The small black cross tattoo that virtually every Copt wears is a visible reminder that in an overwhelmingly Muslim society, they represent the “other.”
The Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt is one of the oldest Christian churches in the world. Mark the Evangelist is believed to have founded a Coptic community in Alexandria in the first century BC. Back then, children were marked with a cross to signify their belonging to Christianity. When Egypt was conquered by Muslims around 640 AD and placed under Islamic control, the practice of tattooing increased dramatically.
The people were forced to convert to Islam, and those who didn’t were marked with a cross on their wrist – and forced to pay a religious tax. It was a sign of ostracism back then, but today, the cross carries a positive meaning.
The tattoos are an especially bold sign in a country where Copts and other Christians routinely complain of persecution and harassment, both from radical Islamic movements and also elements within the police and security forces.