Copts are Christian descendants of the ancient Egyptians. The term “Coptic” is used to refer to race, religion, and language. As far as religion is concerned, the Copts are, like the members of the Syrian Orthodox Church (Jacobites), non- Chalcedonian—that is, they are monophysites who deny the doctrine of Christ’s two natures.
The religious differences between the Coptic population of Egypt and their Byzantine rulers, who supported the dio- physite doctrine of the Greek Orthodox Church, are part of the background to the Muslim conquest of Egypt in the seventh century, when many Copts actually welcomed their new masters. The Coptic patriarch of Alexandria was the leader of the community and acted as its representative to the Muslim authorities. Throughout the period of the crusades, the largest concentrations of Copts were found in Upper Egypt. There were also Coptic communities in Ethiopia and Nubia as well as in the delta region of Lower Egypt. As late as the twelfth century, Coptic Christians may have outnumbered Muslims in Egypt. Fustat was overwhelmingly a Coptic city, whereas the newer Fātimid foundation of Cairo was predominantly Muslim.
Copts were especially powerful in the administrations of the successive Egyptian regimes, and many Copts served the Fātimids, Ayyûbids, and Mamlûks as viziers, although the heyday of the Copts was during the Fātimid period. The Copts’ prominent role as financial advisers and tax gatherers, as well as the sultans’ tendency to use them as cat’s paws for unpopular measures, contributed to their unpopularity with the Muslim community. Muslim hostility to the Copts flared up from time to time, and it increased during the crusade period, when many Muslims believed that the Copts were operating as a kind of fifth column for the Franks, supplying their coreligionaries with intelligence and committing acts of sabotage. The burning of Fustat by Shâwar to prevent King Amalric of Jerusalem from occupying it in 1168 was a disaster for the Copts.
In the course of the thirteenth century, Copts came under increasing pressure to convert to Islam, but even then some of those who had converted were still suspected of being crypto-Christian spies and were persecuted still further. In fact there is little evidence of any Coptic enthusiasm for the crusading cause, and those crusade theorists in the West who thought that the Copts might provide any effective assistance to a crusader invasion of Egypt were deluding themselves. In 1237 negotiations began for a union of the Coptic Church with the Latin Church, although nothing came of this.
All the evidence suggests that the Coptic community suffered a catastrophic decline in numbers in the course of the fourteenth century as its members came under increasing pressure to convert. The Arabic chronicles of the period are peppered with accounts of anti-Christian riots, the destruction of churches, and senior Coptic officials being forced to renounce their faith. Some of the Arabic chronicles of the period were actually written by Copts, most notably by al- Makīn ibn al-‘Amīd (1205-1274) and al-Mufaddal ibn Abī Fadī’il (fl. c. 1350). These historians not only made use of Muslim chronicles but also tended to reproduce a Muslim perspective on events.