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What Is the Coptic Cross? Origins, History and Meaning

The cross is the most common and ubiquitous symbol of Christianity, with many variations over time. One of these is the Coptic cross. Let’s know more on how an ancient Egyptian symbol influenced the Coptic cross, along with its significance today.

History of the Coptic Cross

The Coptic cross comes in a number of different forms, and is the symbol of Coptic Christianity, one of the oldest Christian denominations in Egypt. The term Copt is derived from the Greek word Aigyptos that means Egyptian. The denomination became separated from mainstream Christianity due to some theological differences, but it contributed a lot to the faith in general.

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1. The Ancient Egyptians and the Ankh

Also referred to as crux ansata, the ankh was the ancient Egyptian symbol of life. It’s most recognized for its T-shaped symbol with a loop at the top. The Egyptian gods, particularly Sekhmet, were often depicted holding the symbol by its loop or handle and feeding the pharaohs with it. The symbol is ubiquitous in ancient Egypt and was used as an amulet, worn as jewelry and even depicted on tombs, in hopes of granting the deceased with eternal life in the netherworld.

Coptic cross and ankh
Notice the ankh symbol in either hand of the figure depicted in the above image.

2. The Coptic Cross and Christianity

During the middle of the first century, Christianity was brought to Egypt by Mark the Evangelist, the writer of the Gospel of Mark, and the religion eventually spread throughout the region. It led to the establishment of the first schools of Christian learning in Alexandria, the capital of Egypt at the time. In fact, many Christian texts have been discovered written in Coptic language.

However, the Egyptian version of Christianity developed from a blend of cultures, merging the concept of the cross with the pharaonic worship and history of ancient Egypt. By the 451 C.E. it became independent from the main religion and was known as the Coptic Orthodox Church, with its followers called Copts or Coptic Christians.

Contemporary design used by the Coptic Orthodox Church
Contemporary design used by the Coptic Orthodox Church, By Sagredo – Own work, CC BY 3.0

As the essence of Egyptian life, the ankh was later adopted as the emblem of the cross by the Copts. In fact, the symbol in its original form is commonly seen on the roof of Coptic churches in Egypt. Sometimes, the Coptic cross features an ankh with a cross symbol inside the loop, but there are also more elaborate cross variations used.

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The Coptic cross is no doubt an evolution of the ancient Egyptian ankh, which is also called crux ansata, meaning cross with a handle. In Coptic Christianity, the ankh’s representation of life corresponds with the belief behind crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Therefore, the locals used the ancient symbol for the new Christian religion.

The original Coptic cross used by early Gnostic Christians in Egypt
The original Coptic cross used by early Gnostic Christians in Egypt

As Copts migrated from Egypt, their Coptic crosses were influenced by various cultures. Some Coptic Orthodox communities use elaborate crosses with three points in each arm, or even trefoil emblems. Some Ethiopian Coptic churches use a classic cross shape, decorated with tiny circles and crosses, while others have intricate filigree designs that hardly look like a cross symbol.

Symbolic Meaning of the Coptic Cross

The Coptic cross has many variations, but the underlying symbolism is similar in all. Here are some of the meanings:

  • A Symbol of Life – Just like the ankh that symbolizes life, Coptic Christians view the cross as the representation of everlasting life, calling it the Cross of Life. When the circle or loop is incorporated in the Coptic cross, it can also represent everlasting love of their god.
  • Divinity and Resurrection – For Copts, the cross represents Christ’s rise from the dead and his resurrection.
  • A Symbol of Resistance – When Egypt was conquered by the Muslims during 640 C.E., the Copts were forced to convert to Islam. Some who resisted were tattooed with a Coptic cross on their wrists and obliged to pay a religious tax. In the past, it was a symbol of exclusion from society, but it’s now associated with positive symbolism.
  • Solidarity – The symbol can also represent solidarity and perseverance among Copts, as many of them face violence and persecution for their faith.

The Coptic Cross in Modern Times

Some Coptic organizations continue the tradition of using the ankh without modifications, making it one of their powerful symbols. In Egypt, churches are adorned with Coptic crosses, along with frescoes of Christ, the Apostles and the Virgin Mary. The United Copts of Great Britain use the emblem of the ankh as their cross, as well as lotus flowers as their religious symbol.

In the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Coptic cross is highlighted in various iconographies and works of art. There’s a 6th-century tapestry featuring the symbol with the inscription of ichthus, along with the depiction of Daniel and his three friends when they were thrown into a furnace by king Nebuchadnezzar. It’s also depicted on the front cover of the Codex Glazer, an ancient Coptic manuscript.

Some Coptic Christians tattoo the Coptic cross on their wrists to show their faith. It’s somewhat of a tradition in Egypt to have their first cross engraved during late childhood and teenage years—some even get theirs at around 2 years of age.

In Brief

As we have seen, the Coptic cross evolved from the ancient Egyptian ankh and was influenced by different cultures around the globe. Nowadays, it remains one of the most powerful symbols that transcend boundaries, religion and races.

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Dani Rhys
Dani Rhys

Dani Rhys has worked as a writer and editor for over 15 years. She holds a Masters degree in Linguistics and Education, and has also studied Political Science, Ancient History and Literature. She has a wide range of interests ranging from ancient cultures and mythology to Harry Potter and gardening. She works as the chief editor of Symbol Sage but also takes the time to write on topics that interest her.