egypt â€“ one glance is enough to understand the diversity of civilisations that coexisted here. here, pharaonic, greek, roman and islamic civilisations can be found. but egypt is also home to early christians. their history dates back to ancient times. a museum - unique in the oriental world - can tell the epic history of these early christians: the coptic museum in cairo. forgetten treasures around the mediterranean the coptic museum in cairo / egypt after cleopatraâ´s death in 33 a.d., the romans occupy the country.
7 million men and women live in egypt, the heirs of the era of the pyramids. did their culture, art and religion perish together with the pharaohs? or did they stay alive? and what became of this people? â€œmy name is anianus. i was born in ancient egypt and i can tell you our story. yes, our pharaohs died, but we, the coptic people, have survived. and no, we did not give up our gods. everything starts with the year 0 of our time reckoning. my profession is shoe-maker, a shoe-maker like all the others, until one day my life changes completely.
greeks and romans rule over our country and the nile valley. they try to impose their gods on us, but we remain faithful to amun-re, isis and osiris.â€ although the copts reject all foreign gods systematically, they start accepting christian faith when it gets announced in egypt. what is it about this new faith that people begin to abjure their former gods? â€œ80 years have passed since the death of cleopatra. i work in my shop like every day, when a man enters. he says his name is mark and that he came from far away, and must repair his sandals. when i ask him where he comes from, he tells me incredible news: that a new pharaoh has arrived to save us.
his name is christ. i listen to this mark. i believe him. he baptises me, here in my workshop, and i become the first christian in egypt.â€ 12 years after the death of christ, saint mark [the evangelist] arrives in egypt. â€œi, anianus, the humble shoe-maker, become a disciple of mark. together we start announcing the gospel to the coptic people.â€ the news about this god who became human spread like wildfire along the nile valley, and down to the southern provinces.
there, near the city of aswan, a temple dedicated to the goddess of isis continues to defy time. â€œmark said that christ raise from the dead. with our sun god amun-re who rises day after day in his sun boat, we also believe in the rebirth of the souls. for all initiates, the first christians engraved the cross of their new religion into the stones and the pillars of this temple. here were once the pharaonic priests had worshipped the ancient gods, in the first century ad the egyptians established the first christian chapel we know in egypt. â€œwe used to revere isis. the wife of osiris gave birth to godâ´s son horus, to who she gives eternal milk. in our eyes, mary, mother of christ, is another incarnation of our goddess isis. both are breastfeeding their respective child and godâ´s son.
and slowly we start painting and worshipping the image of the virgin who breastfeeds jesus. when he grows up, godâ´s child horus takes on the form of a falcon. through him, the pharaohs receive their divine power. jesus christ as well is at the same time a divine and a human child.â€ in the coptic museum, other pieces of evidence can prove how many bridges have been built between the pharaonic cults and christian belief. â€œwe abandon mummification. instead, just like in pharaonic times, we put images of our deceased upon their graves. when the soul resurrects, it must be able to recognise its body, to take it to eternal life. with time, our ancient egyptian cross, the â´ankhâ´ cross [=the sign of life],
becomes more and more similar to the cross on which jesus was crucified by the romans.â€ between the 1st and 4th century, the coptic cross develops, including its symbolism it shows until today: four equal arms ending in four triangles. each triangle symbolises the â´holy trinityâ´ of father, son and holy spirit. between the four arms there are four points for the four evangelists. 3 multiplied by 4 are 12, like the 12 disciples. on the tomb stones, anubis with the jackal head remains, the god of death, the most surprising remainder of pharaonic gods. the jackal god ruling over the hereafter weighs the souls of the deceased,
to send them on the road to resurrection or into damnation. anubis can be found on tombstones from the era between 1st and 6th century. until middle age, its form is changing. during the morphing of one belief into the other, the pharaonic demigods are gradually replaced by [christian] saints, angels and archangels. the wings of the vulture and of other divine birds of prey slowly become angel wings. â€œwhile overtaking a new religion, we also change our depiction of the world." coptic art changes. the pharaonic style shows faces in profiles, but the greco-roman in front. the gradual mixing of these two influences coins a new aesthetics,
leading to the development of coptic art. â€œafter the exaggeratedly elongated eyes of our pharaonic profiles, we now start depicting very open eyes. this way we express our desire to open our souls toward god and the mysteries of the hereafter. besides the one god and among his many saints, some characters of the greco-roman pantheon continue to live on, like aphrodite. this goddess of femininity, beauty and love was born out of a shell in the ocean, as a symbol of birth and resurrection, just like isis who was born out of the waters of the nile. â€œout of this shell we will make one of the most continuous symbols for birth and resurrection.
in all our churches, the stoup has the form of a shell, and adorns our faã§ades.â€ today, the coptic descendants of the first christians constitute 10 percent of the 85 million inhabitants of modern egypt. every tenth egyptian is a coptic christian. a community that is united by its foundation myths. one of the touching myths is the flight of the holy family into egypt [from palestine]. in a distance of 200 metres from the coptic museum, a small chapel is hidden under a church. it lies 14 metres below the modern city, on the city level 2,000 years ago, at the time of jesus. â€œone nice day, mark led me through the alleys to this point, and tells me a story.
mary, joseph and their baby child jesus lived here during that time, he says. the people of the quarter still remember their stay. this used to be a cave, and later we changed it into a chapel.â€ when jesus is born, herod the great, king of judaea, fears to lose his throne [because of the three magi asking him where to find the â´newborn king of the jewsâ´]. so he initiates the killing of all male newborn babies in his kingdom. to protect their child, joseph and mary escape and find a refuge here in egypt. 2,000 years later, the copts are still praying in this grotto. itâ´s said that in their songs, even today we can hear the melodies and elegies that were chanted in the times of the pharaohs. â€œone cursed day, a raging crowd rushes in to get our master, saint mark. they put a rope around his neck and drag him through the streets for two days.
this is the beginning of endless prosecutions [of the christians]. a tragic time; we call it the era of the martyrs. our first woman martyr is saint barbara. against the will of her family, she converts to christian faith. her father jails her into a tower. but she declines to renounce her belief in christ. thereupon, the father beheads his own daughter.â€ the christians donâ´t become weaker. finally the romans know no other remedy than expelling them from the cities. far away in the south, in the desert and the temples of upper egypt, the romans commit a systematic massacre. â€œone of the most disastrous places the romans force us to go is this temple in kom ombo.
here they throw us into deep wells connected to the nile, where crocodiles are waiting to devour us, by the dozens, - men, women and children. those who manage to escape go into hiding in the graves of the valley of the kings, as if our ancient pharaohs were still able to protect them. between the hieroglyphs of our ancestors they write down the misery of our martyrdom. even hidden under the earth, they manage to consecrate an altar, to put up the sign of the cross, and to minister church services.â€ in the tomb of ramses iv., petitions by christian refugees overlay hieroglyphs from the â´book of the deadâ´. the christians write in their traditional language, but in red letters,
as if written with blood. â€œafter the death of saint mark, i become patriarch, the first pope of our [coptic] church. i have only little time to save our brothers and their souls. so i organise them in small groups and send them into the desert, where i give them two missions: surviving and propagating.â€ within only a few decades, as anchorites many men and women search refuge in solitude and prayers. itâ´s the beginning of the first desert monasteries. theyâ´ve been existing for almost 1,800 years now. â€œour first eremites not only wanted to escape from the noise of the world, but also wanted to make a journey,
a journey without moving, on a road to christ. our first desert hermit is paul of thebes, born in 228, who lives in a cave for 81 years in the eastern desert, near the red sea. in a night full of dreams, antonius, another eremite, has a vision where god informs him about paulâ´s existence. on the next day, antonius crosses the mountains, guided by a raven with a loaf of bread in its bill. the two anchorites are supposed to feed off this bread.â€ when paul dies at the age of 118, antonius buries him here in the grotto, under grey-marbled altar. out of the desert, two lions arrive and help him digging the grave with their strong claws.â€œ â€œour father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. amen.â€ â€œbut not all our monasteries defy the ravages of time. our faith never gets weak in fact, but from time to time the bedouins from the desert or the heathens succeed in tearing down our walls.â€ in the coptic museum, an entire room is dedicated to the remainders of a monastery which was destroyed in the 18th century: the monastery of saint jeremiah. â€œfor this monastery, our artists work with a clay that resembles the clay of pharaoh djoser,
the way it was found in his pyramid 3,000 years before christ. only the decoration with shells and our cross make our clay different from the pharaonic one. in 312, our emperor constantine converts. rome becomes christian, and the persecutions finally come to an end.â€ with the freedom to practise their religion, the copts regain the freedom to write as well. since administration needs a common and practical language, the greek language gets established. the copts are still speaking their language, but to write it down, the writers turn away from hieroglyphs and develop a new, more universal language. they start with the greek alphabet and add seven coptic characters, to depict seven phonemes which only exist in their ancient language. â€œpapyrus is expensive. for writing, we use everything we can get:
shoulder blades of cattle, shards of broken amphorae, stones, gypsum or bricks.â€ â€œi, aurelius colutus, tired of fighting against my body, and fearing to leave life suddenly and unexpectedly, write down the following testament...â€ â€œdear husband, in your absence your children are growing. they get taller and wiser. when will your business allow you to return to us, so that you can see how they look?â€ -â€œso, do you have news about fatherâ´s health?â€ -â€œtaylor, here are the motifs i want to have embroidered onto the cloth.â€ -â€œlook at this dates thief! we caught him stealing the fruits from the tree.
he got so scared that he fell off the tree.â€ â€žnow we can live our faith in freedom, and we start building churches. to attain an optimum height, our cairo cathedral is built on a gate house of the roman citadel.â€ this first cathedral is so tall and delicate that itâ´s later called the â´hanging churchâ´. because the coptic architects â€“ apt heirs of the master architects of the pyramids â€“ erect this church upon ancient walls, they build this church from simple pillars, gypsum arches and a very lightweight woodwork. â€œour artisans still own the know-how of ancient egypt. they perfectly know how to work with cloth, wood, stones and ivory.â€ the copts become masters of an art that is typical for their people: the production of cloths and embroideries.
â€œon the countryside, our farmers show their joy of working by making music. camels are loaded with grapes that promise a lot of wonderful wine.â€ in 641, general amr ibn al-as â€“ a companion of the prophet muhammad â€“ conquers egypt. â€œwith the arab muslims, we finally get rid of the romans. their [muslim] religion is very similar to ours. there is one god, and one holy book.â€ an era of exchange between copts and arabs begins. one of the first actions of the muslims is the renovation of the hanging churchâ´s faã§ade. while the arabic language becomes prevalent, the copts transfer all their texts into this new language. â€œour oldest manuscripts, long time preserved in the depths of our monasteries, now return to the light.
our writers copy them patiently into arabic language, just like our psalms and bibles. left coptic, right arabic.â€ this way, millennia of knowledge pass from ancient into modern times. â€œi died on a day in the year 82 ad, and was buried next to saint mark. another patriarch took my position, and since then, my life story is entwined with the story of my people. now that youâ´ve heard my story, you know that we copts â€“ the descendants of the pharaohs â€“ are not a forgotten people. our church may seem lost in the middle east, but itâ´s not only a small sister of the western churches, but one of the mothers of christianity.â€