Coptic Christianity in Ottoman Egypt

Coptic Christianity in Ottoman Egypt

Coptic Christianity in Ottoman Egypt

Coptic Christianity in Ottoman Egypt

Synopsis

In this book, Febe Armanios explores Coptic religious life in Ottoman Egypt (1517-1798), focusing closely on manuscripts housed in Coptic archives. Ottoman Copts frequently turned to religious discourses, practices, and rituals as they dealt with various transformations in the first centuries of Ottoman rule. These included the establishment of a new political regime, changes within communal leadership structures (favoring lay leaders over clergy), the economic ascent of the archons (lay elites), and developments in the Copts' relationship with other religious communities, particularly with Catholics. Coptic Christianity in Ottoman Egypt highlights how Copts, as a minority living in a dominant Islamic culture, identified and distinguished themselves from other groups by turning to an impressive array of religious traditions, such as the visitation of saints' shrines, the relocation of major festivals to remote destinations, the development of new pilgrimage practices, as well as the writing of sermons that articulated a Coptic religious ethos in reaction to Catholic missionary discourses. Within this discussion of religious life, the Copts' relationship to local political rulers, military elites, the Muslim religious establishment, and to other non-Muslim communities are also elucidated. In all, the book aims to document the Coptic experience within the Ottoman Egyptian context while focusing on new documentary sources and on an historical era that has been long neglected.

Excerpt

In a rare mention of Coptic Christians, the Egyptian chronicler Ahmad al-Damurdashi inserts a short but telling story about public religious expression in eighteenth-century Egypt. On an otherwise ordinary day in the spring of 1748, the Coptic procession gathering outside the Church of the Virgin Mary seemed particularly loud and boisterous. Clergymen and laypeople, women and children, congregated in one of the narrow alleys of Harat al-Rum. In readying for their pilgrimage to Jerusalem, they loaded camels with specially decorated wooden carriages. Al-Damurdashi notes that once provisions were packed, Patriarch Murqus VII (1745–1769) mounted his mule and was taken to the head of the lineup by a troop of young boys. Behind him rode the Coptic lay dignitaries, or archons, dressed in their finest robes, followed by their wives, whose colorful Kashmiri shawls were wrapped neatly over their heads. The archons’ wives insisted on traveling by land and were glad to accompany the patriarch on this journey. Coptic leaders had acquired the necessary permissions for the pilgrimage, and everyone sensed that this procession was off to a good start.

The Copts had spared no expense in their planning. Much like the ḥajj caravan, their convoy was heralded by a troop of dancers and musicians, while boys guided the pilgrims with their torches. After a short time, however, the hubbub began to disturb the CaiRenés, who had gathered to watch the spectacle moving north toward al-Ghawriyya, the old Mamluk neighborhood near the al-Azhar mosque-school complex. As the pilgrims came closer to one of Islam’s most revered institutions . . .

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