The persecution of the Christians began in the time of Nero and continued sporadically for nearly three centuries. It ended officially with Emperor Constantine’s Milan Decree in AD 313. The ten Roman emperors known for their brutal persecution of the Coptic Church are:
- Nero (37-68)
- Domitian (81-96)
- Trajan (98-117)
- Marcus Aurelius (161-180)
- Septimius Severus (191-211)
- Maximius the Thracian (235-238)
- Decius (249-251)
- Valelrian (253-260)
- Aurelian (270-275)
- Diocletian (284-305)
Diocletian was so exceptionally bloody in his persecution of Christians that his time was dubbed the Great Persecution. On 23 February, AD 303, Diocletian issued a decree ordering the demolition of churches, the burning of the scriptures, and the expulsion of all Christians from public office. In March, he ordered Christian clergymen to be imprisoned and tortured unless they renounced their faith. Diocletian came in person to Egypt to supervise the killing of Christians. He is said to have sworn to kill Christians until their blood reached his horse’s knee – and he kept his word.
To commemorate the years of persecution, the Coptic Church introduced a new calendar beginning with the year Diocletian took office. The Anno Martyrum, or Year of the Martyrs, which is the first year of the Coptic Calendar, matches the year 284 in the Gregorian Calendar. In the Synaxarium, or the Lives of the Saints, a major work in the Coptic Church, all days of festivities are noted according to the Anno Martyrum, or AM. The Coptic Church, whose festivities revolve around the martyrdom of the saints, believes that the day of a saint’s death is the day of his or her birth in heaven. This is why popular tradition refers to a saint’s day as a moulid (or birthday).
The first day of the Coptic Calendar is marked by the appearance of the Sirius star, which is equivalent to 11 or 12 September in the Gregorian Calendar. The Copts preserved the ancient Egyptian division of the year into three seasons of four months each: flood, planting, harvest. Thus the Coptic year is made up of 13 months, 12 of which are thirty days long with the thirteenth is an intercalary month of five days (or six days in the leap year). According to Bishop Morqus Aziz of the Hanging Chruch, the Copts preserved the ancient names of the solar year, which are:
Tout: the deity of moon and wisdom
Baba: the journey of Amon from the Karnak Temple to Luxor Temple
Hathor: the deity of love and music
Kiahka: the deity of fertility
Toba: the deity of rain
Amshir: the deity of storms
Baramhat: the deity of the harvest
Baramouda: a feast for King Amenmhet I
Bashans: son of the moon god and a member of the Theban Trinity
Paona: the feast of the valley
Epep: the deity of chaos
Mesra: the birth of Ra
Nasie: a five-day month at the end of the year, with each day noting the birth of the five children of Nut: Osiris, Horus, Seth, Isis and Nephthys.
The Coptic Calendar remained Egypt’s official calendar until Khedive Ismail introduced the Gregorian Calendar in 1875. Still, the Coptic Calendar is still popular among farmers, as it provides the best available guide to the times of cultivation and harvest. The first day of the Coptic Calendar is called Neyrouz. In “Neyrouz: the Oldest Feast of the Oldest Nation,” the Coptic verger Nabil Farouq notes that the origin of the word Neyrouz is Ni-Arou-Ezmo-Arou-Ou-Ai, which can be loosely translated as “Bless the Water of the Rivers”. According to the 15th-century historian al-Maqrizi, King Menes of Egypt was the first to celebrate the Neyrouz in BC 4000. In “The Nile: The Life Story of a Great River,” historian Emil Ludwig notes that the Dendera Temple, built in Ptolomaic times, has twelve large columns, each denoting one month of the Coptic year.
The Neyrouz is also the feast commemorating the martyrs. It is traditional for Copts to eat red dates and guava on this particular day. The red dates symbolise the blood of the martyrs and the guava symbolises the sweetness of their faith.