n Ekklesiastikos Pharos - Hagiography in the service of history : the martyrdom of St. Athanasius of Klysma and the spread of Christianity in southern Egypt and Nubia

Volume 92, Issue 1
  • ISSN : 1018-9556



This present article deals with the spread of early Christianity in southern Egypt and beyond as reflected in the Martyrdom of St. Athanasius of Klysma (modern Suez). The collective work of a new edition of the Greek text of the Martyrdom of St. Athanasius of Klysma (MAK), a first edition of its medieval Arabic translation and an English translation of both have been undertaken by Professors Juan P. Monferrer-Sala, Christian Høgel, and the present author. According to the Greek text, written by an unknown author, St. Athanasius of Klysma was a Roman nobleman, who was appointed governor of Southern Egypt by Emperor Maximianus in order to eliminate Christianity in this area. Instead, provoked by his zealous Christian spirit, he refused to execute the emperor's plan and consequently, after refusing to sacrifice to the pagan gods, he bravely suffered martyrdom in Klysma. The medieval Arabic translation, written some time after the conquest of Egypt by the Arabs which took place in the middle of the 7th century, adds the information that the relics of St. Athanasius under the guidance of a certain bishop Julianus - dated according to K. A. Worp to the 6th C. A.D. - were placed in the church of Mārta Mariam of Qulzum, which became a center of the cult of St. Athanasius. The present author believes that the narrator of the original Martyrdom of St. Athanasius of Klysma was a contemporary eyewitness. His use of the proper Roman titles in his work - indicating familiarity with the Roman court offices - his accurate description of the topography of Southern Egypt and his realistic description of the harsh persecution of the Christians in Egypt all reveal a personal knowledge of the events. The archetype of the above Martyrdom should be traced to the period of the Roman rule of Diocletian and Maximianus and their persecution of the Christians. Probably it was an oral rendition in Coptic created for the edification of the early Christians. Transmitted orally for several generations, the original narration seems to have been written in Greek at the time of Justinian, some time in the middle of the 6th century. Justinian, in his great effort to encourage the spread of Christianity in Egypt, Nubia, and Arabia, built a church in honor of St. Athanasius of Klysma or reconstructed an older one and encouraged the writing of inspirational religious texts arising from the martyrdom of Christians in this area, as for example the Martyrs of Najrān in Yemen, based on oral Yemenite tradition, as well as the Martyrdom of St. Athanasius of Klysma in Southern Egypt. It should be noted that the language of the Martyrdom of St. Athanasius of Klysma was Greek in order to edify all the Christians in the Byzantine Empire from Klysma to Constantinople.

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