Book Review: Three different accounts of the history of Egyptian Copts

Dina Ezzat , Saturday 15 Apr 2023

Three recent titles on the life and history of the Copts reflect on elements of a complex story.

Egyptian Copts


Mozakerat Aaela Masseihiya bein Ras Ghareb wal Qahera (Memoirs of a Christian family between Ras Ghareb and Cairo), by Elia Mahfouz Bashir, Cairo: Al-Arabi Publishing. pp. 196.

“At that time there was a [spontaneous] acceptance of the other; actually, the concept of this other was not really there – not as a fully defined concept any way”.

This is one of very few lines that evokes the “Christian” in the title of the pleasant-to-read 196-page text.

Elia Mahfouz Bashir, now a 65-year-old pathologist, recalls memories of his easy-going and uninhibited childhood in the Red Sea city of Ras Ghareb where his father worked for an oil company.

This is the interesting thing about the choice of the title. It offers a contrast to a sequel of articles where Bashir offers accounts from his time in this city in the late 1950s and early 1960s prior to the retirement of his father that forced the family away from its Red Sea haven to Cairo. Those are accounts of the city, the sea, playmates, school, family gatherings, comparisons between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean and so on.

So, for a while, the reader is left to wonder about the significance of the “Christian” reference. And this is exactly the point. In the childhood of Elia Mahfouz Bashir, his faith and that of his family was not an issue. It only comes up across when he refers to a trip to his maternal family in Upper Egypt where he was escorted by his mother to one of the moulids of the Coptic saints or when he talks about the prayers for healing that a priest performed for he and a playmate of his, who happened to be a Muslim.

As Bashir put it in one of the articles, both the mosque and the church of Ras Ghareb were part of a wider communal ownership. He is attributing this state of mind to the norms that prevailed during the rule of Gamal Abdel-Nasser when the focus was on Egyptian identity and not the affiliation of faith as it later became under the rule of Anwar Sadat.

Bashir had originally started sharing his reflections on his childhood in Ras Ghareb on Facebook before he decided to assemble the pieces into a book that stands as a testimony for his experience.

Abkareit Al-Massih: AlMaaraka AlMaghoula bein AlAqbat wa Al-Akkad – Watheiq Tarikheyah (The Genius of Jesus: The Unknown Battle Between Copts and Al-Akkad – archival documents), by Robert Al-Fares: Rawafd Publishing, 2023. pp. 172.

In line with his head-on and mince-no-words approach, Robert Al-Fares, journalist and author of several titles on Coptic social history, is putting out a book that addresses the strongly established but often averted conflict between the Christian and Muslim creeds over the nature of Jesus Christ. For Christians, Jesus is as divine as human, and as such there is no point in trying to argue his genius as Al-Akkad did in his book that came out in 1953, under the title of “The Genius of Jesus,” to the dismay of the Copts of Egypt and particularly that of the Coptic Church of Egypt. For Muslims, however, Jesus is a prophet just like any other prophet that God had sent prior to Muhammad.

In this 172-page book, El-Farres digs out the archival details of a confrontation that took place when the book was put out by Akhbar Al-Youm Publishing, at the end of a sequel that Al-Akkad dedicated to argue the genius of Prophet Muhammad and the four early rulers of the Muslim state that followed him.

Those include letters and remarks from Coptic commentators and clergy, including Father Sergius, the prominent preacher of 1919 Revolution, who was put under house arrest by the Free Officers regime “for worry over his public influence.”

He also included the remarks and views of Muslim scholars who defended or disagreed with Al-Akkad.

The book also includes the replies that Al-Akkad offered and the remarks he added to the second edition of the book that came out in 1958 under the new title of “The Life of Jesus.”

While zooming in on this particular account of Al-Akkad “The genius of Jesus”, Al-Fares is being open in his criticism of the attempt of some Coptic and Muslim figures to overlook this difference instead of simply accepting ‘the other’ – given that as much as for Muslims, Christ is just a prophet, for Christians, Muhammad is not a prophet.

“We just need to acknowledge that we have different creeds; this is the core of coexistence,” he wrote.

Nossous wa Kerat hawla tarikh Al-Qapt min Al-Qarn Al-Aasher Hattah Al-Qarn Al-Tassaeiaashr (Texts and Narratives on the History of Copts – From the 10th Century to the 19th Century), by Magdi Girgus: Al-Maraya Publishing, 2023. pp. 273.

This book is part of the ambitious and really interesting work of historian Magdi Girgis who has been digging out accounts on the history of Copts from the archives to assemble a comprehensive and solid narrative on the lives of Copts in Egypt under the Muslim rule. As Girgus put it in the introduction to his most recent 273-page volume, it is “a free stroll across the history of Copts [during 10 consecutive centuries] through the text of some archival documents.”

The selection of documents, Girgus writes, is designed to address some significant points of Coptic history, and that of Egypt. He notes that his purpose is not just to share and analyse the content of these documents but to put the accounts they address within the wider context of social and political contexts.

Throughout his 10 chapters, with documents and with narratives on the context of the documents, Girgus goes through some of the most interesting accounts of the history of Copts.

These accounts include history of the Coptic Church and the Arabisation of the language of the church.

They also include a history of the sources used to chronicle the Coptic history and the archiving of documents on the Coptic history.

He also examines the relation between Church and State and the Islamic judiciary system as well as relations between Coptic clergy and Coptic notables and the state.

Moreover, he also examines the role of Coptic clergy in the rural areas.

A most controversial part of this book might relate to the argument Girgus offers on the issue of Arabisation.

Traditionally, many Coptic intellectuals have often argued that this was the outcome of the pressure of the Arab rulers of Egypt.

However, according to Girgus, the ‘choice’ of the Coptic Church to adopt the Arabic language was not necessarily about the pressure from Arab rulers but rather about the ‘choice’ of the Church of Egypt to embrace a national line away from the influences of the Church of Rome.

It was also, he argued, about the wish of the clergy to go along with the notables who had been trying to go along with culture of the new rulers in so many ways, including the most peculiar practice of polygamy by some Coptic notables despite the fact that polygamy is strictly forbidden in Christianity.

Actually, the evolution of relations between Church and State is perhaps one of the best explained issues in this book.

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