As the Coptic Church celebrates St John the Baptist today, 2 Tut, Watani sheds light on one of the recently-built churches that take him as patron saint, the church of the Holy Virgin and St John the Baptist in Downtown Cairo
He is so revered by the Coptic Church that the feast day of St John the Baptist is the first of the saints’ days in the Coptic year; it is celebrated on the second day of Tut, the first month in the Coptic calendar. John the Baptist was described by Jesus as the greatest born of women (Matt 11: 11), and is known as Jesus’s Forerunner since it was he who fulfilled the prophesy by Isaiah: “A voice calling in the wilderness ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” He preached in the wilderness of Judea: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matt 3: 2). And, as mentioned in all four canonical gospels, he testified strongly for the Truth when he would not bow down to the power of King Herod, and roundly told him he was wrong to marry his brother’s wife; for this Herod ordered his beheading upon the vengeful request of his stepdaughter.
Despite the reverence accorded to John the Baptist, and despite the fact that part of his relics have been in Egypt since the 4th century, churches consecrated in the name of St John the Baptist in Egypt are all-too-few. Among the recent ones is the church of the Holy Virgin and St John the Baptist in Downtown Cairo.
In dire need of a church
For the Coptic Orthodox community in Downtown Cairo, the Holy Virgin and St John the Baptist’s in Bab al-Louq not only brings them the blessing of two pillars of Christianity but also marks the end of an arduous four-decades-long journey to have their own church.
Tassoni (literally Sister, a title that denotes a woman who consecrates her efforts to voluntary service in the Church) Angele Antoun is the widow of Adly Younan, one of the main founders of the church. Tassoni Angele talked to Watani about the building of the church. The Downtown Cairo area that lies in the triangle within the squares of Tahrir, Ramsis and Attaba, she said, had for years lacked a Coptic Orthodox church. “As far back as 1973, my husband used to arrange for the celebration of Coptic Orthodox Holy Mass once a week in Downtown’s Armenian and Roman Catholic churches,” she told us. “But for one reason or another, the agreement would end and we knew we would have to search for another church to hold Holy Mass. We realised we needed a church of our own.
“My husband worked to raise funds from the Downtown congregation to build a new church, and we began looking for a suitable plot of land. This took years on end, and included countless frustrations and failures. There were cases when the land would not fit all our needs or when the locals would resist an agreement. More than once a deal would fall apart at the last minute.
“Finally, in 2003, the land in Bab al-Louq was purchased. Pope Shenouda asked the Presidency for a licence to build the church, and this was granted by presidential decree 215 of 2006. The church board was then chosen and included engineers, lawyers and accountants.”
The Living Word of God
“My husband passed away in November 2013 after accomplishing his mission,” Tassoni Angele said. “He had supervised the construction of the church and attended the founding ceremony but, sadly, was not present for the consecration by Pope Tawadros II in October 2014. Pope Tawadros honoured his name at the consecration ceremony,” she added.
The Holy Virgin and St John the Baptist’s in Bab al-Louq serves the 600 Coptic families living in the neighbourhood, and is considered a masterpiece of art and architecture, especially for its unique modern baptistery, the first of its kind in Egypt.
In his sermon during the consecration ceremony, Pope Tawadros II highlighted three main elements of the beauty in the church. The baptistery, the walls of which feature symbols from the Coptic liturgy and verses from the Bible, is adorned with mosaics depicting Biblical scenes. The water flows from openings in the main mosaic down a few steps into the font, giving the illusion of a waterfall. All this makes it a unique and one-of-a-kind piece of art.
The church, the Pope said, is also unique because of the Biblical verses carved on the wooden panels that line the church’s walls, as well as on the wooden church pews.
These have the effect of putting the word of God before the eyes of the worshippers. The word of God, he reminded, is described by the Bible as “living and effective and sharper than a double-edged sword”. St John Chrysostom said it is “as an open pasture from which humans partake in abundance”.
The third element of beauty in the church, according to Pope Tawadros, is the presence of natural green plants inside and outside the building, symbolising Paradise and Eternal Life.
Watani visited the Holy Virgin and St John the Baptist’s where by a happy coincidence we were blessed to meet Anba Raphael, Bishop General of Central Cairo and Secretary-General of the Holy Synod, who was on a visit to the church.
Anba Raphael told Watani that, even while the new church was yet an idea, Pope Shenouda III (Coptic Orthodox Patriarch from 1971 to 2012) appointed Fr Bishoi Farid upon his return from Sweden in 1990 to serve the Coptic community of Central Cairo. The congregation would assemble with Fr Bishoi in different churches in the neighbourhood. “After many years of searching”, Anba Raphael continued, “God arranged for the acquisition of the plot of land in Bab al-Louq. Construction took several years because of the presence of groundwater at the site, which had to be removed before laying the foundation. Finally, the new church was built, and provides a privileged spiritual service to the congregation.”
Fr Bishoi passed away some two months ago and was greatly mourned by the congregation he had served so faithfully.
“Come unto me”
The first thing that greets the visitor to the Holy Virgin and St John the Baptist’s is the Bible verse from Matthew 11 beckoning, in the words of Jesus Christ “Oh come unto me all ye who are weary and heavy-laden and I’ll give you rest.” The words are inscribed on the marble arch crowning the outside gate. Once inside the gate, a marble stairway leads to the wooden church door which carries a carving of the Good Shepherd holding the lost sheep.
Watani made a tour with Fr Yuhanna Makeen, pastor of the church, who said that the main church, which can accommodate up to 420 worshippers, is located on the first floor and has a separate entrance connected to two external stairways on the northern and the southern sides. “The beauty of the church,” Fr Yuhanna said, “carries the worshipper on a spiritual journey from the moment of first setting foot inside the courtyard to reaching the Holy of Holies at the altar.
“The façade of the church is covered in triesta marble slabs of varying shades and sizes, all connected in a single unit that represents the believers who, as the Bible says, are the elements that complete the Body of Christ despite their differences.
“The two church towers point towards the sky in great glory, carrying the cross.”
The wood of the Cross
The church interior is roofed by a semi-circular vault which starts at the entrance at an elevation of eight metres and increases in height to 13 metres in the middle of the nave until it reaches its highest elevation of 21 metres over the main altar. Three domes are also built over the three altars; the middle dome being the highest and reaching a height of 23 metres from the floor.
The vault which embraces the nave is adorned with three wooden arches; the whole structure symbolises the bosom of the Father and the Church of Christ
“…They shall bring thy sons in their arms, and thy daughters shall be carried upon their shoulders.” (Isaiah 49:22)
The iconostasis allows for visual connection between the inside and the outside of the Sanctuary by means of wooden openings around the six main frontal icons and on top of the icons depicting Jesus’s Disciples. A large cross tops the middle of the iconostasis, under which there is an icon of the Last Supper. The iconostasis is surrounded by the largest of the wooden arches which is adorned with icons representing the Eucharist in the Old and the New Testament.
The main altar is made of wood in reference to the Cross of Jesus Christ. A cross is carved on each of the altar sides and is surrounded by 12 circles representing the Disciples of Christ. The circles are tied together by the Holy Spirit symbolising their unity; they radiate rays of light to four wooden columns representing the four corners of the world (north, south, east and west).
Bosom of the Father
The northern and southern altars are also made of wood. Their sides are shaped like a loaf of sacramental bread, in the centre of which is a cross surrounded by five holes representing the five Holy Wounds of Christ: the three nails, the holy lance and the crown of thorns.
The niche on the eastern wall, termed in Church lingo the ‘Bosom of the Father’, is made of travertine stone and is adorned with a painting of Christ the Pantocrator, painted in acrylics, depicting Christ sitting on His throne holding the globe in one hand and a sceptre in the other. The height of the Sanctuary door is designed in such a way that allows the painting to be visible all the way to the last row in the church.
The painting was executed by a non-Christian Korean artist who was accompanied by a translator who explained to him passages of the Bible so that he would be able to convey the spiritual meaning of the painting.
The other church icons were written by the Egyptian Hany and Victor Younan.
As one turns away to leave the church, there is an almost sad feeling of leaving a safe haven. But then, one does not leave empty-handed; a lasting spiritual peace fills the heart and soul, and one is again ready to brave the noisy bustle of Cairo’s streets and the trials of everyday life.
13 September 2015