Cosmas II (The Patriarch)

COSMAS II

The fifty-fourth patriarch of the See of Saint Mark (851-858). A native of Samannud, Cosmas joined Dayr Anba Magar as a deacon and then became a presbyter. He was still there when he was summoned by the bishops, the clergy, and the archons of the city of Alexandria to occupy the throne of Saint Mark. His enthronement was hailed by the community of the faithful. It is said that people from adjacent villages and towns came in crowds to Alexandria to render homage to the new patriarch and to offer their pious dues to the church. But in the harangue that followed, fighting broke out between the congregated parties and one person was accidentally killed.

The governor of Alexandria at the time, Ahmad ibn Dinar, on hearing of the unfortunate incident, held the patriarch responsible and put him under house arrest. The governor requested that the patriarch yield to the Islamic administration all the offerings collected, thus leaving him without capital while retaining him under arrest. Two Coptic archons, Maqarah ibn Yusuf and Ibrahim ibn Sawirus, both secretaries at the central administration in al- Fustat (Cairo), were able to prevail upon the governor of Egypt, ‘Abd al-Wahid ibn Yahya, who held the title of vizier, to summon the patriarch to al-Fustat ostensibly to pay the KHARAJ (community tax) but actually to free him from incarceration at Alexandria.

While they helped him to raise the tax, they decided that Cosmas should leave Alexandria and reside in the Christian town of DAMRU, east of Misr (HISTORY OF THE PATRIARCHS, Vol. 2, p. 3), which for the first time became the seat of the patriarchate instead of Alexandria. At Damru the patriarch worked hard on developing the local churches and sent, with two of his bishops, his synodical epistle to the patriarch of Antioch, John (Yuhanna).

The Abbasid caliph at Baghdad at the time was Ja‘far al-Mutawakkil (847-861), and apparently both patriarchs suffered much persecution at his hands. According to the History of the Patriarchs (Vol. 2, pt. 1, p. 6), Egypt seems to have fared the worst, for the caliph appointed a Pharisee named al-Ghayr ‘Abd al-Masih ibn Ishaq, a curious name, probably of an Islamized Eastern Christian, as overseer of the taxes and as governor, with explicit orders to give the Copts no respite on his extraordinary financial imposts.

Consequently, a fierce wave of oppression was inaugurated in Egypt. This was not confined to unusual financial demands but also extended to religion and the social order. In matters of religion, all crosses were to be broken, and the ringing of bells was forbidden. Christian prayers were virtually silenced, and the sale of wine was prohibited in order to deprive the priesthood of the use of sacramental wine. In response, Christians would procure grapevines, soak them in water, and press them for juice as a substitute to the wine in the celebration of the liturgy.

Even prayers for the dead were forbidden and “He [al-Ghayr ‘Abd al-Masih] became even as Diocletian, and his deeds were as his” (History of the Patriarchs, Vol. 2, pt. 1, p. 7). Profane images of devils and pigs were nailed on the entrances of churches, and a movement toward destruction of churches was begun. To humiliate the Christians socially, people were prohibited from riding horses, and they were ordered to wear their dresses dyed in black to distinguish them from Muslims. Matters were made worse by the issuance of a caliphal decree to dismiss all Copts from the government administration and to replace them with Muslims or Islamized Christians.

As a result, many of the Christians, to save themselves from humiliation and utter poverty, apostatized to Islam. These included even prominent Copts, such as Stephen (Ustufan) ibn Andunah, a noted scribe, who converted to Islam with the rest of his children and his family.

However, not long after the replacement of Copts by Muslims in the administration, the finances of the country began to suffer ostensible depletion. Even wealthy Muslims, such as Ibn Sa‘id al- Asfahani, were victimized by Muslim functionaries. Apparently the poll tax (JIZYAH), which had been two dinars, now became as high as fifteen dinars. Living in the country became almost intolerable, and many Copts preferred to abjure their faith to save their skins, while the helpless patriarch looked upon the sordid situation in tears. A new functionary, al-Harith ibn Miskin, proved to be even worse than his predecessor, and the persecution of the Copts continued.

At that time, Byzantine raiders attacked and pillaged the city of Damietta, and the governor employed Coptic slave labor to reinforce the walls of that city as well as other vulnerable cities, such as Alexandria, Rosetta, Burullus, and other coastal towns.

Eventually the authorities became aware of the need to restore the Copts to the administration in order to salvage the depleted economy. Also, the Copts were employed in shipbuilding and manning the fleet, and in the manipulation of seafaring craft. These were badly needed by the Muslims in defense of their coastal fortifications, as well as for launching counterraids on Byzantine shores and islands. Thus, it appears that, at the end of the reign of Caliph al-Mutawakkil, the worst pressures on the Copts in Egypt were partially lifted.

More attention was given to constructive projects, such as the dredging of the Alexandrian harbor to encourage the travel of foreign merchant ships to promote international commerce and to improve agriculture. This explains the return of relative prosperity to the country during the closing days of the patriarchate of Cosmas II, who died during his construction of a church at the village of Danushar in the diocese of Sakha on 21 Hatur. Apparently he was buried in that church.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • Lane-Poole, S. History of Egypt in the Middle Ages. London, 1901. Muir, W. The Caliphate: Its Rise, Decline and Fall. Edinburgh, 1924.
  • Weil, G. Geschichte der Chalifen, 5 vols. Mannheim, 1846-1862.

SUBHI Y. LABIB

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