Friday, November 10, 2006

Quick Note on Coptic Christianity

The Coptic Church
Most people associate Egypt with Islam today, but Christianity was actually the dominant religion between the 4th century AD and 641 AD, when Islam officially took over. St. Mark first preached Christianity in 50 AD, and Egypt was one of the first countries to adopt the still young faith.

The Egyptian branch of Christianity is called the Coptic Church. Unlike other branches of Christianity, the Coptics believe that Christ was a wholly divine being and not God made flesh. One in every ten Egyptians is a Coptic today. The Coptic Church has its own Pope, and many ceremonies are still held in the ancient Coptic language.

The Holy Family's Journey
If you know the bible well, you'll remember that Jesus and the Holy family fled from Bethlehem to Egypt, seeking refuge from a bloodthirsty King Herod. They made an arduous 2,000km trek by donkey over four years which took them over 30 different places in Egypt, from Al-Farma down to the Al-Muharraq monastery.

Needless to say, the Holy Family's Journey is an extremely important event in the Coptic tradition, and they celebrate Jesus' arrival in Egypt every year on June 1st (the 24th day of the Coptic month Bashans).

Coptic Monuments
Alexandria was once one of the major seats of the Roman Empire and many beautiful Coptic monuments record the great triumphs of those years of glory.

Virgin's Tree
Many places are named in honour of the Virgin Mary, but the Virgin's tree is one of very few to have been visited by Mary herself with young Jesus by her side. They're thought to have taken shelter beneath the tree's bowed branches, refreshing themselves from the same spring that waters its old roots.

Al-Muaallaqah (Hanging) Church
pictureDating the Al-Muaallaqah church definitively has proven difficult due to its various makeovers throughout the years, but it was completed sometime between the 7th and 9th century on top of what was the Water Gate on the southern wall of the fortress of Babylon. In fact, the gate is still visible through a hole in the baptistery's floor.

The church's two bell towers soar to an awe-inspiring 13m at their highest peak. Beneath its hallowed vaulted ceilings, the major events of the Coptic calendar are celebrated to a spectacular effect. During the Enthronement of the Patriarch, its impressive collection of censers, chalices and crosses in gold, silver and gilt go on full display.

Saint Catherine's Monastery
pictureIt was at the top of Mt Sinai that Moses received the ten commandments from God. At its base, besides what is rumoured to be the burning bush of biblical fame, is the Greek Orthodox Monastery of Saint Catherine.

The monastery was named after an early Christian martyr from Alexandria and the Emperor Justinian had a basilica built to house her recovered remains many centuries later. Today, the church is lined with spectacularly ornate icons and scriptural paintings. Its monastery museum is home to the world's second largest collection of illuminated manuscripts in Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, Coptic and Georgian.

Church of Mar Guirguis (St George)
pictureNot to be confused with England's dragon-slaying hero, Mar Guirguis was an early martyr from Palestine, put to death by the Romans in the 4th century. The first church to bear his name was built some six centuries later.
The elegant circular domed church you see today stands on its fire-ravaged remains, built at the turn of the 20th century. Inside, the church is bathed in the magnificent multicoloured glow of its striking stained glass windows.

The Coptic Museum (Old Cairo)
Just approaching it's first century, the Coptic Museum in Cairo is a treasure trove of relics from Egypt's early Christians, where you can find : scraps of painted textiles, manuscripts and icons, frescoes and carvings in wood, ivory, glass and stone.

Behind its understated scallop-shell archways, the 13 halls of the old wing are currently undergoing a massive face-lift. However, the 17 halls of the new wing house the bulk of the exhibits and an enclosed garden.

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