Coptic Church · History & Tradition

Coptic Architecture!

The church, being the house of God, is naturally the dwelling of God with His people, in them and for their interest. The church community constructs the church building as an oblation of love to God, who accepts it, sanctifies it, and turns it into his heavenly and holy temple. Within it, the community receives God’s mysteries and gifts in order to become the active and living body of Christ.

Shape of the Coptic Church

The church building consistently conforms to one of three designs to reveal a substantial aspect of the nature of the church, her character and message:

  1. The cruciform: It uncovers the church’s mystical nature, as being the Crucified Body of Christ. Its prime draw is to take all mankind to Golgotha, in order to gain unity with the Beloved Savior.
  2. The circle: It refers to the eternal nature of the church, as being an endless line (without beginning and without end). She bears the nature of her Bridegroom.
  3. The Ship: It is the most common shape in our Coptic churches. The Pharaohs, who believed in immortality, regarded death as a journey in a ship to the other world. In the Old Testament, Noah’s ark was a symbol of God’s salvation and love. Therefore St. Cyprian says, “No salvation can be achieved for anybody outside the church.” Christians are like those who are sailing among frightful danger, i.e. persecution and temptations; but as long as they remain within the Lord’s ship, i.e. His Church, they are filled with the hope of reaching the Eternal rest.

The Church Towers

The church represents the Lord’s ship voyaging towards heaven, similar to the ship’s guard-tower; the church has a belfry or two, where bells are normally hung. In the Church, the bells replaced the trumpets of the Old Testament. 

The Baptistery Font          

The baptistery and its font receive an excessive veneration from the Copts, like the sacred sanctuary and its altar. The font is considered as the Church’s womb; through it, she brings forth sons of the heavenly Father, by the power of the Holy Spirit and in the merits of the Blood of the Son. The baptistery should be built at the north western side of the church, i.e. at the left hand side of the entrance, where the passage from the world of darkness, represented by the west, to the world of light, represented by the east, was accomplished, and to pass from the left side (north) among the rejected goats to be among the accepted flock, represented by the right (south) side.

Until the 4th century, the most commonly used shape of baptisteries was the quadrilateral. By the beginning of the 5th century, other shapes began to appear, such as the hexagonal, the octagonal, the circular and the cruciform (the last was probably eastern, introduced in North Africa and then to Europe). In any case, these various types symbolize the theological concept of baptism and its effect. The quadrilateral resembles the shape of tomb for sharing death, burial and resurrection with Christ through the baptism (Rom 6:4). The hexagonal (six sided) refers to the 6th day after the previous week, i.e. Friday, in which Christ was crucified and buried (Col 2:12). The octagonal (eight sided) symbolizes the resurrection day of Christ (Sunday is the 8th day of the week). The emphasis here is on the co-resurrection with Christ in baptism. The round type directs our minds to the concepts of the Church’s womb, and it simulates the circle of eternity ready for the baptized person. The cruciform reminds us with Christ’s death, declaring the reality of baptism as a Cross.

The Dome

The view of the dome above the baptized believers is meant to attract his thoughts to heaven. It expresses the Church beliefs that baptism is the beginning of a heavenly life, whereby the newly-baptized partakes of the Kingdom of God.

Church Consecration

Thus, despite the fact that people use such finite materials and utilize architecture designs decorating arts, and painting etc., the building will not possess its ecclesiastical features unless it is consecrated to receive the Holy Spirit, who grants it a heavenly nature.

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