A Palimpsest of Copts and Jews

The early Ninth Century CE was a terrible time for Egyptians, a concluding time of a sequence of revolts. The Arab armies arrived in the middle of the Seventh Century, and Egypt became a province of the rising empire governed from the Levant. A hundred years later the center of the Islamic empire moved east, and the occupation was closer to the Persian invasion of more than a century earlier, rapacious and intolerant. Faith, and to a lesser extent money, moved the mostly Christian population of Egypt to revolt. In a series of encounters known as the “Bashmuric Revolts”, the overlords from Baghdad sent in central Asian mercenaries to put down the revolts with predicable violence; killing, enslavement and mass burning of Churches and Monasteries followed. By the middle of the Ninth Century the native Copts had given up all armed resistance. Never again would Copts resort to force to defend themselves, no matter how great the oppression.  The scale of the physical damage would only be rivaled by the riots of the 14th Century, and 2013, in the wake of the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood President, Morsi.

Some of these events paint a fascinating miniature of the complex relationships between faiths and their histories in Egypt. One burnt Church, St Michael in old Fustat, was either bought or appropriated by a group of local Jews around 880 CE. It became the Ezra Synagogue, a center of Jewish life in Egypt for more than a thousand years thereafter. Rarely have Churches been forcibly changed to Synagogues; Ezra is an unusual specimen. The Synagogue contained a “Genizah”, or a store room for discarded documents carrying the name of God, and hence not candidates for destruction. The accumulated treasure paints a picture of Jewish life in Egypt and the region throughout the Crusades and Middle Ages. The Jews of Egypt were globalists. The community was in the hub of trade from Andalusia in the West to India in the East. Equally telling is the absence of Copts in these documents, for although Egypt remained mostly Christians for centuries afterward, the Christians of Egypt closed in on themselves, hemmed in by Muslim rulers and a West that regarded them as heretics. The Genizah records were “discovered” in the 1890s, and the events around that are telling of the varying fortunes of Jews and Copts for the next century.

In the beginning of the 19th Century Egypt began to attract new Jews and Christians. In the case of Jews, it was Ottoman and European Jews who came to work with Egypt’s modernization efforts. They arrived with substantial social capital, far above their impoverished Egyptian relatives. The removal of the Genizah records to Europe was the occasion for protests by Egyptian Jews, who resented the newcomers’ high handed ways. In time, however, Egyptian Jews became absorbed into the new elite, by both marriage and business. When the Jewish exodus from Egypt began in 1948, there was little difference between those whose roots ran back decades or centuries. All left together.

The fortunes of the Copts took a radically different road. The arrival of the British Church Missionary Society (CMS) had a largely positive impact on the Copts. But fifty years later, in the 1850s, came a new breed of missionaries, American Evangelicals. They viewed the Orthodox Copts as derelict Christians and sought to convert all of them to Protestantism. The Orthodox Church faced a threat as great as the Asian armies of centuries ago. It was entirely possible to imagine the Orthodox creed becoming an antique and vanishing vestige, as Copts saw the superior benefits of Protestant education and advancement. In fact, that did not happen. The Protestant threat became an occasion for reform, the vast majority of Egyptian Christians remained in the Orthodox creed, and the Church tied its fortunes closely to the rising Egyptian nationalism. It is not an exaggeration to state that Copts sacralize the land of Egypt as much as the Jews do the Holy Land. The Evangelical Christians became a part of native Egyptian Christianity rather than the other way around.

The establishment of Israel was the proximate cause for the departure of the Jews from Egypt, but the ultimate causes were both nativism and political Islam.  The majority of Copts engaged in one and rejected the other, without noting the contradiction involved. It was left to another migration, that of Copts to North America and Australia, to highlight those contradictions. In an odd twist of fate, a term normally associated with Jews, “Diaspora”, is now contested among Copts. Some accept it, others reject it. Both positions freighted with historical and social consequences.

When it comes to faith, land and history, peoples invariably find themselves as threads in a wider weave. Hegemony and exceptionalism do little but rend the fabric.

 

— Maged Atiya

 

 


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