A History of Coptic Christians in Egypt

An Overview of the Coptic Christians of Egypt

by Lara Iskander and Jimmy Dunn


Father Cidrek

The word Copt is an English word taken from the Arabic word Gibt or Gypt. It literally means Egyptian. The Arabs, after their conquest of Egypt in 641 AD, called the population of Egypt Gypt, from the Greek word Egyptos or Egypt. The Greek word Egyptos came from the ancient Egyptian words (Hut-Ka-Ptah), one of the names for Memphis, the first capital of Ancient Egypt. In contemporary usage, the term "Coptic" refers to Egyptian Christians. Today, Copts form almost 13% to 15% of Egypts population though they are not ethnically distinct from other Egyptians as they are fully integrated into the body of the modern Egyptian nation.

Church at Alexandria, Egypt

In 1992, there were over nine million Copts (out of a population of some 57 million Egyptians) who pray and share communion in daily masses in thousands of Coptic Churches in Egypt. This is in addition to another 1.2 million immigrant Copts who practice their faith in hundreds of churches in the United States, Canada, Australia, Britain, France, Germany, Austria, Holland, Brazil, and many other countries in Africa and Asia. Inside Egypt Copts live in every province though in no one of these provinces are they a majority.

Coptic design in wood from an ancient Coptic church


View of the St Marc's Coptic Orthodox cathedral in Abbasseya.

The history of the Coptic Church in Egypt is basically the history of Christianity in Egypt, for the current Coptic Church is a direct evolution from those earlier times. However, it traditionally begins with the visit of the Holy Family to Egypt. Copts relate that the blessing of Christianity on their country goes back to the days when Jesus was a young boy. The holy family, consisting of the baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph traveled to Egypt and lived there for some time. Numerous traditions exist about the exact locations that the holy family visited and many take annual pilgrimages following this route (it is also a popular tourist route) However, historically it was Saint Mark the Evangelist, during the first century AD, who actually is considered to be the founder of the church. He preached and suffered martyrdom in Alexandria around the time that Nero ruled Rome.

When St. Mark died in Alexandria in year 68 AD, his body was buried in the chapel at Beucalis. In the year 828, the remains were stolen and placed in the Venice cathedral. In 1970 the largest cathedral in Africa was built in Cairo, St. Mark's Coptic Cathedral. Before the cathedral was finished Pope Paul VI returned to Egypt the body of St. Mark. With much ceremony this was placed in a grave beneath the main altar. Nowadays, weekly meetings are held there where the pope addresses the crowds.

The early Christians of Egypt suffered considerably at the hands of the early Roman pagans, as did others prior to The rule of the Roman emperor, Constantine, who not only legalized their faith, but encouraged it as a Christian himself.

However, in 451 AD the Fourth Ecumenical Council took place, and would divide the Catholic, or "universal" Christian church. The decisions of this council concerned the nature of Jesus Christ.

St Mark's Coptic Church in Heliopolis.

The Chalcedonian definition states that Jesus Christ is indeed the Logos incarnate, the very Son of God "born of the Father before all ages." It affirms that the Virgin Mary is truly Theotokos since the one born from her "according to the flesh" in Bethlehem, is the uncreated, divine Son of God, one of the Holy Trinity. In His human birth, the Council declared, the Word of God took to Himself the whole of humanity, becoming a real man in every way, but without sin. Thus, according to the Chalcedonian definition, Jesus of Nazareth is one person or hypostasis in two natures - human and divine. He is fully human. He is fully divine. He is perfect God and perfect man. As God, He is "of one essence" (homoousios) with God the Father and the Holy Spirit. As man, He is "of one essence" (homoousios) with all human beings.

The union of divinity and humanity in Christ is called the hypostatic union. This expression means that in the one, unique person of Christ, divinity and humanity are united in such a way that they are neither mixed together and confused, nor separated and divided. Christ is one person Who is both human and divine. The Son of God and the Son of Mary is one and the same person.

St. Mark

The decision of the Council of Chalcedon was not accepted by the extreme disciples of Saint Cyril of Alexandria, nor by those who came to be associated with them. These Christians, called monophysites, rejected the Chalcedonian Council on the basis that the council spoke of two natures, thus rejecting the old formula of Saint Cyril which claimed that in His incarnation, Christ has but one nature. The supporters of the Chalcedonian decision claimed and still claim that though their words are different from those of the holy father, their doctrine is exactly the same and is simply expressed with greater precision. The disagreement was never settled, however, and although many attempts at reunion were made in the fifth and sixth centuries - and again in recent years - the dissenters from the Chalcedonian decision remain separated from the Orthodox Church.

Today, the so-called Monophysite Christians are in the Coptic Church of Egypt, the Ethiopian Church, the Syrian Jacobite Church, the Syrian Church of India, and the Armenian Church. These churches are often called the Lesser Eastern Churches or the Oriental Orthodox Churches.

However, it should be pointed out that, officially, the Coptic Church has never believed in monophysitism the way it was portrayed in the Council of Chalcedon. According to a statement by the Coptic Church:

"Copts believe that the Lord is perfect in His divinity, and He is perfect in His humanity, but His divinity and His humanity were united in one nature called "the nature of the incarnate word", which was reiterated by Saint Cyril of Alexandria. Copts, thus, believe in two natures "human" and "divine" that are united in one "without mingling, without confusion, and without alteration" (from the declaration of faith at the end of the Coptic divine liturgy).

These two natures "did not separate for a moment or the twinkling of an eye" (also from the declaration of faith at the end of the Coptic divine liturgy)."

This split in the church ended up taking the form of persecution against the Coptic Christians of Egypt. After having survived the persecution of the Roman Pagans, they were once again besieged, now by other Christians. Hence, when the Arabs invaded Egypt in the mid-seventh century AD, they met little resistance form the native Christian population.

Contributions to World Christianity

The Coptic Christian church of Egypt has been responsible for at least several major contributions to the universal Christian faith. Perhaps best known is the founding of monastic establishments. Even before Christianity, it was not uncommon for young Egyptians to retire to the desert for seclusion, perhaps because of the harsh treatment of the Egyptians by the early Romans. Later, with the advent of Christianity, Christians also took to the desert for solitary spirituality and as this movement evolved over time, they sought out like minded individuals, eventually forming themselves into monastic communities. Hence, Egypt is known as the birth place of Christian monasteries.

St. Anthony's Monastery named for the founder of Christian Monastisim

Another outstanding contribution was the Didascalia, the famous catechetical school in Alexandria where early Christian scholars labored to prove that reason and revelation, philosophy and theology were not only compatible, but also essential for each other's comprehension. This was the first Catechetical School in the world. The first great scholar who served as head of the Didascalia was Pantaenus, who probably ran the school for about a 20 year period between 180 and 200 AD. However, probably the most important theologian and prolific author associated with the school was Origen.

The Copts Today

After the invasion of the Arab Muslims around the middle of the seventh century AD, the church suffered a slow decline but around the middle of the twentieth century, it experienced an unprecedented revival. This spiritual renaissance had its start in the forties and fifties in the Coptic Sunday School movements in Cairo, Giza and Asyut. Inspired by the challenges they experienced in the Sunday School classes, young men consecrated their lives to God and joined the desert fathers. Today, many of the church leaders grew from that spirited revival. The Copts continue to have active youth groups that emphasize religious education as well as providing social interaction. Although called Sunday schools, these gatherings usually held on Fridays, are considered to be a very important religious element to all the Coptic families. Their children usually join at an early age and continue to participate in them throughout their adolescence. They involve diverse activities, both on the spiritual level as well as on the social side of their lives.

Today, the Coptic church has spread throughout the world, with churches in many different countries. Under the patronage of the current people, the church holds a deep and profound interest in erasing the prior concepts of the church among world. The church today maintains communications with the Roman Catholic church, as well as others, and it is clear that the desire of the Copts is to be fully and unequivocally accepted as orthodox Christians by all members of the Christian world community.

The Coptic Church of the diaspora is a new and dynamic development of the second half of the twentieth century. Recent missionary efforts of the Coptic Church in Africa have led to the establishment of numerous churches in Zambia, Kenya, Zaire, Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa. The Coptic Church is even spreading throughout the United States.


Pope Shenouda III

The Coptic Orthodox Church's clergy is headed by the Pope of Alexandria, Pope Shenouda III. For hundreds of years Alexandria, the second city of Egypt, was the home of the Pope but today his Cathedral is in Cairo.

Both the Pope and the Bishops that regularly oversee the priests ordained in their dioceses and matters of faith, must be monks. As for the priests, they must be married and must attend the Catechetical School before being ordained. Today, there are over 60 Coptic Bishops governing dioceses inside Egypt as well as outside, such as Jerusalem, Sudan and Western Africa.

The Holy Synod is the highest ecclesiastical body in the church and is responsible for the church's spiritual, ecclesiastical, structural, organizational and economic affairs. It is made up of all the members of the Coptic episcopate, which today include seventy-eight metropolitans, bishops and the wakil al-batrakiya, an archpriest representing the married clergy. Though this body has functioned since the fourth century, in 1985 a constitution for the Holy Synod was drafted, setting out its objectives, policies and procedures. To make it more effective, Pope Shenouda III divided the Holy Synod into seven subcommittees that deal with pastoral affairs, liturgical affairs, ecumenical relations, monastic affairs, faith and ethics, and diocesan affairs. The body of the Holy Synod convenes annually on the Saturday prior to Pentecost Sunday in the Chapel of Saint Antony in the Pontifcal Residence in Cairo.

There are two other non-clerical bodies who participate in taking care of Church affairs. The first is a popularly-elected Coptic Lay Council, which appeared on the stage in 1883 A.D. to act as a liaison between the Church and the Government. The second is a joint lay-clerical committee, which appeared on the stage in 1928 A.D. to oversee and monitor the management of the Coptic Church's endowments in accordance with the Egyptian laws.

Coptic Calendar

The Coptic calendar has thirteen months, twelve with thirty days each and an intercalary month at the end of the year which has five or six days depending on whether the year is a leap year or not. The year starts on September 11th in the Gregorian Calendar or on the 12th in the year before (Gregorian) Leap Years. The Coptic Leap Year follows the same rules as the Gregorian so that the extra month always has six days in the year before a Gregorian Leap Year. The names of the months and their starting dates are as follows:

Modern Pronunciation

Start Date

Start Date Leap Year


11 Sept

12 Sept


11 Oct

12 Oct


10 Nov

11 Nov


10 Dec

11 Dec


9 Jan

10 Jan


8 Feb

9 Feb


10 Mar



9 Apr



9 May



8 Jun



8 Jul



7 Aug



6 Sep


The Coptic calendar, the oldest in history, originated three millennia before Christ. The exact date of its origin is unknown. It is believed that Imhotep, the supreme official of King Djoser C.2670 BC. had a great impact on the construction of the calendar.

Coptic Sacraments

Copts observe seven canonical sacraments: Baptism, Christmation (Confirmation), Eucharist, Confession (Penance), Orders, Matrimony, and Unction of the sick. Baptism is performed few weeks after birth by immersing the whole body of the newborn into especially consecrated water three times. Confirmation is performed immediately after Baptism. Regular confession with a personal priest, called the father of confession, is necessary to receive the Eucharist. It is customary for a whole family to pick the same priest as a father of confession, thus, making of that priest a family counselor. Of all seven sacraments, only Matrimony cannot be performed during a fasting season. Polygamy is illegal, even if recognized by the civil law of the land. Divorce is not allowed except in the case of adultery, annulment due to bigamy, or other extreme circumstances, which must be reviewed by a special council of Bishops. Divorce can be requested by either husband or wife. Civil divorce is not recognized by the Church. The Coptic Orthodox Church does not have and does not mind any civil law of the land as long as it does not interfere with the Church's sacraments. The Church does not have (and actually refuses to canonize) an official position vis-a-vis some controversial issues (e.g. abortion). While the church has clear teachings about such matters (e.g. abortion interferes with God's will), it is the position of the Church that such matters are better resolved on a case-by-case basis by the father of confession, as opposed to having a blanket canon that makes a sin of such practices.

Coptic Services

The main Coptic Services, like those of most other Christian churches, are held on Sundays. The service usually starts at 6.00 am or 6.30 am and lasts from four to six hours depending on each church and its priests. Depending on the church (particularly the size of the congregation), there may be one or more priests, as well as a number of altar boys. Each may have a certain rank within that particular church.

The service is composed of four parts. The first is the preparation prayer, called in Arabic the early morning prayer. This lasts only 30 minutes. .the alter boys go around with incenses while chanting in the Coptic language.

The second part is for offering, at which point a prayer is said over the holy bread. This lasts for 20 to 30 minutes.

The third part consists of the preaching mass. Here, the priests read sections of the Old and New Testament, as well giving a sermon. The name of this part dates back to the old Roman times when elder people wanted to convert to Christianity. They had to attend the mass as listeners only for three years as a trial before they could participate and have communion. In Arabic it is called " Kodass al Mowaezin". Kodass is Arabic for mass.

The fourth part is the reconciliation prayer. This only lasts for 10 minutes when the priests give the people Christ's forgiveness and the people do so to each other

The fifth part is the Believer's mass and it lasts for the rest of the service. This is when the congregation has communion, and is supposed to be only attended by those who have been baptized and who have confessed. This strict rule is now more found in small villages in Upper Egypt, but in Cairo, one must only hear the Bible reading to be able to have communion, meaning that one cannot enter very late to the service.

During the service women and men don't mix, they sit separately on each side of the church . Also during communion, they go to different chambers on the sides of the alter where the women cover their hair in respect of the ceremony. While the seating is separated for women and men during Sunday services and also funerals, during wedding they may sit together.

Celebrations and other traditions

Unlike the Catholic Church, Coptic Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on the 7th of January which was very recently made an official holiday in Egypt as a token of the nations unity. This date corresponds to the 29th day of the Coptic month, Kahk.

The biggest Nativity service is held by the Pope in Saint Mark's Cathedral in Cairo. The Coptic language, now almost extinct, is only used in mass ceremonially. After the service, families go home to break their fast. Copts make special sweet biscuits for Christmas, which is the same Kahk as the Muslims make for Eid El-Fitr (little Bairam

A kind of rare tradition is also found in the Egyptian Coptic Church. Holy bread, called Qurban, which is distributed after the service in the church. Qurban bread is round, decorated with a cross in the middle that is surrounded by twelve dots. The dots represent the twelve disciples of Jesus. It is very common for people visiting each other after mass to offer some and normally it can never be refused.

The Copts have more seasons of fasting than Christians from any other tradition. Out of the 365 days of the year, Copts fast for over 210 days. During fasting, no animal products (meat, poultry, fish, milk, eggs, butter, etc.) are allowed. On a more strict level, no food or drink whatsoever may be taken between sunrise and sunset as they should only break their fast after communion.

Fasting seasons of the Coptic Church include, the Fast of the Nativity Christmas which is 45 days, the Fast of the Apostles, the Fast of the Virgin Mary, the Fast of Nineveh and of course Lent, known as the Great fast lasts 55 days.

The Holy Week is most sacred to all Copts. On Holy Thursday, Egyptian Copts have a tradition of visiting and praying in seven Coptic Churches after mass. It is an event where families and friends gather and walk around from one church to another in commemoration of the Last Supper.

Other then the fasting holidays, many Copts also fast on Wednesdays and Fridays all year.

Many Coptic holidays vary as per date each year, but for 2003, they include:

7 Major Feasts


January 7, 2003


January 19, 2003


April 27, 2003

Palm Sunday

April 20, 2003


June 15, 2003


June 5, 2003


April 7, 2003

7 Minor Feasts

Circumcision of our Lord

January 14, 2003

Entrance into the Temple

February 15, 2003

Entrance into Egypt

June 1, 2003

Wedding of Cana

January 12, 2003


August 19, 2003

Holy Thursday

April 24, 2003

Thomas Sunday

May 4, 2003

Other Special Dates

Great Lent

March 3, 2003

Fast of Ninevah

February 17, 2003

Good Friday

April 25, 2003

Christmas Fast

November 26, 2003

Apostle's Feast

July 12, 2003

St Mary's Fast

August 7, 2003

St Mary's Feast

August 22, 2003

In addition to these holidays, Copts usually participate in a number of pilgrimages. These pilgrimages, which are too numerous for the context of this article, usually have as their focus the tombs of the martyrs who were local spiritual heroes of the communities in the Delta and the Nile Valley. However, since the pilgrimage is a Coptic expression and desire to be close to Christ, the Holy Virgin Mary, as well as the various Coptic saints, many pilgrimages take place in locations thought to have been visited by the Holy Family on their travels to Egypt.


The worship of Saints is expressly forbidden by the Church; however, asking for their intercessions (e.g. Marian Praise) is central in any Coptic service. Any Coptic Church is named after a Patron Saint. Among all Saints, the Virgin Saint Mary (Theotokos) occupies a special place in the heart of all Copts.


Front view of the Coptic Cathedral

Normally found in every neighborhood is one big Church where all the residents of the area congregate. There, each family chooses a priest of confession who becomes the family's counselor. Egyptian Copts are known to be very religious. One rarely walks into a house without finding an icon or other depictions of the Virgin Mary or Jesus Christ.

Found Inside and outside Cairo today are many old Coptic Churches and Cathedrals and several others belonging to different rites. Daher district is especially famous for the number of churches and chapels found there dating back to different times.

The Virgin Mary Coptic Church in Zamalek.

The Virgin Mary Coptic Church in Zamalek, also called the Maraashly Church.

The most famous churches in Cairo are the Virgin Mary Church in Zamalek and St Georges Church in Heliopolis. Both were built by well-known Architect, Ramses Wessa Wassef. Also, another famous church is Al Adra Church (Virgin Mary) in Zaytoon. This got its exceptional fame from the events of April 2, 1968 when the Virgin St. Mary appeared to the crowds every night for over two months. The sightings were confirmed by thousands of Copts and Muslims. Hundred of miracles were reported. Right now there are two churches: the old small church where the appearances happened, and a newly built Cathedral.

Of course, there remain many monasteries, including some that are very ancient. Probably the most famous of these are the ones located in the Wadi Natrun and in the Eastern Desert.

It should be noted that among the Copts a small minority are in communion with the Pope of Rome; these Catholic Copts have their own organization and churches but share the rites and practices of the Coptic Church. There are also many Catholic Syrians, mainly Maronites

One final note. Though much has been said about problems between the Copts and Muslims in Egypt, most of this comes from outside the country. Internally, most Copts and Muslims seem to agree that the two religions are very united in Egypt, and indeed, they share more than a few common customs and traditions.

St George's Coptic Church in Helipolis.

See also:






Reference Number

2000 Years of Coptic Christianity

Meinardus, Otto F. A.


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 5113

Be Thou There: The Holy Family's Journey in Egypt

Gawdat, Gabra (editor)


American University of Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 606 3

Christian Egypt: Coptic Art and Monuments Through Two Millennia

Capuani, Massimo


Liturgical Press, The

ISBN 0-8146-2406-5

Christianizing the Roman Empire A.D. 100-400

MacMullen, Ramsay


Yale University Press

ISBN 0-300-03642-6

Coptic Monasteries: Egypt's Monastic Art and Architecture

Gabra, Gawdat


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 691 8

Coptic Saints and Pilgrimages

Meinardus, Otto F. A.


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 692 6

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Last Updated: October 23rd, 2011