The Counter Crusade

Thursday, December 08, 2005

How the Copts were saved by the Muslims

Since there has been increased talk of tensions between Muslims and Copts in Egypt recently, I thought I'd mention how the Muslims took Egypt and saved the Copts from the Byzantines.

In the seventh century C.E. (aka AD), the Byzantine empire was heavily oppressing the Coptic people in Egypt, imposing heavy taxes on them and trying to convert them to the Greek Orthodox Church. The Copts were "unwilling to pay homage to the Chalcedonian extraction of Christianity" and were therefore "imprisoned and persecuted by their Byzantine masters". The country had also been weakened because of elder Heraclius' revolt against the "vicious government of Emperor Phocas", which was fought out largely on Egyptian soil. This led to younger Heraclius taking the throne of the Byzantine empire.

The Sassanid empire in what is now Iraq and Iran had also attacked Egypt and other Byzantine territories, subjecting the Egyptians "to severe material oppression for a decade".

Benjamin I, the Coptic Patriarch of Egypt, went into hiding from the Byzantine Empire, but they caught his brother Mennas. According to Coptic sources:

And Heraclius seized the blessed Mennas, brother of the Father Benjamin, the patriarch, and brought great trials upon him, and caused lighted torches to be held against his sides until the fat of his body oozed forth and flowed upon the ground, and knocked out his teeth because he confessed the faith; and finally commanded that a sack should be filled with sand, and the holy Mennas placed within it, and drowned in the sea. For Heraclius the misbeliever had charged them, saying: "If any of them says that the council of Chalcedon is true, let him go; but drown in the sea those that say it is erroneous and false." Therefore they did as the prince bade them, and cast Mennas into the sea."

Because of this oppression of the Copts by the Byzantines, and the weakness of the country, Amr ibn al As, a Muslim general with great ambitions, wanted to take Egypt. Amr ibn al As was never exactly a pious Muslim.. He is perhaps most famous, beside for conquering Egypt, as the man who lied and cheated in the arbitration between Ali and Muawiya, causing Muawiya to become caliph unjustly. In any case, Amr knew that the Coptic majority would not fight along side the Byzantines, and this encouraged him to take Egypt, mainly out of political ambitions.

Amr begged the Caliph Umar to allow him to take Egypt, but Umar was not sure if this was the right thing to do at the time. "The conquest of Egypt itself stands in our traditions, both Arab and non-Arab, as an episode in which Amr exerted pressure on the more cautious judgment of Umar and caused the latter reluctantly to yield." Umar told Amr he could go toward Egypt, and that he should expect a letter from him once he made his decision on whether or not he should proceed to cross the border. Umar ended up writing a letter in which he said that Amr must turn back if he had not yet crossed the border, but that if he had already crossed it then he should proceed." Amr received the letter before crossing the border but did not open it until he was well into Egyptian territory, and wrote back to Umar saying that he only read it after crossing the border, and that Umar should send reinforcements.

What is known as fact by historians is that the Copts did not help their Byzantine oppressors. What remains a matter of speculation, however, is whether or not the Copts helped the Muslims take Alexandria from the Byzantines. All of Egypt was controlled by Alexadria and once the Muslims took it, possibly with assistance from the Copts, all of Egypt became theirs.

"The hostility of the Copts [to the Byzantines], amply justified in their own eyes, was probably the decisive factor in terms of local assistance provided to the Muslim troops, particularly in the Delta. This assistance is recorded beyond doubt in the later stages of the campaign by the Arab chroniclers, possibly in exaggerated terms."

Amr sent a letter to Benjamin I, former Coptic partiarch who was in hiding from the Byzantines, saying:

"There is protection and security for the place where Benjamin is, and peace from God, therefore let him come forth secure and tranquil and administer the affairs of his church and the government of his nation..."

Amr "gave orders that Benjamin should be brought before him with honour and veneration and love" and gave the patriarch "full authority to resume his intentions to regather his congregation and make amends for the destruction of the Coptic church spearheaded by Heraclius."

Benjamin was also able to retrieve the head of Saint Mark, founder of the Coptic church in Egypt, that the Greeks wanted to smuggle to Byzantium. He made such "great efforts to help with the rebuilding and revival of the Coptic Church in Egypt", that he became a hero far after his death.

"So deep was the impression of his long reign on the minds of his contemporaries that the legend was circulated among them that not only did the angels carry his noble soul to heaven but it was also escorted by Saint Athanasius the Apostolic, Saint Severus of Antioch, and Saint Theodosius."

Perhaps then it would help both the Muslims and Copts of today to remember how the Muslims once saved the Copts from the terrible oppression of the Byzantines, rid the area of the horribly oppressive Sassanian Empire, and brought back to Egypt its Coptic Patriarch with love and honor, allowing him to rebuild the Coptic church.

Citations from:
- Burke, Jeffrey C. "Coptic-Muslim Relations in the Seventh Century"


  • Good post, I wasnt aware of that history.

    By Blogger Abu Sinan, at 9:35 PM, December 08, 2005  

  • As you allude to, Egypt was one of several Patriarchates in the Byzantine Empire. That meant the Patriarch of each center (Antioch, Alexandria, etc) pledged loyalty to the Patriarch of Constantinople in what is now known as the Greek Othrodox Church. At an Ecumenical council, a split emerged over the nature of Christ, and the Copts decided on the monophysite tradition. However, they weren't the only monophysites in the Byzantine Empire.

    Several pro-Monophysite patriarchs came to the throne in Constantinople, the most notable being Anastasius in 498 AD.

    Ultimately, however, monophysites were declared heretics in the eyes of the authorities in Constantinople. This meant that Copts were considered heretics, but the point I want to make is many others in the Empire were too, such as the Syrians. What we're talking about is a larger conflict that just Egypt vs Constantinople, but Monophysites vs what became Orthodoxy. It was a struggle for Christian supremacy in the region.

    But lets rapidly fast forward to the "aid" Umar gave the Copts. He was really playing it smart. Think about it, if you have a hostile enemy like the Byzantines, would you grant their enemies stay in your empire so they could multiply and ultimate challenge the supremacy of your enemy, dividing the Christian world into two or three camps? Of course! The ultimate hope of Umar was probably to use the Copts as a form of Christian dissenters, usurping the power of Constantinople in the Christian world. Every alternative heresy to the orthodoxy in Constantinople, weakened the Byznatines. So, he was playing a very practical move. Now, this isn't to say Umar wasn't a brilliant man - the Pact of Umar is widely considered one of the most tolerant actions of the period - but he did forbid the Copts from building any churchs, as well as wearing the color of Green (rhymes with 'Din' lol).

    "Perhaps then it would help both the Muslims and Copts of today to remember how the Muslims once saved the Copts from the terrible oppression of the Byzantines, rid the area of the horribly oppressive Sassanian Empire, and brought back to Egypt its Coptic Patriarch with love and honor, allowing him to rebuild the Coptic church."

    There are a lot of value judgements here. The terrible oppression of the Byzantines? Its really hard to qualify that statement. The Byzantines WERE oppressive by our standards, but not by the time period. Enter the Mongols... and the Byzantines look pretty good. Further, the Byzantines were certainly no worse than the Empire they evolved from, the Romans, widely considered to be a benchmark in "civilization"

    Think about it - the Abbasids sworn enemy was the Fatimids of Egypt... would you the Abbasids oppresive simply because they wanted to wipe the Fatimids off the face of the earth? They rivaled the Caliphate in Baghdad with one in Cairo. And just as before, the Byzantines supported the Fatimids, in an attempt to weaken their larger enemy, the Abbasids. You also see the same phenominon with the Moors of Spain - they are actually descendents of the Ummayads. This is the same pattern repeating itself - you back your enemies enemy!

    But more importantly, simply because an empire is the rival of another, does not mean they are evil. In the medieval ages, it was a fight to the death. No pansies!

    By Blogger Steve, at 8:34 AM, December 09, 2005  

  • And as for the Sassinids, well, if you read Ferdousi's Shahnahmeh (King of King's) - you'll see its not so simple. Ferdousi was a 'Persian' Muslim who wrote about the good old days of when Iran spoke Persian (not Arabic) and when the Sassinids were in power.

    He wasn't interesting in becoming Zoastrian (the religion of the Sassinids) but culturally, he was talking about persian culture... as opposed to Arab culture (which was considered foreign), so he would be rather sympathetic to the Sassinids.

    By Blogger Steve, at 8:40 AM, December 09, 2005  

  • thanks steve, but you misunderstood me.

    when i mentioned the oppression of the byzatines and sassanians, i only meant in relation to the copts, not in general. and of course the sassanians weren't always bad and at one point they were quite tolerant of religious minorities, but when empires begin to weaken they become more corrupt (or maybe when they become corrupt they begin to weaken). that's only natural. anyway i'm just saying what i mentioned was only in relation to the copts.

    and Yes Umar favoured the copts because the greek orthodox christians were pro-Byanztium, but the Muslims could have simply oppressed the copts and they didnt. and the point is that they saved them and treated them nicely... much more nicely than the Byzantines or the Sassanians, and thus "oppressive" is justified when you compare how the copts were under the byzantines, sassanians to how they became under the Muslims.

    as for the pact of umar, altho it sounds "revolutionary for its time", according to most western scholars it was probably NOT written by Umar. They're still not sure whether it was written by Umar II (ibn abdul Aziz) or whether it was only written by later scholars to justify how the scholars felt the dhimmis should be treated, or a third view is that it was written by later scholars simply as an exercise in how to write a pact with dhimmis.

    in any case, it goes against Umar's even more tolerant policies with all the other people he made pacts with, but more importantly, this pact assumes that the Muslims are living among the dhimmis... but at that time, the Muslims isolated themselves from the dhimmis and lived far away, and for a host of other reasons scholars dont believe there was ever a need at the time of Umar for such a pact...

    By Blogger Silencer, at 9:57 AM, December 09, 2005  

  • hmmm I had not heard that about the Pact of Umar.

    One thing is sure, a lot of the material on this period is sketchy, so its always hard to make rational deductions about how certain people felt, or what their real motive for doing something was. We can make assumptions, but its hard to qualify that, because as you point out, we cant even be sure if the Pact of Umar was written by Umar.

    And secondly, its dangerous to read into history answers to questions about today! The Copts of the period are really not the same people as the Copts today, and the same goes for the Muslims, the Greek Orthodox and others. In one way or another, those people BECAME someone else today, but its difficult to ask Copts to accept some truth about their past 1300 years ago in order to create some better peace settlement in Egypt, 2005.

    By such logic, Ahmadinejad in Iran should not oppose Israel, because Cyrus the Great was so tolerant towards Jews. Different times, different people, different issues!

    By Blogger Steve, at 10:56 PM, December 10, 2005  

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