Monday, June 26, 2023

Refuge in the Hills…

…and the sidearm….

Instead of trying to understand why religions perish, we should perhaps be asking why they survive at all under such difficult circumstances.

The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died, by Philip Jenkins

Jenkins compares the situation in Egypt as opposed to Algeria / Tunisia.  Why did Christianity, via the Copts, continue as a significant minority in the former, and Christianity virtually disappeared in the latter?

This almost immediately after the time when what we know as Algeria and Tunisia today could be considered as much a center of Christian life as any.  Carthage was the source of Latin traditions – at least as much as, if not more than, Rome.  This part of Africa was the home of Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine.  By the late fifth century, North Africa had five or six hundred bishoprics. 

Yet within fifty years of the Arab conquests, Christians could scarcely be found: local Muslim rulers apologized to the caliphs that they could no longer provide Christian slaves, as almost none could be found.  There were gaps of decades and even centuries in many bishoprics.  From the 1,500 miles of coastline spreading from the western side of Egypt to the Atlantic, North Africa had almost zero Christian presence. 

Jenkins points to the failures of the Christian Church in spreading beyond the major cities of this region; the world of native peoples was almost untouched, with the church making little progress in taking the faith to the villages and countryside.  There was little effort to translate the Scriptures into the local languages.  One could consider the Christianity of North Africa (excluding Egypt) as the religion of the colonial conquerors.

On the other side, the Copts of Egypt.  Here, the natives were reached.  Even the name Copt is a corruption of the ancient word for native Egyptians.  The hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone were translated by using the liturgies of the Coptic Church!  While the Alexandrians wrote and thought in Greek, Coptic was from the beginning a sophisticated language of Christian literature.

In other words, Christianity was well-engrained in the culture, language, and tradition of the large portion of the Egyptian population.  Even the coming of the Arabic language was not enough to erase this depth.  At the end of the fourteenth century, a Muslim chronicler would complain that the Copts declared that Egypt still belonged to them.

Jenkins takes a look next at Western Europe, and his doing so has strengthened the reality for me that The Battle of Tours in 732 may very well have saved Christianity for the whole of Europe.  At this time, the early to mid-eighth century, it is not as if Christianity was well developed throughout the European population (much like North Africa, as noted above).  Yes, in Italy, Gaul, and the Rhineland, Christianity had developed well.  But what of the north and east?  Germany, the Netherlands, even England.  The ground was shaky at best.

A suggestive story written around 700 tells of English peasants happily watching an immanent shipwreck that was about to claim the lives of some monks.

When they were rebuked by a clergyman, they responded:

“Let no man pray for them, and may God have no mercy on any one of them, for they have robbed men of their old ways of worship, and how the new worship is to be conducted, nobody knows.”

Returning to the original case of Africa, between the fifth and the ninth centuries the sea routes of the Mediterranean shrank in significance relative to the land routes over the Middle East and Central Asia.  Carthage and Antioch would shrink to almost nothing.  Cairo, in the meantime, stood at an important crossroads of these new networks.

Jenkins next turns to the geography of survival, and this section reminds me of one of the earliest reviews I have done of any book: The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, by James C. Scott.  In this book, it was the mountains and borderlands that allowed independence from the emperor in China.  Jenkins will tell a similar story here.

Whatever their beliefs or structures, the fate of religious and cultural minorities owes an immense amount to geography.

Many small Christian communities continued to exist for centuries after the rise of Islam.  Before modern times (with roads and railroads that could overcome geography), few governments were able to extend their authority through all corners of their territories.  Natural features would provide some measure of safety and defense.

Naturally, many of these locations would be upland regions.  Even today, modern armies find it difficult to bring people in such regions under submission (think Afghanistan).  Despotism would spread over the flat country, and end with the foothills.

The northern regions of Mesopotamia offered refuge, being at two or three thousand feet; the Christian kingdoms in the mountainous Caucasus of Armenia and Georgia flourished for centuries; Ethiopia would survive when the capital was relocated into the mountainous heartland; despite conquering most of Spain, the Muslims could not advance into the mountainous northwest.

Then there were the borderlands.  Where Rome was separated from Persia (and, later, the Byzantines from the Caliphate), one could find the Christians of Armenia and northern Syria.


Another feature will be well-understood by readers of this blog.  A traveler, when describing the Maronites of Mount Lebanon:

… “everyone, whether shaikh or peasant, walks continually armed with a fusil and poniards [i.e., a musket and daggers].  This is perhaps an inconvenience but this advantage results from it that they have no novices in the use of arms among them when it is necessary to employ them against the Turks.”


This brings to an end this examination.  I will close with one last thought from the book: churches end, but the Church goes on.  Jenkins was once criticized for stating that the North African church ceased to exist.  His critic, a conservative Catholic, would offer that the number of Christians in the region was irrelevant; the Church body was at once both mystical and institutional.  Jenkins offers:

…I think he was making a worthwhile point about the time span of human history.

And for this, I will offer: what if we are still living in the early Church?


  1. Myself will accept that offer the early church never died ,inspite of the spirit of antichrist who was also in the earth right alongside. God and his spirit are indestructible. Things may seem very deranged to us in these " modern times". He is working and never takes time off.

  2. Hmm... from where myself can see we are , it was never gone, but survives , it may not look like the kingdoms of the world where mighty rulers ride into town on armored stallions with much hoopla and fan fare but it was / is begun and sustained by a true King who rode into town on a donkey with zero carnal armor. We serve at his pleasure 🙏

  3. "And for this, I will offer: what if we are still living in the early Church?"

    I like this.

    If, as Scripture says (2 Peter 3:8), 1000 years with us is as one day for Him, then it can be said with some degree of veracity that, as far as Christ is concerned, His Church is barely two days old. Because we are human and live in time, we get impatient when it appears that things are not going well nor improving our current state, but Peter cautions that we need to see this from the timeless perspective of eternity.

    I have no problem with living (and dying) as if my efforts in the present will bear good fruit in the future, even if I never see it come to pass. I can look forward years, decades, centuries, and even millennia to see the Church, now an infant, grow older and more mature, eventually bringing in the full promise of God on Earth.