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7.3.4 Coptic Stela

Limestone stela decorated with a representation of a figure with raised arms within a palm-wreath; cross in a circle below; foliate border; Coptic text.

British Museum

Stela, Coptic, Egypt, 8th-9th century, © The Trustees of the British Museum,

This stela, or stone monument, probably comes from the Monastery of Apa Jeremias in Saqqara, Egypt. It was a Coptic (Egyptian Christian) monastery built around 450. Monks lived there until about 850. When the Arab Muslims conquered Egypt in 642, they found many Christians and Jews living there. Christians and Jews lived in all the lands of the Abbasid Caliphate. Muslims allowed these “people of the book” (that is, the Bible) to practice their own religion, if they paid an extra tax and didn’t try to preach to Muslims. In Persia many people were Zoroastrian. Sometimes Muslims forced Zoroastrians to convert to Islam, but more often Muslims tolerated Zoroastrians, letting them practice their religion. Under the Abbasid caliphs, Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, and Hindus lived and worked in Baghdad and throughout the empire. What Christian symbol appears on this stela? What are the special Coptic features of that symbol? There are still Coptic Christians worshipping in Egypt today. What does this source tell us about interaction between people of different cultures in the Abbasid Caliphate?
The symbol is the cross; compared to the Latin Christian cross, the Coptic cross has a lower horizontal bar and the ends flare out. This source (and the context piece) shows that people of multiple religions lived and worshipped in the Abbasid Caliphate, mostly without persecution. From the Muslim conquest until the beginning of the eleventh century, the majority of the people in Spain, North Africa, the Middle East, and Iran were not Muslims but Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, etc. The Coptic Church is an Egyptian sect of Christianity. It was founded in the fifth century by Egyptian Christians who were not happy with the decisions made by the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Their chief doctrinal dispute with Greek Christians (later called Eastern Orthodox) was over whether Jesus Christ was part human and part divine, all human, or all divine. Like the Nestorian, Armenian, and Syriac Christians, Copts believe that Jesus was entirely divine (monophysitism). Copts used (and still use) the Coptic language in worship. It is based on ancient Egyptian demotic writing.

Transcription: + ΑΠΑϢΡϢΘΕ
Translation: Apa [Father] Dorothe(us)