Categories of Saints and Martyrs

The commemorated saints of the Coptic Church can be put into several categories. First of all there is the Virgin Mary. She is celebrated on the feast of her birth, the feast of her entrance into the temple, the feast of her rest during the flight into Egypt, the feast of the Assumption of her body, and the consecration of the Church in the city of Philippi. In addition, the whole month of Kiyahk, preceding the feast of the Nativity of Christ on the 28th or 29 th day of the month, is consecrated to the praise of the Virgin Mary, and to comparing her image with various symbols in the Old Testament.

After Mary there are the angels and heavenly creatures. The Archangel Michael (celebrated on 12 Hatur and 12 Ba'unah) is the most popular heavenly creature among the Copts. He inherited several attributes from the ancient Egyptian religion, such as a special cake which was presented in ancient times to Osiris. According to Coptic tradition it was Michael the Archangel who announced Christ's resurrection to the women at the tomb. Michael is also the angel of the Last Judgement, holding a balance in his hand like the Egyptian god Anubis. Several churches and monasteries are named after him. The Archangel Gabriel (22 Kiyahk) is the angel of the Annunciation, hence his commemoration is included in the fasting at Advent, during the month of Kiyahk, and at the Feast of the Annunciation. In Coptic iconography he is always represented with the Virgin in the Annunciation, or with the Archangel Michael, holding a sword. The Archangel Raphael (celebrated on 3 Nasi) has been assimilated in the Coptic mind with the story of Tobit, and he is always presented as a guardian angel. The Archangel Suriel is, according to Coptic tradition, the trumpeter of the Apocalypse. There is also the feast of the four bodiless creatures (8 Hatur), as mentioned in Ezekiel 1: 4-11, and depicted in Christian iconography as the tetramorph, symbolizing the four Evangelists. A few churches are dedicated to them, among which is the ancient church of the Monastery of Saint Antony in the Egyptian desert.

The twenty-four elders of the Apocalypse (24 Hatur) represent a type of the priest on earth, their doxology being used to welcome new priests and bishops. John the Baptist (2 and 26 Tut, 2 and 30 Ba'unah, 30 Misra), known as the precursor or forerunner of Christ, has a very special place in the Coptic synaxis. The Church asks for his intercession, as it does with the Virgin, the angels and the heavenly creatures, while with the other saints it only asks for their prayers. Also included among the commemorated saints are the prophets of the Old Testament, and the Evangelists and Apostles of the New Testament.

Few martyrs are known before the persecution by the Emperor Diocletian (r. 284305). Those that are found in the Coptic calendar are non-Egyptians, such as Ignatius of Antioch, who died under the Emperor Trajan (r. 98-117), and the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, who died under the Emperor Decius (r. 249-51). There is a legend about the martyr Eudoemon, who was from Erment in Upper Egypt. An angel is said to have informed him of the presence of Jesus, Joseph and the Virgin Mary at Ashmunein, while they were fleeing from Herod. He went there and worshipped the infant Jesus. After his return to his village, he refused to worship the pagan gods and as a result suffered martyrdom. The tradition of his martyrdom occurs only in the Synaxarion of Upper Egypt.

Among the martyrs of Egypt deriving from the great persecution under Diocletian there is an important category of clergy and bishops. There is historical evidence from the beginning of the fourth century for the martyrdom of Phileas Bishop of Thmui, Sarapamon Bishop of Nikiou (celebrated on 28 Hatur), Pisoura of Masil, Macrobius of Nikiou, Psate Bishop of Psoi, Gallinicus, and Ammonius. Sarapamon of Nikiu, whose name derives from Egyptian words meaning 'Son of Re who belongs to Amon', was a native of Jerusalem; upon the death of his parents he wanted to become a Christian. After an angelic vision, he went to Bishop John of Jerusalem and this bishop directed him to the Patriarch of Alexandria, Theonas, who baptised him. Sarapamon then became a monk. Peter, the successor of Theonas, called Sarapamon to assist him in the administration of the patriarchate, and then ordained him Bishop of Nikiu. After he had performed many miracles, the governor of Alexandria sent him to Upper Egypt, where he was beheaded.

There were martyrs from noble families such as Ptoleme of Dendarah (11 Kiyahk) and Kaou (28 Tubah). Kaou was a native of Bimay in the Fayyum. When the governor received orders from Diocletian to persecute the Christians, an angel appeared to Kaou and told him to go to the governor and confess his belief in Christ. On his way to the governor Kaou is said to have performed many miracles. After refusing to make a sacrifice required of him, Kaou was tortured and cast into prison. The governor then sent him to Upper Egypt where he confessed Christ and was beheaded.

Among the soldier martyrs there is Apa Dios (25 Tubah), Abakradjon (25 Abib) and Menas, a popular saint of the early Church. Another group of soldier martyrs is known as the martyrs of Antioch; they were supposedly members of a legendary noble family called Basilides. There are several genealogies mentioned in accounts of their martyrdoms, but they are largely unreliable because of inconsistencies. This collection of martyrdoms includes those of Basilides, Claudius, Apater and Iraaie, Macarius, Eusebius, sometimes Theodore, Victor, Besamon, Apoli and Justus.

Another cycle of martyrdom stories is attributed to a legendary individual called Julius of Akfahs. The research on this cycle reveals that most of the martyrdoms were written between the sixth or seventh century and the eleventh century. From a study of the events, administrative titles, geography, and personal names it is possible to subdivide the corpus into homogenous groups. The first group consists of martyrs related to Middle Egypt, such as Epima, Shenoufe, Heraclides, Didymus, Pansnew and Chamoul. It is evident that the compiler knew the geography of the district very well, and each story begins and ends the same way. The second group consists of stories about Ari and Anoub, which were written in Lower Egypt. Julius of Akfahs is presented in few lines and no useful geographical data are given that would help in dating. The third group consists of the story of Paese and Thecla. Written in a different style, it tells of a brother and a sister, and the text we have seems to be a combination of at least two narratives. Macarius of Antioch and Nahrawa represent the fourth group. This is characterized by exaggeration; the judge in the story is the emperor himself, and the events take place in Antioch, the capital. The eleventh-century story of the martyrdoms of John and Simon is also ascribed to Julius of Akfahs. There are also several texts in Arabic attributed to him, but it is hard to determine their real authorship.

There is a group of non-Egyptian martyrs that includes, for example, Isidore (19 Bashans), and Philotheus (16 Tubah). In the story, Philotheus was a native of Antioch whose parents worshipped a calf. At the age of 10 he rebelled against this worship and refused to prostrate himself before the calf, and became convinced that the sun was God. But a voice came from heaven and declared 'I am only a servant'. Then an angel visited him and taught him the truth. One year after this his parents arranged a feast and asked their sons to offer incense to the calf. The youth refused to take part in the feast. Diocletian is informed of these events, and sends for Philotheus, who after being questioned and tortured by the emperor, is finally executed.

A category of new martyrs belongs to the period following the Arab conquest of Egypt in the seventh century, and includes John of Phanidjoit, Salib (3 Kiyahk), and George al-Mozahim (19 Ba'unah). The accounts of these martyrdoms are quite graphic in their descriptions of atrocious tortures and physical sufferings as well as of amazing miracles. The general story line centres on the saints renouncing their Muslim faith, which they held either because they had been brought up as Muslims or because they had converted to Islam. Sometimes they are killed in an outbreak of mob violence or as a result of Muslim rulers looking for scapegoats. On the whole the geographical and historical data in these descriptions of martyrdoms are accurate and reliable.

It is known that Egypt was the cradle of the Christian monasticism, and monastic saints have a special place in the Coptic tradition. The first among these is Antony the Great, the founder of Christian monasticism, but there are also other important monks such as Macarius, Paul the Hermit, John Kama and Symeon the Stylite. The saintly monks can be grouped according to geographical location, so that we may speak of monks from Lower Egypt, such as Scetis, Nitria, and Kellia; monks from Middle Egypt, such as the disciples of Antony and those of the Fayyumic regions; and monks from Upper Egypt, such as Pachomius and Shenute. In this category we should include the foreigners who became monks in Egypt. If they are grouped according to the ascetic rule or lifestyle they followed, we find hermits, semi-hermits (cross-bearers), coenobitic monks and stylites. Categorized chronologically, they may be found in the fourth century, the fifth century, and so on.

The accounts of the eastern fathers of the Church, in contrast to those of some of the martyrs, are fairly accurate, historically, and authentic. Some of them are figures known only locally, while others, such as Basil the Great, are known throughout the Christian world. In this category are those fathers who played an important role in the Miaphysite movement, for example Dioscorus of Alexandria and Severus of Antioch, and in the establishment of a separate Church in Egypt. More information about Coptic saints and martyrs can be found in the publications in the reading list at the end of this chapter.

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