Christianity came early to Egypt. The distance from Jerusalem is not great, and the substantial Jewish community in Alexandria must have provided fertile ground for early missionaries. But for the first couple of centuries there is relatively little literary material, even though the discoveries of papyri at Oxyrhynchus indicate the presence of Christians. Clement of Alexandria at the end of the second century witnesses to the substantial Christian community; Origen in the third century does likewise. In this way the Egyptian church comes into being, and has continued to exist to this day. Its roots in the native population led to Coptic being its language.
The historical sources for Christianity in Egypt are not as numerous as might be desired. There is the mighty History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria, first compiled supposedly by the 10th century bishop Severus of al-Ashmunein, or Sawirus ibn Mukaffa` as he is in Arabic. This runs from the time of St. Mark, down to the modern era, and the notices are often contemporary, and vivid. The length account of the reign of Cyril III Ibn Laqlaq will illuminate any discussion of modern Palestine, as the writer grapples with regular Western — ‘Frankish’ — incursions into the region. The vulnerability of the Christians to Moslem attack, even in time of peace under very tolerant Sultans, is visible throughout.
Unfortunately the history withered in the later Middle Ages, and notices from that period down to the 19th century are perfunctory. The size of the book, even so, can be gauged by the fact that it fills four fascicles of the Patrologia Orientalis, and a further 8 similar sized fascicles in the Cairo continued translation. All this material is now in Arabic, but some was originally in Coptic. All of it is online in English here and here.
Beyond that there seem to be few sources. The other source is the history of which part was published by B.T.A.Evetts as the Churches and Monasteries of Egypt and some neighbouring countries, ascribed to Abu Salih, and which is really by Abu al-Makarim This portion is online here. But the work is actually a history, which happens to include sections on churches and monasteries. I have been writing about this important 13th century source, since I discovered the existence of the whole work in an Arabic edition by Bishop Samuel al-Suryani. I hope to discover whether an English translation of the whole exists; it seems that the Bishop may have translated at least some of it.
These histories give us a window into the Egyptian church in ancient times, after the ending of our standard histories — Eusebius, Sozomen, Socrates and Evagrius Scholasticus. The schisms of the 5th century and the collapse of Roman society mean that our knowledge of what happened there tends to be sketchy. These sources can rectify this, if we let them. They will tell us what it was like to live under Islam; and how doing so tended to corrupt senior clergymen.
Accounts of 20th century Coptic Christianity seem to be patchy. A really good book, aimed at the western Christian, does not seem to exist. Yet Christianity remains strong in Egypt even today, in a situation very like that of the times of Ibn Laqlaq. The Sunday School movement of the early 20th century has led to a renewal among the Copts. Coptic Orthodox monasticism is thriving, and monasteries are being reopened. Interest in Coptic studies is increasing all the time. Islamic violence — malevolent, yet somehow feeble — remains a problem, as it has done for centuries. But a true picture of what God has been doing among the Copts has never reached me. I wish there was one!
(This post has been written to give some context on my posts on Coptic and Egyptian Arabic Literature to the general visitor, who might otherwise find himself wondering just why anyone cares about some bloke named Abu al-Makarim!)