Monophysites of Egypt Nubia and Ethiopia

We have already had occasion to note the winning of the peoples of Egypt to Christianity. We have seen that the faith seems first to have found rootage in Alexandria in the Greek-speaking elements of that cosmopolitan Hellenistic city and that the head of its Christian community became one of the chief patriarchs in the Catholic Church. We have noted that before the end of the fifth century the faith became rooted among the native Egyptian stock and in time was the dominant religion of the land. To facilitate the integration of the faith in the lives of the masses the Scriptures were translated and other Christian literature was prepared in the vernacular and the services of the Church were carried on in that tongue. We have remarked, too, that this Coptic population followed its leaders in refusing to accept the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon and held to Mo-nophysitc views. Monophysites by no means entirely agreed among themselves, and their dissensions, theological and personal, troubled the Coptic Church, but opposition to the Chalcedonian theology was associated with nationalistic resistance to Byzantine rule and in general only the minority, Greeks and those loyal to the Emperor, held to the Catholic faith. On the eve of the Arab conquest the imperial government, represented by the Mel-chite Patriarch, was taking severe measures to suppress Monophysitism.

At the outset the Arab victories brought relief to the Coptic Christians, for the latter were freed from persecution by Byzantine officials. The Arabs tolerated all the varieties of Christianity and prevented the Copts from taking vengeance on the Catholics. Under Arab rule, therefore, both Copts and Melchites continued. To be sure, Christians were placed under the disabilities which we have already noted as general under the Moslem Arabs, including a discriminatory tax. Within a generation of the conquest a large proportion of the Christian population, both Coptic and Melchite, went over to Islam. Yet Arabs employed many Christians in the government. They utilized Christian artists and architects. Indeed, what we often call Arab architecture seems to have been at least in part the creation of these Christian employees.

As the years passed, Moslem restrictions on Christians were tightened. Early in the eighth century additional financial burdens were placed on the Christians and in that same century persecutions were instituted which led to the apostasy of many, even of several of the bishops, and which were countered by futile revolts that were sternly suppressed. By at least the tenth century Christians were forbidden to attempt to convert Moslems, to marry Moslem women, to speak disparagingly of the Prophet or the Koran, to display crosses, to ring church bells or in other ways to obtrude their faith on Moslems, to erect houses higher than those of Moslems, to ride thoroughbred horses, or to drink wine in public or to allow swine to be seen, since both of these were abhorrent to good Moslems. Now and again Christians won converts from Islam, but such defections from the dominant faith were usually visited with severe penalties.

Yet Christianity persisted. Monasteries, of which Egypt had been the chief early centre, continued and were the main strongholds of the faith. From them, as was general in the Eastern Churches, the bishops were recruited. Although, in their resistance to Islam, the churches tended to hold to the Coptic language in their services, even when Arabic became the vernacular of the masses, some Christian literature was prepared in the latter tongue.

We have noted how, from Egypt, beginning chiefly in the sixth century, the Christian faith spread southward into Nubia, roughly the present Sudan, and became very strong, apparently the prevailing faith in that region. Naturally the dominant form of Nubian Christianity was that of Egypt, Monophysite.

We have also seen that Ethiopia, which we associate with the present Abyssinia, had Christian communities before the end of the filth century. Early in the sixth century an Ethiopian prince led an expedition to South-western Arabia which had as at least one of its objects the relief of Christians who were being persecuted by rulers of Jewish faith. In the sixth and seventh centuries the Ethiopian Church continued to prosper and was in close touch with the Coptic Church and its monasteries. From the seventh to the thirteenth century we know little of the history of Ethiopian Christianity. There were attacks by pagans and Moslem Arabs and in the tenth century a princess who was zealous for Judaism instituted a severe persecution. Yet the Church lived on, obviously Monophysite.

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