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Pope Benjamin I of Alexandria (590 – January 3, 661) was the thirty-eighth Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. He is regarded as one of the greatest patriarchs of the Coptic Church. During his tenure, he guided his followers through the Persian invasion of Egypt from 619 to 629, and the Byzantine-Arab Wars, and led the church to a renewed beginning side-by-side with the then growing power of Islam. His papacy witnessed three ruling systems in Egypt, beginning with the Sassanid Empire, followed by the Byzantines, under whose rule Benjamin went into exile, and finally by the Arabs upon their conquest. After the Arab conquest Pope Benjamin was allowed by the Arab rulers to come back to Alexandria and resume his work, after a period he had to go into hiding from the Byzantines.
He was born around 590 in Barshüt, in the Beheira region of the western Nile Delta region. Comparatively little is known about his early life, other than that he came from a Coptic family of comfortable means. The proximity of his home to the capital city of Alexandria has led some to assume that he received some education there.
No details on his family life are known, other than that he had one brother, Mennas. Mennas is known for having been tortured with fire and, eventually, being drowned in the Nile by the Byzantine Patriarch Cyrus of Alexandria for refusing to take the Chalcedonian profession of faith and refusing to reveal the whereabouts of Benjamin, who was himself a fugitive at that time.
Benjamin was noted for ascetic habits from an early age, and in 620, at the comparatively old age of thirty, he took monastic vows at the monastery of Canopus, Egypt, which had avoided destruction by the Persians due to its comparatively isolated location. Benjamin further developed his asceticism in the cenobitic communities which followed the rule of Pachomius. It was at Canopus that Benjamin first met an older monk there named Theonas. It was Theonas who presented Benjamin with the schema or monastic garment, instructed Benjamin in the virtues of the monastic life, including holiness, patience, and self-control, and instructed him in the study of the Bible. Theonas himself is said to have been particularly devoted to the Gospel of John, which he went so far as to memorize.
Thenoas later brought Benjamin before the sitting Patriarch, Andronicus. Andronicus appreciated Benjamin's piety and ability, and took him on as a servant. He later ordained Benjamin to the priesthood, and eventually appointed him as his assistant, making Benjamin the heir presumptive to the patriarchy. In his position as assistant to the patriarch, Benjamin became acquainted with the intricacies of church affairs and with several segments of the community. Benjamin became highly regarded for his work both within and without the church, with helped bring about his election to the patriarchate upon the death of Andronicus.
Comparatively few records exist regarding the early years of Benjamin's tenure. He is known to have issued encyclicals regarding when the observance of when Easter would take place and instructing the clergy in doctrinal matters. He also worked to help his church through the end of Sassinid rule. Fifteen of his encyclicals from this time, all of which have been lost, were known to have been collected into a single volume, which has also been lost.
In 631, Cyrus, the Chalcedonian bishop of Phasis, was appointed by the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius as both the Melkite patriarch of Egypt and as the prefect in command of the military forces of that province of the empire. His duties in the latter position included curbing religious separatism in the province, by persuasion if possible but by arms if necessary. Benjamin, who was Cyrus's rival the see of Alexandria, fled the area, going from one isolated desert monastery to another to avoid capture. When persuasion failed, Cyrus began to use force. It was during this time that Benjamin's brother Mennas joined the rebellion against the rule of Cyrus for which he was eventually executed. Cyrus also confiscated the property of all clerics who followed the fugitive Benjmain, and many churches in Egypt were turned over to the Melkites by force.
At this time, 'Amr ibn al-'As arrived at the Egyptian border with a comparatively small force of men. On December 12, 639, he began his campaign to conquer Egypt, eventually invading Alexandria itself on September 17, 642. History does not record whether the members of the Coptic church assisted the Arabs in this campaign, although it is known that they did help the Melkites. 'Amr issued a safe conduct to Benjamin to return. Benjamin took some time in returning, eventually arriving at the end of 643 or the beginning of 644. Benjamin seems to have received funds from Sanutius, the duke of Thebaid, for the rebuilding of the Church of St. Mark. Benjamin worked diligently to bring back order to the affairs of the church, improve the morale of the Coptic population which had been devastated by the actions of Cyrus, and deal with the church properties which had been ruined during the recent turmoil. He then left Alexandria again, to meet with 'Amr.
In the historic meeting between these two individuals, 'Amr is quoted as having said that he had never seen such an impressive man of God as Benjamin. The exact details of the meeting between these two parties remain unknown. The meeting was however conducted with a dignity which was not witnessed during the Asian battles. At the end of the conference, 'Amr restored to Benjamin all the rights that he had been denied by the Byzantines, and recognized him as the sole representative of the Egyptian people. The Copts were however made to pay a higher tax (gezya). Benjamin for his part publicly prayed for 'Amr and addressed him with admiration.
Benjamin worked to restore the Coptic church by renewing some of the policies which had been put in place by his esteemed predecessor, Pope Damian of Alexandria. He also established amicable relations with 'Amr and the conquerors of Egypt. There were difficulties, partially due to existing disunity among the Christian population in Egypt, as several Melkites and members of other groups had remained in Egypt after the Arab conquest. Benjamin did however eventually prove very successful in restoring a considerable degree of unity to his fragmented population. Several Copts who had fled to the Libyan Pentapolis returned. Several of those who had under duress left the Coptic church for the Byzantine church during the occupation, including the bishops Cyrus of Nikiou and Victor of Phiom, were persuaded to return to the fold. He also exercised his new legal and judicial functions, even in accord with the Byzantine legal system, to the satisfaction of the new Islamic authorities.
Benjamin engaged in pontifical visitations to the dioceses and monasteries of the church, restoring properties wherever necessary. One of his more remarkable feats during this period was the recovery of the head of Saint Mark, which the Melkites had intended to try to smuggle back to Byzantium. The head was probably left in the sanctuary of the Monastery of Saint Macarius the Great in 645 or 647. Benjamin at the time also issued his canons to the monks of Saint Macarius.
Benjamin also proved pivotal during the governorship of 'Amr's successor, 'Abdallah ibn Sa'd ibn Abī-al-Sarḥ ibn al-Ḥārith al-"Āmirī, whose desire for money could not be met by the Egyptian people, whose agricultural resources were depleted and whose people were impoverished. Benjamin's effort and intercession brought comfort to oppressed Copts.
Benjamin spent the last two years of his life encumbered by severe illness. After enduring a prolonged period of great sufferering, he died on January 3, 661.
He is regarded as a saint by his church, and is commemorated in the Coptic Synaxarion on the 8th day of Tubah. He is widely celebrated for his role in saving the Coptic church during the period of great difficulty he guided it through. The regard of his contemporaries for him was so high that a legend was widely circulated after his death that Benjamin's soul was not only carried to heaven by angels, but also escorted by Athanasius of Alexandria, Severus of Antioch, and Theodosius I.
- Atiya, Aziz S.. The Coptic Encyclopedia. New York:Macmillan Publishing Company, 1991. ISBN 0-02-897025-X
- Pope Benjamin I and the Islamic Conquest