German novelist and essayist Mosebach traveled to Egypt to learn about the hitherto anonymous twenty-one Coptic Christians martyred in 2015 at the hands of the Islamic State in Libya. There, he interviewed family members and local clergymen while taking in the culture and atmosphere of Coptic life.
His account alternates between tragedy and triumph, between senseless deaths and staunch perseverance. Because martyrdom is such a common aspect of Coptic experience, neither the Coptic Church (also called the "Church of Martyrs"), nor the relatives of the slain, understood the latter's martyrdom as something out of the ordinary or in need of elaboration. The martyred seem not to matter as much as individuals but rather as representatives of a collective. All but one of the murdered twenty-one were menial workers who spent most of their lives earning and sending money back home to their families.
The book deals with topics—Coptic history, language, culture, and liturgy—of interest to Western readers. According to Mosebach, "the Copts have fared badly or very badly ever since the Islamic conquest of the country in the seventh century." But things changed during the colonial era: "Among the English, we were able to come up for air again," recalls one Copt interviewed, "but we paid for it later on ... Today, we're considered a fifth column—subversives in favor of America."
The book also includes tidbits interesting to the non-expert such as the fact that "the Pharaohs' language lives on in the Coptic liturgy" and "the Patriarch of Alexandria has held the official title of pope since 249, which is nearly one hundred years longer than the Bishop of Rome [the Roman Catholic Pope]." Even so, unlike mosques, the Coptic Church does not receive Egyptian government funding. Despite its antiquity, no chair of Coptology exists at any publicly-funded Egyptian university.
The 21 contains a number of overly atmospheric descriptions and tedious digressions, but overall, the information about Coptic Christians and their place in Egypt, in the context of their latest martyrs, makes it an interesting read.