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Paganism And Christianity In Egypt - Coptic Wiki


During the Roman era, the religious life of Egypt was characterized by great diversity. First, there was the traditional religion inherited from the pharaonic age. The theology and the rituals of the past were preserved by the priests in a number of pharaonic-style temples, such as those in Dandarah, Isna, Idfu, Kom Ombo, Philae, and Nubia, which had been reconstructed under the Ptolemies. Karnak and Luxor substantially retained their original form. Besides reliefs, the temples were decorated with hieroglyphic inscriptions written in a system that varied from temple to temple. These texts appeared to the ordinary Egyptians and Greeks to contain a mysterious wisdom, since for a long time only priests could read hieroglyphs. Indeed, it was in these temples that traditional theology found a last refuge. Astronomy, chemistry, alchemy, medicine, philology, and history also were pursued in the temples.

While these temples were respected by the state authorities and the people, they had a limited effect on the development of beliefs during the Roman rule. They represented isolated fortresses of the past in a transformed world.

Second, the original form of Greek religion was in decline.

Outside Alexandria, the cult of Homeric gods retained importance in Naucratis, Oxyrhynchus, the Fayyum, and Ptolemais. The cult of the Dioscuri constituted a remarkable element. Since they did not have Egyptian counterparts, they remained untouched by any local influence. One of the last products of Greek epic, the Dionysiaca, a compendium of mythology, was composed by NONNOS OF PANOPOLIS.

Third, since Herodotus, the Greeks had discovered common features in Greek and Egyptian deities and had linked them with each other, for instance, Osiris-Dionysus, Isis-Demeter, Isis- Aphrodite, Horus-Apollo, Ammon-Zeus, Mut-Hera, Chonsu- Heracles, -Hermes. After Alexander the Great, the long coexistence of the two ethnic communities made these equations popular with the masses and led to the formation of numerous syncretistic Greco-Egyptian cults. It was Serapis (Osiris-Apis) amalgamated with Zeus, Helius, Hades, Poseidon, and other deities, as well as Isis, who had the greatest appeal to the Greco-Roman world. Greeks living in Egypt were attracted to Egyptian funerary cults and gradually adopted mummification.

Fourth, the Jewish communities in Alexandria and in other places constituted an important religious factor. The Septuagint and the religious treatises of rendered their faith accessible to members of other ethnic groups. They had a temple in Leontopolis from the time of Ptolemay VI Philometor (180-145 B.C.). It was erected by the high Onias (Josephus Flavius Antiquitates 13.3) within the building of a deserted temple of the goddess Bast. After the capture of Jerusalem by Titus (A.D. 70), it was closed.

The suppression of the Jewish revolt in A.D. 115 temporarily broke the power of the Jews in Egypt. Enmity between them and the Greeks in Alexandria was a recurring element. A grave conflict between Christians and Jews in the time of Cyril ended with the sacking of the Jewish quarter.

Fifth, the rest of the cults did not play any prominent part.

Among them, the cults of Jupiter Capitolinus in Arsinoë, of the goddess Roma, and of the emperors received support from the state, though some pagan monuments were dedicated by soldiers stationed in Egypt.

Oriental deities were worshiped in smaller circles. We have a vivid early Ptolemaic description of the Adonis festival in Alexandria in the Adoniazusai of Theocritus, and there is evidence for this cult also from the Roman period when Adonis was identified with Osiris and Aion. Astarte had her cult in Egypt from the time of the New Kingdom. Atargatis also was adopted in Egypt. Mithra had a sanctuary in Alexandria and was venerated in other places. There was a Nanaion in Alexandria built in honor of the semitic goddess Nanaia.


According to Eusebius, Christianity was introduced into Alexandria by Saint Mark, though earlier sources do not mention this mission. Scanty evidence hinders the reconstruction of the history of early Christianity in Egypt. The earliest record is a fragmentary papyrus of the Gospel according to Saint John. It is a matter of debate how strongly the early Christian communities were connected with the Jews, and it is far from clear how they were influenced by Gnosticism. At any rate, the strong presence of Gnosticism in second-century Alexandria is evident in the works of and Valentinus.

Also, the heritage of Hellenism was an important element in the development of Alexandrian theology. The history of the Alexandrian church can be traced from Patriarch DEMETRIUS I (189-231) on. During the third century, the church made considerable progress throughout the country. There were bishops in Alexandria and in Nilopolis and Hermopolis (Eusebius Historia ecclesiastica, 6.42, 6.46). By the end of the third century the church achieved respectability among different classes and ethnic groups. In some districts a considerable part of the population may have belonged to the Christian community.

Conflict with Other Religions

From its very beginning, Christianity was in opposition to all other contemporary religions. The refusal to take part in the cult of the emperors and in other religious rites was a source of conflict with the authorities. Until the time of CONSTANTINE, the church had no choice but to struggle against paganism on the ideological plane, in preaching, and in literature. The existence of heathen gods was not explicitly denied; rather, they were declared to be evil spirits or demons: “. . . all the gods of the nations are demons” (Psalms 96:5). This meaning was given to the sentence in the Septuagint, while the Hebrew original has a somewhat different sense. The New Testament (1 Cor. 10:20) and the fathers of the church (e.g., Lactantius Divinae institutiones, 4.27) also regarded the gods as demons.

Two passages of the Old Testament were interpreted as prophecies predicting the of Christianity in Egypt: 19:19, “In that day there shall be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt . . .”; Isaiah 19:1, “. . . Behold, the Lord rideth upon a swift cloud, and shall come into Egypt; the idols of Egypt shall be moved at his presence, and the heart of Egypt shall be melted in the midst of it.” In Coptic and Greek hagiography many legends about the destruction of idols by saints and martyrs were based on Matthew 8:29, in which the demons cry out, “What have we to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of God? Art thou come hither to torment us before time?”

The negative attitude of the Old Testament toward Egypt was accepted by the church. Nevertheless, the words of Paul (Romans 1:19-23) were interpreted to mean that God revealed His qualities to the Gentiles—including the Egyptians—through His created works, but the Gentiles failed to offer the right kind of worship to him. The passage induced Augustine to form a more favorable opinion:

There may be others to be found who perceived and taught this truth among those who were esteemed as sages or in the other nations: Libyans of Atlas, Egyptians, Indians, Chaldeans, Scythians, Gauls, Spaniards. Whoever they may have been, we rank such thinkers above all others and acknowledge them as representing the closest approximation to our Christian position [Saint Augustine De civitate Dei 8.9, trans. H. Bettensen, Harmondsworth, 1972].

Animal worship, mentioned in Romans 1:23, was an object of ridicule in the works of the fathers of the church. One of the first to speak of it is Justinus (Apology 1.24). The Catechetical School of Alexandria was interested in both Greek and Egyptian religion. It was CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA who first discussed some aspects of Egyptian religion. He appears deeply impressed by the splendor of the temples but finds it absurd that animal gods were worshiped there (Paedagogus 2.4.2ff.). Nevertheless, when making a comparison with the gods of the Greeks, he shows, remarkably, more indulgence for the animal worship than for the “adulterous” Greek gods (Protrepticus 2.39.4ff.).

Origen, too, condemned the religion of the Egyptians. He learned, however, from the work of Celsus and probably from other sources that there was a deeper meaning behind the cult of the sacred animals.

Euhemerism was one of the weapons used against ancient mythology. Athenagoras used the testimony of Egyptian priests and sages in claiming that originally the gods had been men who came to be deified later.

By the words of inspired nonbiblical poets and prophets, the Christian authors endeavored to support their claim that the victory of Christianity was inevitable. This constituted a remarkable element in the religious conflict. Besides Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, supposedly predicting the birth of Jesus, the Sibylline Oracles, in reality reflecting Christian and Jewish ideas, were also in high esteem as pagan prophecies. They contain several passages relating to the decline of the gods in Egypt. Clement of Alexandria quoted the Sibylline Oracules’ prophecy that the temple of Isis and Serapis would be overthrown (Protrepticus 4.50.3). In another passage, a clad in linen cloth summons his compatriots, the Egyptians, to build a splendid sanctuary to the true God and to repudiate the idolatry of the ancestors (5.493-96). Sibylla enjoyed a high reputation with the Copts as the sister of Henoch, her position being something like that of a saint.

Saint Augustine wanted to make HERMES TRISMEGISTUS- into the prophet of the decline of Egyptian religion. In a Hermetic literary work of unknown authorship, the highly emotional description of the plagues predicted to befall Egypt (Asclepius 24-26) was considered by Augustine (De civitate Dei 8.23) to be a prophecy lamenting the destruction of Egyptian religion by Christianity. In actual fact, it belongs to an ancient Egyptian literary genre of apocalyptic predictions. The prophecy also survived in a Coptic version (Nag Hammadi Codex VI; Krause and Labib, 1971). The widespread interest in such predictions is also demonstrated by a Coptic manuscript containing three pseudo prophecies attributed to Ulysses, Pythagoras, and Porphyrius. Their original language was probably Greek. Ulysses and Porphyrius foretell the destruction of the temples, while Pythagoras speaks of the production of idols as foolishness. According to Rufinus (Historia ecclesiastica 11.29), when the Serapeum in Alexandria was occupied by the Christians, the pagan priests recalled a tradition that their religion would flourish until the sign of life—the cross, identified with the hieroglyph ankh—appeared.

The tone of Christian polemic literature grew more and harsher in the course of time. The apologetic and philosophical debate gave way to triumphant and scornful invectives against polytheism and idolatry. The last two eminent personalities of the Egyptian church who had to deal seriously with paganism were CYRIL THE GREAT and SHENUTE.

After the second century, those who adhered to ancient cults came to realize the need to reject Christian doctrines through philosophical and religious arguments. Of the three most important authors—Celsus, Porphyrius, and the emperor JULIAN—Celsus wrote significant passages on the religious situation in Roman Egypt, although he was unable to make a clear distinction between Christianity and gnosticism. The person of Jesus Christ was variously valued in pagan literature, for instance, he was held to have been a magician who accomplished his miracles by secret magical arts of Egyptian sanctuaries and by powerful names of angels (Arnobius Adversus nationes 1.43). On the other hand, his exceptional piety was acknowledged, and it was his followers who were blamed for making him into God (Augustine De civitate Dei 19.23).

The polytheistic religions in antiquity were generally tolerant of one another, so it is no wonder were ready to compromise with Judaism and Christianity. This tendency fitted in well with Jewish intentions to present heathen deities as biblical personalities. Hermes- was said to have been identical with Moses. An equation was made between Isis and Eve, though more importance was attached to the derivation of Serapis from the biblical history of Joseph. This also was favorably accepted in ancient Christian literature (Melito Sardianus Apology 5). Since Joseph was the great- grandson of Sarah, Firmicus Maternus saw her name in that of Serapis (De errore profanarum religionum, 13); the calathus of Serapis was regarded as an allusion to the granaries of Joseph.

By means of these identifications, Christians thought to unmask the gods. In pagan circles they were not perceived as insulting, since the apotheosis of prominent men was widespread. Numenius, a Syrian forerunner of Neoplatonism in the second century, placed the religions of the Greeks, the Brahmins, the Jews, the Persian magi, and the Egyptians on the same level (frag. 9; Eusebius Praeparatio evangelica 9.7). In another passage, Genesis 1:2 is paralleled with the Egyptian cosmogonical notion of the Primeval Water (frag. 46; Porphyrius De antro nympharum 10) that has been a part of the great religions. In the lararium of Emperor Alexander Severus the images of Christ, Abraham, Orpheus, and Apollonius of Tyana were admitted. We find a similar attitude held by the Gnostic Carpocratians (Irenaeus Adversus omnes haereses 1.25.6).

While the masses adopted the Christian faith, many pagan intellectuals, mainly Greeks, converted to philosophy, first of all to Neoplatonism. The chief representatives of Neoplatonism had a keen interest in the sacred wisdom of the Egyptians. It was an Egyptian who evoked the spirit of Plotinus in the Iseum in Rome and demonstrated its divine nature (Porphyrius Vita Plotini 10). The last compendium of Greco-Oriental mysticism with many Egyptian elements was composed by Iamblichus in the fourth century.

However, the end of the gods was imminent. One of them, Antoninus, who devoted himself to the cult of the gods in Kanobos,

predicted to his disciples that the temple there and also the Serapeum would cease to exist (Eunapius Vitae sophistarum, p. 471c). What he feared soon came true, but the did not give up the cult of the Egyptian gods. Even as late as the fifth century Proclus composed hymns in honor of Isis at Philae (Marinus Vita Procli 19), and HERAISCUS was buried according to the Osirian ritual (see MUMMIFICATION).

The Political Struggle

Political conflict with the state was imminent after the rise of Christianity. In Egypt, if we disregard anti-Christian riots of smaller dimensions, Eusebius recorded three great persecutions. During the first one, about A.D. 200 under Septimius Severus (Historia ecclesiastica 6.1-6), the Alexandrian community, in particular, was gravely afflicted. While contemporary data for the oppression under Septimius Severus are missing, there is ample evidence for the large-scale systematic persecution under Decius between 249 and 251. An imperial decree ordered sacrifice and libation to the gods, and certificates (libelli) that these had been performed were required. Many of these documents are known from Egypt. Decius’ death did not put an end to the persecutions, which continued intermittently until 260.

A change came after the capture of Valerianus by the Persians. Then the religious politics of Gallienus brought about a change, and the church lived under relatively peaceful circumstances until 303, when the cruelest of persecutions began under DIOCLETIAN (284-305). The oppression was especially bloody in the Orient, and many Egyptian Christians were victimized for their faith. In the Coptic calendar, the Era of the Martyrs has as its starting point Diocletian’s year of accession, 284. The persecution continued under Galerius (305-313). The patriarch of Alexandria, Peter I, was beheaded at the end of Galerius’ reign, although accounts erroneously name Diocletian as emperor. A Christian tradition attributed a baneful role to Egyptian magicians, who allegedly instigated the persecutions. Also Licinius (311-324), who again became a supporter of paganism in his last years, is said to have had Egyptian soothsayers and magicians in his entourage (Eusebius Vita Constantini 2.4).

A new chapter commenced in the history of the Egyptian church when Constantine won control of Egypt in 324. The hatred stemming from the bloodshed under Diocletian made a peaceful coexistence between the Christian and pagan parties virtually impossible. Constantine gradually went over to the side of the Christians and began to take measures to reduce the power of the ancient cults. It was certainly a heavy blow to the worshipers of Serapis, the in Alexandria, that Constantine ordered the Nile cubit, the symbol of the god as lord of the flood, to be transferred from the Serapeum into a church (Socrates Scholasticus Historia ecclesiastica 1.18). The participation of androgynous, or eunuch, priests in the cult of the Nile was forbidden. Although the decree of 331 was not enforced—that is, the temples were not destroyed—the cult of the gods reached a critical situation. In spite of the hostile religious policies of the state, the ancient religions actually survived the reign of Constantine. The antipagan attitude of the emperor was somewhat exagger-ated in the later tradition: a Coptic text presents him as a ruler who ordered the destruction of the images of the gods and the execution of the pagan priests.

Also, Coptic literature adapted the legend of the emperor’s conversion before the battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312. It says that during the night before the battle, Constantine saw the stars lined up in the form of a cross, which was identified by a Christian soldier as the sign of Christ.

The situation grew even worse under Constantius II (337-361). While the decree of 341 prohibiting sacrifices to the gods was certainly not enforced, it was a sign of the general tendency. Two events in Egypt made it clear that the state was ready to resort to the most brutal measures. In Abydos an oracle of Bes became a fashionable cult center consulted even by men of rank living outside Egypt in the late Roman period (Ammianus Marcellinus 19.12.3ff.). Some of the answers of the god were sent to the emperor. Since the god obviously was consulted occasionally on the question of succession to the imperial power, the denunciation led to a wave of persecutions of hysterical severity. Any magical practices and divination were considered by the emperors of the fourth century as mortal threats to their safety.

The target of another attack was the Serapeum in Alexandria.

Artemius, the strategos of Egypt, stormed the temple with his soldiers and plundered it, taking away statues of the gods and offerings (Julianus Epistle 10). There was obviously no more effective legal protection available to the temples. Then, a sudden change in the political situation gave a new lease on life to the pagan cults. The accession of JULIAN THE APOSTATE (361-363) brought about a new religious policy favoring paganism. The temporary victory of the pagan party led to the uprising of the mob in Alexandria against the Arian bishop Georgius, and he was killed by the pagans. Artemius was condemned to death by the emperor. Julian redressed an old grievance of the by restoring the Nile cubit to the Serapeum (Sozomen Ecclesiastica historia 5.3). The discovery of a new Apis bull may have been taken as a good omen for a religious renaissance. In the Egyptian pantheon, it was Serapis, with his rich syncretistic associations, who matched the best of the abstract philosophical religion of Julian (cf. Julian Orationes 4.35 S.).

With the death of Julian, the pagan party lost its dominance. While the attempt to revitalize the moribund ancient religions failed, it appears that the pagan cults survived in Egypt in relative peace until the reign of Theodosius (379-395). The conflict grew intense again in 391, when a full-scale war broke out in Alexandria. Although it is hard, because of controversial sources, to obtain a clear picture of the course of events, it emerges unequivocally that the rose up in arms against the patriarch THEOPHILUS (385-412) and used the Serapeum as a stronghold from which to launch attacks against the Christians. The crisis was caused by the desecration of the cultic objects of a pagan temple by Theophilus. In SOZOMEN’S narrative it was a temple of Dionysus. Socrates speaks of Methraeum (Ecclesiastica historia 17.15ff.). In the same year, Emperor Theodosius issued a decree prohibiting sacrifices and visits to the temples in Rome. When informed of the situation in Alexandria, he promulgated a similar decree for that city. The rebels were given amnesty, but the Serapeum had to be abandoned to the Christians, who destroyed the statue of the god. The temple was converted into the Church of Arcadius (Calderini, 1935, p. 145). There is also evidence for a Church of Saint John the Baptist there.

With the abolition of the cult of Serapis—in an open religious debate the name of Serapis was not mentioned at all—there was an end to the institutional form of ancient religion in Alexandria, though the of philosophy and sciences continued for a long time with pagan masters. A new outbreak of religious fanaticism, culminating in the murder of the philosopher Hypatia by a mob in 415, did not alter the situation. The cult of the gods continued, more or less in secret, even in the neighborhood of Alexandria. had to transport the relics of two martyrs, Cyrus and John, to Menuthis in order to counteract the influence of Isis as a healing goddess. In spite of this, paganism lingered on in Menuthis, and in 484 a great number of images representing gods and sacred animals

were discovered in a house. The worshipers consisted mostly of the members of Alexandrian academic circles. The statues were transported to Alexandria and publicly burned.

In the rest of the country, the disappearance of paganism took place at various dates. In Memphis the cults were probably abolished at the end of the fourth century. In the eleventh Upper Egyptian nome, in Tkow, the god Kothos was worshipped in the first half of the fifth century. The were accused of murdering Christian children, and the temple was burned. In the district of Akhmim, Shenute led the struggle against the pagan communities. The surviving temples in Atripe, Plewit, and Kronus in Akhmim were occupied or destroyed. The god Bes haunted as an evil spirit in Abydos. Apa Moses fought against a corporation of pagan priests until his prayer caused the temple to collapse.

In Thebes, the cults probably ended at an earlier date. There is evidence for a high of Amon in A.D. 180 (Quaegebeur, 1974, p. 43). About 300 a Roman camp was built in the temple of Luxor. The sacellum, the sanctuary of the camp, was the place of the imperial cult under the Tetrarchy. A number of Coptic churches were erected beside the temple, one in the court itself (now beneath the Abu al-Hajjaj mosque). In Karnak, the Festival Hall of Thutmosis III was transformed into a church, and the remains of monasteries have been found in various places. On the west side of Thebes, numerous ancient tombs were converted into dwellings or used for cultic purposes by the Christians. There were Christian buildings in a number of temples, and temples were used for the Christian cult.

The last of the temples where the cult survived until the reign of Emperor JUSTINIAN (527-565) was the temple of Isis at Philae. This was tolerated for political reasons, since the majority of the Nobadae and Blemmyes accepted Christianity as late as the sixth century. They were permitted to visit the island regularly. Although it was a pagan religious center, a Christian community lived there from the fourth century. The exact date of the closing of the temple cannot be established beyond 535/537. It was part of the religious policy that put an end to the Academy in Athens in 529. The priests were arrested and the images of the gods sent to Constantinople (Procopius De bello Persico, 1.19-37). The temple was converted into the Church of Saint Stephen.


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