4 April 2010
The Archangel Gabriel Church in Haret Saqqayin, a short distance from the royal Abdin Palace, was built in 1854, at the time when Mohamed Saïd Pasha was ruler of Egypt. Kyrillos IV, known as the Father of Reform because of the vigorous modernisation efforts he conducted in the Church was then the 110th Coptic Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St Mark (1854 – 1861). Pope Kyrillos IV opened the first school for girls in Egypt and brought in the first privately-owned printing press; he knew it would be instrumental for progress that, when it arrived at Alexandria port, he had it transferred to St Mark cathedral in Alexandria by a procession of deacons in white robes and red sashes chanting praises.
Fr Ermiya of the Archangel Gabriel Church, pointed out to Watani that in contrast to the present day crowded neighbourhood where houses huddle wall-to-wall, Saqqayin was then a spacious quarter situated between the farmland and the Nile. As its name suggests, it was inhabited by a large number of saqqayin (water carriers).
Pope Kyrillos IV founded two schools attached to the church, one for boys and the other for girls.
A small ‘temporary’ church building was inaugurated by Pope Kyrillos IV, until the bigger, main church that stands today was built in 1881 in the era of Pope Kyrillos V.
The church’s architecture belongs to the 19th century style in which the roof includes several small domes surrounding a large one in the middle. With the fine, miniature, intertwining, geometric decoration and painting on its ceiling, and its unique oval dome carrying a painting of the Archangel Gabriel at the Annunciation, the church is a masterpiece. It also contains a collection of polished marble columns that can be rarely found today.
Yehia Yacoub, who has been helping to carry out architectural maintenance in the church, says the building had been on the verge of collapse since the earthquake of 1992. It withstood the threat by virtue of the work then done by one of Egypt’s topmost construction engineers, the late Michel Bakhoum who, among other things, reinforced the upper area and treated the cracks in the dome.
Soon after, Pope Shenouda III assigned Anba Raphael to serve in the churches of Downtown Cairo, and the Archangel Gabriel Church was again restored by experts in the field. The walls were isolated against humidity, and floors, roofs and columns were treated. Fr Armeya and his colleague Fr Daniel Naguib started a campaign to redecorate the interior of the church, which involved collecting icons with a unified artistic style. The church already possessed a collection of icons from the 19th and 20th centuries, and these were expertly cleaned and restored. During this time, while a layer of dirt was being removed from an icon of St Abanoub, another icon was revealed underneath—an image of St Abaskhayroun al-Qellini. The restoration experts decided to keep the two layers visible at the same time. Likewise the other icons were painted with oil colours over the originals, and some names of the original saints had been changed.
Another priest at the church, Fr Ghobrial Bishara, told Watani that there was at the church a Sacred Board that had been used to make the Holy mayroun oil.
The church includes a library that is seldom found in churches or public buildings of the day. For decades the library was forgotten and neglected until, in 2002, those in charge of the church decided to hand the task of indexing and classifying the books to two volunteer librarians, Wagih George and Amin Aziz. The book collection includes some rare masterpieces of Christian theological studies; Coptic rituals, history, art, architecture; Christian saints and martyrs; as well as books on poetry, literature, medicine, sociology, Islamic studies, and a collection of children’s books and English books.
The library aslo includes two rare pictures of Pope Kyrillos IV and Pope Kyrillos V.
As for the Haret Saqqayin schools, they have been strongholds of refined education over the years. Among its graduates it counts Egypt’s only Coptic Prime Minister Boutros Pasha Ghali who was assassinated by Muslim fundamentalists in 1910, the father of Boutros Boutros-Ghali who was UN secretary-general in 1992 – 1996, as well as other Egyptian 20th century prime ministers Youssef Bey Wahby, Abdel-Khaleq Tharwat Pasha, and Hussein Pasha Rushdy.