The date 18 November marks two years since Pope Tawadros II was enthroned the 118th Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St Mark. Watani wishes dear Pope Tawadros a blessed anniversary, and marks the occasion with a review of the patriarchal headquarters in Egypt since the days of St Mark till today.
“Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him: The Teacher says, ‘My time is at hand; I will keep the Passover at your house with My disciples’” (Matthew 26:18).
The ‘certain man’ was St Mark the Apostle, the one in whose house Jesus Christ held the last Passover in His life on earth, and established thus the Sacrament of the Eucharist.
After Jesus’s Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension, St Mark was among the apostles who received the Holy Spirit on the Day of the Pentecost. And this was again in his house, in the place famously known as the ‘upper room’. His name was John, as the Bible says: “… the house of Mary, the mother of John whose surname was Mark, where many were gathered together praying.” (Acts 12:12).
St Mark later set out to the wider world, preaching Christianity. He headed south into Egypt, and westwards till he reached the capital city of Alexandria in AD61 where his mission of introducing Christianity to Egypt started.
The cow pasture
Tradition has it that when St Mark entered Alexandria his shoe was torn and he had to go to a cobbler to repair it. As Anianus the cobbler repaired the shoe, the awl pierced his finger and he shouted in Greek “Eis Theos!”, literally “O, one God!” St Mark healed Anianus’s finger “in the Name of Jesus Christ the Son of God” and spoke to him of the ‘one God’ he had called upon. Anianus and his family became the first Christians in Alexandria.
The word quickly spread and many joined the new faith. St Mark consecrated Anianus bishop of Alexandria, ordained three priests and seven deacons, and built a church in a place known as Bocalia (the cow pasture) on the sea shore east of Alexandria. He was martyred there in AD68 as the Christians celebrated Easter. The pagans attacked the church and seized St Mark, tying him with ropes and dragging him along the ground until his head was severed from his body. The believers took him into the church, held a funeral for him, and buried him in a grave east of the church.
In 828 St Mark’s body was smuggled by Italian sailors to Venice. Even though the head remained in Alexandria, the body had to wait till June 1968 for a Coptic delegation dispatched by Pope Kyrillos VI to go to Venice and bring back to Alexandria part of the relics, handed over to them by Pope Paul VI. In Cairo, the relics of St Mark were received by Pope Kyrillos and the Coptic congregation in an emotional overflow of joy—the saint was back in Egypt after 11 centuries away. The relics of St Mark were placed in a shrine under a new Cairo cathedral built in his name to act as seat of the Coptic Orthodox Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the Holy See of St Mark.
It has been a long journey for the papal seat from Bocalia in Alexandria in AD 68 to St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo in 1968.
In his book on the history of the Alexandrian patriarchs, Anba Sawirus Ibn al-Muqafaa, Bishop of Ashmonein and a major historian of the 10th century, wrote that the Bocalia church had been there since AD62. Before Alexander founded Alexandria in 331BC] the small town nearby was named Rhakotis, and was surrounded by grazing land. The first Christians of Alexandria continued to use the name Rhakotis since the patriarchs of Alexandria refused to change the Egyptian name or replace it in their official seal with the name of the foreign conqueror, Alexander the Great. The Patriarch’s seal still bears the name Rhakotis in Coptic.
The church of Bocalia was destroyed and rebuilt several times over the centuries, notably in 321 and 680. When Napoleon and his army invaded Egypt in 1798—they were ousted by the British fleet of Admiral Nelson in 1801—they worried that the rival British forces could use St Mark’s to set up a resistance. Napoleon’s troops broke up the church’s timbers and destroyed its steeples. The priests did their best to protect the church treasures and managed to save some icons, together with some altar utensils, candlesticks and books which they moved to St Mark’s Church in Rasheed, 60km east of Alexandria.
The church was rebuilt and was consecrated in 1819 by Pope Boutros Gawli, and was renovated in 1870 by Pope Demetrious II, who remodelled it in the Byzantine style with domes suspended on six marble columns and with exquisite marble iconostases to hold 30 icons.
Until 1935 Alexandria had no Coptic Orthodox Church St Mark’s. Thus it was a catastrophe when, between January 1950 and November 1952, in the time of Pope Youssab II, the church building collapsed. Another, larger one was quickly built using reinforced concrete. The six marble columns were transferred to the exterior entrance of the church; the iconostases were re-cut and restored, and the two steeples, which were undamaged, were strengthened with concrete and decorated with beautiful Coptic designs. Two bells brought especially from Italy were fixed in the steeples.
The church was again widened on the eastern side between 1985 and 1990 when Pope Shenouda III held the Epiphany Mass on the occasion of the consecration of the widened church altar.
St Mark’s houses some icons of outstanding beauty. Four mosaics at the forefront of the church depict the Holy Virgin, St Mark, St George, and St Michael, all of whom are patron saints in whose names the four altars in the church were consecrated. Midway down the nave are two icons of St Mina and St Anthony. The six icons were written by the late iconologist Isaac Fanous who pioneered the modern renaissance movement of Coptic icons.
Two old icons of the Lord Jesus and St Mary, embedded in silver and gold, hang at the entrance.
At the centre of the south side of the church is the entrance to a tomb that contains the relics of patriarchs of the first millennium after Christ. Their names are carved on a marble slab in Coptic, Arabic and Roman scripts. According to tradition, every new pope on assuming office takes a blessing from the head of St Mark. To prevent the relics from being stolen again, the corridor leading to the tomb of the patriarchs is completely off-limits.
Moving to the new capital
Once the Arabs conquered Egypt in 641, the capital was moved form Alexandria to Fustat in present-day Cairo. Alexandria slowly declined and lost significance. In the early years of the 11th century, the 66th Pope of Alexandria, Pope Christodolos, (1047 – 1077), moved the papal seat to the Muallaqa, the Hanging Church in Cairo. There it remained till the 13th century; a number of the popes who sat there are buried in the crypt.
The 5th-century church is among the oldest in Egypt and the first to be built in Roman basilica style. It earned its nickname, the Hanging Church, because it was built over two towers of the 2nd-century Roman fort known as Babylon Fort.
As with all old buildings, the church went through times of splendour and others of decline, and a number of restorations. The last was completed in 2010, and the church officially reopened last month boasting a State-sponsored 16-year, EGP101 million (USD5.4 million) painstaking restoration.
The restoration involved reducing the ground water and fortifying the church foundations and the Babylon Fort beneath it. The walls were reinforced, missing and decayed stones were replaced, and the masonry cleaned and desalinated. The stunning ebony and ivory iconostasis was cleaned and repaired. The ornamentation and famous collection of more than 90 icons that date from the 15th to the 18th century were subject to fine restoration in collaboration with Russian experts.
Most impressive is an area on the south side has been fitted with glass flooring to reveal the foundation. The tower of the Babylon Fort can be seen and the new palm trunks used to replace the old ones that had filled the space in between the towers. A number of the original ones, however, have been left there for the record.
In Fatimid Cairo
In 1303 Pope John VIII moved the papal seat to the church of the Holy Virgin at Haret Zuweila, in Gamaliya, Cairo, home to one of the two oldest Coptic residential areas in Fatimid Cairo, the other being Haret al-Roum. The great significance of this church lies in its being one of the places the Holy Family stayed in while in Egypt in the first century. The church continued to serve as papal headquarters until the papacy of Pope Matta’os IV (1660 -1675).
The church was built almost 270 years before the Arab invasion of Egypt. The area is named after the Zuweila clan that lived in that area but originally came from Morocco at the time of the Fatimids. Its iconostasis is inlaid with ivory and ebony, and golden inscriptions made by Egyptian Coptic painters.
Unfortunately the church suffered severely from attacks of fanatic Muslims; in 1321 it was partially destroyed but was reconstructed. In 1559 the church was ordered closed by the Ottoman Sultan, but later renovated and reopened.
Today the church lies almost 3.6 metres (14feet) below street level. It contains many historically priceless icons. Several icons have been catalogued and restored, some as part of a project funded by the American Research Centre in Egypt between 1999 and 2003.
A church for St Mark
Pope Matta’os IV in 1660 moved the papal seat from Haret Zuweila to the Holy Virgin’s in Haret al-Roum, known as the church of al-Adra al-Mugheetha (Our Lady of Succour), where it stayed till 1800.
The original church was built back in the 6th century, but collapsed and was rebuilt in the 11th then in the 14th centuries. It boasts a fine collection of 19th century icons and some splendid inlaid woodwork. Among the icons is one by Anastasi al-Roumi which depicts Samuel the Prophet anointing David as King of Israel.
In 1794, the prominent Copt who rose to the post of Egypt’s Prime Minister, Ibrahim al-Gohari, renovated the church, but it was unfortunately burnt during the papacy of Pope Marcus (1797–1809) and needed further renovation.
It acted as papal headquarters for eight Coptic popes.
In 1800, Pope Marcus VIII moved the papal headquarters, this time to Azbakiya in central Cairo where a new church in the name of St Mark had been built by Ibrahim al-Gohari. The area was then upscale and near to the government offices, and the new church was sufficiently spacious to accommodate a large congregation. It included two storeys of balconies that ran along its wide inner periphery, a wooden pulpit with a spiral staircase leading up to it, and a splendid wooden iconostasis with icons in the Byzantine style. Eight popes were enthroned there; the last was Pope Kyrillos VI who was seated in 1959, died in 1971, and has been declared a modern-day saint by the Coptic Church.
Today, the Papal headquarters are housed in Abassiya, Cairo, at the St Mark’s Cathedral which holds the shrine of St Mark in the crypt.
The inauguration of the new Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral took place on 25 June 1968 in a ceremony attended by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, and clergy from Churches all over the world. Pope Shenouda III was enthroned there on 14 November 1971, and his funeral was held there when he died in March 2012. The 118th Coptic Orthodox Patriarch, Pope Tawadros II, was enthroned at St Mark’s on 18 November 2012.
The cathedral is a unique example of architectural evolution and represents the rapid development of Coptic architecture to its present day form. It boasts an excellent collection of icons by Youssef Nassif and Bedour Latif, and majestic modern stained glass windows. The cathedral can accommodate some 5000 worshippers, and the grounds house seven churches some of which have great historic value such as Anba Ruweiss’s.
12 November 2014