The determination of Cyril and like-minded Christian leaders to assert more control over their flocks in matters spiritual coincided with a spiraling temporal chaos in the world around them. On his deathbed in AD 395, Emperor Theodosius I had divided his realm between two of his sons: Honorius would rule the western part of the empire from Mediolanum, while Arcadius ruled the east from Constantinople. As we’ve seen, this was by no means the first attempt to institute a power-sharing arrangement in the hope of better governing an empire that seemed to grow more ungovernable by the decade. It would, however, be the last of its kind. Although no one involved intended for it to be such a thing, the announcement of this latest iteration on divided imperial government marked the end of the monolithic Roman Empire. In the face of debacles that were now coming thick and fast in the beleaguered west, the two halves of the empire just kept drifting away from one another, until there was no going back.
The western empire’s collapse was becoming something of a foregone conclusion. Already in AD 402, pressure from the Germanic peoples of the north forced Honorius to move his capital from Mediolanum to a more defensible Italian town known as Ravenna. Then, in AD 410, the unthinkable happened: an army fielded by a central European people known as the Visigoths marched almost casually southward all the way to Rome and sacked the city, taking the hapless Honorius’s sister along with it when it left again. The western empire now stood revealed as a paper tiger. In AD 476, when a Germanic warlord named Odoacer deposed Emperor Romulus Augustulus, it came rather as a relief just to be done with the fiction of empire once and for all. And so, with a whimper rather than a bang, an epoch of history passed away. The classical age faded into the interminable interregnum known as the Middle Ages, when the locus of human prosperity and progress shifted eastward, away from a moribund Europe.
Speaking of which: the eastern Roman empire, which became known in time as the Byzantine Empire, fared considerably better than its counterpart. It would manage to persist for another 1000 years after the death of Theodosius I, although by no means at its maximum extent throughout that period. For example, Alexandria and the rest of Egypt were part of the eastern empire at the beginning, but would not remain so forever.
Before that upheaval, though, there would be one more major theological debate with Alexandria at its center — one last taste, one might say, of the Alexandria that was soon to pass into history. Cyril, older now but as rigid in his dogma as ever, was one of the two principal antagonists.
For all their increasing obsession with orthodoxy and control, the international institutions of Christianity during Cyril’s time remained more diffuse than hierarchical. In theory, Christians still ordered themselves after the teachings of the apostle Paul, that first great planter of churches, who saw no reason for any one of them to be superior to any of the others. In practice, however, the various Christian communities vied fiercely with one another for influence. There was, inevitably, a pronounced rivalry between west and east, between Rome and Constantinople. But there were also rivalries within the eastern empire, most notably between Alexandria and Constantinople. The Christians of Alexandria, who proudly declared themselves to be the oldest keepers of the faith outside of Palestine and believed themselves owed a degree of extra deference thanks to their community’s venerability, profoundly resented those of Constantinople, for reasons that, one senses, had as much to do with the politics of power and influence as theology. Certainly the fierce dispute that broke out in AD 428 between Cyril and Nestorius, the recently elevated pope in Constantinople, strikes any modern observer at least as so pedantic on the surface that one has to assume there was something else going on down below. It makes the gulf between orthodoxy and Arianism seem positively yawning.
The era of Christological hair-splitting, in other words, was not yet over; it had just descended to a new level of minutiae. To wit: if Jesus Christ was both fully human and fully divine, as Christian orthodoxy now indubitably stated, then exactly how did those essences mix within him? Cyril said they were inextricably mixed, while Nestorius said they mingled but remained separate. To use a crude analogy which would doubtless have horrified everyone involved, Cyril said that Jesus was a mixture of water and wine, while Nestorius said he was a mixture of water and oil. Anyone might be forgiven for considering this argument a distinction without a difference.
And indeed, it was actually what Nestorius said next, about the mother of Jesus, which really ignited passions. The Virgin Mary had long been a figure of veneration within the faith, particularly appealing to female converts, but Nestorius saw no theological reason why this should be so. For she as a mortal woman herself had only given birth to the mortal essence of Jesus, not the divine. “The Word of God [i.e., the divine essence of Jesus] is the creator of time,” Nestorius said. “He is not created within time.” Nestorius was concerned that the excessive praise of Mary verged on idolatry. He was especially incensed over a shorthand title some worshipers had given her: that of simply “the mother of God,” a label that he considered to be factually incorrect — heretically so, in fact.
For his part, Cyril stridently disagreed with Nestorius’s argument that veneration of the Virgin Mary was inappropriate, as he did on the exact nature of Jesus’s essence. He took it upon himself to denounce Nestorius’s interpretations, loudly and repeatedly.
The crisis that ensued initially mimicked the pattern of the earlier dispute over Arianism almost exactly. Just as had happened then, waves of controversy swept across the Christian world. Pope Celestine of Rome, seeing a chance to gain leverage against his greatest rival in the east, sided with Cyril and roundly condemned Nestorius in AD 430. The following year, the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II intervened by calling a council in the name of unity, just as Constantine had once felt behooved to do.
Theodosius’s Council of Ephesus proved a smashing victory for Cyril and his allies, affirming with gusto the water-and-wine theory of Jesus and the thoroughgoing sainthood of the Virgin Mary. Like Arius before him, Nestorius was given one final chance to repent. When he refused, he was excommunicated as a heretic and imprisoned in Egypt of all places, surely much to the delight of his vengeful enemy Cyril.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. Again just like last time around, a substantial number of congregations held fast to the set of beliefs that had come to be called Nestorianism. Meanwhile a significant percentage of those delegates who had attended the Council of Ephesus recanted their condemnation of it there — in fact, embraced it with renewed vigor. Nestorius himself added fuel to the fire from his Egyptian prison cell, penning rousing calls to action which were smuggled out and shared among his followers. No one on the opposing side dared to silence him in the most obvious way for fear of making him into a martyr for his cause.
At this point, the parallels with the dispute over Arianism were broken: faced with open dissent in so many congregations, Marcian, the latest Byzantine emperor, blinked. He called for a second council on the issue, whose goal would be to broker a compromise and heal the rift before it cleaved his empire’s religion irrevocably in twain. He went so far as to invite Nestorius to attend — but, so the story goes, the latter died on the very day in AD 450 when his invitation arrived. Cyril too was gone by that point, dead some six years, but he had left behind a fire-breathing replacement in the form of the new Alexandrian Pope Dioscorus.
At the onset of the Council of Chalcedon of AD 451, the participants were ordered by Emperor Marcian to carve out a common ground between the views of Jesus’s nature. In the end, they did not posthumously reverse the excommunication of Nestorius, as many on the one side had hoped they would. On the contrary, they insisted that his writings all be burned, and any individuals bearing his name be re-baptized with another one. They also reiterated and reinforced their veneration of the Virgin Mary. Yet they gave way to the Nestorian position elsewhere. Jesus was of “two natures,” they said, “the distinction of natures being in no way abolished because of the union.” These natures were inseparable but also distinct from one another — a paradox perhaps, but no more of one than the testimony that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. In light of this article of faith, surely he could also be water-and-wine and water-and-oil at the same time.
This earnest if dubiously coherent attempt at compromise was only partially successful in calming the waters of discord. In a development which surprised no one, the primary opponents of it proved to be the Alexandrian delegation. Dioscorus grew so disgusted with the direction of the council midway through its length that he stopped attending — a dangerous form of protest, given that the council was chaired by Emperor Marcian himself. And sure enough, Dioscorus was promptly excommunicated by his peers. But even after witnessing this drastic measure, the rest of the Alexandrian delegation still refused to sign the document of compromise. It would seem they had more than theology on their minds in doing so: at least one of them let it slip that he feared for his life back home if he abandoned the cause now. That he was more willing to defy the emperor to his face than he was the ordinary people of Alexandria says much about how inflamed passions had become there.
Determined to impose the council’s verdict on the unruly city by whatever means necessary, Emperor Marcian dipped his august hand directly into its Christian establishment, and plucked out a pliable priest named Proterius for elevation to Dioscorus’s former position. But in AD 457, Proterius paid the ultimate price for his collaboration: in a scene ironically reminiscent of the murder of Hypatia, he was butchered by a mob inside an Alexandrian church.
Again, it’s almost impossible for us today to imagine committing such a savage act in the name of such theological minutiae. Did the mob of ordinary people, many of them illiterate, even grasp the details of this highly nuanced debate? One has to suspect that the answer is no. Throughout history, religious conflicts have often provided an outlet for other, less rarefied social tensions. Such would seem to have been the case here. The Alexandria of the fifth century was a city in undeniable, apparently irreversible decline. It had lost so many of its traditional markers of identity: its museum and library were gone, its glorious founder’s tomb destroyed, its lighthouse and walls and streets still scarred by the tsunami that had carried his body away. The city remained strategically important for the immense quantities of grain that continued to flow down the Nile to its wharves, whence onward to Constantinople and other outposts of the empire, but the Alexandria of old had been so much more than a mere conduit of foodstuffs. Enraged and embittered, the people vented their frustration in murderous ways against the edicts coming down to them from Constantinople, the very city which had replaced theirs as the jewel of the eastern empire.
Siding with the mob rather than the authorities back in Constantinople, Alexandria’s Christian establishment now condemned the dogma of its murdered erstwhile leader Proterius and reaffirmed its commitment to what was becoming known as “monophysitism”: a word combining the Greek mono, or “one,” with physis, meaning “nature.” Jesus Christ as completely and exclusively water and wine, in other words. The emperors in Constantinople, who wanted most of all just to keep the grain flowing from the city and who already had more than enough other problems to deal with, elected to tacitly allow Alexandria its preferred Christology. The schism was accelerated by another factor: as a result of its decline as an international cultural center, Alexandria was becoming more and more of a typical Egyptian city. The upper crust of Greek- and Latin-speaking intellectuals were leaving a city that no longer had a museum and library to attract them, and bright young students were no longer arriving. And of course the Greek-speaking Jewish community of Alexandria had been permanently shattered by the pogroms of Cyril.
The churches in Alexandria responded to these changes. They gradually adopted Coptic — the language of Alexandria’s streets during late antiquity and afterward, a modestly evolved version of the language spoken in Egypt during the time of the pharaohs, albeit written using the Greek alphabet rather than the hieroglyphs of old — as the language of all of their scripture and services. It’s difficult to say precisely when the resulting Coptic Church became a distinct enough entity to be considered its own schismatic branch of Christianity, separate from the other churches of west and east, which were evolving toward the institutions that we know today as the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. But distinct it eventually became.
Had the Byzantine Empire been consistently peaceful and stable during the fifth and sixth centuries, this religious breakaway would probably never have been allowed. But the emperors in Constantinople were embroiled in a series of wars, foreign and occasionally domestic, that kept their attention elsewhere. By no means did these conflicts all go against them; during the first half of the sixth century, Emperor Justinian I even managed to reconquer much of the old western empire under the slogan of “restoration.” Yet those gains proved short-lived, even as the Byzantines found themselves increasingly pressured from the east by an old threat reborn and redoubled. The Persians — the same people whose invasion of the west a millennium earlier had done so much to forge the classical Greek identity, the same people whom Alexander the Great had once driven far away from European shores — retook Mesopotamia and sacked Antioch in AD 540.
In the midst of it all, another natural disaster struck Alexandria and the rest of Egypt, beside which even the great tsunami of AD 365 paled in magnitude. In AD 541, an almost indescribably virulent plague swept through the country; some historians believe it may have killed an apocalyptic 40 percent of Egypt’s total population. As a result, Egypt became, as Middle East historian Hugh Kennedy has put it, “a half-empty land.” It had yet to recover by the dawn of the next century, when a Byzantine civil war between rival would-be emperors gave the Persians the opportunity to make further inroads to the west. In AD 617 — 949 years after Alexander the Great had kicked them out of Egypt — the Persians marched right up to the walls of Alexandria all but unopposed. After a long, miserable siege, the city surrendered. By AD 619, all of Egypt was in Persian hands again.
But they didn’t hold onto it for very long. One decade later, the Byzantines and Persians negotiated a territorial swap which returned Egypt to Byzantine control without further bloodshed. The bloodshed this time rather came after the Byzantine authorities returned to Alexandria. For they brought with them a fanatical religious leader named Cyrus, who deposed the current Coptic pope and assumed his mantle, then instituted a systematic program to return the Coptic Church to the doctrine of Rome and Constantinople by force. Thousands upon thousands of monophysites were martyred in the cruelest fashion imaginable, at least if the Coptic sources are to be believed. One priest, for example, was reportedly roasted over a fire “until the fat dripped down both his sides to the ground.” When he failed to recant, his teeth were pulled out one by one; then he was stuffed into a sack full of sand. Having still failed to break his will, his captors drowned him in disgust.
Needless to say, none of this engendered much loyalty between the people of Egypt and their Byzantine leaders. The Coptic Church was completing a slow transformation: born out of an argument made by one of Alexandria’s Greek-speaking elite, it had become the faith of Egypt’s masses, sustaining them in the face of disease, conquest, and now this latest brutal persecution. Its idiosyncratic Christology had become integral to the Egyptian people’s identity, to be held onto all the tighter when the foreigners in charge tried to pry it away from them. They had one other strong thread of hope to cling to as well: demonstrating the unerring instinct shown by ordinary people about such things throughout history, those of Egypt could sense that their rulers’ days were numbered now.
The reality was that both the Byzantine and Persian Empires looked painfully threadbare in comparison to a rising power whose center was just east of Egypt. This new empire was built upon the messianic impulse of yet another new religion, a third People of the Book who had now arrived to join the Jews and Christians.
The sprawling peninsula known as Arabia, which bordered the opposite side of the Red Sea from Egypt, was one of the most inhospitable places in the known world, a desert wasteland bereft of the rivers and lakes that had allowed the desert land of Egypt to thrive down through the millennia. The only sources of water here were wells and the rare, precious valley oases which were fed by the torrential downpours that sprang up once or twice per year. Unwelcoming and resource poor as it was, Arabia had played little role in the affairs of the world around it to this point. Yet it wasn’t without an indigenous culture of its own. Villages existed in the oases, working their small plots of arable land as best they could, while nomads roamed the empty reaches in between on their camels, those “ships of the desert.” The two groups maintained a guarded but necessary synergy: the villagers traded some of their crops to the nomads in return for meat and hides. Their shared language of Arabic had a lovely lilt, perfect for campfire tales and singsong poetry recited under a brilliant desert sunset; it even had a written form, although the percentage of the population who could read it was vanishingly small. The region had little in the way of government beyond the level of the individual village and tribe, even when it happened to be claimed by one empire or another. Christian missionaries had made some inroads here, as they had in most places, but more localized cults of belief, worshiping the spirits of the elements and the worshipers’ ancestors, were still strong.
Comparisons between the prophet who preached in Arabia during the early seventh century and the one who preached in Palestine 600 years before are inevitable. In later tellings at least, similar portents were in the air prior to Muhammad’s birth in AD 570 as before the birth of Jesus Christ. His mother-to-be was told by heavenly voices that “you carry in your womb the lord of his people,” and frequently saw a divine light shining from her belly. When he was a young boy, he met two angels who, so it is said, opened up his chest, removed his heart, and washed it clean of all of the sins of humanity before returning it to him.
But such comparisons only go so far. This Prophet Muhammad — the name means “Most Praised” — was an earthier figure than Jesus Christ. He was, his followers universally acknowledged, a mortal man in all respects, the product of a mortal father and mother. He showed none of Jesus’s aversion to matters of the flesh: he acquired in the end more than a dozen wives and even a pair of concubines. Nor did he insist on turning the other cheek: he became a military as well as a spiritual leader, masterminding a series of early conquests on the Arabian Peninsula that his successors would turn into a much, much larger swath of territory.
Muhammad was a late bloomer as prophets go. He lived the entire span of Jesus’s life and more as a successful merchant and tradesman in and around his home village of Mecca, where he was a respected member of his community but hardly a venerated one, demonstrating no unusual level of interest in religion. Then, in AD 610, a 40-year-old Muhammad was prompted by an impulse he couldn’t explain to go up alone to a cave in a hillside above Mecca, whence to contemplate the world and his position in it. There an angel came to him and began to recite lines of sacred verse, which he was told to remember and convey to all the peoples of the world. Being illiterate like most Arabians, Muhammad rushed back to Mecca to convince one of the village’s few scribes to write it all down. The man who did so was named Waraqah, and was, as it happened, a Christian; he immediately recognized that the words Muhammad repeated must come from the God of Moses and Jesus Christ, must be a third installment of his sacred message. Over the weeks that followed, Muhammad returned to the cave many times, bringing back each time more verses for Waraqah and the other followers who had started to gather to transcribe. The resulting book became known as the Quran: literally, the “Recitation.”
Unlike Christians, who had to wait more than 300 years to become a proper People of the Book, these new Muslims — the word means “submitters,” as in submitters to God — thus had theirs to hand from the beginning. The Christian Old and New Testaments are messy, ramshackle affairs created by committees, compilations of diverse texts which often contradict one another, which were first compiled in a language other than the one spoken by most of their principal actors — books in which passages of great beauty and wisdom sit side by side with, shall we say, less innately enduring sections. The Quran, by contrast, was a substantially complete document almost from the start, with a single strong authorial voice. In its native Arabic, the beauty of its poetry alone was awe-inspiring in a people already much given to poetic flights. This purely aesthetic appeal, many historians of religion have argued, was as important as any concrete message embedded in the Quran in furthering its spread. The new religion of Islam (“Submission”) would always remain almost inseparable from the language in which it was first expressed, a state of affairs quite foreign to the Christian experience. With its holy book already good to go, and being free of any tortured hair-splitting disputes over the exact nature of its savior (“God is only one God, he is far above having a son,” says the Quran), Islam took hold with bewildering speed among the Arabs. “Listen to my words and take them to heart!” Muhammad told his people. “Understand that every Muslim is a brother to every other Muslim, and that you are now one family.” And his people did take his words to heart.
What followed was a phenomenon almost unprecedented in the history of the world. In the space of a bare decade or two, Arabia was transformed from a poor, disunited region, of little account to the rest of the world, into the most dynamic cultural and military force of the age. I began this book by describing how Alexander the Great was able to fill the power vacuum left by a tired, aged world order, in which all of the major powers were more or less in decline, to forge an empire of astonishing size in virtually no time at all. I find myself ending it now by telling how the Arabs did the same one millennium later, by combining the inspiration of their new religion and its prophet with a previously latent sense of ethnic pride. The big difference is that they were able to forge a much more lasting cultural transformation — indeed, one that has lasted right up to the present day.
Situated as it was uncomfortably close to Islam’s birthplace and dangerously far from Constantinople, Egypt was an obvious early target for Muslim conquest. Omar, the first of the caliphs who took it upon themselves to lead the new Muslim empire after Muhammad’s death in AD 632, set his sights on Egypt just seven years after that event. He sent a general whose name was Amr to Egypt, leading an army that initially consisted of no more than 4000 men. Their numbers were gradually increased to perhaps as many as 12,000, but never more than that. With this tiny force, Amr shaped the religious and political destinies of a billion Egyptians who were yet to be born.
By November of AD 641, his army, having already conquered most of the rest of Egypt, was fast approaching its capital city. Coptic legend has it that the hated persecutor Cyrus sneaked out of Alexandria to meet Amr and negotiate the surrender of the city. “God has delivered this land into your hands,” he groveled. In return for the payment of a substantial tribute, Amr agreed to give the Byzantine leadership ten months to evacuate their people from the city by sea. When Cyrus told the generals back in Alexandria what he had done, they were at first livid, but finally accepted that their situation was untenable and went along with the agreement he had made.
This tale must, however, be considered in light of the Coptics’ deep-seated antipathy for Cyrus. It’s very possible that he may have intended the “surrender” strictly as a play for time, a chance to bring reinforcements in from Constantinople. But if so, the imperial capital proved too distracted with other matters to send them. Cyrus himself died before the last of the Byzantines left the city — according to the Coptic story, from a case of dysentery brought on by guilt. On September 29, AD 642, Amr marched at the head of his army into an undefended Alexandria.
There is good reason to suspect that Alexandria’s Christians weren’t uniformly unhappy about these events. Life under the Arabs was surely less difficult for some of them than it had been under the tyrannous Cyrus. For, eager though the Arabs were to conquer and rule in the name of their religion, they were reluctant to forcibly convert anyone to it, not least because their holy book explicitly abjured doing so. “Call to the path of your Lord with wisdom and goodly preaching, and dispute with [non-Muslims] in the best way,” says the Quran at one point. “There is no compulsion in religion,” it says elsewhere. “To you your religion, and to me mine,” it says in still another passage. As fellow Peoples of the Book, Jews and Christians were to be accorded an especial degree of accommodation, as long as they submitted to their new rulers in all non-spiritual matters and were careful not to actively disrespect Islam.
Still, Amr regarded Alexandria with considerable suspicion, not least for its long association with Christianity. So, just short of one millennium after Ptolemy I had made the city the capital of Egypt, Amr stripped it of that status. He broke ground on a new capital, a city that would first be known as Fustat but would eventually morph into a metropolis known as Cairo, at an auspicious spot 112 miles (180 kilometers) to the south of Alexandria: just where the Nile River splits to become the Nile Delta, right next to the three-millennia-old Pyramids of Giza (monuments which would prove a handy source of building stones for the new city).
In the meanwhile, Amr’s suspicions of Alexandria were turning out to be justified. Forgetting their old doctrinal disputes with Constantinople in the face of the diminution of their city and themselves at the hands of the Arabs, some Coptic leaders sent secret messages back to the imperial capital, stating that Alexandria was lightly defended and providing details of the tiny Arab garrison’s disposition. Late in AD 645, a small Byzantine army arrived in the harbor and took the city as easily as had been promised. Buoyed by this success into believing the Arab forces in the rest of Egypt would prove a similar pushover, it then marched southward in a rather heedless fashion, where it encountered a larger Arab army in the field under the command of Amr himself. By the following summer, it had been pushed back inside Alexandria’s walls. Amr wasn’t interested in diplomacy this time; he took the city by force without further ado. “Amr made a heavy assault, set the ballistae, and destroyed the walls of the city,” wrote the Arab historian Al-Baladhuri two centuries later. “He pressed the fight until he entered the city by assault.” Some Byzantine soldiers managed to escape by sea, but most were killed in the fighting.
Amr had well and truly run out of patience with Alexandria now. He gave his men free rein to burn, loot, and kill indiscriminately for some time as an example to any other Egyptian city that might think of defying its new masters. So, Alexandria’s last shabby bid for a renewal of its old status and glory ended in a miasma of arson, rape, and slaughter. When it was finally over, Amr ordered the great mirror at the top of the lighthouse broken up and carted away. And so the Lighthouse of Alexandria — the beacon that had for so long drawn the world to this special place on the coast of Egypt — was extinguished forever.
(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)