Info

In 969 Egypt passed under the rule of a new dynasty, the Fatimids, who claimed descent from 'Alî and Fatima. They based their legitimacy on the Ismailî variant of Shi'a doctrine, which meant rivalry with the Abbasids of Baghdad, who upheld the Sunni doctrine. They adopted a largely favourable attitude towards the Christians. This may have been a reaction to the position in which the Fatimids found themselves in Egypt: a minority among an overwhelmingly Sunni population. Another consideration was the need to maintain good relations with the Christian powers of Byzantium and western Europe. An exception to this favourable treatment of Christians was the persecution carried out by the Fatimid Caliph al-IHakim during the years 100413,5 which involved the implementation of clothing regulations, prohibition of the public celebration of Christian festivals, confiscation of the property belonging to churches and monasteries, destruction of the church of the Holy Sepulchre (1009), and dismissal of Christian and Jewish functionaries. But it is often forgotten that at the end of his reign al-ffakim rescinded these measures: he restored the confiscated property, authorised the rebuilding of churches, and even allowed those converted to Islam under duress to revert to Christianity. This allowed the Copts to recover the privileged position which they had momentarily lost, particularly in the administration, where they held numerous posts and high office.

The integration of the Copts into an unmistakably Arab Egypt led inevitably to arabisation,6 which had certainly been facilitated by the fact that the Coptic Church was a purely Egyptian church. A Coptic prelate proclaimed in the thirteenth century: 'May God - praised be He - make victorious their sultan, and he is our sultan, and their imam, and he is our shepherd.'7 These words reveal the loyalty that existed - at least among the elite - to a community presided over by the sultan.

We now come to the Melkite Church. Melkite meaning royal or imperial was a term applied to those loyal to the Chalcedonian creed, which was

5 This policy was both an aberration and in breach of the obligations imposed by dhimma. Historians have long considered it as the product of the madness of a ruler struck down by 'melancholy', as the medieval medical handbooks described it. But a new interpretation suggests that al-Hakim's motivation was a wish to impose Ismaili doctrines, to punish the pride of the Christians who occupied high administrative office, and to improve morals, within a millenniarist perspective connected to the year 400 of the hegira. In any case, it was not only Jews and Christians who were the sole objects of al-Hakim's religious policy

6 See A. S. Atiya, A history of Eastern Christianity (London: Methuen, 1968).

7 Sawîrusibn al-Muqaffa', History of the patriarchs of the Egyptian Church, known as the History of the Holy Church, iv, 2: Cyril III, Ibn Laklak (1216-1243 A.D.), ed. A. Khater and O. H. E. Burmester (Cairo: Société d'archéologie copte, 1974), (text) 74; (trans.) 150.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment