Like many ancient civilizations, Egyptians were obsessed with religion and mythology. They pledged their love and devotion to more than 700 distinct deities entrusted to protect the natural order of all things (wind, water, sun, sky, etc.) from creation to afterlife. In exchange, the devout would be rewarded with an everlasting life of prosperity, good fortune, and happiness… once they reached their final destination–the Underworld.
Gods and goddesses were personified as powerful creatures,
and hybridized animals,
and amalgams of animals and humans.
Egyptian paganism lasted long into the 5th century. However, with Egypt situated at the intersection of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, Egypt was also at the crossroads of influence when monotheism gained a foothold in the Middle East and spread throughout the continents.
When synchronizing Egyptian chronology and Old Testament timelines, the earliest record of monotheistic worship in Ancient Egypt occurred during a time of remarkable prosperity when Joseph–in his role as Grand Vizier of Egypt–governed and fed its people, while surrounding neighbors faced famine and hardship.
This informed Jacob’s decision to relocate his clan from Canaan to Egypt in search of provisions and an unforeseen reunion with his son. Biblical scholars have speculated the date to be 1875 BC.
This led to the eventual settlement of the Israelites, whose numbers may have grown to 2,000,000 over the next 430 years, until the storied Exodus–which would have occurred in Year 18 of Thutmose III’s reign–in 1446 BC.
Interestingly, Amenemhat, Thutmose III’s first-born and heir apparent, mysteriously predeceased his father, and was inscribed on a column at the Temple of Amun at Karnak shortly after the death of Hatshepsut and the subsequent accession of his father to Pharaoh.
Religious reform from polytheism to pagan monotheism was momentarily embraced by Amenhotep IV during the his reign (c. 1358–1341 BC).
For some unknown reason, he changed his name to Akhenaten and elevated the cult of Aten (the sun disc) as the one and only true God.
Akhenaten went so far as to scrub all references of Amun-Ra from Karnak and build a new worship center and capital in Amarna, 170 km south of Thebes. But Atenism was short-lived; it never survived Akhenaten death, as he was so reviled by the priests that critics would often refer to Akhenaten as the Heretic King.
Subsequently, Tutankhamen–upon his ascension to the throne–reverted to worshipping Amun-Ra with his wife/half-sister, Ankhesenamun. He was 8 and she was 13 when they wed, albeit she was previously married to her father for a short time.
They had two daughters together; both were stillborn. Tut died suddenly at 18 from a fall or malaria or both, leaving Ankhe without an heir. She remarried Ay (presumedly her maternal grandfather), the next pharaoh, and soon disappeared from history.
Polytheism remained the cultural norm for the following 1,400 years, until Egypt bore witness to the seeds of a new cultural revolution when the Holy Family escaped the wrath of Herod the Great’s infanticide decree c. 7 BC, and sought refuge in Egypt for the next three-and-a-half years.
Their journey through the Sinai dessert and across the Nile to Heliopolis…
brought them to the Roman fort of Babylon in Old Cairo,
where they found shelter in a cave for the next three months,
which would later become the foundation for the Church of Martyrs Sergius and Bacchus in The Cave (aka Abu Serga) built in the 4th century,
and the site of a water well which nourished Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus during their stay.
Other distinguishing features of the church include: the wall of painted icons;
and the precious relics of Saints Sergius and Baccus.
Worship of pagan deities began to wane around the late 4th and early 5th Centuries as Christianity became popular, and was finally outlawed in the 6th Century by Christian Roman Emperors. Consequently, Old Cairo became an important center of Christianity in the world, with Monasticism begetting Coptic Christianity, and extending throughout the Arab tribes.
With Coptic Christianity taking root, church worship proliferated in Byzantine Egypt, as did the number of churches in Old Cairo.
As Leah and I walked through Old Cairo, we were transported through history.
We took time to explore the Church of the Virgin (aka Hanging Church), which dates to the 3rd century.
Egypt was conquered by the Rashidun Caliphate in 646 AD, ending 7 centuries of Roman rule, but Christianity survived the war. The Arab invaders carried the Quran with them, and slowly converted the Copt population to Islam. By the end of the 12th century–which coincided with the end of the Crusades–the Christians lost their majority status thanks to intermittent persecution, destruction of Christian churches, and forced conversions by the Muslim brigade.
Today, Coptic Christianity accounts for 10% of Egypt’s population. And while they are mindful of their slim minority and occasional, bigoted backlash, the Copts are not shy about their zeal.
The survival of Judaism in Egypt has been less fortunate. Only 100 Jews remain in Egypt, mostly concentrated in Alexandria. To date, only three Jews live in Cairo, and all are women. The youngest of the bunch is Magda Haroun, age 70, and the elected representative of Cairo’s Jewish community.
But Magda is living proof that all three religions can co-exist under the same roof. After all, her ex-husband is Muslim, as are their two daughters, and her current husband is Catholic.