On the evening of 6 January, Coptic Christmas Eve, one year ago, President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi visited the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral of St Mark in Abbassiya, Cairo, at Midnight Mass to wish Copts a Merry Christmas. There he made the surprise announcement that, on the same evening the following year, Midnight Mass would be celebrated in a new cathedral that would be the biggest in Egypt, and that would be built in Egypt’s new administrative capital some 40km east of Cairo.
He also said that the new capital, a mega-project started in 2015 to tackle the country’s rapidly growing population and improve infrastructure and government services, would house, side by side with the cathedral, Egypt’s biggest mosque as well.
President Sisi kept his word. Round the clock arrangements are ongoing to prepare the new cathedral, named the Cathedral of the Nativity of Christ, for Midnight Mass.
Built by Orascom Construction International in cooperation with the engineering authority of the Egyptian Armed Forces, the Cathedral of the Nativity of Christ is not only the biggest church in Egypt, but in the entire Middle East. Construction began directly after President Sisi made his announcement in January 2017. To meet the deadline set by the President, state-of-the-art technology and non-traditional construction methods were used.
Pope Tawadros approved the design. The vast site was landscaped to include wide, open spaces and verdant greenery. It houses the cathedral, papal headquarters, a smaller church, a multi-storey underground car park, and a community service centre. All the buildings were designed to be compatible with the cathedral, so that the entire complex would resonate with a magnificent symphony of architectural harmony.
The cathedral was designed to emulate Noah’s arc, reflecting a Coptic tradition of the Church as a lifeboat that sails believers to the safe harbour of Eternal Life.
Church as lifeboat
The cathedral rises two levels high, the upper one includes the main church.
The nave extends on an east-west axis, is roofed on the east with two perpendicular vaults, each 40m in diameter, intersecting in a cross-like formation. In their centre, the dome rises 40m in diameter and 39m high, lifted on four arches. A longitudinal cylindrical vault, 40m in diameter, extends westwards and roofs the nave until the cathedral door.
East of the nave there are three altars, each roofed with a dome. The dome above the main altar is 15m in diameter; those above the side altars are each 10m in diameter.
Two 60 metre-high spires carry the bells, and were built to be visible from a distance on all sides.
With a floor plan of 8,100 square metres, the cathedral can accommodate in its nave 7,500 worshippers. Seven steps on the eastern side lead up to the deacon choir and the altars. Behind the altars are service rooms to store vestments, ritualistic commodities, and suchlike.
The baptismal is located on the northwest corner of the cathedral; opposite to it is a large glass room for children.
The ground floor under the cathedral is 8,500sq.m. in area. It houses a church 1,800sq.m wide that accommodates 1,200 worshippers, as well as a multi-purpose hall 1,500sq.m wide, a museum hall, and a meeting hall. It also includes public facilities such as bookshops, souvenir shops, and toilets.
Four elevators serve the cathedral, in addition to a number of ramps. The building is equipped with central air conditioning; the units are placed in the basement so as not to distort the aesthetics of the site.
A gateway on the northern side of the grounds opens to the main square in the area.
27 December 2017