Episode Detail


  • Hello, and welcome to the History of the Copts. Episode 96. Cyril Ibn LaqLaq.
  • So – we last stopped with al Kamel following his father as the Sultan of Egypt and Syria on the heels of the fifth Crusade – a failed enterprise, that was followed up by the German Emperor successfully negotiating a peaceful handover of Jerusalem back to Latin hands
  • During that time – and really for the next 20 years or so – the Coptic Patriarchy was empty
  • With the Priest Dawood – having been previously a contender for the office fading into the background – living in obscurity in a monastery far away from all the action
  • By 1235 AD – the situation was pretty desperate, and the church was a few years away from ending up with no bishops at all – a fate that would probably mean the end of Christianity in Egypt
  • And so – in desperation, a monk named ‘Imad with probably the tacit approval, if not encouragement of Dawood approached al Kamil with an offer
  • In return for supporting the ordination of Dawood to the Patriarchy, a sum of 3000 denars would be deposited in the treasury
  • Al Kamil – who liked I mentioned earlier – had practical leanings and was relatively tolerant. Allowed it. Why say no to easy money – right?
  • And so – The Priest Dawood was ordained Patriarch Cyril Ibn Laqlaq by a pair of bishops and very little fanfare
  • The opposition toward him was still very strong, even 20 years after the death of John – but, a Patriarch was badly needed.
  • So – while no one fought his ordination, no one celebrated it either.
  • At his first day of the job, Cyril had two problems
  • One – he owed al Kamil 3000 denars
  • And second – he had only 4 bishops in the whole of Egypt.
  • If you ask Cyril though, problem number two was really a solution rather than a problem
  • You see, with no bishops he can do whatever he wants with very little opposition
  • For example, he can charge money to ordain clergy.
  • Thus – easily solving problem number one
  • And he – not the type that worries about appearances and other people opinions truly opened the flood gates with a set schedule of fees and everything
  • 100-200 denars if you want to be a bishop
  • Five denars for a priest
  • And three denars for a deacon – although, sometimes he charged 10 depending on how unqualified you were
  • In less than a year – Cyril consecrated 40 bishops and countless new deacons and priests – covering his debt to the treasury and plenty more
  • One of these bishops – was a Coptic bishop of Jerusalem, a fascinating detail, and a first in our history
  • You see- at this juncture, Jerusalem was being controlled by the Franks – part of the kingdom of Jerusalem
  • Not to mention – historically – its miaphysite bishop was ordained by the Antiochian Patriarch – Not, the Coptic one
  • So not only Cyril was willing to wade into muddy geopolitical waters – he truly saw himself as the head of the Copts – wherever they went. Not just the ones living in Egypt.
  • As I mentioned a couple of episodes ago – a famine at the start of al Kamil reign in Egypt led to significant migration from rural Egypt to Cities in Egypt and throughout Syria and Palestine
  • And so – the bishop of Jerusalem was not a theoretical one. Nope – he ran and operated Coptic Churches inside the latin Kingdom of Jerusalem
  • As one of our sources puts it – quote
  • “he sought help from the Franks, and he made friends with a group of them, and he ministered in the churches of the Copts, he and his people. And it was said that the Franks obtained his signature that his confession [was] their confession and his creed [was] their creed”
  • Obviously – that last part about the confession and the creed is problematic. Likely though, it was a practical arrangement to get to work
  • As a consequence of this ordination – the usually warm relationships between the Patriarch of Antioch and Alexandria became very strained during his reign
  • Also – lest you forgot – The Coptic community at this point was filled with men of letters who absolutely hated simony and all what comes with it
  • So very quickly – Cyril alienated practically everybody he came in contact with
  • As one of these men of letters puts it describing Cyril
  • Quote – “he was in love with power, gathering wealth, and taking simony”
  • Even – Abu al-Futuh – the powerful patron who sponsored him all the way in the beginning – stayed away
  • By the end of year two of his reign – the Coptic elite in Cairo formed a united front against him and confronted him about his actions
  • Luckily for us – their dialogue was recorded, and it is worth quoting in full

They said to him, "How long will you do these things that have

made us a disgrace among the nations and peoples?"

He said to them, "What things?"

"Your accepting simony for the priesthood!"

"We're discharging our debt to the sultan!"

"And who required you to settle money on the sultan?"

"It was you who settled money on the king!"

"You were not appointed to enter into this, nor was the patriarchate

forced on you, but you bribed your way to it and

engaged it for yourself, chasing after it for what today is a

period of twenty years! You have ruined our church!"

"I have not ruined your church, but have built it up! There was

hardly a bishop left in it, and today there are fifty, and priests beyond number!"


  • A few months afterward – Cyril had some sort of a fight with his secretary and accountant, who responded by publishing his accounts
  • In two years – Cyril had collected 9,200 dinars from simony – far exceeding his debts
  • This – was followed up by even a more damaging crisis – where for political reasons that we will get into in a minute. Forced labor was reinstituted – on a communal basis – where you had jewish working groups, Coptic, Muslim, and so on.
  • Cyril, completely abandoned his responsibilities and left the working class Copts to their own fate
  • Making him unpopular with the masses as well as the elite
  • Having had enough – The community organized and by Sep, 3rd, 1239. Only 3 years into his reign – pushing for a formal synod that was meant to depose him or at least put limits on what he can do
  • Only 14 bishops attended the synod though– Most of them ordained by him
  • So, nothing really was done.
  • One of Awlad al A3’asal – al Safi was there, and the first draft of his cannons was adopted – as a guideline
  • But – Naturally – Cyril made sure to ignore them as soon as the synod was over
  • A year later – the opposition to Cyril was so loud, that the Sultan himself had to get involved
  • By government decree, since the official way of organizing a synod went nowhere
  • Rwo bishops were to supervise the patriarch in all his decisions
  • Further, al-Safi ibn al-Assal was commissioned to produce a definitive collection of canons to guide the church. The result, al-Majmu al-Safawi ("al-Safi s Compilation") is the definitive medieval Coptic church canons – and its arguable still very relevant to this day.
  • Cyril – humiliated and deposed all but in name – retired to a monastery where he died three years later with two thousand dinars literally discovered under his pillow when he died
  • Regrettably – he didn’t get to take it with him.
  • Now – this story, so far, is just your typical overly ambitious, failed great man. But, to give him credit, Cyril was really more than that
  • His scholarly contribution was significant and forever altered the church
  • You see – up into his reign – the issue of confession raised by Murqus Ibn al Qunbur was really up in the air
  • In a matter of fact, part of the strong opposition against Cyril was his commitment to the sacrament of confession as Murqus Ibn al Qunbur described
  • He – in the words of his predecessor – John – had a corrupt faith like the Greeks
  • Well – Cyril at some point during his career wrote a very influential book on the subject – The Book of the Master and the Disciple— sometimes simply known as the book of confession
  • In it – he laid down the sacrament of confession as it is practiced today.
  • As the Patriarch – his word on subject had a lasting legitimacy – Helped perhaps by the fact, that a whole new generation of bishops was ordained in the span of a couple of years
  • Having been instructed- or at least aware – of their Patriarch feeling on the subject
  • Not to mention. It kinda ended up being the last word. As no one ventured into theological matters for a few centuries after Cyril. They were too busy just trying to survive.
  • And this wasn’t it either.
  • To this day – Jerusalem as a Coptic metropolitan. Thanks to Cyril.
  • So – as Mark Swanson puts it – “If Cyril is to be held responsible for much of the Church's administrative chaos in his day, he should also be allowed some glimmers of the glory of the "golden age" of the sciences of the Coptic Orthodox Church. “
  • Now – Once Cyril died in 1243 AD – the sentiment of the Copts regarding Patriarchs was pretty grim and out of apathy – no Patriarchs were ordained for the next 7 years.
  • Only when the Melkite Church ordained a Patriarch for them in 1250 AD– and the world literally turned upside down - did the bishops and the Coptic elite move to ordain a Coptic Patriarch as well. Fearing a loss of representation to the Muslim government which was becoming highly unstable
  • And this here – my dear listeners, is where we will stop with the affairs of the Patriarchy
  • We almost know very little for the next few centuries about the Coptic Patriarchs. Just a name, and a date when a Patriarch was elevated and died – plus a few scattered stories that I will get to next week in our epilogue episode.
  • The point is – as the year 1250 AD rolled around – the Church, specifically the Patriarchy as an institution was barely alive – have been weakened significantly by the two decades of absent leadership, followed by Cyril’s brief reign of corruption and chaos, followed by another 7 years of absence.
  • It is truly a miracle – that the Coptic Patriarchy didn’t die right now and then –
  • I mean – come to think of it. The 1250’s was a graveyard of political and religious institutions.
  • The Ayybuids? They died as the French came to Egypt in another Crusade killing them off in the process
  • The Caliphate? Dead in all but name, as the Mongols swept over the levant – razing Baghdad to the ground.
  • Even – the stubborn Latin Kingdoms – they too – died after a prolonged struggle with the Mamluks,
  • The order of Assassins, The Armenian kingdoms in Syria, the Sulquk Turks – they all went away right about now.
  • Yet – somehow – the quickly dwindling Christians in Egypt – with very little political and economic power – survived the storm that storm.
  • Barely – but survived nonetheless. I mean – here I am doing a Podcast about it.
  • Why all the upheaval – you ask? Well – get ready because things are about to move very fast.
  • Where we last left– al Kamil, the Sultan was handing over Jerusalem to the German Emperor so he can avoid another Crusade and the instability that holy wars bring.
  • A successful approach – as for the rest of his reign was peaceful and prosperous – from 1229, when Jerusalem was handed over to the day that he died – in 1238
  • Like his uncle Salah ad-Din – and his father – Al A’Adil – al Kamil drew up a fancy division of his empire among his sons. Hoping, that will live happily ever after – satisfied with their lot.
  • A pipe dream that didn’t last more than a couple of years. As the family quickly turned on each other
  • To make a long story short – The son that was given Egypt was deposed in a couple of years– and his brother Njam al Din took over
  • As Najm star started to rise – his uncle – maintaining the balance of power – managed to take Damascus from him.
  • And so – attempting to follow his family’s footprints – Najm set out to conquer Syria and rule as the Sultan of Egypt and Syria
  • And to do that – he needed a bigger army, and so he started buying tons of slave soldiers – Mamluks
  • Who – happened to be very affordable at this junction of our story as the Mongol tide was rising in central Asia and Russia – which meant plenty of children are around to be enslaved and turned into killing machines
  • His uncle – in response – allied with Kingdom of Jerusalem.
  • In this context of civil war that forced labor was reintroduced in Egypt – one of the many reasons that Cyril was despised
  • Anyway – as these things went – it ended up being a stalemate really. With Najm unable to remove his uncle and his uncle – unable to make Najm go away.
  • Up until, the Mongols moved again.
  • In their march west – they ended displacing a whole state made up of nomadic warriors. The Khwarazmians.
  • These guys – wishing to survive and avoid the Mongols, ended up going west as well – where Najm offered them an alliance and a home, in return – they were to rain destruction. Literally – burn everything down on their march from Eastern Syria to Egypt
  • And they did – razing Jerusalem to the ground in 1244 AD and allowing Najm to move from Egypt and rule the ashes that they left.
  • And just to through here – Najm was smart enough to never allow them to enter Egypt or give them a home.
  • Rather, he strung them out – using them to fight his opponents in Syria until both sides were too weak to oppose him
  • Now - he too, like his father and uncle – had become the Sultan of Egypt and Syria. Although, Syria was essentially a pile of ashes – so, there weren’t much to rule there.
  • Not only that - the razing of Jerusalem meant it was time for another Crusade!
  • You see – over in France was a 30 year king, Louis IX in the middle of a cultural and economic peak, brought on by grandfather – Phillip II – who with intelligent and careful rule built the French monarchy into a powerhouse.
  • Phillip was the same guy that took a lot of heat for leaving the 2nd Crusade earlier in our story. So like I said, he was smart and able to see the big picture.
  • Anyway – Louis – having learned nothing from grandfather was gripped with religious zeal and set his heart on crusading
  • And so – four years after Jerusalem had fallen – with elaborate preparations. He set out to conquer Egypt – and then, take Jerusalem
  • On May, 1249 – one thousand, and one hundred and 20 ships appeared in the horizon of Damietta – filled with over 25,000 Frenchmen led by their king
  • Najm al Din – on the other side. Sent his own 20,000+ Mamluks army – hardened warriors who were enslaved by or at least survived the Mongols led by a certain crafty fellow name Fakhr al-Din.
  • Unlike the last time A Crusade was in Egypt– The Franks were not allowed to land without a fight.
  • And so – up and down the Damietta Shore – Mamluks charged into the water
  • While French knights fought with the waters up to their waist repelling them back.
  • Eventually – a beachhead was established though – and the 7th Crusade army finally landed in Egypt
  • Fakhr al-Din – perhaps aware of the events of the fifth Crusade – abandoned Damietta
  • Opting instead – to fortify a position in the same spot that al Kamil did – a generation earlier – the modern city of al Mansoura – literally – the victorious one, named after the Crusaders were defeated.
  • But – really – had he wanted too, he could have stayed and defended Damietta.
  • He didn’t want too though. As his eyes were somewhere else.
  • You see, as fate would have it. Najm el Din was sick. Dying – if you ask his ambitious family or Mamluks
  • His general, Fakhr al-Din had no wish to be stuck fighting crazy French men over Damietta – only to be pushed out in the inevitable succession crisis
  • And so – he left Damietta to the Franks, so he could control his fate when Najm dies
  • Naturally – The Sultan was pissed when he found out that his slave soldiers retreated
  • On his death bed – he ordered that a whole unit of them be hanged as an example
  • Which – really just meant that he had eliminated one faction of a multi-headed hydra – that was the Mamluk army at this point
  • So – not much was achieved. Except – perhaps making the elite corps of the Mamluks – a unit named the Bahiryya even more dangerous.
  • Over in Damietta – the French were blissfully ignorant of the Ayybuids dysfunction.
  • And so – also with the lessons of the Fifth Crusade in mind – Louis opted not to move and stay put in Damietta
  • It was June now – which means, they only had two months to get out of the Delta before the Nile floods. A close call.
  • So pretty smart decision on the face of it, except that it gave time for the Mamluks to get their act together
  • By November 20th, The Nile started to recede and Crusaders finally headed out toward al Mansoura
  • Two days later – The Sultan – died from his illness. Leaving a complicated mess of factions behind him. But, at least everyone knew it was coming.
  • Fakhr al din – his leading general, made an alliance with his favorite concubine – a certain Shajarat al-Durr to keep his death a secret – while he slowly consolidated his power over the Mamluks and dealt with the Franks
  • That consolidation – included sending the commander of the Bahiryya – a certain aqtay all the way to Iraq as they – were the premier threat to Fakhr al-Din
  • In the meantime, Louis and his army were going extremely slowly – having to cross the river multiple times and in the process being harassed by Mamluks
  • By February – they were at the most dangerous and difficult crossing – very close to al Mansoura
  • Prepared as always – Louis intended to have the Templars cross first, then his knights – and then, if all went well. The rest of the Army
  • It was crucial that the knights and the templars once they cross – stay put. Until everyone else crosses.
  • Unfortunately – as with all wars, plan all you want. All it takes is one dumb decision by one person, and it all fall apart
  • That one person with the dumb decision was the king’s brother – who led the group of knights crossing after the Templars
  • Rather than follow the plan and wait for everyone to cross – he decided to go ahead and charge the Mamluks camp with his 600 knights.
  • Hard to say why – but to give him credit, the Mamluks looked like they were unprepared. Sleeping even, well into the morning
  • And as he charged – the Templars followed.
  • Thus – leaving the king – and most of the army – literally in the middle of a river crossing.
  • Initially – his audacity seemed to pay dividends – as indeed, the Mamluks were completely caught by surprise
  • And Fakhr el Din himself – was cut down before he even got the chance to get a weapon
  • Many of the Mamluks managed to escape the carnage though and run into – Al Mansoura itself – a typical medieval town with tightly arranged houses and streets.
  • And in a typical fashion, rather than realize that the element of surprise was now gone – and that you can’t execute a heavy charge over a row of houses
  • The king brother – rather than delight in his quick victory and wait for the rest of the army – he charged again. Into al Mansoura
  • There – with little room for horses to run – The knights were picked one by one by the Bahriyya – leaving no survivors from the 600 knights
  • Worse – they died so quickly – that Mamluks were able to race ahead and catch Louis and the infantry still attempting to cross the river
  • With Franks spread between the two banks of the Nile – a rout was expected.
  • Nonetheless – Louis snatched a tie of a certain defeat. Managing to salvage a defensive camp – and organizing what is left of his army
  • They – survived, but were surrounded by all sides by Mamluks.
  • A month later – a retreat was attempted, but it failed miserably.
  • The king was captured – and most of soldiers were butchered while trying to outrun Mamluks horsemen
  • In the Mamluks side – the Sultan’s death leaked out, and so, the victory was quickly followed by a coup. Where aqtay, – The commander of the Bahiryya back from Iraq – predictably eliminated the official heir of the Sultan and seized power.
  • Louis – for his part was eventually released in return for Damietta and a massive ransom. Returning to Europe four years later in 1254.
  • The same year – Aqtay were no longer the strongest soldier and was assassinated by another Mamluk warlord – Qutuz
  • Who in turn – was assassinated a year later by another Mamluk – Baibars.
  • And so – my friends, the age of the Mamluks have started. Where – by force alone, rulers lived and died.
  • Next week – We will do our epilogue episode – tracking the rise of Mongols, their defeat by Qutuz and Baibars – and then - a big overview of the age of the Mamluks.
  • After that – The Podcast will officially end.
  • Thank you for listening, farewell and until next time!


  • The History of the Patriarchs by" multiple
  • The Coptic Encyclopedia by" Aziz S. Atiya (editor)
  • The Coptic Papacy in Islamic Egypt, 641–1517: The Popes of Egypt by" Mark Swanson
  • The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land by" Thomas Asbridge
  • Coptic Identity and Ayyubid Politics in Egypt, 1218-1250 by" Kurt J. Werthmuller
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