COPTS AND THE CRUSADES
To understand the position of the Copts vis-à-vis the movement of the Crusading expeditions from the West against the Muslim Middle Eastern countries, one must go back to the time of the last ecumenical council of CHALCEDON in 451. The reason for this inquiry is to elucidate Coptic feelings toward those Western nations as a result of their theological arguments over the single or dual nature of Jesus Christ, the problem of his divinity and humanity. In other words, this was the problem of MONOPHYSITISM against the conception of dyophysitism.
The theological background of this problem is complex, but the differences between the Copts and their Western peers at this meeting, which the Copts ultimately considered to be out of the ecumenical movement, led to an irreparable breach between the two sets of delegations. Whereas the Copts clung firmly to the union of the two natures of God, the Western delegation swung toward the idea of dyophysitism. The Copts became alienated from the West as totally heretical, while the Western delegation was condemned by the Copts as equally heretical.
The Coptic sources and the history of subsequent patriarchs indicate Coptic bitterness against the Dyophysitic West. They could never forgive the Western delegation for the deposition of DIOSCORUS I (444-458) and for his being exiled to Gangra because of his firm stand against his adversaries on Coptic monophysitism. While Dioscorus was regarded in the West as a heretic, the Copts considered him one of their prominent saints and continued glorifying him until the beginning of the Crusades in the eleventh century.
The Copts in principle could never have condoned this new movement of their old antagonists against the countries of the Middle East, whatever their motives might have been. In the meantime, the Crusaders from the West against Islam could not envisage any possibility of a united front with the Eastern Christians, even assuming that they were aware of their existence in these Muslim countries, which is somewhat doubtful after the lapse of more than five centuries since Chalcedon. In fact, the sources, both Western and Eastern, show beyond a shadow of doubt that the Copts had never forgotten Chalcedon, which they continued to curse, while the West became almost oblivious of the events of 451.
Nevertheless, the conquest of Jerusalem in 1099 and the appropriation of the Holy Sepulcher by the Franks led the new Latin kingdom of Jerusalem to prohibit all Eastern Christians, the Copts included, from approaching the holy places because of their heretical views. To the pious Copts this was a very serious decision, since it impeded them from the performance of their annual pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where walking in the steps of Jesus was part and parcel of the fulfillment of the dictates of their Orthodox faith. In other words, the Western War of the Cross turned out to be a hostile movement against the Christians of the East, the Copts included.
This situation naturally turned the Copts against the Crusades, despite their precarious position within the Islamic kingdom, where they suffered even more persecution and financial imposts as a result of a movement that they hardly favored. Even in the mild reigns of men like the Ayyubid sultan al-Kamil, they had to bear most of the brunt of financing the Muslim defense.
The HISTORY OF THE PATRIARCHS by SAWIRUS IBN AL-MUQAFFA‘ includes most of the details of these financial imposts in the course of the biographies of the contemporary patriarchs. Nevertheless, one example is quoted from the biography of MACARIUS II (1102-1128), the sixty-ninth Coptic patriarch, which touches the crusading campaign of 1106 by King Baldwin of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem against al-Farama on the frontier of Fatimid Egypt. Al-Muqaffa‘ eloquently expresses Coptic feelings toward the Crusades and his loyalty toward the Fatimid caliphate. He writes:
And in Abib of the year eight hundred and thirty-four of the Martyrs, and it was the fifteenth year of the patriarchate of the saintly father Abba (Anba) Macarius (Maqarah) the Patriarch, Baldwin (Bardwil) the leader of the Franks (al-Faranj) arrived with a great army at al-Farama, and he pillaged it and he burned it, and he determined upon a sudden attack against Cairo (Misr). Then he fell sick, and on the third day his sickness became serious, and he commanded his companions to carry him and to return to Syria (al-Sham). Then they carried him and returned, and when they reached al-‘Arish, he died there.
Then they cut open his belly and they salted him, as he had commanded them. And they returned with him to Jerusalem (al-Quds). And it happened, when news of their arrival at al-Farama reached the noble Lord al-Afdal, he raised a great army (to oppose) them. When Baldwin (Bardwil), their leader, died, and they returned, the army pursued them to Syria (al-Sham), and returned, and God protected us against their deeds. We asked Him whose Name (is) great, to perpetuate His mercy and His grace; and to inspire us to give thanks to Him and to cause us not to forget the remembrance of Him through His goodness and glory.
And when it was the Sunday of the half of (the month of) Kiyahk (in the) year five hundred and eleven of the Tax Year (al- Kharajiyyah) and it (was) the end of the month of Ramadan of the year five hundred and fifteen of the lunar (year), on the morrow of which would be the fitr (fast breaking), the noble Lord al-Afdal rode from his house to Cairo (Misr) which is called the House of the King (Dar al-Mulk) and he went up to Cairo (al-Qahirah) the protected, and he entered into the noble Castle, and he sat before our Sire al-Amir bi-Ahkamillah [History of the Patriarchs, Vol. 3, pt. 1, pp. 35-36].
The sum total of this purely Coptic record is the outspoken feeling of loyalty to the Fatimid rulers of the country and the recognition by the Coptic community of the protection God granted them against the invaders.
Even at the time when Saladin was applying so much pressure on the Coptic community during the patriarchate of MARK III (1167-1189), the Copts looked upon the reconquest of the city of Jerusalem in 1187 with excitement. It opened the gates of the holy places before them and removed the barrier of the Frankish kingdom, which had interrupted their relations with the sister church of Antioch. In other words, the disappearance of Frankish rule from the holy places and their return to the Muslim kingdom was a blessing to the Eastern Christians.
This situation lasted even beyond the fall of ‘Akka in 1291 and the total extermination of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem. Since that date, and even before it, the perennial raids of the shadowy hosts of the Crusade on Egyptian industrial towns situated on the Mediterranean littoral proved to be mere hit-and-run raids after the pillaging of such coastal towns as Damietta in 1249, where the pillage of the textile factories included mainly those possessed by Coptic craftsmen.
A new chapter in the Crusades began in the fourteenth century when Philippe de Mézières, the French chancellor of the kingdom of Cyprus, established a new military order called the Order of the Passion of Jesus Christ. This was under the leadership of King Peter I of Cyprus, who conducted a multinational army against the city of Alexandria in 1365. They were incapable of penetrating Egyptian territory beyond that city, but the havoc, destruction, and pillage thereof was extensive. The city had a strong Coptic community, which suffered equally with the Muslim inhabitants at the hands of these invaders.
This happened during the reign of the Mamluk sultan Sha‘ban (1363-1377), a boy of eleven under the tutelage of the atabeg Yalbogha, who was unable to marshal enough manpower to save Alexandria. Both Muslims and Copts were massacred. Mosques and churches were sacked or burned. Sources mention the story of a crippled old Coptic woman who saved some of the treasured relics of her church by ceding all her possessions to the marauding Crusaders and thereby deflecting their passage from her Coptic church.
The ships of the retreating pillagers were so heavily laden with prisoners and other booties that the sailors had to throw much back into the sea, and Egyptian divers had to work hard in salvaging what they could for a long time after 1365. This expedition and the Cypriot holocaust of Alexandria provided an eloquent demonstration of the place of the Copts in the history of the Crusades.
It is clear that the Copts were excluded from the Muslim armies of defense because they paid the poll tax (JIZYAH) as a fee toward the employment of their substitutes in the armed forces. But it is definitely established by Muslim and Coptic sources that Islamized Copts did not only join the Islamic hosts but reached the highest ministerial positions, controlling the finances and very structure of the forces that fought the Crusaders. Doubtless those Islamized Copts must have played a prominent role in the extermination of the Frankish Latin kingdom of Jerusalem.
- Atiya, A. S. The Crusade in the Later Middle Ages. London, 1938.
- ___. Crusade, Commerce, and Culture. Bloomington, Ind., 1962.
- Runciman, S. A Story of the Crusades, 3 vols. Cambridge, 1951-1954.