Coptic identity

Copts have a long history as a significant Christian minority in Egypt, in which Muslim adherents form the majority. Coptic Christians lost their majority status in Egypt after the 14th century and the spread of Islam in the entirety of North Africa.

The question of Coptic identity was never raised before the rise of pan-Arabism under Nasser in the early 1950s. Copts viewed themselves as only Coptic Christians without any Arabic identity sentiment that gather 22 Arabic speaking countries.[1] With the rise of pan-Arabism and wars in the region, many Egyptians accepted an Arab identity, but this shift in identity was less prevalent among Copts than among Muslims. Thus, the emergence of Pan-Arabism served to exacerbate the ethnic and religious difference between Coptic Christians and Muslims in Egypt. Persecution is pivotal to Copts' sense of identity.[2]

Studies have showed the ancient Egyptians to be genetically intermediary between the populations of Southern Europe and Nubia (two frequently-used reference points).[3] A study of Coptic immigrants from Egypt indicated that they have common ancestry with populations in Egypt, as well as also sharing common ancestry with populations of the southern Levant and Saudi Arabia.[4]

Copts as EgyptiansEdit

In Greco-Roman Egypt, the term Copt designated the local population of Egypt, as opposed to the elite group of foreign rulers and settlers (Greeks, Romans, etc.) who came to Egypt from other regions and established prominent empires.

The word Copt was then adopted in English in the 17th century, from New Latin Coptus, Cophtus, which is derived from Arabic collective qubṭ, qibṭ قبط "the Copts" with nisba adjective qubṭī, qibṭī قبطي, plural aqbāṭ أقباط; Also quftī, qiftī, Arabic /f/ representing historical Coptic /p/. an Arabisation of the Coptic word kubti (Bohairic) and/or kuptaion (Sahidic). The Coptic word is in turn an adaptation of the Greek Αἰγύπτιος "Egyptian".

After the Muslim conquest of Egypt, the term Copt became restricted to those Egyptians who remained adhering to the Christian religion.[5]

In their own Coptic language, which represents the final stage of the Egyptian language, the Copts referred to themselves as rem en kēme (Sahidic) ⲣⲙⲛⲕⲏⲙⲉ, lem en kēmi (Fayyumic), rem en khēmi (Bohairic) ⲣⲉⲙ̀ⲛⲭⲏⲙⲓ, which literally means "people of Egypt" or "Egyptians"; cf. Egyptian rmṯ n kmt, Demotic rmt n kmỉ.

Copts take particular pride in their Egyptian identity. Over the centuries, they have always rejected and fought against other identities that foreign rulers attempted to force upon them, stressing their own Egyptian identity.[6] While an integral part of their society, Copts remained culturally and religiously distinct from their surroundings.

Egyptian Liberal AgeEdit

Egypt's struggle for independence from both the Ottoman Empire and Britain was marked by secular Egyptian nationalism, also referred to as Pharaonism. When the Egyptian nationalist leader Saad Zaghlul met the Arab delegates at Versailles in 1918, he insisted that their struggles for statehood were not connected, stressing that the problem of Egypt was an Egyptian problem and not an Arab one.[7] Egyptian nationalism rose to prominence in the 1920s and 1930s. It looked to Egypt's pre-Islamic past and argued that Egypt was part of a larger Mediterranean civilization. This ideology stressed the role of the Nile River and the Mediterranean Sea. It became the dominant mode of expression of Egyptian anti-colonial activists of the pre- and inter-war periods. There was no place for an Arab component in the Egyptian personality at that time, and Egyptians had no Arab orientation as they saw themselves as Egyptians first and foremost, regardless of religion.[8] Foreigners visiting Egypt noted that Egyptians did not possess any Arab sentiment in the first half of the 20th century. As one Arab nationalist of the time put it "Egyptians did not accept that Egypt was a part of the Arab lands, and would not acknowledge that the Egyptian people were part of the Arab nation."[9]

Rise of Arab nationalismEdit

Arab nationalism began to gain grounds in Egypt in the 1940s following efforts by Syrian, Palestinian and Lebanese intellectuals.[10] Nevertheless, by the end of the 1940s and even after the establishment of the Arab League, historian H. S. Deighton was still writing that "Egyptians are not Arabs, and both they and the Arabs are aware of this fact".[1]

It was not until the Nasser era starting in the 1950s – more than a decade later – that Arab nationalism, and by extension Arab socialism, became a state policy imposed on the Egyptians by the new dictatorship. Under Nasser, Egypt united with Syria to form the United Arab Republic in 1958, then became known as the Arab Republic of Egypt in 1961. The Egyptians' attachment to Arabism, however, was particularly questioned after the 1967 Six-Day War. Thousands of Egyptians had lost their lives and the country became disillusioned with Arab politics.[11] Nasser's successor Sadat, both through public policy and his peace initiative with Israel, revived an uncontested Egyptian orientation, unequivocally asserting that only Egypt and Egyptians were his responsibility. The terms "Arab", "Arabism" and "Arab unity", save for the new official name, became conspicuously absent.[12] (See also Egyptian Liberal age and Egyptian Republic.)

Copts and Arab identityEdit

While some non-Coptic authors claim that Copts in Egypt have an Arab identity while Copts in the West tend to identify as "non-Arab",[13][14] other non-Coptic scholars disagree, stating that "Copts are not Arabs" and that they predate the Arabs' arrival to Egypt [15][16]

Additionally, almost all statements issued by Copts decry Arab nationalism. With their strong attachment to their own country, Copts have been always suspicious of Arabism, Arab socialism and pan-Arabism. They viewed Arabs as invaders and foreigners, and glorified the struggles of their ancestors against the Arab invaders between the 7th and the 9th centuries AD. Indubitably, the struggle against these foreign ideologies centered around the Coptic language:

The Coptic language provides a Copt with an identity that spells out an impressive commentary upon the character of such person. It exemplifies in him an unyielding spirit that was tried and came out victorious. A spirit that had to endure endless attempts by those that ruled Egypt for the past 2300 years to replace such language with that of their own. If such was achieved then they can subject the Copts to cultural and religious slavery that would forever made them subservient to such foreign rulers. It was attempted first by the Greeks, through their Hellenizing approach. Then it was continued along the same principles by the successive Arab and Muslim dynasties that ruled Egypt since the 7th century AD. The significance of such character can also inspire the Coptic youth to fight off the many harmful pressures, whether in spirit or in body, that are facing them in this turbulent Society of ours.[17]

In addition, some Copts resisted Arab nationalism by stressing their pre-Arab identity. They saw themselves as the direct descendants of the Ancient Egyptians, and their language as a bridge linking the Copts to their Ancient Egyptian roots and their civilization that span over 6000 years.[17]

The strongest statement regarding Coptic identity came in 2008 from a prominent Coptic bishop, namely Bishop Thomas of Cusae and Meir, who gave the following speech at the Hudson Institute:

What makes a person change the identity of his own nation and shift the focus of his identity from Egypt to become "the Arabs", even though ethnically he/she is the same person? The Copts have been always focused on Egypt; it's our identity, it's our nation, it's our land, it's our language, it's our culture. But when some of the Egyptians converted to Islam, their focus changed away from looking to their own [language and culture]. They started to look to the Arabians, and Arabia became their main focus. So the focus here has changed and they would no longer be called "Copts". If you come to a Coptic person and tell him that he's an Arab, that's offensive. We are not Arabs, we are Egyptians. I am very happy to be an Egyptian and I would not accept being "Arab" because ethnically I am not. I speak Arabic. Politically now, I am part of a country that was Arabized and politically I belong to an Arabic country but that doesn't make a person Arab. If a person believes he is an Arab, his main focus is the pan-Arab area, and he no longer belongs to the Egyptian nation. You are either in or out; either you belong or you don't. And this is a big dilemma that is happening for the Copts who kept their Christianity, or rather their identity as Egyptians with their own culture, and who are trying to keep the language, the music, and the calendar of the Copts. That means that the culture of Ancient Egypt is still carried on. A process of Arabization has been ongoing in this country for many centuries, since the 7th century. At the same time Islamization as well is a dilemma that started and is still carrying a lot of the problems. [...] So when we hear the word "Copt", that doesn't only mean "Christian", it means "Egyptian".

What makes an Egyptian become a Copt, and an Egyptian not become a Copt? Simply, this is the shift that has happened in Egypt since the Arab invasion of Egypt. Today when you look at a Copt, you don't see only a Christian, but you see an Egyptian who is trying to keep his identity versus another imported identity that is working on him. And that means if these two processes are still actively working till now, it has never stopped because Egypt has not yet in its own mind become completely Islamized or Arabized. That means the process [of Arabization] is still ongoing... You can't study the Coptic language, the native language of the land, in any public school in Egypt. That's not allowed, although we can teach in our public schools any other language. You have a lot of schools that teach English, French, German, Spanish and Greek, but never Coptic. Why? Because that clashes with the process of Arabization. And this is a very dangerous attitude. The cultural heritage of Egypt has been taken away. [Thus], the Copts suddenly felt that they have a responsibility to carry on their own culture and continue it and to fight for it. Yes, we are still fighting very much for our strong heritage of Egypt because we love our heritage and we want to keep it. And that means that if you try to teach your language in a public school, that would not be the right way to do it, so that means that the Church will carry the responsibility to take in this heritage and work with it, keeping it in a very good nursery till the time would come when openness and good thinking would occur, when this country will come back to its own roots and lift it up. But, until then we have to keep it in a nursery, in a church. We don't want to keep it in, we don't want to isolate it, but we cannot throw it away so nobody will take care of it. That's why we keep it. This is not withdrawal. We could say that this is keeping the heritage in a nursery till the time comes when it will be open and serve the entire Egyptian community. So the word "Copt" here is not only religious, but it has cultural import.[18]

Bishop Thomas' words gained widespread approval within the Coptic community. One other Coptic bishop, namely Bishop Picenti of Helwan and Massarah commented on the issue saying:

If one reconsiders Bishop Thomas' words, they can discover that he was not wrong. He said that Copts of Egypt are not of Arab origin but rather of Pharaonic origin, and this is correct because it is the truth and history. We are Coptic Egyptians. We are Pharaonic Copts. Coptic meaning ancient Egyptian who then converted to christianity. Copt, is essentially another term for Coptic christians.[19]

Other prominent Coptic figures who supported Bishop Thomas' statement included the Coptic writer Magdy Khalil who wrote in el-Dostoor newspaper:

We [the Copts] are Egyptians, and we are not Arabs, with all due respect to the Arabs. We may live in some sort of cultural Arabism and we may speak Arabic, but we are not Arabs. This is a historical fact, whether some people like it or not. Copts both within Egypt and in the diaspora are insulted and accused because they insist on holding strongly to and taking pride in their national Egyptian identity, rather than having another identity that crosses the borders [of Egypt]. The Copts focus their identity on Egypt's geographical borders, which are deeply rooted in history. [20]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Deighton, H. S. "The Arab Middle East and the Modern World", International Affairs, vol. xxii, no. 4 (October 1946), p. 519.
  2. ^ Deighton, H. S. "The Arab Middle East and the Modern World", International Affairs, vol. xxii, no. 4 (October 1946)
  3. ^ Klales, A. R. (2014). "Computed Tomography Analysis and Reconstruction of Ancient Egyptians Originating from the Akhmim Region of Egypt: A Biocultural Perspective". MA Thesis. University of Manitoba. [1] Archived 2017-03-11 at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ Dobon, Begoña; Hassan, Hisham Y.; Laayouni, Hafid; Luisi, Pierre; Ricaño-Ponce, Isis; Zhernakova, Alexandra; Wijmenga, Cisca; Tahir, Hanan; Comas, David; Netea, Mihai G.; Bertranpetit, Jaume (2015). "The genetics of East African populations: A Nilo-Saharan component in the African genetic landscape". Scientific Reports. 5: 9996. Bibcode:2015NatSR...5E9996D. doi:10.1038/srep09996. PMC 4446898. PMID 26017457.
  5. ^ "The people of Egypt before the Arab conquest in the 7th century identified themselves and their language in Greek as Aigyptios (Arabic qibt, Westernized as Copt); when Egyptian Muslims later ceased to call themselves Aigyptioi, the term became the distinctive name of the Christian minority." Coptic Orthodox Church. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 2007
  6. ^ Werthmuller, Kurt J. Coptic Identity and Ayyubid Politics in Egypt 1218–1250. American University in Cairo Press. 2009
  7. ^ Makropoulou, Ifigenia. Pan – Arabism: What Destroyed the Ideology of Arab Nationalism? Hellenic Center for European Studies. January 15, 2007. Archived October 2, 2018, at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ Jankowski, James. "Egypt and Early Arab Nationalism" in Rashid Khalidi, ed. The Origins of Arab Nationalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990, pp. 244–45
  9. ^ Syrian Arab nationalist Sati' al-Husri qtd in Dawisha, Adeed. Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century. Princeton University Press. 2003, p. 99
  10. ^ Jankowski, "Egypt and Early Arab Nationalism," p. 246
  11. ^ Dawisha, p. 237
  12. ^ Dawisha, pp. 264–65, 267
  13. ^ Abraham, Nabeel; Shryock, Andrew (2000). Arab Detroit: from margin to mainstream (Illustrated ed.). Wayne State University Press. p. 9. ISBN 978-0-8143-2812-5.
  14. ^ Randall P. Henderson (April 2005). "The Egyptian Coptic Christians: the conflict between identity and equality". Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations. 16 (2): 155–166. doi:10.1080/09596410500059664. S2CID 143826025.
  15. ^ Prof. Constantine Gutzman, Chair of the Department of History at Western Connecticut State University: "Copts are not Arabs. Rather, they are the people who lived in Egypt before the Arabs arrived. The pharaohs were Copts, as were St. Athanasius and St. Anthony."
  16. ^ Washington Post: Copts are not Arabs. January 4, 1994
  17. ^ a b Takla, Hany. The Value of Coptic, The Ecclesiastical and Coptic Principles. Saint Shenouda the Archimandrite Society for Coptic Studies. 02/10/1996
  18. ^ Bishop Thomas of Cusae and Meir. Egypt's Coptic Christians: The Experience of the Middle East's largest Christian community during a time of rising Islamization. July 18, 2008
  19. ^ Ranya Badawi. An interview with Bishop Pecenti of Helwan and Massarah. El-Masry El-Yom Newspaper. November 11, 2009
  20. ^ Khalil, Magdy. Copts are truly facing a problem of Islamization, and what Bishop Thomas said was said before by many Egyptian intellectuals. In el-Dostoor newspaper. 08/17/2008 Archived 2009-02-20 at the Wayback Machine