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.
R. Schwarz (In Exod. Hom 9) reckons that the construction of church buildings is a holy accomplishment and should be founded not purely on architectural bases, but also on authentic sacred facts of creed. Robert Maguire (in De Princi 10, 2) says, “If you are going to build a church, you are going to create a thing which speaks. It will speak of meanings, and of values. And if it speaks of the wrong values it will go on -destroying! There is responsibility here!”
Coptic Churches in History
It is most certain, that Egypt played a vital role in the life of the Early Church. It is worthy to note that church buildings in Egypt were exposed to a number of successive waves of demolition, destruction, and burning throughout history. Not a single church in the whole of Alexandria could be related to the first three centuries. Even the ancient churches of Old Cairo and other monuments of Upper and Lower Egypt are known to be built sometime after the 3rd century. However, architects confirm that Egypt must have possessed a good collection of large and valuable churches, and distinctly influenced the architecture and arts of the early church.
Dr. A. S. Atya, in his book “History of Eastern Christianity,” states, “Though many ancient Coptic monuments suffered greatly from hostile incursions, and many more fell into disuse and were ruined, a representative number of monastic and church structures have survived in their early original forms. Consequently, the archaeologist has been able to reconstruct a fair picture of the essentials of Coptic architecture. Literature on this interesting facet of Coptic history had been growing steadily, but much remains to be done on the sites and mounds which fill the length and breadth of the Nile valley. Some of these are known, but unexcavated; while innumerable others are still undiscovered and untouched”.
Now we may raise the question, what was the style of the churches built latter on in Egypt? Or in other words, what is the style of Coptic Architecture?
The Copts took pride in their Pharaonic culture which made them act in such a way as to oppose the cultures of various invaders. When the Copts began to erect their own churches, it was normal for their architects to copy the existing temple models of the master builders of antiquity, more especially as these seemed to fulfill the requirement of the new faith during the first four centuries. Thus, in spite of the fact that the invaders, whether they were Greeks, Romans, Persians or Byzantine, left their marks on the Egyptian culture, it would be a grave error to assume that Egyptian art was affected by any of these at any time. Hamilton affirms that Egyptian churches could be categorized as a distinct entity, i.e. the “Coptic Architecture”. Its character was dictated by its liturgical and ecclesiastical traditions, and its structure bears the mark of its national feelings.
Butler, in the book “Ancient Churches of Egypt,” confirms that in spite of the similarity that may seem apparent between our churches and the Roman Basilica style, it is beyond all doubt that Coptic architecture had its own independent origin. It really had nothing to do with Basilica, nor had it copied any of the Roman Basilica features. In fact, Alexandria knew “domes” before Christianity, and as Butler says, “Domes originated in the East, and it is more probable that Byzantium borrowed them from Alexandria than the other way around.” In addition, the ancient Coptic Church buildings never knew the cruciform design, which was the most preferred Byzantine architectural style.