Coptic Christianity holds great significance in Egypt as the country’s second major religion, though it is notably behind Islam in terms of popularity. Historically, it is considered the third major religion, following the ancient Egyptian religion and the Christian faith that spread throughout the Roman Empire. Today, Islam is the majority religion in Egypt and influences its society as explained on another page.
When we refer to Coptic Christianity as a major religion, it is not based solely on the number of practitioners or the quantity of temples visible on the streets. Instead, it is due to the religion’s lengthy history and the devoted followers it has garnered, making it a draw for travelers from other countries, especially Christians. To help you understand Coptic Christianity in Egypt, we provide you with some insights, and if you wish, our agency can organize a thematic trip for you.
The term “Coptic” generally refers to Egyptians who practice Christianity in Egypt, with unique customs and traditions, which we detail on this page. The word “Coptic” is derived from the Greek word “aegyptios” which the Copts transformed into “kuptios,” and the Arabs simplified to “qubṭ“.
Historically, all Egyptians were considered Copts, and the name used in the Western world to refer to the country (Egypt) is closely related to this. However, in the Arab world, different terms are used to refer to the country and its people: Misr and Misriin, respectively.
Egypt has a long history of association with the Christian tradition. In fact, this country is mentioned several times in the Scriptures, as the place where some biblical episodes took place, both from the Old and New Testaments.
One such example is the story of Joseph (Yussef), son of Jacob, who was forcibly brought to Egypt, sold as a slave by his jealous brothers. He was later accused of adultery and imprisoned, but was eventually released by a pharaoh from the XV dynasty, whose identity is not universally agreed upon. The grateful monarch appointed Joseph as chaty in appreciation for interpreting one of his dreams.
For Christians and Jews, the journey undertaken by the prophet Moses in the Sinai Peninsula is well-known. During his time there, there were significant episodes that still inspire numerous pilgrimages today, such as the delivery of the Tablets of the Law on Mount Sinai or the miraculous fire on the burning bush, which is now located in the Monastery of Saint Catherine.
However, for Coptic Christians in Egypt and around the world, one of the most significant chapters in their faith’s history is the Flight to Egypt, when the Holy Family (the Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph, and the Child Jesus) was forced to flee to Egypt and live there for a time, as recounted in the New Testament. Today, many places in Egypt are considered important sacred places for Coptic Christianity, as they are associated with this period of the Holy Family’s stay, as we will show below.
Coptic Christianity in Egypt traces its origins back to the early days of Christianity, shortly after the death of Jesus Christ in 33 AD. Egypt was one of the first countries to be evangelized, and tradition holds that Saint Mark the Evangelist was already preaching the faith in Alexandria as early as 45 AD. However, due to the clandestine nature of the religion and persecution by the Romans, it is possible that knowledge of Christianity in Egypt came directly from Palestine.
During the early period of Coptic Christianity in Egypt, there were intense debates over the dogmas of the religion. Additionally, certain elements of Ancient Egyptian beliefs and practices may have influenced the development of Christian doctrine. For instance, the Virgin Mary was assimilated to the goddess Isis as both were said to have conceived their children through divine intercession. The cross was also elevated as a symbol of life, signifying Christ’s victory over death. This bears a resemblance to the Ankh in Ancient Egyptian religion, which also symbolized life. Finally, early Christian temples had an area that could not be accessed by the faithful, such as the altar or the iconostasis in Orthodox churches, much like certain areas in Ancient Egyptian temples.
The legalization of Coptic Christianity in Egypt and its establishment as the official religion occurred concurrently with the rest of the Roman Empire, as Egypt was part of it. This happened under the rule of Emperor Constantine I the Great in 313 and Emperor Theodosius I the Great in 380. The spiritual capital of the country has always been Alexandria, where different patriarchates were established, with Saint Mark being considered the founder.
During the time of clandestine Christianity in Egypt, the religion had gained significant ground, but the need for secrecy and persecution led to the emergence of the monastic movement, which became one of the most prominent elements of the religion in the country. This movement may have been influenced by the example of pagan hermits and the extreme conditions of the desert landscape, which invites reflection and meditation. Today, not only surviving monasteries but also spiritual seekers still experience this environment.
Saint Paul the Hermit (or of Thebes) and Saint Anthony Abbot are among the most revered figures of Coptic Christianity in Egypt and by believers worldwide. Saint Anthony Abbot, born in Heracleopolis, is the true founder of the hermitic movement. Shortly after, Saint Pachomius from Luxor regulated that religious and spiritual experience. He is considered the founder of cenobitic monasticism, in which monks withdraw to a communal way of spiritual life.
Coptic Christianity in Egypt has many revered saints, in addition to Mark the Evangelist and the precursors of the monastic movement. Some of the most well-known saints are:
Although Coptic Christianity played a significant role in shaping doctrines that were later accepted internationally, it did not prevent a rupture with the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire) due to insurmountable differences on certain dogmas.
One of the most notable differences was in regards to the nature of Jesus Christ. Leaders of Coptic Christianity in Egypt have always defended monophysitism, which asserts that Jesus Christ has only one nature, the divine. However, the majority of branches of Christianity are not monophysite, as they maintain that Jesus had both a human and divine nature, which Copts consider to be blasphemy.
Initially, the thesis of Coptic Christianity in Egypt was triumphant at the Council of Nicea in 325. However, over a century later, there was a turnaround at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which rejected the positions led by the Patriarchate of Alexandria. This resulted in a complete schism, and since then, the Coptic Church has had its own Pope, commonly known as the ‘Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa’. However, it remained under the political umbrella of the Byzantine Empire.
In the context of schism and isolation from the rest of the Christian world, Coptic Christian Egypt was quickly conquered by Muslim Arab troops between 639 and 642, during the expansion following the death of the prophet Mohammed. Interestingly, ten years prior, Mohammed had sent an envoy from Arabia to Byzantium (now Istanbul) to reveal a new religion, Islam, which was flatly rejected.
Despite the Muslim conquest of Coptic Christian Egypt, the previous situation was not completely disrupted, as Christianity remained strong in the new capital, Cairo, and in southern territories of the Nile Valley, including Lower Nubia, supported by the Christian Nubian kingdoms in the south (Dongola, now Sudan). However, the ruling Islamic elites imposed taxes on Coptic Christians in Egypt and provided benefits to converts, gradually undermining the number of Christian followers.
By the 11th century, the majority of the Egyptian population had converted to Islam, including the far south. Many members of Coptic Christianity in Egypt had retreated to a communal life in their monasteries, seeking protection within their walls.
It was only in the 20th century, in a more interconnected world than in previous centuries, that these monasteries began to flourish again, with an increase in the number of monks and the funds of their libraries. Tourism has also provided an important boost to Coptic Christianity in Egypt, helping to fund the restoration of its buildings and the maintenance of its traditions. Travelers can explore this fascinating history and culture through our agency, visiting Cairo and some cities of Middle Egypt, among other places.
During your trip to Egypt, it is possible that you may experience some confusion when visiting churches and other places of worship. In addition to the Coptic Church, there are other branches of Christianity present in the country, often included under the concept of “Coptic Christianity in Egypt” for simplification purposes. However, these branches are not the same, as they do not follow exactly the same doctrine nor obey the same spiritual leaders, even though their followers all believe unwaveringly in Jesus Christ.
The following are the different branches of Christianity present in Egypt, with varying degrees of presence:
The situation of Coptic Christians in present-day Egypt is challenging. They often report feeling targeted and persecuted by extremist sectors of society, who have carried out attacks in recent years. As a result, many Coptic Christians have chosen to emigrate to other countries, including the United States.
However, Coptic Christians in Egypt are fully integrated into society and can be found at all levels of the social pyramid. Many hold important official positions or enjoy a privileged economic status, which can sometimes be a source of suspicion. At the same time, there are also Coptic Christian followers in the most humble layers of Egyptian society, such as the zabbalin or garbage collectors in Cairo.
Egypt is an important destination for pilgrims from all over the world due to the great significance of some sacred places of Coptic Christianity. These sites are also highly sought-after stops for lovers of religious tourism, thanks to their beauty and historical interest. In addition to reference churches in their main cities, there are also important monasteries that inspire others present in the rest of Christendom. Furthermore, there are natural sacred places that attract visitors from far and wide. In the following section, we will review some of the most significant sites of Coptic Christianity in Egypt.
The main temples of Christianity in Egypt are located in Cairo and Alexandria. In the first case, because it is the capital of the country. And in the second, because it was the capital before the Arab conquest, that is, when the majority faith in Egypt was Christian. This is a list of the most important churches and cathedrals, whether of Coptic or Greek Orthodox doctrine: all of them can be visited for their beauty or religious symbolism and you can find more information about them on the pages of both cities.
In addition to the religious temples, there are several other sacred places in Cairo that hold great significance for Coptic Christians. One such place is the Tree of the Virgin (Shagarat Mariam) in the Al Matariya neighborhood. This thousand-year-old sycamore tree boasts a spectacular twisted trunk and bare branches, and is considered highly symbolic by many. According to tradition, the Virgin Mary rested under its shade during her travels through Egypt with Saint Joseph and Baby Jesus. The nearby fountain is believed to have healing powers, attracting tourists from all faiths who are drawn to this legendary site.
As the monastic movement has always played a significant role in the development of Christianity in Egypt, many monasteries have managed to survive for centuries and today represent places of enormous interest for tourists interested in religious topics. Here we list some of the most important Christian monasteries in Egypt:
Aside from cathedrals, churches, and monasteries, those who wish to visit Christian sacred sites in Egypt should also take note of other attractions. For instance, there are two sacred peaks in the Sinai Mountain Range that are worth exploring.
Mount Sinai is the most well-known of the two, not just among Christians, but also for Jews, as it is believed that Moses received the Tablets of the Law with the Ten Commandments here. Watching the sunrise from its summit is an experience that combines natural beauty and mystical emotion, making it a popular excursion for tourists on vacation in the Red Sea, or as a final destination for religious pilgrimages.
Nearby is Mount Catherine, the highest peak in Egypt, towering at 2,642 meters above sea level. According to Christian tradition, this mountain is where angels placed the incorruptible body of Saint Catherine, a martyr saint born in Alexandria, near the previously mentioned Monastery of Saint Catherine. Although it receives fewer pilgrims, reaching the summit of Mount Catherine offers similar views and emotions to those found in Mount Sinai.
Another sacred site that is much more accessible to everyone is the Tree of Mary (Shagarat Mariam), found in the Al Matariya district in the northeast of Cairo. According to tradition, the Virgin Mary rested under the shade of this sycamore tree. As a result, it is visited by groups of not only Christians but also Muslims and individuals of other faiths. Today, only the tree’s trunk and bare branches remain, twisted into a unique shape, as is typical of this species. It survived the Napoleonic invasion, and some believe that the nearby fountain’s water has healing properties.
These are just a few of the most prominent Christian sacred sites in Egypt, drawing the attention of numerous foreign visitors. However, many more are scattered throughout the country, which we can help you explore during your trip. Contact us to start planning an unforgettable experience!