The term “Copt” and the adjective “Coptic” are derived from the Arabic qibt, which in turn is a corruption of the Greek term for the indigenous population of Egypt (Agyptos and Aigyptioi). Initially, after the Arab conquest of Egypt (639-641), the new rulers of the country used the word as a designation for the country’s non-Arabic speaking non-Muslim inhabitants, who were Christians.
When the great majority of the Egyptians gradually converted to Islam, they naturally ceased to be qibt. Later, “Copt” and “Christian” became virtually synonymous. This must not obscure the fact that the term “Copt” and its adjective “Coptic” are elastic in an ethnic, cultural, and religious sense. A certain amount of confusion has surrounded the use of the term “Copt” by scholars of several disciplines and sometimes of the same discipline.
In theological parlance, the term “Copt” is used specifically to identify the adherents of the Egyptian Church (the Coptic Orthodox Church), which broke off relations with Constantinople and became a national church after the Council of Chalcedon. The term “Copt” applies also to small minorities of Christian Egyptians who have become Catholic and Protestant and belong respectively to the Catholic Coptic Church and the Evangelical Coptic Church.
The Coptic language is the last stage of the ancient Egyptian language that was the spoken daily language of all the Egyptians, probably as late as the 11th century when it began to be superseded by Arabic. Coptic art is a distinctive art that appeared in the third or fourth century and survived as late as the 13th or 14th century.
The Ethiopian Church is often called Coptic because it has shared close ties with the Coptic Orthodox Church and recognized its Coptic patriarch from the fourth century to as late as 1948. Scholars use the term “Coptic Period” in connection with the history of the Coptic Church or the Copts from the beginning of the formation of the Coptic language, or from the Council of Chalcedon (451), to the Arab conquest of Egypt. However, the Copts enriched the Egyptian civilization throughout their long history, and they still contribute to every aspect of Egypt’s culture.