It is important, sometimes, to distance oneself from the internecine strife going on in Egypt today, and remember the country's rich heritage as a seed ground for all that we in the West consider ours. Egypt is behind all our ways of thinking, even if we are not aware of it.
We forget that men such as Pythagoras, Plato, Solon and Thales learnt their trade at the feet of the priest at On, near present day Cairo. These men journeyed to Egypt, and spent many years there, because it was considered an important locus for philosophic inquiry. When we add the Alexandrian philosophers of a more recent era into this heady mix, men such as Plotinus and Amonius Saccas, it is clear that Egypt became a veritable center of culture, intellect and discourse for generations of men.
Such an inheritance was subsequently translated into theological inquiry and spiritual practice by those early Christians living in Alexandria, as well as the hermits in their caves in the Nitrea Desert. On the death of Christ, the focus shifted from Judaea to Egypt. It was here that Christian doctrine was infused with Neo-Platonic thought, thus providing theology with a platform from which the Christian religion could be disseminated westward into Europe. Egypt is the crucible of Christianity, not Judaea.
It is important to recognize how influential Egypt is to our way of life. Moreover, some of the most influential Islamic thinkers since the seventh century followed in the footsteps of their great Pagan and Christian forebears. Though religious belief may have changed, one must remember that Plotinus' heirs are legion. It is this endless dialogue that Egypt has conducted with itself, and us, that lead me to make a journey up the Nile River in the footsteps of the Holy Family. They spent more than three years living in Egypt, from 7- 4 C.E.
I wanted to find out what the First Family of our culture and belief system did and experienced during their time away from Herod and his kingdom. Clearly they felt safe in Egypt, a land with strong links to Judaism through Moses -- a land, furthermore, that had nurtured a relationship between gods and man since time immemorial. The Holy Family was just another link in a chain that stretched back for millennia. It was their task to knit together the old and the new, Horus and Christ, Mary and Isis, Joseph and Osiris.
During my journey, I came in contact with a very old Christian tradition -- that practiced by the Copts. Here were a people who to this day still revere ancient desert saints, men such as St. Anthony and St. Macarius, whom we see in many European paintings. Both these hermits helped to fashion the idea of monasticism, which eventually made its way into Europe in the late fifth century via John Cassian. These saints were of course Copts, though before a time when such distinctions were made.
Who are the Copts? They are the very first expression of Christianity, after the early period of the evangelists in Judaea. Moreover, as a church they were once a member of the six churches of Christendom, which included Jerusalem, Constantinople and Rome. Because of certain theological and political disagreements, however, the fathers of the Coptic Church chose to break with Rome in particular, as well as with Constantinople, as their imperial overlord. They wanted to go their own way, and not be dictated to by doctrinal or political issues from afar.
The Coptic Church matters because it is the West's last link with an earlier form of Christianity, and with a tradition of eremitical life that has all but disappeared from the modern world. It matters also because it reminds us of what Egypt means to us as a repository of all that the West holds dear in terms of thought, culture and the civilizing process itself. The Copts are descendents of the original Egyptians, and share their grave and stable approach to governance and belief. Furthermore, they continue to act as a restraining influence upon the passionate and often disruptive forces that are currently abroad in the streets of Cairo today.
That they are an oppressed minority in their own land is beyond question. It has always been so. Islamic fundamentalists would be happy to "cleanse" Egypt of their presence, if that were possible. But thankfully, wiser heads among the ulema and the government know how important the Copts are to the age-old governance of Egypt. They know that the introduction of a grand caliphate in Egypt is also impossible. Islam, after all, is just one of the many faiths of this polyglot nation, and needs to honor those who have gone before. The Copts, without doubt, represent its memory.
The Copts matter because they are a part of our own history too. They gave us the journey of the Holy Family aware from oppression in the Holy Land, something that we need to respect and admire.