Missing the point of Coptic tattoos

WristCopticCross-1When my family made the decision to convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, we helped start a tiny mission in the Tennessee mountains — in Johnson City, to be precise. In the early days, Holy Resurrection Orthodox Mission included a family in with very recent roots in Egypt and its Coptic Orthodox traditions.

We learned all kinds of things, including some insider tips on making falafel and tahini and other traditional foods that come in handy during fasting seasons.

But we also learned about the often dangerous lives of Christians in the Middle East and, especially, Egypt. For example, why do Coptic Christians have those small crosses tattooed on their wrists? Our friends answered that question, the mother with tears in her eyes.

But if readers want to know the most painful answer to that question — this is a question, I admit, with several possible answers — they will not find it in a recent Global Post story that focuses on that topic.

The headline hints, in its second line: “Egypt’s Christians uphold tattoo tradition — Never mind the children’s screams: For Cairo’s Copts, tattoos are a mark of pride — and of protection.”

The story does not deliver, when it comes to information that backs that loaded word, “protection.” That makes the reader want to know, “Protection from what?” Here’s a sample of what you learn, in this case about the work of a tattoo artist named Girgis Gabriel Girgis:

Regardless the age of his human canvas, Girgis went to work — inscribing not fire-breathing dragons, fierce skulls or the gestures of star-crossed lovers, but rather simple blue-green crosses on the inside of his subjects’ wrists. The crosses are small, but they symbolize community in a country that Copts often view as hostile towards them.

Girgis’ open-air stand, just outside the church gates, has been his studio for almost two decades. For that long, he has been among the small ranks of Coptic tattooists, marking his subjects with symbols that identify Egypt’s Christian minority.

“When God chooses you for something, what you can do is just to obey his calls and do exactly what he wants you to do,” Girgis said.

Toward the end of the story, this hint of a hostile environment is repeated.

The Copts have long felt themselves a repressed minority — they are thought to make up about 10 percent of the country’s population, or 8 million people — and their tattoos can serve as a means of communal identity in a country that has a history of sectarian friction.

But note that the Copts merely “view” the Egyptian establishment as hostile and the have “long felt” that they are repressed. This is a matter of feelings and their point of view, not facts that can be reported by journalists.

Really? I realize that this is a controversial subject and that people disagree on some of the facts, but click here and explore some of the terrain covered by human-rights activists and others. Is there any real doubt that the Copts suffer from overt and covert persecution in modern Egypt?

And what does this have to do with those tattoos? Yes, they help build a sense of community in this ancient and highly symbolic flock. The Copts are, literally, the oldest Egyptian surviving community in that ancient land. On one level, the tattoo tradition must single them out for special, and often unwanted, attention in a land that in recent decades has veered closer to more radical forms of Islam.

But as our Coptic friends explained to us, those tattoos serve another purpose. They make it harder for Muslim extremists to kidnap their children and force them to convert to Islam, including forced marriages of young Christian girls to Muslim men. It’s hard to cut those crosses out of the thin skin over the veins in a human wrist. Click here for additional information on this controversial subject.

Yes, the tattoos serve as a form of identity and protection. But to fully understand this Coptic tradition, it helps to know a few of the painful details.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    But to fully understand this Coptic tradition, it helps to know a few of the painful details.

    I think you can add not missing critical details to your “10 Commandments” of good reporting.

  • Jerry

    For those that feel like the media does not get religion, here’s something I just read that indicates that some feel the media does not get the military either as posted by a soldier in Afghanistan. Just substitute “religion” for “military” and it’s the same complaint as we’ve seen here any number of times.

    I cannot answer that question in a way that sounds even vaguely like I feel that the mainstream media has a clue. Media people are allowed to attend the Counterinsurgency Training Center. Damned few take up the offer. How can a press corps even pretend to know what they are talking about when they don’t do their best to understand the reasoning, the doctrine, the strategy behind what they are seeing? Most of them, a select few exempted, have no idea what they are looking at when they watch the military do anything beyond brushing their teeth. Not only that, but they don’t try.


  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Missing details are especially important when they can be fatal or the source of kidnappings.

  • bob

    It’s surprising that a mere tattoo has any effect at all on the sad crime of kidnapping girls as brides or worse. Certainly in the past the kidnap of boys to be Janissaries wasn’t at all influenced by the fact the boys were baptized! Trivial! Anyone can say one line of creed and be Muslim. At gunpoint or not. If the tattoo makes one less desirable, what a great and easy thing to have.

  • Jerry

    Missing details are especially important when they can be fatal or the source of kidnappings.

    And they are of course also important when they might influence public opinion about the war in Afghanistan and thus our fight against al Quaeda.

    But the main point I tried to make was that failure to get religion and failure to provide critical details about religious beliefs also applies elsewhere such as with the military.

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  • kristy

    About 25 years ago, when I lived in Cairo, one of my C.O. friends told me that the cross was tattooed on the wrist to help keep her from committing the sin of denying our Lord. I wonder if that concept can even be understood by a Western reporter.

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  • Michael

    I believe this tatoo has another symbolic meaning that – as kristy said above – a western reporter might find hard to understand.

    here it is:

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  • http://www.copticorphans.org Nathan Hollenbeck

    In my work with Coptic Orphans, which works with the fartheless and widow in Egypt in their own homes through local church-based volunteers, I’ve seen the functions of these tatoos in action.

    When a child loses his or her father in Egypt, that child becomes excluded in important ways: widows are most often illiterate and unable to provide. They are encouraged to wear black and become permanently homebound, and their children lose opportunity and identity.

    There are two causes that leave a child permanently fatherless in Egypt: death, and abandonment involving conversion. Conversion happens for various reasons. For example, it sometimes happen that a father takes his family from the village to a big urban center like Cairo and Alexandria in search of work, but then falls in love with a Muslim woman or accepts an offer of marriage into a Muslim family.

    He sears off his tatoo, but always bears the mark of being formerly Christian. The religion of the father determines the religion of the children in Egypt, so the children’s tatoos protect them a little, too, if the father ever comes back into the children’s lives still as a Muslim.

    In some sense it’s more merciful when the father never does, but the trauma of being abandoned leaves a permanent mark on the inside.

    When I’ve visited fatherless families in Egypt, the ones left fatherless by conversion and abandonment stood out not in material poverty (which is a huge obstacle for all fatherless families in Egypt), but in the enormous struggles that the children face to overcome a sense of hopelessness. …