4 April 2010
The city of Luxor, known in ancient times as Thebes, was recently blessed with the arrival of the relics of St Maurice from his monastery in Zurich. The event was accompanied by three days of festivities at the Holy Virgin’s Cathedral in Luxor, which was coincidentally marking its 101st anniversary. The arrival of St Maurice was the outcome of long negotiations between Luxor and Zurich, during which the Egyptians claimed the right to part of the relics of St Maurice who, they insisted, was an Egyptian first and foremost before being a Roman soldier as identified by Zurich.
The sacred relics arrived in the hands of Anba Hedra, Bishop of Aswan, escorted by a procession of priests and monks who chanted hymns and praises for St Maurice. Young members of the congregation, dressed in the costumes of Roman soldiers, formed a guard of honour at the cathedral’s main entrance as the saint’s relics were carried in to the strains of the national anthem and under the Egyptian flag. The reliquary was laid before the altar as Anba Hedra led the congregation in prayer. Participating in the celebration were a large number of Coptic Orthodox clergy from various parishes, as well as representatives of Catholic and Evangelical churches in Egypt.
A welcome speech in Arabic, English and French was followed by a speech given by Fr Maurice on his experience with St Maurice. The Umm al-Nour Choir conducted by Ishaq Armanious then gave a moving performance of hymns.
The ceremony was concluded by Anba Hedra, who said: “I am very happy that St Maurice, the chief of the Theban Legion, has returned to his home town.” Anba Hedra thanked Anba Pimen, Bishop of Naqada, for travelling to Switzerland to bring back St Maurice’s relics, which are a great blessing for the people of Luxor after 175 years away from Egypt. The relics, which were placed in a silver reliquary which was in turn placed inside a larger wooden cylindrical box, then underwent the traditional process of Tatyeeb during which the wooden cylinder is bathed in a mixture of sweet smelling spices and perfumes, slipped into a red satin cover and again into a red velvet one. Finally, this was laid in a sacred glass compartment inside the church, where it can be accessible to anyone seeking the blessings of St Maurice.
St Maurice (also Moritz, Morris, or Mauritius) grew up in Thebes and became a soldier in the Roman army. He was gradually promoted to leader of the Theban legion, which was formed of 6,600 soldiers and earned its name because its members came from Thebes and were known for their courage.
In 286, when some tribes of Gaul—today’s France—rebelled against Emperor Maximinus, his co-emperor Diocletian ordered the Theban Legion to march to Gaul to his assistance. The revolt was quelled, and upon their return to Agaunum (now Saint-Moritz or Saint Maurice en Valais) in Switzerland, Maximinus gave the order that the whole army should give sacrifices to the Roman gods in thanks for the success of their campaign, as part of the celebration. The Theban Legion refused to comply with the order and withdrew from the rites, even going so far as to camp away from the rest of the army so as not to be drawn into what they saw as horrifyingly against their beliefs. Maximinus then gave orders to decimate—i.e. to torture and execute one in every ten of the legion’s men—as a lesson to the others. Since none consented to denying his Christianity, this act was repeated until none were left. The soldiers of the Theban Legion were martyred on 22 September 286, and until this day their feast day has been held on this day.
The Theban Legion was commanded by Maurice, Candidus and Exupernis, all of whom are venerated as saints, but St Maurice remained the favourite and most widely venerated saint of that group. All the statues of St Maurice depict him as a black African and wearing the battle dress of a Roman legionary.
St Maurice is held in great esteem by the people of France and Switzerland, and he has given his name not only to the Swiss town but also to numerous places in French speaking regions. Agaunum remained a pilgrimage destination for many years, and St Maurice is the patron saint of the Swiss army, of swordsmiths, and of individual soldiers.