Coptic and Greek Egypt


The local language of Egypt, in which much of the evidence for saints is preserved, was Coptic; but for more than 600 years, Greek had been a second language in the region, and was by this time used even in rural and informal settings. Of the early saints of Egypt, the most famous was the soldier-martyr Menas, whose shrine east of Alexandria developed into a major pilgrimage site.  The cult of Menas was so successful that several churches were dedicated to him outside Egypt, including in Rome and Constantinople.  At his shrine small terracotta flasks, stamped with an image of the saint, were produced to allow pilgrims to take home holy oil or water from the site.  These flasks have been found widely across the Mediterranean, and even in northern Europe, giving us a unique insight into patterns of late-antique pilgrimage.  Egypt also produced other important saints, whose lives and example were widely revered and imitated, in particular the founders of monasticism, Antony and Pachomius; these, however, only became the focus of cult much later than the martyrs.

The large majority of Egyptian saints, more than two-thirds of those attested, never attained the renown of Menas and Antony, and enjoyed only very local cult. Their fame rarely made it beyond the frontiers of their own region.  This structure of the saint population, with a mass of little-known local figures dotted with a few international stars, was probably the norm in all Christian lands, but it is uniquely visible in Egypt because only here have day-to-day papyrus documents survived in the dry conditions of the country. These allow a much finer, more detailed and local examination of the cult of saints than anywhere else, and reveal a multiplicity of specific cults even at the level of unassuming provincial towns. This papyrus evidence has been collected and studied up to 1999, but editions of new texts have continued to bring new saints and cult-places to light.

As elsewhere, Egypt also produced literary texts of various sorts about its saints, though these have never been systematically studied and classified. The least well-known of these texts are in Coptic (though there are also similar texts in Greek).  A major aim of the Cult of Saints project is to inventory and analyse the hagiographical Coptic texts; this will make it possible to understand the links between cults and the centres where such texts were produced, as well as to explore connections between regions and religious groups. These texts, often vilified by scholars for their ‘childishness’ and irrational character, have to date only been studied either in search of snippets of ‘real’ information or with a philological approach. Their potential for a more detailed understanding of the cult of saints and its cultural implications in Egypt still waits to be unlocked. In conjunction with the information from papyri and other sources (such as images with inscriptions, cult objects, calendars, epitaphs, accounts of pilgrimage, and histories), they will enable the project to gain a much better understanding of the Egyptian cult of saints. This, beyond its regional significance, has considerable wider importance: insofar as Egypt is the only region where so much detailed evidence exists, it offers invaluable clues and comparisons for the analysis of cult in other areas of the Christian world.

The evidence from Egypt is being collected by Gesa Schenke, with supervision from Arietta Papaconstantinou (of Reading University)