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What is a Coptic Cross?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Coptic cross is a form of the cross which is worn by Coptic Christians, Christians who live in some parts of Northern Africa, especially in Egypt. Like other Christians, Copts wear the cross as a symbol of their faith, and it symbolizes Christ, His sacrifice, and the eternal love of God. Many visitors to regions of Africa with Coptic populations like to purchase Coptic crosses as souvenirs, as it is often incredibly detailed and quite beautiful.

Christianity was introduced to Africa in the first century CE, by Mark the Evangelist. He was probably responsible for the early form of the Coptic cross, which was worn by African Christians as a symbol of their faith in the nascent days of Christianity. Today, Mark the Evangelist is recognized as the founder of the Christian church in Africa.

The earliest Coptic cross was the Coptic ankh, which included the perpendicular bars of the cross, and a large circle above the top bar. In some cases, the circle comprised the entirety of the top bar, while in other instances, the top bar was shortened, and the circle was poised on top. The circle in the Coptic ankh was meant to symbolize the resurrection of Christ, and the eternal love of God, and circles continue to be integrated into Coptic crosses today.

Over time, other forms of the Coptic cross evolved. The Coptic Orthodox Cross is square, and often heavily ornamented with filigree and fanciful details, while the Ethiopian cross is a more classic cross shape, decorated with tiny crosses and circles. Many Copts wear a form of the Coptic cross around their necks, and some also tattoo the cross on their wrists; the history of Coptic tattooing is also very old.

Because Africa includes a blend of many religions, the Coptic cross allows Copts to easily identify themselves to each other, and to others. The cross has played this role throughout the history of Christianity, along with a number of other symbols such as fish, and at one time, wearing the cross could be very dangerous; in the Roman Empire, for example, Christians were heavily persecuted in the early days of Christianity. Therefore, the cross symbolizes not only membership in the Christian faith, but a remembrance of early Christian martyrs who died because they wore the cross and refused to renounce their faith.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a CulturalWorld.org researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Renegade — On Jan 21, 2011

@ShadowGenius

Interesting, because the Old Testament also speaks about God's salvation for the Assyrian people, and today they also comprise a Christian minority in Iraq, Syria, and other parts of the Middle East.

By ShadowGenius — On Jan 19, 2011

The Copts have become an oppressed minority in a largely devout muslim society. They have been killed and oppressed for generations, but have survived as a strong society descended directly from the original Egyptian people. This is especially interesting because the Old Testament speaks of God's imminent salvation for the Egyptian people.

By hangugeo112 — On Jan 16, 2011

@BostonIrish

The term "ankh" means life or soul. It is a symbol of a person and life, much like the five pointed star symbol.

By BostonIrish — On Jan 14, 2011

The ankh symbol actually predated the cross, and is similar to a unique form found around the world. This form includes a circle in the top area, as a celtic cross includes a circle around the center. The representation of this is of a person, a tree, an emanation, and the sun. It can also be said to represent fertility and new life. This is appropriate, since the cross is a symbol of resurrection and redemption through the death of Christ.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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