Being Coptic, two centuries ago
A glimpse of Coptic lives in Egypt's distant past can be had by reading the work of historians and chroniclers, says Samir Sobhi
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From top: Copts protesting following the 25 January Revolution; 18th century Egyptian historian El-Gabarti; from left, Anwar El-Sadat, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Coptic Pope Kirolos VI
In an interview with Al-Ahram last week, veteran political analyst Mohamed Hassanein Heikal highlighted the absence of Copts from the current national debate on the future of the country. There was a lack of vision on the part of new and old political forces when it came to the handling of the Coptic issue, Heikal said, noting that Egypt's Copts were integral partners in the state.
The involvement of Copts in the political, economic, social and cultural life of Egypt goes back many centuries and has continued into the present, as is indicated by a review of Coptic lives in Egypt two centuries ago.
Reading the writings of Egyptian historian Abdel-Rahman El-Gabarti, who wrote two centuries ago, one gets an unusual glimpse into the lives of religious minorities in Egypt at the time, including the country's Coptic, Syrian Christian, Greek and Jewish communities. The picture El-Gabarti draws of the Copts is one of an influential minority that was closely involved in the affairs of the time.
In a recent scholarly work on El-Gabarti, Esmat Mohamed Hassan wrote that of all the religious minorities of the time, the Copts were the most fully integrated into the wider society and the one that had the deepest ties with the country's Muslims. Hassan also maintained that Coptic conceptions of the nature of Christ were less at odds with the Muslim ones than were the conceptions adopted by Western churches.
The geographical character of Egypt may also have played a part in bringing together the local population. Egypt is a flat country, cut in half by the River Nile, with no areas of mountains or forest that could have allowed minorities to exist in isolation from the rest of the country.
In the countryside, Muslims and Christians lived in the same villages, or in villages that were almost contiguous. They cooperated in agricultural work and shared many of the same customs.
Egypt's Copts are the direct descendants of the ancient Egyptians, with some Greek, Roman, and Persian blood thrown in. In El-Gabarti's time, they were concentrated in the country's main cities and in Upper Egypt.
Traditionally adept in administration and finance, the Copts were hired as tax collectors, or kashefs, by the country's Mamluk overlords. Their skill in land surveying and agricultural forecasting helped them to estimate taxes. Leading Coptic financiers, or mubashers, tended to enjoy close ties with the Mamluk rulers. Moallem Rezq, Moallem Ibrahim El-Gohari and Moallem Girgis El-Gohari, brilliant administrators and tax officials, were known to have amassed spectacular fortunes.
After he came to power in the early 19th century, Egypt's ruler Mohamed Ali Pasha arrested a senior Coptic tax collector, Moallem Ghali and found him to be in possession of 60 slave women. Ghali was released after he was forced, along with other Coptic dignitaries, to pay the Pasha an enormous sum in gold.
Coptic dignitaries who worked for the state were also known for their spectacular acts of generosity. Moallem Ghali donated considerable amount of candles, rice and other gifts to Mamluk officials during the month of Ramadan. When Ghali died, Mamluk chieftain Ibrahim Bey went to Qasr Al-Aini to attend his funeral procession.
It was unusual for the Copts to engage in military service alongside Muslims, but one man broke this rule. Moallem Yacoub joined the French army of General Desaix in Upper Egypt during the French invasion of the country at the end of the 18th century, providing the army with supplies and fighting in its ranks in battles with the Mamluk leader Morad Bey.
When the French withdrew from Upper Egypt, the French resident in Cairo, General Kl│ęber, asked Yacoub to take charge of the country's finances. Yacoub brought some 2,000 Copts to Cairo and housed them in what came to be known as the Haret Al-Nasara, next to the Red Mosque in Cairo.
When the French were driven out of Egypt, Yacoub accompanied them, though only two days after setting sail from Alexandria in August 1801 Yacoub fell sick and died. He was later buried with military honours in the French port city of Marseilles.
The Coptic language is no longer used today outside church services and academic studies. But any Egyptian farmer will be able to give the names of the months using the Coptic calendar, including the months of Tut, Baba, Hatur, Kiyak, and so on. This is another indication of how intertwined the lives of Muslims and Copts have been in rural areas.
Although powerful Copts have long occupied positions in the upper echelons of government, relations with the government have not always been smooth. In the past, Copts were required to pay extra taxes, known as gezya, to the state. These were not fixed, and they went up and down from one year to the next. Sometimes, peasants would claim that they could not pay the gezya, and powerful Copts like Yacoub would try to intercede with the authorities to have the taxes waived.
Another source of contention was the dress code. In pre-modern Egypt, Copts were required to wear a turban of black or blue and to appear in public dressed only in dark colours. Often they would wear a black cape over more cheerful garments made of silk and velvet. In El-Gabarti's time, European Christians in Egypt did not face restrictions on the clothes they wore, meaning that they could appear in public dressed in Ottoman attire. Coptic women wore white face veils, similar to those worn by Muslim women.
Some rulers at the time imposed stringent transport and dress restrictions on the Copts. Mohamed Bey Abdel-Dahab, for example, prohibited Copts from residing outside their designated neighbourhoods and from riding animals, wearing extravagant clothes, or owning slaves.
In 1785, a law was passed banning Christians and Jews from giving their children the names of biblical prophets, such as Ibrahim, Moussa, Eissa, Youssef, Ishaq and Yacoub. In the same year, Christians who helped dissident Coptic leaders were fined some 75,000 riyals, and the authorities also fined Copts the sum of one dinar each, to be paid on top of the gezya.
Moallem Ibrahim El-Gohari's wife was arrested along with other wealthy Coptic women, and their jewellery and expensive household items were confiscated.
In 1787, Mamluk chieftains Abdin Pasha and Ismail Bey ordered the houses of wealthy Copts in Cairo to be demolished, and they banned all Copts from riding donkeys. In order to have these orders revoked, the Coptic community had to pay the state a collective fine of 35,000 riyals.
During the French occupation at the end of the century, wealthy Copts in Cairo became particularly close to the occupying government. The French gave important administrative posts to Copts, a practice which El-Gabarti recounts somewhat disapprovingly, saying that it made the Copts overly proud.
Influential Copts began to brag about their close friendships with the French. Some of them, including Moallem Girgis El-Gohari, even took part in celebrating the French national day, while others apparently dressed as Muslims. Such actions were denounced by El-Gabarti as examples of Coptic insolence.
Members of other minorities also benefited from the French presence in Egypt. A Greek soldier named Bartholomew, formerly in the employ of El-Alfi Bey, became deputy governor of Cairo, or katkhuda mostahfazan. Bartholomew was particularly cruel, and he was nicknamed fartt al-romman (pomegranate seeds) because of his short temper.
While the Copts and other minorities enjoyed important privileges under French rule, the backlash was not long in coming. As soon as the French sensed that the population was turning against them, they tried to appease public disquiet by imposing harsh restrictions on the Copts, forcing them to wear black turbans, banning them from holding festivals, and prohibiting them from eating, drinking and smoking in Ramadan.
During the first uprising against the French in October 1798, Christian neighbourhoods in Cairo were attacked. According to El-Gabarti, "the mob went too far with acts of robbery and theft. They attacked Haret Al-Gowaniya, robbing the houses of the Christians and the Syrians thinking that they were French." The mob also attacked many Muslim houses.
When the French were finally forced out of the country, they imposed enormous indemnities on the Egyptian population. Ahmed El-Mahruqi, a prominent figure in Cairo at the time, was charged with collecting the fines from Muslim and Coptic dignitaries.
Things only changed when Mohamed Ali took power some years later. The latter, El-Gabarti wrote, ended the mistreatment of the Copts, allowing monks to build monasteries and churches to ring their bells. He also assured the leaders of the country's various religious communities that they were free to practice their religious rites in public.
Such new freedoms did not necessarily go down well with El-Gabarti. "Christians were allowed to wear extravagant outfits. They rode mules and horses. They seized the houses of various dignitaries in Masr Al-Qadima for their own use, and they improved the houses and added gardens to them," he complained.
By this time, El-Gabarti himself had fallen out with Mohamed Ali, and he had begun to view him as a tyrant. At the same time, El-Gabarti did not fail to recognise Mohamed Ali's exceptional skills, retaining his admiration for the man who began the modernisation of Egypt.