Wednesday,20 June, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1275, (17- 30 December 2015)
Wednesday,20 June, 2018
Issue 1275, (17- 30 December 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The Coptic Cathedral: Cross of unity

Michael Adel records the fundamental junctures in the history of the Coptic Cathedral

Al-Ahram Weekly

St Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral located in the Abbasiya district of Cairo has experienced many splendid and groundbreaking moments, but it has also endured some sad and painful times, such as when it was attacked by thugs during the recent revolutionary turmoil, an event unprecedented in its history.

Two years from now the Cathedral will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its construction. Tawadros II, Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St Mark, has formed an ecclesiastical council to draw up plans for the Cathedral’s silver jubilee in 2018.

St Mark’s Cathedral has an exciting historical story to tell. In 1937, long before the July 1952 Revolution, the land on which it is built was the centre of a controversy due to the sensitivity of its location. The government at the time had its eye on the property which for centuries had been used as a cemetery called Anba Ruweis.

Negotiations between the government and the owner, the Boutrosiya Church built by Boutros Ghali Pasha, went through various tugs-of-war until Habib Al-Masri, the head of the Milli (Congregational) Council, wrote three memoranda defying the church’s right to the land. His efforts succeeded in putting an end to the government’s desire to expropriate the land. The church retained control on the condition that it would not construct any for-profit establishments on it. 

The Anba Ruweis land, where St Mark’s Cathedral now stands, was known centuries earlier as Deir Al-Khunduq, the name of a monastery on the site. The land had been given to the church in 969 CE by Jawhar Al-Siqilli, commander of the armies of the Fatimid caliph Al-Muizz li-Din Allah, who had begun to lay the foundations for the new capital city, Al-Qahira (Cairo), and for a large royal palace in the district now known as Al-Gamaliya.

While drawing up the plans, Al-Siqilli discovered that a Coptic monastery was situated on the site for the palace. The Deir Al-Izam (Monastery of the Bones), as it was called, housed the remains of various saints. The Fatimid commander had the holy remains relocated to an area called Al-Khunduq, thereby compensating the Coptic Church for the land and the monastery.

The area known for seven centuries as Deir Al-Khunduq once housed 10 churches, including an Armenian church. Two of these structures had been renovated: the Church of the Archangel Gabriel and the St Mercurius Church in which was buried St Anba Ruweis in 1404 and accordingly renamed the Anba Ruweis Church. In 1968, the Anba Ruweis Church was demolished to make way for the new St Mark’s Cathedral.

The government decree granting the Coptic Church title to the Anba Ruweis land simultaneously accorded the church the right to build a number of other buildings, such as the Bishopric of Educational, Ecumenical and Social Services and the Bishopric of Public Relations and Social Services founded by Father Samuel, the first Bishop of Social Services in the history of the Coptic Church.

Architects Awad Kamel and Selim Kamel Fahmi won the competition to design the Cathedral and famous civil engineer Michel Bakhoum prepared the structural design. The Nile General Company for Reinforced Concrete (Sibco) carried out the construction of the huge Cathedral, which is based on a cross-shaped ground plan.

The cornerstone of the new edifice was laid on 24 July 1965 in a ceremony attended by president Gamal Abdel-Nasser who personally contributed several thousand pounds towards the construction of the Cathedral. Nasser also attended the inaugural ceremony in June 1968, together with Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie and other political and ecclesiastical dignitaries from around the world. The new Cathedral in Cairo then became the seat of Shenouda III, then Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and the See of St Mark.

The event was broadcast live on Egyptian television. Powerful and moving speeches were delivered by His Holiness Pope Cyril VI, His Holiness Mar Ignatius Jacob III, Cardinal Deval, representative of the Roman Catholic Pope in Rome, Bishop Thaavis, a representative of the Patriarch of Ethiopia and a representative from the Patriarch of Moscow who announced that the Muscovite Church had donated a gilded altar to the new Egyptian Cathedral.

The inaugural ceremony of the Cathedral was a magnificent, multi-phased event which included the restoration of the relics of St Mark, taken from Egypt in the early ninth century to Venice. As part of the programme, the route of the Holy Family in Egypt was retraced in a procession in which diverse ecclesiastical representatives took part. Earlier that same year in April 1968 and much to the delight and wonder of the Coptic Church and its followers, the Virgin Mary appeared in the nearby Zeitoun district of Cairo.

On 26 July 1968, the Coptic Church celebrated its first mass from the new Cathedral. It was a historic moment in which delegates from all the Eastern Orthodox Churches participated. At the end of the mass, Pope Cyril VI deposited the relics of St Mark in a shrine especially built to house them in the eastern wing of the Cathedral. Three years later on 14 November 1971, Shenouda III was crowned Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St Mark in the new Cathedral in Cairo, becoming the 117th pope in the history of the Coptic Church.

In May 1977, the Cathedral celebrated the acquisition of the relics of St Athanasius and the inauguration of a new shrine in honour of the saint and in commemoration of the 1,600th anniversary of his death.

Today, the Cathedral houses several chapels: the Chapel of the Holy Virgin beneath the Cathedral, the Chapel of the Virgin and Anba Ruweis, and the Chapel of the Virgin and Anba Bishoy. Also in the compound are the Chapel of Anba Antonius (in the Papal residence), the Chapel of St Maurice and St Verena, and the Chapel of the Virgin and Saint Paul and Bishop Samuel. An important institution inside the Cathedral complex is the Coptic Cultural Centre. Supervised by Bishop Jeremiah, the centre was constructed at a cost of millions of pounds, much of it donated by prominent Coptic businessmen.


President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi was the first president to attend a Christmas mass in St Mark’s Cathedral in Abbasiya last year. The historic event was cheered by Copts beneath the dome of the papal seat. The only precedent was the single visit to the Cathedral by former president Anwar Al-Sadat in the company of then vice-president Hosni Mubarak and prime minister Mamdouh Salem when Pope Shenouda III was presiding over midday services. Not long afterwards, Sadat issued his famous September Decrees placing Shenouda under house arrest, withdrawing the presidential ratification of his confirmation as Pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and appointing a committee of five bishops to manage the affairs of the church. The crisis ended soon after Sadat’s assassination in October 1981.

Former president Hosni Mubarak visited the Cathedral twice in order to pay his condolences. The first occasion was in January 2000 when he attended the funeral of general Fouad Aziz Ghali who had served as commander of the second field army in the October War. The second was to attend the funeral in the Boutrosiya Chapel in St Mark’s Cathedral of judge Hana Nashed, a member of the now dissolved National Democratic Party, a former member of the People’s Assembly, and former president of the State Council.

Former president Adli Mansour visited Pope Tawadros II last year in the Cathedral in order to convey his Christmas greetings. This was the first time in the relationship between the presidency and the church that the president had paid a personal visit to the patriarch to convey congratulatory sentiments on the occasion of a religious holiday.

 In sharp contrast to such proud and happy occasions, the Coptic community in Egypt and Christians around the world stood appalled when members of the Muslim Brotherhood and thugs in its pay violently assaulted the Cathedral during the revolutionary period. Worshippers inside the building fought to defend themselves, as the police failed to fight off the attackers.

This attack against the most important symbol of the Coptic Church was unprecedented in Egypt’s modern history. Even when extremist Islamist groups began to rear their heads in the Sadat era, nothing of this sort ever happened to the Cathedral. Terrorist attacks did occur not far away, in Al-Zawya Al-Hamra, for example, but the Cathedral itself remained safe. Nor did it come into the terrorist crosshairs in the 1980s and 1990s, decades known for a militant jihadist insurgency against the Egyptian state and the Copts.

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