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Ancient Egypt: The Coptic period

The Christian church within Egypt was known as the Coptic church, from a corruption of the Greek word for Egyptians, Aiguptioi. The term 'Coptic period' is a very approximate one; it may be thought of as running from the third century AD until around the time of the visible decline of Christianity in the ninth century AD. It is roughly equivalent to the Byzantine period elsewhere in the Mediterranean world.

Christianity arrived in Egypt from Judea. It probably first came into Alexandria, which was both an intellectual centre and the home of a large Jewish community. Christianity was heavily persecuted in the third century AD, but was widely accepted by the end of the fourth century. After this time, the number of monastic settlements increased. It was at this time that many ancient rock cut tombs were inhabited and adapted by Christian monks.

The term 'Coptic' can also be applied to the art and language of the Christian period in Egypt. The churches of the period were often highly decorated with murals showing saints and local bishops. The church buildings were also carved with floral and leafy motifs, sometimes combined with birds and animals. Similar motifs appeared on pottery of the period. The Coptic language was used for inscriptions including monastic accounts, extracts of the Bible, liturgy and psalms, and the lives of great saints and bishops.

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