Mike Aquilina

Smithsonian: Christians? What Christians?

Thursday March 22nd 2007, 3:02 am

I thrilled to see the cover story in April’s Smithsonian. “Wonders of Alexandria: Rediscovering the Fabled City of Cleopatra,” reads the headline below a beautiful undersea shot of a statue standing amid fallen columns. My heart sank, though, as I read the story inside. The author’s potted history of the city pretty much skips over the Christian period, moving from the Ptolemies to the Muslims in a blink. He briefly returns to the Alexandrian Church as he discusses the murder of Hypatia. Christianity is present only as an undertow of anti-intellectualism that dragged away Alexandria’s culture. I’m not making this up. Here’s the transition.

“The go-go era of the Ptolemies ended with the death, in 30 B.C., of the last Ptolemy ruler, Cleopatra … Rome turned Egypt into a colony after her death, and Alexandria became its funnel for grain. Violence between pagans and Christians, and among the many Christian sects, scarred the city in the early Christian period.” New paragraph: “When Arab conquerors arrived in the seventh century A.D., they built a new capital at Cairo.”

Christianity, you see, brought violence and a seven-century Dark Ages upon the land. There’s nothing really to report from that period — except, of course, the murder of Hypatia. Get this: “Early Christians threatened Alexandria’s scholarly culture; they viewed pagan philosophers and learning with suspicion if not enmity.” Is he talking about Pantaenus? Clement? Origen? Can he be serious? Alexandria’s scholarly culture was transformed, not destroyed, by the Christian schools of Alexandria. And those guys knew and cited the pagans as well as any pagan. Here’s the author’s conclusion: “Most historians assumed that Alexandria’s learned glow dimmed as the new religion gained power.”

Most historians? Really? You can only say such things if you hold these truths to be self-evident: that Christianity is a bad thing for the intellect and for art, and that faith is opposed to reason. Thank God that “most historians” know better, because they read history. One need not be Christian to appreciate the high culture of Christian Alexandria. There are historians who are not Christians, who believe that Christianity revived an exhausted classical culture by transforming it, by giving it a new voice.

Oh, and about the violence … Christianity was hardly the near occasion of this sin for the citizens of Alexandria. They were notorious for their rioting.

We can, perhaps, take some consolation because we’re not alone in this author’s neglect. The Alexandrian Jews fared little better. There’s no mention of Philo (!), the Septuagint, or the Thereapeutai.

I see a trend here. This article is a worthy successor to the silliness that Smithsonian published on Mary Magdalene amid the Da Vinci Code hype. Don’t buy this month’s issue. If you want to encounter ancient Alexandria, read something good instead, something that’s relatively true to the history of Egypt’s Christian era. For instance …

The Christian Platonists of Alexandria

Clement of Alexandria: A Study in Christian Platonism and Gnosticism

Origen (The Early Church Fathers)

The Roots of Egyptian Christianity

Early Egyptian Christianity: From Its Origins to 451 CE

Alexandria: Jewel of Egypt (a popular history, well illustrated)

Coptic Egypt: Christians of the Nile (another popular history, well illustrated)