May 29, 2009


I have now been in Cairo for about two days, waiting another two days to begin my internship. My early impressions are pretty much summed up with: "It's hot." To be perfectly fair and honest, that is about what I had expected.

However, to get a little more on track for the theme of this blog, the Cairene, let's begin with simply what I am doing here. The funny story about that is that now that I am here, it both makes perfect sense to me that this is where I should be, as well as seem perfectly ridiculous as I write this from a 10th story apartment with a view of the Nile and Pyramid of Zoser. As a brief recap to my being here then, one must start in January, when I saw an internship post for the Arab-West Foundation, looking for an intern with social science researching experience and preferably experience in the Arab world to look at the Coptic Christian Egyptians' media portrayal. Now, I'm always a bit surprised to see my own credentials in any sort of job ad, because really, "knowledge of Arabic language, Middle-Eastern religion, experience in anthropological research" rarely comes up these days in job postings, so I was a little shocked to see something that I was not only qualified for, but actually an ideal-seeming candidate. I applied thinking it was worth the shot.

When I got my letter of acceptance, I was even more surprised, but realized that a summer-long research project galavanting around Egypt looking into the media portrayal of a distinctive Christian sect was not exactly within my financial means and applied for a few fellowships while still trying to figure out what I was really going to do. Needless to say, my shock increased immensely when I learned that I had received funding for what was, up until that point, a rather distant dream. That's about when I bought my ticket to Cairo.

So now that I'm here (and hot), what exactly is it that I am spending my summer doing? Well, good question, and one that I myself cannot completely answer until I go into the Arab West Foundation on Monday and scope out a little more of what my role will be in the organization. What I can share at this point is a bit of my own interest in Coptic Christianity. Despite the common perception that the Middle East is 100% Arab and 100% Muslim (the two possibly being synonymous to many people), there is really a great deal of diversity both ethnically and religiously in the area. Case in point are the Copts, who straddle the line between a religious and ethnic group, accounting for somewhere around 4% of the Egyptian population. This group has its foundation in the early Christian church, particularly the See of Alexandria (one of the five original Sees of the Church, the others being Rome, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Constantinople, collectively known as the Pentarchy). Each of these Sees was governed by a bishop known as the Patriarch, and often associated with a founding Apostle (e.g. the See of Rome and Saint Peter, the See of Alexandria and Saint Mark). So what was going on in the See of Alexandria that made the Coptic Church? Well, a lot.

Egypt was an early convert to Christianity, as well as one of the most vicious sites of Roman opposition to early Christian converts. Indeed, the martyrs of Egypt are said to easily out number the martyrs of the rest of the empire. In addition, starting with Saint Antony (d. 356) Egypt became the hub of a rising faction of monastic Christianity; as the tide of martyrdom stopped, Egyptian Christians found new ways to continue to dedicate their entire lives to Christ. Finally, Alexandria emerged as an intellectual locus for early Christians with many prominent theologians emerging within this particular religious context (indeed, these prominent theologians introduced many ideas like monasticism and the title of "pope" that have become crucial elements in other branches of Christianity).

After Constantine legalized Christianity through the Edict of Milan in 313 CE, Christian factions from across the empire became engaged in Ecumenical Councils (like that of Nicea in 325 CE) in order to standardize the now visible faith. This often brought the Alexandrian bishops into debate with others for their own particular religious doctrines to become the official doctrines of the state, while other heterodox beliefs were dismissed as heresies. While Alexander and Athanasius of Alexandria had been successful in their defense of the Trinity against Arian's doctrine at the Council of Nicea in 325, the Alexandrian bishops would not necessarily always win.

In 451 CE, at the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, the debate on the table was that of the nature of Christ. In a nutshell, the two sides at Chalcedon were disagreeing about how exactly Christ was divine and human. To the Diaphysites, Christ had two natures (one human, one divine) that were separate and distinguishable within him. For Miaphysites, Christ was a fusion of divinity and humanity, inseparable. Modern scholars (including members of the clergy) have debated whether or not these were actually two different positions, or just stating the same thing in slightly different words. Whatever the case, the Diaphysite position (as defined in a document known as Leo's Tome, the contemporary bishop of Rome) won out. The Miaphysites were unconvinced. Thus, Chalcedon represents one of the first schisms of the Church: the Diaphysites (who today count among themselves the Catholic Church, Greek and Russian Orthodox Church, and Protestant Churches) and the Miaphysites (the Oriental Orthodox Churches). In case you had not already guessed, the Coptic Church is one of these Oriental Orthodox Churches.

Now, even though it had split off from the rest of the Church, Coptic Christianity was not exactly in a position to say, "Let's agree to disagree" with the rest of Christendom (indeed, Christendom rarely seems okay with the idea of agreeing to disagree). So within Egypt itself the one church became two: the official Church of the empire, or Melkite (literally, of the kingdom) and the much more popular Coptic Church. Copts were regularly persecuted as heretics at this point, and may have eventually been driven into extinction except for a rather massive upheaval about to take place: the rise of Islam. In 639 CE, Egypt came under Muslim rule, which, in a seemingly paradoxical manner, vastly improved the situation of Coptic Christians. Copts thus became the ruled, but majority, population of Egypt until at least the 13th Century, evolving more of their own separate traditions and beliefs in this environment of relative isolation.

The modern Coptic Church then offers many interesting intellectual exceptions to common conceptions of the Middle East, Christianity, and ethnic groups. Copts view themselves as the direct descendants of Pharaonic Egypt (even the Coptic liturgical language is said to be a modern evolute of the Pharaohs' language, and its alphabet a hybrid between hieroglyphics and Greek) and Africans, while also seeing themselves as the true inheritors of Christ's message via Saint Mark the Apostle. They speak Arabic, which is also used as their main language of communication, but must often cope with its strong associations to Islam. As a population, some claim that the Copts are genetically distinct (again, the Pharaonic link) as well as physically distinct (most often said to be higher cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes), but for the vast majority of Egyptians are only distinctive because of their praxis (e.g. Copts possess distinctively Coptic names and are known for getting a tattoo of a cross on their right forearms). So are Copts a religious group or an ethnic group? The heirs to ancient Egypt? The truest form of Christianity? None of these are truly answerable questions, but they do make for the interesting beginning of a summer internship. Stay tuned.

Posted by Alexander Steven Wamboldt at 11:37 AM | Comments (2)