Episode Detail


  • Hello and Welcome to the History of the Copts. Episode 94. The Empty Throne.
  • So, if you missed last week episode on Patreon – here is the gist of it.
  • Richard never made it to Jerusalem – Like a medieval Moses, he came close enough to see the holy city but never went in
  • Salah ad-Din too – never completed his jihad, and was unable to decisively beat back the Franks
  • And so – a peace treaty was reached. Where, Jerusalem stayed in Muslims hands, but a Frankish kingdom of Jerusalem continued to exist based on the coastal cities that Richard had conquered.
  • A kingdom – that will continue to exist for another 100 years or so and will get back Jerusalem within a generation.
  • For us though, that was the end of the Crusading detour. There would be a lot of Crusades left. But we will only talk about the couple of them that directly targeted Egypt.
  • Also – that episode saw the end of the Salah’s ad Din reign where he died within six months after the peace was reached
  • Leaving 15 adult male children, plus a very powerful and involved extended family.
  • Al ‘Adil – for example, his younger brother –was the architect of the peace treaty with the Franks and operated with a wide degree of independence
  • And so – Had Salah El Din ignored succession, a crisis on his death may have been disastrous
  • But – he didn’t.
  • Quite aware of his mortality –He made elaborate plans to divide his vast empire among his children and family – with his oldest son, being the first among equals
  • Hoping – that each man would be happy with his share and the transition after his death, peaceful
  • Alas though, like him – his sons and family proved to be highly ambitious, and always looking to add to their domains – mostly fighting each other
  • After all, it was Salah ad-Din himself, who left Egypt to go and conquer Syria when his benefactor, Nur El Din died – so why would his sons and brothers be any different?
  • You see – when the Sultan died – the division of the empire that he implemented was quite rational and organized
  • A young and an inexperienced prince was made ruler over of Egypt and Jerusalem
  • Another young prince, was made ruler over Aleppo in Northern Syria
  • And In between them - al-Afdal, his oldest was made to rule over Damascus – as the Sultan
  • The weakest and least experienced of the sons – was in Egypt where its resources and stability were meant to even out that disadvantage
  • Similarly – Central Syria was quite a difficult place to govern, especially with Crusader state next door – and so, it made sense that the Sultan is based there
  • Not to mention – he could quote unquote supervise Egypt and Northern Syria easily from his central location
  • And finally to close the loop, Al A’Adil – the experienced brother of the Salah El Din and by far, the most dangerous and respected political force of his day – was given the territories of the empire in Iraq
  • Relatively isolated from the action, as to protect Salah ad-Din’s children
  • So – very good in theory to keep things stable, but the never satisfied nature of man would quickly break that theory
  • You see – one faction that was not represented in that neat arrangement was the amirs of the large army that have been fighting for two decades now.
  • Hardened Mamluks who campaigned almost every year.
  • They – couldn’t rest easy and became a destabilizing force that could be wielded to break that neat arrangement
  • And so, within a year-the guy in charge of Egypt was manipulated into attacking his brother next door in Damascus by these factions
  • Fast forward 5 years of on and off civil war – the other brother in Aleppo got involved – and Al A’adil – their uncle was playing them against each other like puppets
  • By 1200 AD – seven years after the death of Salah El Din.
  • Al A’adil had managed to eliminate the three brothers altogether and rule alone as the Sultan – more or less –the same territories that Salah el Din controlled
  • So much for planned successions.
  • Anyway – what matters for us, is not really what Al A’Adil did or how he took the Sultanate. Rather, what was going in Egypt when he did.
  • Seven years of instability on the top had caused a lot of damage. And so, as was the pattern, the Nile didn’t flood normally one year in 1200 AD – and immediately a very bad famine took hold – crippling the population growth of Egypt.
  • In the same manner, to fix similar problems all over the empire, Al A’Adil – was constantly touring his domain consolidating the Sultan’s authority and putting down fires
  • While Egypt – was left in the capable hand of his son and heir apparent. Al Kamil, a pragmatic ruler – who among many things – had a conversation or two with St. Francis of Assisi on the merits on converting to Christianity.
  • What was St. Francis doing in Egypt trying to convert the Sultan to Christianity? We will get there next week.
  • For now though, since it has been long since we last checked with the Coptic Patriarchy
  • I would like to catch us up with the latest development there
  • Despite all the wars – and the economic pressures it brought. The situation of the Copts toward the end of Salah’s al-Din reign was actually pretty good before the few years of instability and famine brought by the prolonged succession struggle
  • Salah ad Din often granted large fiefs of lands to his army amirs – often mamluks with limited literacy – who employed a professional class of scribes and administrators to oversee their accounts
  • That professional class – was largely Coptic.
  • In turn – some of their earnings went to the Church – which, shepherded by the capable hands of Mark – used those resources for sustainable and reasonable projects
  • The only thing that was worth mentioning in his long 22 year reign was the Murqus Ibn Al-Qunbur theological adventures – and even then. It was handled reasonably well and could have died quietly – if it wasn’t for another issue bringing it up – waaay after Mark’s time.
  • And so – when Mark died in 1189 – 4 years before Salah ad-Din. The transition was as smooth as you can get
  • Within a month – a wealthy and respected merchant from Cairo named Majd Ibn Sawirus– in the mold of Mark was picked as the next Patriarch and renamed John the sixth
  • John before his election, was quite successful as a businessman – where he undertook several trips, as far as India – and in the process rose to upper echelon of an elite trading guild that held an immense amount of financial and political power
  • Medieval trading guilds are rabbit holes and a bit outside our scope – but, just know that John had a lot of political connections and weight – beyond what would you expect from a typical merchant
  • Also – as a patriarch he continued to operate a sugar factory, among other property and businesses producing somewhat of a passive income during his patriarchy that was used to partially finance the church expenses.
  • So – yea – John was neither your typical Patriarch or just another average well-to do Copt. Nope – he was truly an elite of the merchant class that developed alongside the Ayybuids empire
  • His reign, like Mark before him was long and mostly prosperous penetrated by a few incidences of note
  • First – it will see the first Crusade that is directed exclusively against Egypt
  • This – as you would expect – ratcheted up the hostilities against Christians with yet another wave of conversion
  • More on that Crusade next week – since it’s a lengthy narrative to fit in this week.
  • But as the wave of conversion goes, we are told of two converts of that period, that can serve as an illustration on how these things went
  • The first one was a monk who converted to Islam and ended up being a tax administrator living comfortably in a small city in rural Egypt
  • After a while though, he regretted his decision and wanted to go back to the monastery
  • To do this – he had to go to al Kamil himself – where he went with his burial cloth and told him– quote “«These (are) my burial-clothes, kill me or give back to me my religion”
  • al Kamil, the heir of the Sultan – so, pretty high up the chain of the Ayyubids had no wish to kill folks for apostasy – and so, he told the convert that he can go back to being a Christian and guaranteed his protection
  • What he failed to see though, that now, he was setting a precedence for allowing apostasy
  • A very dangerous precedence
  • And so – as the monk story spread- Another convert did the same. Only, not going to Al Kamil. Rather, all the way to the Sultan. His father, Al A’adil
  • And told him – quote
  • ‘Give back to me my religion, as your son, Al-Malik al-Kamil, gave back to the monk his religion, and wrote for him that no one should oppose him”
  • Al A’Adil – a veteran of the crusade and more sensitive to opinion of the religious imams on apostasy
  • Which was clear cut and undebatable , it was a crime punishable by death.
  • Ordered that the convert – quote “be delivered up to the Governor of Cairo and that he should inflict punishment upon him until he died, or renewed his Islam”
  • The convert – renewed his Islam
  • Al-Kamil for his part, not wishing to fight his father on the issue – send for the monk and gave him the same choice. Go back to Islam or die
  • The monk – choose to go back to Islam.
  • Conversions in medieval Egypt is a fraught subject, and it can get very complicated – especially if one wishes to generalize. But, yea – there seem to have been a definite shift starting with Ayyubids on how conversions work.
  • Take for example, that monk. Even when he went back to Islam.
  • There were constant pressures about the sincerity of his Islam, and so he ended up – harassing the local monasteries over their alter vessels and their value – just to prove to the local community that he really was a Muslim
  • Similarly – another convert in the reign of John was previously a well-known deacon in Alexandria
  • He was dragged to Al Kamil in Cairo, to translate Coptic phrases as an exercise to prove the sincerity of his conversion
  • Alongside conversion, one notable even during John’s reign was the famine in 1200-1202 that we mentioned earlier. Just as al Kamil was setting in
  • That famine, not just straight up halted the continuous population growth as people died from hunger–
  • It also- initiated a mass migration event- where many Coptic families left their traditional home villages to go settle in Syria or larger cities.
  • This – also disturbed previously fully Christian villages, which made future conversions waves a lot easier to take place.
  • Lastly in the topic of John’s reign, as the other great Patriarchs before him– he, had a healthy connection with Ethiopia
  • Ordaining a metropolitan for them – where, through a fascinating story of palace intrigue, that relationship almost collapsed – before John intervened for a second time, removed the metropolitan and ordained another one
  • You see, we are told – that initially that Metropolitan was a great fit – and did quite well in Ethiopia
  • However, by year 4. The queen pressured him to ordain her brother as a bishop.
  • And he – after initially refusing. Relented – ordaining the brother in question to be a bishop
  • A bad idea – as immediately – the prince, now a bishop attempted to take charge of the Ethiopian Church and sidestep the Coptic Metropolitan
  • A series of palace plots then took place – where it ended with the metropolitan coming back to Egypt after – being threated with murder
  • That was the story that John got anyway – when he asked the Metropolitan why he was back
  • John – with healthy skeptism though and with familiarity on how the palace in Ethiopia worked from his trading days didn’t just take his word for it.
  • Nope – he secretly sent a delegation to talk with the Ethiopian king directly and figure out what really happened
  • A good move – as it turned out, the metropolitan left not because his life was threatened from a palace plot
  • Nope - He left, because he ordered that a priest be beaten unfairly– and when that priest died from his injuries. The backlash against him was so large, that he couldn’t walk in the street safely
  • At this – John immediately went to work fixing the diplomatic kerfuffle. Involving the Sultan, and ordaining another metropolitan.
  • During these interactions, al Kamil fully appreciated the benefit of keeping Ethiopia as a trading partner– and was quite impressed with the leverage that John gave him in his dealing with them
  • That second metropolitan did very well in his role – dying peaceful toward the end of John’s reign
  • And he – again, appointed a capable bishop – pushing back on the Sultan and his chief administrator, a certain Abu al Fatuh – a Copt himself who ran the finances of the army
  • You see, Abu al Fatuh had his own pick for the office – a priest that he sponsored and even lodged in his own house
  • A very controversial figure named Dawood or anglicized as David.
  • Who – was brilliant and well-learned, but had quite an ego and tended to veer off the well-travelled road
  • Like, he was the kinda of guy who may one day lead an Ethiopian army and come to Egypt– or at least, break away and establish his own hierarchy there
  • So – in John’s assessment – Dawood was the worst possible fit. As he put it to Al A’Adil
  • Quote – “This one is not fit, because his belief in God is corrupt, because he says concerning God what the Greeks say and if he went to the Land of Ethiopia, he would corrupt them, and he would make them Greek and they would depart from my obedience and the obedience of the Sultan, and, perhaps, he would incite them to fight the Muslims who are neighbouring to them in the country, and much blood would be shed among them, and this would be on the conscience of the Sultan; but I and my people (are) innocent of it.”
  • For context here – Dawood – quote unquote “corrupt” beliefs were referring to the same issue of confession and communion that Murqus Ibn Al-Qunbur brought to the forefront 25 years or so earlier.
  • Dawood like Ibn Al-Qunbur – believed in the sacrament of confession and regular weekly communion
  • Where – the Coptic Church hierarchy – at this point of history was against the practice of confession privately to a priest.
  • Refer back to episode 88 on who Ibn Al-Qunbur was and what did he believe in.
  • The Melkite church on the other hand – encouraged that kind of confession. And so, the accusation of turning Ethiopia quote unquote “Greek” stood on very flimsy ground, but still stood nonetheless.
  • On the whole though – as we will see, Dawood’s would have been a really bad fit for Ethiopia – not necessarily because of his beliefs. No – more because of his personality.
  • And John – knew that too. But, he was also savvy enough of an operator to put his opposition in words the Sultan could understand
  • So like I said, he did quite well in his 20 years reign
  • Dying peacefully in 1216 AD and inaugurating a 20 years period where the Coptic church had no Patriarch at all
  • Why? Well – say hello to the adventures of Dawood – the same priest we just mentioned – and the future Patriarch Cyril the Third AKA Cyril Ibn Laqlaq!
  • You see, when John died – he had an heir in mind – a disciple of his.
  • Unfortunately, as fate would have it. That disciple died just a few days before the Patriarch –
  • Leaving the seat wide open for competition.  
  • And you know who was the most powerful Copt at this very exact moment? Well – It was Abu al Fatuh – Dawood’s patron and sponsor who pushed his case for Ethiopia just a couple of years earlier.
  • He naturally – pushed for Dawood to be the Patriarch and made a very strong case for him to the Sultan – Al A’adil.
  • The problem though, that John before he died – made his position clear on what he thought of Dawood
  • Further – due to the political nature of their offices. Abu Al Fatuh and John generally disliked each other as they competed for the ear of the Sultan on his religious policy toward the Copts.
  • They got along and worked together most of the time – but, it was a dry, professional relationship – rather than a warm and courteous one.
  • So both Abu Al Fatuh and Dawood had a lot of opposition within the church – if not, because of Dawood’s beliefs about confession – then definitely due to their history with John. On the whole a beloved figure.
  • To make matters worse – Dawood’s ego and ambition really did get in the way. One of the primary sources of this period was actually a very close friend of his – and he had this to say about him – quote

“I knew him to be a brilliant scholar, a good priest and a translator

of languages. I only disliked the way he rushed into an

outward display of seeking [the patriarchate], and his lack of

avoiding the matter in his speech. I used to counsel him

about that—but he did not accept the counsel. I would say

to him: "It is appropriate in this matter that the wise person

make a show of not wanting it, and, if anyone should speak

about it in front of him, that he disdain the speech, get

up, and go away from that place! (This [making a show of

reluctance] is [necessary] only if he isn't a righteous person.

If righteous, this [reluctance] is both his inner attitude and

outward behavior.) For this matter [of the patriarchate] is

a venture into matters of terrible weight, an investment of

authority over a great flock on whose account one will

be judged! One should bear this matter only when one is

invested with it." But he did not go back on his course, nor

did he put his trust in God to give him [the patriarchate],

but rather in his own effort and endeavor”

  • And so – very quickly after John’s death. We had a situation where the palace and those who are in the Sultan’s circle wanted one candidate – Dawood the priest.
  • And – most of frontline clergy and monks – loyal to John’s memory and hostile to Dawood’s unconventional beliefs wanted ANYBODY but Dawood
  • That latter group was led by a certain ibn Abi Sulayman, the personal physician of the sultan's heir- Al Kamil. The guy who was really in charge in Egypt.
  • And they, for the most part – had him on their side.
  • So not only it was a split between the Coptic elite – it was also a split between what the Sultan in Syria wanted – on Dawood’s camp – and what Al Kamil’s in Egypt wanted
  • And Al Kamil really fought for this one, as he had a personal stake in the matter
  • You see, in one of his hunting trips – met a certain holy man named Abiar who left an impression on him – healing him from a medical condition
  • So – he wanted that holy man to be the Patriarch – and so did many in the camp that was opposed to Dawood nomination – as he had a very important quality. He wasn’t Dawood.
  • The issue finally came to a head – when a certain brave fellow from Cairo named Al-As`ad Ibn Sadafa gathered a lot of those who opposed Cyril and essentially organized a petition to the Sultan that got him a meeting
  • There – he told Al A’Adil – quote
  • “It is not fitting (that) God permit you that you should make Dawood patriarch over us to corrupt our religion and to make all the Copts of the Land of Egypt  Greek , and he will cause it to depart from the hands of the Muslims”
  • Al- A’adil though – ignored them
  • Telling Abu al Fatuh to go ahead and ordain Dawood a Patriarch – if the Copts don’t like it, then so be it
  • And Abu al Fatuh went ahead with the planning – picking a day and a few bishops to do it.
  • Unbeknown to him though – Al Kamil, had already decided that he wouldn’t let it happen.
  • Egypt was his inheritance, and he wouldn’t let his father – the Sultan do something stupid to ruin it.
  • And so – he sent to the governor of Cairo telling him – quote
  • If you enable Abu'1-Fatuh and his companions to set up for them a patriarch without my order, I shall hang you
  • And so – as Dawood was getting ready to be ordained – literally walking to the church
  • The governor brought the garrison down to the church – arrested and then impaled a couple of innocent bystanders, leaving them on the entrance of the church to scare folks – and Dawood himself from walking in
  • And it worked – Dawood got scared and left Cairo altogether and so did most of his partisans
  • Several attempts were made later to ordain a Patriarch, but they all failed
  • First – someone proposed a lottery where Dawood name would be on there among two other candidates, but Dawood refused
  • Then – a compromise candidate – another layman from the government who ran what amounted to be the treasure of the Sultan was picked
  • But the Sultan vetoed the candidacy – not wanting to lose him to the church
  • Finally – people just gave up and went along with their lives
  • What do you need a Patriarch for anyway? Right.
  • And so, the Coptic Church was left without a Patriarch for the next 20 years. Allowing for an institutional weakness that the church – never really recover for a few centuries.
  • Next time – we will briefly look at the first Crusade that explicitly aimed for Cairo, not Jerusalem
  • As well as - what happened after 20 years of no patriarch.
  • 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
All episodes


Must be logged in to comment. Log in or Sign up.