The Coptic Church

Coptic Cross, El Damshiria Church, Old Cairo.

Some background: the Fourth Ecumenical Council was held at Chalcedon, now a part of the Kadıköy district of Istanbul, in AD 451. It is famous for ruling that Jesus had two natures – he was both fully God and fully man – against a contrary position that held that Jesus had one nature, in which the divine and the human were inseparably united. Detractors called this position “monophysitism,” while its adherents preferred “miaphysitism.” Chalcedon led to a schism that has never been completely healed. Of the five great Christian patriarchates of the time (Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Rome), Alexandria and Antioch refused to accept the judgment of the Council, and retained a belief in miaphysitism. These patriarchates are now designated the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Syriac Orthodox Church, respectively, and along with the Ethiopian, Eritrean, Armenian, and Malankaran (Indian) Orthodox Churches, comprise a group known as the “Oriental Orthodox” churches, all of which reject the view that Jesus, while on Earth, had separate natures.*

(Eastern Orthodoxy, by contrast, recognizes the Council of Chalcedon, and comprises a somewhat larger communion. Although most Christians under the rule of the Patriarch of Alexandria and the Patriarch of Antioch became members of the Coptic and Syriac Orthodox churches, there are Chalcedonian (“Greek”) Orthodox patriarchates for these cities too, and there remain Chalcedonian patriarchates for Jerusalem and Constantinople – four of the original five members of the pentarchy. These are all liturgically Greek, and together with the actual Church of Greece comprise Greek Orthodoxy. These churches are in communion with other “autocephalous” Eastern Orthodox churches, including churches for Russia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania. One must also keep in mind that the Roman Catholic Church has actively missionized to the Orthodox, whether Eastern or Oriental, and so there is now Armenian Catholic Church, a Syriac Catholic Church, a Coptic Catholic Church, a Greek Catholic Church, and so on – collectively these are the Eastern Catholic Churches.**)

Door, Coptic Cairo.

Approximately ten percent of Egypt’s population is Christian, the vast majority of whom are Coptic Orthodox. (According to Wikipedia, the Coptic Orthodox in Egypt number about twelve million souls, with the Greek Orthodox in second place at 300,000, and the Coptic Catholics in third at 200,000). Probably the best place to explore Christian Cairo is around the Mar Girgis (“St. George”) metro station, where one can find numerous Christian monasteries, cemeteries, and churches. The largest and most obvious is actually Greek Orthodox, but the rest are Coptic, and quite historic. 

Pulpit and screen, Church of St. Barbara, Old Cairo.

Nave, Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church (the “Hanging Church”), Old Cairo.

Nave, St. Sergius and St. Bacchus Church (“Abu Serga”), Old Cairo.

As you can see, in Coptic churches the sanctuary is closed off from the nave by a screen, which in these three cases consists of intricately carved and inlaid woodwork. Other features include a marble pulpit on the left side of the nave, pillars (often different in style from each other, representing the different apostles, according to my guide), and a wooden ceiling representing Noah’s Ark. Abu Serga Church takes great pride in its status as place of refuge for Joseph, Mary, and the infant Jesus from the persecution of Herod the Great in Judaea. The church has numerous icons of the Flight into Egypt, and in the crypt, one finds a well from which they drank.

Actually, Abu Serga is not the only place they stayed. Tradition holds that the Holy Family did a grand tour of Egypt during their sojourn there, bestowing bragging rights on many places.

Around the walls of the nave in the average Coptic church, one tends to find banks of icons, sometimes with glass cases beneath them, containing cloth “rolls” which, I was told, hold relics. One can deposit petitions or offerings in the glass case. This set of icons can be seen in St. Shenouda’s Church, slightly to the north of the three mentioned above.

Icons, St. Shenouda Church, Old Cairo.

And these two are in the nearby Antique Church of the Holy Virgin Mary, also known as “El Damshiria.” Note all the petitions to the saint on the right.

Icons, Church of El Damshiria, Old Cairo.

Some of the more popular saints include:

Saint Menas, the fourth-century soldier, ascetic, and martyr, usually shown between the two camels that brought his body back to Egypt from Phrygia.

Saints Sergius and Bacchus, a pair of Roman soldiers executed in Syria under Emperor Galerius.

Saint Anthony the Great, founder of Egyptian monasticism, and Saint Paul of Thebes, also known as Saint Paul the First Hermit.

Saint Mercurius, a third-century soldier and martyr under Emperor Decius. The image of him riding a horse and brandishing two swords over his head (and spearing a prostate man with a lance) is very common and represents a posthumous miracle. During the reign of the pagan Emperor Julian the Apostate (361-63), Saint Basil prayed before an icon of Saint Mercurius and asked him not to let Julian return from his campaign against the Persians. The image then disappeared, only to reappear later with a bloodied spear. Soon afterwards, news arrived of the death of Julian, killed in battle by an unknown soldier.

Saint George. Note the appearance of the miniature pitcher-bearer riding with him.

Veneration continues for more recent deaths: the image of Mother Irini (1936-2006), visionary, miracle-worker, and abbess of the Abu Sefein Convent in Old Cairo, was common….

… and votaries pray at her shrine at Abu Sefein.

Sister Theophania of St. George’s convent also gave me a little book on the life of Father Yostos (1910-76), a monk at the monastery of St. Anthony and a miracle-worker.

In Old Cairo one may also visit the newly-restored Coptic Museum, which houses an extensive collection of artifacts from Coptic history. My thanks to my guide Yasir Magdi for showing me around.

Beyond Old Cairo, one can find Coptic Churches here and there throughout the city. The most important is St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in the Abbassia District, which took me a while to find. It is also, as you can see, under restoration.

Although the Coptic Orthodox Church is officially the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, where St. Mark reputedly founded it, the seat of the patriarch has been in Cairo since the eleventh century, and in this church building from 1968. Since 2012, when Shenouda III died, the office has been held by Tawadros II, whose name was selected from a shortlist of three candidates by a blindfolded boy, believed to be guided by the hand of God. The Coptic patriarch uses the title “Pope,” the only other one besides the Bishop of Rome to do so.

The word “Copt” derives ultimately from the Greek word Aigyptios, meaning “Egypt,” and Copts are quite proud of their status as the descendants of the ancient Egyptians. St. Mark’s efforts in Alexandria won a great number of converts who were native Egyptians (i.e. neither Greek nor Jewish, as were most of the original Christians), and the Coptic language is a direct descendant of the Demotic Egyptian of the Roman Era. (You can see examples of its script in some of the photos above – it is essentially the Greek alphabet, with seven extra characters.) Alas, it is purely a liturgical language nowadays – most Copts speak (and worship in) the same Arabic language as their neighbors. If anything sets them apart, it is a discreet tattoo that many of them will get on their inner wrists, as a memento of their faith. I must record that all the Egyptian Muslims I spoke with insisted that the Copts were their brothers and fellow Egyptians – although the level of security around Coptic churches (a necessary precaution following some recent unfortunate incidents) would suggest that not everyone shares this opinion. 

* Voltaire: “Assuredly, I understand nothing of this; no one has ever understood any of it, and that is why we have slaughtered one another.” Actually, I think that other concerns usually hang on such abstruse questions. In the case of Chalcedon, I would not be surprised if the much older Patriarchate of Alexandria resented the growing influence of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

** There is also the Church of the East, the result of the earlier Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in 431, which condemned Nestorius, who had emphasized the distinction between Jesus’ human and divine natures. Those Christians living in the Persian Empire refused to accept this condemnation, and were consequently known as Nestorian Christians. The Assyrian Church of the East continues this theological tradition

Postscript: Prior to this trip, it never occurred to me where Antioch is currently located. It is in Turkey, specifically in Hatay Province, and is known as Antakya. Hatay Province is the little bit of Turkey that sticks down along the eastern Mediterranean coast.

Google maps.

Hatay was at one point controversial – and in some ways still is. As a result of the Treaty of Sèvres (1920) the area, designated the “Sanjak of Alexandretta,” was assigned to the French Mandate of Syria. It contained a significant Turkish population, however, which inspired (and probably directed) by Atatürk, started instituting reforms similar to his, and agitating for closer ties to Turkey. Upon the expiration of the French Mandate in 1935, these Turks managed to elect two “independentist” MPs for Alexandretta, who succeeded in getting the French to endorse its independence as the State of Hatay (Atatürk’s name for the place, after the word for “Hittite”). So from September 1938 until June 1939, Hatay was an independent country, with its own flag, looking suspiciously like Turkey’s.

Wikipedia.

A referendum in Hatay approved of Anchluss with Turkey; that Turkey trucked in tens of thousands of its citizens for the vote certainly helped achieve this result. Syria protested, but to no avail – the French were hoping to prevent Turkey from going over to the Germans, as it had in the First World War, and so allowed the merger to go forward. Upon annexation by Turkey many of the Arabs and Armenians of Hatay decamped for Syria, fearful that they would not be welcome in the Turkish ethnostate; certainly the Patriarchates of Antioch, whether Syriac or Greek, are now headquartered in Damascus.

Christian Remains

In Turkey, I saw exactly one functioning Christian church: St. George’s Cathedral, seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople which the Turks, in their generosity, allow to be headquartered in Istanbul. Otherwise, as the result of Islamization in the Middle Ages (detailed by Speros Vyronis in The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor and the Process of Islamization from the Eleventh through the Fifteenth Century) and population transfer (or plain old persecution) in the twentieth century, 99% of Turks consider themselves Muslim, or at least culturally Muslim. Yet at one point Asia Minor was very Christian indeed, and Christian remains abound (although I should say that these are Greek Christian remains – Turkey has attempted to systematically erase any evidence that Armenians ever lived there).

¶ The most famous formerly Christian site, of course, is Istanbul’s Church of the Holy Wisdom (“Hagia Sophia” in Greek, “Ayasofya” in Turkish). This was ordered built by the Emperor Justinian in the 530s, and for almost a thousand years it was the largest Christian church in the world. (Its central dome, too, was the largest until surpassed by Brunelleschi’s dome on Florence Cathedral in 1436.) As the seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church, it was considered especially holy, and decorated accordingly. Procopius describes it as:

distinguished by indescribable beauty, excelling both in its size, and in the harmony of its measures, having no part excessive and none deficient; being more magnificent than ordinary buildings, and much more elegant than those which are not of so just a proportion. The church is singularly full of light and sunshine; you would declare that the place is not lighted by the sun from without, but that the rays are produced within itself, such an abundance of light is poured into this church….

No one ever became weary of this spectacle, but those who are in the church delight in what they see, and, when they leave, magnify it in their talk. Moreover it is impossible accurately to describe the gold, and silver, and gems, presented by the Emperor Justinian, but by the description of one part, I leave the rest to be inferred. That part of the church which is especially sacred, and where the priests alone are allowed to enter, which is called the Sanctuary, contains forty thousand pounds’ weight of silver.

Witnessing his creation, Justinian is said to have proclaimed, “Solomon, I have outdone thee!”

Of course, anything richly endowed will become a target for looters, and Hagia Sophia was pretty much stripped bare by western Crusaders when they sacked Constantinople in 1204. Any replacement decoration was stripped again in 1453, when the Ottomans under Mehmet II conquered Constantinople and converted Hagia Sophia into a mosque, complete with mihrab, minbar, and minarets, and eventually large roundels with the names of Allah, Mohammad, the first four caliphs, and Mohammad’s grandchildren Hassan and Hussein, suspended from the ceiling.

Roundels of Hassan and Hussein, Hagia Sophia Museum, Istanbul.

Hagia Sophia remained a mosque until Atatürk closed it in 1931, and then reopened it in 1935 as a museum. This has allowed archaeologists to uncover some Byzantine mosaics that had been plastered over.

A partial mosaic of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, and John the Baptist, Hagia Sophia Museum, Istanbul.

It seemed to me, when I visited, that the museum’s marketing depends far more on its Christian than its Muslim heritage, but I wonder how much longer it will be before it becomes a mosque again. Following Pope Francis’s acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide in 2015, protesters gathered outside demanding that Hagia Sophia be recommissioned as a mosque, and the following year Muslim prayers were held there for the first time in 85 years. (Given that there are some 3000 mosques in Istanbul, this does seem a trifle selfish, but it’s certainly in keeping with the times in Turkey.)

(Frankly, as historically significant as the building is, I did not find it that impressive. It’s as though Justinian bit off more than he could chew when he ordered it. Someone mentioned that they’ve been rebuilding it since it was first built – and it’s true, there are all sorts of kludge repairs that you notice when you get to see it up close. Istanbul’s grander mosques, like the Suleyman Mosque or the Blue Mosque, are much more architecturally impressive.)

Elsewhere in Istanbul, we have “Little Hagia Sophia,” a former Byzantine Church commissioned by Justinian and dedicated to Saints Sergius and Bacchus. The Ottomans turned into a mosque and it remains in use as one. You won’t see any Christian decoration, but the style of the columns and the awkwardly placed minbar indicate that it wasn’t originally an Islamic building.

Near Hagia Sophia, one finds Hagia Irene (the Church of the Holy Peace). This church was also built by Justinian, but was not converted for use as a mosque – it became an arsenal for the nearby Topkapı Palace. Since 1980, it has been used as a concert hall on account of its superior acoustics.

Note the cross on the apse, an artifact of the iconoclastic period, which prescribed such simple, symbolic decoration.

The central dome through anti-bird-poop netting.

Chairs, stage, and side aisle.

The most Christian archaeological site that I saw in Istanbul was Chora Church, which was originally a part of a monastery located in the fields (“chora”) outside the walls of Constantinople. Like Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Holy Savior in Chora became a mosque following the Ottoman conquest in 1453, and like Hagia Sophia became a museum in the twentieth century. This allowed the uncovering of a great panoply of mosaics and frescos, far more than they have found in Hagia Sophia. I spent quite a bit of time there transfixed by the beauty of it all.

Christos Pantokator mosaic.

Mosaic of the enrollment for taxation under Governor Quirinius.

View of the esonarthex.

Fresco of four bishops.

Fresco of St. George.

Mosaic of Theodore Metochites presenting a model of Chora Church to an enthroned Christ. Metochites paid for the church’s restoration after the depredations of the Crusaders. Apparently fourteenth-century Byzantines wore turbans.

Mosaic of the wedding at Cana.

I highly recommend Chora Church if you’re visiting Istanbul. Hopefully the restoration work on the nave will be completed before too long and you’ll be able to see that, too.

(My thanks to Stephen Bartlett for telling me about all of these sites.)

¶ In the interior of Turkey, around the city of Nevşehir, is an area designated “Cappadocia” for tourist purposes, so-called after an ancient area of the same name. The distinguishing geographical feature of Cappadocia is its soft volcanic rock that is easily carved into dwellings. Here is the view from my hotel, which itself was carved into a hillside

Cappadocia was the site of a thriving Christian community even prior to the conversion of the Roman Empire; Cappadocia’s relative remoteness and the ability of its inhabitants to create underground cities which could shelter them from persecution were advantageous (this was certainly the case for the subsequent Persian, Arab, and Turkish invasions). The church fathers Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzus all hailed from Cappadocia, and one of St. George’s place designators is “St. George of Cappadocia.” (This title, though, was likely transferred to him from another George of Cappadocia, the Arian archbishop of Alexandria in the 360s, who was certainly no saint.)

The main attraction for Christian remains in Cappadocia is the Göreme Open Air Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which features several rock-cut churches and chapels. Some of these were in use up until the expulsion of the Greeks in the 1920s; it’s nice that they have been preserved and not destroyed. Some of the art is gorgeous, although photography is generally forbidden and you have to be surreptitious about it.

I was pleased to snap this one of St. George. My favorite painting showed St. George and St. Theodore sharing a dragon to kill.

Interestingly, many of the churches are decorated in a style deriving from the iconoclastic period, not showing saints, but monochrome drawings of crosses and other geometric designs.

In the afternoon I drove to the Ihlara Valley, which turned out to be over an hour away and in the next province over (the tourist map was not really to scale). But it was certainly worth the trip! I enjoyed hiking along the Melendi River, and exploring any number of rock-cut chapels in the cliffs.

Their decoration was not as well preserved as at Göreme, but certainly captivating.

I spent way too little time in Cappadocia and am hoping for an excuse to return some day.

¶ Selçuk, on the Aegean coast, has a great archaeological museum, but the real attraction is the Roman city of Ephesus, whose ruins are some of the most extensive anywhere. You get a real sense of what it must have been like to live in a Roman city.

Main Street.

Library of Celsus.

Theater.

Ephesus was important to Christian history. St. Paul lived there for two years in the AD 50s, cultivating a Christian community; one of his later letters to this community was canonized as the Epistle to the Ephesians. Visitors can see some vestiges of Christian Ephesus, like these crosses…

…or this eight-spoked wheel, which is supposed to represent all the letters of the word ΙΧΘΥΣ – an acronym for “Jesus, Christ, Son of God, Savior” – lying on top of each other.

Ephesus was one of the seven churches in Asia enumerated in the book of Revelation, and it was the site of the third ecumenical council in 431, which affirmed the Nicene Creed and the acceptability of designating the Virgin Mary Theotokos (as opposed to merely Christotokos). I saw the remains of the church of St. Mary where this council took place, although the sun was in the wrong place for any pictures.

Sadly, I did not get to see the cave of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, the House of the Virgin Mary, or the Basilica of St. John. Next time!

Christianizing

Christians like to believe that they are the heirs to the covenant, but they don’t like you confusing them with the original holders of the covenant. Thus they retain some Jewish practice, but they make sure to change it in certain ways, e.g.:

• they take one day off per week, but it’s Sunday, not Saturday.

• they use the Psalms in worship, but will often Christianize them by adding the Gloria Patri at the end of each one.

• Easter, like Passover, is a moveable feast, but Christians have arranged things so that Easter is never on the same day as Passover.

• something that until recently escaped my notice: a detail from the seal of Dartmouth College:

The Hebrew reads “El Shaddai” and means “God Almighty,” but note what it’s on – a triangle, obviously referring to the Holy Trinity. It’s as though to say, “Look at us, we know Hebrew! But please don’t confuse us with actual Hebrews.”

If you’re interested, more information on the Dartmouth seal may be found in “Notes from the Special Collections: The Dartmouth College Seal,” which appeared in the April 1997 number of the Dartmouth College Library Bulletin. I’m still proud of my first real article but I would like to note that Sir William Johnson, 1st Baronet, was not an Anglican priest, the mangled Hebrew in figure 1 does not look like “Arabic” (or any script at all really), and the seal of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, on which the Dartmouth seal is based, looks like this (this image was not included in the original article):

Wikipedia.

Martin Luther

From The Nation (courtesy Tim Furnish), a review article of three recent books about the founder of Protestant Christianity:

Theology is morality is politics is law—and whether or not it’s immediately obvious, the world is steeped in theology. In contemporary America, and especially in the more secular precincts of Western Europe, it seems unlikely that one could look at a property deed or a government budget and find, just beneath its explicit reasoning, traces of old theological disputes and their resolutions. But they’re there, and examining them offers a view of what might have been, had history—in particular, the Protestant Reformation, ignited 500 years ago this October by a German monk named Martin Luther—unfolded differently.

Luther cuts a perplexing historical figure. In various depictions, he is by turns fiery or meek, bombastic or shy, licentious or pious, revolutionary or reactionary, cunning or naively bewildered by what his high-minded remonstrance unleashed on the world. In Erik Erikson’s famous study of the early Luther, we find a young monk in the throes of an identity crisis that would eventually hurl Europe into a similar one; in Roland H. Bainton’s Here I Stand, we find Luther beset by tumultuous bouts of desolation as well as stunning moments of insight and clarity. Luther’s theology would place an emphasis on spiritual simplicity, but his interior life was anything but uncomplicated.

In Lyndal Roper’s new biography, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet, he’s a charismatic, irascible German chauvinist with a temper as quick as his wit, who is caught somewhat flat-footed by the trajectory of the revolution he launched. Roper notes that major fractures would begin to appear among Luther’s followers less than a year after he defended himself at the Diet of Worms in 1521; three years later, the Peasants’ War broke out, a popular uprising fueled by the anti-authoritarian thrust of Luther’s ideas, and one that wouldn’t be rivaled in size in Europe until the French Revolution. Luther, Roper observes, initially castigated both the rebellious peasants and their feudal lords, but he eventually endorsed the cause of the princes, declaring the rebels “mad dogs” up to “pure devil’s work.” “With this stance,” Roper writes, “the social conservatism of Luther’s Reformation became apparent.”

This paradox—that the Reformation could birth a peasant revolt while its instigator rallied behind the princes—is a picture of Protestantism’s confusing political legacy in miniature. Protestantism arguably brought about many of the preconditions for the Enlightenment and liberalism, and at the very least introduced Europe to a headier skepticism of authority than had prevailed before. (Indeed, Roper credits the Reformation with sparking the secularization of the West.) On the other hand, the release of significant portions of life—namely politics and economics—-from the purview of religious authority may have expanded certain freedoms, but it didn’t result in a betterment of conditions for the most disadvantaged, even as it helped transform the Christian message into something far more internal and private than that of the earlier Church.

Reconciling the confusing, often paradoxical origins of Protestantism in Luther and his successors seems like a good project for a half-millennium retrospective. But if there is one conclusion to be drawn from Roper’s book—as well as from two other recent works, Alec Ryrie’s Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World and John C. Rao’s anthology Luther and His Progeny: 500 Years of Protestantism and Its Consequences for Church, State, and Society—it’s that Luther himself was more catalyst than creator. Five centuries on, some Protestant sects still bear the marks of his thought and personality, but others seem barely touched by them at all. Every religion is fissile and given to change, but the antinomian streak in Protestantism makes it especially so, and the monumental role it imagined for the individual conscience helps to explain, at least by Ryrie’s lights, the origins of modern thought.

Read the whole thing.

From Dr. Furnish

Reinhardt professor Tim Furnish draws our attention to a blog post of his from Good Friday in 2014, discussing Isma’ili Islam’s view of the Crucifixion.

For some 14 centuries, the vast majority of Muslims, following mainstream Islamic doctrine, has denied that Jesus was crucified—and thus, of course, that He was Resurrected. The proof text for this Islamic rejection of the central teaching of Christianity is Sura al-Nisa’ [IV]:157:

And [for] their saying, “Indeed, we have killed the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, the messenger of Allah .” And they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him; but [another] was made to resemble him to them. And indeed, those who differ over it are in doubt about it. They have no knowledge of it except the following of assumption. And they did not kill him, for certain.

Muslim commentators such as Ibn Kathir, et al., have long maintained that Jesus was taken to heaven and someone else—probably Judas—was crucified in His place. Other Islamic writers over the centuries have held slightly differing positions, but the bottom-line conclusion has always been that Jesus’ Crucifixion is a Christian lie. However, one group of Muslims—the (heterodox) Isma’ili (Sevener) Shi`is—has for centuries held a unique view of Jesus’ Crucifixion, as elucidated in the paper by Khalil Andani, “`They Killed Him Not.’ The Crucifixion in Shi`a Isma’ili Islam” (2011). Andani makes several points herein—that: the Qur’anic text does not deny the Crucifixion per se—but rather that the Jews perpetrated it; over the centuries Muslim commentators have held views ranging “from total denial to actually asserting that the crucifixion did take place historically;” and, most importantly, “it was only the human body or the nahut of Jesus that was killed and crucified upon the Cross while the eternal reality of lahut of Christ can never be killed or crucified.”

Illustrations and links in the original – read the whole thing.