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Christianity in Egypt

Coptic Christianity in Egypt: Discovering Its Significance on Your Trip

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.

Table of contents

What Does the Term "Coptic" Mean?

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.

History of Coptic Christianity in Egypt

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.

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Coptic Christianity in Egypt, after the Death of Christ

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:

  • Catherine of Alexandria: She is one of the most revered Egyptian saints among Coptic Christians and is famous worldwide. She was martyred in the early 4th century by Emperor Maxentius for refusing to make sacrifices to the Roman gods and marry one of his wise men. Her intact relics were discovered centuries later in a cave on Mount Sinai and were transported to the Monastery of Saint Catherine.
  • Menas: Born in Memphis in the late 3rd century, Menas served in the Roman army before becoming a hermit. Many miracles are attributed to him, including his own burial, where his dead body was placed on a camel heading towards Egypt, and the animal stopped permanently near Alexandria, which was interpreted as a divine signal. A monastery (Abu Mena) was founded there, and while the ancient site is now in ruins, a modern and monumental one has been built next to it.
  • Shenouda: Also known as Shenute, he was one of the first abbots of the White Monastery founded by his uncle Saint Pachomius outside of Sohag in Middle Egypt. Shenouda was highly revered for his charisma and is still highly regarded by Coptic Christians.
  • Bishoi: A contemporary of Saint Pachomius, Bishoi founded the monastery that bears his name in Wadi Natrun, and three other monasteries are dedicated to him.
  • Maurice: Born in Thebes, Maurice was a Christian when it was still prohibited in the Roman Empire. He commanded a legion in the late 3rd century and was sent to Gaul to fight against the Bagaudae. Although they fulfilled their mission, they were executed. According to some theories, this was because they refused to persecute Christian enemies, while others believe it was because they refused to make sacrifices to the pagan gods of Rome. Maurice is better known outside of Egypt but is still a highly regarded saint in Coptic Christianity.

Controversy with the Roman Empire and the Rise of Islam

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.

The different Branches of Christianity in Egypt

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:

  • Coptic Church: the most important and numerous branch, and the focus of this page on Coptic Christianity in Egypt. Also known as the Coptic Orthodox Church, this term can generate confusion with the other Christian branch in the country, which we will see in the next point. The Coptic Church uses the Coptic language in its liturgy, which is the last remnant for the survival of this language derived from that used in Ancient Egypt. For better understanding and communication with the faithful, Arabic is also used. As mentioned before, the Coptic Church has its own Pope, who holds the title of ‘Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of all Africa’. We will review its main churches and famous monasteries below.
  • Orthodox Church: also called the Greek Orthodox Church, as it uses this language in its liturgy. It is one of the autocephalous churches of the Orthodox Church, which separated from the Catholic Church in 1054 as a result of the East-West Schism. Its supreme authority is the primate bishop who receives the title ‘Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria and all Africa’ (not to be confused with the title of the Pope of the Coptic Church). It has as its ecumenical patriarch that of Constantinople, although it is only an honorary title. It is, therefore, at the same level as the other fourteen Orthodox churches, such as the Russian, Greek, or Romanian, among others. It is estimated to have 1.5 million followers, but they are scattered throughout Africa. Its peak moment in Egypt was experienced at the beginning of the 20th century when it had about 100,000 followers, mostly of Greek origin, but this figure was greatly reduced after World War II and the massive emigration of this population to other countries. Currently, its main sacred temples are the Cathedral of the Annunciation in Alexandria and the Cathedral of St. Nicholas in Cairo.
  • Coptic Catholic Church: This branch has nothing to do with the Coptic Church described above, and the term “Coptic” here refers to “Egyptian.” The Coptic Catholic Church has been part of the Catholic Church since its founding in the 18th century and follows the Latin rite, recognizing the Pope of Rome as its supreme authority. It is estimated to have slightly fewer than 200,000 followers.
  • Other branches of Christianity in Egypt: There are also other branches of Christianity in Egypt whose followers follow different rites than those of the three mentioned above. It is difficult to quantify the number of these believers, but they could be increasing due to immigration from other Middle Eastern countries. These include churches of Armenian, Chaldean, Syrian, Melkite, or Maronite rites.

The Situation of Coptic Christians in Present-Day Egypt

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.

Major places of Coptic Christianity in Egypt

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.

Main Churches for 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.

  • Cairo:
    • St. Mark’s Cathedral (Coptic rite): Located in the Azbakeya neighborhood, St. Mark’s Cathedral is the most important hierarchical seat of the Coptic Papacy, whose supreme authority is the ‘Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of all Africa.’ Although it is a relatively recent building, inaugurated in the mid-20th century, it holds great religious significance. The Pope of Rome, Paul VI, returned part of the relics of St. Mark to his Coptic counterpart Tawadros II during the cathedral’s inauguration. St. Mark’s remains were found by Venetian merchants in Alexandria in the 9th century, and his body has been kept in the Basilica of San Marco in Venice ever since. 
    • Hanging Church (Coptic rite): The Hanging Church is one of the most famous churches in Egypt, known for its historical and artistic beauty. Its origins date back to the 3rd century, but its main architectural elements were built in the 13th century, with significant remodeling in the 19th century. It is called the Hanging Church because it was attached to the Roman fortress of Babylon. 
    • Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus (Coptic rite): This church was built in honor of two Roman martyrs, Saints Sergius and Bacchus, whose origins date back to the 4th or 5th century. It is also known for being the place where the Holy Family is believed to have taken refuge in the crypt for three weeks. The combination of wood, red granite, and marble in its design makes it one of the most artistically interesting churches in Cairo. 
    • Santa Barbara Church (Coptic rite): This church has been around since the 4th century and was rebuilt in medieval times. It houses relics of Saint Barbara, who was originally from Asia Minor.
    • St. George Church (Greek Orthodox rite): This historic church has its origins in the 10th century and was rebuilt in the 20th century. Its most significant feature is a sealed well that, according to the temple, provided service to the Holy Family during their stay in the country as part of the Flight to Egypt.
    • St. Nicholas Cathedral (Greek Orthodox rite): This cathedral, originally built in the 17th century, is one of the seats of the Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria.
    • 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.

  • Alexandria:
    • Coptic Cathedral of St. Mark (Coptic rite): This cathedral is one of the seats of the Coptic Pope, and its importance lies in preserving the head of the evangelist St. Mark according to Coptic belief. The cathedral has undergone various destructions, and its current appearance is very recent, from the mid-20th century. According to Coptic belief, it preserves the head of the evangelist St. Mark, which Venetian merchants would never have taken with them to that Italian city in the 9th century.
    • Cathedral of the Annunciation (Greek Orthodox rite): This cathedral is the seat of the “Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria and all of Africa,” making it one of the most important places in Christianity in Egypt. It stands out for its monumentality and elegance, amplified by its recent restoration in the early 20th century.
    • St. Catherine’s Cathedral (Catholic rite): This temple is of great elegance and features a purportedly Roman style (neo-Baroque). It was built in the mid-19th century and is dedicated to the local martyr saint, although it does not preserve her relics, as they rest in the Monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai. However, it was the burial place of the exiled Italian king Victor Emmanuel III, until he was repatriated to Italy in 2017.
    • Cathedral of the Annunciation: This cathedral is of Greek Orthodox denomination, and is also known as the Cathedral of Evangelismos in English. Built in the mid-19th century, the cathedral features a combination of Neo-Byzantine and Neo-Gothic styles, making it one of the most elegant and monumental temples in the city. Recently restored, it is highly recommended for tourists interested in learning about the differences between various Christian branches. It serves as the seat of the ‘Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria and all Africa’, according to the official title.

Important Monasteries for Christianity in Egypt

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:

  • Monastery of St. Anthony (Coptic worship): Considered the oldest monastery in the world, this monastery deserves to be placed first on the list. St. Anthony the Great moved to this oasis in the Eastern Desert at the end of the 3rd century, in what is considered one of the first hermitic experiences. It is one of the most sacred places for Coptic Christianity in Egypt and receives numerous tourists and pilgrims every year. The monastery has several churches, a rich library with Coptic manuscripts, and the famous cave where this hermit took refuge.
  • Monastery of St. Paul (Coptic worship): Also in the Eastern Desert and very close to the previous one, this other complex is of enormous historical importance. Its origins date back to the 4th century when the complex was built on the cave where St. Paul of Thebes withdrew in the mid-3rd century, years before St. Anthony the Great did the same, following his example. It also has several churches and a cave that supposedly preserves the remains of this hermit, the first in history, although there is no unanimity about his figure.
  • St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai (Greek Orthodox cult): This complex is the seat of the autonomous Church of Mount Sinai, with its abbot serving as archbishop. It is not dependent on the Patriarch of Alexandria but rather on that of Jerusalem. Also known as the Burning Bush, this is where the plant burned as a divine sign from God to Moses, according to Jewish and Christian belief. The monastery is also famous for containing the remains of St. Catherine of Alexandria and an extraordinary library, although it is not open to visitors.
  • White Monastery (Coptic cult): Located about 4 km south of Sohag in Middle Egypt, this place is highly revered by believers of Coptic Christianity in Egypt as it is dedicated to two saints of great local tradition, St. Pigol and St. Shenouda. Both saints promoted the construction of this complex in the 4th and 5th centuries. Its name is derived from the clarity of the color of its walls, which were largely built with blocks extracted from constructions of Ancient Egypt.
  • Red Monastery (Coptic cult): Also located on the outskirts of Sohag and founded in the same period, this monastery was established by St. Bishoy (or Bishoi), a disciple of St. Shenouda, although some sources also attribute the foundation to St. Pigol. It is named after the red bricks and elements used to build the complex, unlike the White Monastery which is made up of lighter-colored materials.
  • Burned Monastery (Coptic worship): located about 20 km north of Asyut, in Middle Egypt. Known in Arabic as Deir el-Muharraq, this is one of the oldest and still fully operational monasteries. According to tradition, the Holy Family sought refuge in the monastery’s caves for a few months, and the complex was built on them.
  • Monastery of the Virgin (Coptic worship): situated approximately 10 km south of Asyut, this is also believed to have been the temporary dwelling of the Virgin, St. Joseph, and the Baby Jesus. It is considered the southernmost place the Holy Family reached during their stay in Egypt and is a famous pilgrimage site for many Christians in Egypt.
  • Monastery of Saint Bishoy (Coptic worship): located in Wadi Natrun, midway between Alexandria and Cairo, about 120 km from both cities. It is the primary place of worship for Saint Bishoy from the 4th and 5th centuries, to whom other monasteries in the country have also been dedicated. Founded by him and surrounded by a 9th-century wall, it also has a church and gardens.
  • Syrian Monastery (Coptic worship): situated close to the Monastery of Saint Bishoy in Wadi Natrun, this is another monastery, probably from the 8th century. Though smaller in size, it has beautiful domes on the exterior and preserves original and historic frescoes inside.

Discover Other Christian Sacred Sites 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!

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