Al-Boutrossiya church (The church of St Peter and St Paul) in Abbassiya, Cairo, was the scene of recent carnage and death when a suicide bomber blew himself up in its rear area; 26 were killed—apart from the bomber—and some 50 were injured. The church is unique among churches in Egypt as far as its architecture and history are concerned.
The church of St Peter and St Paul in Cairo, known as al-Boutrossiya, was built by the Boutros-Ghali family in 1911 following a tragic event in Egypt’s modern history. The dean of the family, Boutros Ghali Pasha (1846 – 1910) was a patriot who became the first Copt in Egypt’s history to be awarded the rank of Pasha. He held several important positions in the Justice Ministry; was appointed Minister of Finance in 1893, Foreign Minister in 1894, and finally became Prime Minister in 1908. On 20 February 1910, following accusations of favouring the British who were then occupying Egypt, he was shot by Ibrahim al-Wardani, a young Egyptian nationalist. He died the following day.
The church of St Peter and St Paul was built a year later by the Boutros-Ghali family above the tomb of Boutros Ghali Pasha. It is located in Ramses street in the Cairo neighbourhood of Abbassiya. It was consecrated by Pope Kyrillos V, and became famous as al-Boutrossiya in reference to the Boutros-Ghali family.
Built of stone
Al-Boutrossiya is considered one of the most beautiful Coptic churches. The entire church, from foundations to bell towers, was built in stone in the style of the early Coptic Basilicas. The walls are adorned with beautiful paintings and mosaics depicting the life of Jesus Christ and the apostles.
The church was designed by Italian-Slovenian architect Antonio Lasciac, who was at that time chief architect of the Khedive’s palaces. Other works by Lasciac include Banque Misr, and Tahra Palace in Cairo, and the Khedive Palace in Istanbul.
In 1924, the family held an international contest for the decoration of the church’s interior. The contest was organised by the Italian Associazione Artistica fra i Culturi di Architettura. The paintings and frescoes were assigned to the Italian Primo Panciroli, and the mosaics to a factory in Venice.
The church is 28 metres long and 17 metres wide and has three main entrances at the back which faces west—Egyptian churches are built so that the sanctuary faces east—in addition to six side doors. Two rows of marble columns divide the church into a main nave and left and right aisles. Upon entering the church from the western south entrance, one can see a small icon of Isaac and to its right on the southern wall two rows of icons. The upper row depicts Jesus Christ surrounded with the Ten Virgins whereas the lower row depicts, from east to west, Archangel Raphael, Simeon, James the son of Alphaeus, Bartholomew, Andrew, Thaddaeus, and Archangel Michael with the names of each written under his painting in both Arabic and Coptic.
Family burial place
The baptistery is located at the south side of the main sanctuary, and includes paintings of St Peter and Saint James the Patriarch of Alexandria, under which are two icons depicting St Mina the Wonder-Worker and St Abu-Nofer the Hermit. A mosaic representing the baptism of Christ adorns the eastern wall in front of which is a semi-circular baptismal font of white marble.
The middle aisle in the nave leads to a stairway that descends under the main sanctuary to the crypt which acts as the burial place for the Boutros-Ghali family. A wrought iron decorated grill closes the entrance to the descending stairway which ends at the door of the crypt. The name of Boutros Ghali Pasha and the dates of his birth and death are inscribed above the crypt door. A granite coffin holds his body; on the coffin are two black plates which carry in English and French the last words he uttered before leaving this world: “God knows that I have never done anything to harm my country.” To his left, the coffin of his beloved son Naguib is placed, made of marble engraved with crosses and motifs of vine leaves.
The most recent family burial was in February 2016 when Boutros Boutros-Ghali (1922 – 2016), nephew of Boutros Ghali Pasha and former Secretary General of the United Nations, was buried in the family crypt.
Church offered to saints
On the southern side of the nave, the part of the church damaged by the recent suicide bombing, the paintings on the wall depict, from west to east: St Matthew, the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Flight into Egypt, the miracle of Feeding the Multitude, Jesus’s Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, and St Luke. On the northern side, other paintings depict, from east to west: St Mark, the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the Descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles on the day of the Pentecost.
As if prophesying that the church would act as a gateway to Heaven for the recently martyred members of its congregation, the wall above the sanctuary is adorned with a mosaic depicting two angels carrying a crown with a cross inside—in reference to the crown of martyrdom.
Above the main door on the western wall, there is a picture of Jesus Christ with St Mark at his right side and a marble plate marking the date of the construction of the church.
The southern wall is graced with a painting depicting the widow of Boutros Ghali Pasha, Safa Khalil Abul-Ezz, offering the church to the Holy Virgin and surrounded with St Anne, St Elizabeth, St Barbara and St Mary of Egypt.
19 December 2016