itself. For the Coptic Church and its people, persecution and martyrdom were the founding theme of their history and identity whether under the Romans, Byzantines, or under the rule of Islam. Jesus had warned his disciples that, "A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also." (John 15:20.) The martyrdom of St. Mark in 68 AD was soon followed by rivers of Egyptian blood.

The first wave of persecution took place under the Roman Emperor Nero, but for the Coptic Church its real beginning was under the reign of Domitian (81–96). A few years of relative quiet were always followed by a new wave of persecution, often stronger than the previous one, under the reigns of Emperors Trajan (98–117), Hadrian (117–138), Marcus Aurelius (161–180), Septimus Severus (193–211), Maximus Thrax (235–238), Decius (249–251), and Valerian (253–260). At times, persecution was instigated by local unrest and mob violence, at others it was government organized and hence more systematic and widespread.

No persecution, however, compared to that which the Emperor Diocletian (284–305) unleashed. In Coptic tradition, his reign is called the "Era of the Martyrs." Though his persecution of Christians began in 303, it was so severe that Copts marked the first year of his accession to the throne as the beginning of their own calendar. While some modern historians have de-emphasized the brutality and scope of the persecution, arguing that all in all only around 3,000 Christians were killed throughout the empire, according to Coptic historical texts tens of thousands of Copts were murdered for refusing to sacrifice to Roman gods. Chief among these were the Coptic Pope Peter of Alexandria (r. 300–310), St. Menas (285–309), St. Demiana and the Theban Legion. Though a non-Egyptian, St. George who was martyred at the time, would later become perhaps the most important saint in the Coptic Church.

The narrative of the persecuted church, the theme of Egypt as the land that paid an unparalleled price for its faith in Christ, would become central to the Copt's self-understanding. Generations would be told of the heavy price in blood that their ancestors paid for them to receive this faith, whether at the hands of the Romans, or later on at the hands of their fellow co-religionists the Byzantine emperors, or at the hands of Muslims. While the narrative of the endless persecution would lead to acceptance of discrimination and persecution as a necessary and natural aspect of their faith, it would also give Copts great pride and internal strength. If all those emperors, caliphs, kings, and rulers could not break the Coptic Church, no one could.

The Church Triumphant

The Edict of Milan issued by Constantine the Great and his co-Emperor Licinius in 313 finally ended the persecution of Christians. The celebration was however short-lived. If Roman persecution had bloodied Christianity and threatened its existence, the church was soon to learn that peace was sometimes more threatening than war. Heresies, while not new phenomena, were soon to take a more dramatic turn, tearing the church apart. Egypt was not only a major battlefield of that fight but provided the main antagonists on both sides.

Arius (250–336) was of Libyan descent but his career and controversy started in Egypt. His argument was quite simple, the Trinity was not equal. Jesus, the Son, was not equal to the Father. Based on his reading and interpretation of such Biblical passages as, "For the Father is greater than I" (John 14:28), he concluded that the Son was inferior to the Father and that there was a point in time when the Son did not exist, was thus created, and was not similar to the Father in substance. He first made his views known at the time of Pope Peter of Alexandria, the seventeenth of the Coptic popes, who excommunicated him. He was later readmitted to the church by Peter's successor Achillas (r. 310–311). The real controversy, however, started under the following pope, Alexander (r. 311–328). Pope Alexander had given a sermon preaching the equality of the Trinity which Arius condemned as heresy. The conflict soon spread beyond the city of Alexandria, with bishops and priests throughout the country taking sides. Threatened by the possibility of a real schism, Alexander first called a local synod in Alexandria in 320 and then a national one in 321 in which Arius and his views were condemned.

But if Alexander thought this would end the matter, his hopes were soon crushed. The fires ignited by Arius had already spread outside Egypt. Arius had gained the support of some bishops in Greater Syria and modern Turkey, most important of whom was Eusebius of Nicomedia who had the emperor's ear. The church was being torn apart and a solution had to be found. A plea by the emperor himself to end the controversy fell on deaf ears. Constantine, seeking a final solution, took the unprecedented move in 325 of calling for an ecumenical council to be held in Nicaea. Every bishop in the Roman Empire was invited, 318 are said to have attended. The council would become a landmark event in church history and the first of many to come.

But it was none of those gathering bishops who was to emerge as the star of the council, nor was it Alexander or Arius, but another Egyptian: Athanasius. Athanasius, whose name is often followed by "The Great" or, in Coptic tradition, "The Apostolic," would dominate the world of Christendom for the following fifty years. At the time of Nicaea, Athanasius was a twenty-seven-year-old deacon. He attended the gathering as Pope Alexander's personal secretary. According to Coptic tradition, Pope Alexander had first noticed Athanasius, when looking from his window; he had seen him leading a group of children mimicking the process of baptism. Playing the role of bishop, Athanasius perfectly imitated the rituals impressing the pope who, after questioning him, decided to take him as his student. The young man's talents soon became quite obvious. He mastered not only Christian theology but also pagan philosophy at the Alexandrian School.

According to Coptic tradition, it was Athanasius who challenged Arius at Nicaea and proved his arguments heretic. He was tasked with writing the Creed of faith that would become known as the Nicene Creed and that to this day is recognized nearly unanimously among Christians. The famous lines "the only begotten Son of God, begotten by the Father before all worlds," and "begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father" would become the foundation of what the very word Christian entails. The council was also important for its decisions on the baptism of heretics, the Meletian schism, and the exact date of the celebration of Easter, separating it from the Jewish calendar and thus endorsing the position of Alexandria and Rome against that of Eastern churches. It would also prove important in the future conflict between Alexandria and Rome over the papacy's powers as the Sixth Canon of Nicaea stressed the supreme authority that Alexandria, Antioch, and Rome each had in their respective territories. Most importantly, Nicaea would become significant for the precedent it created with the Emperor Constantine presiding over the council and confirming its rulings. The affairs of the church would no longer be its business alone as successive emperors sought, and were in many cases successful, to control the councils, choosing sides among the fighting bishops and in some cases deciding what Christian faith entailed.


Excerpted from Motherland Lost by Samuel Tadros. Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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Table of Contents


Series Foreword by Fouad Ajami and Charles Hill,
Foreword by Charles Hill,
A Note on Names and Dates,
ONE Sons of Saint Mark,
TWO Under the Banner of Islam,
THREE Corsican General, Albanian Commander,
FOUR What Is Modernity Anyway?,
FIVE We the ...? Forming a National Identity,
SIX The Rise and Fall of the Liberal Age,
SEVEN Pharaohs and Titans,
Conclusion: The Bitterness of Leaving, the Peril of Staying,
About the Author,
About the Hoover Institution's Herbert and Jane Dwight Working Group on Islamism and the International,

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