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  • Hello, and welcome to the history of the Copts. Episode 23. Jews, Monks, and Pagans.
  • Last time in the narrative we stopped with the death of Pope Theophilus in 412 AD, and started the introduction of his nephew and future successor, Pope Cyril
  • Pope Cyril was born around 378 AD somewhere in the Delta, The son of Pope Theophilus’ sister and an otherwise unknown man, this was the same sister who according to John of Nikou account accompanied Theophilus as a boy when they were introduced to St. Athanasius
  • As alluded to in the last narrative episode, he was marked from early age to follow Pope Theophilus, spending 5 years in desert with the monks and receiving an elite Greek education in Alexandria
  • By 412 AD when Pope Theophilus died, Cyril was around 34 or 35 – Which is just old enough, being older than the minimum canonical age of 30
  • So for a moment it seemed that he had everything on his side for a seamless transition being an energetic intelligent young man with a solid education and sufficient administrative experience as he was his uncle secretary and assistant
  • Surprisingly though, he had some serious opposition to his elevation to replace his uncle
  • You see, Pope Theophilus have gotten too powerful. A “New Pharaoh” as one historian called him
  • Under him, Egypt has essentially become a thoroughly Christian land and he was completely in charge of the Christian religious establishment and thus, the whole land
  • Independent elements of monasticism that could have served as means of checks and balances such as the Tall brothers have been pushed out, leaving what is left, a loyal body ready to follow the bishop of Alexandria to whatever ends
  • Not to mention, many of the Egyptian elite and aristocrats such as Bishop Synesius from Cyrene have been incorporated into the hierarchy of the Church and much of the former wealth of those aristocrats and that of the pagan temples have been transferred to the Church
  • Thus, the prefect of Alexandria if he wished to hold any sort of resemblance of actual power couldn’t let things continue in this way
  • The more power the bishop of Alexandria accumulates, the less the byzantine governor of Egypt has to work with
  • Ideally, from his perspective, he would support a different candidate than Theophilus’ presumed heir and essentially, checks the independence of that office
  • It is hard to figure out how much the Palace of Constantinople knew or did at this point of history when it came to Egypt, Theodosius the second was only around 13 at this time, and various factions in the Palace pursued different policies
  • My feelings is, so long as the grain shipment came on time, who was actually in charge of Egypt mattered very little to the palace eunuchs
  • Anyway, when the elections of the next Pope came to be, the Archdeacon of Alexandria, a man named Timothy was put against Cyril with the support of the Prefect
  • Troops and violence were used to influence the election and elect Timothy, but at the end, after three days of riots, Cyril had the unwavering support of the Monks who probably numbered in the thousands at this point and he was elected as the next bishop of Alexandria
  • Now, to be fair, there is an alternative telling of the story where the troops were neutral and were used to keep the peace between two violent factions or were even used to support Cyril over Timothy
  • But, as we will see shortly, it is clear that the Prefect of Alexandria and Pope Cyril didn’t get along and it would make perfect sense if the Perfect intervened to elect a rival, thus I am leaning toward the troops being used to support Timothy’s bid
  • Also, in addition to monastic support, Pope Cyril was likely supported by an interesting group that essentially served as the private militia of the bishop of Alexandria
  • That group, officially the guild of the Hospital transporters, was started as brotherhood of men to take care of the sick and the dying but by the time of Pope Cyril’s they have been essentially transformed into a militia ready to enforce the bishop’s will
  • Given that Pope Cyril was their benefactor’s presumed heir, they likely supported him
  • They are vital in the story as the they tipped the balance of power in Alexandria –
  • You see, where before, if the bishop of Alexandria wished to confiscate a pagan temple or a heretical church, they needed the imperial troops and the Prefect cooperation
  • Now, the Guild of Hospital transporters replaced those imperial troops, and the cooperation of the Prefect was more or less optional
  • I will talk more about the nuances of the byzantine administration on the next special episode, but for now, if it wasn’t clear. The Prefect of Alexandria was an appointed governor from Constantinople, in theory, in charge of Egypt
  • Anyway, instead of a seamless transition where everyone was on board, Pope Cyril ascension to the throne of St. Mark was a violent contested event and as a consequence Pope Cyril felt an immediate need to get everyone on the same page
  • And what better way to rally support than going after a bunch of people that no one liked? in 5th century Egypt, those fringe groups were Christian heretics, Intellectual pagans, and Jews
  • It is really a neat political trick – If you ever are in charge of anything, and want to consolidate your powerbase, find a bunch of people no one likes and get everyone on the same page by targeting them – a little Machiavellian, but usually works to get some internal unity going
  • In a long time from now, the Mamluks of Egypt will employ the same strategy – But this time, the bunch of people that no one liked would be the Copts
  • Anyway, I digress, Pope Cyril early reign will be marked by heightened conflicts with these groups with the intention to further consolidate his powerbase
  • His first target was the Nova-(sh)tia-nists, a minor Christian cult started by a long-dead Roman papal candidate             
  • His first action was to confiscate the churches of the cult and expel them from Alexandria
  • The novatianists were a sect that was established on the basis of rejecting the readmission of Christians who denied their faith under persecution, similar to the Meletians of upper Egypt
  • They were for the most part harmless in Egypt with little support, but they had some political clout in Constantinople and thus were left to be and were not declared as official heretics under Theodosius the first heresy edicts
  • Nonetheless, the cult’s adherents in Egypt didn’t consider the bishop of Alexandria as their head and had their own bishop, and thus, as far the church hierarchy in Alexandria was concerned, they were heretics
  • Now, it is clear, from the primary source of this period, Socrates, a lawyer living in Constantinople that the targeting of the Novashnists was completely driven by Pope Cyril, rather than the Emperor or the Prefect
  • Socrates goes on to emphasize how in this action, Pope Cyril have infringed on the authority of the Prefect in the secular affairs of governing
  • To quote him directly “Now Orestes had long hated the power of the Alexandrian bishops, because they had infringed much upon the authority of those appointed by the emperor”
  • Orestes was the Prefect of Alexandria, it is worth remembering his name, as he will stay with us for a bit
  • So, thus far, Orestes have tried to block the ordination of Pope Cyril and failed, and Pope Cyril decided to evict a Christian cult from Alexandria without consulting or taking permission from Orestes
  • The tension between the two men slowly increased
  • Orestes came to rely more and more on intellectual pagans and Jews in his administration of the city with the loyalty of the local Christian being suspect
  • And Pope Cyril came to rely more on the monks and the guild of hospital transporters to enforce his will rather than the troops station in Alexandria
  • Also, his festal letters were increasingly being directed against Jewish beliefs
  • Now, the last time we talked about Jews in Egypt was during the Jewish-Roman wars, where the Jewish population in Egypt was wiped out
  • The Jewish-Roman wars were about 300 years from this period, and the Jewish population, at least in Alexandria, started to recover
  • They were mostly immigrant Syrian Jews who worked as merchants, nothing like the old powerful community of Alexandria that had its own ruling council
  • The tensions between Pope Cyril and Orestes put them back in the spotlight of the politics of Alexandria
  • The Jewish population in Alexandria usually gathered on their Sabbath in the Theatre to enjoy a show on their off day
  • For whatever reason, it seemed that the Christians of the city didn’t attend those shows
  • Either attending different shows altogether or specific theatres was reserved for the Jews
  • Anyway, in one Saturday, Orestes decided to publish an edict directed for the Jewish community attending the Theatre
  • However, in the audience was a Christian primary school teacher, who was known to be one of Pope Cyril biggest fan and a regular attendant of his sermons
  • When his presence was noticed, the Jews accused him of being a spy and Orestes arrested him and tortured him to see why he was there
  • Now, when Pope Cyril found out, he was furious, and he summoned the leading Jews of the City and threatened them if that sort of thing ever happened again, he will kick them out of Alexandria as he did to the Novashians
  • The Jews, perhaps confident of the Prefect support, set up a trap one night by making a commotion and yelling that a church is on fire
  • And when a bunch of Christians ran out to save the church, they were ambushed and killed
  • Pope Cyril, then, true to his word, gathered his militia and as many monks and Christians as he can find and went to the Jewish quarter of the city intending to kick them out of Alexandria
  • He confiscated the Synagogues and the Jews were driven out from the city, with their houses plundered by the mob
  • In the words of John of Nikiu, another primary source for the period, “and Orestes, the Prefect was unable to render them any help”
  • The Jews of Alexandria were the first victim of the power struggle between Pope Cyril and Orestes – They wouldn’t be the last
  • Orestes submitted a report to Constantinople complaining about Pope Cyril, and so did Pope Cyril, with his own version of events
  • Constantinople was silent though and the two men realized that they are on their own
  • Pope Cyril acted first, arranging a meeting with Orestes for reconciliation, the meeting ended with Pope Cyril extending the bible for Orestes to kiss it
  • This was a masterful move – If Orestes refused, well, what kind of Christian would he be? His refusal to kiss the bible would surely earn him the scorn of the monks
  • If he did, then not only he symbolically accepted Pope Cyril authority over him – He is – essentially -- publicly bowing down to Pope Cyril by leaning down to kiss the bible
  • Orestes staying consistent refused, and the negotiations broke down
  • Naturally, with the word gone out that the governor is in conflict with the bishop of Alexandria and have refused to kiss the bible, 500 zealous monks came from Nitria to quote Socrates again “fight on behalf of Cyril”
  • They found Orestes in his Chariot and started to shout out abuse toward him accusing him of being a pagan
  • Orestes tried to tell them that he was baptized by none other than the bishop of Constantinople, but they wouldn’t hear it
  • Eventually, one of them, a monk named Ammonius, threw a stone, and unfortunately for him it his Orestes right in the face, leaving him shaken and covered with blood
  • The monk was then arrested and put under severe torture until he died from it
  • Ammonius – ended up being the second victim of the power struggle in Alexandria, again, he wouldn’t be the last
  • Both sides then again appealed to Constantinople to remove the other, but no responses were forthcoming
  • Pope Cyril then got Ammonius’s body and displaying in the church, he attempted to declare him a martyr
  • And that’s when the more moderate elements of the Church finally made an appearance and pushed back on Pope Cyril’s demands to honor Ammonius as a martyr
  • They stood on solid theological grounds, as Ammonius didn’t die as a result of dying Christ, but as a result of assaulting the governor
  • Pope Cyril backed down, perhaps realizing that pushing the issue further would do more harm than good as he risked losing influential Christians in the city
  • To complicate matters, once the extremist elements of the Church were unleashed. Pope Cyril, quickly realized that he can’t really control them and they pursued their own agenda with actions that threatened his own position
  • This was clearly highlighted with the events that associated the death of a pagan philosopher named Hypatia
  • Hypatia was in a leading role in the administration of Orestes as a pagan intellectual
  • She wasn’t a low-key pagan and was well-known in Alexandria
  • Highly-educated philosopher, teacher, and a public figure of the city. Her students included bishops, such as Synesius of Cyrene, palace officials, and influential figures all over Alexandria
  • Everyone knew who she was, and she carried herself with certain flair and Charisma.
  • On top of all that, she was a powerful woman, a sight not welcomed by the 5th century patriarchal, male-dominated society  
  • Thus, she was a symbol of all what is wrong in the world for the extreme elements of the church that have grown powerful under Pope Cyril early administration
  • A Christian mob led by a man named Peter attacked Hypatia as she was being driven in her carriage
  • And the mob then to quote Socarates directly - “dragged her from her carriage, and carried her to the church called Csesareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with shells. After tearing her body in pieces they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them. An act so inhuman that it could not fail to bring the greatest scorn, not only upon Cyril, but also upon the whole Alexandrian Church.”
  • It was one of the ugliest events in the History of the Copts and shook the whole greeko-Roman world at the time
  • The murder of Hypatia took place in March of 415 AD, three years into Pope Cyril reign and finally jolted Constantinople into actions
  • An edict was published reprimanding Pope Cyril for exceeding his authority and it took away the control of the guild of Hospital transporters from him and gave it to the Prefect
  • Additionally, there number was limited to 500 persons
  • Pope Cyril then further pulled back from his struggle with the Prefect and seem to have concentrated on strictly the Church affairs
  • Now, to be clear, most historians agree that Pope Cyril didn’t have much to do with the actual murder of Hypatia
  • While Peter, the leader of the mob was a reader in a Church – Which is a significant rank in the church hierarchy,
  • As mentioned before, it seems that once the militant elements of the church was unleashed, there was no restraining them back
  • To quote Stephen J Davis, from his book “The Early Coptic Papacy” – “While, Cyril may have been culpable for cultivating an atmosphere of unrest and religious intolerance among the Alexandrian Christian populace, there is no direct or reliable evidence that he ordered a mafia-style "hit" on Hypatia”
  • Further, before the year was over, when things calmed down a bit, the guild of hospital transporters control was given back to Pope Cyril’s and their number increased to 600
  • Which would have never happened if the local administration and Palace in Constantinople considered him personally responsible
  • The return of the guild to Pope Cyril control may as well be indicative of reconciliation with the Prefect
  • Anyway, for the next 14 years or so, we don’t hear much about Pope Cyril the politician, but Pope Cyril the Theologian comes to life and with his pen and eloquence he repairs much of the damage his reputation incurred in the earlier years of reign
  • One issue he had to deal with is the legacy of John Chrysostom, who technically was still excommunicated in Egypt but celebrated in the East and in Rome
  • Initially, Pope Cyril refused readmitting John Chrysostom, but through pressure from an influential Egyptian bishop and a mentor to Cyril, Isidore of Pelusium and a desire to normalize relationship with Rome, for reasons that we will get to next week – John Chrysostom was readmitted and he was to be remembered as a saint
  • There is a nice tradition in the Eastern Orthodox churches of how Pope Cyril’s in a dream saw a wondrous temple in which St. Mary was surrounded by angels and saints, one of whom was John Chrysostom
  • When Pope Cyril decided to approach St. Mary, he was prevented by John Chrysostom
  • Mary then asked John to forgive Cyril as he has labored much for her sake
  • To which, John dutifully did and they hugged and were reconciled
  • In those calm years, before a huge theological controversy breaks out in 428 AD, Pope Cyril composed several masterful theological works such as a commentary on the book of Isiah and a Commentary on the gospel of St. John
  • In his theological writing, he had found his niche, and quickly he became the most notable theologian of the Grecko-Roman world
  • He kept taps on other bishops and quickly reached out to them when they committed a theological error
  • As a well-respected theologian and a scholar – a reputation built on the back of a decade of scholarship and at least 7 books of deep theological thought , his outreach was usually respected and responded to in a diplomatic way
  • It was all good and well until what initially seemed like a minor theological issue of what should be the title of St. Mary brought Constantinople and Alexandria into serious conflict
  • The Nestorian controversy as it came to be known would take center stage next week, as well as the legacy of Pope Cyril as the height of theological Christian thought in the Eastern world
  • I suspect there will be lots of theology in next week episode – So we have that to look forward to
  • Farewell, and until next week.

References


  • The Early Coptic Papacy: The Egyptian Church and Its Leadership in Late Antiquity by" Stephen J. Davis
  • The History of the Patriarchs by" multiple
  • The Coptic Encyclopedia by" Aziz S. Atiya (editor)
  • The Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu by" John, Bishop of Nikiu
  • The Story of the Church of Egypt by" E. L. Butcher
  • Socrates, Sozomenus: Church Histories by" Philip Schaff (Author), Henry Wace (Editor)
  • Cyril of Alexandria. Norman Russell by" Norman Russell
  • Cyril of Alexandria and the Nestorian controversy: The making of a Saint and of a Heretic by" Susan Wessel
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