There's a bleak, interesting piece over at NSFWCorp (to which you should subscribe) by Gary Brecher on how a Coptic emigre came to cooperate with Protestant fundamentalists in turning a YouTube video into a weapon. It's a glimpse to the absolutely fucked-up mentality that a history of pogroms and capricious authority inflict.
But there's a part I have issues with (I also disagree that the region's swinging towards jihad, but that's another post), when Brecker talks about the Arab Conquest of Egypt, way back in the grand 'ol seventh century:
Egyptian Christians have been trying the other way, the turn-the-other-cheek way, from the beginning. When the Arab horsemen took on the few Greek garrisons in Egypt in the 7th Century, the Egyptian Christian civilians reacted the way peasants everywhere react to kings hacking at each other: They stayed out of it and figured it didn’t make much difference whether it was a Greek or Arab profile on the coins, since they weren’t likely to have any either way.
What the fellahin (peasants) found out too late is that this was one of those invasions that really does make a difference. That’s one of the hardest judgment calls anyone has to make: a peasant deciding whether to fight or let the guys who can afford swords use them on each other. Most times, the right answer is “stay the Hell out of it,” but there are times it’s worth helping your local vampire lord, because something worse is coming over the horizon. For Egyptian Copts, there were about 1370 years of bad times—and counting—in the dust cloud behind that Arab cavalry.
This is not exactly how things played out. The Copts actually had really good reasons for not helping out the Byzantine Empire and equally sensible reasons for not just turning the cheek but actively cooperating with the Arabian invaders. It actually worked: the Copts got a much better deal from the Caliphate than from the Byzantines.
For awhile, anyway. It's an interesting story, and a reminder of how much of the world is littered with the consequences of old bargains.
The 500-600s in that corner of the world were marked by invasions, counter-invasions, riots, strife, plague and a new zealous creed springing up howling damnation about every week or so. It was, in many ways, a post-apocalyptic era.
And that's before Islam even enters the scene.
Looming over it all was the tottering colossus of the Byzantine Empire, clinging to the shreds of Roman glory with such viciousness that its name is still associated with the sort of intrigue only possible while the world's burning down around you.
To the Byzantine Empire, the Copts weren't fellow citizens, even in the "I oppress you but we're part of the same people" kind of way. They weren't even Christian.
Awhile before, back when Mecca and Medina were obscure trading posts, the whole imperial world was plunged into a headache-inducing dispute about the nature of Christ, with a lot of political and regional loyalties thrown on top.
After quite a bit of theological argument spiced with occasional bloodshed, the Emperor stepped in, knocked all the ecclesiastical heads together and produced a compromise that was then foisted upon the church. In the Byzantine world, the Emperor ruled and the Church obeyed.
Except the Copts didn't. The majority, including many of the clergy, remained Monophysites or, in the imperial eye, heretics. While ostensibly Christian, the Byzantines ironically inherited the Roman fetish for obedience to the state religion responsible for all those haloed martyrs in the first place.
So they treated the Copts with all the subtlety one expects from a decadent empire dealing with "traitors." Their Pope, Benjamin of Alexandria, fled for his life, running from monastery to monastery out in the desert. The imperial-sanctioned Patriarch, Cyrus, was made both military and religious ruler of Egypt. He proceeded to hound the Copts, torch the monasteries, imprison Benjamin's supporters, confiscate their property, and occasionally massacre them.
This was, sadly, not an exceptional situation. The empire's Jewish population were so miserably oppressed that they rebelled to bring in the (also stunningly decadent) Sassanids to rule them instead. The Copts were far from alone in thinking that a change at the top might save them: a religious minority under Greek rule was a really dangerous thing to be.
When the Arab armies rode over the horizon, it wasn't one vampire lord coming to fight another, it was Van Helsing taking out Dracula, while Dracula was busy bathing in your family's blood. Sure said vampire hunter might be a creepy fanatic, but he'd just eliminated someone threatening you with utter destruction.
The Copts also saw an opportunity. They weren't just taxable peasants, after all, but monks, scholars, and merchants, an educated part of one of the oldest civilizations on the planet. The Caliphate was ruled by desert nomads superb in battle, but crap at administering a complex urban society. Their hold on Egypt was more tenuous than it seemed, and the Coptic Church could have proved a really troublesome center of resistance if it dug in its heels.
Conveniently for the Copts, the Arabs gave not one shit about Christian doctrinal disputes. Further, the history of the early Caliphate is full of negotiating deals (with the Quraysh, the Nubians, etc...) to spread their influence. The Copts were used to dealing with the competing imperial factions to try to maintain their own autonomy. Both sides' leaders saw an opportunity, and had the cunning to use it.
So the Arab commander, Amr ibn Al-As, welcomed Pope Benjamin back from exile, with promises of safe conduct and a restoration of his community's rights. While accounts of their meeting are sketchy, the tone was one of effusive mutual praise. Amr called Benjamin a righteous man, and the Coptic Pope offered public prayers for the conqueror's health.
It's possible that despite their different religions, the ascetic patriarch saw more in common with a fellow monotheist zealot than with the Greek nobility he'd formerly had to cope with. More likely, they were both savvy enough politicians to know how to sell a deal.
For the Copts, it worked. They administered Egypt for the Arabs. Churches and monasteries destroyed by the Byzantines were rebuilt. Taxes were lower than under the Greeks, because ascetic nomads are cheaper than a decadent imperial court. Benjamin was canonized as the savior of his people. While treatment varied from governor to governor, the Copts formed an important part of the bureaucracy under both the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates for centuries to come.
This isn't to paint too rosy a picture: the Copts were absolutely second-class citizens, paying higher taxes than Muslims and denied the same legal rights. But as far as minorities in the medieval world go, their situation was more tolerable than many, and certainly better than the "burn it to the ground" attitude the Byzantine Empire had increasingly taken towards their church.
One reason the Caliphate expanded so rapidly was because it offered this relatively tolerant treatment more often than its enemies, giving it local allies (the Jews in Spain are a similar case) to help administer conquered turf.
The story's important even for those of you who don't share my fetish for social upheaval, because our world is littered with the remains of ancient compromises like this. Today's borders, institutions, cultures, and laws are all shaped by deals that may have made excellent sense at the time, but carried consequences no one could have foreseen. This kind of bargaining is as much a factor in shaping the world as conquest. Hell, the two often go hand-in-hand.
In the early 1000s, the raving mad Caliph Al-Hakim sat on the throne. His soldiers marched on the Coptic churches and monasteries, tearing them down and desecrating their cemeteries.
Amr and Benjamin were long dead, and no one cared about an old bargain.