Fast of Heraclius
This seven-day fast is attributed to Emperor Heraclius (575-642), who rescued the holy cross from the Persians in 629 and restored it to Golgotha. It is erroneously linked with the Coptic church, and taken to account for the first seven of the fifty-five days forming the Coptic Great Lent. The misconception arises from the following historical event.
When the triumphant emperor reached Tiberias on his way back from Persia, he was lobbied by the Jewish population who succeeded through lavish gifts in acquiring his written pledge of security. This they did to forestall any possible acts of retribution on the part of the Christian population of the Holy Land. However, on his arrival at Jerusalem, the Christians pointed out to the emperor concrete evidence of the devastation caused by the Jews during the years of the Persian occupation and urged him to punish them. Heraclius was at first reluctant to depart from the promise of security he had just granted, but the Byzantine patriarch of Jerusalem and his bishops argued that a promise made under fraud would not be binding. Furthermore, to allay his misgivings, they offered to institute a week’s fast in expiation of his breach of promise and to write to other churches to this effect. Eventually, Heraclius gave orders for the massacre of the Jewish population of Jerusalem.
The story occurs in the chronicles of Sa‘id ibn Batriq (887-940), the Melchite patriarch in Egypt, commonly known as Eutychius, and author of Kitab Nazm al-Jawhar (The String of Pearls). It also appears in Al-Khitat wa-al-Athar by al-MAQRIZI (1364-1442) and in various ecclesiastical histories by, to mention a few, SAWIRUS IBN AL-MUKAFFA‘ and Jirjis ibn al-‘Amid, known as Ibn al- Makin (1205-1273).
The authenticity of some details of this story, however, is questionable, in view of apparent discrepancies. For while both Eutychius and al-Maqrizi state that the week’s fast was to be observed in perpetuity, Ibn al-Makin limits it to forty years. Again, according to one version, the Jews of Jerusalem are said to have been entirely wiped out, but in another version they were only exiled to Egypt and other countries. One historian confines the massacre to Jerusalem and Galilee, others extend it to the whole of Syria and Egypt. Some commentators believe that the fast was a votive offering made by Heraclius himself just before embarking on his crusade against the Persians.
Whatever the case may be, the said fast of Heraclius is completely alien to the Coptic church and its fasts for the following reasons:
At the time of Heraclius, the church of Alexandria had severed its links with Constantinople and established its own fasts as part of its exclusive rites and practices, which would not be affected by foreign events such as a massacre of Jews in Jerusalem.
The tension between the Coptic patriarchs of Alexandria and representatives of Constantinople had reached its utmost limits and prevented contact between the two sides and any exchange of views or recommendations. This was the case at the time of Pope ANASTASIUS (605-616), who was exiled from his lawful seat in Alexandria, and Pope ANDRONICUS (616-622), his successor, and also during the papacy of BENJAMIN I (622-661) who was in exile until the ARAB CONQUEST OF EGYPT in 640.
Ever since the end of the second century when Pope DEMETRIUS I reorganized Coptic fasts, they had become unalterable. The first week of the Great Lent was integrated into fifty-five days of the fast preceding Easter.
It is remarkable that Eutychius and Ibn al-Makin each give another justification for this week’s fast. The former explains that it was added by way of a prelude or preparation, while the latter reckons that the addition of one week made up for the total exclusion of Saturday and Sunday from the lenten fast.
According to the testimony of Etheria (or Egeria), the Spanish traveler who visited the Holy Lands in 382 and 383 (Peregrinatio Aetheriae, 1919), the church of Jerusalem observed an eight-week fast before Easter.