Like many American and European historical enthusiasts, especially those brought into the Medieval fold by way of fantasy literature, my immediate focus tends to be on the history of Europe. We love the castles, the kings, the knights, the tales of Robin Hood and Arthur. As a research area, this Eurocentric approach also makes things much easier because I can always find books about the stuff I need to know. (Even within the Euro-centric universe, there are blind spots: like the impression you’d get from looking at bookshelves that Rome and Naples virtually didn’t exist during the Middle Ages, ’cause they’re apparently much less interesting than Florence and Venice–Ha! But that’s another blog for another day.)
I am always intrigued, however, when I stumble upon a reference to my period in a different part of the world. I’m fascinated by the Anasazi ruins of the Southwest that are contemporaneous with the great Cathedrals of Europe, for instance. Today, it was a reference in a Wall Street Journal article about the destruction of the ancient Virgin Mary Church in Egypt. This is a moment linking the events of today–political upheaval–with those of history, and the kind of tragedy I find rather chilling because it proves the historian’s maxim about being condemned to repeat the history we forget.
So, the WSJ tells us this was part of “the largest attack on Coptic houses of worship since 1321.” And immediately, I want to know, what happened in 1321?
You’ll notice if you followed the traditional course of social studies classes in the American public school system that certain places are associated almost exclusively with certain times. So children study the Egypt of a few thousand years ago–and know practically nothing about what’s happened since. We’re left with an impression of people in skirts, with the heads of animals, writing on papyrus while the rest of the world has moved on to ipads. Of course, this is nonsense, but it takes an Arab Spring to pierce the average American’s obliviousness to the rest of the world. Even then, they are probably picturing Horus learning to tweet.
Back in 642, the Arabs completed a conquest of Egypt, but were content to rule from their own power bases, strongly suggesting conversion of the local Coptic Christians to Islam, but not pushing too hard (as long as taxes were paid on time, of course). This paper suggests that the monasteries became suspect because many poor farmers, trying to flee taxation, ran to the monasteries–already wealthy because of their own land ownership. The author gives a nice description of the relationships between various factions in Egypt for the next few centuries, including a period of rising persecution around the turn of the first millennium in which Christians were forced to wear distinguishing clothing and overt religious symbols (sound familiar? Yeah.)
In the 13th century, the region was also dealing with the external forces of the Crusades, and became increasingly drawn into line, with the Copts more fully embracing the Arabic language, even for Christian writings. By this time, the Copts are an affluent class of middlemen, undertaking the administration (including those pesky taxes), and succeeding waves of Islamic rulers, along with the growing Muslim population at the bottom became increasingly unhappy–as we so often do with those who seem to have privilege we’d like to claim, or those who seem to rise at the expense of others.
This growing unrest on behalf of the lower classes pressured the rulers to order the closure of churches, but it wasn’t enough, and the pressure exploded in 1321 into a rash of mob attacks against the Coptic churches leading to the destruction of up to 60 churches.
And now, the modern-day counterparts of those angry medieval mobs have destroyed some of the few remaining Coptic structures, including the Virgin Mary Church, which was estimated to be 1600 years old. I have no problem with people desiring self-determination–but I wish the transition could be peaceful, both for the sake of those people–dissenters and agitators alike–and for the sake of their irreplaceable shared heritage, a heritage the rest of the world often discovers only when it is forever lost.