Among the Primitives – On the “History of Eastern Christianity” at 50.


In the late summer of 1967 a white-haired academic read the final drafts of a book about to be published in England and soon after that in America. The book evolved from a set of lectures he had given at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City a decade earlier. It is easy to imagine him working in a study on the second floor of his Victorian house on Perry Avenue  nestled in the hills east of Salt Lake City by the university campus. He was a year shy of 70, and soon to approach a second retirement, but life was to offer him two more decades which he used to great purpose. The news from the land where he was born, grew up and spent a good part of his adult life was difficult. He was to become an American citizen within a few years, but his connection to Egypt rarely wavered, however the circumstances, and whatever neglect and bias the country threw his way. He also remained involved in the affairs of his church, although he was neither outwardly religious nor a frequent church goer. He expressed this attachment in the preface of the book by offering it as “the fulfilment of a lifelong vow”. “Vow” may seem a paradoxically religious description for an act of scholarship by a man who was largely secular in tastes. But terms such a “secular” and “religious” could not easily be applied to one whose elliptical confession of faith reads “it must be stated that I, a historian by vocation, am also a member of the Coptic Church by birth and upbringing”. “Vocation” along with “Vow” color his life and work with a certain Christian religious brush, even if the bulk of his scholarship was devoted to the study of Islamic history and the late Crusades. Of the book he completed he writes “As a matter of fact, I allowed myself to be persuaded into shouldering this arduous task, partly as a modest work of scholarship, and partly as an act of faith”. These statements and many others throughout the book leave no doubt that his purpose was more than producing a simple scholarly and dry exposition of what the author calls the “primitive churches”, those of the “the Coptic and Ethiopic, the Jacobite, Nestorian, Armenian, Indian, Maronite, and the vanished churches of Nubia and North Africa”. And it is to the “more” that we must pay attention on the 50th anniversary of the publication of Aziz Atiya’s “History of Eastern Christianity”. Although the book does an excellent job of summarizing the history of these churches, it is the Copts that occupy the leading and largest chapter in the book, as befits the confession of the author. There is much to mine in the book, coming at the halfway mark of the last eventful century in the life of the Copts. A close reading of the book leaves the impression of a paradox of an author who both transcended and was limited by the circumstances of his time. The underlying worldview of the book is anti-colonial but not post-colonial. The mood of the author is one of pride in his heritage but unease about what has befallen it in over the centuries. The words that emerge have an uneasy balance between a desire for speaking truth and a reticence born of the author’s position and the consignment he received as a born Copt.

Aziz Suryal Atiya (1898-1988) would have been 120 years old next July 5. He had mused that he wished for a biblical lifespan of 10 dozen years. His tenure on earth was shorter, amounting to seven and half dozen years, and in a broad sense was marked by 12 year cycles of challenges and achievements. At 12, as an aspiring young student in Cairo away from his provincial family, he witnessed the events surrounding the assassination of Prime Minister Boutros Pasha Ghali and remembered them well into his late years. At 24 he was a poor but ambitious young man who left medical school due to lack of funds (his official biography notes that he was kicked out in 1919 due to his nationalist agitation). He experienced Dickensian poverty in the intervening years, made bearable only by the support of a stern father, a loving mother, and an adoring brood of siblings.  He walked the streets of Cairo in shoes stuffed with newspapers, unable or unwilling to spend the streetcar fare, but with dreams of studying medieval history abroad. The poverty neither dimmed his ambition nor weakened his spirit. At 36 he had acquired several degrees from England and was headed to a respected professorship in Germany. He completed a study, now a classic, of the 14th century crusade of Nicopolis, one of the last crusades and an event pregnant with future meaning for Christian-Muslim relations. But Germany in the late 1930s was no place for a brown man and he headed back to Egypt. By 48 he was a resident of cosmopolitan Alexandria, a founding member of its university, married to an intelligent and spirited daughter of the Coptic aristocracy and raising two young children. He would soon start on a project that ultimately led him to America; the microfilming of the library of St Catherine monastery in the Sinai. His collaborators were mostly American and European refugees to America. In 1951 he was invited to summarize his findings to the Library of Congress and his speech was introduced by the then Egyptian ambassador Kamel Bey Abdul Rahim. Those years also brought ominous clouds. His neighbor and friend, the physician and intellectual Ahmed Zaki Abu Shady would immigrate to America one step ahead of the government provocateurs and murderous Islamists. The move, unique at the time, would presage a later flood, as well as Aziz’s own life. The nativist wave that started in the late 1940s and culminated in the educational “reforms” of 1954 occasioned his demotion and finally his departure from Alexandria. Unhappy with the lack of recognition for his work and general badgering by the new regime he resigned one step ahead of the purge. As the so-called liberal age was ending he became increasingly occupied with Coptic studies and affairs of the Church and community. His turn to Coptology bore echoes of earlier involvements with such scholars as Ragheb Muftah and Mirrit Ghali, but was clearly a new occupation for him. During the years immediately following the 1952 coup, when his career in Egyptian universities was nearly at an end, he made three critical contributions to the Coptic community. He established the Higher Institute of Coptic Studies with Sami Gabra, he mentored many students who joined the clergy in senior capacities, and persuaded the Coptic clerical hierarchy to ease its historic suspicion of Protestant churches and initiate ecumenical relations with many other Churches. After leading a delegation to the World Council of Churches conference in 1954, his trips to America became more frequent and at 60 he finally settled in Salt Lake City to head a new institute at the University of Utah. The next dozen years were exceptionally productive. Aside from his academic work, he finished several books, including the “History of Eastern Christianity” and was even involved in such esoteric pursuits as locating the hieroglyphic rolls at the foundation of the Church of Latter Day Saints. At 72 he did not settle into retirement. Instead he was assisting the Egyptian Church with selecting suitable pastors for new immigrants by working with his former student Bishop Samuel in that capacity, and planning his next project. That project was a compendium of scholarly articles on all aspects of the Copts. He succeeded in his ambition to make it an international work of scholarship, with as many non-Copts as Copts involved in it. It was a dozen more years before the project was firmly established and at age 84 he felt certain that a final product might come out in his lifetime. He missed the deadline by only a handful of years, having passed away in 1988 after falling ill while working at his desk, writing the introduction to the eight volume work.

The “History of Eastern Christianity” summarizes the history of these churches with quick brushes and substantial number of references. But beyond the impeccable scholarship there is also a polemic that looks critically at how the West perceived Eastern Christians. Of Catholic writers he notes “[are] usually men of great learning and erudition who viewed the East from the narrow angle of their own profession with sectarian vehemence and considerable lack of understanding”. On the other hand, Protestant writers “failed to come to grips with the essence of Eastern Christian primitivism”. What is needed, he argues, is a narrative by “native historians”. In its purpose the book anticipates later works, such as “Orientalism” by Edward Said, published a decade later. However, in method and conclusion, it is entirely different. It reflects the author’s belief that it is pointless to try to call out bias or demand that it ends; rather it is best to elevate the “native” so that such biases are made silly in the light of new accomplishments. His awareness of the condescension of the West toward Eastern Christians exists side by side with respect and fascination with Western culture and its methods and advances.He grew up among the Coptic clergy who harbored undisguised dislike for the West and Western Christian methods. Yet in 1954 he persuaded an anti-Protestant Pope Yus’ab to bless a mission of a bright young monk and a priest to the World Council of Churches by telling him that “we must strive to educate the Protestants, who are our younger brothers”. More than a dozen years later he looked on the fruits of his argument with some satisfaction. “The Coptic Church, which had chosen the solitude of its own primitiveness, its peculiar spiritualism, and the rough road of its so-called Monophysitism since the black days of Chalcedon in 451, is now steadily recapturing its faith in old friends and foes overseas and in distant climes. The aloofness and traditional suspicion of the patriarchs towards other Christians of different sects is gradually being replaced by a sense of mutual regard and a measure of cooperation ..”. He does not absolve Eastern Christians, and specifically his tribe, the Copts, of a measure of complicity in the Western gaze. Of his people he writes “The place of Copts in the general history of Christianity has long been minimized, sometimes even forgotten, because the Coptic people themselves had voluntarily chosen to live in oblivion. After having led the way for centuries, they decided to segregate themselves from the growing ecclesiastical authority of the West in order to guard their way of worship and retain their national pride”. Rather than air grievances and demand equality, he seeks a position of strength by the jujitsu of proudly adopting the description “primitive”, once hurled by Western missionaries as a rebuke to the East, as a definition for a Christianity uncontaminated by worldly power and its accretions. The epilogue makes clear his agenda of returning the East into a central place in Christian history. He approvingly notes Milton Obote’s demand that “we should have more African clergymen, after all churches are international .. White missionaries have done good work but their era is finished”. From that quote he pivots to making his own demand: “The drive towards proselytism must be arrested once and for all in order to strengthen the churches of the East by a systematic avoidance of separating their sons from their ancient professions”. Yet he notes that “the Eastern churches are at best too limited in their means to cope with those vast responsibilities”. This leads him to the conclusion that Western Christianity can best assure the survival of its Eastern brethren by aid to the native churches rather than direct intervention. Although this has become the official positions of many of the Oriental churches, it has yet to be accepted by all Western churches, especially the right-wing evangelicals. In a calm and deliberate manner he announces his ambition that the “general history of Christianity will have to be rewritten to incorporate the monumental and sometimes turbulent contributions of the Copts”, and by implication other Eastern Christians. The insertion of the word “turbulent” hints at his view that the primitives are not entirely blameless in the schisms of the Fifth century. He notes that he possesses the “inevitable passion of one who writes from within the Coptic world and yet who must view events dispassionately with the mind of a historian from outside”. This necessary distancing was to bring him into conflict with many of the Church leaders, including patriarchs, and accounts for the many misguided attacks some Copts still level against his scholarship to this day.

It is now common to see the rise of Islamists and the violent variants of their ideology as the largest threat to the primitive churches. Atiya was not blind to persecution and its ill effects, but he saw in Western evangelism a different and potent threat. He had studied Islam for decades and came to know it well and see much good in it. His lectures on Islamic history attracted many Muslim students at the University of Utah, and more than a few confessed that he taught them as much about their heritage as their religious leaders, if not more. His views on the threats to primitive christianity were subtle and uncolored by personal biases. This subtlety, and even a certain ambiguity, are demonstrated in his discussion of the  turbulent times between Chalcedon and the arrival of Islam. He gives a full account of the theological differences at Chalcedon only to insist that the “political background can not be minimized”. After Chalcedon “The Copts were humiliated as never before, and the Coptic Church suffered the tortures of the damned at the hands of the Melkite colonialist. The wonder is that their communities were able to bear the brunt of such travesties and survive. But the bulk of the Coptic nation remained faithful unto the last, and harboured a deep-seated hatred of the Byzantine oppressors and all things Byzantine, which found natural expression not only in the so-called Monophysite doctrine but also in the Coptic language, Coptic literature, and above all in the Coptic art”. The Byzantine is a stand-in for all those, before and after him, who oppressed the common folk and ground them to a fate of ignorance and poverty, and survival is a testament to faith but also to sheer stubbornness. The book delivers an unambiguous conclusion about Chalcedon, seeing it as an expression of nascent Egyptian nationalism. While most political scientist would disagree with such an assessment, noting that nationalism is a product of modernity, Atiya is unapologetically romantic in believing in the existence of an essential Egyptian “folk”. This may have the product of the intellectual ferment of his youth in Egypt, or of the European scholars he studied with (most notably Paul Ernst Kahle, the notable orientalist who barely escaped with his life from Nazi Germany). This belief colored his view of Egypt’s conversion to Islam. The arrival of Islam would ultimately decimate the percentage of christians in Egypt from the entire nation to 10%, but he does not subject the Arabs to severe criticism. They, and subsequent rulers, “preserved the Copt as a fine source of revenue” , and their arrival may have been paradoxically providential. The Coptic Church was nearing extermination as a heresy and the arrival of the Arabs allowed it to cleverly outmaneuver the Melkites to “become the sole representative of Christianity in Egypt”. Such an interpretation may seem alien to the Western mind, but to a primitive Christian the survival of an undiluted faith trumps any assumption of secular power or the safety of the majority. He amply documents the horrors of pogroms and other persecutions of Copts during the times of the Mamluks, but refuses to lay the blame on Islam as a religion. He gives a full accounting of the horrors of the Armenian genocide, but blames it on the narrow Turkish ethno-nationalism. He attributes the massacre of christians in the mountains of Lebanon in the 1860s to tribal loyalties, cynical ploys by the Ottoman rulers and the general crookedness of humanity. He tries to find a general theory for the survival of the primitive churches in the final pages of the book. The epilogue begins with a question “At this journey’s end, it is fitting to ponder over the causes of the survival of most ancient Christianity of the East in the midst of the surging sea of Islam”, especially given that Islam was a “good religion” and conversion did not “throw a long shadow of shame on an apostate”. He provides two reasons. First that Islam never wanted to eradicate Christianity noting that “there was no humiliation in being a Christian in the eyes of a Muslim”, a statement of opinion that stands in direct conflict to some of the historical facts the book puts forth. Second was the “eastern Christian was able to preserve the purity of his race from pollution through the intermarriage with the ceaseless waves of conquerors from outside …Initially a way of worship, faith in the end became a comprehensive way of life and a symbol of an old culture”. Specifically with Egypt he notes that “the racial characteristics of the Copts themselves, their unwavering loyalty to their Church, their historic steadfastness toward the faith of their forefathers, and the cohesive elements in their social structure combined to render their community an enduring monument across the ages”. This is as close as he can come to a theory given the breadth of his experience with the local religions. In a hand-written account he notes his excitement upon first visiting St Catherine and locating rolls long thought extinct. The entire trove proves disorienting to anyone wishing a clean delineation between Islam and Christianity. There were bibles written in Kufic script. There were accounts of saints that are clearly “Islamic” in style, and so on.

Yet for all his deep understanding of the complexity of religious interactions, and his seemingly broad and secular views, the cosmopolitan scholar remained a “primitive Copt” according to a handwritten note to one of his relatives. He spent the last two decades of his life immersed in the Coptic Encyclopedia, sparing no effort to locate experts and cultural artifacts to fill its volumes. In a November 23 1977 note to his friend Kurt Weitzmann of Princeton, he inquires about his health and that of his wife, only to pivot quickly to a request to find him some Coptologists “behind the Iron Curtain”. But this immersion ultimately lessened his immediate involvement in the communal affairs of the Church. He reached out to the most prominent Coptic theologian, Matthew the Poor, and excitedly asked him and the monks around him to be involved in the effort. They turned him down. After the October 6 1981 assassination of Bishop Samuel he seemed to lose interest in meeting and conversing with church prelates, favoring the solitude of scholarship and his own Coptness.  His personal travails with the men in black who lead the Church do not prevent him from offering an accurate assessment of the central role of the Church in the life of the Copts noting that “Copts regarded their prelates with the highest deference. To them they looked for spiritual leadership and personal guidance, especially in the days of great trials, which were not infrequent in Coptic annals. Neither massacre, nor persecution, nor dismissal from office, nor confiscation of property could exterminate the Copts as a community, and the hierarchy stood in the midst of all movements to fortify the faithful through times of storm. Faith and fortitude were their means of survival, and their rallying point was the patriarch, whom they feared and revered, not on account of the legal powers accorded to his office, but because of piety and godliness.” It is notable that the quality of great learning does not appear in that assessment.

The publication of the book predates the onset of a historic development for Copts, but also more generally for other christians; the increased immigration to the West. Immigration blurs the neat distinction between Eastern and Western Christianity, and the reduction of faith into a national or racial identification.The realities of immigration, and rapid acculturation, seem to dawn on the author with occasional surprises. In a 1975 note to Weitzmann he apologizes for not stopping by to visit him in Princeton, noting that he spent nearly two weeks driving down the East Coast visiting members of his immediate family, and those of his wife, who now dotted that landscape. In 1982, while dining in a French Vietnamese restaurant in the Soho neighborhood of New York City, he remarked that Pope Shenouda introduced him to some bishops as “Ustaz Amerikani”, or an American Professor. He chuckled at the thought and concluded, in English, “perhaps he is right”. On July 4 1988 he celebrated his 90th and final birthday in a magnificent setting on top of the Rocky mountains, attended by a large number of his immediate family, close friends and many scholars who flew in from several continents. It was an entirely American affair. Of the younger generations in his immediate and extended family, which had grown polyglot by intermarriage with non-Copts, he expressed the hope that “they may not share our blood but perhaps they will remember our culture”. The book from two decades earlier remained the last moment of certainty about his people and their essential nature. After that moment it was increasingly difficult to separate the notion of religion as culture from culture as religion. Just at the moment when he expressed a certainty about what is a Copt (or an Eastern Christian), circumstances of historical proportions threw a large measure of doubt at his answer. It is possible to read the “History of Eastern Christianity” as a relic of a time before the region descended into cultural decay and savagery. It is also possible to read it as a celebration of renewal after centuries of decay. It is probably best to read it as both in accordance with the author’s subtle ambiguity about human effort and the uncertainty of providence. The book remains deserving of a first and many subsequent readings. As for the author, his life should be celebrated as a success clawed from fierce adversity. His wish to be buried in a mausoleum he built with his cousin a short distance from ancient Coptic Cairo, in part with proceeds from the book, remains unfulfilled. He rests in the American Rockies, a primitive Christian among the Protestants.

— Maged Atiya








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