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Online Encyclopedia
Originally appearing in Volume V02, Page 391 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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THE COPTIC CHURCH IN EGYPT The earliest places of Christian worship in Egypt were probably only chapels or oratories of small dimensions attached to the monasteries, which were spread throughout the country ; a wholesale destruction of these took place at various times, more especially by the order of Severus, about 200 B.C., so that no remains have come down to us. The most ancient examples known are those which are attributed to the empress Helena, of which there are important portions preserved in the churches of the White and Red monasteries at the foot of the Libyan hills near Suhag. Although the plan of the Coptic church is generally basilican, i.e. consists of nave and aisles, it is probable that they were not copied from Roman examples, but were based on expansions of the first oratories built, to which aisles had afterwards been added. There are no long transepts, as in the early Christian basilicas of St Peter's at Rome, and of St Paul outside the walls, and there is only one example of a cruciform church with a dome in the centre following the Byzantine plan. Even at an early period the nave and aisles were covered sometimes with barrel vaults, either semicircular or elliptical. The Coptic church was always orientated with the sanctuaries at the east end. The aisles were returned round the west end and had galleries above for women. Sometimes the western aisle has been walled up to form a narthex; in many cases a narthex was built, but, in consequence of the persecution to which the Copts were subject at the hands of the Moslems, its three doors have been blocked up and a separate small entrance provided. The narthex was the place for penitents, but was sometimes used for baptism by total immersion, there being epiphany tanks sunk in the floor of the churches at Old Cairo, known as Abu Serga, Abu-s-Sifain (Abu Sefen) and El Adra; these are now boarded over, as total immersion is no longer practised. There are a few exceptions to the basilican plan; and in four examples (two in Cairo and two at Deir-Mar-Antonios in the easterndesert by the Gulf of Suez) there are three aisles of equal widths, divided one from the other by two rows of columns with three in each row, thus dividing the roof into twelve square compartments, each of which is covered with a dome. The sanctuaries at the east end, as developed in the Coptic church, differ in some particulars from those of any other religious structures. There are always three chapels or sanctuaries, with an altar in each, the central chapel being known as the Haikal. The chapels are more often square than apsidal, and are always surmounted by a complete dome, a peculiarity not found out of Egypt. The seats of the tribune are still preserved in a large number of the sanctuaries, and there are probably more examples in Egypt than in all Europe, if Russia and Mount Athos be excepted. Those of Abu-Serga, El Adra and Abu-s-Sifain, with three concentric rows of seats and a throne in the centre, are the most important; but even in the square sanctuaries the tradition is retained, and seats are ranged against the east wall, and in one case (at Anba-Bishoi) three steps are carried across, and behind them is a segmental tribune of three steps, with throne in the centre. The most remarkable Coptic churches in Egypt are those of the Deir-el-Abiad (the White monastery) and the Deir-el-Akhmar (the Red monastery) at Suhag. These were of great size, measuring about 240 ft. by 130 ft. with vaulted narthex, nave and aisles separated by two rows of monolith columns taken from ancient buildings, twelve in each row and probably roofed over in timber, and three apses, directed respectively towards the east, north and south. These apses are unusually deep and have five niches in each, in two storeys separated by superimposed columns. In the church of St John at Antinoe there are seven niches. A similar arrangement is found in the three apses, placed side by side, in the more ancient portion of St Mark's, Venice, built A.D. 820, and said to have been copied from St Mark's at Alexandria. There is no external architecture in the Coptic churches; they are all masked with immense enclosure walls, so as to escape attention. The walls of the interior still preserve a great portion of the paintings of scriptural subjects; the screens dividing off the Haikal and other chapels from the choir are of great beauty, and evidently formed the models from which the panelled woodwork, doors and pulpits of the Mahommedan mosques have been copied and reproduced by Copts. Illustrations are given in A. J. Butler's Ancient Coptic Churches of Egypt (1884); Wladimir de Bock's Materiaux archeologiques de l'Egypte chretienne (1901) ; and A. Gayet's L'art coptique. (R. P. S.)

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