AGATHON OF ALEXANDRIA

Thirty-ninth patriarch of the See of Saint Mark (661-677). Before his preferment to the Coptic patriarchate, Agathon was the assistant to BENJAMIN I from 644. During his predecessor’s last illness, he assumed de facto patriarchal authority until his succession to the throne of Saint Mark in 661. He was a fierce fighter against Chalcedon, but never attempted to flee from the face of Cyrus, the and prefect of Egypt. He remained in Alexandria disguised by day as a carpenter carrying the basket of his tools as he went around. By night, he officiated for his flock and comforted the faithful anti-Chalcedonians in the ensuing wave of persecution.

In his earlier years, Agathon had lived in the district of Mareotis. We must therefore assume that he was born somewhere in the neighborhood of Alexandria and that he took the monastic vow in one of the small monasteries of that area. He probably came from a Hellenized Egyptian family and spoke both Coptic and Greek. It is possible that he spoke some Arabic as well. As a monk and a priest, he lived through the period of the ARAB OF EGYPT; and, on Benjamin’s return to Alexandria, the patriarch retained him by his side in the administration of the church, thus paving the way for his accession to Saint Mark’s throne without any complications.

Agathon was truly a spiritual and compassionate person. During his reign, the Muslim armies are known to have raided the island of Sicily and to have returned to Alexandria with Sicilian Christian prisoners for sale in the slave market. In spite of the fact that they were technically heretical from the orthodox Coptic viewpoint, Agathon hastened to buy these captives and free them. The patriarch tried to establish not only with the Sicilians but also with the local heretical sects known as the Gaianites and BARSANUPHIANS. He continued the policy of Benjamin I of ordaining more bishops to attend to the spiritual needs of the faithful and to win back those who had strayed into disunion with their mother church. He also attended to the requirements of the Coptic monastic brotherhood, more especially in the region of Wadi al-Natrun. The number of the monks was increasing, and their need for cells was growing. Agathon authorized the construction of multitudes of cells strewn all over the Natrun marshland, for until the bedouin pillage of 869, the monasteries remained unprotected and unfortified by outer walls. Benjamin I had consecrated the sanctuary of Saint Macarius, and we must assume that Agathon continued the good work of his predecessor. He even dedicated a sanctuary to Benjamin and embellished it with adornments.

But Agathon’s reign was not free from local troubles. The Chalcedonians were still much too numerous to be stifled or slighted. Their leader was a certain Theodosius (or Theodore) who happened to be in the good graces of Yazid ibn Mu‘awiyah (A.H. 60-64/A.D. 680-683), the Umayyad caliph at Damascus. The HISTORY OF THE PATRIARCHS contains a statement that Theodosius supplied the caliph with funds in return for a diploma giving him authority over the population of Alexandria, Mareotis, and the surrounding districts. This included the collection of taxes from these areas. Theodosius was answerable to the caliph rather than to the governor of Egypt; the caliph even gave him police powers to facilitate his task. However, Theodosius proved to be unacceptable even to the Chalcedonians, and his aspirations to become rival patriarch were dampened.

Theodosius remained merely a tax collector for the Muslim state and a troublemaker for Agathon. With police power in his hands, he issued an order requesting the Alexandrian populace to stone the patriarch if he was ever seen in the open. He probably aimed at uniting secular and religious powers in his own hands, in keeping with the old system started by Justinian. The situation for Agathon was alleviated by the existence in Egypt of a rival caliph in the person of ‘Abdallah ibn al-Zubayr. Though confined to his cell by Theodosius, Agathon was nevertheless able to collect enough funds to pay the extra money Theodosius wanted and attend to the needs of the church.

An incident showing the state of confusion between Chalcedonians and anti-Chalcedonians occurred in the city of Sakha, which was predominantly under the influence of a Chalcedonian majority. Apparently that city was the seat of a Coptic bishop from the year 431. Its Coptic name was Xeos in the old Byzantine province of II or the Delta east of Alexandria (Williams, 1977, pp. 492-505 and map, p. 512). It had a magistrate, an archon by the name of Isaac, who, in conjunction with its Muslim governor, was able to prevail over the Chalcedonian majority. The viceroy of Egypt at the time was Maslamah ibn Makhlad ibn Samit al-Ansari (667-689). He sent seven bishops to Sakha to make an inquiry into the accusation that some officials had been branded. Together with Isaac, who was obviously a follower of Agathon, the situation was clarified, and the accused were absolved. Ultimately, Isaac became intendant for the whole district owing to the harm Theodosius had done to the patriarch. On the whole, the picture was a confused medley where the followers of Chalcedon tried to stir Muslim troubles against the Orthodox (Monophysite) Copts, but failed.

From the above accounts, it is evident that Agathon’s life in Alexandria was marked by immense hardships. Nevertheless,  he was able to go to the monastery of Saint Macarius (DAYR ANBA MAQAR) in Wadi al-Natrun, but he probably never went to Upper Egypt. From his residence and through the hierarchy, he continued to ordain priests for the country, in order to strengthen the of the Copts. In spite of his difficulties, he was very active and in good health until his last illness and death in 677. His body was carried to the monastery of Saint Macarius, where it was laid to rest next to the remains of his predecessor, Benjamin.

Agathon must have been an able preacher, but his homilies remain to be uncovered. A Coptic fragment ascribed to Agathon could possibly be part of his homiletic account of a vision of Benjamin at the consecration of his sanctuary in the monastery of Saint Macarius.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Brakmann, H. “Zum Pariser Fragment angeblich des koptischen Patriarchen Agathon. Ein neues Blatt der Vita Benjamins I.” Le Muséon 93 (1980):299-309.
  • Williams, R. J. “Agypten II.” In Theologische Realenzyklopädie, ed. 1977. Krause and G. Müller. and New York, 1977.

C. DETLEF G. MÜLLER