The Genesis of the Coptic Identity: An Inquiry into the Awakening of Coptic Ethnic Consciousness

  • Vassilios Christides Institute for Graeco-Oriental and African Studies
Keywords: Coptic Identity, Coptic Ethnic Consciousness, ancient Egyptian populations, Christianity in Byzantine Egypt


In this article I intend to examine and refute the theory that the Egyptian population was rigidly divided into two isolated and antagonistic groups, the so-called autochthons (indigenous population) and foreigners (Greeks, succeeded by Romans and Byzantines). This supposed dichotomy was said to have begun during early Ptolemaic times (3rd c. B.C.) and lasted through the Arab conquest of Egypt in 645 and beyond. I focus my attention mainly on the Byzantine period (4th c. A.D. until 645) and I challenge and reject the view that the Monophysite (Coptic) Christian community of Byzantine Egypt represented the indigenous population, which had a common ethnic origin, in contrast to the foreign oppressors. Finally, I express the view that only after the Arab conquest of Egypt in 645 can we discern a latent ethnic differentiation between the Monophysite Copts and Dyophysite Melkites, which reached its peak at the time of the Melkite patriarch of Alexandria Cosmas I (ca. 727–768) and marked the final break of the two religious communities of Egypt.