Christianity The most profound change in ancient Egypt

Oct 24, 2010

Christianity The most profound change in ancient Egypt


The most profound change in ancient Egypt was the arrival and spread of Christianity. As early as the first century AD, Christianity was introduced to Egypt through Alexandria where friends and relatives of the Jewish community brought it from Jerusalem. Its concepts of disinterest in worldly goods and mutual support made it immediately relevant to the Egyptian poor who eagerly adopted the new faith. Despite persecution by several emperors (Septimius Severus’s edict of AD 204 forbade Roman subjects to embrace Christianity; Deices ordered the persecution of Christians in Alexandria; and Diocletian instigated persecutions in 302 that lasted for ten years), the reign of Constantine I changed these attitudes.



Constantine, the first emperor to support the growth of Christianity, introduced a series of measures. He ended the persecutions started by Diocletian and issued the Edict of Toleration in 311 and then in 313 the Edict of Milan, which restored the property of the churches. Public funds were now allocated for building and restoring churches, and in 324–30 Constantine founded Constantinople, which became the first Christian city. The founding of Constantinople also had political significance for Egypt since it lessened the importance of Alexandria as the foremost city of the east; Constantinople joined Rome as a major recipient of Egypt’s grain.


Christianity now spread throughout Egypt. The Caesareum at Alexandria that had accommodated a cult to the Roman emperors now became a church dedicated to St.
Michael. Later it was established as the seat of the Patriarch of Alexandria. Christianity brought profound changes in art as well as religion. The pharaonic and Hellenistic traditions had previously inspired its development, but new art forms now emerged by the fourth and fifth centuries that had a great impact on the paintings, sculpture, and textiles used to decorate monasteries, churches, and houses. Egypt’s climate has ensured the survival of Coptic or post-pharaonic textiles, which include religious and secular clothes, burial garments and wrappings, and domestic furnishings. The Coptic language was developed for religious scriptures and the liturgy.
Coptic Egypt textile. Long, sturdy piece of fabric, two pieces still sewn together, back to front. Depicts a swirling 'seahorse' pattern in lush red, tan and black. 
The Greek alphabet and some additional letters were used to convey this final stage of the ancient Egyptian language, which had previously been written down in hieroglyphs, hieratic, or demotic.
The territories of the Roman Empire, divided into eastern and western portions in
305 were now ruled from Constantinople and Rome. Egypt, controlled as part of the Eastern Empire, became a focus for various theological and doctrinal conflicts that were addressed at a series of councils (the most famous was held at Nicaea). These problems had a profound effect upon the development of Christianity and the Christian church.

Christianity had been officially adopted as the religion of the empire following the baptism of Theodosius I (379–95) soon after his accession. This was formally declared in his edict (384), which also ordered that the temples to the old gods should be closed.
There was now widespread persecution of those people who clung to the old religions, and temples and monuments were destroyed throughout
Egypt and Syria. However, ancient Egyptian religion continued to be practiced until, in the reign of Justinian (c.540), the temples to the cult of Isis on the island of Philae in southern

A rare Koran from Umayyad Dynasty
Egypt was finally closed. Christianity ceased to be the official majority religion after the Arab conquest of Egypt in 641 when Islam was introduced. Many Christians were converted, but strong Christian communities also survived, especially in the south. These Christian Egyptians came to be called “Copts,” a term first used in sixteenth century Europe to distinguish them from other Egyptians. (The word Copt is originally derived from the Greek Aigyptios, meaning Egyptian, which became Qibt after the Arab invasion.)
With the arrival of Islam the Roman rule of Egypt came to an end and the country underwent radical changes.

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