Friday 14 November saw Pope Shenouda III inaugurate the first phase of the project of the Coptic Orthodox Culture Centre and the Saint Mark Public Library in Anba Rweiss grounds in Abbasiya, Cairo.
The story of the centre began long before, though, with the pope issuing a decree on 14 November 2000—14 November is the anniversary of the seating of Pope Shenouda III—for the establishment of a Coptic cultural centre and library. Now the eight-storey building has been completed and the project is on to a fine start.
The first stage of the project was financed in the major part through the donations of Coptic businessmen and professionals at home and abroad, and the volunteer work of experts and specialists.
The interior of the building is magnificently decorated in Coptic style. The ceilings are covered with inlaid woodwork inspired by the fourth century Coptic iconostases of the Hanging Church and Abu-Seifein’s in Old Cairo.
The building contains a conference centre with a main hall that can host up to 1000 persons, as well as smaller meeting rooms, teleconferencing and translation facilities. A number of permanent exhibits, including rare manuscripts and icons, will be showcased in this area, while an exhibition hall will host exhibits of Coptic collections on loan from museums and universities abroad.
A number of specialised research units will be housed in the centre, providing research opportunities in such fields as Coptic architecture, archaeology, language and literature, history, hagiography, patristic and ecumenical studies. The purpose, according to the pope’s secretary Anba Ermiya, is to revitalise interest in Coptic studies at home and abroad.
The ground floor contains a fully equipped kitchen, a cafeteria and a restaurant.
A host of luminaries and officials attended the opening ceremony. Minister of Endowments Hamdi Zaqzouq, Minister of Administrative Development Ahmed Darwish, Nabil Mirhom head of the State Council—the highest administrative court in Egypt—as well as a number of Egypt’s governors were present. The German ambassador to Cairo Bernd Erbel, the Swiss ambassador Charles Held, and a number of MPs and Shura Council members among whom was Ali al-Samman, who previously headed the joint commission with the Vatican on dialogue between religions, also attended. Present also were Safwat al-Bayadi, head of the Evangelical Church in Egypt, representatives from the Catholic and Anglican churches, a number of bishops and archbishops and members of the Coptic Orthodox Melli (Community) Council.
The pope unveiled a memorial marble plaque commemorating the occasion. The members of the commission in charge of the project—Anba Ermiya and the Coptic professionals and businessmen Fawzy Estafanous, Tharwat Bassily, Samy Fahim, Lutfy Basta, and Naguib Sawiris spoke about the idea and effort behind the establishment of the centre and library. Mr Sawiris, who was outside Egypt, delivered his message pre-recorded and televised through a projector screen.
Anba Bishoi, Secretary-General of the Holy Synod spoke about Coptic heritage and presented copies of manuscripts and old Bible editions which he had succeeded in collecting from libraries in Europe.
Finally, His Holiness Pope Shenouda III spoke in depth about Coptic heritage and stressed that the Saint Mark Public Library would not be a religious library, but one that would offer a wide range of knowledge to all Egyptians. “We are lucky to live in the age of advanced technology,” the pope said, “when it is easy to obtain excellent copies of original material and manuscripts that libraries, museums, or monasteries the world over would never part with. Now such copies can be accessible to researchers.”
The pope announced that he was offering the library 20 encyclopaedias of his own, as well as his private Islamic library.
Watani was informed by Anba Ermiya that the St Mark Public Library will contain a state-of-the-art electronic library, and will house specialised manuscripts and rare book exhibits.
The new library, he said, will house some 3500 books given to the library by Pope Shenouda III, the 27,000-volume strong Clerical College’s collection, the 32,000-volume collection of the late Anba Gregorious and the late Murad Kamel’s 13,000-volume library.
As for the manuscript collection, the St Mark’s will house, among others, 1310 unique manuscripts from the old Coptic Patriarchate Library, 1140 manuscripts (some one million folios) donated by St Shenoute the Archimandrite Society—a copy of these was donated to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina by Pope Shenouda III—and 360 manuscripts (7110 folios).
St Mark’s will also include a children’s library which will house interactive exhibits and hands-on learning facilities. Regular activities will include story telling, arts and crafts, and writing workshops.