The history of the Coptic Orthodox Church is infused with the courage and sacrifice of its early martyrs. In the year 304 AD, the Roman Emperor Diocletian issued an edict that would forever change the course of Christianity in Egypt. The decree demanded that Egyptians make sacrifices to pagan gods and venerate royal statues. Those who refused were branded as members of the rebellious sect known as Christianity and faced severe consequences.
The consequences were severe indeed. Men from all corners of Egypt were rounded up for trial and execution. Temples, such as those in Esna, Oxyrhynchus, Samanud, and the great city of Alexandria, were transformed into places of imprisonment and trial. However, the unintended result of this persecution was the rise of martyrs—individuals who testified for Christ and would be honoured for generations through their relics.
Notably, renowned scholar Peter Brown dispels the notion that Christian martyrdom was a continuation of any pagan cult. Instead, it represented a unique expression of faith and devotion. Among the countless martyrs, is the young Abanoub of Samanud. According to a manuscript preserved in the Monastery of the Syrians in Wadi Natrun, nearly eight thousand people, including boys and girls, were martyred for their refusal to bow before idols. The city of Samanud housed a large prison where these brave souls were jailed before meeting their martyrdom. Abanoub, just twelve years old, boldly confessed his Christian faith and endured torture until his death. His relics found their resting place in the Church of the Holy Virgin, now known as the Church of the Holy Virgin and Abanoub the Martyr. Remarkably, it is believed that during annual celebrations, St. Abanoub appears to children and engages in playful interactions with them.
This account is not isolated but rather echoes throughout Coptic tradition. Paradoxically, every effort to eradicate Christianity only resulted in the faith’s growth. According to the esteemed church historian Eusebius, Christians faced persecution with unwavering fortitude, often greeting their death sentences with joy and gladness. The stories of these martyrs, proliferated through art and literature, drew an ever-increasing number of believers.
Christianity’s resilience in the face of persecution rested on its willingness to endure suffering, even death, for the sake of Christ. The bodies or fragments of martyrs found their way into reliquaries or beneath church altars, becoming objects of veneration. The faithful would approach these relics to light candles or leave written pleas, believing that their prayers would be answered.
During what came to be known as ‘the era of the martyrs,’ the teachings of Saint Pachomius brought a fresh perspective. When asked by his disciples about the power to perform miracles, he wisely advised against seeking such power, as it could lead to pride. Instead, he encouraged them saying: “Pray and seek the divine power for making spiritual miracles. Should there be a man who resists god’s way and you bring him back to the real knowledge of God, then you have already raised the dead; if you bring a heretic back to the Orthodox, the right way, then you have already opened the eyes of one born blind; if you could change a money-lover’s hand to open it to the poor, or can make a lazy person active in spiritual work, then you have already cured a paralysed man; if you can cause an adulterer to repent, then you have already extinguished flames and fires; if you make the mad calm and humble then you have already got an evil spirit out of him. Do you think there is anything greater than these we can look forward to?”
The legacy of martyrdom in the Coptic Church endures, serving as a powerful witness to the faith’s resilience and its early believers’ unwavering commitment to their beliefs. In times of adversity, it is the stories of these martyrs that continue to inspire and guide the faithful on their spiritual journey on this earth.
Reference: Kamil, Jill. 2002. Christianity in the Land of the Pharaohs : The Coptic Orthodox Church. London: Routledge.