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Anthropology of Coptic Christianity Since 2012

July 9, 2018

anthropology(1)I was having dinner in Seoul recently with an old friend who taught in Egypt back around 2000. Living in East Asia for the past decade, he hasn’t really kept up on Egypt, and after a conversation about the revolution and its aftermath, he asked about Copts. There was always, he said, a tension between Muslims and Copts in his classes, and he said he’d never really understood it. We discussed it, and I sent him this post.

But it got me thinking about the fact that I had done a review of anthropological literature on Copts back in 2012, but never updated it.

So here’s an update:


Mahmood, Saba. 2016. Religious difference in a secular age: a minority report. Princeton, New Jersey : Princeton University Press.

Publisher’s Description: The plight of religious minorities in the Middle East is often attributed to the failure of secularism to take root in the region. Religious Difference in a Secular Age challenges this assessment by examining four cornerstones of secularism—political and civil equality, minority rights, religious freedom, and the legal separation of private and public domains.

Drawing on her extensive fieldwork in Egypt with Coptic Orthodox Christians and Bahais—religious minorities in a predominantly Muslim country—Saba Mahmood shows how modern secular governance has exacerbated religious tensions and inequalities rather than reduced them. Tracing the historical career of secular legal concepts in the colonial and postcolonial Middle East, she explores how contradictions at the very heart of political secularism have aggravated and amplified existing forms of Islamic hierarchy, bringing minority relations in Egypt to a new historical impasse. Through a close examination of Egyptian court cases and constitutional debates about minority rights, conflicts around family law, and controversies over freedom of expression, Mahmood invites us to reflect on the entwined histories of secularism in the Middle East and Europe.

A provocative work of scholarship, Religious Difference in a Secular Age challenges us to rethink the promise and limits of the secular ideal of religious equality.


Ramzy, Carolyn M. 2015. To Die Is Gain: Singing a Heavenly Citizenship among Egypt’s Coptic Christians. Ethnos 80(5): 649-670.

Abstract: In January 2011, Egyptian protestors arrived to Tahrir Square wearing stickers reading ‘a martyr is available here’ to highlight their willingness to die for the revolution. Many Coptic Christians also arrived to their own demonstrations wearing the same sticker. Drawing on a biblical verse ‘For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain’, they claimed they came ready to die, not only for their nation, but also for their faith. In this article, I examine martyr themes in a popular and Coptic religious song genre known as tarātīl. Specifically, I explore the ambiguity between dying for one’s nation and dying for one’s faith as reflected in these religious nationalist anthems. How do song motifs negotiate ambivalences and seemingly contradicting desires to belong to an Egyptian nation and a heavenly afterlife as pious Christians? This article analyses songs of death as modes of political belonging and civic (dis)engagement.


Heo, Angie. 2014. “The Divine Touchability of Dreams.” In Sensational Religion, edited by Salley M. Promey. Yale: Yale University Press.

Excerpt: “In Port Said, a city between Egypt’s Suez Canal and the Mediterranean, an icon of the Virgin Mary exudes holy oil …. [s]ince 1990, year after year the image had attracted thousands of Coptic Christian pilgrims to the Church of Saint Bishoi, where it is housed. Unlike other surrounding icons in the sanctuary, painted and consecrated by priestly hands, this one is an ‘autoconsecrating’ poster replica. It produces and reproduces holy oil by itself. This oil leaves behind worn paper traces in its liquid trail as it travels from the Virgin’s outstretched hands to the plastic canopy that captures the oil beneath her feet. From there, the priests of the church collect and distributes the oil as a form of remembrance …..

Devotees understand the origin of the icon’s miraculous activity to reside in the drama of one women’s dream. On the evening of February 20, 1990, the Virgin Mary (by way of saintly visitation) healed Samia Youssef Badilious of breast cancer. Samia dreamed that the Virgin, assisted by three other saints, preformed surgery on her. Within the space of the dream, Samia lay down on a white table as the saints held her hands. Then the Virgin touched the cancerous breast. Startled by a burning bolt of sensation that rushed through her body, Samia pulled her right hand away. The Virgin grabbed it back and held her hand. When Samia awoke, she discovered that she had been healed….”


Heo, Angie. 2013. Saints, Media, and Minority Culture: On Coptic Cults of Egyptian Revolution from Alexandria to Maspero. In Politics of Worship in the Contemporary Middle East: Sainthood in Fragile States, Edited by Andreas Bandak and Mikkel Bille, 53-73. Leiden: Brill.

Overview: This chapter explains the linkages and tensions between Coptic minority cultures of martyrdom, on the one hand, and Egyptian imaginaries of belonging on the scale of national revolution, on the other. It draws attention to the broader public culture of apprehending and evaluating acts of sacrificial martyrdom, in their moral value and their political promise. The chapter is divided into three sections. In the first, it explores sainthood as a mobilizing force in overlapping realms of mediation, religious memory and political transformation. In the second, it analyzes the public making of martyrs and pain through televisually-mediated images of violence, with particular focus on two events: the funeral of the Alexandria martyrs in January 2011 and the interview of Wael Ghonim amidst of the Tahrir protests weeks later. Finally, the chapter explores the Maspero massacres of October 2011.

Youseff, Joseph. 2013. From the Blood of St. Mina to the Martyrs of Maspero: Commemoration, Identity, and Social Memory in the Coptic Orthodox Church. Journal of the Canadian Society for Coptic Studies 5(1): 61-73.

Abstract: This article will discuss the role of commemorating martyrs in the Coptic Orthodox Church and how commemoration is used by Copts as a mode for political and social agency. Furthermore, commemoration is a means by which Copts cope with the rise of sectarian violence in Egypt today. I will focus on two ways Coptic martyrs are commemorated. The first is through visiting the shrines of martyrs, whose relics are believed by Copts to possess a certain kind of blessing (baraka). The second and more recent kind of commemoration that has emerged in the last three years takes form in prayer meetings meant to honor victims of sectarian violence, namely, the Martyrs of Nag Hammadi (2010), Alexandria (2011), and Maspero (2011). In both these types of commemoration the narratives and hagiographies of martyrs are (re)articulated and juxtaposed in the present to emphasize the continuity of the Coptic Church as a “Church of Martyrs.” In this way, commemoration is more than an act of remembering; it is an active attempt to make and remake the past in the present.

Heo, Angie. 2013. The Bodily Threat of Miracles: Security, Sacramentality, and the Egyptian Politics of Public Order. American Ethnologist 40(1):149-164.

Abstract: This article examines the political and public culture of Coptic Christian miracles through the circulation and reproduction of images and the mimetic entanglements of artifacts and objects. To understand the threat posed by one case of a woman’s oil-exuding hand, this study points to how semiotic orders of security and sacramentality intersect in the regulation of bodily miracles. It explores Coptic Orthodox Church and Egyptian state efforts to contain the activity of images and transform the public nature of truthful witness and divine testimony. In doing so, it suggests how the material structure of saintly imagination introduces bodily and visual challenges to an authoritarian politics of public order.



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