This year started off well for the study of Coptic Christianity, with two books covering the early modern and modern history of the major Christian community of Egypt that over the last years have felt increasingly pressured by the rapid changes in Egyptian society.
The first book is by Febe Armanios, and provides a welcome addition to the study of Christianity in the Ottoman Empire – this time from the vastly underresearched region of Egypt. While many of the straightforward sources (clerical and ottoman archives) have been used only to a limited extent (many of them being difficult to access), the author uses to the utmost a wide variety of chronicles and narrative sources to paint a picture of the life of the Coptic communitie of the period between, roughly 1500 and 1900. She pays particular attention to the ritual life of the Copts, not in the least because she reads closely hagiographic stories and clerical sermons. The ongoing important of the martyrs is emphasized by the story of the neo-martyr Saliba (which in its Coptic version downplays its potential anti-Islamic interpretation), but focuses on the ideal life of the Christian, in celibacy and married life, in the community as defined by the church. Similar concerns also surface in the study of the veneration of the virgin Dimyana, whose cult developed into an important regional spring festival. In the sources also the tension within the Coptic community, especially between the lay leadership (archons) and the clergy, higher and lower, becomes clear, a theme even more prominently present in her discussions of the pilgrimage to Jerusalem that, though dependent on larger political currents, was and remained of great communal imporantance in this period (as today – see the photo taken this year in Jerusalem). The last theme, most prominently present in sermons that were studied, but one of the enduring themes of orthodox Ottoman Christianity, is that of the rivalry with the Catholics, who in this period increasingly formed an attractive alternative to those Christians looking for new forms of religion or for more enduring contacts with the West. While not constituting the main theme of the book, Armanios description also testifies to the varied and ever changing relationships with larger Muslim society, both in its elite leadership and the mass of the common believers. While sometimes clashes took place, when individuals (such as the martyr Saliba) or groups (during one of the pilgrimages to Jerusalem) overstepped the lines of appropriate behaviour for the Christian minority, in many other cases careful negotiations and mutual respect offered security and peace for the Christians, often included Muslim arbitration in internal conflicts.
The second book, by Vivian Ibrahim, in many respects reads as a sequel to the book of Armanios. She too intends to show a much more nuanced picture of the Copts in Egyptian society, this time from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century, and she too, emphasizes the complex relationships within the Coptic group, not only between clergy and lay elites, but also between different types of clergy (monastic, episcopal and secular). Her focus, though, is much more on the political, reading the developments within the Coptic community against the background of the rapid modernisation that took place in Egypt in this period, with the British colonial period forming the background to various types of Egyptian nationalism. What becomes clear more than anything, is that the Copts, as little of course as other segments of Egyptian society, were not united in their assesment of these develpments. Copts that were involved politically did so in opposing political parties, some more to the secular left, others to the more or less religious right, espousing different ways of creating an Egyptian national identity. Like in the Ottoman period, these politically active Copts sought their alliances both within and without the community, which once more underlines that the communal boundaries have to be takes as much more permeable and malleable that earlier researcher cared to acknowledge. These wider concerns are presented via case studies of a number of interesting topics, such as the importance of the largely lay benevolent societies around the turn of the century, the political machinations in electing new popes, and the abduction of Pope Yusab II in 1954 by young men who favored more agressive championing of Coptic rights. While at some points one would have like the author to have spent a bit more pages on sketching the wider implications of the cases she described, these certainly contribute considerably to our understanding of the making of Coptic identity in the late 19th and early 20th century, thus providing essential background reading in the months and years to come when Egypt once again lives through a revolution that challenges existing patterns of cooperation and national identity.
Vivian Ibrahim: The Copts of Egyps: The Challenges of Modernisation and Identity (London/New York: I.B. Tauris, 2011).
Febe Armanios, Coptic Christianity in Ottoman Egypt (Oxford: OUP, 2011)
NB: note the beautiful icon on the cover of Stephen, the first Christian martyr (as far as I am aware he was not mentioned in the book), painted in the mid-18th c. by what may be a forefather of the author, Yuhanni al-Armani.