Written by Lorena Brašnić
Nowadays, popular culture is rich in diverse styles of tattooing ranging from small symbolic tattoos to massive, colourful body art. Stuck between desire to have one and a feeling of disgust towards them, we usually forget the roots of this long tradition and different purposes which they carry within themselves. For instance, a sect in Egypt called the Christian Copts is the perfect example of tattooing having a deeper meaning rather than just being a fashion statement. For them tattoos are embedded in their history, carrying cultural and religious significance.
The roots of their tattooing tradition lie in their meaningful historical background, emphasized by the fact that that tradition has been around for almost 14th centuries now. Coptic Christians are the largest ethno-religious minority in Egypt. Two words most commonly associated with them are Fear and Faith united in the event dating back to the 7th century when the Arab Muslims invaded Egypt and Christians refused to convert to Islam. This had the consequence of enforcing very low standards of living upon them without political power or many rights. The whole situation compelled them to start the fight for their independence and they somehow succeeded in improving their position and gaining some influence or at least independence and identity.
During that, so to say, war for independence and identity, they also established a tradition of tattooing which has become their recognizable sign and form of ID. The tattoos depict a small black cross, the traditional symbol of Christianity, usually placed inside of the right wrist which draws parallels to the story of Jesus, i.e. the Copts chose that part of the body with the aim of feeling the pain Jesus felt when he was crucified.
Moreover, they’re not just a symbol of minority in Egypt, but also a form
of identification. For safety reasons, many churches have security at the entrance which checks that those entering have the tattoo as a guarantee that they are, in fact, Christians. Also, they have to show their ID cards before getting the tattoo in order to prove their faith. Today, Copts are not only present in Egypt, but spread are throughout the world. However, the tattoos are common only in Egypt.
Among christian Copts, cross tattoos were never a sign of seditious rebellion or a fashion statement. Instead, it stands as a visible and permanent reminder of their faith and of what they’ve endured to survive.