The thirty-eighth patriarch of the See of Saint Mark (622- 661). He was born about 590 at Barshut, a village in the province of Beheirah in the western Delta.
Benjamin was undoubtedly one of the greatest patriarchs of the Coptic church. He lived through the tremendous upheavals of the Persian invasion (619-629) and the ARAB CONQUEST OF EGYPT in 641. He was able to steer the church through these turbulent and confused times to a fresh beginning side by side with the emerging power of Islam.
The story of Benjamin’s youth is obscure, although he came from a Coptic family with comfortable means. Since Alexandria was within reach of his village, it can be assumed that he had a measure of education in that capital city. No record of the size of his family exists, but it is known that he had one brother, Mennas, who was tortured with fire by the Byzantine patriarch, Cyrus, and brutally murdered by drowning in the Nile. This occurred because Mennas refused to accept the Chalcedonian profession of faith or to reveal the whereabouts of his fugitive brother, a demonstration of the steadfast character of his family in matters of faith and national pride.
Benjamin’s early life was marked by ascetic habits, and in 620 at the rather mature age of thirty, he took the monastic vow at the monastery of Canopus, which had escaped destruction by the Persians because of its isolated geographical situation. Here he improved his asceticism under the prevailing Pachomian monastic rule within the complex of monastic settlements better known in the Lower Egyptian tradition. Here, too, Benjamin found his spiritual mentor in an old holy man by the name of Theonas who vested him with the schema or monastic garment. Theonas also instructed him in the virtues of monasticism—holiness, patience, and self-control— as well as in the study of the Holy Scriptures, which indicates that he was not illiterate. He is known to have concentrated on and memorized the Gospel of Saint John.
Theonas presented his pupil to the reigning patriarch, ANDRONICUS, who had become aware of Benjamin’s piety and ability. Following a tradition of the Coptic church, Andronicus retained Benjamin in his service, ordained him as priest, and appointed him as his assistant, anticipating his possible succession to the patriarchate. The new position acquainted Benjamin with the conduct of church affairs as well as with the various elements of the community, whose high esteem he won. This paved the way for his election and succession to the patriarchate after the death of Andronicus.
Little is known about the early years of Benjamin’s pontificate beyond the issuance of encyclicals to fix the date of Easter and to instruct the clergy in matters of doctrine. He managed to steer the church out of the difficult period of the Persian invasion. Though the originals of the encyclicals of his reign were lost, Benjamin is known to have collected fifteen and edited them in codex form.
In 631, Cyrus, or Kyros, the Chalcedonian bishop of Phasis in the Caucasus, was appointed by Emperor Heraclius both as Melchite patriarch of Egypt and as prefect in command of the military forces of the Byzantine province, with explicit orders to curb all religious separatism—by persuasion or, if necessary, by force of arms. The native Benjamin, now a rival patriarch, took to flight from his new enemy, and moved from desert monastery to monastery in order to foil his pursuing persecutors.
A new chapter of merciless persecution of all those who refused to declare recognition of the Chalcedonian profession was inaugurated. It was at this time that Benjamin’s brother, Mennas, joined the native rebels against Cyrus. Property of all clerics who followed the national patriarch in flight was confiscated and many churches were forcibly passed to Melchite hands.
It was at this juncture that ‘Amr ibn al-‘As appeared with a relatively small army on the frontiers of Egypt. The Arab conquest of the province began on 12 December 639, and the fortress of Babylon fell into Arab hands on 9 April 641. The invasion of Alexandria took place on 17 September 642. It is not known whether the Copts played an active role in the invasion. What is certain is that they did not stand by the side of their Byzantine persecutors during the war.
In the meantime, ‘Amr issued a safe-conduct to Benjamin, who seems to have returned to the valley at a slow pace either at the end of 643 or the beginning of 644. Apparently Sanutius (or Shenute), the augustal duke of the Thebaid, who supported the Egyptian cause, gave Benjamin funds to restore the Church of Saint Mark before his departure after the Arab conquest.
Benjamin worked hard to rearrange the affairs of the church and bring back order to its devastated properties and to strengthen the morale of his demoralized people. Then the moment came for a face-to-face encounter with ‘Amr. In this historic meeting of universal importance, ‘Amr is quoted to have said that he had never seen such an impressive man of God as Benjamin (Butler, 1978, p. 442). Although the length and substance of the meeting are unknown, the first conference between the representatives of Egyptian Christianity and Islam was conducted with dignity, a situation that ‘Amr did not find in the Asian conquest. ‘Amr restored to Benjamin all the rights that the Byzantines had denied him, and recognized him as the sole representative of the Egyptian people. The patriarch prayed for ‘Amr, addressing him with admiration. The encounter was a full success for the patriarch.
Benjamin set out to restore the Egyptian church by renewing the policies of one of his great predecessors, DAMIAN. He also laid the foundations of an amicable relationship with the conquerors and ‘Amr, who honored the “People of the Book,” although they were destined to struggle with emerging difficulties at later dates. This was true partly because of disunion between the Christians themselves, as some pockets of sectarians and Melchites had survived the Arab conquest.
However, Benjamin was able in the long run to bring considerable unity to his church. Those who had fled to the Pentapolis began to return, and the bishops such as Cyrus of Nikiou and Victor of Phiom, who had apostatized to the Chalcedonian profession, were persuaded to come back to the mother church. It is said, however, that the Chalcedonians were too numerous, and that some of them clung to their beliefs, leaving a rift within the church. That fact provided some future Islamic authorities with opportunities to set one faction against another in an effort to extort financial benefits from the hard-pressed population.
However, for the time being, those same Islamic authorities were satisfied with Benjamin’s efforts to maintain law and order in the country. He rigorously applied his judicial functions even in accordance with the Byzantine legal system.
The patriarch made pontifical visitations to the dioceses and to monasteries, restoring churches wherever restoration was needed. An impressive feat of his time was the recovery of Saint Mark’s head, which the Greeks wanted to smuggle to Byzantium. In the end, it was probably deposited in the sanctuary bearing his name in the monastery of Saint Macarius (DAYR ANBA MAQAR) between 28 December 645 and 3 January 646 (or 647). It was on this occasion that Benjamin issued his canons to the monks of Saint Macarius.
Benjamin’s strong personality was felt during the governorship of ‘Amr’s successor, ‘Abdallah ibn Sa‘d ibn Abi-al-Sarh ibn al- Harith al-Amiri (A.H. 25-35/A.D. 645-655), whose lust for money came at a time when agricultural products were depleted and people were impoverished. It was through his intercession that solace was brought to the oppressed subjects.
After a long and monumental career, the patriarch passed the last two years of his life stricken with severe illness. After suffering greatly, he died on 3 January 661. So deep was the impression of his long reign on the minds of his contemporaries that the legend was circulated among them that not only did the angels carry his noble soul to heaven but it was also escorted by Saint Athanasius the Apostolic, Saint Severus of Antioch, and Saint Theodosius. These legends attest to his immortal role in saving Egyptian orthodoxy.
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C. DETLEF G. MÜLLER