The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Wednesday 14th May 2008

Out of Egypt: Coptic Christianity and links to Ethiopia

Given by - Valeria Coke

Reviewed by - Anne Parsons


Valeria, Lady Coke, introduced her lecture by telling us how her interest in the Orthodox Churches had developed. In Millennium year (western millennium, that is, 8 years ago) her partner Mark walked to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage and she visited Ethiopia (and eastern Turkey). Visits followed later to Armenia and to Syria and she went to Egypt twice in 2003 and 2006.

During the next 50 minutes or so, Valeria took us on illustrated journey around Egypt showing some of the more important sites of the Coptic Church, pausing along the way to mention connections to Ethiopia and its Orthodox Church.

We were reminded that the name Copt derives from Greek (Egyptos) and the Arab (Gypt). Before Egypt became an Islamic state, it was a mostly Christian country with an ancient Christian heritage. It was the place where the Holy Family sought refuge after the Massacre of the Innocents. St Mark was preaching in Egypt in AD 41; he became the first patriarch of the church - and the first Christian martyr - and was put to death in AD 68.

Egypt was also the starting point for Christianity in Ethiopia. In the 4th century, a young Christian man called Frumentius was shipwrecked near Adulis en route from Tyre and was taken to the court of Ezana, where he became tutor to the King's children. He returned to Alexandria, was made a bishop, and then returned again to Ethiopia. It was, however, to be only many centuries later (not until 1958) that Ethiopia was allowed to appoint its own Patriarch independent of the Coptic Church.

The first calling point on our journey was Cairo, where St Mark's cathedral now stands. The present church is a large modern building, holding 5000 congregants. It was inaugurated in 1968. HIM Haile Selassie was present and this is commemorated in modern frescos. The cathedral now contains the relics of St Mark which were returned from Venice.

Also in Cairo, we were shown El Muallaqa (aka The Hanging Church), one of the oldest churches in Egypt. The screens here contain examples of early Christian art. The Convent of St George contains some long chains, reputedly the chains of martyrdom, attached to the wall of the chapel.

In the Eastern desert stands the Monastery of St Anthony the Great (c 251-356), who was one of the first ascetics to live in the desert proper, completely cut off from civilisation. The monastery was built shortly after his death and is the oldest inhabited Christian monastery in the world. Valeria showed slides of lots of wonderful Coptic art: restored frescoes depicting St Claudius slaughtering Diocletian (historically inaccurate but symbolic of the banishing of evil); St Mercurios and his horse with lovely crosses on his harness; and a painting (signed Theodore 1220-1230) of St Moses the Black, an Ethiopian robber who converted and is a revered saint in the Coptic church. It was interesting to note the different languages and scripts that could be seen on the objects: a painting of St Pachomius with a Latin inscription of 1625; a shroud wrapped around a painted cross had Arabic script; and Greek inscriptions appeared on a fresco of archangels.

In the Wadi Natrun is the Monastery of Saint Bishoi, a residence of Pope Shenouda III, the Patriarch of the Coptic Church. Valeria told us she was very honoured to be present at one of the summer audiences with the Pope, who has been very inspirational and many well educated young men have recently become monks.

Also in the Wadi Natrun is the Monastery of the Syrians, where historically there has been a large Ethiopian community of monks en route on their pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Extensive restoration of the 14th century frescoes is taking place in this monastery and has revealed 8th century paintings underneath.

A visually very interesting evening - and a stimulus to further travel and exploration.

First Published in News File Winter 2008

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