Copts under the Ayyubids
Reviewed by Jill Kamil
Coptic Identity and Ayyubid Politics in Egypt (1218 -- 1250) by Kurt J. Werthmuller, The American University in Cairo Press, Cairo and New York (2010)
The building blocks of history form a far more complex pattern than is generally realised. History is a record of what has happened as much as it is a narration of what is supposed to or thought to have happened. As such, it is selective. It relies on memory, choice, ethnic or religious bias. Some ideas gain legitimacy through repetition even when later scholarship proves them wrong. In every generation there are mythmakers, and the issue is further complicated in the 20th century by specialisation into separate disciplines. In Egypt, Greek settlements and early Christian structures are located at predominantly pharaonic sites; Christian churches are interspersed with mosques in mediaeval settlements; and mediaeval history itself embodies elements of Hellenistic, Christian, Persian and Jewish cultures. Also, there are eras that have been given short shrift by historians -- sometimes because of lack of primary source material at the time they were written, but more often because of the diversity of the source material and the languages used.
Fortunately, recent years have seen the emergence of scholars who recognise that while ethnic, cultural and religious boundaries separate one community from another (and necessarily one discipline from another), there is a need to understand the nature of those boundaries, and indeed that of communal identity. For example, the ascetic movement in the early centuries of the modern era was not "on the fringes" of Roman Egypt, but in response to successive centuries of religious, social and political change. The rapid and successful development of Egyptian monasticism did not happen in isolation, but as a counter-movement to Byzantine occupation from the fourth century. In considering the Arab conquest in the seventh century, question arises: How did Egyptian Christians and resident Melkites (Greeks of the Chalcedonian denomination) view themselves within the Islamic environment, since Coptic and Greek churches exist to this day in Egypt? Was the nature of the sometimes bitter tensions between them more overtly political than doctrinal?
Kurt Werthmuller's study of minority groups in the "Islamic Middle Period", the subject of his book Coptic Identity and Ayyubid Politics in Egypt -- 1218 -- 1250 is a page-turner. Bridging the gap between specialisations and drawing on both Islamic and Christian source material, he looks in depth at a period under review and reveals the complexities of life in the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society that made up the population. He explores the varied relationships among Egyptian Christians and Greek Melkites with their Muslim neighbours in medieval times, and the nature of the Islamic hierarchy in which they lived. He focuses on the life of a single individual, Cyril III ibn Laqlaq, the 75th patriarch of the see of Alexandria, and shows how the bounds of ecclesiastical authority shifted and changed under political pressure.
A specialist in Middle Eastern history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Werthmuller follows others in adopting an approach that concerns itself with a search for identity within contested yet overlapping communal boundaries. He seeks out little-known, in-between spaces, and clarifies the identity of the Coptic community and the whims of the country's rulers, within its Islamic-Ayyubid context.
The Ayyubid dynasty commenced when Salah Al-Din (Saladin), the Kurdish warrior who recaptured Jerusalem from the Crusaders in the 12th century, re-established Muslim rule and founded a dynasty that ruled Egypt and Syria for nearly a century. The period is noted for the masterly adornment of its buildings, but we actually know very little about the dynasty. Early scholars tended to characterise it as a low point in history, writing of it in starkly positive or negative terms. As Werthmuller notes, however, it is one of the "in-between" spaces of mediaeval society that is worth exploring, and what a fascinating picture he presents.
Werthmuller starts his story, and ends it, in the dynamic and expansive urban landscape of the 13th century, when urban masses bustled about the densely- populated capital of Egypt where Muslims, Christians and Jews mixed and mingled, and when the citadel of Salah Al-Din (dominated the horizon. Within this bustling, energetic setting some minorities went through periods of growth and development, while others faced discrimination and expulsion from office. One of the Coptic Orthodox community's lowest moments, according to Werthmuller, followed the death of the Coptic patriarch Yuhanna Ghalib in 1218. It was then that a priest from Fayoum, Daud Ibn Yuhanna Ibn Laqlaq by name, successfully petitioned the Muslim ruler for the patriarchal seat of Alexandria after 19 years of vacancy, and then only through connections with the chief scribe to the sultan and under questionable circumstances. Ibn Laqlaq found himself the butt of sharp criticism from a large contingent of bishops and lay members who were furious at his ambition, his success, and indeed the government's apparent involvement in the process. Ibn Laqlaq's eight-year reign as Cyril III has never ceased to be controversial. It was marked by charges of corruption, and frequent attempts to limit his ecclesiastical authority. Indeed, his appointment has gone down in history as a failure and a disgrace. But a failure and disgrace from whose point of view?
Apparently, disregarding normal procedure in which Egyptian Christians chose the head of their church, Cyril was appointed by caliphate decree issued by Sultan Al-Adli without consulting the Coptic clergy. This naturally aroused serious opposition by the latter, who accused Ibn Laqlaq of bribing his way into office by selling empty Episcopal seats to the highest bidder -- a practice known as simony. There was a church council; opposition was stifled; and Ibn Laqlaq ruled as Cyril III for more than seven years.
The History of the Patriarchs of the Egyptian Church afforded him a limited coverage, but Werthmuller reveals him to have been a more significant character than was conveyed in Coptic sources. In fact he highlights his rule as possessing some of the uniquely dynamic and surprisingly vital aspects of the mediaeval Coptic experience.
During the Ayyubid dynasty a long line of Coptic personalities appeared, among them clergy, laymen of high- ranking positions in the State, individuals with artistic and literary talents, physicians and architects. Unfortunately their surviving literature is now in collections abroad: in the National Library of Paris, the Vatican Library, and the libraries of some monasteries in Lebanon. These are only now being collated and studied in depth. One of the most prominent thinkers of the time was Girgis Ibn Al-Amid, who died in Damascus in 1273. Another was Ibn Kebr, the scribe of Sultan Baybars ,whom he helped write his valuable Zobdat al-Fikr fe Tariq al-Higra, ( The Precious Thinking in the History of the Immigration) and who, when he left the sultan's service, was ordained a priest in the Hanging Church in Old Cairo.
Eminent Coptic scholars from Sedment in Upper Egypt, known as Awlad al-Assaal, ("sons of the honey-maker"), who excelled in the Coptic, Arabic, Greek and Syrian languages, had high- ranking status under the Ayyubids; it was their task to detail the laws, traditions and cultural norms of the Copts. It is clear that Coptic scholarship continued unabated, and Werthmuller shows that Ibn Laqlaq was actively involved in seeking Coptic expansion beyond Egypt's borders.
One of the reasons why the book appealed to me personally was because, although placing the chief protagonist within a mediaeval dateline, the author considers his life within the broader context of the monastic movement. This continued to play a central role in the life and identity of the Coptic community, while tracing the crucial role it played as bastion of Coptic faith and identity under Islam. Werthmuller notes that the History of the Patriarchs, one of the untapped sources of crucial value to the textual and archival foundation of his study , was compiled by a series of authors between the 10th and 13th centuries. In recent years, he points out, it has attracted attention focused on its authorship, and that "has made only cameo appearances in historical writing on mediaeval Egypt". His aim, he makes clear, was not uncritically to embrace a narrative in which miracles and moralising make regular appearances, but to accept that it does provide useful and authentic elements of identity among Christian communities in the period under review.
Another of the author's sources are the prolific writings of the contemporary Coptic author Abu El-Makarim (erroneously attributed to Abu Salih the Armenian), who was an eyewitness to many of the events of which he writes --much of which survives only in the later sources of the noted historian Al-Maqrizi.
Werthmuller does what few other scholars have done. He distinguishes between Copts (Egyptian Christians), Melkites (Christians of the Byzantine or Greek denomination), Jacobites (Syrians) and Armenian Christians, and also illuminates the varied relationships between mediaeval Christians of Egypt and their Muslim neighbours. He clearly demonstrates that the Coptic community was neither passive nor static. He discusses the active role they played in the formation and evolution of their own identity.
The period under review is a very short one, a mere three decades, but nevertheless, as any scientist will tell you, the reward of focusing on a single subject within a carefully defined context makes for deeper layers of understanding than can be achieved by observing a broader picture. In choosing three "in-between" spaces, and examining them within the boundaries of Ayyubid society, Werthmuller bridges disciplines, and provides a greater insight into patriarchal authority, religious conversion, and monasticism under Islam than I have ever read.
Is this book for the general public as well as for scholars? I would venture to say Yes, most certainly. With this in mind, would not the author's words in his Introduction have been a more appropriate and catchy title: "Being a Copt -- in the Ayyubid era".