Mark the Evangelist symbol is the winged lion, the Lion of Saint Mark. Canvas painting, circa 1516.

The origins of the ancient Coptic Church of Egypt


The Coptic Church of Egypt is the earliest Christian church in the world, going back to around 42 AD. According to Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea, as well as Coptic traditions, Saint Mark the evangelist, who wrote the earliest of the four New Testament gospels, was the founder and first bishop of the Church of Alexandria, even before the Church of Rome was established. In his landmark History of the Church , written in Greek about the year 310, Eusebius writes: "Now, they say that this Mark was the first to have set out to Egypt to preach the gospel, which he had already written down, and the first to have organized churches in Alexandria itself " (Eusebius, HE 2.16.1). This information is supplemented by Eusebius’s Chronicle, where he places Mark’s arrival in Alexandria in the third year of Claudius’ reign, which would be AD 41-42 or 43-44. This is no more than ten years after the date fixed for the death of Jesus, traditionally held to be in AD 33.  

Meanwhile, the traditional Egyptian account regarding the history of the early Coptic Church agrees with Eusebius on Mark’s role as the founder of the Alexandrian Church. However, Sawirus ibn al-Muqaffa’ gives a slightly later date to Mark’s arrival in Alexandria: "In the fifteenth year after the Ascension of Christ ( c. AD 48), the holy Peter sent Saint Mark, the father and evangelist, to the city of Alexandria, to announce the good tiding (Gospel) there ".1 The History of the Patriarchs attributed to Sawirus ibn al-Muqaffa is actually a multi-generational compendium of Egyptian church history that relies on several early Coptic sources, and was redacted and translated into Arabic in the eleventh century.

More information on Mark’s life in Egypt is found in the Coptic account recorded by Sawirus, which is believed to have come from an earlier source. This source, known as the Acts of Mark, gives more details about Mark’s activities in Egypt, including the account of the evangelist’s martyrdom in Alexandria. The Acts of Mark has collected some early oral traditions and set them within a larger narrative, describing the details of Mark’s mission and martyrdom in Alexandria. While the exact date of composition for the Acts of Mark is uncertain, these traditions are traceable at least to the late fourth or early fifth century. The Acts incorporates two streams of tradition within a single narrative. The first stream concerns Mark’s founding of the church in Alexandria. The second stream concerns Mark’s martyrdom, and provides an explanation for the establishment of his martyr church on the outskirts of Alexandria.

Detail, painting of Mark the Evangelist

Detail, painting of Mark the Evangelist. Public Domain

The document was originally written in Greek and Coptic, and was rendered into several other languages. The main line of the story in the Acts of Mark goes like this: when the apostles were sent out in their missions, Mark received as his lot the country of Egypt and its surrounding territories. He went first to Cyrene, (in Libya) (a second version makes him a native of Cyrene) where he did a lot of work to convert many to the Christian faith. While in Cyrene, Mark received a vision that he should go to Alexandria.

He arrived in Alexandria the next day and came to a place called Mendion. As he was entering the gate of the city, the strap of his sandal broke, and Mark looked for a cobbler to fix it. As the cobbler was working on the sandal, he injured his left hand and cried out in pain, ‘God is one.’ Mark healed the cobbler’s hand in the name of Jesus. To show his gratitude, the cobbler invited Mark to his home for a meal. There Mark began to preach the gospel of Jesus, telling the man of the prophecies related to Christ. The cobbler said that he did not know of these writings, though he was familiar with the Iliad and the Odyssey and other things that Egyptians learned from childhood. The man was eventually converted, and he and his whole household were baptized, and many others besides. The cobbler’s name was Ananias (the other version has Anianus).  Eventually, some pagan ‘men of the city’, angered by these conversions, sought to kill Mark. The evangelist decided to leave Alexandria and go back to Pentapolis, in North Africa. However, before leaving he ordained for the church Ananias (Annianus) as bishop, along with three presbyters (Milaius, Sabinus, and Cerdo).

The Healing of Anianus by Cima da Conegliano

The Healing of Anianus by Cima da Conegliano ( Wikipedia)

After two years absence, Mark returned to Alexandria to find that the Christian community there had flourished, and a church had been built in a place called Boukolou, near the sea. However, the pagans of the city were very angry at Mark for all of his mighty works. That year, Easter celebration occurred on the same day as a festival for the Egyptian god Serapis (April 24). Incited, pagan groups entered the church, seized Mark at the service, put a rope around his neck, and dragged him through the streets of Alexandria, until his flesh was falling.

The death of Saint Mark. c. 1412 and 1416.

The death of Saint Mark. c. 1412 and 1416. Public Domain

That evening they threw him into a prison. During the night Mark was said to have been visited first by an angel and then by Jesus himself, receiving words of encouragement. The next morning (April 25), the pagans took Mark from prison and dragged him again through the city until he died. They then built a fire in the place called Angeloi and tried to burn Mark’s body on it, but according to legend a great storm arose, and the pagans fled in terror. Finally, the faithful took Mark’s body and brought it back to be buried in the church, in the eastern outskirts of Alexandria.

The Martyrdom of St. Mark by Fra Angelico

The Martyrdom of St. Mark by Fra Angelico ( Wikimedia Commons )

The tradition of Mark’s martyrdom at Alexandria spread all over the Roman Empire, especially in Italy, and many Christians travelled to Egypt in order to visit the evangelist’s tomb in Eastern Alexandria.

"The most important of the early Christian holy places in Alexandria was undoubtedly Boukolou, where, according to the Acts of Mark, the earliest Christians had their place of worship and where the saint met his death and was buried. Here was erected the martyrium of Saint Mark, attested from the late fourth century on. … Epiphanius refers to is as ‘the church of Baukalis,’ which I take to be a corruption, or variant, of Boukolos. … there is no doubt that the memorial to Saint Mark was located in the north-eastern part of town (‘in the eastern district,’ ‘beside the sea, beneath the cliffs’), probably near the site of the present College of St. Mark run by the Christian Brothers. By the fourth century, when our documentation begins, the area in question was outside the city, a place for ‘cow pastures.’ But in the first century this area was the main Jewish neighborhood, described by Josephus. 2"

One of the earliest testimonies relating to the martyrium of Saint Mark in Alexandria, apart from the Acts, is found in the poetry of St. Paulinus.  St. Paulinus of Nola ( c. 352-431), south of Rome on Italy’s west coast, was ordained a priest at Christmas in 395 and became bishop of Nola in 409. As well as being prominent Christian poet, he provides the earliest external witness to the tradition about Mark’s martyrdom in Alexandria. In one of his poems he mentions Mark’s conflict with the cult of Serapis in Alexandria, a conflict that led to his imprisonment and death:

"On you, Alexandria, Mark was conferred, … so that Egypt would not stupidly worship cattle under the name of Apis; (the holy animal of Serapis worshipped in Alexandria) … Satan has also fled from Egypt, where he had taken countless forms and countless names appropriate to different monsters. Thus he fashioned holy Joseph into Serapis, hiding that revered name beneath a name of death.” 3

Marble bust of Serapis wearing a modius

Marble bust of Serapis wearing a modius ( Wikimedia Commons )

Eventually, in the ninth century, according to a legend, two or three ambitious merchants from the Italian city of Venice were able to smuggle Mark’s remains from his tomb in Alexandria. In 828, Mark replaced St. Teodora, the first patron saint of Venice, where a new basilica was built for him.

Featured image: Mark the Evangelist symbol is the winged lion, the Lion of Saint Mark. Canvas painting, circa 1516.  Public Domain


  1. [History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria, p. 140.]
  2. [The Roots of Egyptian Christianity, Editors Birger A. Pearson & James E. Goehring, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1986. Birger A. Pearson, Early Christianity in Egypt, p. 153.]
  3. [The Poems of St. Paulinus of Nola, translated by P.G. Walsh, Newman Press, New York, 1975, p. 134.]

By Ahmed Osman


Saving someone is not control. You can preach to someone (or proselytize, if you prefer), but that does NOT include forcing him/her to live according to your beliefs. Yes, there are a lot of Christians in our country (who are referred to as "Dominionists") who DO have delusions of control. who DO want to take control of our society and force us all to live according to THEIR beliefs.

As a Christian, are you comfortable with that? With another Christian forcing you to live according to their denomination's strictures instead of your own?

Karla, I wanted to address a couple of things you wrote. "Why is it important to inflict your own beliefs onto others and try to disrupt their own understanding of their truth? In the big picture, it does not matter what others believe unless you have serious control issues..." One of the things Christians are called to do is evangelize and spread the good news. We seek to save as many people as we can through the power of the holy spirit. If they do not know Jesus, they do not know the truth. Someone may believe he/she knows the truth, i.e. following Islam, Judaism, or is an Atheist, but to us Christians those dogmas (or lack there of) are the work of Satan; therefore, they are lies. So in summary whenever you see a Christian talking about the Bible and what certain scriptures mean to someone who has other beliefs, it is not that the Christian has "control issues" it is more so that the Christian is seeking to save his neighbor. Since we are called upon to love our neighbors and our enemies it is only fitting that we share the truth (as we see it) of the gospel with them.

When you find your own does not matter what others believe, so proving whether Jesus existed or convince others that their beliefs are wrong....does that matter to your own truth? Do you want to avoid being alone in your belief that Jesus did not exist so you have to try to convince others to believe as you do? Why is it important to inflict your own beliefs onto others and try to disrupt their own understanding of their truth? In the big picture, it does not matter what others believe unless you have serious control issues, wanting the power to persuade others to believe as you do, when it is the symbolism in the story of Jesus that matters and when you understand that symbolism, you are a true seeker wanting to know the are able to see beyond the physical to the metaphysical. Look for the symbols in the story and look beyond the story...then you understand, it does not matter whether Jesus really existed or not, it is what is in the story that really matters. For example, Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey on Palm Sunday....what does that mean to you? Nietzsche's "Thus Spoke Zarathustra", where Zoroaster returned to his cave and found his quests worshiping the donkey.....what does that mean? Try to see the forest and not just the trees.

Stop putting words in my mouth. I am merely repeating what I have read and studied, pointing out where scholars more educated and knowledgable than I have debunked apologists' arguments. That is NOT saying that I am the only one who knows something, it just shows that I've read a few more things than you have!

Something you can correct by more reading.

I get the feeling from your reply that you aren't interested in a discussion, but you want to be taken as an authority because you read more than one language. Sorry, bud, but lots of other people read more than one language, and apparently read more ancient stuff than you do.

Go out and read some sources that don't agree with you and learn some things, then come back and we can have a more nuanced discussion, if you dare.

Otherwise, you leaving matches how almost every other apologist reacts in similar circumstances - you all run away when you have no answers.

With all due respect Robert, I have noticed from your comments that you are the only one who tells the truth and knows the facts. All of us are either liars or ignorant.
Anyway, I will stick to my readings in languages which I know.
I will not participate in those arguments, discussions, comments where you, with my respect, trying to show you're the only one who knows everything and we all are wrong.


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