Episode Detail

Script


  • Hello and welcome to the History of the Copts. Episode 85. The battles of Gabriel.
  • So last time we ended on somewhat two threads of narrative – Pope Gabriel and the internal politics of Egypt ending around 1132 AD and the fall of Edessa/2nd crusade narrative ending in 1144 AD
  • The two threads will eventually come together in the narrative of Salah ad din – who was born right around now in 1138
  • But for now, we would leave the narrative in the East with the Crusades for a while and continue forging forward with Gabriel and the Fatimids
  • There – our last stop was the death of Yanis and the rising tension against Christians in Egypt
  • If you remember, after his death, several high ranking Coptic government officials were dismissed and replaced with a group of Al Ashraf – rich Sunni men with claimed heritage to the prophet
  • Without anyone being appointed as an official vizier as the sons of the Caliph were blocking this route
  • As was the pattern with the late Fatimid empire, this arrangement where the Caliph managed on his own didn’t last for long and Al Hafiz’s three sons kept pushing their father for more say in the day to day administration
  • And so, within a year – the oldest son was entrusted with the vizierate and to run the government
  • Unfortunately, that son died within two months – most likely from natural causes
  • And so, Al Hafiz appointed the middle son – Haydara
  • But he too, didn’t last for long
  • The Armenian cohort of the army, now feeling threatened and isolated staged a coup – where they elevated the youngest of the three sons, a certain Hasan, to the post of vizier against the wishes of the Caliph and naturally, Haydara
  • It didn’t go smoothly though – The Caliph and Haydara enlisted the support of the black Nubian cohort of the army – which exacerbated the already existing tension in the army
  • And so – a brief civil war ensued in 1134 AD around Cairo – with the Armenian cohort gaining an upper hand quickly and al Hafiz capitulating to their demands and appointing Hasan as the vizier and the effective ruler of Egypt
  • Unfortunately, rather than being the start of a new stable regime, the new vizier was, to put it mildly, unfit for office
  • Overly harsh, with little experience, and absolutely no interest in surrounding himself with good counsel
  • Within a year – he turned on the Armenian cohort that brought him to power, starting executing a lot of folks for real and perceived insults, and confiscating and fining the elite to prop up the economy
  • As part of that cycle of arrests and fines – he imprisoned Gabriel and ransomed him off for a 1000 denars
  • By the day, he was alienating more and more folks making more enemies and less friends
  • And so, the same Armenian cohort of the army decided to get rid of him – mind you – like 10 months or so after they put him to power
  • They needed a vizier though – Hasan was the last of al Hafiz sons, and without a solid candidate of their own, the whole thing could backfire spectacularly
  • And there was a good candidate around –
  • An experienced, beloved Armenian governor who was in the mold of Badr al Jamali – only with a lot more charisma and a lot less need for underhanded cleverness
  • He kinda had a certain special charm that won him a loyal following without resorting to excessive violence or trickery like Badr and Al Afdal before him
  • There was one problem though
  • Bahram, that governor - was a Christian. And not a nominal one that can be persuaded to covert or even pretend to convert – nope
  • He was none other than the brother of the Armenian Patriarch – Gregory – with a long family history that saw his family ruling Antioch itself on behalf of the Byzantines at some point
  • And so, his links to Christianity was too deep for a lot of pious muslims – who were already anxious about the continued Crusader expansion
  • But, really, by far, he was the best man for job out there – so there was hope that he can overcome that resistance
  • In the middle of the army rebellion against Hasan, Bahram was persuaded to come to Cairo from the Western Delta – where he was staying as a governor
  • His timing was perfect, as while he was on the way, the palace was surrounded with rebellious troops asking for the head of Hasan
  • A request that was granted – when – in an almost Shakespearean fashion – al Hafiz asked his son to willingly drink poison and die peacefully – where by his death, the kingdom and his father throne would be saved
  • That’s how one Coptic source put it anyway – the truth might not be as dramatic – as the Muslim sources just say that he was poisoned by the Caliph’s physician
  • Anyway – Bahram arrived in the perfect time – right after all this drama.
  • Where he was the only viable choice to succeed the Caliph’s son, and in the same time taking no part of his murder
  • And so – Both al Hafiz, now worried about his own life and the army – worried about a population backlash welcomed the Armenian governor as a savior –
  • Not only he was an experienced politician, but he was also a competent general tailor-made for the times
  • You see – Bahraim’s background was exactly what was needed for the time, with the threat of the Crusaders and the Suljuks looming
  • Before coming to Egypt, he was an Armenian prince for a small territory of land stuck between the Crusaders and the Suljuks
  • After a lot of fighting and trying to eek out a peaceful but independent existence between them – Bahram was pushed out in an obscure circumstances to seek his fortunes in Egypt – where Badr and then Al Afdal were well-disposed toward Armenian and often sponsored them
  • So, he was trusted by the army as one of them and in the same time with experience fighting the Suljuks and the Crusaders and could be relied on to stay loyal to the Caliph
  • As a measure of his standing with the army and the expectation– he was given the honorfic title “saif al Islam” or the sword of islam by the Caliph – which was as weird as you would expect – given that imams were preaching next door about dhimmitude and all the limitations that non-muslims are supposed to abide by
  • And here stands the most powerful man of the land – a dhimmi himself –
  • The only man who could save the Fatimids from themselves and the infidel Crusaders – was an infidel himself
  • As you would expect, throughout the short two years that Bahram was around – al Hafiz was under a lot of pressure to dismiss him –
  • Mostly from the mob and the local sheiks where they were loud, but on their own – posed no serious danger
  • The problem was when – al Asharaf – the sunni nobility put their resources behind mobilizing that mob in a dangerous way
  • You see – like Badr before him – Bahraim strongly encouraged and sponsored Armenians to come and settle in Egypt taking administrative positions as well as serve in the army
  • But unlike in Badr’s time – lots of Armenians – under immense pressure from the Crusaders and Suljuks hostilities around their territory – welcomed the call to resettle in Egypt
  • 30,000+ in less than a year if we believe Muslims sources
  • This migration – induced absolute paranoia and panic in the Egyptian Muslim ruling nobility who feared a Christian takeover and imbalanced population dynamic with native Copts and Armenian immigrants
  • As Leila al-Imad put it, in her “The Fatimid Vizierate” book – quote “The mood that swept the Caliphate was paranoia; anyone who was not a Muslim or from the establish Egyptian aristocracy was suspect”
  • And that was before the Armenian came – just because of the Crusaders
  • Now all of the sudden, you got an influx of 30,000 Armenian Christians settling in Egypt and getting important jobs in the civil administration and the army
  • The paranoia and xenophobia immediately shot up and al asharaf with most of Egyptian Muslim populace acted
  • They recruited رضوان بن ولخشي the same guy who jailed al Hafiz last episode to lead a rebellion against Bahram
  • And not just any rebellion – nope – one on the strict lines of defending Islam against the Christians with local imams all over Egypt calling for Jihad against the infidels – their next door neighbors at this point
  • And Radwan – ambitious as they come fueled the holy war fire, by telling his men to raise the Quran as their standard – literally attaching the books to their lances – thus, putting any Muslim that opposes them and attempts a reasonable discussion in a very uncomfortable position
  • After all, how can they fight men who have the Qu’ran in their spears? Shall they desecrate the holy book?
  • Even the Caliph – who absolutely hated Ridwan and was grown to like Bahram by this point – could do nothing as civil war was engulfing his kingdom
  • Despite all of that rhetoric though – a significant cohort of the army – maybe even majority - continued to be loyal to Bahram – and unlike the mob and the Bedouin that Radwan gathered – they were much better trained and equipped
  • But with jihad called against him – Bahram would have to essentially march town to town burning everything to the ground
  • The only way he could be king, was to be the king of ashes – and so, he did the unthinkable – he told the army to stand down – to not fight back
  • The history of the Patriarchs records his speech to the army – probably not a literal word for word transcribing, but I am going to quote it anyway as it is the best way to explain what happened
  • --- quote,
  • “Without fail I shall die and God will require of me the blood of the slain from among you and from among them. And the kingdom of this land God has given to the Muslims, and it is not lawful nor permissible for me by God to fight against the people for their kingdom, and to deprive them of their rights. Had the Caliph not asked aid of me for what happened to him from his son, and agreed with me about what I did in his service and his obedience, I would not have begun anything of myself. Arise, take what you are able of your money and your children. And let us go to Kus, to take my brother. Then we will go to our country and leave to the people their kingdom; there is no need for us to make war against them”
  • Basically, concluding that fighting a religious war would lead to a genocide and he had no interest in pursuing such a thing– and so, he decided to just leave Egypt and go somewhere else to live in peace
  • His soldiers were not happy though – with at least one responding back with quote “we can conquer the world up to the gate of Rome, and we will encounter them and we will defeat them with the help of God”
  • And so, the army was split. Some followed Bahram to upper Egypt, and some decided to stay with their families and children in Cairo – and fight Radwan
  • Also, for context – Bahram had two brothers – one – the Patriarch Gregory, and he was dead by this point replaced by one Ananias – still operating in Cairo and sticking around with the group that decided to stay
  • And the other was the governor of Qus – which I had mentioned in an earlier episode was becoming an important trade hub for the red sea trade – and so, he had significant resources in his disposal and Bahram wanted to go get him before leaving Egypt altogether
  • Unfortunately for Bahram and his brother, his desire to avoid bloodshed and holy wars was out of fashion
  • The Muslims inhabitants of Qus have heard about Ridwan rebellion and already lynched his brother as well as any Christian they could find
  • And so – by the time Bahram made it to Qus – it was too late, his brother was dead with his family
  • He briefly was anguished about the whole thing and besieged the city to punish its inhabitants
  • But then, he came to his senses and accepted the tragedy
  • He told his troops to disburse and look out for themselves
  • While, he went to the nearby white monastery – the one established by Shenouda the Archimandrite, all the way back in our journey and hoped to be able to finish whatever he had left in his life in peace living as a simple monk
  • In Cairo, the situation played out in a similar fashion
  • When Ridwan arrived, the population opened the gates to him and the army basically disappeared
  • Then, a massacre of the Christians occurred – with specifically the Armenian quarter being targeted
  • quote
  • “he plundered the churches of Cairo and the Khandak, and the Muslims burned the dwellings of the Armenians known as Az-Zuhri, and they killed their patriarch and all whom they found with him of the monks in the monastery”
  • The Armenians presence in Cairo was extinguished – at least in the sense of a cohesive ethnic unit with political power
  • Those who survived the massacre, had to find somewhere else to live or assimilate
  • There would be still Armenians in Egypt, a new Patriarch would be even be eventually consecrated with the help of Gabriel– but their presence would never be the same   
  • Now – as you would expect – while all this was going on – everyday life for Copts and the Patriarch Gabriel was extremely difficult
  • And it became even more difficult as Ridwan was established in the Vizierate and started enforcing dhimmitude to its fullest extent
  • First – he ordered that no Christian should be employed in the government – essentially firing most of scribes and book keepers of the administration
  • As you would expect, this was a disaster and caused a severe economic shock – and so, pretty quickly it was modified to – No Christian in important posts – rather than, no Christian ever
  • Second, the Ghizya – the Poll tax on non-Muslims - was increased dramatically and enforced zealously
  • The rich paid 4.6 denars, the middle class paid 2 and change, and most paid about 1.5 denars. Even landless peasents and beggars had to pay something for the symbolism of it as downtrodden others only living due to the mercy of the majority
  • That symbolic Gizya ended up being a dirham – a silver coin
  • Naturally, all the dress restriction and other miscellaneous stuff that Christians and Jews had to abide for was also strictly enforced
  • And in the middle of all of this, or perhaps because of it – as the people who were running things were being pushed out – a severe famine hit Egypt in 1139/1140
  • The famine made one neighbor turn against another – and an even a greater cycle of persecution took place where mobs would descend on churches, destroy it and turn it them into mosques
  • Monasteries likewise was rumored to contain magic and treasures – as such, they were raided by a combination of soldiers of fortune and mob – and a few monks were tried for witchcraft in a ridiculous spectacle meant to humiliate them publicly
  • Now – the greatness of Gabriel is that while these events would have broken or at least diminished the achievements of many Patriarchs – his zeal for reform persevered even as the act of surviving in of itself was enough
  • He fought one battle after another – reforming many things on his way
  • First – when John, Son of Sanhut died in 1134 – Gabriel successfully finally abolished the diocese of Cairo altogether – and asserting the right of the Patriarch to operate from there – the heart of government
  • Then – he forbade the common but disturbing act of burying the pious inside the churches
  • When he was ignored and people buried a beloved priest there anyway – he closed the church until they got the message that he was serious – especially as he went as far as exhuming previous Patriarchs from churches
  • Naturally – he strictly enforced the no simony rule – suspending bishops and clergy who skirted it one way or another which sort of made unpopular among some bishops who considered it to be heavy handed enforcement
  • But – as an active patriarch – he ended concentrating some 53 bishops – possibly doubling the number that was already there and so, those who opposed him were a dwindling minority from a group that was increasingly being shaped in his own image
  • We are told, as an example of his efforts against simony, how a priest from a wealthy family tried to buy a diocese from the Patriarch – early in his reign
  • Gabriel – naturally refused.
  • Even though, the priest wasn’t necessarily a terrible choice, as he was learned and pious enough – but the simony offer essentially shut the door for him ever becoming a bishop
  • And so – as was the habit – instead of the money going to the Patriarchy as simony, it went as a bribe for a palace official to pressure Gabriel into making the priest a bishop
  • Gabriel stood his ground though and fought it all the way to al Hafiz himself – who took the side of the Patriarch and let him manage the affairs of the church as he saw fit
  • Unfortunately – this was all before Ridwan taking power and the increasing pressure on Christians
  • Once the cycle of persecution started, it became clear that the priest may convert to Islam and cause a lot more damage from his grudge against Gabriel
  • So, Gabriel ended up ordaining him a bishop anyway – to prevent his conversion and the money that the priest quote unquote donated for the office – went in the very same day to renovate a monastery – never touching the Patriarch hands who truly considered it a great sin
  • Similarly to the story of that priest – a monk from a rich family ended up holding a grudge against Gabriel for- not taking his monetary contribution into consideration when dealing with him
  • Unlike the priest however, he did end up converting which ached at the heart of the Patriarch – who took as a personal failure
  • As his biographer put it “this affair was hard to bear for the father, the patriarch, and he repented of it with bitter repentance; and after it he did not repeat being severe with any one, fearing lest others might do the same”
  • And his reforms didn’t stop there – somewhere along his career he ended up writing at least three formal lists of cannons – one of them survives with significant editing that happened 200 years later as well as two liturgical books with several important evolutions that are standard practice to this day
  • Even in the political stage – As Egypt was becoming weaker politically, the Ethiopian king wanted to be able to ordain Ethiopian bishops – rather depend on whoever gets sent from Egypt
  • Naturally, the request was sent to the vizier as well as the Patriarch – with probably gifts to nudge the palace to push Gabriel to do it
  • But, Gabriel again stood his ground – and explained to the palace that ordaining more bishops or allowing native Ethiopian bishops would more than likely mean the complete independence of the Ethiopian church from Egypt
  • And with it – a loss of leverage between the two states and potentially a hostile relationship
  • And the palace agreed, and no bishops were ordained
  • And to be clear here, while not ordaining Ethiopian bishops was clearly better for Egypt politically – it was very bad for the state of the Ethiopian church where there was a constant need for native bishops who knew the land and the people and could serve as able stewards
  • So ya – Gabriel may have missed the big picture there – although still executed with competence what he saw best, keeping relationship with Ethiopia in an okay shape even after his firm no by starting a correspondence of blessings and spiritual advice with the king who appreciated the personal touch
  • In my opinion though, Gabriel greatest achievement is how he handled two particular practical problems of his day – the physical and spiritual food for his flock
  • First, for the physical food - the famine and instability beginning at Ridwan’s reign had the potential for a lot of misery if it wasn’t for Gabriel
  • Although the details are sketchy, it seems that Gabriel last 5 years, where famine and unrest was the greatest – he put all of his intellectual and administrative might into making sure people don’t starve to death – literally building a supply chain of grain across Egypt
  • Not by any means glorious – but easily saving thousands of lives
  • The second, the spiritual food - is his effort to stamp out several strange traditions that were taking hold among the everyday Copts
  • For example, a monk claimed that he could see the future, and even offered his services to Bahram
  • But, the Enlighted vizier found him quote “diseased in his intellect” sending him away
  • Gabriel had no tolerance for things like this and through his written cannons and literal exhortation – made sure no monk could play the magician with serious threats of excommunication
  • Similarly – he outlawed a strange feast of the Archangel Michael that involved animal sacrifice and riffed waay too close to pagan rituals
  • Which was alongside a battle with the civil elite about the keeping of concubines where, the threat of converting to islam limited what he can do
  • In a way Gabriel was all what once can ask for – a monk in the spirit of a warrior fighting different battles day in and day out
  • But still, the progress he made while he was alive was limited being besieged with difficult obstacles to overcome
  • Not just politically and socially as we went through, but also linguistically –
  • Most priests by this point had no working competence of Coptic, yet memorized the liturgy and prayed it as a magical chant where neither they or the congregation understood anything
  • There was no one around to teach anyone – anything. And Gabriel was only one man
  • For sure he tried reversing the trend, asking the priests to at least start with their own children where – writing in one of his cannons – quote
  • “It is necessary that you also begin to teach the priesthood to your children at the outset of each day, before the Arabic [instruction].”
  • But – on the ground it was too difficult –
  • Even in the same cannon list – Gabriel sort of admits defeat and asks the bishops to help the people to quote “memorize the Doxology, the Prayer that our Lord Christ taught to his disciples, and the Holy Creed in the tongue that the people know and understand” – I.E Arabic – since there isn’t much hope that Coptic would be understood or taught
  • As Swanson put it, in his the Coptic Papacy in Islamic Egypt – quote “Gabriel found himself charged to shepherd an under-catechized Church, full of people who were naturally religious but who lacked the basic Christian formation necessary to sort out traditional church teaching from heresy, or Christian sense from nonsense. Perhaps many of them, almost by a process of osmosis, were becoming socialized into the religious language of the mosque”
  • And so, like a wave crashing against a rock – he battled again and again until the day he died in 1145 AD – seeing only resistance to his reforms
  • Ultimately, leaving contributions that we today – 900 years later –can appreciate as a bright spot of reform in a long dark tunnel
  • Thank you for listening, farewell, and until next time!

References


  • The History of the Patriarchs by" multiple
  • The Cambridge History of Egypt, Vol. 1: Islamic Egypt, 640-1517 by" Carl F. Petry (Editor)
  • The Coptic Papacy in Islamic Egypt, 641–1517: The Popes of Egypt by" Mark Swanson
  • The Fatimid Empire by" Michael Brett
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