Egypt’s forgotten 600 years

CHAPTER SEVEN: “Then came Alexander the Great, tutored by the great Greek philosopher Aristotle. At the age of 16, when his father was assassinated, Alexander inherited a vast Greek empire. Alexander also inherited his father’s ambition to expand the empire. His conquests spread to all corners of the globe and ventured as far as Afghanistan and northern India. In 332 BC, Alexander conquered Egypt where he was treated as a liberator. He was in awe of Egypt’s ancient history and founded the city of Alexandria in northern Egypt on the Mediterranean Sea coastline. Though Alexander the Great died in Babylon, the legend goes that he was buried in the city that bears his name: Alexandria.”

CHAPTER EIGHT: “Cleopatra ruled Egypt in 51 BC at the age of 18. By bloodline she was Macedonian and was one of the few decedents of the Ptolemaic Dynasty that learned to speak ancient Egyptian along with her native Greek. She represented herself as the reincarnation of the Egyptian goddess Isis and the people of ancient Egypt worshipped her as a goddess. During that time, the Roman Empire was rising to world dominion and occupied Egypt. The story goes that in order for Cleopatra to meet with Julius Caesar to convince him to release his grip on Egypt, she was rolled up in a carpet and secretly smuggled into the royal palace in Alexandria. Cleopatra’s beauty captivated Caesar and they had a relationship that resulted in a son, Caesarion. Her allure barred Caesar from annexing Egypt under the Roman Empire and he backed her reign over Egypt. Years later, after Caesar’s assassination, Rome was consumed by civil war. Mark Antony and Octavian prevailed and filled the power vacuum. The relationship between the two leaders deteriorated and Antony sided with Cleopatra and made Egypt his hometown where he married Cleopatra. Octavian convinced the Roman senate to wage war against Egypt. Antony and Cleopatra were defeated and Octavian annexed Egypt under the Roman Empire. Cleopatra, overcome with grief from the agony of defeat and the death of her husband Antony, committed suicide in 30 BC by a poisonous Egyptian serpent, a symbol of divine royalty. Egypt became the Roman province of Aegyptus and Octavian was crowned Emperor of Rome.”

CHAPTER NINE: “In AD 570, in the Arabian city of Mecca, an orphaned boy named Muhammad was born. He belonged to the Banu Hashim clan (part of the Quraysh tribe), one of Mecca’s prominent families. His father Abdallah died six months before he was born and was raised under the care of his paternal uncle Abu Talib. In AD 610, at the age of 40, Muhammad received his first revelation and started to preach a new religion: Islam.”

Chapter eight ends circa 30 BC and chapter nine begins AD 570 – some 600 years of Egypt’s history have been abrogated. Pathetically, that is how Egypt’s history is narrated in social studies books circulated in Egyptian elementary and middle schools. The Egyptian Department of Education sanctions the historical material that is narrated in the educational books. It is naïve to entertain the thought that 600 years of Egypt’s history was unintentionally left out. That long stretch of Egypt’s history narrates the birth of a new culture: the Coptic civilization associated with the ancient Egyptian Christians. Why was that stretch of Egypt’s history omitted from textbooks? Plain and simple, the reason can be anything from fanatical religious discrimination to the naïvety and absurdity of those in the Egyptian Department of Education public office.

Aside from the naïve rhetoric in the articles of the Egyptian constitution (past and present) that vehemently declare that the citizens of Egypt have equal rights and are treated uniformly under the law, the truth and facts stand out: for decades the Christians of Egypt have been discriminated against, and that hurts. It hurts to the core of our essence and wellbeing. Reasons abound for the discrimination, but one stands out – unidirectional ignorance. That is, when we don’t know the history of the Christian Copt living next door, his ancestors’ struggle for dignity, aspirations towards liberty and perseverance in faith, we become prone to discriminate, if not, dare one say, subjugate.

It is unidirectional ignorance because all Egyptian students (Muslims and Christians) in elementary and middle school fervently study the works of the early scholars of Islam from the 11th through the 14th century. We learned of the works of Ibn Rushd (Averroes) in philosophy, mathematics and early general medicine. We studied the works of Ibn Sina (Avicenna) on philosophy and pharmacology, and his prominent writings “The Book of Healing” and “The Canon of Medicine” – standard text material at many medieval learning centers. We also learned of al-Khwarizmi’s (renowned as the “father of algebra”) contributions to mathematics. We learned of Ibn Khaldun’s works on historiography, sociology and economics. As an Arab Coptic Christian, it is thrilling for me to learn about these Muslim scholars’ history and colossal contributions to humanity.

But have we read, let alone heard, of the works of any of these great scholars: Pantaenus the Philosopher, Titus Flavius Clemens, Origen Adamantius, or Antonius the Great? There was not a single word on them in our scholastic history books. And, no, these men aren’t Greek, they are ancient Egyptian Copts; they were born in ancient Egypt, lived their lives in ancient Egypt and were buried in ancient Egypt during the early years of the Coptic Christian civilization during the 2nd, 3rd and 4th centuries.

These esteemed men, whose images have been painted by the likes of Michelangelo, have made contributions to humanity that are treasured and studied in the halls of academia in the world’s most prestigious schools. But, as pathetic as it is, the average Egyptian Muslim elementary or middle school student hasn’t heard of them because their work is ignored in our educational history books.

I said the Egyptian Muslim because the average Egyptian Christian knows, to a certain extent, some of the works of these men as the Coptic Church attempts to compensate for that abrogated history through the teachings of Sunday schools, which still isn’t sufficient. If we do not add a chapter narrating the highlights of the Coptic civilization and the work of these men in the public history books for fairness’ sake, then, at the very least, we should do so for the sake of knowledge. The content of that new chapter should read something along the lines of the following excerpt from the prodigious research of Iris Habib al-Masry, a prominent Coptic historian who devoted her life to meticulously researching and recording the events of these 600 years, so that we don’t forget.

CHAPTER X “At the dawn of the first millennium, the city of Alexandria was considered the most venerated center for culture, learning and academic excellence in the world. Its famous schools and great scholars were sought by all who thirsted for knowledge. There, Greek philosophers, Hebrew rabbis, Persian and Indian seers, together with Egyptian hierophants pondered life’s mysteries. The Museum and Royal Library of Alexandria were not only imposing buildings, they contained the rarest and most valuable artifacts of human achievements in the philosophical, spiritual and artistic fields. At the same time, Alexandria was noted for its notorious living: its revelers and bravados, its wrestlers and charioteers were always parading the main streets that were colonnaded and wide. Through that zeal, the Ptolemies thought they could Hellenize the ancient Egyptians. The casual student might think they had succeeded, but any in depth study would indicate otherwise.

The ancient Egyptians were too deeply rooted in the traditions of their own glorious past of culture and learning to change easily. They were willing to absorb and perfect other cultures, but not at the expense of their own identity or the pride of their ancient Egyptian heritage. This rightful pride in their brilliant past was far stronger than their love for Greek learning. In that environment, the Coptic culture slowly evolved as Christianity began to take root. Ancient Egyptians were among the early believers of the young faith, one that quickly spread in Egypt — since the Pharaonic dynasties, ancient Egyptians had a strong leaning towards the mystic and the spiritual.

The Coptic language spoken today in the Orthodox Coptic liturgy is the same tongue that was spoken by those who built the great pyramids of Egypt, and the written script was of the hieroglyphic pictographic style. But that demotic script wasn’t enough to translate the rich words of the Bible from its native Greek. Then came the work of Titus Flavius Clemens, who created the Coptic script and did mankind a great service by translating the Bible from Greek to Coptic. That Coptic script comprised the Pharaonic speech written in the Greek alphabets with the addition of seven letters for sounds that did not exist in Greek but existed in the demotic Egyptian language. In his book, “The Ancient Coptic Churches of Egypt,” Sir Alfred Butler wrote about this transformation in ancient Egyptian writing, stating that “the romance of language could go no further than to join the speech of Pharaohs and the writing of Homer in the service book of a Christian Egyptian.” To this day, many Coptic words are used in colloquial Arabic in Egypt.

But during this day and age, no philosopher could outshine the works of Origen Adamantius, whose reputation transcended the borders of ancient Egypt. Origen was the enigma of ecclesiastical history. He was a genius in every sense of the word: a prolific writer, a great teacher, an ardent doer and an eloquent orator. His admirers and devoted followers were innumerable, and yet he did not escape having strong adversaries who tried to malign him. His name stirred the most enthusiastic devotion and the most passionate antagonism. Such a singular destiny could only heighten the attraction of this interesting fixture of ancient Egypt. He was the first thinker and philosopher who attempted to push the effort of intelligence to its extremity in his zealous investigation of the mysteries. In his persistent efforts to probe into the secrets of the cosmos, he succeeded in reaching out beyond the frontiers of the believers and in winning the admiration and respect of the intellectual aristocracy of the pagans. When we consider the life of Origen, we find that he was not only a great man from his youth, as his most outspoken adversary declared, but he was also a man of providence. As he grew older, his reputation widened and his influence became more prominent. The most outstanding scholars of that era sought the advantage of his teaching and wisdom and the pagan philosophers felt honored to become his disciples.”

Now, truth to be told, there is some intermittent historical material on the Coptic culture in the scholastic history books, but it is shallow in content and taught in an insincere manner, as the material merely scratches the surface of that period and does not give enough tribute to the Coptic civilization. Granted, the Coptic civilization doesn’t boast great mathematicians or scientists akin to the Islamic culture that produced great achievements in these areas centuries later. However, Coptic literature on philosophy, religion, art and culture was a beacon of light in these fields for centuries.

This isn’t some essay on the merits of studying Coptic history in our school system to learn of some untold advancement in science, but rather a sincere attempt to get to know the heritage and culture of our next-door Coptic neighbor on a more profound level. Violence and fanaticism are means of the ignorant, while tolerance and understanding are means of the learned. It is one thing to know that our Coptic neighbors celebrate their Coptic Orthodox Christmas on January 7th, but it is a whole other thing to know their history in depth.

Masry said that “History is the story of life. It is consequently the story of the people, wherever they are, as it recounts their struggles for freedom and dignity, their aspirations towards liberty, and their heroic achievements. This yearning after the ideal should be the pivot of our study of history.” The ideal here is the harmony between the Muslims and Christians of Egypt, and I believe that when we genuinely study the history of our fellow countrymen, the Copts, we’ll feel a sense of kinship that can further bond the Muslims and Christians of Egypt, replacing the frivolous and rhetorical relationship with a more profound one – one based not only on appreciation and respect, but also on genuine equality.

At this time of year, Copts and Christians worldwide celebrate Easter on the same day. Happy Easter to all Egyptians.

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