Saint and seventy-fourth patriarch of the See of Saint Mark (1189-1216). John VI proved to be one of the most significant personalities to occupy the throne of Saint Mark since the ARAB CONQUEST OF EGYPT. He was a layman by the name of Abu al- Majd ibn Abi Ghalib ibn Sawirus, and his original vocation was commerce, where he acquired tremendous wealth that he gave generously to charity and used for the development of his church. He was a man of great stature and virtuous character. He was an outspoken bachelor and was well acquainted with Biblical knowledge and with his church’s doctrines and traditions.
He was probably the only Copt to occupy an eminent position in the membership of the Karimi Guild of merchants, which remained predominantly Islamic in character. The Karim Guild traded in all the valuables of India and the Far East, and Abu al-Majd is said to have undertaken voyages in the Red Sea for the acquisition of trade items from Yemen and elsewhere. He was a member of one of the most important Karimite companies, known as Awlad (sons of) al- Jabbab. He was highly regarded by the company because he once saved their fortune by rescuing ships that were foundering in the Red Sea.
After the death of MARK III, the archons of the Coptic community in Misr nominated Abu al-Majd for the patriarchate despite the fact that he was not affiliated with any monastic institution nor did he have any past experience in the ecclesiastical hierarchy. He was, of course, better known to the Coptic people through the generous distribution of his wealth. At first he was reluctant to accept the nomination, but curiously enough it was his Muslim partners who prevailed upon him to accept the nomination. It is said that the same Muslim party spared no effort or expense to see him elected, although, according to the Muslim historian al- MAQRIZI, Abu al-Majd was trying to promote a monk from the monastery of al-Tin at the village of al-‘Adawiyyah south of al- Fustat (Cairo). In the end, he gave way to the unanimous voice of the Coptic ARCHONS, and contrary to established custom, he was directly consecrated as patriarch on 11 Amshir A.M. 905/A.D. 1188, one month and five days after the death of Mark III.
Although the date of his birth is unknown, it must be assumed that he was a middle-aged man when he acceded to the throne of Saint Mark, during the latter days of the sultanate of Salih Salah al- Din (Saladin) (1171-1193). He was a contemporary of the early Ayyubid sultans. Consequently, he witnessed one of the most critical periods in the history of the country including the tremendous contest between East and West in the Crusade movement. Even before his enthronement, he must have watched Saladin’s progress toward the decisive battle of Hittn (1187) and the fall of Jerusalem soon afterward. It is doubtful that he was aware of the details of subsequent crusades and Muslim counter-crusades; what mattered most to him was the opening of Jerusalem to Coptic pilgrims under Muslim rule. This was after years of Frankish domination when the Roman Catholic lords of the holy places forbade Copts, considered heretics, from approaching Jerusalem.
Failing to defend Jerusalem, the crusaders began harassing Egypt by attacking its cities situated on the Mediterranean littoral, including Damietta and Rosetta, and sometimes penetrating the Delta toward Cairo. They pillaged industrial centers where the best textiles were manufactured. This happened repeatedly during the sultanates of al-‘Adil down to that of al-Kamil. The situation in Egypt itself was an unhappy one. The fall of the Nile and the failure in agricultural products led to famine; and crusader inroads took their toll. Yet it should be remembered that all this was of a temporary nature and bound to disappear. However, the wave of persecution of the Copts inaugurated by Salih Salah al-Din and intensified during the patriarchate of Mark III gradually began to subside in John VI’s time, and the Copts were relieved from past pressures and humiliating treatment. They began to recover and pursue their activities undisturbed.
One factor that must have helped the return to normalcy was the successive missions of the Ethiopian emperor, who sent substantial gifts to the sultans of Egypt. These were accompanied by epistles requesting the sultans to intercede with the patriarch for the consecration of a Coptic archbishop to his country, while pleading with them for fair and just treatment of their Coptic subjects. The Ethiopian gifts must have impressed the sultans tremendously. Once the Ethiopian monarch sent the patriarch a jeweled gold crown that he in turn ceded to the sultan. On another occasion the royal gift consisted of an elephant, a lion, a giraffe, and a zebra. The appearance of such strange items must have caused great commotion at the court. And both al-‘Adil and al-Kamil could not but listen to the appeals of the Ethiopian sovereign.
John VI appointed as archbishop a lay bachelor like himself, a man who was knowledgeable in matters of religion and Coptic church traditions. His name was Kil ibn al-Mulabbis and he came from the city of Tukh in the Gharbiyyah Province. Kil was well- received in the Abyssinian capital and remained there for four years, after which he found it necessary to return to Egypt. John VI sent a priest by the name of Musa, together with one of his assistants, to make an inquiry into the situation, and they found out that Kil was involved in the murder of an Abyssinian priest of high standing. Consequently, the patriarch hastened to appoint a substitute to Kil, this time a monk by the name of Isaac from the monastery of Saint Antony (DAYR ANBA ANTUNIYUS), who was dispatched amidst celebration with his brother who was also a priest.
Evidently these celebrations, in which Muslims and Christians participated without distinction, ameliorated the position of the Copts and the patriarch with the Muslim rulers. Nevertheless, John’s reign was marked by a number of local difficulties. In one instance, a monk named Yuhanna, from Saint Macarius, converted to Islam, a most unusual occurrence. He was rewarded for his apostasy by al‘Adil, who appointed Yuhanna as tax collector in the city of Mit- Ghamr, a position that he held for three years. Then he changed his mind and later approached Sultan al-Kamil with a shroud in his hand and asked permission to return to his Christian faith or otherwise suffer the usual execution for those who recanted. The benign sultan permitted his return and gave him a protective decree against abuse by Muslim fanatics. A similar case arose of an Islamized Upper Egyptian who wanted to recant and who approached the sultan for the same treatment as Yuhanna. This plea was refused and the sultan sent an agent to DAYR ANBA MAQAR to offer Yuhanna Islamization or decapitation. Yuhanna chose Islamization and was returned to his previous position at Mit-Ghamr.
A second crisis in John’s reign was precipitated by the same Yuhanna, who reported to the sultan that a treasure trove of gold and silver utensils was discovered in a pit at Dayr Anba Maqar. The sultan hastened to lay his hand on the treasure, but found only the usual sacramental instruments that were identified for him by another Islamized Copt. The man who dug the pit exposed the fraudulent report of Yuhanna. The Sultan took no further measures of confiscation, and the case was closed.
It is interesting to note that the Muslim historian al-Maqrizi quoted Coptic sources on the reforms made by John VI, including suppression of the simoniacal practice known as CHEIROTONIA. He recorded that John was impervious to accepting gifts from his bishops and that he never laid hands on provisions from the members of his congregation. On the contrary, he gave away all the fortune he accumulated from commerce, amounting to 17,000 dinars, to charitable institutions throughout his patriarchate.
- Atiya, A. S. Crusade Commerce and Culture. Bloomington, Ind., 1962.
- Lane-Poole, S. History of Egypt in the Middle Ages. London, 1901.
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- Runciman, S. History of the Crusades, 3 vols. Cambridge, 1951-1954.
SUBHI Y. LABIB