The Coptic cross is a form of the cross which is worn by Coptic Christians, Christians who live in some parts of Northern Africa, especially in Egypt. Like other Christians, Copts wear the cross as a symbol of their faith, and it symbolizes Christ, His sacrifice, and the eternal love of God. Many visitors to regions of Africa with Coptic populations like to purchase Coptic crosses as souvenirs, as it is often incredibly detailed and quite beautiful.
Christianity was introduced to Africa in the first century CE, by Mark the Evangelist. He was probably responsible for the early form of the Coptic cross, which was worn by African Christians as a symbol of their faith in the nascent days of Christianity. Today, Mark the Evangelist is recognized as the founder of the Christian church in Africa.
The earliest Coptic cross was the Coptic ankh, which included the perpendicular bars of the cross, and a large circle above the top bar. In some cases, the circle comprised the entirety of the top bar, while in other instances, the top bar was shortened, and the circle was poised on top. The circle in the Coptic ankh was meant to symbolize the resurrection of Christ, and the eternal love of God, and circles continue to be integrated into Coptic crosses today.
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Over time, other forms of the Coptic cross evolved. The Coptic Orthodox Cross is square, and often heavily ornamented with filigree and fanciful details, while the Ethiopian cross is a more classic cross shape, decorated with tiny crosses and circles. Many Copts wear a form of the Coptic cross around their necks, and some also tattoo the cross on their wrists; the history of Coptic tattooing is also very old.
Because Africa includes a blend of many religions, the Coptic cross allows Copts to easily identify themselves to each other, and to others. The cross has played this role throughout the history of Christianity, along with a number of other symbols such as fish, and at one time, wearing the cross could be very dangerous; in the Roman Empire, for example, Christians were heavily persecuted in the early days of Christianity. Therefore, the cross symbolizes not only membership in the Christian faith, but a remembrance of early Christian martyrs who died because they wore the cross and refused to renounce their faith.