1.0 The origins of the name
The term “Egypt” derives from Hut-ka-Ptah (shrine of the Ka of Ptah) with which the Egyptians designated, towards the middle of the second millennium BC, the city of Memphis and the surrounding area. The name, which became Hikuptah in Babylon and Aikupitizo in Crete, was given by the Greeks to Aigyptos. The Egyptians called their land Kemet (the black), distinguishing it from the surrounding inhospitable region called Desert (the red). They also distinguished between Lower Egypt, from the Mediterranean to the parallel of Memphis (just south of present-day Cairo), and Upper Egypt, up to the first cataract of the Nile (near present-day Aswan), in the area bordering Nubia (in the Sudan).
Copts are the direct descendants of the ancient Egyptians from the time of the pharaohs. They have also been called “the modern sons of the pharaohs”. The word “Coptic” actually means simply “Egyptian” and derives from the Greek word “Aigyptos”, which in turn derived from the ancient Egyptian word “Hak – ka – ptah” (the abode of the spirit of the god Ptah), one of the names of the first capital of ancient Egypt, Memphis. Since the time of the Arab conquest (641 AD), Muslims have used the word “guipte” (Coptic) to designate the Egyptians, who at that time were all Christians. Gradually there has been an identification of the term “Coptic” with being “Christian”. The word “Coptic” also implies the language, art and civilization of Egypt between the end of the Ptolemaic era and the Arabization of the country, that is, from about 30 BC until the Middle Ages.
2.0 The prehistoric period
The oldest settlements can be traced back to the early Paleolithic, but it is in the Neolithic that the population, first dispersed over the territory, began to gather in more or less large communities, homogeneous in terms of race and culture. The Copper and Bronze Age began for Egypt in 3000 BC Between 1700 and 1500, metal tools appeared, especially copper and bronze. The technology of iron working came relatively late: the first objects were imported into Egypt after 1500, and only after 1000 did tools and weapons appear. Mud huts grouped in villages characterized the social organization of this period, whose economy was based on the cultivation of cereals and on the processing of linen and wool. Domestication and the specialization of work characterized the Neolithic, during which we witnessed the gradual transition from oral communication to the first forms of writing. It was in the pre-dynastic period (before 3000) that itotem, mainly depicting animals and expressions of individual communities, which then gradually faded away – in parallel with political unification – reducing themselves to the function of emblems of cities or provinces, while individual local deities were affirming themselves. The appearance of these deities was very varied (human, animal or hybrid, male or female), and the Egyptian pantheon numbered more than three thousand deities. There were four basic theogonies: that of Heliopolis, according to which the solar god Atum had created himself; that of Ermopoli, for which the local god Thot had created eight other gods; that of Memphis, according to which the local god Ptah had emerged from the chaos; and finally that for which Osiris had taught men to cultivate the fields. The state structure also evolved in the history of ancient Egypt through a general process of aggregation: starting from the political cohesion of several inhabited centers within geographically circumscribed areas, the two kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt. Later, the more politically developed Lower Egypt incorporated Upper Egypt. The two kingdoms, after having separated again, returned to reunite at the threshold of the historical era: this led to the need to entrust the regulation of the floods of the Nile to a central political power. It was then the kingdom of Upper Egypt, stronger and more organized than the northern one (Lower Egypt) that carried out the unification process, thus starting the pharaonic era
3.0 The ancient kingdom (3150-2150 BC)
At the beginning of the ancient kingdom, Egypt was politically united, although the administrative division between Upper and Lower Egypt remained. The finished phase (I and II dynasty) had Thinis (in Upper Egypt) as its capital. The sovereign, absolute authority who dominated and directed the country, wore the double crown, white from Upper Egypt (symbolized by the lotus flower and with the representation of the god Seth and the goddess Nekhbit) and red from Lower Egypt (symbolized by the papyrus and with depicted the god Horus and the goddess Uto). The first ruler was probably Menes. The administration was already very advanced: the king (who from the eighteenth dynasty would be called pharaoh) was the holder of absolute power, of divine nature. First considered the son of a god and then considered himself a deity, the incarnation of Horus, the pharaoh administered the country through a court government. The territory was divided into provinces (nomos), headed by nomarchs of royal nomination, visited three times a year by royal inspectors. The king was assisted in the administration by athati (or vizier) and various administrative bodies were placed under his orders, each divided into different offices led by officials subjected to the vizier. Justice was administered autonomously by a Supreme Court, or “Great Court”, by provincial courts and finally by village courts. Until the XXVI dynasty there were no coins, but their function was performed by a unit of account, the Deben. As far as education is concerned, alongside the craft shops and large royal workshops that instructed young people in the arts and crafts, there were usually private lower schools (spread throughout the country) and royal higher schools (some of which run by the priests of the temples) who, in addition to teaching reading, writing and arithmetic, also gave lessons in literature, mathematics and medicine. A palace school, personally supervised by the sovereign and attended by the royal princes and the sons of notables, had as its purpose the teaching for those who would hold the high offices of the state. Economic life was centered on agriculture and irrigation canals were dug for its improvement; the population census was carried out regularly, while writing and the decimal number system spread. During the ancient kingdom, commercial relations were established with the Libyans and the Nubians and the Sinai, rich in copper mines, was reached. While of the periodtinita remembers the work of state organization carried out by the pharaoh Khasekem, who lived around 2700 BC, of the Memphite period (between the III and VI dynasty) the sovereign Dhoser (III dynasty) must be remembered, under whose reign the great architect Imhotep probably worked, who designed the first great stone pyramids and probably conceived the Egyptian calendar.
4.0 The evolution of Egyptian society and religion starting from the ancient kingdom
In a highly hierarchical political organization, with a pyramidal social structure at the top of which was the divine figure of the pharaoh and in which the guiding values were represented by fidelity and obedience to the sovereign, religion performed an essential function of cohesion. The god, creator and lord of man, intervened to help him but required a moral conduct in life which would then be judged after death. The afterlife, whose belief is already testified by finds from the pre-dynastic period, was entrusted to the goodness of the gods and the sovereign and to the preservation of the body. In the tombs, at first rudimentary pits in the sand, then increasingly complex stone constructions up to the mastaba, the pyramid and the underground tombs, objects, furnishings and statues of the deceased were placed, in addition to the food necessary for the journey to the afterlife. The corpse was mummified and placed in a sarcophagus (a richly decorated double or triple chest). Near the tomb there was the place of worship and offerings, a meeting point between the deceased and the living. In some cases, the places of worship were transformed into large temples officiated by priests. Magical practices during the ancient kingdom were rare (they spread only in phases of greater political uncertainty, such as during the first intermediate period and especially in a relatively late period, in the Ptolemaic period). Divine worship first of all involved the presentation of offerings (generally food) by the king or, on his behalf, by a priest, both considered intermediaries between the god and the people. Even within the family nucleus – the constitutive cell of Egyptian society in which women were entrusted with an important role in many respects unknown to the civilizations of the Near East – religious life assumed a dominant role and the head of the family was given the task of making offerings to gods and ancestors to gain their favor. Public processions took place annually between one temple and another and periodically sacred functions or “mysteries” were officiated. Religion progressively influenced the very organizational structure of the state: the priestly caste was joined by the figures of viziers and officials, who dominated an indistinct multitude of peasants and slaves. In the new kingdom the great sanctuaries had a first priest assisted by numerous coadjutors, musicians and choristers; the power of the clergy then grew up to the XVIII and XIX dynasty, when religious offices were often inherited. Dominating an indistinct multitude of peasants and slaves, the priestly caste came alongside. In the new kingdom the great sanctuaries had a first priest assisted by numerous coadjutors, musicians and choristers; the power of the clergy then grew up to the XVIII and XIX dynasty, when religious offices were often inherited. Dominating an indistinct multitude of peasants and slaves, the priestly caste came alongside. In the new kingdom the great sanctuaries had a first priest assisted by numerous coadjutors, musicians and choristers; the power of the clergy then grew up to the XVIII and XIX dynasty, when religious offices were often inherited.
5.0 The advent of the Coptic language
It has already been said that, despite Hellenization, Hellenistic culture did not reach the regions furthest from Egypt. As a result, the Greek language, which is a major part of much of the Mediterranean, including northern Egypt, was not widely used in southern Egypt itself. Thus being, the native language of the Egyptians survived the Hellenization, evolving from the demotic to the Coptic in the early centuries of the Christian era. However, although spoken, the Egyptian language was not written until the middle of the third century. It was from so that, through the use of Greek characters and some remaining characters of the demotic, the Coptic language started to be written. In addition to the Greek characters, the Coptic incorporated several words and expressions of koine, the Greek spoken in the Hellenistic world. However, despite using characters and many Greek words, Coptic has a completely different grammar. But what would have caused this process? How and why a language that until then was only spoken also started to be written? The answer is simple and known: what engendered the need for Coptic to also become a written language was the advent of Christianity
It is known that Christianity, despite having arisen in Palestine, where Aramaic predominated, spread rapidly throughout the Roman world using Greek. Proof of this is the oldest known Christian literature, which forms a corpus of literature known as the New Testament. At called Pauline epistles, the oldest known Christian works, were composed in Greek in the 50s and 60s of the first century and addressed to communities scattered throughout different parts of the Roman world. The four gospels, which most likely began to be composed in the 1960s, also in Greek, are yet another example of Christianity’s use of Greek, which also demonstrates the cosmopolitan character of this emerging religion.8 In the first three centuries, Greek practiced its role as a common Mediterranean language, making Christianity’s message of salvation spread throughout the Roman empire, even in some places where another language was expected to rule, as in the case of Rome itself. The Greek became impotent, however, when the expansion process of Christianity began to reach the most distant regions of the Roman empire and, in some cases, even beyond its borders, at the end of the third century.10 Many of these regions, among them, as already mentioned, southern Egypt does not they knew Greek, at least not as a common language. The New Testament and other writings Christians, powerful tools of evangelization, were unable to reach such populations, as they were in a language unknown to them. It was then that the first translations of the New Testament into Eastern languages began to appear. The same can be said of the Old Testament, whose Greek version, known as the Septuagint, was also translated into several eastern languages from the 4th century onwards.
Attention should also be drawn to the fact that Coptic was gradually replaced by Arabic from the Muslim conquests in the 7th century; many Coptic compositions and texts were preserved in Arabic. A good example is the aforementioned Life of Pachomius. Despite the number of unpublished Coptic texts, many, however, are untouched and have not even started to be edited, due to the lack of researchers. There are not enough scholars interested in Coptic texts, which means that many texts and manuscripts are not even edited. And many times, scholars who know the Coptic language prefer to dedicate themselves to known apocryphal texts that attract the attention of the press and the general public, such as the so-called “Gnostic gospels” 57 or Nag Hammadi’s texts in general, leaving aside other types of literature less susceptible to holding the public’s attention or selling books.58 All of this makes Coptic writing a fruitful field of studies for scholars interested in early Christianity; a real challenge for researchers and historians of the future.
6.0 Christianity in Egypt before and after Constantine
What forms of Christianity and which churches does Egypt host at the time of Constantine? What impact does the government of the emperor have on their development? Is it legitimate to affirm that its activism in religious matters has provoked radical innovations in the life of Egyptian Christianity or should we rather limit ourselves to noting that it has inserted itself into the multifaceted reality of the churches, favoring or slowing down their developments and dynamics already underway for a long time? These are the questions that we are preparing to answer thanks to the rich and complex literary, documentary and archaeological documentation that Egypt has handed down, which can today be interpreted by the historian only by virtue of a plurality of linguistic, philological skills, historical-critical, archival, artistic, which he probably cannot sum up in himself, but must seek by turning to other scholars.
The Egyptian Church between the third and fourth centuries experienced rapid growth, a considerable territorial extension, a top-down articulation of its structure, a complexity of community lifestyles thanks to ascetic and monastic movements, the marginalization of traditional heresies such as Gnosticism and Manichaeism. In this flourishing growth, hard hit by persecutions and above all by the phenomena of division, partly favored by the persecutions themselves, partly motivated by theological questions, what function did Constantine play? Here we wanted to emphasize above all the continuity between the post-Constantinian Church and the pre-Constantinian Church. At the same time, the most evident element of Constantine’s political and religious turning point was not kept silent, the most documented by the rich array of sources that reflect the life of the Egyptian Church in the fourth century: financial support for the clergy, support for the territorial spread of the Church, as well as the harbingers of territorial spread southwards, towards the kingdom of Aksum. To this we must add that the moments of conflict between Constantine and the leadership of the Egyptian Church favored the formation of archives and memories in the latter, which collected ecclesiastical and civil documentation in defense of the history of Alexandria and its Christian community. .in the direction of the kingdom of Aksum.
7.0 Egypt natural resources
Among all these civilizations, Egypt stood out for the organization of a strong state that commanded thousands of people. Situated in Northeast Africa, the Egyptian civilization had its growth strongly linked to the water resources provided by the River Nile. Aware of the flooding system of this great river, the Egyptians organized an advanced agricultural activity that guaranteed the livelihood of a large number of people. In addition to the factors of a natural order, we must emphasize that the presence of a centralized state, commanded by the figure of Pharaoh, played an important role in the organization of a large number of workers subordinate to the government. Officials were used to demarcate land and each peasant was obliged to reserve part of the production for the State. Vegetables, barley, wheat, grapes and papyrus were among the most common crops in this territory. Observing the great constructions and the legacy of the Egyptian people, we pave the way for an interesting historical debate. Taking as a reference the various discoveries made in the field of Astronomy, Mathematics, Architecture and Medicine, we see that the Egyptians were not simply a type of civilization “less advanced” than the current one. After all, with far less advanced technological resources, they promoted achievements, to say the least, surprising.
The Coptic Church, is undergoing a profound transformation in its own faithful. Copts have always been linked to their hierarchy (bishops, monks, priests). The Egyptian religion did not undergo particular foreign influences, but it was subject to constant evolution. In the process of formation of the first civilizations, the region of the Fertile Crescent was an important space, in which the relationship of dependence on man in relation to nature decreased and several groups settled down. The domestication of animals, the invention of the first plows, the construction of irrigation channels were examples that agriculture would come to occupy a new place in the daily life of man. More than that, all this knowledge was responsible for the formation of large communities.
- Search for documentary sources on the web, describe them, interpret them with the help of some cards, exchange them, but also create concrete experiences to be reproduced at home, perhaps without a computer.
- Concrete experiences on time
History has to do with time, with the changes that occur over time in the life of men and in nature. We therefore propose small experiences to observe changes over time. We can invite you to cut an apple and photograph it every day at the same time for a week and then describe the changes. We can suggest sowing plants in pots and photographing their evolution … The obligation to stay at home makes these experiences easy and their photographic reproduction and sharing stimulating.
Goldschmidt, A. (2008). A brief history of Egypt. Infobase Publishing.
Perry, G. E. (2015). The history of Egypt. ABC-CLIO.
Bevan, E. (2014). A History of Egypt under the Ptolemaic Dynasty (Routledge Revivals). Routledge.
Moret, A. (2013). The Nile and Egyptian Civilization. Routledge.
Lloyd, A. B. (2014). Ancient Egypt: state and society. Oxford University Press.
Regulski, I. (2016). The origins and early development of writing in Egypt.
Brewer, D. J., & Brewer, D. J. (2012). The archaeology of ancient Egypt: beyond pharaohs. Cambridge University Press.
Regulski, I. (2016). The origins and early development of writing in Egypt.