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Christians in  Egypt, Egyptian Christian History

According to tradition, Saint Mark brought Christianity to Egypt in the reign of the Roman emperor Nero in the first century. Some of the early converts to the new faith came from within the Jewish community in Egypt, which represented the largest concentration outside of Palestine at that time.

Christianity spread throughout Egypt within half a century of Saint Mark's arrival in Alexandria, as is clear form the New Testament writings found in Bahnasa in Middle Egypt, which date around the year 200 AD, and a fragment of the Gospel of Saint John, which was founded in Upper Egypt. The Gospel is written in Coptic and dates back to the first half of the second century.

The word Coptic is derived from the Arabic corruption of the Greek "Aigyptas" which was derived from "Hitaptah" one of the names for Memphis the first capital of ancient Egypt. The modern use of the term Coptic refers to the Christian Egyptians.

In its early years in Egypt, Christianity was engaged in a lengthy struggle against the indigenous pagan religious practices descending from ancient times as well as against Hellenism which had started in Alexandria and other urban centers. To counter the appeal of Greek philosophy the Christian leadership in Egypt established the Cathecal School of Alexandria (the Didascalia) which provided intellectual refutations of Greek philosophers and sophisticated advocacy of Christianity. Nonetheless, the transformation of Egypt into a Christian country was not an entirely smooth process. There was resistance from the pagan and Hellenized elements of the population, and there were divisions within the Christian Church itself between advocates of the various theological schools evolving at this time, due to several incidents that occurred (the burning in 391AD of the pagan cult center). It is obvious that the dominance of the new religion was gained at the expense of the intellectual heterogeneity that had distinguished the city.

The pre-Islamic period for the Copts was marked by two major events, the beginning of the Coptic calendar in AD 284, in commemoration of the persecution suffered by Egypt's Christians and the establishment of an independent Egyptian Church in 451 AD, following the council of Chalcedon which condemned the monphysite theology. Thereafter the relations between Egypt's Copts and Constantinople were strained as the Copts refused to recognize the religious authority of the Patriarchs of Alexandria appointed by the Byzantine State. These clerics were given widespread administrative power, in 550 AD, against the political and the religious dominance of Egypt by the outsiders. This opposition may in part account for the Copts acceptance of the Muslim conquest in 640 AD who saw the Muslims as liberators from the Byzantine yoke.

In its spread in Egypt, Christianity had seen the development of hermeticism; the voluntary retreat of religious men and women in Egypt. The monastic tradition in fact antedated Christianity in Egypt. The Christian anchorites were distinguished from the Jewish ones by the extremes of asceticism the pursued. Such individuals as Anthony (AD 252-357) and Paul (AD 235-341) led lives of total deprivation cut off as much as possible from all human contact.

In the 4th century, monasticism developed as an organized movement under the direction of Pachomius. Pachomius gathered monks into religious communities under strict discipline and the direction of a spiritual head. These communities were located in both urban and rural settings. They had two forms; monasteries where the monks lived together as a group, and Lauras cells isolated from the main monastery physically but under its jurisdiction.

Aside from their religious and theological role, the monasteries became in time a part of the Egyptian economy during the Christian era, producing items which its quality were highly priced. By the time of the Muslim conquest the monasteries had also assumed a role in local administration as tax collectors and overseers of government policy in rural areas.

Coptic monasteries survived down to modern times as places of contemplation, learning, scholarship and retreat, though in the twentieth century far fewer young men have been drawn into the monastic life. 

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