The Historia ecclesiastica of Eusebius contains important information on the persecutions of Christians in Egypt (which here always includes Alexandria) and on Egyptian martyrs. Special importance attaches to those passages in which he quotes from the writings of eyewitnesses or is himself giving a report as an eyewitness. In Book VI.41-42, Eusebius gives an extensive extract from the letter of DIONYSIUS (247-264), bishop of Alexandria, to Bishop Fabius of Antioch, which among other things has a description of the martyrdom of Apollonia in the riots shortly before the Decian persecution.
In VIII.10 he quotes from a letter of Phileas of Thmuis, who died a martyr in the persecution under DIOCLETIAN. According to VIII.9, Eusebius witnessed martyrdoms in Egypt. In his Martyrs of Palestine he also gives information on the sufferings of Egyptian Christians in Palestine and on deportations to Egypt. Also first-rate sources are papyri from the Age of Persecution, such as the libelli of the Decian persecution (Bludau, 1931) and the Apologia of Phileas of Thmuis, which contains the conversation between Culcianus, his judge, and the martyr, which was followed, according to the heading, by the latter’s death on 4 February 306 (Halkin, 1963, pp. 5-27). A compilation and discussion of all the information about the persecutions, including that found in later authors and in monastic literature, is provided by H. Delehaye (1922, pp. 7-41).
When the Age of Persecution had ended, a flourishing cult of the martyrs grew up in Egypt, with features typical of that country. Despite the opposition of ATHANASIUS, the custom spread of exhibiting mummified martyrs on stands for veneration. Around the year 600, a network of martyrs’ sanctuaries covered the country. As the criticism of Shenute of Athribia shows, the feast days of the martyrs were very popular festivals. The sanctuaries of the martyrs Cyrus and John in Menuthis, and especially that of ABU MINA, attracted numerous pilgrims, foreigners among them. (On the cult of martyrs, see Baumeister, 1972, pp. 51-86; also Römische Quartalschrift 69 :1-6 and pl. 1.)
In the train of increasing veneration of the martyrs, there was created a whole literature—partly patterned on genuine acts of maryrs—of legends portraying the martyr as a true victor and friend of God to whom one could commit oneself in veneration. In all their variety, the Greek- language legends of the martyrs that came into being in Egypt correspond to the general form of the hagiography of the martyrs. On the other hand, the Coptic passions are more uniform in appearance.
There was a preference for a legend with numerous healings and resuscitations of the martyr before he victoriously passed over to the heavenly world. Variations are provided by frequent changes of location. The link with the martyr’s sanctuary is emphasized. It appears that the oldest Greek legend of George, or related literature, was the prototype for this kind of Coptic legend—preference for which may be connected with ancient Egyptian ideas of integrity. In Egypt the trend of translating activities runs from Greek via the Coptic dialects to Arabic.
Sahidic initially predominated, then Bohairic. Sometimes texts originating in Egypt were translated into Ethiopic. Greek items may have found their way into all the languages of the ancient church. Thus, for instance, a Sahidic and a Latin version may be witnesses to a Greek original. Consequently, regard must be given to all these languages in undertaking a reconstruction of Egyptian martyr hagiography.
Further literary evidence on the cult of martyrs is constituted by collections of miracle tales, sermons with stories of martyrdom, and calendars showing feast days. There is the Synaxarium Alexandrinum available in the editions of J. Forget (CSCO, Scriptores Arabici 3-5, 11-13) and R. M. J. Basset (PO 1-20). Account must also be taken of the Greek synaxaria, the Martyrologium Hieronymianum, and the Ethiopic Calendar of Saints (Delehaye, 1922, pp. 41-113). Archaeology, epigraphy, and travelers’ reports provide further testimony.
Modern research on Egypt’s traditions about the martyrs began from the moment people took an interest in Coptic manuscripts and began to collect them (eighteenth century). Editing of the texts has not been concluded thus far; much remains to be done. The question of historicity had special priority as a research interest. Delehaye tackled the problem, making use of the hagiographical method developed by the Bollandists. The danger lay in assessing the Coptic legends only in terms of the ideal of historical reporting.
Alongside the problem of history, there were, early on, interests relating to the history of the language and to grammar and lexicography, which led to involvement with the Coptic texts on the martyrs. E. C. Amélineau obtained important information, from topographical data pertaining to the cult of the martyrs, on the geography of Christian Egypt (1893). There is evidence of efforts to investigate Egyptian martyr hagiography in respect to problems in social history, the history of religion, and church history.
- Amélineau, E. C. La Géographie de l’Egypte à l’époque copte. Paris, 1893.
- Baumeister, T. Martyr invictus. Münster, 1972.
- Bludau, A. Die ägyptischen Libelli und die Christen-verfolgung des Kaisers Decius. Freiburg im Breisgau, 1931.
- Delehaye, H. “Les martyrs d’Egypte.” Analecta Bollandiana 40 (1922):5-154, 299-364.
- Godron, G. Textes coptes relatifs à Saint Claude d’Antioche. PO 35, H. Turnhout, 1970.
- O’Leary, De L. The Saints of Egypt. Amsterdam, 1974. Reprint of 1937 edition.
- Orlandi, T., et al. Testi e documenti per lo studio dell’ antichità. Serie copta. Milan (various dates in progress).
- Reymond, E. A. E., and J. W. B. Barns. Four Martyrdoms from the Pierpont Morgan Coptic Codices. Oxford, 1973.