Today the Coptic Church marks the miracle performed by St Mary when she caused the iron chains binding St Matthias to melt. The church consecrated to the Virgin and her miracle opens today after a two-year restoration process
28 June 2009
The fourth century Church of the Holy Virgin in Haret Zuweila, Cairo, was one of the spots trodden by the Holy Family on its flight into Egypt. This ancient church was consecrated in the name of the Holy Virgin, Halet al-Hadeed, in honour of a miracle performed by St Mary when she caused the iron chains binding St Matthias to melt. The church was the papal seat from 1400 to 1520, witnessing the papacy of 23 popes. Annexed to St Mary’s is another church consecrated to St Mercurious, or Abu-Seifein, and adjacent to it are two convents, St Mary’s and St George’s.
Before falling into ruin in the early 1300s, the Haret Zuweila church enjoyed a reputation of considerable splendour and beauty. It was restored and reopened to serve as the papal seat, but was closed again in 1559 according to a decree by the Ottoman Sultan. The church was later reopened and restored.
Since the church had been a papal seat for more than three centuries, Shawqi Nakhla, manager of icon restoration at the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), says, it today possesses a veritable trove of icons, silver and copper altar ware, and historical manuscripts dating up to and including the 19th century. The church is also home to the acquisitions and relics of several popes. It was therefore necessary, Dr Nakhla says, to preserve this important papal legacy in a special gallery. The chosen gallery was originally the burial place for the popes.
The shrine includes a number of precious manuscripts that involve rites and prayers, some of which are written in Coptic and Arabic. SCA restoration expert Mervat Fanous says these manuscripts were first restored during the papacy of Pope Kyrillos V in the 19th century.
The gallery will be officially opened today to coincide with the church’s commemoration day and the miracle performed by the Holy Virgin, Halet al-Hadeed.
It has taken more than two years to restore the building and its contents. Mina Ibrahim, who is responsible for maintenance work in the church, told Watani that the first phase was carried out in January 2007, under the supervision of the SCA. The dilapidated walls were rebuilt using the same original components of stone, brick, and cementing material. To protect these walls, a row of filters was installed in the walls on the level of the underground water, together with another row of filters 50cm higher. The filters are perforated pipes, 30cm wide and 40cm long, incorporated into a system of pumps and reservoirs that serves to suck out moisture from the walls. The Austrian-made system should serve to get rid of moisture once and for all, Mr Ibrahim said.