Modern Egypt — (VIII) The visionary pope

Tarek Osman
Tuesday 22 Nov 2022

Tarek Osman examines the career of Coptic Pope Kyrillos IV as part of his series of articles on the makers of modern Egyptian culture


Pope Kyrillos IV, Egyptian Pope between 1854 and 1861, transformed the Coptic Church.

Politically, he asserted the absolute necessity of equal citizenship between Egyptians of all faiths. And as much as he demanded equal rights for all Egyptians, he also insisted on equal responsibilities, which led, in the mid-19th century and for the first time since the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in the early 16th century, to the enrolling of Egyptian Christians in the army.

Economically, Kyrillos IV centralised the management of the diverse and at the time scattered assets of the Egyptian Coptic Church. But this transcended just good management, for his accounting and centralisation led to a significant increase in the resources available to it. He put these resources into much more than just sustaining the church and charity and led different educational and cultural initiatives, most notably introducing the first non-governmental printing press in Egypt. Although in its early years this focused on producing religious books, it later printed many translations of Western books into Arabic and spurred a wave of writings that enriched Egypt’s liberal age in the first half of the 20th century.

Pope Kyrillos IV was also an exceptional theological thinker. His acuity and brilliance were recognised early in his career, whether by fellow monks who voted to have him lead one of Egypt’s oldest monasteries, or by his predecessor, Pope Boutous Al-Gawli, who had favoured him as his successor. Kyrillos penned brilliant treatises and led innovative work in different Egyptian monasteries, both particularly valuable at the time since several Roman Catholic missionary groups were attempting to convert Egyptian and other Orthodox communities in the region. 

His acts and thought made Kyrillos IV a major reformer in the Egyptian Church’s history. He was also a grand visionary and wanted to extend the influence of the Egyptian Coptic Church to the wider Christian Orthodox world. He understood the power of innovative thought on geopolitics. He recognised that the Egyptian Church’s long history and at the time special positioning in the Eastern Christian world could, with the right mindset and approach, give it a strong influence in East Africa (especially in Ethiopia) and valuable reach in Russian and Greek Orthodoxy. 

As a result, through his impressive writings, active diplomacy, and what chroniclers at the time reported to have been his suave and highly intelligent interactions with various interlocutors, including the then Ethiopian emperor, he launched an ambitious project to bring these Orthodox Churches together. His ultimate objective might have been to unify Christian Orthodoxy under a single Church. Or it might have been simply greater coordination, especially in the face of the highly active Roman Catholic Church at the time. Either way, Kyrillos’ project was both timely and in accordance with the march of modern Egyptian culture. 

It was timely because Kyrillos was working in the aftermath of the collapse of Egyptian ruler Mohamed Ali’s and his son Ibrahim Pasha’s attempts to create an Egyptian empire in the Eastern Mediterranean in the 1840s. Egypt’s defeat and withdrawal behind her borders left the Ottoman Empire, which then ruled the region, both ambitious to reassert its old authority and also weakened as it had to rely more on rhetoric than on real resources. 

Although the Egyptian defeat had been in the north in the Eastern Mediterranean, its impact resonated in the south and throughout the Mohamed Ali Dynasty’s domain in East Africa. Kyrillos’ religious reach in both the Eastern Mediterranean and East Africa constituted an invocation of soft power at a time when this was badly needed for the country’s positioning in its northern and southern neighbourhoods and when this reach was able to yield returns. 

Kyrillos’ project matched the march of Egypt’s cultural progress at the time because like the Muslim religious reformer Mohamed Abdou, the subject of the previous article in this series, he embraced modernity as a given that religion must embrace, rather than as a novel phenomenon that must be shaped to conform to the doctrines of religion. 

This was particularly clear in Kyrillos’ insistence on creating schools for girls and on widening the scope of the press he had created so that it sponsored more translations, published more freely, and propagated knowledge rather than serving merely as a tool of indoctrination. His ideas often faced acute resistance within the church. As a result, Kyrillos calmly preached and tried to convince, but when he was faced with obstinacy, he softly but determinedly pushed through his reforms.

Kyrillos’ papacy was a moment of historic significance for the Church. His internal reforms strengthened it, and his educational and cultural efforts improved the condition of Egyptian Christians. His attempts to widen and deepen the Egyptian Church’s reach beyond the country’s borders made it a valuable strategic asset for the first time in centuries. But his most important impact was positioning the church as a leader of Egypt’s social progress. 

However, he faced an upward struggle. The khedive Saeed, Egypt’s ruler at the time, was not among the best rulers that the Mohamed Ali Dynasty produced. At best, he did not appreciate Kyrillos’ project, and at worst he worked against it. Some historians assume that Kyrillos himself was killed. However, his project had a life of its own. 

The newly prominent public role that the Egyptian Church had undertaken in his papacy opened the door for successive Egyptian Christian groups to enter the country’s public space, not, as had been the case for centuries before, as functionaries working silently and far from the limelight in the courts of the ruling prince, but as Egyptian nationals actively and independently spearheading progress and development. This contributed subtly but significantly to Egypt’s slow emergence out of the Ottoman world and into secular modernity.  

Kyrillos’ legacy, and particularly his attempt to extend the reach of Egypt’s soft power into its northern and southern neighbourhoods, also lived on in Egyptian diplomacy. When Egyptian diplomacy operated with vision, wisdom, and excellence over the next century and half, the results were of significant value to the country. 

Most importantly, Kyrillos’ project positioned the Egyptian Church inside Egypt as an engine of progress, rather than a hindrance, for the country’s development. Balancing the weight of tradition in an institution whose history went back almost two millennia with the demands of a modernity that Kyrillos correctly saw as not only unavoidable but also welcome secured this wise Pope his place as a pillar of modern Egyptian culture. 

* The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).

*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

Short link: