Note: The following is a book review of The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs by Martin Mosebach. A shorter version was first published by the Middle East Quarterly (Fall 2019, Vol. 26, No. 4).
To learn as much as possible of the 21 Coptic Christians martyred for refusing to recant their faith at the hands of the Islamic State (“ISIS”) on the shores of Libya in 2015, writer Martin Mosebach traveled to their Egyptian homeland, where he interviewed family members, local clergymen, and generally took in the culture and atmosphere of Coptic living.
The result is an account that alternates between tragedy and triumph—between senseless deaths and staunch perseverance, past and present. Because martyrdom is such a normal aspect of Coptic experience, when Mosebach “later asked myself what I had actually learned about the martyrs during my weeks in El-Aour,” where most of them lived, “I was at a bit of a loss.” Neither the Coptic Church (historically known as the “Church of Martyrs”), nor the relatives of the slain, understood the latter’s martyrdom as something out of the ordinary or in need of elaboration. The martyred—menial workers who spent their lives earning and sending money back to their families in Egypt—did not even seem to matter much as individuals but rather representatives of the collective.
Mosebach still managed to gather enough firsthand information to offer a compelling theory on the series of events that led to their slaughter. The narrative includes an extra pious ringleader who inspired his fellow captives to persevere against beatings and death threats, and an ISIS guard who reportedly converted to Christianity and fled after witnessing their staunch faith.
Although the bulk of the book invariably deals with peripheral topics—on Coptic history, language, culture, and liturgy—much of it should be profitable to Western readers. Thus, although “the Copts have fared badly or very badly ever since the Islamic conquest of the country in the seventh century, meaning that they have had it hard for the last fourteen hundred years or so,” things changed during the colonial era: “Among the English we were able to come up for air again,” recalls a Copt; “but we paid for it later on… Today, we’re considered a fifth column—subversives in favor of America.”
The book is also full of interesting tidbits: “the Pharaohs’ language lives on in the Coptic liturgy”; “the Patriarch of Alexandria has held the official title of pope since 249, which is nearly one hundred years longer than the Bishop of Rome [the Roman Catholic Pope].” Even so, “[u]nlike Islam, Egypt’s official state religion, the Coptic Church does not receive government funding”; indeed, despite its antiquity, “no chair for Coptology is permitted at any publicly-funded university, which is yet another example of … [how] the majority looks down on its country’s own indigenous people.”
Overly atmospheric descriptions of Mosebach’s experiences and tedious discussions on things like architecture and plastic wrap are ultimately offset by what will be to Western readers new and interesting information concerning Coptic Christians and their place in Egypt, in the context of their latest martyrs for the faith—“The 21.”