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
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.