Eighty-ninth patriarch of the See of Saint Mark (1427-1452). John’s life before his selection is unknown. His biography in the HISTORY OF THE PATRIARCHS is restricted to the dates of his investiture and decease. In fact, the biographers of that period of the fourteenth century have refrained from dealing with the events of most patriarchal reigns, and we have to look for this material in the contemporary Islamic sources.
We do not know with which monastery John was affiliated at the time of his election, which took place during the sultanate of the Mamluk al-Ashraf Barsbay (1422-1438). He was a contemporary of Jamal al-Din Yusuf (1438) and died in the latter years of the reign of Jaqmaq (1438-1453).
Perhaps the major event that occurred in the early years of John’s patriarchate concerned the question of the inheritances of deceased Copts and Jews. According to al-MAQRIZI, in his greed for collecting funds, al-Ashraf Barsbay appointed a person of “low character” to attend to this function. His name does not appear in any source, for all sources were disgusted with his policy of illegal appropriation of property on the death of the owner. Heirs were requested to provide official documents proving their ownership, otherwise, they were dispossessed of their land, which went to the state. The property of a deceased person without heirs was immediately confiscated. This rule brought the state in conflict with the patriarch who was accused of acquiring such property. The patriarch defended his position by asserting that the church took the lands only if they were expressly bequeathed to the church by the deceased owners.
Another order that interfered with the sanctity of individual residences was the inspection of Coptic homes for confiscation of all wine receptacles, which were then spilled and destroyed.
Coptic religious institutions fared as badly as Coptic homes. In A.H. 840/A.D. 1436, a Mamluk emir riding through Shubra al- Khiyam (the modern Shubra al-Khaymah), a suburb of Cairo, destroyed a Coptic church. He then allowed the mob to pillage its stores while the sacred relics contained in its sanctuary were burned.
In the following year, the ancient foundation of DAYR AL- MAGHTIS by the Lake Burullus, a highly revered Coptic pilgrimage center, was also destroyed. In 1439, portions of the CHURCH OF AL-MU‘ALLAQAH in Old Cairo were destroyed by government representatives on the pretext that they were modern restorations outside the terms of the COVENANT OF ‘UMAR.
The state of confusion of the Mamluk administration spared neither Copts nor Muslims from encroachments on their possessions, nor were they protected from continuous searches of their homes. The situation of the people was worsened by an outbreak of the plague. In Upper Egypt, the marauding Hawwarah Arabs descended on the unprotected valley and looted both cattle and agricultural products, while a plague of rats exterminated what was left.
In 1440 Damietta, on the Mediterranean littoral, was the scene of occurrences of a different nature. A Frankish fleet attacked three Islamic ships in the waters of that city, and its Muslim sailors were either killed or drowned. A Christian native of Damietta, whose national identity is unclear, celebrated the sad news and infuriated the bereaved Muslim inhabitants, who seized him and wanted to kill him. His name was Jirjis, and the viceroy Nasir al-Din ibn Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Sallam came to his rescue and offered the application of justice to his case. Jirjis feigned apostasy to Islam, thinking that that would save his skin. But even this could not relieve him, and in the end he was condemned to death, and his body was burned. The mob then pillaged, but did not destroy, the Christian churches.
In Cairo, in 1441, a Copt by the name of al-‘Afif was arrested for a crime, was beaten, and was released only after he had espoused Islam, but his children were allowed to retain their Christianity.
Ibn Taghri Bardi reports, in his work Al-Nujum al-Zahirah (Vol. 15, p. 384), that the sultan issued a decree forbidding the Coptic physicians to treat sick Muslims. Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani, in his work Inba’ al-Ghumr bi Abna’ al-‘Umr (1967-1976), gives examples of Copts converting to Islam and being punished when they changed their minds.
Although the Coptic sources have refrained from mentioning names of Copts who apostatized to Islam in the later Middle Ages, the Islamic annals of those times have listed a considerable number of them, especially those who occupied the highest positions in the administration, from secretarial to ministerial dignitaries as well as those in finances and in the high Islamic judicial system.
On the international scene, Egyptian relations with foreign countries in the fifteenth century were marred by the monopolistic policy of commerce imposed by the Mamluk sultans leading the European trade republics and Spain to seek a new route to the land of “Prester John” and the Far East. The same policy also affected the relations with Ethiopia, which was connected with Egypt through its religious dependence on the patriarchate of John XI. Thus in the end, its Abyssinian sovereigns decided to mend relations with the Mamluk sultans by dispatching a special embassy who carried a precious gift of gold and the rare medicinal products of the country. The embassy also submitted a royal brief asking the authorities in Egypt to refrain from harassing the Copts and to let them live in peace and security with their churches intact (al-Maqrizi, 1956, Vol. 4, pt. 2, p. 1024). Neither the Coptic nor the Islamic sources provide any specific information about the situation of the Coptic church in Nubia nor do they treat the relationship with the sister Monophysite church of Antioch.
- Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani. Al-Durar al-Kaminah, 6 vols. Hyderabad, 1972-1976.
- Lane-Poole, S. History of Egypt in the Middle Ages. London, 1901.
- . The Mohammadan Dynasties. Paris, 1925.