Working title: The Emergence of Coptic Identities in the Early Modern Period
Alberto Alfredo Winterberg
The Copts are the indigenous Egyptian Christian population whose roots extend as far back as to the Ancient Egyptians. As one of the oldest Christian groups in the Near East, they have been subject to several challenges and restrictions imposed upon them by their Islamic rulers ever since the Arabic conquest of Egypt in the 7th century. In the course of the Ottoman Empire Coptic community leaders were able to negotiate greater toleration for their people. This development culminated with a renaissance of Coptic culture in the 18th century, best symbolized by the restoration of churches and monasteries which were left in ruins before. However, the greater, but still limited tolerance Copts enjoyed created new challenges for their self-understanding: To be ethnically Coptic and Orthodox in terms of creed were synonyms before the Ottoman conquest, yet thereafter the policies of their conquerors served to create religious divisions within their communities. European missionaries were now formally allowed into Egypt and granted the right by the government to proselytize among Coptic Christians. Consequently, the Copts were confronted with both a new political and social environment, now with Catholicism as a competitor for the Orthodox clergy. This development culminated with the foundation of a Coptic Catholic Church. On the one hand, it kept traditional Coptic customs and liturgy, on the other it was in full communion with and obedient to Rome.
This doctoral project considers the life, self-perception and identity construction of both Orthodox and Catholic Copts under Ottoman rule: What did the notion of “being a Copt” mean under such conditions? What effect did the new Catholic confessional choice have for different social groups within the Coptic community? Which strategies were taken into account by Catholic and Orthodox community leaders to legitimize themselves? And which socio-political processes, both inside the Ottoman Empire and beyond allowed changes in the Coptic self-perception to occur? These questions shall be investigated by considering Coptic, Arabic and Italian sources like theological tractates, liturgical manuscripts, personal letters and missionary chronicles.