International News

Faith & Identity: The History Behind Coptic Cross Tattoos

Tattoo artists can often face harassment from Islamic extremists who say tattoos, like the cross, are forbidden in the religion.

By Engy Magdy

CAIRO — In Egypt, it’s very common to find cross tattoos on the wrists of Coptic Christians, who are 12% to 15% of Egypt’s population. Such a tattoo symbolizes a long history of bloody persecution and is a statement of resistance and a testimony to strong faith. 

The emergence of Christianity in Egypt — in the mid-first century by St. Mark, author of the second Gospel in the New Testament — was marked by the shedding of the blood of those who converted to Christianity. 

St. Mark himself was martyred in Alexandria around 68. Throughout history, Christians in Egypt suffered persecution and discrimination under Roman rule that continued under Arab rule. 

Coptic Christians faced such persecution with silent resistance by drawing a cross tattoo on their right wrists, an ancient tradition that lives on. 

A Statement of Resistance 

Tattoo is an art that goes back to ancient Egyptians, however, there are two different stories behind the right wrist cross tattoo tradition that continues to this day. One goes back to the 284 “Era of Martyrs” under Diocletian, the Roman emperor who persecuted and put to death a great number of Christian Egyptians. 

At that time, the Copts used to tattoo the indelible cross on the hands of their children in order to ensure that their children would grow up among Christian communities in the event their parents were killed. 

The second story dates back to the Islamic invasion of Egypt in 640, when Coptic Christians had to face greater difficulties as the invaders persecuted them and sought to eradicate the Coptic language, which at that point became limited to use in hymns and liturgy prayers inside the church. Under Islamic rule, Copts were forced to convert to Islam, and those who did not convert were forced to pay a religious tax, or “jizya,” and were marked with a cross on their wrist so the Islamic authorities could recognize those who kept their Christianity. Therefore, it was a sign of discrimination. 

According to “Al-Qaul al-Ibrizi: The History of the Copts,” a book written by the Egyptian Muslim historian Taqi al-Din al-Maqrizi in 1441, the cross tattoo among Copts began with the Islamic conquest, in order to distinguish between those who converted to Islam and those who remained Christian. During the reigns of Osama bin Zaid al-Tanukhi and Hanzala ibn Safwan, Christians, especially monks, used to tattoo a lion on their wrists, and whoever changed the tattoo would have his hand cut off. 

Likewise, tattoos increased during the reign of King Mansour bin Qalawun, who assumed power in the year 1279. Bin Qalawun was a very cruel king, devoid of mercy for Coptic Christians, and he humiliated them. Al-Maqrizi said in his book that the abuse continued until the era of Salah al-Din Khalil, nicknamed al-Ashraf, who persecuted Copts in all walks of life. Nevertheless, they adhered to their faith, and tattooed the cross as an indelible mark of faith. 

Another story was mentioned by the British anthropologist Winifred Blackman in her book, People in Upper Egypt: Customs and Traditions. 

She wrote: “There is a belief among some Copts who belong to the peasant class, if not all of them, that the Abyssinians (Christians) will invade Egypt (to liberate the Copts from the Islamic occupation). Abyssinians will kill the Copts with Muslims if they do not show them that sign on their wrist.” 

According to Mina Adel Gayed, a Coptic writer and the author of the book, I Was a Coptic Child, “It was said that the Copts would raise their hands so that they revealed evidence of their religion, so they will survive and recover their land from the Arabs.” 

Identification and pride 

The Coptic cross on the wrist is more than just a tattoo; it’s a matter of pride, identification, and a symbol of resistance in the face of ongoing discrimination. “Nowadays Christians feel proud to have the cross on their wrists; others see it as a statement of being Christian,” Tadros Abu Eldahab, a tattoo artist, told the Tablet. 

Abu Eldahab — from Al Minya, 150 miles south of Cairo — has worked as a tattoo artist for 13 years. He works during religious festivals and inside churches all over Egypt where Copts used to tattoo the cross and other religious symbols. 

“The cross is the most common tattoo. Parents accompany their children to have it. For teenagers, it’s not only the cross, some come to have a tattoo of saints like the Virgin Mary, St. George, and others,” Abu Eldahab said. 

For Sherine Hinnawi, 39, of the Archangel Michael Coptic Church in Shubra, the cross tattoo remains a sign of pride and a reminder of history for Coptic Christians. 

“It tells who I am. It’s a statement about my identity as a true Egyptian and a Christian. That tattoo connects us to our past, reminding us of our struggle and faith in the face of persecution and discrimination,” she said. 

“Copts consider the cross in the hand to be a recognition of their identity and belonging to Christianity, and some Copts see it as a blessing and protection. For others, to not have the cross on your hand is a disgrace and shame.” 

In his novel House of the Poor, Gayed refers to a dialogue between a tattoo artist and another person who believes that this habit is outdated and may be unhealthy. The artist said, “We tattoo ourselves and our blood flows in order to give ourselves a tattoo that time will not erase. Who else should tell the story? We dedicate our bodies to imprint on their surface what happened to people [Copts] and the origin of them.” 

Abu Eldahab confirms that he adheres to health safety standards, as he sterilizes the device used in tattooing and uses single-use tools for each customer. 

Ongoing Harassment 

Sometimes Abu Eldahab and other tattoo artists face harassment from extremists who say that tattoo art is forbidden in Islam. 

“From time to time, someone comes and says it’s harām [forbidden] to do that to others’ bodies,” he explained. “I [am usually] calm in this situation and argue with the person, telling him everybody is free [about] what to do to his/her body.” 

Hinnawi remembers when she was abused by her math teacher in ninth grade because of her tattoo. 

“She was a fanatic and racist person who hates Christian students. One day I forgot my book at home, and she insisted to punish me by hitting me with a stick, as she used to punish the students in this way,” she said. “But this time she intended to hit me on my wrist … where I have my cross tattoo. It was painful, really painful, but every time I remember that incident I think of our ancestors who lost their lives for the faith.” 

In poor and rural areas where extremist groups have influence, Christians suffer different forms of harassment and hate speech, especially when the cross tattoo is observed. 

“I always go to the homes of the clients to repair their washing machines and refrigerators; some of the Muslim customers don’t allow me to enter homes when they see my cross tattoo,” Ramzy, 30, told World Watch Monitor. “That isn’t a strange thing for us; we are often hated because of our faith.”