YOUR CHRISTIAN HERITAGE
List of contents:
II. Historical overview
1. Christianity in Egypt
2. Christianity in the Levant
III. The Fathers of the Church
1. St. Athanasius the Apostolic
2. St. Cyril the Great of Alexandria
3. St. John the Damascene
4. St. Augustine
5. St. Antony the Great
IV. The Martyrs of the Churrch
1. St. Ignatius, Patriarch of Antioch
2. St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (Tunis)
3. St. Victor (Boqtor)
4. St. Dimyanah
5. St. Febronia, the Ascetic
6. St. George (Girgis), known as el-Mezahem
7. St. Youhanna (John) abu Nagaah el-Kabeer
8. St. Sidhum Bishay of Damietta
V. Ancient churches, monasteries, and Christian art
Inspirationals from the Holy Bible:
“For You, O God, have heard my vows; You have given me the heritage of those who fear Your name” (Psalm 61: 5); “Your testimonies I have taken as a heritage forever, for they are the rejoicing of my heart” (Psalm 119: 111); “In that day there will be an altar to the LORD in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the LORD at its border” (Isaiah 19: 19); “The LORD of hosts shall bless, saying, “Blessed is Egypt My people, and Assyria the work of My hands, and Israel My inheritance” (Isaiah 19: 25); “Out of Egypt I called My Son” (Hosea 11: 1b).
Your self-definition makes it imperative that you discover your Christian roots, which predate the Islamic military invasions of the seventh century. This presentation takes a brief journey into the rich Christian heritage of the Middle East and North Africa. It starts with a brief overview of the history of early Christianity therein. It then highlights the life and contributions of some of the early leading Fathers of the Church who defended the orthodox faith, and some of the local Christian martyrs who lived the faith and gave their lives for it. It then discusses how your ancestors expressed their Christian faith in buildings of ancient churches and monasteries, and in ancient church art.
At the end of this presentation, you will have acquired a basic knowledge of your precious glorious Christian heritage—the heritage of the Christian faith that your ancestors lived, loved, and gave their lives for. You have every right to be proud of that bright heritage.
II. HISTORICAL OVERVIEW
1. Christianity in Egypt
The holy family (Mary, the infant Jesus, and Joseph) fled from the persecution of king Herod the Great to safe refuge in the land of Egypt (Matthew 2: 13-15). They traveled in Egypt as far south as the province of Asiut. They stayed in Egypt for several years before their return to Nazareth in Palestine after the death of king Herod the Great (Matthew 2: 19-23).
The Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt was founded in the first century by St. Mark, one of the disciples of Jesus (Acts 12: 12, 25; 15: 39; 2 Timothy 4: 11). St. Mark is regarded as the first patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church. He planted the Church in Alexandria, where he wrote his gospel—the Gospel of Mark, in the Greek language. After winning many converts to Christianity in several journeys, he was brutally martyred by pagans in the streets of Alexandria in 68 AD.
Christianity spread quickly in the land of Egypt despite severe imperial Roman persecutions in the reign of emperors Septimius Severus (193-211), Decius (249-251), Valerian (252-260), Diocletian (284-305), and Maximinus Daia (305-313) who ordered the killing of the seventeenth Coptic patriarch, Peter I (302-311), who came to be known as “the seal of martyrs.” The barbarous savageries of the persecutions involved maiming, mutilation, blinding, slow diabolical torture, burning alive, and casting out to hungry lions. Finally, the edict of Milan, issued by Emperor Constantine the Great in 313, ended the Roman persecutions. Throughout these brutal persecutions, the Christians of Egypt defended the faith fearlessly, and worshipped, not in concealed catacombs or subterranean hideouts, but openly and invited the crown of martyrdom.
Imperial persecution picked up again after the first major schism in Christendom of 451 AD, the Chalcedonian schism. Local Christians, who rejected the decisions of the fourth ecumenical council of Chalcedon, were considered heretics in the Byzantine Empire. This culminated into a brutal persecution inflicted upon the Christians of Egypt by Cyrus (al-Muqauqus), the last imperial patriarch and Byzantine ruler of Egypt. Throughout his reign of ten years, he subjected Egyptian Christians to flogging, imprisonment, killing, confiscation of property, and torturing to death. This was subsequently followed by the persecutions of the Islamic era.
Despite centuries of persecutions, the Coptic Orthodox Church is still alive in Egypt until this very day in fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 19: 19 (8th century BC): “In that day there will be an altar to the LORD in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the LORD at its border.” The subsistence of Christianity in Egypt under these adverse conditions, is truly one of the most powerful miracles of Christ on earth. The Coptic patriarch Peter VII al-Gauli (1809-1852) explained the cause of its survival to the Russian prince who offered him the protection of the Russian tzar. After refusing that offer, he asked him whether the tzar lived forever. After getting a negative answer, the patriarch told him “you live under the protection of a tzar that dies, but we live under the protection of a king that never dies, Christ the Lord.”
The Christian Church of Egypt (the Coptic Orthodox Church) produced world-wide distinguished Christian leaders and theologians who defended the Orthodox faith tirelessly. St. Athanasius the Apostolic, the twentieth patriarch of Egypt (328-373), fought the Arian heresy. For his staunch defense of the orthodox faith, St. Athanasius suffered exile from his See five times. St. Cyril the Great, the twenty-forth patriarch of the Coptic Church (412-444), refuted the Nestorian heresy. His theology is regarded by Christendom as the key to orthodoxy. At the time of his death, the Coptic Church occupied the position of undisputed leadership in the entire Christian world, and Christianity covered most of the land of Egypt.
Coptic monasticism was the gift of Egypt to Christendom. St. Antony the Great (251-356) defined its first and second stages: eremitic and collective eremitic monasticism. Eremitic monks are monks living in solitude as hermits far apart in the wilderness. Collective eremitic monks are monks living separately but in close proximity to each other in the wilderness. They get together for Sunday worship. St. Pachomius the Great (290-346) introduced communal (cenobitic) monasticism—monks living together in a monastery. He provided the rules and regulations to organize the daily activities and life of the monks in the monastery.
The catechetical school of Alexandria was the first and the most important institution of Christian theology in the early Christian era. It also taught other disciplines of knowledge. Origen (185-254) was one of its most famous scholars and leaders. He is one of the world’s greatest exegetical scholars of all time. As a biblical scholar and philosopher, he authored six thousand books and treatises on biblical exegesis, theology, apologetics, asceticism, prayers, and homiletics. Under his leadership, the school reached the peak of its prominence. Most of the influential leaders of Christianity in Egypt were connected with the school of Alexandria as either teachers or students.
Coptic missionaries propagated the Gospel message to many regions of the world: south to Nubia and Ethiopia, east to the Persian Gulf and India, and north to Switzerland, the British Isles, and Ireland.
2. Christianity in the Levant
The city of Antioch was the most important center of early Christianity in the Levant. The Church of Antioch is one on the most ancient Christian Churches. In fact, it is mentioned a number of times in the book of the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 11: 19-27; 13: 1; 14: 21, 26; 15: 22-23, 30-35; 18: 22). The Apostle Peter was the first bishop of the Church of Antioch. She soon became a stronghold of orthodoxy in early Christianity. The Churches of Syria, Palestine, Cyprus, Persia, and India looked to the Church of Antioch for spiritual leadership.
Important Antiochene theologians include bishop Theophilus (second century), bishop Serapion (199-211), Lucian the theologian (d. 312)—the founder of the great theological school of Antioch, and patriarch Severus (465-538). Important saints include St. Ignatius who was martyred in the reign of emperor Trajan (98-117), St. Ephraem the Syrian (306-373), St. Cyril of Jerusalem (315-386), and St. John Chrysostom (347-407).
In the first three centuries, thousands were martyred from the Church of Antioch, and most of its patriarchs were martyred.
After the death of patriarch Severus (465-538) and until the present day, the See of Antioch has been divided into two lines of succession: the Melkites who accepted the decisions of the ecumenical council of Chalcedon (451), and the Syrian Jacobites who rejected the decisions of that council. The Syrian Church is called the Jacobite Church because St. Jacob the Baradeus (500-578), the metropolitan of Edessa, greatly strengthened the Syrian Church by his extensive tireless travels defending the doctrines of the non-Chalcedonian Churches, and ordaining thousands of priests and tens of bishops. He also consecrated two patriarchs for the Church of Antioch: Sergius of Antioch (542-562), and Paul the black (564-581).
Cenobitic monasticism flourished in the Syrian Church since the fourth century in accordance with the rules of St. Pachomius the Great of Egypt (290-346). Quite a number of monasteries were built. It is believed that St. Simeon the Stylite (389-459) introduced the monastic practice of retiring from the world to complete seclusion on top of a pillar which the hermit erected for himself.
III. THE FATHERS OF THE CHURCH
The Eastern Fathers of the Church helped build the foundations of the Church. Their theological contributions are essential for Christians. They expounded the basics of the Christian faith. They defended it, and fought heretics
The Eastern Fathers lived on the eastern Mediterranean. They came from Alexandria, Antioch, Damascus, Constantinople, and small towns of Asia Minor. Many of them were originally wealthy, and belonged to powerful families. Most of them could have risen to high positions. Instead, they chose to lead lives of austerity, prayer, obedience to Christ, and hardships. They saw in the true almighty God gentleness and strength magnified to infinite dimensions. In their writings, they were devoted to the dignity of man.
The Eastern Fathers were learned men devoted to the sacred truth of the Christian faith. They walked with their heads held high afraid of no man and in love with God in Christ.
1. St. Athanasius the Apostolic (d. 373 AD)
St. Athanasius is one of the heroes of the Christian faith. The Greek (Eastern) Church of antiquity called him “the Father of Orthodoxy.” The Latin (Western) Church counts him among the four great Fathers of the East.
He was born of Egyptian parents in about 293-295 AD. at Alexandria where he received his theological education. He had dealings with the monks of Thebais at an early age. He was ordained deacon by Alexander I, the bishop (Patriarch) of Alexandria in 319, and served shortly afterwards as his secretary.
He accompanied his bishop to the fist ecumenical council of Nicea (a small town now called Isnik in Turkey) in 325, where he refuted the Arian heresy which denied the divinity of Christ. He succeeded the Patriarch Alexander I as the bishop of Alexandria in 328, and occupied the throne of St. Mark for the following 45 years. He is the twentieth Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt.
Although the council of Nicea condemned the Arian heresy and publicly anathematized Arius, its originator, the heresy remained for a long time thereafter. It had a strong influence on the imperial court. Nothing stopped Athanasius from defending the Orthodox Christian faith. He was a hammer wielded by God against heresy. He was one man with God against the world. And he finally triumphed. At least twice he was threatened with assassinations. Five times he was exiled from his Episcopal See spending more than seventeen years in exile. He outlived sixteen Roman emperors. He died on May 2nd, 373, after having altered the direction of history.
Despite his turbulent life, Athanasius produced a great number of literary works. Most of his writings were connected to his struggle for the defense of the Orthodox Christian faith. He produced apologetic and dogmatic writings (Against the Heathen, Discourses against the Arians, and Concerning the Incarnation), historical and polemical writings (Apology against the Arians, Apology for his Flight, Apology to the Emperor Constantius, and History of the Arians), exegetical writings (On the Interpretation of the Psalms, and commentaries on the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Genesis), and ascetical writings (the Life of St. Antony—the first Christian biography, On Virginity, and other ascetical treatises and sermons). In addition, he wrote many letters directed to Christians, bishops and monks including Festal, synodal, encyclical, dogmatic-polemical, and ascetical letters.
2. St. Cyril the Great of Alexandria (d. 444 AD)
He is a nephew of the late Patriarch Theophilus of the Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox Church. He was born in Alexandria. He received his classical and theological education in the famous catechetical school of Alexandria. Afterwards, he lived in the Nitrian desert with the monks in the monastic community of St. Macarius for five years where he received church and Bible education from a learned monk called Serapion, the Abbot of the monastery of St. Makarius. Upon his return to Alexandria, he was ordained a priest. After the death of Patriarch Theophilus, he was elected to succeed him, and became the twenty-forth Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Oct. 412.
He was a tireless defender of the doctrines of the Orthodox Christian faith in general, and in particular, against the Nestorian heresy. That is why he was given the title of “the pillar of the faith.” Nestorius, the bishop of Constantinople, blasphemed Christ by teaching that He is two persons—a divine person dwelling in a human person. Cyril refuted his arguments thoroughly and defended the Orthodox doctrine that the divine and the human natures are united in the one person of Christ without confusion or change of either nature.
The emperor Theodosius II convoked the Third Ecumenical Council in 431 in the city of Ephesus to decide on this controversy. Two hundred bishops participated in the proceedings of that council with Cyril presiding. The council rejected and condemned the Nestorian heretical teachings, and excommunicated Nestorius. As a result of intrigue, Cyril was imprisoned briefly and then allowed to return to Alexandria. He died on June 27, 444 at about 67 years of age. He occupies the second place in the defense of the true doctrines of the Orthodox faith after St. Athanasius.
St. Cyril wrote extensively. Up to the year 428, he wrote exegesis and polemics against the Arians. Thereafter, he concentrated on the refutation of the Nestorian heresy. His writings are characterized by depth of thought, richness of ideas, and precision and clarity of argument. His exegetical works included commentaries on several books of the Old Testament and the New Testament.
He produced many works refuting the Nestorian heresy including Five Tomes against Nestorius (five books), On the True Faith (3 treatises), the Twelve Anathemas against Nestorius and his apologies in their defense, and other apologetic works. In addition, St. Cyril wrote a large apologetic work (30 books) refuting “Against the Galileans” of Julian the Apostate (3 books) of 363. He also generated a large number of letters and sermons.
3. St. John the Damascene (d. 750 AD)
He was born in Damascus in about 676 AD to a wealthy Syrian family. His family’s name was Mansur. His father Sergius was the prime minister in the Umayyad government. He placed his son under the instruction of the Italian monk Cosmas who taught him theology, rhetoric, natural history, music, and astronomy. Afterwards, Cosmas retired to the monastery of St. Saba. This monastery consists of a complex of caves carved high in the rocky cliffs between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. John desired to follow him.
After the sudden death of his father, the Umayyad caliph Abdul-Malek appointed him to the high position of his chief secretary. In 726, emperor Leo III of the Byzantine empire, ordered the destruction of all paintings, mosaics and statues representing Christ and the saints. This precipitated the iconoclastic controversy. John Mansur issued a treatise refuting the position of the emperor based on the evidence form the Holy Bible and the writings of the Fathers of the Church. He defended the veneration of the icons.
Angered by his refutation, emperor Leo III conspired to destroy John Mansur. He forged letters addressed to him in the name of John informing him about the weak defenses of Damascus and urging him to invade it. Upon seeing these letters, the Umayyad caliph ordered his right hand struck off. All that night, John prayed to Virgin Mary holding the severed hand to his wrist. By daybreak, the hand joined the wrist with only the mark of a suture remaining. He then gave all his wealth to the poor and joined the monastery of St. Saba. He spent the rest of his life in his cell in one of its caves. He was ordained for the priesthood in about 735, and died in about 750. He was the last of the Fathers of antiquity of the Eastern Church.
John of Damascus was a prolific writer. He wrote the fountain of knowledge. It consisted of a treatise on logic, a summary of heresies, and a comprehensive Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, where he provides a great summary of Christian theology. In addition, he wrote Apologies against Iconoclasts, sermons, commentaries, ascetic tracts, liturgical canons, Church hymns, and the novel of Barlaam and Ioasaph.
4. St. Augustine (d. 430 AD)
St. Augustine is an early Western Father of the Church. He is the father of the Latin theology of the Western Church. He was born on Nov. 13, 354 in North Africa. He studied at Thagaste, Maduara and Carthage (Tunis). He taught grammar and rhetoric at Carthage, Rome, and Milan. His very pious mother Monica taught him Christianity. However, at the age of 19 years, he abandoned the Orthodox Christian faith.
Augustine followed the Manichean religion. He subsequently abandoned it because of its inconsistencies. He returned to Christianity gradually by the preaching of Ambrose and his own personal reflections. He then gave up his promising career, and in August 386, he separated from the woman he lived with since he was seventeen years of age. He was baptized in 387, became a monk, and dedicated his life to serve Christ. In 391, he went to Hippo (a town in Algeria) where he was ordained a priest, founded a monastery, and began to preach. He was ordained the bishop of Hippo in 397. He died in Aug. 28, 430.
Augustine’s Episcopal activities were extensive. He desired not to be saved without his congregation. He cared for his own diocese by preaching several times a week, resolving problems, helping the poor and sick, organization of monasteries and clergy, and church administration. In addition, he engaged in extensive work for both the African Church and the universal Church. This included long journeys to attend African Church councils, and the explanation and the defense of the Orthodox faith.
Augustine was at the same time philosopher, theologian, mystic, poet, orator, polemicist, writer, and pastor. He was a prolific writer. He composed books and treatises on many topics. Some were autobiographical (the Confessions and Retractions), philosophical, apologetic, dogmatic, moral, pastoral, monastic, exegetical on the Holy Bible, polemical (against the Manicheans, the Donatists, the Palagians, and Arianism). He also wrote treatises including commentaries on the St. John’s Gospel and Epistles, Exposition of the Psalms, and sermons.
5. St. Antony the Great (d. 356 AD)
St. Antony the Great is the founder of anchoritic monasticism. He was born of rich Christian parents in about the year 251 AD in the village of Coma in Middle Egypt. St. Athanasius wrote his biography.
After the death of his parents, he sold all his inheritance, gave the proceeds to the poor, and began to practice ascetic life. He was prompted to do so when he heard in a church service the saying of Christ to a rich man: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me” (Matthew 19: 21).
For twenty years he occupied an abandoned fort in the Eastern desert of Egypt. Desiring greater solitude, he moved farther East to the foot of Mount Qulzum about 20 miles form the Red Sea. Many gathered around him to follow his example. However, he as well as all his disciples lived alone. He left his seclusion and went to Alexandria during the persecution of emperor Maximian in order to strengthen the persecuted Christians and encourage them to martyrdom. He was known for all-night prayers. God did many miracles through him. After 85 years of his life in the desert, St. Antony died in 356 at the age of 105 years on Mount Qulzum.
Although St. Antony was known for his wisdom, he was literate only in his native Coptic language. He once said to a philosopher: “My book is nature, and thus I can read God’s language at will.” He sent letters to emperors advising them not to think highly of the things of this world, to remember always that Christ alone is the true and eternal king, and to urge them to have regard for justice and the poor. He also wrote to monastic communities exhorting them to perseverance, and warning them against returning to the world and against Arianism. He used to say in simplicity: “Let no man who has renounced the world think he has given up some great thing. The whole earth set against heaven’s infinite is scant and poor.”
St. Antony delivered many sermons to monastic communities firing up the zeal of the monks, and attracting others to the monastic life. As a result, the number of monastic colonies multiplied.
The monastery of St. Antony is built in the Eastern desert of Egypt near the Red Sea near the cave where he spent most of his life.
IV. THE MARTYRS OF THE CHURCH
It is estimated that in Egypt alone more than a million Egyptian Christians (Copts) suffered persecution and torture, and were killed for their faith in Christ. Many of these martyrs belong to the period of Roman persecutions. They were tortured and killed for refusing to leave Christianity to paganism.
In the Islamic era, some Christians were tortured and killed for refusing Islam. And Muslim converts to Christianity were killed for leaving Islam to Christianity.
1. St. Ignatius, Patriarch of Antioch
He was born in Syria around the year 50 AD. He was the third bishop of Antioch. He was an ideal pastor for his flock, ever zealous for their spiritual well-being.
The Roman emperor Trajan (98-117 AD) decreed that all his subjects worship, and offer sacrifices to, his pagan gods. St. Ignatius was prepared and watchful. He was tireless in his efforts to strengthen the weaklings of his flock against the terrors of the Roman persecution for those that disobeyed the imperial decree. He was arrested, and the emperor Trajan ordered that he be sent in chains to Rome where he would become the food of wild beasts in the public arena. In his journey to Rome, he wrote seven letters to the Christian communities in Ephesus, Philadelphia, Smyrna, Magnesia, Tralles, and Rome, and to Polycarp—the bishop of Smyrna.
Finally in Rome, he was thrown to the hungry wild beasts that devoured him before eighty-seven thousand spectators in the Flavian amphitheater, and thus earned the crown of martyrdom. His scanty remains were taken to Antioch. In the fifth century, the empress Eudocia ordered them transferred to the old temple of fortune, which was converted to a Christian church. In 637, they were transferred to St. Clement’s at Rome.
2. St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (Tunis)
He was born between 200 and 210 most probably in Carthage in a rich pagan family. He became Christian under the influence of the old priest Caecilius. He gave all his wealth to the poor. He was ordained priest and then bishop of Carthage in 248-249.
Shortly thereafter, the Decian persecution broke out in 250 AD. St. Cyprian retired to a safe place of refuge, and kept strengthening and encouraging the confessors, and praising the Christian martyrs. In the subsequent persecution ordered by the Roman emperor Valerian, St. Cyprian was arrested and beheaded in 258 AD—the first bishop of Carthage to obtain the crown of martyrdom.
St. Cyprian was the first popular Latin Christian writer in Christendom. He wrote many letters and treatises on a variety of topics: the lapsed, the unity of the Church, the Lord’s prayer, the mortality, works and almsgiving, the advantage of patience, exhortation to martyrdom, and other topics.
3. St. Victor (Boqtor)
He was born in a town in the province of Assyut, east of the Nile. He served as a soldier in the city of Shaou south of Assyut in Egypt.
During the reign of the Roman emperor Diocletian edicts were issued in 303 and 304 AD ordering the people to worship, and offer sacrifices to, the idols. When St. Victor refused to worship the idols, the governor of Shaou called him in and tried to persuade him to renounce his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. When he failed to change his mind, he finally cast him into prison. His parents came and encouraged him to face martyrdom. Then he sent him to the governor of the province of Assiut, along with some soldiers, and a message informing him of what had happened.
When the governor of Assyut read the message, he summoned Victor and asked him, "Why did you disobey the governor of Shaou? Know, if you listen to me, I shall place you in high honor, and I shall write to the emperor to appoint you governor over one of the cities." St. Victor shouted with a loud voice, saying, "The kingdoms of the world vanish, the gold perishes, the cloth wears out, the beauty of the body will be corrupted. The body will be eaten by worms and will disappear in graves, therefore I would not forsake my Lord Jesus Christ, Creator of Heaven and Earth, and the Provider for everyone, to worship idols made of stone which are inhabited by devils."
The governor was enraged and ordered him to be tied to the tails of horses and be dragged to the village of Ebesidia. There, they asked him again to worship the idols, but he refused. The governor ordered him to be killed by throwing him in the furnace of the public baths of the village of Musha (Monshah), east of the village of Ebesidia (Ibsidya).
When they took him there, Victor asked the soldiers to wait in order that he might pray first. He extended his arms and prayed to the Lord. The angel of the Lord appeared to him and comforted him, and spoke to him about the everlasting blessings in the kingdom of heaven. Then St. Victor looked at the soldiers and told them, "Finish what you have been ordered to do." They bound him and cast him into the burning flames of the furnace. He endured to the end, and received the crown of martyrdom.
Some Christians secretly took his body and hid it till the end of the Diocletian reign (284-305 AD). When they revealed it, the people who saw it testified that they found the body whole, with not even one hair burned, and lying peacefully like a sleeping person.
They built a church in his name, which still exists in the village of Musha (Monshah) in the province of Assiut. Many wonders and signs were manifested from his body and still appear to this day.
4. St. Dimyanah
This chaste virgin was the sole daughter of Mark, the governor of the Egyptian districts of al-Burullus, al-Zaafaran, and Wadi Al-Saysaban in the Northern delta of the Nile. When she was one year old, her father took her to the monastery of Al-Maymah to receive blessings.
When she was fifteen years old, her father wanted her to get married. She refused, and informed him that she had vowed herself a bride to the Lord Jesus Christ. When she saw that her father was pleased with her intention, she asked him to build her a place where she could worship God in seclusion with her virgin friends. He fulfilled her wish and built her the house that she wanted. She lived in it with forty other virgins. They spent their time reading the holy Scriptures, and praying.
Shortly thereafter, emperor Diocletian brought Mark, St. Dimyanah’s father, to Rome and ordered him to worship the idols. He refused at first, but after the Emperor appeased him he obeyed his order and worshipped the idols and forsook the Creator of the Universe. When Mark returned to his province, and St. Dimyanah knew what had transpired, she rushed to meet him. She did not greet him, but said, "What is that I heard about you? I would have preferred to hear about your death rather than to hear that you have renounced your faith and forsaken the God Who created you from non-existence into being, to worship gods made by hands. Take note that if you do not return to your first faith and renounce the worship of stones, you are not my father and I am not your daughter," and she left him.
Her father was greatly moved by her strong words, and wept bitterly. In haste, he went to Diocletian and confessed the Lord Jesus Christ. When the emperor could not influence him with threats and promises, he ordered him beheaded.
When Diocletian knew that the one who turned Mark from worshipping the idols was St. Dimyanah, his daughter, he sent to her one of his generals with a battalion of one hundred soldiers armed with instruments of torture. They first tried, without avail, to persuade her to worship idols.
When they failed to change her mind, the general became exceedingly angry and ordered her to be placed between two iron sheets equipped with spikes (the squeezing press), and squeeze her between them until her blood poured out of her body on the ground. Her forty virgin companions were standing watching and weeping over her. Then they confined her to prison. The angel of the Lord appeared to her, and healed all her wounds. The general tortured St. Dimyanah in many savage ways: once by tearing her flesh and another time by placing her in boiling oil. Through it all the Lord raised her up safe and sound. When the general saw that all his attempts were in vain before the steadfastness of this pure virgin, he ordered her beheaded, together with all the other virgins. Thus, they all received the crown of martyrdom.
5. St. Febronia, the Ascetic
This saint was the niece of the superior of a convent that had fifty virgins in Mesopotamia (Iraq). Her aunt brought her up in the fear of God in the convent, and taught her reading the Holy Books. St. Febronia dedicated her life to the Lord Jesus Christ. She practiced asceticism, fasting for two days at a time, and unceasing prayers.
When emperor Diocletian issued his edicts (303-304 A.D.) requiring all to worship idols, many Christians were martyred. When the virgins heard that, they were afraid and left the convent and went into hiding. None was left in the convent except St. Febronia, another sister and the abbess.
The envoys of the emperor came, seized the abbess, and humiliated her. St. Febronia said to them, "Take me and set free this old woman." But they took her as well, bound in ropes, and brought them to the governor. At that time she was twenty years old, and was attractive. The governor asked her to worship the idols and promised her many things, but she refused. He became wrathful, and ordered that she be beaten with rods, and her dress be torn off. Then he ordered she be squeezed by the wheels, and her body be combed with an iron comb until her flesh was completely torn. During all that, she prayed to the Lord asking for help. He then cut off her tongue and smashed her teeth so that she could not pray. But the Lord strengthened her and comforted her.
Finally, the governor ordered her head cut off, and she received the crown of martyrdom. A righteous man took her body and shrouded it with costly shrouds, and placed it in a golden box.
6. St. George (Girgis), known as el-Mezahem
His father was a Muslim bedouin. He married a Christian woman from the city of Demerah El-kibliah in Egypt. He had from her three sons, one of them was this Saint, and they called him El-Mezahem.
He used to go with his mother to the church at a young age. He also used to see the children of the Christians dress in white on the days that they partook of the Holy Mysteries. He longed that his mother would dress him like them, and allow him to eat from whatever they ate at the altar. His mother told him that could not be, unless he was baptized. She gave him a portion of the blessed Eulogia bread, that they distributed to the people, and it tasted in his mouth like that of honey. He reasoned in his heart that if this bread that was not consecrated tastes like this, what will be the taste of the Eucharist? His longing for the faith in Christ increased from that time.
When he grew up, he married a Christian woman, and he told her that he wished to become a Christian. She told him that he had to be baptized. He went to Birma, was baptized there and was called George (Girgis). When this matter became known, he went to Damietta, Egypt. Muslims recognized him, seized him and tortured him. Then he escaped and fled to the city of Saft Abu-Trab, where he stayed for three years. When his matter became known again he went to the city of Qaturah, and remained there serving the church of St. George, and then went back to Demerah.
When the Muslims of the city of Demerah knew his history, they seized him, and delivered him to the governor who put him in prison. Muslims assembled and broke the door of the prison. They beat him severely, split open his head, and left him between life and death. When some of the Christians came to bury him, thinking that he was dead, they found him alive. The Muslims convened a council, and threatened him, but he did not change his conviction. They hung him up on the mast of a ship, but the governor ordered that he be taken down and cast him in prison.
His wife strengthened him, and comforted him. She taught him to believe that the punishment which had come upon him was because of his sins; lest Satan lead him astray and he might boast that he became like the martyrs. The angel of the Lord appeared to him, comforted him, strengthened him, and informed him that he would receive the crown of martyrdom on the next day. On the next morning, Muslims demanded that the governor order the beheading of El-Mezahem. He handed him over to them. In June, 959 AD, they took him, and cut off his head near the church of the angel Michael in the city of Demerah. They cast his body in hot fire for a day and a night. But his body did not burn, so they put him in a barrel and threw him into the river. By the Will of God the barrel landed on the shore of an island. A Christian woman took his body, shrouded it, hid it in her house until they built a church for him, in which they laid his body.
7. St. Youhanna (John) abu Nagaah el-Kabeer
He was the head scribe and the lay leader during the reign of the Fatimid Caliph Al-Hakim be-Amr Allah. This great elder was a contemporary to Pope Philotheos, 63rd Patriarch (979 AD 1003 AD) of the Coptic Church of Egypt.
Youhanna was a devout Christian, righteous, virtuous, charitable, and loving the church. He was zealous in the Christian faith. Al-Hakim be-Amr Allah called ten of the notables and chiefs of the scribes and offered them to adopt Islam promising higher positions in his government. Youhanna, who was their head, replied saying: "Give me a chance until tomorrow to deliberate the matter with myself"
Youhanna went to his house, called his friends, informed them of what had happened, and told them: "I am ready to die in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ. My reason for asking for the delay is not to deliberate the matter with myself but to see you and my family to bid you all and my family farewell. Now my brothers, do not ask for the vain glory of this world, for you will loose the eternal glory of the Lord Jesus Christ Who satisfied us with the richness of the world, and now in His mercy, He had called us to the Kingdom of Heaven, so strengthen your hearts."
His encouraging words, which were full of wisdom, influenced those who heard them, strengthened their faith, and they decided to die in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ also. He made a great farewell feast for them. The next morning, Youhanna went to Al-Hakim be-Amr Allah, and informed him of his decision to remain faithful to Christ. All the attempts of the Caliph to persuade him and then to threaten him failed to make him forsake Christianity. John was as steadfast as a rock. Nothing shook him away from the Christian faith.
The Caliph ordered him to be tied to the squeezing wheels, and be beaten. They beat him five hundred lashes on his delicate body, and his flesh was torn and his blood flew as water. The whips that were used were made of cowhides.
Then the Caliph ordered to beat him up to one thousand lashes. After he was beaten three hundred more lashes, he said as Christ, his Master: "I am thirsty." They stopped beating him and informed the Caliph who told them: "Water him after you tell him forsake your faith." When they came to him with the water and told him as the Caliph ordered, Youhanna replied with pride and dignity: "Take the water back to him, for I do not need it, because My Master Jesus Christ had watered me and quenched my thirst." The people who were standing around testified that they saw at this moment water dripping from his beard. When he said that, he delivered up his soul.
When they told the tyrant Caliph about his death, he ordered them to beat the dead body to complete the one thousand lashes, and thus he was martyred on April 14th., 1003, and received the crown of martyrdom that was prepared for him by the Great King of Kings Jesus Christ.
8. St. Sidhum Bishay of Damietta
This martyr was a clerical employee in the administration of the port of Damietta of Egypt during the days of Muhammad Ali Basha the governor of Egypt. Mobs arose, and seized Sidhom Bishay and accused him falsely that he cursed Islam and two men testified falsely against him before the Muslim religious judge. The judge decided either he forsake his faith or be killed, and ordered him flogged and then sent him to the governor of the city. After the governor had examined his case he issued the same judgment against him as the judge did. Sidhom was steadfast in his Christian faith, not fearing death. They whipped him, dragged him on his face down the stairs in the local governor’s palace. Then they put him on a buffalo facing its tail and paraded him in the streets of the city insulting and degrading him.
The mob continued to insult him and tortured him in different ways. Eventually, molten tar was poured all over his head and face, and the mob left him outside the door of his house. His family brought him inside and attempted to nurse him. However, five days later he departed to heaven on March 25th, 1844 AD. During these five days, the Christians of the city were frightened, and locked themselves up in their houses.
The Christians of the city gathered regardless of their denominations and joined in his funeral in a great procession. They brought along their weapons, and the priests put on their vestments headed by the Archpriest Yousef Michael who was the head of the Coptic congregation in Damietta and accompanied by the priests of the other Christian denominations. They marched in his funeral in the streets of the city and in front of him the deacons carrying the banners of the Cross, and they arrived at the church where they conducted the funeral rites. The people went on protesting this reprehensible and painful incident and praising the patience, endurance and steadfastness of Sidhom the martyr.
The ruler of Egypt was concerned about this incident and sent two government officials to examine the case. So they reopened the inquiry and they realized the injustice and the ill-treatment that befell the great martyr and convicted the judge and the local governor of the city for their wrong doing, stripped them from their honor, then exiled them. As a gesture of good will to comfort the Christians of Damietta, they were granted the right to raise the Cross publicly at their funerals and over their churches. This privilege was ultimately extended to all Egypt during the Papacy of Pope Kyrellos IV (1854-1861).
V. ANCIENT CHURCHES, MONASTERIES, AND CHRISTIAN ART
Ancient churches and monasteries, many predating the Islamic era, abound in the Middle East. They attest to the vibrancy and predominance of the Christian faith throughout the region before the Islamic military invasions of the seventh century. Through its long journey in history, some of these structures underwent partial burnings, partial destructions, closures, and restorations. Some exist only in ruins. Some have disappeared buried in the sands through the centuries. We know about its existence only from various historical documents. Others were pillaged for the construction of houses and mosques.
On the eve of the Islamic military invasions of the seventh century, Christian Egypt had about 15,000 churches. After centuries of Islamic persecution, which included destruction of churches and converting some of them to mosques, it declined to about 550 churches at the beginning of the twentieth century. Egyptian monasteries declined from more than 360 monasteries in the seventh century to seven monasteries at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Description of some of the more known ancient churches and monasteries in the Middle East with pictures and summaries of its long history are provided in these web sites:
1. The church of the Holy Sepulcher
2. The church of the nativity
3. The ancient churches of Egypt
4. The ancient monasteries of Egypt
The following web sites provide information on ancient Coptic Christian icons, and the Coptic museum of Egypt:
1. Ancient Coptic Christian paintings and icons
2. The Coptic museum of Egypt
We explored briefly in this excursion your rich Christian heritage, which has undoubtedly contributed to forming your culture and personality. You have every right to be proud of that precious heritage that your Christian ancestors toiled to nurture with their sweat and blood, and passed on to you. You owe it to yourself to explore that part of your conscience that came from there. It is time to connect with your history and legacy by exploring the Christian faith that shaped your heritage—the Christian faith that your ancestors loved, lived and gave their lives for.