An observer of the Egyptian scene can never fail to spot the faithful patriotic spirit with which President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi leads the country and, in parallel, the same faithful patriotic spirit with which Pope Tawadros II leads the Coptic Church. Little wonder then that the two leaders enjoy a close bond. This bodes well for Egypt as it advances in confident steps towards development, modernity and the new republic. I mention this today not only because we have recently celebrated nine years on the 30 June 2013 Revolution which rescued Egypt from the backwardness, fundamentalism, and terror of the post-Arab Spring Muslim Brotherhood regime, but also because this week marks several precious occasions in the contemporary memory of Egypt and the Church.
The date 23 July marks 70 years on the 1952 Revolution that turned Egypt into a republic in 1953, and 24 July marks 57 years on laying the foundation stone of St Mark’s Cathedral in Anba Rweiss grounds in Abassiya, Cairo in 1965. In June 1968—54 years ago—St Mark’s Cathedral officially opened, and part of the relics of St Mark were brought home from his Basilica in Venice to rest in a shrine in the crypt of Cairo’s St Mark’s. Coincidentally, 1968 marked the 1900th anniversary of the martyrdom of St Mark in Alexandria in 68AD.
Today, Watani publishes a story documenting the history of St Mark’s Cathedral, under the title “Celebrations with a national flavour .. Opening the Cathedral of St Mark the Apostle, and return of his relics home”. The story tells of President Gamal Abdel-Nasser (1918 – 1970) joining Pope Kyrillos VI (Coptic Orthodox Patriarch in 1959 – 1971) in the Church’s celebrations. Hence the title of this editorial “History replayed”, since not so long ago, more than half a century on the Nasser – Pope Kyrillos joint effort, President Sisi joined hands with Pope Tawadros II in laying the foundation stone, then opening the Cathedral of the Nativity of Christ in Egypt’s New Administrative Capital.
I would like to shed light on a few points related to the history of Cairo’s St Mark’s Cathedral.
Addressing Copts, President Nasser gave a word during the ceremony of laying the foundation stone of St Mark’s on 24 July 1965 which coincided with the 13th anniversary of the July 1952 Revolution. He said: “Empathy is more powerful than physical participation; I offered to Pope Kyrillos VI to participate with you [in your celebration] because we are brothers, we live in one nation Egypt, and we uphold the principles of the Revolution: love and collaboration. Religions advocate equality, not extremism or violence. Let us call for brotherly love and freedom of worship, because we are all children of Egypt, and we have a right to life and equal opportunity in education, work, prayer and worship. I call on everybody to embrace the spirit of the 1919 Revolution of equal opportunity regardless of religion.”
Together with the foundation stone of St Mark’s, a box made of cedar wood was placed. The box had been moved from St Mark’s Cathedral in Azbakiya, Cairo, the seat of the Coptic Pope from 1800 till 1971. The cedar wood box included two copies of the Bible: one in the Coptic language and another in Arabic, and issues of al-Ahram, Watani and al-Masaa’ papers carrying news of laying the foundation stone of the new cathedral. The box also contained the official report of laying the foundation stone signed by President Nasser and Pope Kyrillos, as well as a silver cross and a few banknotes and coins of the day.
Pope Kyrillos VI formed three committees to handle the construction procedure. A donation campaign was launched, it was spearheaded by President Nasser who was the first to contribute EGP150,000, a princely sum at that time. The soil testing was volunteered by Dr Ali Sabry, Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Soil Research at Cairo University; the architectural design by Awad Kamel and Selim Kamel won the architectural competition that was launched, the structural design was undertaken by Dr Michel Bakhoum, co-founder of the prestigious bureau of Ahmed Muharram – Michel Bakhoum, and the building was executed by Spico, the Nile Company for reinforced concrete works, founded by Adly Ayoub.
Pope Kyrillos VI was able to reach an agreement with Pope Paul VI of the Vatican, according to which the Coptic Orthodox Church would be handed part of the relics of St Mark that had been taken out of Egypt in the 9th century, and were kept in his basilica in Venice. A historic document was signed to that effect, and a delegation of bishops from the Coptic Orthodox Church flew to Rome where they were received by the Egyptian Ambassador to the Vatican Mohamed al-Tabei. The bishop delegation were handed the relics by Pope Paul VI in a venerable ceremony, and flew back home to Cairo aboard a private jet. The evening the relics of St Mark landed at Cairo Airport was a singular, historic one with Coptic masses joining Pope Kyrillos in giving the Saint an unprecedented “welcome home” replete with hymns, praises, jubilation, and the famously Egyptian ululations. The event was reported by al-Ahram in its issue of 24 June 1968, and by Watani in its 30 June 1968 issue.
To mark this epic event, a memorable celebratory Mass was held at the new St Mark’s Cathedral at Anba Rweiss to commemorate 19 centuries on the martyrdom of St Mark, and the opening of the new cathedral. The celebration was attended by heads of States and Churches; also by delegations from all around the world.
I wish to point out that our editorial team which worked on this documented material used as main reference the book written by His Holiness Pope Tawadros II, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St Mark: “St Mark’s Cathedral in the span of 50 years”.
23 July 2022