He was a poor priest in Alexandria, and no one knew much about him. His selection occurred in rather unusual circumstances. When the bishops and the clergy met in Alexandria to elect a new patriarch, they were undecided about a candidate. A rich merchant by the name of Ibrahim ibn Bishr coveted the patriarchal dignity for himself, even donating some of his wealth to the Islamic administration to help him in securing the office by a decree from the caliph. When the bishops, who were convened in a synod, learned of his manipulation, they were alarmed and hastened to look for a clerical candidate before the layman arrived with a formal decree from the caliph.
It so happened that a poor priest by the name of Zacharias was acting as the servant of the convened synod. While running around to meet the requirements of the bishops, he stumbled and fell on the stairs. The urn he was carrying remained intact. The perplexed bishops saw in this a miracle and a sign for them to adopt the poor and impecunious priest as the new patriarch. They hastened to consecrate him before Ibrahim ibn Bishr arrived with a caliphal decree.
Ibrahim was conciliated later by being invested with the episcopate of Upper Minuf. At the time, the moral position of the church was at a low ebb due to the sale of the priesthood and episcopal seats to unworthy candidates, who were ready to pay for them in cash. Nevertheless, the community of the faithful clung to their church. The advent of a new patriarch who was both poor and impervious to corruption helped to save the church from perdition at a time when a mortal enemy of Christianity held the throne of Egypt. During the reign of al-Hakim the Copts and their patriarch suffered many tortures. The peace and prosperity that Egypt experienced during the reigns of the immediate predecessors of al- Hakim were reversed during his caliphate, whose history is related in the HISTORY OF THE PATRIARCHS. He issued decrees that could only have come from an insane character.
During al-Hakim’s rule church bells were silenced and all crosses were ordered destroyed. Christians had to wear girdles (zunnars) and black turbans to distinguish them from Muslims. They were required to hang a wooden cross around their necks, first measuring the span of a hand, later increased to a full cubit (about 23 inches [58 cm]). These humiliating orders were followed by a decree for the destruction of churches throughout the country and the arrest of the patriarch, Zacharias, who was threatened with being thrown to wild beasts if he did not apostatize to Islam. For three months he remained under this threat.
The defiance of the Copts was illustrated by the case of a former secretary in the caliphal administration, Buqayrah, known as the bearer of the cross, who gave up his position and carried a cross to the threshold of the royal palace crying “Jesus is the Son of God.” On hearing him, al-Hakim had him arrested and tortured. Curiously, al-Hakim finally freed Buqayrah, probably on account of his personal admiration for his tenacity. The patriarch was also freed, after having been incarcerated for three months, after which the congregation advised him to flee from his persecutor to the peace of the desert in Wadi Habib.
This phase of al-Hakim’s rule came to an end just as abruptly as it had begun. In A.D. 1021 a new decree was issued permitting the ringing of church bells. Christians were relieved of wearing distinct dark clothing and carrying a weighty wooden cross around their necks, and they resumed the building and restoration of churches.
It was also in the course of that year that al-Hakim was wont to roam in the hills outside al-Fustat (Cairo). One night, riding a donkey in the company of a single guard, he reached the desert at HILWAN. There, he abandoned his beast and ordered the guard to break its legs and return to the palace, leaving the caliph alone. The following morning al-Hakim could not be found. His son, known as al-Zahir Abu al-Hasan ‘Ali (1020-1035), succeeded him. Peace and security were again established throughout Egypt during the remaining years of the papacy of Zacharias, who died in the city of Damru after ruling during one of the most precarious periods for the Copts since DIOCLETIAN.
- Lane-Pool, S. History of Egypt in the Middle Ages. London, 1901.
- . The Mohammadan Dynasties. Paris, 1925.