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Understanding the Coptic Christian Faith

Updated on March 22, 2018

The Origins of the Coptic Faith

Nearly 2,000 years ago, the word "Copt" literally meant Egypt. This word evolved into a religious expression pertaining to one of the oldest faiths in the world, Coptic Christianity.

Traditionally, the Copts believe that Jesus Christ was of two natures, humanity and divinity.

The belief is founded on seven sacraments:

  1. Baptism
  2. Chrismation
  3. Matrimony
  4. Priesthood
  5. The Eucharist
  6. Repentance
  7. Unction of the Sick

Founding a Religion

John Mark, one of the 72 apostles set out for Egypt around 55 AD on a missionary journey, preaching to the masses the message of Jesus Christ.

John Mark was eventually ordained a bishop of the Coptic Church, and along with seven other deacons, founded the School of Alexandria.

Unfortunately, John Mark's ever-growing presence was a threat to the the "non-believers" or "pagans" who worshiped their Hellenistic Gods. His attempt to cleanse the city of their paganistic practice back-fired, and in return, he was attacked by an angry mob and dragged by a rope through the streets of Alexandria until he was dead.

As a result of his hedonistic murder, he was elevated to sainthood and declared a martyr by the Egyptian Christian Chuch, and only heightening the Coptic belief amongst Egyptians.

The Schism

After the brutal death of John Mark, Alexandria developed into the foremost city on Christianity in the ancient western and middle eastern world.

It was not until 451 AD that the Egyptian Copts challenged Rome's doctrinal leadership, creating a schism throughout the entire church, and finally, while fighting over the proclamation of Christian theology, the church splintered into East and West.

Since then, Egyptian Coptic Christianity has not communed with the Roman Catholic Church or Eastern orthodox churches for well over sixteen centuries.

In the following sections of this hub, you will visit the different aspects of Coptic culture from symbolism to modern day persecutions, and learn, as with every other religion that faith above all is the most important medium of the Coptic foundation.

Coptic cross on older relief, Temple of Isis, Philae, Egypt.
Coptic cross on older relief, Temple of Isis, Philae, Egypt. | Source

"The Christian religion, though scattered and abroad will in the end gather itself together at the foot of the cross." ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The Symbol of the Copts

The holy cross is a unanimous iconic symbol of the Coptic people. The cross is so sacred that most Copts have the symbol tattooed on their right inner-arm, near the wrist, which symbolizes their love of God.

The earliest Coptic cross was the ankh, similar symbol to the Egyptian ankh which symbolized the ancient Egyptian belief of eternal life, however, the Coptic ankh took on its own distinctive meaning symbolizing the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Over the centuries, the Coptic cross has taken on many forms. Provided below is a chart showing the physical variance from different regions:

The Sacred Coptic Cross

Coptic Cross
Coptic Cross | Source

Physical Variance of the Coptic Cross

Coptic Cross
Orthodox Cross
Fancy Filigree
Ethiopian Cross
Tiny Crosses and Circles
French Occitan Cross
Mouthed and Hollowed
Coptic Cross Relief Roemer- und Pelizaeus-Museum, Hildesheim
Coptic Cross Relief Roemer- und Pelizaeus-Museum, Hildesheim | Source

"Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe." ~ St. Augustine

Coptic Arts

Ancient Coptic art primarily drew its influence from Hellenistic Greece, native Egypt, and including lesser known influences from the Byzantium and Persian cultures.

The Coptic Christians did not differentiate between the "arts" and "craftsmanship", and given this element it remains to be seen that this true fact stands. Listed below are three areas of artistic concentration:

  • Coptic Paintings ~ Early in the 4th century, Coptic churches painted their walls and created icons to show their measure of faith.
  • Coptic Textiles ~ In ancient Egypt the dead were buried with intricate woven linens, and over the centuries, the linens actually survived due to aridity of the land.
  • Modern Coptic Art ~ In today's world, Modern Coptic art is found everywhere in the lives of the Coptic people.

Portrait of a Boy From Fayum

Portrait of a boy.  Second half of 2nd century.  Encaustic on wood.
Portrait of a boy. Second half of 2nd century. Encaustic on wood. | Source

BBC Documentary on Coptic Art

Examples of Coptic Art

Stone Carvings
Portrait Paintings
Relief Slabs
Iconic Paintings
Woven Tunics
Wood Carvings
Funerary Stelae (Tombstone)
Coptic Jewelry
Fayum Mummy Portraits
Ivory Work
Symbolic Cross
Faience Beads
Stucco Wall Decorations

"A scholar is like a book written in a dead language. It is not every one that can read in it." ~ William Hazlitt

Ancient Coptic Language

The Coptic language, also known as an Afro-Asiatic language, was a final development of the ancient Egyptian language exchanged throughout Egypt during the Common Era.

Though the earlier Egyptian language used hieroglyphics and demotic script, the Coptic language used the Greek alphabet, and in itself was a modified form of the Indo-European language.

In the present time, the use of the mediaeval Boharic dialect only survives as a liturgical language prevalent with the Coptic Orthodox Church.

Coptic inscription, ca. third century AD.
Coptic inscription, ca. third century AD. | Source

Six Ancient Dialects of the Coptic Language

Sahidic (Theban)
Bohairic (Nile Delta)

Coptic Alphabet

Coptic Alphabet
Coptic Alphabet | Source

“A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, 'You are mad; you are not like us.” ~ St Anthony the Great

Armed Guard Protecting a Coptic Church

Armed Guard protecting an Egyptian Coptic church on Christmas Eve, 2010
Armed Guard protecting an Egyptian Coptic church on Christmas Eve, 2010 | Source

The Coptic Christian Persecutions

The earliest known event of systematic persecution known of the Coptic Christians was the Arab Muslim invasion of Egypt in the year 641 AD. This event marked the beginning of a never-ending struggle for the Copts in Egypt, and with Muslim control, a gradual shift in balance from a once Christian dominant culture slowly converted to a muslim state by the end of the twelfth century.

By the early nineteenth century, under the rule of Muhammad Ali, Egyptian Copts experienced tolerance when In 1855, the inferiority tax (Jizya tax), which, Copts paid to the Egyptian Army for protection was lifted for the first time in hundreds of years.

By 1919, the Egyptian Revolution marked the end of Christian inferiority, and the Copts began to thrive under new-found freedoms though they were still treated with disdain by the Muslim citizens of Egypt.

Since the first decade of the twenty-first century, the Coptic Christians have experienced a heightened state of persecution at a level not seen since the Common Era.

Below is a timeline of recent major events, which have unfolded in Egypt, and document the rise of Coptic Christian persecutions:

Pope Shenouda III

Pope Shenouda III, The Coptic Orthodox Christians' Pope in Egypt
Pope Shenouda III, The Coptic Orthodox Christians' Pope in Egypt | Source

The Timeline

  • In 1981, President Anwar Sadat exiled Coptic Pope Shenouda III
  • Towards the end of the 1990s, Muslim youth, a gang-like culture ransacked 38 businesses owned by Coptic Christians
  • In 1997, the Muslim Brotherhood leader, Mustafa Mashur suggested the reinstatement of the inferiority tax (Jizya tax).
  • In 2005, the Alexandria Anti-Christian Riot erupted into violence, stirring 5,000 Muslims to throw stones. As a result of the violence, over hundred people injured, and three died.
  • In 2010, a machine gun attack by a Muslim mob, killing seven Copts, including a Muslim police officer who tried to defend the Christians.
  • In 2011, Maspiro Massacre was the worst massacre ever to take place killing 24 Christians after thousands of Coptic Christians took to the streets in protest of an earlier incident of a church burned to the ground by Muslims.
  • In 2012, a Coptic Christian school teacher was put in jail for posting a defamatory cartoon depicting an insult to President Mohammed Morsi. The teacher claimed innocence and his social networking site had been hacked. This caused another stir in protests and rock throwing amongst the Coptic Christians.
  • In 2013, the year marked the beginning of a number of church burnings across Egypt, elevating a wide-spread intent of extermination, and still continues in recent months leading up to the current date since this hub has been posted.

The Abductees

Abducted Coptic Christian women
Abducted Coptic Christian women | Source

The Violence Continues

Given the timeline, the violence in Egypt since the Egyptian Revolution in 2011 has increased ten-fold, and with it, aside from Coptic Christian persecutions, there are other injustices unfolding just as serious.

The Muslim Brotherhood Anti-Christian movement has also led to another movement, the Anti-Women crusade where repeatedly, the violence against women, and enforcement of Sharia law has sky-rocketed to extreme incidents where women are abducted and forced into sex slavery, muslim marriages, or beaten and gang-raped into submission.

The international community has tried to intervene, but as long as Muslim Extremists push for Sharia laws the violence will continue, and Coptic Christians along with Egyptian women will continue to be vulnerable until the Egyptian people find a way to oust the Muslim Brotherhood.

Should the United States Help Defend the Religious Freedoms of the Christian Coptics in Egypt?

See results

A Must See Movie About Alexandria and its Religious Upheaval



Submit a Comment

  • ziyena profile imageAUTHOR


    4 years ago from LOST IN TIME

    I certainly understand your fascination. I love antiquities, and ancient jewelry, and especially Egyptian Faience beads ... ah, but that's another Hub :) Thanks for stopping by!

  • jtrader profile image


    4 years ago

    I'm always fascinated by Fayum art. Voted up and interesting!

  • ziyena profile imageAUTHOR


    4 years ago from LOST IN TIME

    Yes, my childhood friend from Egypt who is a peaceful Muslim shares with me about the atrocities committed by the Brotherhood against women and Christians via Facebook on a daily basis. I am humbled by your opinion on my Hub ... thank you

  • tirelesstraveler profile image

    Judy Specht 

    4 years ago from California

    This revelation of persecution is the best and most graphic I have seen in the English speaking world.

    Friends lost all their belongings and property in Egypt because they were Coptic.

    Thank you.

  • ziyena profile imageAUTHOR


    4 years ago from LOST IN TIME


    I'm on a quest, to better myself. and see the world through other eyes. Right now, I'm a dry sponge, trying to soak it all up. Cheers :)

  • ziyena profile imageAUTHOR


    4 years ago from LOST IN TIME

    Eric ... getting back with you. I'm very flattered that you would favorite this hub as I am not an authority on this subject, bu I have certainly learned so much from doing so. BTW > the YouTube video are very informative!

    Bill ... A teacher learns from Ziyena! Never thought there would ever be a day!!! Thanks good friend.

    Dora ... I knew there was exreme violence throughout Egypt amongst Muslims against females, but I had not known that the large part of females experiencing violence were actually Copts. Yes, indeed, good to know, and I hope that our Governments can work together to find solutions on persecutions against the copts as a people. Hugs

  • MsDora profile image

    Dora Weithers 

    4 years ago from The Caribbean

    Very informative and interesting. So much to learn about the origins, cultures and beliefs of different religious groups like the Coptic Christians. I couldn't help but notice the violence against women, which should never happen because of religious affiliations. Thanks for the study. Voted Up!

  • bravewarrior profile image

    Shauna L Bowling 

    4 years ago from Central Florida

    Very interesting, Ziyena. The topics you have written on of late are quite deep and intense.

  • Ericdierker profile image

    Eric Dierker 

    4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

    I think I am book marking this to cross-reference other studies I do in Catholicism. I am on my third year of catechism studies and am comparing Orthodoxy with Roman so I am really impressed. In my work with Canons I find some interesting influence from what you have written.

    Not to be too effusive but this is great!

  • billybuc profile image

    Bill Holland 

    4 years ago from Olympia, WA

    Very interesting my friend. You are a fascinating person, Ziyena...I always learn from you and I'm always left to reflect on important matters. I love how your mind works.

  • ziyena profile imageAUTHOR


    4 years ago from LOST IN TIME

    I appreciate you reading it all the way through. It's quite long, and if you have no interest, of course you'd get bored. I'm glad my effort paid off with you! Cheers Eric

  • Ericdierker profile image

    Eric Dierker 

    4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

    Oh my! I dropped what I was doing and read this through. Awesome. Great job.


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