Name given by the Arabs to all the inhabitants of Egypt at the time of the Muslim conquest of 641. The word was transposed from the Greek aiguptoï, meaning Egyptian, which was itself formed from the Egyptian hieroglyphic Het Ka-Ptah (Castle of the Spirit of Ptah), the nickname of Memphis, the Pharaonic capital. Subsequently this word came to designate only Monophysite Christians of Egypt and later Ethiopia who believe in the union of the divine and the human in Christ. The Copts of Egypt are the descendents of the ancient Egyptian population that converted to Christianity around the first century c.e. and separated from the Catholic Church after the Council of Chalcedon, in 432. The evangelist Mark, who introduced Christianity into Egypt, is considered the father of the Coptic Church. After the Arab-Muslim conquest of 639 to 641, the Copts had the status of dhimmis, and over the following centuries numerous conversions to Islam led to a decrease in their numbers.
The Copts make up the largest Christian community of the Middle East and represent 7 to 10 percent of the Egyptian population. The coming to power of Muhammad Ali in 1805 and the modernization of Egypt allowed Copts to accede to high administrative positions for the first time since the Islamic conquest. In 1804, the naming of Cyril IV as patriarch gave new impetus to the Coptic Church. The arrival of the English in 1882 consolidated the position of the Copts, on whom the British administration depended; for example, Boutros Pasha Ghali, finance minister, foreign minister, and prime minister, became the first great Coptic statesman of Egypt. The Copts retained their privileged status once Egypt won its independence in 1922. It became normal to have Coptic ministers in the government. Nevertheless, although they account for a substantial portion of the Egyptian economy, the majority of the Copt community, as non-Muslims, are treated like second-class citizens. In the 1980s, while Islamism was growing in Egypt, the number of deadly incidents pitting Coptic communities against Muslim fundamentalists increased dramatically. In 1992, fourteen Copts were killed by members of the Jamiʿa al-Islamiyya. On 31 December 1999, at al-Qusayr, a quarrel between a Muslim customer and a Coptic merchant degenerated into a street battle that resulted in some thirty Coptic deaths. In November 2000, a Copt, Mounir Abdul Nour, became head of the opposition in the Egyptian parliament although Copts are underrepresented in that forum.
Outside Egypt, the Coptic Church is present in Sudan and Ethiopia. The principal Coptic saints are Athanasius, Anthony, and Pakem, the name of the latter deriving from the Egyptian hieroglyphic Pa Kem (son of the god Kem). The Coptic liturgical year reflects the main Egyptian seasons: flood, sowing, and harvest. The Copts practice circumcision. In 1899, at the initiative of Pope Leon XIII, a Coptic patriarchy was founded in Jerusalem and included approximately one hundred families. Since 1971, the church has been headed by Pope Shenouda III. Until 706, Coptic was the language spoken by this community. Replaced by Arabic, Coptic became a dead language, utilized only in the liturgy and called Bohairic.
The name comes via French Copte or modern Latin Coptus, from Arabic al-ḳibṭ, al-ḳubṭ ‘Copts’, and ultimately (via Coptic) from Greek Aiguptios ‘Egyptian’.