Martyrdom and the growth of Christianity in ancient Egypt

What was believed in ancient Egypt

The history of the Coptic Orthodox Church in ancient Egypt is shrouded in the spirit of courage and self-sacrifice of its first sufferers. In 304 AD, the Roman Emperor Diocletian issued a decree that forever changed the course of Christianity in ancient Egypt, requiring Egyptians to offer sacrifices to pagan gods and venerate royal statues. Those who refused were labelled as belonging to the rebellious sect known as Christianity and threatened with severe punishments.

The consequences were dire. People from all corners of Egypt were arrested and put on trial and executed. Temples such as those at Esna, Oxyrhynchus, Samanud and the great city of Alexandria were turned into prisons and court squares. But out of this persecution came something unexpected - martyrs, men who bore witness to Christ and were glorified for generations for their faith.

Renowned scholar Peter Brown rejects the view that Christian martyrdom was a continuation of some pagan cult. On the contrary, he sees it as a unique expression of the faith and devotion of Christians in ancient Egypt. Among the many martyrs, Abanub of Samanud stands out. According to a manuscript in the Syriac monastery at Wadi Natrun, some eight thousand people, including children, were executed for refusing to worship idols. There was a large prison at Samanud where these brave men were confined before their deaths. Abanub, only a twelve-year-old boy, boldly professed the Christian faith and endured torture to the very end. His relics were transferred to the Church of the Holy Virgin, now known as the Church of the Holy Virgin and Abanub the Martyr. Interestingly, legend has it that during the saint's annual feasts, Abanuba appears before children and plays with them.

Was there Christianity in ancient Egypt

This story is not unique, but rather in keeping with the entire Coptic tradition. Paradoxically, all attempts to destroy Christianity in ancient Egypt only strengthened it. According to the respected church historian Eusebius, Christians endured persecution with unyielding determination, often meeting the death sentence with joy and elation. The stories of these martyrs, depicted in art and literature, attracted more and more believers.

Christianity's resilience to persecution was based on a willingness to endure suffering, even death, for Christ. The bodies or remains of martyrs were placed in reliquaries or under altars, becoming objects of veneration. The faithful came to the relics, lit candles or left written supplications, believing that their prayers would be answered.

In the "age of the martyrs", as the time came to be known, the teachings of St Pachomius shed light on the situation. When his disciples asked about the power to perform miracles, he wisely replied that instead of striving for such power, one should pray and seek divine power for spiritual miracles. He inspired them with the words, "If you bring a man back to the knowledge of God, you have already raised the dead; if you bring a heretic back to the Orthodox path, you have already opened the eyes of the blind; if you change the heart of a miser to generosity, or make the slothful active in spiritual work, you have already healed the humble; if you make an adulterer repent, you have already extinguished the flame of sin." These words show that real power lies in the strength of faith and spiritual values.

The legacy of martyrdom in the Coptic Church of ancient Egypt lives on, serving as a powerful testimony to the faith and commitment of the first Christians to their beliefs. In the story of these martyrs, believers find inspiration and direction on their spiritual journey.


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