Friday, February 21, 2014

Coptic Christians in the Old City of Jerusalem

Who are the Copts? When walking the streets of Jerusalem's Old City, one comes across mysterious signs announcing the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate but offering no clue who the Copts are.

The Coptic Orthodox Christians form one of the smallest Christian communities in Israel. There are only some 3,500 Copts in Jerusalem and Nazareth. In Egypt, where the Coptic Church originated and is based in the city of Alexandria, there are over 20 million adherents. The Coptic Church is actually one of the oldest in Israel.

My wife and I learned about the Copts as part of our tour of the "Minorities in the Old City of Jerusalem." The course was organized by Zman Eshkol, the leading operator of leisure studies in Israel.

Entrance to the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate

The word "Copt" simply means "Egypt" and the name originates from the original Pharaonic name of Egypt "HakPtah". The pronunciation later changed with Greek and Arab influences. The Copts' written language is based on the hieroglyphic style.

The church was founded by Saint Mark, who first preached and evangelized in Egypt in the middle of the 1st century. According to tradition, it was Mark who established the Catechetical School of Alexandria, one of the oldest Christian schools in the world.

The Queen Helen Coptic Orthodox Church

Copts are Orthodox Christians. The theological differences with the other Eastern Orthodox churches are not clear, but the emphasis on the Egyptian base is what sets the church apart.

An ancient cistern

Our first stop is the Queen Helen Coptic Orthodox Church. In the back of the church's entrance, almost where you can't see it, is a small doorway with a steep set of stairs and a very low ceiling. The stairwell leads to the Helen Cistern, a huge underground water cistern dating from the 4th century CE. Queen Helen (also known as Helena) was the mother of Constantine the Great, the Roman emperor who converted to Christianity in 322 CE.

Watch your head as you make your way down to the ancient cistern

The cistern was used originally for baptisms, but then was not used for hundreds of years. It was rediscovered and dug out in the 1980s, but today contains no natural water.

Inside one of the Coptic churches we talked to a priest from Egypt who has already been in Israel for 15 years. We asked him if that made him feel Israeli, and he responded, "He who is in the land 40 days,  becomes one of them." But this answer was translated, as the priest apparently didn't speak conversational Hebrew.

The Coptic Orthodox priest talks to us

Confrontations with the Ethiopians

After our visit to the church, we crossed over to an empty yard that was actually the roof of one section of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the holiest Christian site in Jerusalem. This yard is called the Deir El-Sultan, and it has been a source of friction between the Copts and the Ethiopian Orthodox Christians since the Middle Ages. What is this all about?

Entrance to the Deir El-Sultan courtyard

Deir El-Sultan is the name of the Ethiopian's monastery on the roof and Ethiopian Christians live in the yard. The Copts, however, regard the courtyard as the direct passageway from their churches to the Church of Holy Sepulchre.

The infighting between the two churches is detailed here, although from the Coptic perspective. The Copts allow the Ethiopians to live in Deir El-Sultan, but for many years kept the keys to the courtyard. The Ethiopians took the case to the Israeli High Court of Justice in 1971. The court ruled in their favor, and the keys to the courtyard were returned to the Ethiopians.

Friction between the two Orthodox churches continues, and occasionally has even led to violent confrontations between members of the two communities.

Copts and Ethiopians - two small Christian communities which I had known nothing about until my recent visit to the Old City. Yet another fascinating part of the Jerusalem story.

Did someone lose their cross?

Related Stories:

Ethiopian Christians in the Old City of Jerusalem

Catholics in the Old City of Jerusalem

The Gates of Jerusalem 

A Walk North of the Old City of Jerusalem

A Visit to Mount Zion


  1. Fascinating and educational, Ellis. So glad to have read this. Thank you!

  2. Brilliant Ellis. Gorgeous old buildings. Thanks for taking us....... Glynis

  3. Thank you for this interesting post. Being Greek--and Greek Orthodox--this gave me insight in the Copts that I should already have.

  4. Once again a fascinating read, please keep posting these informative insights