Alexander II

ALEXANDER II

The forty-third patriarch of the See of Saint Mark (705-730). Little is known about his early life as a layman before he took the monastic vow at ENATON in the region of Mareotis west of Alexandria. There he became well known for his chastity, sanctity, and religious scholarship.

After the death of his predecessor, SIMON I, in 701, the See of Saint Mark remained vacant for approximately four years, during which the faithful continued their search for a worthy successor. In the end, the secretary of the state (mutawalli al-diwan) in Alexandria, a Copt by the name of Athanasius, appealed to the governor to permit Anba Gregorius, bishop of al-Qays, to take charge of the finances of the patriarchate until a new pope was elected. Governor ‘Abd al-Aziz ibn Marwan approved, and the necessary steps were taken for the selection of a patriarch.

Thus, Athanasius, together with the Coptic scribes, the clergy, and the bishops, unanimously chose Alexander, the monk of Enaton, whose virtues had become known to them. He was taken to Alexandria, where he was consecrated on Saint Mark’s commemoration day in A.M. 420/A. D. 704, according to a passage in HISTORY OF THE PATRIARCHS (Vol. 1, pt. 3, p. 304 [text]; p. 50 [trans.]), though this year precedes the 705-730 given on the title page of the same work (p. 302 [text]; p. 48 [trans.]). Of course we have to allow a certain margin in the conversion of this early chronology.

Pope Alexander was a contemporary of several Umayyad caliphs with different attitudes toward the Copts: ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan (685-705), Al-Walid ibn ‘Abd al-Malik (705-715), Sulayman (715-717), ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz (717-720), Yazid II (720-724), and Hisham (724-743). Thus, this patriarch must have lived through some of the most precarious years of Islamic history, including the years of the Umayyad siege of Constantinople (716- 718), with its repercussions on the economic situation in Egypt. In fact, the Umayyad failure in the conquest of Byzantium was a signal for its decline and final downfall, which was precipitated by financial pressures aggravated by internal conflict with al-Zubayr’s rebellion. In these dire circumstances, the Umayyad caliphs looked at Egypt as the closest resource on which they could prey without mercy to save themselves economically.

This situation started when the governor of Egypt, ‘Abd al-Aziz ibn Marwan, decided to relegate his position to his own son al-Asbagh. The new governor proved to be one of the worst Egypt had had. His thirst for levying taxes was insatiable, and, curiously, he was aided by a Copt named Benjamin, who showed him all the hiding places of Coptic wealth that could be confiscated. Al-Asbagh imposed extraordinary taxation, beyond the normal capitation of the JIZYAH (poll tax), and for the first time in history imposed it on the monks in the desert.

Furthermore, he imposed a levy of 2,000 dinars above the normal tax of the KHARAJ (communal tax) on every bishop. So squeezed were the Copts by both legal and illegal imposts that many of them were constrained to convert to Islam as a means of escape from these financial burdens. Such Coptic notables such as Butrus, the viceroy of Upper Egypt, his brother Theodorus, and his son Theophanes, governor of Mareotis, feigned conversion.

Harboring so much hatred for the Christians, al-Asbagh was not satisfied with his financial loot from the Copts. He reviled Christ and spat in the face of the image of Our Lady during a Coptic procession at a monastery in Hilwan. The History of the Patriarchs states that he was chastized by sudden death, and that his father met his end forty days after his son. The Coptic archon Athanasius, accompanied by his sons, decided to go to Damascus to complain to the caliph, ‘Abd al-Malik. Instead of responding to their appeal by the application of justice, the caliph ordered the arrest of Athanasius and his companion, as well as the confiscation of the whole of their fortunes.

In 705 he sent to Egypt a new governor, ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Abd al-Malik, who proved to be worse than his predecessor. On his arrival in the capital, the patriarch went to greet him. Instead of receiving him, the governor ordered the patriarch’s arrest and demanded the immediate payment of 3,000 dinars as a price for his freedom. A deacon by the name of Jirja al-Tamrawi, from Damru, an influential Coptic archon, came forth to appeal for the release of the patriarch under his own guarantee for a few months, during which he would tour Upper Egypt to collect the amount requested from the faithful. Only after the payment of the illegal impost could the patriarch regain the full freedom to return to his capital.

The same story recurred throughout the patriarchate of Alexander II, the only differences being that the financial imposts were multiplied and were accompanied by ferocious treatment of the innocent and helpless subjects. It had been customary for every new caliph to appoint a new governor, who naturally renewed his claim for more taxation beyond the limitations of the jizyah and the kharaj. People began to flee their domiciles to escape this harsh treatment. The governors resorted to means of forcing the return of escapees and invented all means of realizing their aims, by tattooing, cauterizing, and even chaining their victims with lead and iron bracelets or pendants. Confiscation of property and cattle was not unusual in farmlands.

Even death was treated irreverently, by confiscating the property of a deceased person, instead of passing the inheritance to the heirs. Unheard-of humiliations, contrary to the Covenant of ‘Umar with Patriarch BENJAMIN, together with brutal imposts, became the order of the day at the installation of all new governors, who descended on the people like vultures or ferocious animals, without the slightest regard for human dignity. Even the religious personalities, previously exempt from the merciless financial imposts, began to be subjected to the same treatment as the rest of the population. Incarceration, flogging, amputation of limbs, and even outright murder of a delinquent subject were customary punishments. No one could escape the clutches of a new viceroy (wali).

The accession of al-Walid ibn ‘Abd al-Malik brought about changes in provincial governors, as existing authorities were replaced by friends of al-Walid. Qurrah Shurayk thus became governor of Egypt in 709. He turned out to be even worse in dealing with his subjects. During his reign, the condition of the country was worsened by a plague outbreak, which killed many Copts and Muslims, including Governor Qurrah in the year 714.

His successor, ‘Abd al-Malik ibn Rifa‘ah al-Fahmi (714-717), was inaugurated in the midst of an outbreak of famine that killed more people than the previous plague. It was also during the caliphate of al-Walid that a royal decree was issued to the governor of Egypt to impose the use of Arabic instead of Coptic in the manipulation of the tax registers. In the period of the siege of Constantinople that began in 716, people were forbidden from hosting sailors from Byzantium—which halted the progress of international trade and impoverished the country even more than before, while the caliph’s thirst for funding his Byzantine expeditions freed the governor’s men to pillage whatever they could find in Egypt.

All the gold and silver utensils used in sacramental services were looted, and even pillars of precious colored marble and beautiful carved wooden structures were taken from churches for other, profane uses. Occasionally, monasteries were invaded; some were completely ruined, and their monks carried away for slave work in the Islamic fleet. A Chalcedonian named Anastasius bribed the governor to place a Chalcedonian physician by the name of Onopus on the throne of Saint Mark instead of Alexander II. This movement was foiled by the Alexandrian people, and Onopus rescinded his claim and asked forgiveness.

With the accession of ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz (717-720) to the Umayyad caliphate, a period of respite dawned on the Copts, for the new caliph issued a number of edicts for the relief of churches and episcopates from past, illegal financial imposts. He also directed his men to concentrate on the restoration of ruined towns and villages. So people lived in relative peace and security until a new governor, Ayyub ibn Sharhabil, was appointed for Egypt in 717. A reversal of the policy of understanding followed. The caliph wrote the governor that only Muslims should be in his employ, and Copts who wanted to remain in office would have to apostatize to Islam. In this way, according to the History of the Patriarchs, “he was like Antichrist” (p. 326 [text]; p. 72 [trans]).

The accession of Yazid II (720-724) to the caliphate after ‘Umar brought a renewal of the rule of financial terror and miseries, since he restored the imposts suppressed by his predecessor and further ordered the destruction of crosses and all the sacred images from churches. The situation was somewhat mended only by his death and the succession of his brother Hisham (724-743), who, according to the History of the Patriarchs, “was a God-fearing man. and he became the deliverer of the Orthodox” (p. 327 [text]; p. 73 [trans.]).

Nevertheless, the appointment of a new viceroy for Egypt, ‘Ubayd- Allah ibn al-Habhab, with full powers to raise the kharaj tax, did not leave either the patriarch, Alexander II, or the people, Copts and Muslims, in peace. Ibn al-Habhab devised accurate registers of all landed property, vineyards, and even the cattle in all villages and towns, a kind of Domesday Book, to ensure the payment of all dues to the state. To ensure the execution of his financial policy, he ordered all subjects, young and old, aged twenty to one hundred, to wear a distinguishing leaden badge around their necks.

Further, the Copts were to be branded with the mark of a lion on their hands as their passport to practice trading, and anyone found without that mark would have his hand cut off. Also, groups of townsfolk were mustered for slave labor in the building of palaces for the governor at Giza and Memphis, and the kharaj taxes were doubled.

The miseries and financial imposts resulted in a rebellious mood, and blood was spilled in the successive local revolts, especially in the cities of Bana, Sa, and Samannud in Lower Egypt. These hard times weighed heavily on the conscience of the patriarch, who met them with fortitude. But when it was decided to brand the patriarch, he categorically refused to submit to this humiliation and asked to be allowed to go to al-Fustat (Cairo) to present his case personally to the viceroy, ‘Ubayd-Allah. Thus, he was dispatched to the capital with a special military bodyguard. While his request to see the viceroy was denied, he remained at al-Fustat under a kind of house arrest.

There he became sick and, in the company of Anba Shamul, bishop of Awsim, decided to flee from incarceration on a ship heading for Alexandria. Reaching Tarnut, the sick patriarch died while the governor’s soldiers pursued him, and when they found him dead, they seized Anba Shamul and returned with him to al-Fustat, where he was accused of complicity in the patriarchal flight and fined 1,000 dinars. In the end, the faithful were able to raise 300 dinars for his captors and the impecunious bishop was consequently allowed to go.

After one of the hardest reigns in patriarchal annals, Alexander went to his rest. After twenty-five years of continuous suffering, his body was taken to Alexandria for burial amid the immense grief of his congregation.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Atiya, A. S. History of Eastern Christianity. London, 1968.
  • Cambridge History of Islam, ed. P. M. Holt, A. K. S. Lambton, and 1970. 2 vols. Cambridge, 1970.
  • Lane-Poole, S. The Mohammadan Dynasties. London, 1894.
  •  . History of Egypt in the Middle Ages. London, 1901.

SUBHI LABIB

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