The Official Website of the
Coptic Orthodox Church Centre, United Kingdom
Under the care of H.G. Bishop Angaelos

Saint Mark & the Establishment of the See of Alexandria
Contributions to Christendom
Coptic Faith
Coptic Culture
The Church Today

Contributions to Christendom

Ancient Texts

Since its beginning, the Coptic Church has played an important role in Christian Theology. It was a source of thousands of texts, and biblical and theological studies. The Holy Bible was translated into the Coptic language in the second century. Hundreds of scribes made copies of the Bible and of other liturgical and theological books. Today, libraries,' museums and universities throughout the whole world possess hundreds and thousands of Coptic manuscripts. In the monastery of Abba Pishoi alone, in the Natrun Valley of the Western desert of Egypt, there were about 400 scribes.

Back to Top

The School of Alexandria

Long before the establishment of Christianity in Egypt, Alexandria was famous for its various schools, among which was the `Museum', the greatest philosophical school in the East containing in its library between two hundred thousand and half a million books and manuscripts. It was a unique center of a brilliant intellectual life where Egyptian, Greek and Jewish cultures were taught.

As recorded by Saint Jerome, Saint Mark himself founded the School of Alexandria. He established it for the teaching of Christianity as the only means of giving Christianity a firm foundation in the city. The School became very famous; it was the oldest center for sacred sciences in the history of Christianity. Many prominent bishops from different parts of the world were instructed there. It introduced into the world many scholars and saints, such as Athenagoras, Clement, Saint Dionysius, Saint Peter the Seal of Martyrs, Saint Didymus the Blind, and the great Origen, who was considered the father of theology and was active in the field of commentary and the comparative study of the Bible.

The metaphorical way of commentary, with its deep spiritual meanings, began in Egypt. Origen composed over 6,000 commentaries of the Bible in addition to his famous Hexapla. In this context, the historian Rees states, "The most renowned intellectual institution in the early Christian world was undoubtedly the Catechetical School of Alexandria, and its primary concern was the study of the Bible. The preoccupation of this school was to discover everywhere the spiritual sense underlying the written word of the Scripture". The School rivalled the `Museum', and attracted and converted some of its philosophers who later became Church leaders. Many scholars such as Saint Jerome visited the School of Alexandria to communicate directly with its scholars. Saint Didymus the Blind was dean at the time. Of their meeting, Saint Jerome said that he learnt much from Saint Didymus and wished he could spend more time with him.

Famous Deans

Athenaglcoras the Apologist was the head of the Alexandrian Academy and was determined to write against Christianity. After reading the Holy Scriptures, however, he became a defender of the Faith

Pantaenus the Philosopher was one of the greatest deans of the Catechetical School of Alexandria; so much so that the historian Eusebius believed that he was its first dean. Saint Clement spoke of him as the greatest and most perfect teacher.

Saint Clement was born of pagan parents. He was a disciple of Pantanaeus and was converted to Christianity and ordained a priest in Alexandria. He succeeded Pantanaeus as dean of the School. Among his disciples were Origen and Alexander, bishop of Jerusalem.

Origen, who due to his zeal in preaching and teaching Christianity, was appointed dean of the School when he was eighteen years of age, by Saint Dimitrius, Pope of Alexandria. Not only did he devote his life to studying and teaching the Holy Scriptures, but his life was exemplary of the evangelic life. His disciple, Saint Gregory the `wonder-worker' said of him, "He influenced us by his deeds more than by the doctrines he taught". Origen prepared people not only for baptism, but all the more for martyrdom.

Saint Dionysius of Alexandria, also called the `Teacher of the Universal Church', was a disciple of Origen. He was head of the School for about sixteen years, was ordained deacon by Pope Demetrius, and priest by Pope Hercules. In 247 AD, he was elected as Pope of Alexandria and had the difficult task of preserving the Church amidst persecution.

Saint Peter the Last Martyr, was ordained Pope of Alexandria during the Diocletian persecution in 302 AD. When he was imprisoned, he warned his disciples against Arius for he had seen our Lord in a vision with His garments torn, and when he asked Him about the cause, He answered that it was Arius. In 311 AD, when the crowds surrounded the prison to save their Pope Saint Peter, he sent secretly to the commander to plan for his martyrdom without killing his people, in order to avoid any bloodshed.

Saint Didymus the Blind, lost his eyesight at the age of four, but due to his ardent desire for learning, invented the method of engraved writing for reading with his fingers, fifteen centuries before Braille. By this method, he learnt by heart the Holy Bible and the Church doctrines. He became dean of the School of Alexandria, and among his disciples were Saint Gregory of Nazienza, Saint Jerome, Rufinus and Palladius. In his dispute with the Arians, he conquered them. Saint Anthony said to Saint Didymus: "Do not be sad that you have no eyesight with which the animals, and even the insects, share, but remember that you have divine insight with which you can see the light of divinity".

Saint Athanasius the Apostolic, , in defending the Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, wrote his famous series of four books "Contra Arianus". Saint Jerome said that at one time, the whole world would have fallen into Arianism, had it not been for Saint Athanasius. He was ordained Patriarch of Alexandria in 328 AD, and shepherded the Church for forty-six years, seventeen of which he spent in exile on account of his vigorous opposition to the spreading of Arianism, which had the support of certain emperors. He was exiled five times, during which he went from country to country, continent to continent, forming holy synods, maintaining the Faith, and explaining the Divinity of our Lord.

Its Growth

The Christian School began as a catechetical school where candidates were admitted to learn the Christian Faith, along with some Biblical studies to qualify for baptism. Admittance was open to everyone, regardless of their culture, age or background. By the second century, the School had become quite influential in the life of the Church as can be seen from the following:

Its Program

At the time of Saint Clement of Alexandria, three courses were taught:

  1. A special course for non-Christians, introducing the candidate to the principles of Christianity.
  2. A course on Christian morals.
  3. An advanced course on Divine wisdom, and sufficient knowledge for the spiritual Christian.

The subjects of the School of Alexandria were not limited to theology, but science,mathematics and the humanities were also taught. Worship went alongside study. Teachers and their students practised prayer, fasting and various forms of asceticism. In purity and integrity their lives were exemplary. Celibacy was a recommended example, followed by many.

Back to Top

The Ecumenical Councils

In the first ecumenical councils, the Alexandrian theologians were leaders and pioneers of the Christian Faith, their strength lying in their deep, spiritual, pious, theological and biblical thought and studies. Due to their adherence to the Orthodox Faith since early Christianity, the Copts played a positive role in solving many theological problems in both East and West. They did not interfere in other Churches' problems, but because of their spirit of love and unity, were consulted by them.

While Christianity and the monastic movement were spreading in Egypt, heresies within the Church began to arise, threatening to undermine the very essence of Orthodox Christianity and destroy the basic fibre of the Church. Battles for the Holy Orthodox and Apostolic Faith were being waged in Alexandria and in ecclesiastic centres throughout the Christian world. Peace from the persecutions had not only brought growth and expansion within the Church, but had also provided an ideal climate for fostering dissension and heresy. As a result of heresies, the Christian Church saw the need to define its doctrines more clearly and to formulate its creeds of Faith.

The Coptic Orthodox Church played an important part in the first three Ecumenical Councils, which convened to put a stop to heresies, to formulate the Orthodox and Apostolic creeds and doctrines, and to document the Apostolic canons of the Church.

The First Ecumenical Council

This council was convened in Nicea, in AD 325, because of the heretical teaching of Arius, a priest from Libya, who denied the Divinity of Christ and taught that Christ had been created within time. It was attended by 318 bishops, including Pope Alexandros, the 19~' Patriarch of the See of Alexandria, twenty Coptic bishops and Saint Athanasius, at the time a deacon twenty years of age. Saint Athanasius skilfully defended the Orthodox Faith, and the Council refuted Arius' heresy, affirmed the Divinity of Christ and formulated the Nicene, or Athanasian, Creed of Faith, which is still faithfully adhered to by the Coptic Orthodox Church, and used in part or in whole by most of the Churches of the East and West, till this day.

The Creed was worded by Pope Alexandros, deacon Athanasius, and Leontius, Bishop of Caeserea in Cappadocia, and was approved and signed by the members of the Council. Other issues, such as the date of the celebration of Easter, the question of re-baptism of apostates, the question of celibacy or non-celibacy of the clergy, as well as a number of other questions, were considered. The Patriarch of Alexandria was given the responsibility of writing a Paschal letter to all the other patriarchs and bishops, advising them of the date of Easter. The outcome of all these issues and debates was the formulation of twenty canons regulating Church matters.

The Second Ecumenical Council

Held in Constantinople in 381 AD, and attended by 150 bishops, this Council convened to refute a new heresy being proclaimed by Macedonius, bishop of Constantinople, who denied the Divinity of the Holy Spirit. The Council, including the Alexandrian delegation led by Pope Timotheus, the 22"d Patriarch, affirmed the Divinity of the Holy Spirit and added the last clause to the Nicene creed, concerning the Holy Spirit, affirming faith in the Universal Church, the oneness of Baptism, and the awaiting of the resurection of the dead and eternal life.

The Third Ecumenical Council

In Ephesus, in 431 AD, this Council convened to refute the heresy of Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople, who stated that Christ had two separate natures, and that the Human Christ alone suffered and died on the Cross, apart from the Divine Christ. He also denied the title of `Theotokos' or `Mother/Birthgiver of God' given to the Virgin Saint Mary.

The Council was attended by 200 bishops, among whom was Pope Cyril I, also known as `Pillar of the Faith', the 24th' Patriarch of the Church of Alexandria, who had previously convened two local councils of the bishops and heads of the See of Alexandria, and circulated many letters concerning the Nestorian heresy. It was Saint Cyril who worded the Introduction to the Creed, which was affirmed and accepted by the first Council of Alexandria, and which is still recited in the Coptic Church as a prefix to the Athanasian, or Nicene, Creed. Among the Egyptian delegation to the Council also were Saint Shenouda of Akhmim and Saint Dioscorus. Under the presidency of Pope Cyil I, the council condemned the teaching of Nestorius, excommunicated him, reaffirmed the perfect union of Christ's Divinity with His Humanity, and acknowledged the Virgin Saint Mary as the `Theotokos' or `Mother/Birthgiver of God'.

Back to Top


Monasticism began in the Coptic Church towards the end of the third century, and flourished in the fourth. There were hundreds of monasteries and thousands of caves in the mountains of Egypt. Saint John Cassian said that the traveller from Alexandria in the North to Luxor in the South, would have in his ears along the whole journey, the sounds of prayers and hymns of the monks, scattered in the desert, from the monasteries and from the caves, from monks, hermits and anchorites. For the monks, monasticism was the life of prayer, contemplation, solitude, worship and purity of heart. They had nothing in their minds, hearts and feelings except God alone. They lived the calm and quiet life abiding in the Lord, detaching themselves from everything and everyone, to be attached to Him alone.

Forms of Monasticism

Monasticism took three main forms, all of which are still to be found in the Church today.

(a) Monarchism

The anchorites or hermits lived in complete seclusion, only visiting the abbot when they needed counsel. Each hermit organized his own prayer, clothing, food and work. The first anchorite in the world was Saint Paul. He lived for eighty years in the Egyptian desert without seeing a single person. Some hermits entered into the inner deserts and settled there for tens of years, seeing no one. Saint Mary of Egypt was one of these, and is also considered as one of those hermits who are called "Pilgrims", who had no specific cell but lived homeless, wandering in the wilderness.

(b) The Coenobitic System

Under this system, founded by Saint Pachomius in Upper Egypt, the monks lived in a community inside the walls of the monastery, in association with each other, governed by an abbot and by rules. Even through this system Christian monasticism never lost its yearning for monarchism.

(c) The Communal System or Semi-eremitic Life

This form of monasticism is mid-way between monarchism and the coenobitic system. The mode of Saint Anthony's life as described by Saint Athanasius was actually semi-eremitic in essence, for the monks lived in separate caves or cells and assembled occasionally for the Divine Liturgy or spiritual meetings. Thus Saint Anthony prepared the way for the communal order. In the wildernesses of Nitria and Scetis the communal order was established by Saint Amoun and Saint Macarius the Great. There, the ascetics lived not in absolute isolation, but in cells built at such a distance that they could neither see nor hear one another. They gathered for communal prayer on Saturdays and Sundays.

Monasticism's Famous Personalities

Saint Paul, of the lower Thebaid in Egypt, was the first hermit. In 250 AD, upon the death of his parents when he was 16 years old, he inherited great wealth. He fled to the desert where he lived over ninety years. Each day a raven would bring him half aloaf of bread. His biography was written by Saint Jerome in 3 74AD.

Saint Anthony , (251-356AD) was born in Middle Egypt. He was eighteen years old when he entered the church and heard the words of the Gospel: "If you want to be perfect, go, sell all you have and give to the poor; and come, follow Me " (Matthew 19:21). He sold his land, entrusted his sister with a community of virgins, and lived in a hut under the guidance of a recluse. He visited Alexandria in 316 AD to assist the martyrs and in 352 AD to help Saint Athanasius in his fight against Arianism.

Saint Pachomius , (290-), was born in Upper Egypt. He was converted to Christianity in Upper Egypt, when he witnessed the generosity of Christians and their love even of their enemies. He left the army and was baptised in 307 AD, becoming a disciple of Palamon the Hermit. He established the Ceonobetic System. He founded two monasteries in Egypt, and two nunneries under the guidance of his sister. He laid the ceonobetic laws which were later translated into Greek and Latin and used by Saint Basil the Great.

Saint Macarius the Great, (300-390 AD) founded the communal order in the desert of Scetis, and visited Saint Anthony at least twice.

Saint Shenouda the Archimandrite ("Head of the Anchorites") was the Abbott of the White Monastery of Atribe in the desert of Thebes for more than 65 years (in the 4th and 5th'' centuries), heading 2,200 monks and 1,800 nuns. In 431 AD, he accompanied Saint Cyril the Great to the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus.

Saint Sarah the Abbess , lived in Pelusium, and was endowed with the grace of true leadership and spiritual discernment. Her sayings were treasured by the desert fathers.

Saint Syncletica founded the first monastic community for women in the world in Alexandria. Her biography and teachings were preserved by Pope Athanasius.

Effects of Coptic Monasticism on the World

Coptic Monasticism is considered the most profound spiritual revival in the history of the Church. The news of the spiritual life of the monks spread everywhere. They did not write about themselves- there is no Coptic history about the Coptic monks. But people came from everywhere in order to hear a word from one of the monks, and to take it as a word of spiritual guidance and benefit throughout their life. Saint Palladius visited many monks and wrote his famous book, the `Paradise of the Fathers', from which we learnt about these holy fathers, who neither spoke nor wrote, but kept silent. They were not preachers but they were living sermons, they were examples of the true life, they were the image of God on earth. They influenced monasticism in the world:

  1. Pope Athanasius was greatly responsible for the introduction of the monastic movement to the Roman religious life, during his exile in Treve and his flight to Rome in 339 AD. He also wrote "The Life of Anthony", read the world over.
  2. The Pachomian rules were translated into Greek by Palladius, and into Latin by Saint Jerome.
  3. The rules of Benedict of Nursia (480 - 550) were based on the Pachomian ones.
  4. Saint John Cassian (360 -435 AD) dwelt in Egypt for seven years, and wrote his two famous books, "Institutes" and "Conferences".
  5. Evagrius Ponticus, who occupied a central role in the history of Christian spirituality, lived as a monk for two years in Nitria and then fourteen years in the "Cells".
  6. Saint Jerome and Saint Rufinus visited Egypt.
  7. Saint Hilarious of Palestine became a disciple of Saint Anthony and returned to his own land to practice ascetiscm.
  8. Etheria (Egaria), a Spanish abbess in the fourth century, visited Egypt.
  9. Saint Melania the elder, a Roman lady, visited the desert of Egypt.
  10. Saint John Chrysostom stayed in one of the Pachomian monasteries for 8 years.
  11. Orphenus came to Egypt and wrote `The Desert Fathers'.
  12. Saint Epiphanius (315 -403 AD), Bishop of Salamis in Cyprus, was instructed in Coptic monastic thought.

Back to Top

Mission in the Church

Organised groups, individuals, monks, clergymen, merchants, soldiers and devout women from Egypt went out to almost every part of world and spread the Gospel. Pantaenus is well-known for his work in India. The School of Alexandria sent out m:ssionaries to pagan tribes in Libya, Phrygia, Sinai, Arabia Felix, the Thebaid and Upper Egypt. Christianity was first introduced into Ethiopia by Egyptian merchants through their commercial and maritime relations, and into the Sudan in the 6th century.

In Europe, Saint Athanasius founded a church in Belgia during one of his exiles. In Switzerland, the Theban Legion, led by Saint Maurice, watered the land with the blood of their martyrdom when they refused to sacrifice to the gods; hence the place was named Saint Moritz. Felix, his sister and their friend spread the Gospel in Zurich, and the official seal of the country of Zurich still bears the picture of these three Coptic evangelists. In Ireland, seven Coptic monks were among the pioneers of the Faith, and left many traces in the life and art of the people; three manuscripts in the Royal Academy of Dublin confirm this.

Back to Top


             Copyright © 1998-2002 Coptic Centre - UK     All rights reserved.