Hello and Welcome to the history of the Copts. Episode 88. The Iron Rod.
So – the plan was to have this episode into an epilogue for the Fatimids period. But, honestly – the interview from last week covered it all. The continuous evolution of dhimmitude, the dynamics of conversion, the demographics of Egypt at this point, the linguistic changes – all of it.
So – if you haven’t listened to it – make sure that you do. It’s long, but covers a lot of ground.
Now – we last stopped in 1169 AD – as Salah El Din took over as the vizier of Egypt after a lot of action and armies marching back and forth into Egypt
For those who were paying attention, I was careful to omit any references to the Coptic patriarchs during that period of transition
Well – this week, we will fill that gap and go back to after the death of the illiterate Michael in 1146 with the Patriarchs John the fifth and Mark Ibn Zuriah
Pope John reigned for almost 20 years. Basically, the entire duration of the chaotic transition that started from the death of al Hafiz in 1148 – to a couple of years before Salah el Din took power
So as you can imagine – he really drew the short end of the stick.
Unlike Michael, by all accounts he seemed like a sensible choice. Pious –well liked, and maybe not the most learned, but at least he could read and write.
He was a candidate for the office with Michael – a close second. So, when Michael died within a year – the office naturally gravitated to him
The only obstacle to his elevation – was a monk named Ibn Kadran, - the one whose followers have allegedly poisoned Michael
As was the habit by this point with ambitious monks seeking the patriarchy, when it seemed like he wouldn’t get it and John will be picked instead
Ibn Kadran, rather than accept the will of the crowd, went through the backdoor and involved the palace to force the hands of bishops to ordain him
A maneuver that was partially successful in that it forced all the bishops to come to Cairo and convene/consult with several Muslim palace officials to pick the new Patriarch rather than go ahead as planned with the smooth ordination of John
Nonetheless, it ultimately failed– as in the council, the bishops formed a united front in their absolute refusal to even consider Ibn Kadran –
Even when the same Muslim officials decided to move the council to Alexandria – and see if the clergy there would be more open to Ibn Kadran
It went nowhere – as the Alexandrian quote “shouted together with one word “John ibn Abu il-Fath is our Patriarch” -
John here – being John the Fifth
So – there was nothing the Palace could do – this was toward the last few days of al Hafiz reign, so its not like they had a firm hand to force the issue or anything
And so, John was consecrated Patriarch in 1147 AD – almost at the same time that Ridwan was waging his third and last rebellion that kickstarted 20 years of instability and civil wars that we went through last time
After that – we barely hear anything from John or about the Coptic church but records of church destructions, enslavements of the common folks as part of the civil wars, and on and off dhimmitude enforcement based on the whims of the many short-lived viziers of this period
Except for two noteworthy events where we can glean John’s personality from
The first, was a lengthy stay in jail for refusing to remove the bishop ordained for Ethiopia who was quarreling with the king over there–
John despite a lot of pressure from the palace, never budged and so he stayed in jail for a while only getting out when the vizier that imprisoned him was executed as part of the many rebellions of his reign – ultimately getting his way and never removing the bishop
Through the whole episode, he was impressively principled and essentially, sticking to the book – where you couldn’t remove bishops just because the government doesn’t like them
The second is a lengthy theological saga about the addition of a liturgical phrase – the word “life-giving” to describe communion – i.e the body of Christ
A monastery in the Delta had added the phrase on their own – which, riled up some purists who insisted that nothing should be added or removed from the liturgy
Which as a reminder – was being prayed in Coptic – memorized by heart by the priests. Where neither they nor the congregation understood what was being said.
So, adding an innocent word was a big deal for those who didn’t know what it meant, which was almost everybody by this point
John – not necessarily the most learned of his day, didn’t like the change either and personally was against it
But again – principled and sticking to the book. Rather than just tell the monks to stop it, he sent a committee of bishops who are comfortable theologically and in Coptic – to investigate the addition
The committee, after investigating. Not only found that there is nothing wrong in the phrase, but recommended everybody to adopt it
Basically, to standardize the liturgy and not have everyone doing what they pleased
And John – despite being initially against the change, took their recommendation and sent letters requiring everyone to use the new phrase
Most – since the phrase was a small innocent addition – went along with it. At least, agreed in principle – and continued doing what there were doing
Really – everyone kinda filed the letter in the drawer and moved on.
Everyone, except the monks of the monastery of St. Macarious – who made a public spectacle of refusing to accept the change
Now – to understand why all the drama – I think a brief detour of the evolution of monasticism and the monastery of St. Macarious is due
Through the medieval periods – monasticism in Egypt retreated from its pre-conquest hay day
Rather than see – monasteries all along the Nile Valley – at the edge that is separating the valley from the desert. The monks ended up mostly concentrating in three main locations
The Western Desert – Toward the Delta – I.E The Wilderness of Scetis or Wadi Al – Natrun. There depending on circumstances – existed at a minimum a Syrian monastery named after St. Mary – which housed – as you guessed it Syrian monks. And the Monastery of St. Macarious – probably the biggest of the bunch and the most influential
The second location was the Eastern Desert – toward the Red Sea. There, specifically at this period, a renaissance was happening as the Crusader states rerouted a lot of the trade routes toward the red sea – which brought money and pilgrims with them. In the interview with Dr. Werthmuller he mentioned a large art project/renovation happening in this period
The area contained also a couple of Monasteries – one for St. Anthony and one for St. Paul
One of the monks of the St. Paul monastery named Shenouta was the one who wrote John’s biograph, and as such – you get the feeling that this area was taking over the helm from Wadi al Naturn right about now
And the last location – was deep in upper Egypt. A monastery of St. Mary flourished and attracted Ethiopian and Nubian monks
All of these centers had plenty of monks and – could claim, rightly – that they were the beating heart of Egyptian Christianity
All of them could – but only the monks of the monastery of St. Macarious did
The monks of St. Macarious out of all the monks in Egypt kinda saw themselves as a special class. The guardians of the faith so to speak.
When a Patriarch was ordained, he had to go there and pray the liturgy first before praying in Cairo
Traditionally, Patriarchs were also buried there
They were the ones who argued with Gabriel about his additions to the liturgy, and he had to win them over
It was also from them – where most the bishops were picked.
So, in a way, they felt that theological and liturgical discussions had to flow from them, to be executed by the Patriarch. Not the other way around
At least – he should if have asked them before telling everyone to add the phrase
Well – John. Principled as ever – stood his ground and told them that it is not them who decides, but a synod of bishops which he is first among them.
And no, he doesn’t have to take their opinion
A legitimate process had taken place, and they must respect the outcome – whether they like it or not
They didn’t like it, and had no desire to respect it, and so a legitimacy campaign was waged on who is right –
A short one, as the monks of St. Macarious started to lose badly as John was right – plus, everybody else went along
So – they decided to play a different game. Again, appealing to the vizier – The Armenian Shia’ convert at this point to settle the dispute – at the height of the brief stable period of his reign where he could afford to get involved
And either out of intellectual curiosity or more likely hoping to collect a huge fine from the Patriarchy – he agreed to consider the monks complaints. Ordering the patriarch to come and discuss the changes with the monks in his presence where it would be he – a Muslim vizier - the one who decides what words to say in the liturgy
Now – As you can imagine, this was a dangerous precedent and John – treated it very seriously
In the council, rather than address the monks gently and go into a circular argument of legitimacy
He was as fire and brim stone as you could be
First – addressing the vizier himself – he asked point blank –who is Jesus to him. The vizier, a convert with a complicated view, couldn’t quite bring himself to say a prophet – as a Muslim would. Or God – as a Christian would
Then – looking at the monks but addressing the vizier – he gave a short speech. The essence of it – really? This is the guy who you want to settle your theological disputes. A guy who can’t even decide who is Jesus.
The speech had almost no effect on the monks, but essentially threw the vizier off balance enough to shut down the prospect of him offering his opinion
A contentious and a hostile discussion then took place between the monks and John where – and I am going to quote from the history of the Patriarchs directly here – “The patriarch raised his iron rod which (was) in his hand to strike some of them”
Like I said – John was not messing around and he wasn’t going to be the Patriarch that allows a government official to dictate liturgical terms for him
In response to the metaphorical, and perhaps literal whooping that was taking place – the monks asked the vizier to protect them
To which, he responded by quote “Stretch out, you also, your hands against him” – I.E – go ahead and attack him physically if you want
A line that was too far – even to these monks and they said they can’t harm the Patriarch
And so – the vizier ordered the Patriarch to be arrested and jailed for the second time. With a large fine against the patriarchy
The liturgical term wasn’t changed though and John, even though - now in jail. Basically won the day.
Suffering for the faith, he was now even more respected and beloved by common folks and clergy
If before, he was seen as innovating new liturgical practices, now- his words are like those inspired by the holy spirit
The change stuck and to this day – the word “life-giving” is still in the liturgy
A change – that – and I can’t emphasize that enough, john disliked
But – he was principled and believed in institutions. He didn’t go to jail for an extra word or two in the liturgy. Nope, he went to jail to preserve the right of the church to be the arbiters of theological truth
Plus, possibly wanting to beat up an unruly monk or two
As for his stay in jail – well – it wasn’t for very long this time. As we went through two weeks ago, the women of the dynasty were threatened by the Armenian vizier and arranged for his botched assassination
And after his death, the Patriarch was released and resumed his duty until his death in 1167 AD
A timely death – as he probably missed the last stretch of the transition – the one that saw the bilbais massacre and the flooding of the slave market – where things truly hit bottom for his flock
We are told that at his death bed, he asked for a group of the notable civil officials in Cairo to come to him -
There – a certain Abu’l-farg ibn abu As’ad – nicknamed as Ibn Zara’ah – as it was claimed that he was the great nephew of Ibraham Ibn Zara’ah –recommended that the Patriarch takes a certain medicine
To which, John responded too – quote “O our father, I have used it” – Now, the patriarch calling a random visitor – our father was noted by those present
And when he died – it was understood as a prophesy or even a conscious assigning of an heir
And it made sense, as Abu’l Farag – despite being a layman was pious, generous, and in the mold of Gabriel – a well-liked, well-educated man of letters
He was as good of a candidate as they come
So, like Gabriel before him – Abu’l Farag was ordained by elite of Cairo basically on their own – without consulting the monks, without most of the bishops, and definitely without anyone in Alexandria
At his elevation, he was given the name Mark – The 72nd Pope of our journey for those keeping track
Despite the unusual election, Mark seemed to have a good reputation and was accepted readily by everyone
Helped by the tragedies that were going on when he started – where massacres and worse were going on daily –
So, most were just happy just to have survived another day and definitely not in any state to fight over the election of a Patriarch who is spoken highly of by almost everybody
And Mark got to work as best as he could – with the constraints of the civil war that were going on
His first break came when the Franks v. Shirku v. Shawar war finally ended and Shirku took power as the vizier
A very short break – as within a month – hoping to win over the mob elements of Cairo and the imams – Shirku started enforcing bits and pieces of dhimmitude ordering that Christians and Jews start adhering to the special dress code
When he died – and Salah el din took over, it was a very precarious transition that we will get to next week
But – the gist of it is. Salah El Din was standing in shaky ground and grasped at anything and anyone to give him legitimacy and advice
One of these things was a respected chief sunni judge named al-Khabushani – whose words carried a lot of weight on the streets and with the imams
He, as you would expect –counselled strict enforcement of dhimmitude and getting rid of Shia’ rule –
We will get to the Shi’a part next week
As for dhimmitude, well to appeal to that base and to present an image of a righteous and pious ruler – one of the first things that Salah el Din did was to take the bits and pieces of dhimmitude the Shirku started and run with them
And unlike most politicians – Salah El Din, as we will see - once he decided to do something. He did it well, executing on a very high level
Rather than just send a letter or two to his lieutants asking them to do it and move on. He made sure that what he wanted is done.
So, by year 2 of the Patriarch Mark’s reign, the government started enforcing very specific measures targeting the Christians in Egypt as follow
One, no visible crosses are allowed in any of the churches domes and no church bells are to be rung
Two, the exterior of a church must be plastered with mud
Three, the Christians should alter their style of dress that they might be distinguished from the Muslims, and that they should not ride horses or mules
Four, they should not be seen drinking wine, and (that) they should lower their voices in their prayers and not have any public processions
These measures while mostly symbolic in nature, with essentially – no serious harm came with a couple of things that did do the serious harm
First, Salah El din enforced pretty strictly that no Christian could be a head of a diwan, or essentially a high-ranking government employee
This hit the economic well-being of the most well-to Copts and a wave of conversion among this class took place
As the history of the Patriarchs puts it – quote “a company of the Cairene scribes left their religion and denied their Christ”
The second – the mob was emboldened, and took matter into their own hand when a church happened to be not plastered with mud or a Christian deciding that he will ride a horse
And so, the measures were accompanied with waves of church destruction and looting as well as random lynching of individuals
We don’t know exactly know when enforcement eased up – but by July 1171 AD, two years into his reign as vizier – the Caliph died or was poisoned and Salah el din essentially managed to consolidate his rule pretty effectively, transforming into the Sultan of Egypt where the ground was a lot less shaky
So my educated guess would be a couple of years.
An epilogue to a chaotic period of transition that was forgotten quickly as the prosperity and the stability of the rest of his reign took hold
Which makes sense – as the Coptic sources of this period barely mentions the episode and speaks of Salah el din in exalted terms as a good and a righteous ruler
One who quote “caused them (i.e, the Christians) to draw nigh, and he favoured them, and he employed them in his diwan in the finances of his State and he was gracious towards them. And they returned to a higher (state) than they had had before. And they rode on horses and mules”
As for the rest of the reign of Mark Ibn Zar’a – well, it was a very busy reign where he rebuild and renovated a lot of churches of monasteries
Where once the Coptic civil elite class had proven itself indispensable to the smooth functioning of the Ayyubid state,
They alongside Mark, who was one of were able to financially support the restoring and rebuilding of churches.
In addition, Mark’s reign saw a certain fascinating priest, who essentially personifies an important transition from – a church struggling to find its theological footing with the linguistic and social challenges of the late Fatimid period
To one where – its theology and liturgical practices are now firmly rooted in Arabic. With its elite, again going back to writing complex theological and linguistic tracks within a larger Ayybud empire.
This priest was a certain Marqus Ibn Al Qunbur. A blind monk who became a wondering priest in the hayday of the civil wars of the early 1160’s AD
There – going from town in town – in what seemed like the apocalypse, he made a career in public preaching and gathered a large following of folks who considered him to a be a holy man
Helped by the fact that he did all the preaching and praying in Arabic, where other priests were still sticking to the cryptic Coptic
As Mark Swanson put it, he was quote “a charismatic figure who laid out for his followers a clear path to salvation”
That path and the subject of his preaching was three things
All Christians must confess their sins to a priest regularly
They must – weekly if possible, receive communion
And lastly – they should have a spiritual father – a confessor
Now – if you never heard of Marqus and know the common day practices of the Coptic church – well, these three things seem pretty standard and innocent. Definitely, not revolutionary in any sort of way
Well – not so in his time.
Marqus was an extremely controversial figure and his sermons were revolutionary
This is not a theology Podcast – so I am not going to go into the nuances of Christian confession and all package that come with that. It’s a bit of a minefield
I am also going to go ahead and skip the topic of how often communion should be.
For us, what matters is– by Marqus’ time. Confession was long abandoned as a sacrament by the Coptic church
Yeb – people were not doing auricular confessions at all. I.E confessing privately to a priest.
And the Church, actively discouraged the practice
Well – the reasons are not clear.
It could be that it just has fallen by the wayside as the Copts knowledge of their faith decreased to dangerous levels
Another theory, that there was a conscious decision to eliminate it as simony spread and there were too many instances of priests taking personal advantage of their people's confessions
And the last theory, perhaps the most controversial, is that it was never meant to be a sacrament for everybody, but something reserved only for the monks
Like I said though, I am not going to into it.
The point is Marqus said it should be done – and no one in the Coptic hierarchy thought it was a good idea
As things stabilized late in Mark’s reign, he decided to finally deal with the issue
After talking with Marqus and going nowhere, since the ancient Christian texts kind, sort of supports the priest position
The patriarch held a synod, where Maqus wasn’t quite excommunicated – since again, Mark and probably most bishops knew that he wasn’t really wrong
Rather – he was just forbidden to preach
A directive that Marqus basically ignored and continued doing his own thing
As Mark continued to pressure him though, Marqus basically stopped trying to change things and went over the Melkite church. Which was still alive, if somewhat anemic by this point
That change didn’t last though. Marqus the blind priest was a polarizing figure and the Melkite patriarchy didn’t like him as well
He tried going back to the Coptic Church, but was refused – so, he self-exiled himself to a melkite monastery where he eventually died.
Now – what about his ideas you ask? Well – hold that thought. We will go back to them when we get to the Patriarch Cyril Ibn Laqlaq – alluded to last week in the interview.
Right now, what I want to emphasize – that the Patriarch Mark, with the support of a whole Synod -basically were unable to articulate a solid position on something as basic as confession
And he –by all accounts, was a man of letters and by no means alone in opposing Marqus.
In addition to the Patriarch, Marqus earned a particular tough theological opponent. A certain bishop named Mikhail, metropolitan of Damietta - A canon lawyer
He, perhaps unwisely in the historical sense, put down in writing his opinions in opposing Marqus and didn’t mince words
In addition to insisting on confessing to God’s alone and not a priest, Mik’ihil also parsed anything Marqus wrote and dissected all of his mistakes
Which for the record – from what Marqus left in writing – shows him as you would expect. A simple priest with a gift of public speaking, but shallow theological understanding – So he got a lot of stuff wrong
So – like I said earlier – this here was church struggling to find its theological footing with a lot of linguistic and social challenges – On their way to a comfortable ground expressing itself in Arabic, but not quite there yet.
As Mark Swanson puts it, summing up the saga of Ibn al-Qunbur
“The confrontation of Marqus ibn al-Qunbar and Mikha'il al-Dumyati does not appear to be a high point in the history of Coptic theology. Marqus was an idiosyncratic and sometimes theologically careless teacher who had one very important idea for the reform of the Church of his day; Mikha'il was a loyal Coptic Orthodox bishop who saw much of what was careless about Marqus s teaching, but who also doggedly defended current practice against Marqus's best idea for reform. Perhaps their encounter represents the last gasps of tired theology at the end of a gloomy century for the Copts”
The remarkable thing is though – how the story goes from there. How a new generation of Coptic scholars writing in Arabic will emerge – putting a solid foundation of the Coptic church in Arabic – that persists to this day.
Thank you for listening, farewell, and until next time!
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