Few African Christians are aware of a great and important place which Egypt occupies in the history of Christianity.For many, or even most of us, we hardly even think about the Church of Egypt during the celebration of Christmas, when the story is told of the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt; nor do we even pay much attention to the Prophet Isaiah, who foretold many centuries before Christ that "Out of Egypt have I called my Son.”
But it is a fact of history that Jesus Christ was brought to Egypt as a child, by His mother Mary and His foster father, Joseph, fleeing the tyranny of Herod, the Roman king of Judea. The very free which sheltered them in what was known as Mataria, on the bank of the Nile, in Old Cairo survives till this day. One writer has interpreted this to be a sign of God’s desire to bring reconciliation be¬tween Himself and the people of Egypt, following the Pharaohnic plagues. Because she sheltered and preserved the Christchild in His infancy, Egypt may well be called the real cradle of Christianity.
Beginning with the Christchild’s visit, is seemed that Egypt was destined to play a significant role in the life of the early church. Just at the dawn of Christianity Mark, who was originally named John, became the one to Evangelise Egypt. Mark had been born three years after the birth of Christ, of Jewish parents, in the city of Cyrene on the western borders of Egypt, now known as Lybia. Mark’s parents migrated to Cana in Galilee, near Jerusa¬lem where the young boy be¬friended Peter. Mark studied Greek, Latin and Law in this new home.
Coptic historians suggest that Mark’s home in Cana became the first church in the world, for it was there that Jesus met the Apostles early in His ministry for prayer and in¬struction. Mark, of course, was one of the Apostles who fol¬lowed Jesus everywhere He went; he even served at the marriage feast of Cana. One historian suggested that it was also at Mark’s home that Jesus celebrated the Passover.
St. Mark began preaching in Jerusalem and Bethany, and later accompanied St. Paul and St. Barnabas on their missionary journey to Asia Minor. He later accompanied Peter to Rome. It seems that Mark first visited Alexandria with Peter in the year 43 A.D. During the reign of Claudius, in 43 A.D, St. Mark began his ministry in the Jewish quarter of Alexandria while St. Peter went to the torn of Babylon, where he is believed to have written his first General Epistle.
Egypt and the entire Mediterra¬nean were, at the time, under Roman Empire, which was bound on the north by Britain, on the west by Spain, on the east by Chaldea and on the south by Egypt. The Romans permitted people to worship their own gods, but the empire was man’s first loyalty. The Egyptians, Jews and Greeks and a few Romans were at that time the inhabitants of Egypt. The god of Egypt then was Serapis.
St. Mark, on entering Alexandria, was impressed by the glittering face of the city–its majestic buildings, temples, museums, gymnasiums, shops, great markets and schools. Its harbor pro¬vided the main pipe line through which food was exported to all parts of the empire. Alexandria was also an intellectual centre where oriental theosophy, Greek culture and philosophy claimed the burning attention of the intellectuals.
It was in the Jewish quarter of town that St. Mark began his ministry, and achieved his first conversion–Annianus, a Jewish shoemaker who became his suc¬cessor.It is suggested also that St. Mark visited Babylon in the City of Cairo, where many Jews were living, and converted a good many of them. A church was founded among them, in the Crypt, where Jesus had taken refuge. A synod of the Coptic Church was established, with bishops, pres¬byters and deacons. In 189 A.D. during the Patriarchate of Demetrius, the 12th after St. Mark, the church was divided into dioceses.
St. Mark was the first Apostle to formulate a liturgy, as a regular church ritual to be strictly followed in the cele¬bration of the Eucharist. It was first done in Greek, and memorized by his successor and presbyters, until it was written out by Pope Athanasius in 330 A.D.A copy was given to Frieminatius, first Bishop of Ethiopia. The liturgy was revised by Pope Cyril the Great, and is now used in both Coptic and Ethiopian churches.
LINKS WITH TRADITIONS
One of the most inspiring reve¬lations which members of the All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC) General Committee and Staff be held during their visit to Cairo was the link between the Coptic Church and ancient Egyptian traditions. To begin with, they were as¬tounded to learn that the idea of one God was first conceived by the young Pharaoh, Akhnaton, who lived in 1500 B.C. Dr Hakim Ameen, an expert on Coptic studies, underscores the validity of this link.
Christianity fell on fertile ground in Egypt, he said, because the Egyptians found in Christianity many features which they had been practicing in their ancient religion … The Egyptian is and always has been religious minded. The ancient Egyptian’s enquiring mind was always searching with¬in the domain of religion and ultimately reached certain tenets and concepts which were later identified with the theory and sublime teachings of the Christian religion. After noting the origin of the con¬cept of one God in Egypt, Dr. Ameen goes on to say, "the idea of the Holy Trinity has its parallel in the ancient Egyptian triads, of which the most famous was that of Osiris, Isis, and Horus. (Triad means three persons in one). It was this triad which helped Egyptians to understand the concept of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Nor was the sacrament of Baptism a complete novelty to the Copts. It reminded them of their ancient religion, in which a person was washed by holy water. The con¬cept of the Cross as a symbol of everlasting life also re¬sembled the Ankh sign used in a similar sense in ancient Egypt. The cult of Osiris provided the ancient Egyptians with hope of a future life through Osiris who, slain by evil, had triumphed in a resurrection. Groves adds, to carry out successfully the magical rites by which he had overcome the enemy was there¬fore the ambition of the Egyp¬tian devotee. Christianity, which preached a Savior who has also conquered death, was therefore particularly attrac¬tive and credible to the Copts.
The Martyr and Saint
St. Mark founded five churches in Egypt and his native Lybia and went on preaching fearlessly against pagan gods. This coupled with the great worry which the rapid spread of the Christianity caused the Roman conquerors, pro-voked great hatred of Christians.
On April 26, A.D., while cele¬brating the Easter mass in the Church of Baucalia, St. Mark was attacked by pagans. The Pagans were celebrating the feast of Serapis at the same time in the temple of Serapium. In conni¬vance with the Roman prefect of Alexandria, they marched to the Baucalia church and grabbed St. Mark, dragged him to death through the streets of the city. His body was taken by his fol¬lowers and buried in the church but later stolen by Venician merchants. His head remained. But the church in Egypt suffered several other persecutions from the hands of pagans and the Romans. Persecution only made the faith more attractive to people.
Source: —–. All Africa Conference of Churches (AACC) Bulletin Vol.9, No.1, pp.3-6.