A History of Christianity in Egypt
Hagiography, the writing of the lives of saints, has long been a common activity of many scholars of religion. As with any religion, the story of its success is really the story of its members who made it succeed. Christianity honors its greatest members by making them saints, and what follows is a collection of Egyptian saints that were instrumental in the growth of Christianity in Egypt.
Saint Mark is credited with writing the oldest of the four canonical gospels. According to the Life of the Apostle and Evangelist Mark written by Severus, Bishop of Al-Ushmunain, in the late tenth century, Mark was one of the servants who poured out the water that Jesus turned into wine at the marriage at Cana, and that it was his house in which Jesus appeared to the disciples in hiding after His resurrection from the dead. After that time, Saint Peter and Saint Mark went out to evangelize, and one night, Peter had a dream in which he was told to go, along with Mark, to Rome and to Alexandria. After preaching in Rome for a time, Mark went to Egypt and converted many to the Christian faith in the countryside; then leaving a small community of Christians there, he went to Alexandria. As soon as he entered the gates of the city, so the story goes, his sandal strap broke. He took it to a nearby shoemaker by the name of Anianus, who became his first convert in Alexandria. Mark soon discovered that he was being sought by his enemies, and so he appointed Anianus bishop, ordained three priests and seven deacons, and leaving them with orders to “serve and comfort the faithful brethren,” he left the city. He returned years later to find the community he had left growing and thriving, but his enemies soon discovered him and threw him in prison. The next day, they threw a rope around his neck and dragged him over the ground until he died. But when they tried to burn the body, they found that it could not be harmed and scattered in fear. The Christians claimed the body from the pyre and buried it with reverence in the church they had built. Saint Mark is revered as the founder and first martyr of the Christian Church in Egypt.
Saint Catherine was a young Christian woman of noble birth and thus quite well-educated, when at the age of eighteen she presented herself to Emperor Maximinus Daia who was carrying out a persecution of the Christians. She admonished him for his cruelty and demanded that he cease the persecutions. Astounded and insulted at the young woman’s audacity, but lacking the skills necessary to debate with her, Maximinus detained her in his palace and called for his scholars to try to trip her up in her beliefs either to make her apostatize against Christianity or commit a heresy against the Roman religion so that she could be put to death. Contrary to what Maximinus expected, she managed to convert many of his scholars with her eloquence and knowledge of both religion and science. Maximinus was so outraged he had them put to death and Catherine scourged and put in prison. His empress however, heard of the extraordinary young woman and stole secretly into the prison in the company of the general Porphyry. They listened to Catherine, were converted and baptized, but were executed by Maximinus when he discovered what had happened. Maximinus ordered Catherine to be broken on the wheel, yet at her touch it was miraculously destroyed. Seeing no alternative, Maximinus ordered her beheaded. According to legend, her body was carried to Mount Sinai by angels where a monastery and church were later built by the order of the Emperor Justinian. Interestingly enough, the site where Catherine’s body was found is also believed to be the site of the burning bush seen by Moses.
Saint Catherine has been ranked with Saints Margaret and Barbara as one of the “fourteen most helpful saints in Heaven.” In several dioceses in France her feast day was regarded as a Holy Day of Obligation up until the seventeenth century. Numerous churches are dedicated to her, and at one time her statue decorated almost every church in Europe and Africa. As Saint Nicholas of Myra was the patron of young men and students, Saint Catherine became the female counterpart, the patron of young women. The spiked wheel that she destroyed with a touch became her symbol and as such mechanics and wheelwrights have called her their patron. Because she triumphed also in the sciences, confounding even the philosophers of Maximinus, her intercession is sought by theologians, orators, and philosophers. It is even thought that she was the saint that had appeared to Joan of Arc.
Saint Anthony is often called “the Father of the Monks,” and rightly so. He is credited with the founding of Christian monasticism, and many of his ideas are still used to this day by modern monks and nuns. Most of what we know about Anthony comes from the writings of Saint Athanasius the Apostolic, a disciple and close friend of Anthony’s. Anthony was born about AD 251 and was the son of a well-to-do family of Kemn-el-Arouse (Coma) in middle Egypt. When he was eighteen his parents died, leaving him sole guardian of his younger sister Dious. Six months later, while attending a church, he heard the scripture passage of Jesus and the rich young man, in which Jesus says, “If you would be perfect, go, sell all you have, give to the poor, and follow me (Matt. 19:21).” He took this as a personal invitation from God and sold most of his inherited property, gave much of the money to the poor and the rest to his sister and placed his sister in the care of a parthenon, a community of holy women, very similar to the priories of the Middle Ages. He sought guidance from a holy man near Coma in the ways of the Christian ascetic: prayer, fasting, and holiness. After a time of study, Saint Anthony left on his own and began living in the manner of a mountain hermit, living in a cave and praying for the salvation of the world. At the age of thirty-five, he moved to Pispir and remained there in solitude for twenty years. During that time, many came to live near him and copy his holy life. He became their spiritual leader, teaching them by word and by example the life of the ascetic. Anthony also taught them to perform manual labor between prayer times as an additional contribution to society.
When the persecutions began again against the Christians in Egypt at the hands of Maximinus Daia in the early 300s, he went to Alexandria and ministered to those in prison. After the persecutions ended, he returned to his life of solitude. He returned to Alexandria once more to support Pope Athanasius against the Arian Heresy in 352, and many came to see the aged holy man as he walked through the city, but he returned to his desert soon after, society no longer having any hold on him. Contrary to popular belief, Anthony founded no formal monastery and his Rule was simply work and prayer. Anthony also designed the first monastic uniform, an all-purpose robe of white linen fastened about the waist with a sturdy leather belt. This has become the basic pattern for monastic garb all over the world and in all times since. Many came to Saint Anthony for advice, spiritual help, and healing. Once even Pope Athanasius, in the company of the great Christian sage Didymus the Blind, came all the way out to visit him. Saint Anthony died in 356 at the age of one hundred and five and was buried secretly by Macarius and Amatas, two of his most loyal monks.
It is the biography of Saint Anthony written by Athanasius that was instrumental in spreading the monastic idea throughout the Christian world. The Saint Anthony’s Monastery founded in the Egyptian desert still exists, and many monks still carry out his work there.
Saint Alexander was Pope of Alexandria during the Arian Heresy. Alexander’s predecessor Peter had excommunicated Arius, but he was reinstated by Achillas, who succeeded Peter as Pope. When Achillas died, Alexander was elected Pope of Alexandria and Arius became even more prominent with his teachings. At first Alexander ignored Arius and was so lax in fact, that the clergy almost revolted against him until he openly condemned the Arian Heresy at the Council of Nicaea. Alexander is also credited with the writing of the Acts of the Council.
Before being elected Pope, Alexander had lived through the persecutions of Galerius, Maximinus, and many others who sought to destroy the Christians. At the time, even Pope Peter himself had been put into prison. Alexander and Achillas snuck into the prison one night to visit the soon-to-be-martyred pontiff and tried to persuade him to reinstate Arius. Peter refused, but it was a sign of Alexander’s desire for unity within the Church that he went to such lengths on behalf of Arius, excommunicating him only when there was no hope of compromise. On his deathbed Alexander implored the great Athanasius to succeed him as Pope of Alexandria. His feast day is April 17th.
Though Saint Anthony is regarded as the founder of Christian monasticism, he must share a portion of the credit with Saint Pachomius. Pachomius was born in the Upper Thebaid in Egypt and as a young man was a soldier in the Roman army. In 314, at the age of 22, he converted to Christianity and three years later became a hermit, living in the desert. Pachomius realized that a community of monks working together could accomplish more good, both for themselves and society, than hermits living isolated by themselves. He created the Cenobitic Rule that balanced the communal life and the solitary life, a Rule that became the basis for almost every monastic order to come after, especially that of Saint Benedict, who based his famous order almost entirely on the Pachomian Rule. In cenobitic monasticism, the monks live in a communal environment, each one working for the betterment of the whole. Cenobitic monasteries are entirely self-sufficient, with farms and herds, plus libraries, hospitals, and kitchens in which every monk works, and every monk can use. Saint Pachomius founded his first monastery in Tabenna around 323, and by the time of his death during a plague, he was the leader of over 3,000 monks. Saint Jerome, famous for translating the Bible into Latin, also translated Pachomius’ Rule, and many monasteries today still use it.
Saint Maurice was the captain of the Theban Legion, a unit in the Roman army that had been recruited from Upper Egypt and consisted entirely of Christians. Although loyal to the Empire (ruled over by Maximinus Daia and Diocletian), they still remembered the words of Jesus to render to Caesar the things of Caesar, and to God the things of God. During the Bagaude, an uprising of the Gauls, Maximinus marched against them with the Theban Legion as a part of his army. The revolt was quelled, and upon their return to Aguanum (now Saint-Moritz or Saint Maurice en Valais) in Switzerland, Maximinus gave the order that the whole army should give sacrifices to the Roman gods in thanks for the success of their campaign. As part of the celebration, Maximinus ordered the execution of a number of Christian prisoners. The Theban Legion refused to comply with the order and withdrew from the rites, even going so far as to camp away from the rest of the army so as not to be drawn into what they saw as horrifyingly against their beliefs.
Maximinus repeatedly ordered the Theban Legion to comply with his orders, and when they continued to refuse, he ordered the unit “decimated,” a practice in which every tenth man was put to death. The Legion was not shaken at all, despite threats of a second decimation, which was performed. Maximinus told those remaining that they would all be killed, but their captain, Maurice, inspired them with the example of the soldiers already martyred, and told them that they were all assured of a place in Heaven for holding fast to their faith. Every last man was beheaded by other soldiers, without resistance. Maximinus even went so far as to carry the executions out against every member of the Theban Legion stationed elsewhere in the Empire from Gaul down to Rome itself.
A number of miracles are attributed to these holy soldiers. In Zurich, it is said that the beheaded Saints Felix, Regula, and Exuperantius rose up, and carrying their heads in their hands, walked to the top of a hill, knelt down and prayed, and finally lay down in final death. On this spot, a great cathedral was built and the image of the three saints carrying their heads appears on the coat of arms of Zurich today.
Saint Maurice is one of the most popular saints in western Europe. There are over 650 sacred places bearing his name in France alone. Over seventy towns bear his name. In the Middle Ages, Saint Maurice was the patron saint of a number of the dynasties of Europe and later of the Holy Roman emperors, many of whom were anointed before the Altar of Saint Maurice at Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. King Sigismund of Burgundy donated land for a monastery in his honor in 515. Henry I (919-936) ceded the Swiss province of Aargua in exchange for the Lance of the Saints; and the sacred relic, the Sword of Saint Maurice, was last used in the coronation of Emperor Charles of Austria as king of Hungary in 1916. Saint Maurice’s feast day is September 22.
Saint Cyril was the successor and nephew of Theophilus, Pope of Alexandria. As a youth, he entered the monastary of Saint Macarius where he learned the wisdom of the desert monks. Following this, he returned to Alexandria where he was ordained as a priest and rose through the hierarchy until he was finally made Pope of the Egyptian Church. From then on, he began to combat heresy and apostasy, helping to put an end to the Nestorian Heresy and even refuted the Emperor Julian when the latter tried one last time to remove Christianity from the Roman Empire. As Saint Athanasius had fought against Arius, so Cyril now fought against Nestorius. He wrote a letter to Nestorius explaining why his idea of two individual beings in the one person of Christ was heretical, and sent copies to the other Popes of Rome, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Aleppo, as well as to the imperial court. Though Nestorius answered only with contempt, the other letters received favorable replies praising his efforts and offering their support. More letters were written, but Nestorius became more and more stubborn, even trying to antagonize Emperor Theodosius against Cyril.
This controversy eventually became so great that the calling of a synod of bishops seemed the only solution. Theodosius called the First Council of Ephesus to address the heresy, which was held in 431. The bishops present elected Cyril to preside over the council. Though Nestorius was nearby in Ephesus, he refused to appear before the council. Nestorius’ beliefs were deemed heretical and a sentence of excommunication was passed by the two hundred bishops in attendance. Six days later, John, Pope of Antioch, arrived with his bishops who had not been able to reach Ephesus in time for the Council. Though they did not believe as Nestorius did, they sided with him against the Council’s bishops and deemed him innocent. They met by themselves and issued an accusation of heresy towards Saint Cyril! The Emperor ordered both Saint Cyril and Nestorius confined and the verdicts of both the Council and the Antiochene bishops void. Three legates were dispatched from Rome and when they arrived, they condemned Nestorius and approved of Saint Cyril’s decision. The Emperor vindicated Saint Cyril with honor and ordered the exile of Nestorius. The Antiochene bishops contined a minor schism for a time, but made peace with Cyril in 433, agreeing finally with the decision of the Council.
In 1882 Saint Cyril was declared a Doctor of the Church, both for his work defending the faith in the Council of Ephesus as well as for the liturgy that bears his name. According to tradition, the liturgy had been passed down orally beginning with Saint Mark himself, but Saint Cyril completed it and wrote it all down so it would not be forgotten. It is chanted by Christians all over the world during Lent.
Saint Shenouda was born around 348 to devout Christian parents and spent much of his early life as a shepherd for his father’s small flock. As a youth he accompanied his father on a visit to his uncle Saint Pigol, the abbot of the famed White Monastery. As a result of a vision, Pigol kept the young Shenouda and trained him in the ways of monasticism. In 385 following the death of Pigol, Shenouda was chosen by his fellow monks as the new abbot. The monastery at that time consisted of thirty aging monks, but by Shenouda’s death in 466 the White Monastery had grown to over two thousand monks and close to two thousand nuns and covered an area three thousand times its original size.
The charismatic Saint Shenouda brought about a complete reform in Christian monasticism. He had “inherited” a system from his uncle based on the Pachomian Rule, though even more strict and austere. As a result, the followers were few in number and declining. Shenouda created a new Rule that was less stringent and appealed to the backgrounds and natures of the people in the region, who would later join his monastery in droves. He also had his monks utilize their time outside prayer and worship by having them use their skills and old professions for the benefit of the monastery and the community. Thus the monks were engaged in crafts and trades of every type, from clothweaving to shoemaking to pottery. For the first time, the monastery was self-sufficient. He also encouraged literacy amongst the populace by requiring his monks and nuns to be literate and to engage in the art of manuscript copying.
Shenouda’s spiritual work in Egypt and the surrounding area made him quite popular and famous within the Egyptian Christian Church, as well as beyond. No doubt as a result of this popularity, he was chosen by Saint Cyril the Great to accompany him to the Council of Ephesus in 431 where Shenouda aided the council in refuting the teachings of Nestorius that, among other things, denied the sacred position and holiness of the Virgin Mary as well as denied the human nature of Jesus. Shenouda was instrumental in preserving the unity of the Church.
Saint Shenouda was also a leader of the peasants under the Greek landlords. He opened the monastery’s church to the public and preached constantly to the peasants who came to him on religious and moral issues intending to elevate them from being slaves to confident Christians. He and his monks also defended the peasants who came to him for protection from their oppressive landlords. His heroic deeds have been lauded down through the centuries. Once he risked his life to save a group of captives from the Blemmyes warriors, and even appealed on behalf of the peasants to Emperor Theodosius.
Saint Shenouda died at the age of 118 surrounded by his fellow monks at the White Monastery, singing with them until the moment of his death the praises of God.
Saint Mary of Egypt, for a great many years, was a prostitute in Alexandria in the middle fourth century. One year she joined a group of pilgrims who were traveling to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. She joined them not for religious reasons, but in the hopes of finding some customers along the way. Even when she arrived in Jerusalem she persisted in her ways and on the holy day itself even went to the church where the sacred relic was held to ensnare members of the pilgrimage. But when she reached the door, she found she could not enter. Some mysterious force continued to push her away and she sat down in a corner of the churchyard. She was suddenly filled with remorse for her sinful life, which she realized was the reason why she could not enter the church. As she sat crying, she saw a statue of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of Jesus and with a newfound faith and humility of heart she implored the help of the Blessed Mother and permission to enter the church and pray before the sacred wood of the cross. She promised that if her request were granted, she would renounce her previous life in favor of a life of holiness and piety. She stood and approached the church door once more, and found that the force that previously pushed her away, now gently pulled her inside the church. While praying for guidance before the wood of the cross, she heard a voice telling her that across the Jordan River she would find rest. She left immediately, and upon reaching the Jordan she was baptized in a church dedicated to John the Baptist, and the next day crossed the river and walked into the desert.
She lived alone in the desert for the next forty-seven years, until a monk named Zosimus came upon her dwelling. In the custom of monks at the time, he had come out of his monastery to spend Lent (a Christian season of fasting and penance before Easter) in the desert. As soon as she saw him, she called him by name and recognized him as a priest. The two talked and prayed for a long time, during which she told him the strange story of her life. She asked Zosimus to promise to meet her at the Jordan River on Holy Thursday of the following year and to bring her holy communion. Zosimus kept his promise, and brought bread and wine to consecrate into the body and blood of Christ. He arrived at the Jordan and waited; soon he saw Mary coming toward him, walking across the river. After receiving holy communion, she raised her hands towards Heaven and shouted the words of Simeon, “Now thou dost dismiss Thy servant, O Lord, according to Thy word in peace, because my eyes have seen Thy salvation.” She then asked Zosimus to return to her dwelling the next year. He did so, but found only her lifeless body and a letter she had written to him. He performed the funerary rites and buried her in the desert aided, we are told, by an angel in the form of a lion. In his prayers he asked that she watch over him from Heaven, and returned to his monastery where he finally recounted to his brothers the story of the holy woman. Her feast day is celebrated by the Eastern Churches on the first of April, and by the Western Churches on the second of April.