The recent outbreaks of sectarian violence mostly in Cairo but also elsewhere makes me think of how the modern Egyptian state owes it origin to an historic alliance whereby Egypt’s Copts allied themselves with the Arab invaders against the much hated Roman (Byzantine) rulers.
I’ve been recording some local history in Qurna. The memory of the changeover from Byzantine (Roman) to Arab/Muslim rule is still very much alive, despite this being something that happened over a thousand years ago. The Arab “conquest” of Egypt happened in the 7th century, the second peace treaty dated 671ad. Most of the fighting occurred in the Northern delta region – Upper Egypt being really a rule unto itself. But the fact that the Copts actively preferred the new Arab regime to the status quo is absolutely born out by the facts (see Butler’s “History of the Arab Conquest of Egypt”).
In Upper Egypt people have lived on the Theban necropolis since the beginning of time. The evidence of this is not hard to find, see for example the ancient remains of the artisan’s village at Dayr el Madina. And indeed the name Dayr means monastery, further evidence of subsequent use by Copts. The Copts are the original Egyptians, their settlements and graveyards pepper the landscape. During the roman period they continued to speak their native Egyptian language, written in Greek script and were consequently discriminated against by their Roman (Byzantine) overloads. Although the Copts were Christians they followed a radically different doctrine to the Byzantine church. A great deal of the conflict between them explained by the distinction between the “Monophysyte” Copts and the Melkite (Royal) beliefs of the Roman church. Melkites believing that Christ had a dual nature – god and man. Monophysytes Christ had single divine nature. The vehemence of the religious dispute cannot be underestimated.
This is a unique time in history when Christian Copts completely assimilated to Arab Muslim culture. People in Qurna, on Luxor’s west bank still remember this alliance. Egyptian historians and opinion makers need to remind the extremists of how Muslim Egypt was built on ecumenical foundations.