Copts go through life and meet plenty of people who have little to no clue about the Coptic Church, and why it matters. Here are 10 notable facts and tidbits that friends and colleagues almost definitely do not know about the rich heritage of the Copts:
1. Copts are the largest Christian community in the Middle East. While it is hard to get a handle on the exact numbers of Copts in Egypt and in the Middle East diaspora, estimates range from about 5 million to 15 million. About 95% of the Christians in Egypt are Copts.1
2. The word “Pope” was applied first to the Coptic archbishop, before Rome, and is still the Coptic hierarch’s title today. In early Christianity, the Bible teaches us that some among the apostles were designated as “overseers,” which is the actual meaning of the word “bishop” in its original Greek as used in the Bible. Among the overseers of various cities were people like Peter and Paul who were charged with overseeing Christian communities in a particular region. Some regions were so large that there were many overseers within a certain jurisdiction: for example, Egypt (whose primary seat of Christianity was Alexandria), Rome and its surrounding regions, etc. Who then is the overseer of the many overseers in that region? The overseers of the Coptic Church chose one leader among the many leaders, one father among many fathers, one Papa among many Abbas, the Pa-apa, which is how we get the word Pope. Read this blog post for more.
3. You know the four gospels? One of those writers STARTED the Coptic Church. Mark, the evangelist, and gospel writer, who according to early Christian writers is believed to have obtained his witness from Peter himself, brought Christianity to Alexandria, Egypt, and eventually was killed by the pagan Egyptians who were not happy about his presence and new teachings. He is considered the first overseer, the first Pope, of the Coptic Church. Since him we have had 117 others, over the course of about 2,000 years.
4. Coptic means Egyptian, and also refers to the ancient Egyptian language, which you can hear (sorta) today in (almost) any Coptic Church! A lot of non-Egyptians will tell you how fascinated they are with ancient Egypt (the pyramids, hieroglyphics, mummies, etc.), but they don’t realize if they step into a Coptic Church they will hear the last remnant of the spoken ancient Egyptian language! (Yes, we likely pronounce it differently than Egyptians did thousands of years ago, but it is close enough that you can imagine what it may have sounded like). People probably don’t realize also that the word Copt is derived from the Islamic Arabs who, upon their conquest of Egypt, differentiated between the Egyptians and themselves by referring to the Egyptians as “gypt,” the short form of the Greek word for Egyptians, which is Ai-gypt-os. From gypt came qypt, and from qypt we have the word copt.
5. The Church of Alexandria, prominent in its prestige in the early Church, championed major Christian foundational beliefs Christians take for granted today.
Believe that Christ was created by the Father? Heaven forbid! Why? Because an Egyptian Christian from the Church of Alexandria named Athanasius led the effort to cast away that heresy in what is known as the first Ecumenical Christian council.
Do you believe that the man born of St. Mary was just a regular man, like any man you see around you, but that he was overtaken and inhabited by the divine Christ who used his body mostly as a vessel and a tent to carry out His earthly mission? Of course not! You can thank a man known as Cyril, later given the epithet “the Great,” who was the Egyptian Pope from Alexandria, for standing up to the erroneous beliefs espoused by the archbishop of Constantinople, Nestorius, at the third Ecumenical council, in Ephesus.
All of these efforts led by those Egyptians produced the Christian Creed we know of today as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed.
6. The Copts use their own ancient Egyptian calendar. 12 months, 30 days each, followed by a 5 or 6 day month at the end. “New year’s day” coincides usually with September 11th, and similarly as on September 11th, our New Year and our whole calendar is meant to reflect on those who have died because of what they believed (for more see this blog post). Before it was used by the Coptic Christian Church, the calendar had been used for thousands of years previously by the ancient Egyptians, and each month still retains the names of ancient Egyptian gods and festivals.
7. Ostrich eggs hang in front of many Coptic sanctuaries. While this fact is true, the reason for the practice is not entirely agreed upon.
The most common reason given is that the Ostrich egg brings to mind the remarkable and ceaseless care with which the parent ostrich guards her eggs. The vigilance of the ostrich is meant to remind the believer that their thoughts should be fixed continually on spiritual things. (Some have pointed out that there is a belief, even found in the Bible [Job 39:13-17], that the ostrich is seen as neglecting their nest and unhatched eggs, but according to some sources this is actually a misconception and untrue as you can read about here.)
Other individuals have advanced very different views for how we arrived at this practice. For example, one commenter below indicates that “the ostrich egg use was in many early Egyptian structures (not just for churches) to give a public speaker, or whoever was speaking, a direction in which to project their voice. Sound engineers would place the ostrich egg or any other object to direct the speaker so that his sound waves reach and echo throughout the meeting place.”
Whatever the reason for this practice, the Copts still maintain it. My two cents: maybe what matters more is the reason we are still doing it rather than what may have been the original (now obsolete) reason it was initially implemented!
8. Christian Monasticism was born in the Egyptian desert. First, many today do not even know that that there are Christian monks, except maybe what they have seen of the Catholic Church. Among the Eastern Orthodox, even though their monasticism centers virtually exclusively upon Mount Athos (a mountain and peninsula in Northern Greece), they appreciate and honor the Egyptian founders of monasticism, whom all Christian monastics in the world look to emulate (such as Pachomius, Macarius the Great, and the one known as THE founder of monasticism, Anthony the Great). These men have inspired countless individuals. One of particular note was formerly an atheist man living in Australia who sought to follow the footsteps of Anthony the Great, which led him to living in a cave near to St. Anthony’s in Egypt, where he has been living as a hermit until the present time. For more on this man, Fr. Lazarus, see this inspiring series on YouTube.
9. Coptic women wear head coverings in church, and men and women sit in separate seating during services; but Copts are not male chauvinists! Head coverings for women are like any coverings of the female physique, which have for most of human existence served as a means of modesty. Even if Christian women choose not to wear such head coverings in public, in the church modesty is expected, and this is one of many proprieties expected of attendees in holy gatherings. To further ensure all attention is paid to God instead of distractions that may be caused by the mingling of opposite sexes, separate seating for men and women is the traditional (and nearly universal) practice of Coptic congregations, and is derived from ancient times (during the early Church, and even before Christianity began—for more on this, see this blog post). (See also 1 Corinthians 11:2-7.)
10. Nearly all of Egypt was Christian before the rise of Islam in the 7th century. When people think of the Middle East today, what religion comes to mind? Islam. Because that is the majority religion in every notable Middle Eastern country today. But that wasn’t always the case. In Egypt, before the rise of Islam in the 600s, it was a predominantly Christian nation, not unlike what you see in Greece today.
- “Egypt”. Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. United States Department of State. September 30, 2008; “Egypt”. Foreign and Commonwealth Office. UK Ministry of Foreign Affairs. August 15, 2008.
PHOTO CREDIT: Liz Assad. Photo was taken of Coptic Bishop Karas, overlooking the landscape in Ethiopia in 2015.