The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs
by Martin Mosebach.
Plough, 2019.
Hardcover, 272 pages, $26.

What Was Before: A Novel,
by Martin Mosebach.
Seagull Books, 2014.
Hardcover, 248 pages, $27.50.

Reviewed by Trevor C. Merrill

This powerful little book addresses the plight of Christians in the Middle East from an utterly unexpected angle. On the surface it’s a work of travel literature, recounting a German novelist’s two-month visit to Egypt in the footsteps of the Coptic martyrs beheaded by ISIS in February 2015. On a deeper level, though, it offers an improbable mixture of devotional reading and intellectual provocation, paying tribute to a resilient and vibrant Christian community, and challenging Western believers to reconnect with their ancient roots.

Mosebach is one of Germany’s foremost novelists, yet in the U.S. he has a following primarily among traditionalist Catholics, who have taken inspiration from The Heresy of Formlessness, his collection of essays on the Latin mass. The 21 should expand his American audience well beyond Catholic circles. Yet many secular readers, even conservative ones, may stop short of embracing its implicit thesis, no matter how much they admire and enjoy the book itself.

There is an almost irresistible—and undoubtedly noble—temptation to frame the issue of persecuted Middle Eastern Christians in terms of religious freedom: what can we do to promote tolerance and pluralism in places where those values have come under threat? How can we help the victims? And what political action should be taken?

But for Mosebach, who made his Egyptian pilgrimage after contemplating the severed head of one of the martyrs on a magazine cover, the question of how to deal with (as he puts it) “unresolved tension between Arab conquerors and vanquished Copts” is not particularly interesting. The Coptic Orthodox Church, which traces its origins to Saint Mark (martyred in Alexandria), has suffered persecutions on and off for the last 1,400 years, since the Muslim conquest of Egypt, and even earlier, notably in the third and fourth centuries, when hundreds of thousands of Christians were killed for refusing to sacrifice to the Roman gods. The recent surge in violence there is no anomaly, awaiting resolution at the next international peace conference; it is more or less the rule, and will likely remain so.

The more crucial question, Mosebach’s book suggests, is to determine where a group of poor, uneducated migrant workers acquired the strength to give up their young lives for the truth—a choice difficult to square with modern secular views, as he notes at one point in an imagined conversation between a “doubter” disgusted with the whole idea of martyrdom, and a “believer” attempting to defend his fascination with the subject.

The men had traveled to Libya to find work. There they were kidnapped and held prisoner. Perhaps by recanting their faith they could have returned to their families. Instead, they died praying to Jesus on a Libyan beach, their blood staining the sea red. For Christians, their death bears witness to the reality of a world beyond this one—a witness paradoxically amplified by their media-savvy killers, who transformed the massacre into a grisly video spectacle.

The 21 is structured like an icon in prose. It begins with a list of the martyrs’ names and birthdays and is divided into a symbolic twenty-one chapters, each introduced by a photo of one of the young men, who today are saints of the Coptic Church. After some wide-angle reflections on the martyrs and the circumstances under which he was drawn to their story, Mosebach deploys his skills as a novelist to offer a meticulous description of the ISIS propaganda video that brought the killings to the world’s attention.

“None of the countless other Islamist murders will remain etched in our cultural memory as deeply as this one,” he writes, “above all because its directors gave it such a highly aestheticized form.” But if evil can be rendered visible through attention to choreography and color, presumably the good and the true also have their aesthetic embodiment: already, Mosebach’s deeper insight has been adumbrated.

His account then moves in tightening concentric circles from Cairo, where a meeting with a local contact occasions thoughts on the question of martyrdom, to Upper Egypt, where he encounters pastors and family members of the martyrs and travels to local churches and pilgrimage sites. Later chapters zoom out again, reflecting on a wide variety of topics, from the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt and Coptic monasticism to the mirage that is “New Cairo,” a gleaming shopping district where the old city’s grimy belle époque architecture gives way to the dizzying prospect of infinite choice, and matters of life and death to such pressing issues as whether to return a recently purchased blouse.

The journey may not have changed him, in the sense of yielding the “personal growth” we’ve come to expect from narratives like this one, but it did bring Mosebach some surprises. The biggest one, perhaps, was the discovery that the Copts weren’t just surviving—they were, in spite of everything, flourishing. He had seen the news reports in the wake of the Arab Spring—Christians murdered, churches aflame. But Western media failed to tell the other half of the story: in the city of Samalut, where he met with the martyrs’ bishop (a man exuding a princely authority quite unlike the smiling democratic affability of so many Western prelates), a huge construction boom was underway, “a building frenzy of the sort Coptic Christians hadn’t experienced for over a thousand years.” New churches towered over mosques; new monasteries jostled for space with new schools and hospitals.

More surprises awaited in the village of El-Aour, in Upper Egypt, where sixteen of the martyrs lived and grew up. Mosebach was graciously welcomed by parents, widows, siblings, cousins—poor and often illiterate farmers living in multi-story concrete houses side by side with cows, goats, and chickens, among unpaved roads and garbage-clogged canals. Strikingly, the families weren’t in mourning, nor did they show any sign of thirsting for revenge. Brothers and male cousins gathered around to watch the uncut video of the beheadings on iPads, “pointing out the men they recognized.” Everyone took a “calm pride” in the martyrs, and shared accounts of miracles attributed to their intercession.

Milad’s parents … thanked God for their son’s martyrdom, and the parents of Girgis (the elder) recalled how their son had always wanted to become a martyr. During his captivity they had not prayed for his deliverance, but only that he remain strong. He had remained strong indeed, and was now the family’s pride and joy.

What explains this rock-solid faith? In one sense, Mosebach says, it’s the fruit of isolation: separated from the Western churches after its expulsion at the Council of Chalcedon, the Coptic Orthodox Church never occupied a position of hegemonic power. Thus neither Reformation nor Counter-Reformation (nor, for that matter, the more recent upheavals of modernity) separates today’s Coptic Christians from a distant past of biblical revelations, desert ascetics, and prodigious miracles. As a result, Mosebach writes, “they experience the events of the early church as if they had only happened yesterday, and this helps them preserve the simple core of the Christian message.”

Given Mosebach’s previous writings on the subject, his conclusion is perhaps unsurprising: the main source of this steadfast community’s strength, he suggests, is the Coptic liturgy. A “festival of faith in its utmost form” aimed at awakening “an awareness of the presence of God,” the celebration lasts for three hours and is almost entirely sung, in Greek and ancient Coptic. In El-Aour, it unfolds in an unremarkable parish church built in the 1960s, which is protected by an armed guard stationed in a concrete watchtower “with a cabin on top, similar to the type of cell inhabited by early Christian pillar-saints.”

The liturgy has survived intact through the centuries, efforts at reform having been resisted by the laity. Mosebach argues persuasively that, in all its “sheer otherness and ancientness,” it would have been “the most important mental and aesthetic influence” on the lives of the martyrs, more formative than whatever education they received in local schools. “However little or much there is to be learned about them, they can in any case certainly be called homines liturgi, men of the liturgy, which in the Western world is now a very rare mode of being human.”

With the assurance of a master thoroughly in his element, Mosebach offers a “highly condensed summary of the rite to which the Twenty-One devoted so much of their energies.” It includes a verbatim excerpt from the Coptic responsory:

Sometimes the celebrants’ voices grow tempestuous and impassioned, and the words are chanted or even shouted out.

PRIEST: He has instituted the great mystery and sacrament of his divinity for us, destined as he was to sacrifice himself so that the world may live.


PRIEST: He took the bread in his holy, immaculate, venerable, and life-giving hands …

CONGREGATION: We believe this is true. Amen!

PRIEST: He looked toward heaven to you, O God, who are his Father and Lord of all creation, and expressed his thanks …


PRIEST: He blessed it …


PRIEST: He sanctified it …

CONGREGATION: Amen. We believe, we confess, we praise!

Although there’s more to The 21 than these reflections on the liturgy, they embody with greatest force what I take to be Mosebach’s central—if largely unspoken—point: with hostility to public Christian worship on the rise in both Europe and the United States, the Coptic Church has something to teach believers in the West about what a resilient and flourishing Christian minority looks like. It is in this sense—and not only because of recent episodes of persecution in Egypt, however real and tragic—that this exceptional German writer has given us a timely and important book.

* * *

If The 21 is a record of fidelity to the truth, Mosebach’s 2010 novel What Was Before—to date the only one of his eleven novels to have been published in English translation—is a ravishing chronicle of irresponsibility. The Coptic martyrs were formed by religious ritual and ended up depicted on icons. For Mosebach’s sophisticated Europeans, who purchase crucifixes as decorative bibelots and enter empty confessionals to phone their lovers in privacy, Christian worship is a dead letter. And yet they, too, long to transform their lives into radiant works of art.

The novel begins with a woman asking a man what his life was like before they met. The story unfolds in a series of vignettes, recounting the elaborate web of chance occurrences leading up to their first encounter. This self-consciously artificial device seems like a pretext, intended less to make a point about the workings of divine providence than to serve as a frame within which the novel’s canvas can be stretched.

Newly arrived in Frankfurt, the narrator falls for Phoebe Hopsten, the beautiful and elusive daughter of a wealthy German couple whose social life and amorous escapades provide the novel’s focus. The Hopsten salon attracts an assortment of guests spanning generations and backgrounds: there’s pompous former government minister Schmidt-Flex, who boasts of his many honorary degrees; his grotesquely awkward son, Hans-Jörg, sporting a fanny pack and a “monstrously large watch with all manner of knobs and dials”; and womanizing dealmaker Joseph Salam, who doesn’t quite fit in with this bourgeois set, yet is endowed with a kavorka that proves irresistible to the hostess, Rosemarie.

Interior decorator and fashion maven Helga Stolzier, an “arbiter of taste and beauty,” sets the tone in the Hopsten household, her coup de génie being a live decorative fixture—a white cockatoo that surveys the world with a camera-like eye, intermittently fluffing its splendid plumage. It is “the daemon of the house,” thinks the narrator, in a flight of fancy that rings surprisingly true: “Rosemarie and Bernward, of course Phoebe and Titus as well, were subordinate or attendant to it, like a priesthood devoted to an idol.”

This cockatoo cum living objet d’art worshipped by casually adulterous bourgeois neatly embodies Mosebach’s method as a novelist. He’s no naturalist—he’s a realist. He displays no squeamishness whatsoever before the earthy realities of life—the smell of bird droppings, the details in Japanese erotic woodcuts—yet each of his sentences strives to bring out an iconic, classical, rather opulent beauty in ordinary gestures and objects.

He finds this beauty in the languid movements of cell phone users by a swimming pool; in the sudden stiffness of a man straightening himself and sucking in his gut after catching a glimpse of his slumped reflection in a bar mirror; and in a flight attendant’s posture in her jumpseat, which he likens to that of an Egyptian pharaoh (characters are frequently compared to the works of famous artists, from Dürer and Canova to Courbet and Maillol—perhaps only Proust has pulled off this risky technique more successfully than Mosebach).

Each detail (often a very humble, seemingly insignificant detail) is cherished and elevated, just as everyday, natural things—wheat, the horns of goats, grapes—were elevated in the art of late antiquity (and also, as Mosebach has noted elsewhere, in the Christian liturgy). Sometimes this process of elevation takes on explicitly religious overtones, as when Helga Stolzier, “like a wizard who has just carried out a solemn and mysterious rite,” carefully displays in her boutique an ostrich egg “she had most likely acquired wholesale for all of about three euros” but that “now looked as if Marco Polo himself had brought it back from China to Venice through all manner of hardship and adversity.”

At least one German critic called What Was Before the first great “social novel” of the twenty-first century. The label is misleading. To be sure, Mosebach’s intricately-choreographed ballet of adulteries and business schemes, set among Frankfurt’s elite, is closely attuned to contemporary reality. His characters are bankers, government officials, wheeler-dealers. But the novel doesn’t tackle “big issues”, or go out of its way to engage with up-to-the-minute cultural trends. There are no journalistic references to Iraq or WikiLeaks, to Facebook or the financial crisis. And the tone isn’t critical or satirical—Mosebach writes with amused detachment and an almost unsettling suspension of moral judgment. What Was Before is not a “social novel,” then, but a novel, period.

In an age when we expect works of fiction to do something “useful”—critique, enlighten, deconstruct—I can think of no better way to praise this one than to say it is at once mysterious and frivolous, and never so much the former as when it is unashamedly the latter. And as dissimilar as it is from The 21, in a way that goes much deeper than the obvious difference in genre, it partakes of the same incarnational vision.

In What Was Before there are temples and relics (boutiques displaying hard-to-find curios, a parlor filled with exquisite art objects and a Botero “depicting a South American general puffed up like a balloon”), festive celebrations where wine flows in copious quantities (poolside cocktail parties, dinners al fresco at a rented Sicilian villa), and miniature rituals redolent of incense (the smoking of a cigar, performed by Hans-Jörg with the aid of elaborate paraphernalia, including “a special guillotine cutter and a small golden cigar drill that popped out of its metal casing with a twist”).

Mosebach’s fictional characters may occupy a world of religious impulses gone mad, but as they spritz themselves with perfume or embark on a pilgrimage to their favorite antiques shop, they are, in their way, homines liturgi. It is just that their hierarchy of priorities, cut off from all life-giving sources, seems to begin and end with their own vanity, pleasure, and wealth. Their self-consciously aestheticized lives revolve around hollow idols.  

Trevor C. Merrill is the author of The Book of Imitation and Desire: Reading Milan Kundera with René Girard (Bloomsbury). His essays and reviews have appeared in Education & Culture and The American Conservative, among others.