Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a watchdog group based in Cairo, worries that social unity is coming undone. “The Egyptian people gathered in Tahrir Square to achieve the same end,” he says. “Then everyone went back home, retreated to his beliefs, and the fighting began again.” Backed by elements of the Egyptian armed forces, the Muslim Brotherhood—the multinational social, religious and political organization known for the slogan “Islam is the solution”—has gained support across the country in advance of parliamentary elections to begin on November 28. Some predict the brotherhood could pick up as many as half the seats in the assembly. If that should happen, some Christian leaders fear that many of Egypt’s Copts would flee the country.
One Friday morning I took a taxi through quiet Cairo streets to the city’s ancient Coptic quarter. It was just after the Friday liturgy, and well-dressed Coptic families strolled hand in hand down a wide road that led past a fifth-century church and the Coptic Museum, an Ottoman-era villa containing ancient mosaics, sculptures, illuminated manuscripts and other treasures culled from Egypt’s desert monasteries. I wandered past security police down an alley that dated to Roman times and entered the Church of St. Sergius and Bacchus, a fourth-century basilica named for two Syrian converts to Christianity martyred by Roman authorities. Originally a Roman palace, the basilica is built over a crypt where, according to legend, Joseph, Mary and Jesus stayed during their exile in Egypt. According to the Book of Matthew, Joseph had been warned in a dream to “take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Legend also holds that the family remained in Egypt for three years, until the angel returned and announced Herod’s death.
It was around A.D. 43, according to religious scholars, that a Coptic community began to take root in the Jewish districts of Alexandria. Seventy years later, the Roman emperor Trajan crushed the last revolt of Alexandria’s Jews, nearly annihilating the community. A Christian faith—embraced by Greeks, the city’s remaining Jews and some native Egyptians—began to spread, even in the face of brutal persecution. Holy men such as the abbot Antonius (later St. Anthony) retreated into the desert, where living as hermits in grottoes, they established Christianity’s first monasteries. From a.d. 380, when the emergent faith became the official religion of the Roman Empire, until the Arab conquest of the empire’s Byzantine successors in the seventh century a.d., Coptic Christianity enjoyed a golden age, and the monasteries became centers of scholarship and artistic ferment. Some, such as St. Anthony’s by the Red Sea, still stand. “There are thousands and thousands of cells carved into the rocks in the most inaccessible places,” wrote the French diplomat Benoît de Maillet of the region in Description of Egypt in 1735. “The anchorite saints could reach these caves only by way of very narrow paths, often blocked by precipices, which they crossed on small wooden bridges that could be removed on the other side, making their retreats inaccessible.”
Around a.d. 639, a few thousand horsemen led by the Arab general Amr ibn al-As swept into Egypt, encountering little resistance. Arabic replaced Coptic as the national language, and the Copts, though permitted to practice their faith, steadily lost ground to a tide of Islam. (The Copts split from the Roman and Orthodox churches in a.d. 451 in a dispute over Christ’s human and divine natures, though they continued to follow the Orthodox religious calendar and share many rituals.) By the year 1200, according to some scholars, Copts made up less than half of the Egyptian population. Over the next millennium, the fortunes of the Copts rose and fell depending on the whims of a series of conquerors. The volatile Caliph al-Hakim of the Fatimid dynasty confiscated Christian goods, excluded Christians from public life and destroyed monasteries; the Kurdish warlord Saladin defeated the European Crusaders in the Holy Land, then allowed Copts to return to positions in the government. Under the policies of the Ottomans, who ruled from the 16th century until the end of World War I, the Copts resumed their long downward spiral.
For the past few decades, the Copts have maintained an uneasy relationship with Egypt’s military rulers. During the 1970s, Copts suffered a wave of attacks by Muslim extremists, and when President Anwar Sadat failed to respond to their demands for protection in 1981, Pope Shenouda III, the patriarch of Alexandria and head of the Coptic church, canceled Easter celebrations in protest. Sadat deposed Shenouda in September 1981 and exiled him to the Monastery of St. Bishoy in the Nitrian Desert. The pope was replaced by a committee of five bishops, whose authority was rejected by the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
Sadat was murdered by members of the radical Egyptian Islamic jihad in October 1981; his successor, Mubarak, reinstated Shenouda four years later. Shenouda supported Mubarak’s repressive policies as a bulwark against Islamic extremism. Yet Christians continued to suffer from laws that made building a church nearly impossible (most are constructed illicitly). Despite the rise to powerful government positions of a few Copts, such as former secretary general of the United Nations Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who had served as foreign minister under Sadat and Mubarak, Coptic participation in public life has remained minimal. In the first days of the 2011 revolution, Shenouda continued his support for Mubarak, urging Copts not to join the protesters in Tahrir Square. After that, Sidhom told me, many Copts “rejected the leadership of Shenouda in the political arena.”
After my visit to Coptic Cairo, I drove 70 miles northwest to Wadi Natrun, the center of monastic life in Egypt and the desert valley in which the exiled Holy Family supposedly took refuge, drawn here by a spring. In the middle of the fourth century, anchorite holy men established three monasteries here, linked by a path known as the Road of Angels. But after most of the monks abandoned them, the monasteries fell into disrepair, only to flourish again in the past two decades as part of an anchorite revival.
I drove past scraggly acacia trees and date plantations through a sandy wasteland until I arrived at the mud-walled Monastery of St. Bishoy, founded in a.d. 340, and the place where Shenouda spent his years in exile. A sanctuary of baked-mud-brick monastic quarters and churches, linked by narrow passageways and topped by earthen domes, the compound has changed little over the past 1,500 years. Boys were sweeping the grounds and trimming hedges of oleander and bougainvillea in the monastery’s garden. (The youngsters are laborers’ sons, who receive a free education as recompense for their work.) As I turned a corner, I walked into a monk wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses. He introduced himself as Father Bishoy St. Anthony and offered to serve as my guide.
He escorted me into the original, fourth-century church, and showed me the bier containing the remains of St. Bishoy, who died in Upper Egypt at age 97 in a.d. 417. We crossed a wooden drawbridge to a sixth-century fortress of thick stone walls and vaulted corridors, built for protection from periodic attacks from Berbers. From the rooftop, we could see a huge new cathedral, guesthouse and cafeteria complex built on the orders of Pope Shenouda after his release. “At the time [of Shenouda’s exile], the economy of the monastery was very bad, most of the monks had left,” Father Bishoy said. Today St. Bishoy comprises a community of 175 monks from as far away as Australia, Canada, Germany and Eritrea. All commit themselves to remain here for life.
Like many monks, Bishoy St. Anthony, 51, turned to the spiritual life after a secular upbringing in Egypt. Born in Alexandria, he moved to New York City in his 20s to study veterinary medicine but found himself yearning for something deeper. “I had this thought in America day and night,” he said. “For three years, I stayed in a church in Brooklyn, to serve without money, and the thought stayed with me.” After taking his vows, he was assigned to small St. Anthony Coptic Monastery outside Barstow, California—from which he took his name—then was dispatched to a church in Tasmania, off Australia’s southern coast. He spent two years there, serving a mix of Eritreans, Egyptians and Sudanese, then lived in Sydney for four years. In 1994, he returned to Egypt.