Who are the Coptic Christians?

The clue to the identity of this small religious minority survives in the art and archaeology of ancient Egypt – and reveals a most magnificent ancestry

From the land of the pharaohs … the Coptic Museum in Cairo. Photograph: Reuters

Attacks on churches, communal divisions – Cairo has recently seen conflicts between some Muslims and Coptic Christians. But who exactly are the Copts and how did they come to be in Egypt? Part of the answer lies in Coptic art.

The sands of Egypt make it an archaeological wonderland. Ancient Egyptian statues and buildings rise above those sands, and these stony sepulchres made the wonders of the pharaohs famous down the millennia. But in the 19th and 20th centuries excavators such as William Flinders Petrie developed truly scientific archaeological techniques and looked beyond the tombs of the kings into the buried worlds of Egypt’s past. Petrie, who excavated at Fayoum, looked not just for treasures but pottery and cloth.

Egypt’s climate preserves materials that usually perish, including wood, papyrus, and cloth. Even shoes from ancient Egypt’s later period under Roman rule have survived. Another stunning type of material discovered by early 20th-century archaeologists was Coptic woven art. Early Christians in Egypt buried their dead with finely woven clothes and shrouds that have survived along with Biblical papyri, paintings and sculpture. In 1910, the Coptic Museum in old Coptic Cairo opened to show such relics released from the earth.

The attraction of Coptic art is that it is full of Mediterranean, Greek and Roman echoes, such as border decorations of embroidered grapes that recall the god Bacchus, while being anti-classical and popular because of its raw portrayal of all-too-human faces. Another fascination is the possible connection between early Christian portrayals of Mary and Jesus, and ancient Egyptian statues of Isis and Horus.

So to return to that question I asked above, exactly who are the Copts? The answer is clear from this connection. Coptic Christianity dates back to the first couple of hundred years after the lifetime of Christ. The people who converted to Christianity were the ancient Egyptians, as well as Jewish, Greek and Roman inhabitants of Egypt. This is even clearer when alongside the art of Coptic Egypt you consider the Coptic language preserved in ancient papyri and manuscripts and still used in the Coptic liturgy today.

In the British Museum in London is the Rosetta Stone, a black inscribed slab that has been central to world history ever since the French scholar Jean-François Champollion used its specimens of the same text in different ancient languages to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics. Champollion studied Coptic as part of his quest, because he rightly saw that it was descended from ancient Egyptian. That is, the language of the Coptic liturgy is the language of ancient Egypt.

So who are the Copts? They are the ancient Egyptians. Their art, language and religion are directly descended from the art, language and religion of the land of the pharaohs.

Their survival is a tribute to the religious tolerance of Islam. How many Islamic communities survived in medieval Christian Europe? As for modern times, a Europe that murdered six million Jews less than a century ago is in no position to vaunt its tolerance. But, the Coptic minority is no side issue. This culture has the right to respect, protection and a political voice in the new Egypt. It can claim to be the most Egyptian culture of all.

2 thoughts on “Who are the Coptic Christians?”

  1. The relationship between the Coptic Christians and the Roman Christian Church has fundamental importance to our understanding of the (violent) spread of western “civilization.”

    With the crucifixion of Jesus, his following was thrown into disarray. Mark held close to Jesus’s teachings of Love – that the true nature of man, of Jesus, was Love. The Coptic Christian Church, established within 10 years in Alexandria, was/is established on this fundamental trust of our divinity — of a divine soul carried by/within a finite (material) body.
    During this same tumultuous period, the Roman Emperor Nero literally confiscated “Christianity” for his own political needs. To be accepted in the Roman Catholic Church (and, thereby, obtain “divine salvation”) the devout Christian had to accept that the divinity of Jesus was unobtainable by mere humans (i.e., the Nicene Creed) – that we are sinners in need of the guidance of political authority (e.g., the Church).

    This is important because of what it represents about the spread of western “civilization.” We think of the “conquest” of the Mesopotamian Fertile Crescent, of the “conquest” of Gaul by the Romans, of the “conquest” of Ireland by the English, of the “conquest” of the Native Americans. History tells us those conquests were of noble purpose; not so. By now, we have a growing culture of loving that sees the reality behind the crass “nobility” of wealth and power. As important as the conquest of land, the conquest of our human spirit must be fully grasped. We need to know that the spread of European “Christianity” involved the torture and death of a simple, noble teacher of Love, and the deliberate “re-writing” of his teachings in order to enslave the minds of his followers.

    To understand the nobility of humankind (our Divine Nature, our courage, our generosity, our exquisite care of our children) we need to dig back into what Christ’s crucifixion really meant for those Romans who had revered him. Understanding what the Coptic Christians represent is important to our view of who we are as a species. We are not the sickness of Greed.

    I obviously care deeply about these issues, having been drawn to understand our “humanity” as I learned to care for the — deeply trouble, but courageous and noble – people who came to me for psychiatric care. The biological/spiritual depth of our human-ness (and the vital importance of passing that to our children) is discussed (with solid scientific evidentiary support) on my website. The essay is called “Healing is Intrinsic to Life” and can be found at

    The great human being, Jesus, left us his blessing: “Be not afraid.”

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