6 January 2019 was far from an ordinary day, historically, nationally and ecclesiastically. The bells of the new Church of Nativity in the New Administrative Capital chimed for more than 10 minutes in celebration of its official inauguration as the largest church in the Middle East. The ceremony was attended by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, Pope Tawadros II and Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Ahmed Al-Tayeb.
This momentous occasion not only marked the realisation of President Al-Sisi’s pledge to construct this cathedral but also, for the Copts in Egypt and their church, it marks the move of the papal seat from Abbasiya to the New Administrative Capital. Such movement has occurred only a few times over the centuries.
The event was also a manifestation of the close relationship between President Al-Sisi and Pope Tawadros II and reminds us of the similar relationship between former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser and pope Cyril VI. Nasser offered both government assistance and a personal donation for the construction of St Mark’s Cathedral in Abbasiya.
The Coptic community is both joyful and a little confused. Following its inauguration, some felt that the new church was far from their homes or work places, so getting there would be difficult, at least for the time being. Also the pope would be less accessible than when he was in the cathedral in Abbasiya.
Others, however, believe that the relocation of the papal seat to the New Administrative Capital would be good for future generations, just as each of the moves from the “Hanging Church” to the church in Azbakiya and from there to Abbasiya marked the beginning of a new phase with hopeful horizons. Also, they add, given the growing population, the coming generations of worshippers will need a larger place to accommodate them.
One of the titles of the Coptic pope is patriarch of the See St Mark, named after the apostle who moved to Alexandria in the middle of the first century AD in order to spread the Christian faith. Over the next two millennia, the “pope of Alexandria and the patriarch of the See of St Mark” has used seven headquarters.
In the Christian tradition, the original papal seat is situated where a disciple or apostle of Christ died. As the founder of the Coptic Church, St Mark was martyred in Alexandria, which has remained the capital of the See of St Mark and served as the papal headquarters for nearly 1,000 years. The Coptic Orthodox Church is one of the oldest, if not the oldest apostolic church in the world, which is why it is so historically important and why its evolution is an integral part of Egypt’s cultural and civilisational heritage.
The Church of St Mark in Alexandria
St Mark’s successors based themselves in Alexandria from 61 to 1047 AD. The Church of St Mark, located on Prophet Daniel Street, is said to house the head of the martyred apostle. The building was destroyed and rebuilt several times. In 1870, it was reconstructed in Byzantine style and decorated with numerous icons. It was reconstructed in basilica style and re-consecrated as a cathedral in 1952 by pope Yousab (Joseph) II.
The Hanging Church
After the capital in Egypt moved from Alexandria to Cairo, the papal headquarters moved to the Hanging Church which is situated in what was then known as Babel, now Old Cairo. This was in 1047 in the era of the 66th patriarch of St Mark, pope St Christoldoulos (1040-1077). According to The Coptic Encyclopaedia, the church remained the papal seat until 1320, the end of patriarchy of pope Yoannis (John) VIII (1300-1320), although for short times during this period, some popes used the Church of Abu Sefein, also in Old Cairo, as an alternative.
One of the oldest churches in Old Cairo, the Hanging Church derived its name from the fact that it was “suspended” on top of the remains of two towers of a Byzantine fortress that once stood there. Like other churches in that quarter, it was built in the basilica style but it is the only one that does not have domes. This is precisely because of the towers it uses as its foundations. Domes require thicker and sturdier walls and buttresses to rest on.
The Church of Mercurius Abu Sefein
Situated to the north of the Hanging Church on Amr Ibn Al-Aas Street in Old Cairo, the Church of Mercurius Abu Sefein served as an alternative seat at times. It was located in the Church of the Angel Michael on the upper story. It was also used as a papal residence following the ascension of pope Gabriel II, the 70th patriarch of the See of St Mark who was also known as Ibn Turaik.
The Church of the Virgin Mary
In 1320 pope Yoannis (John) VIII (1300-1320), the 80th patriarch, relocated the papal seat to the Church of the Virgin Mary in Haret Zuweila near Port Said. Administratively it belongs to the Gammaliya district which comprises the historic area of Fatimid Cairo. It remained the seat until 1660. According to The Coptic Encyclopaedia, the Egyptian historian, Al-Maqrizi (1364-1442), referred to it as “a great church to the Christians, and it is named after the Lady Mary”. The British historian J R M Butler wrote, “it is undoubtedly the oldest church in Fatimid Cairo.”
The Church of St Mary ‘the Reliever’
Under pope Mateos (Mathew) IV (1660-1675), the papal headquarters was moved to the Church of St Mary in Haret Al-Roum, where it remained until 1799. St Mary’s is located in the Ghouriya district in Darb Al-Ahmar. Al-Maqrizi, in his encyclopaedic book on the plans and monuments of Cairo, observed that the church was built in tribute to the Virgin Mary who was nicknamed Al-Mughitha (the Reliever) because “she comes to the aid of and relieves everyone who suffers hardship and who turns to her to seek her prayers and divine intercession.”
St Mark’s Cathedral in Azbakiya
This church served as the papal seat from 1799 to 1971. The transfer from the Church of St Mary in Haret Al-Roum to St Mark’s in what was then the more upscale neighbourhood of Azbakiya took place during the patriarchy of pope Marcos (Mark) VIII. The cathedral was built by Ibrahim Al-Gohari, a wealthy and influential Copt in 18th century Cairo who was known for his piousness and philanthropy. The cathedral was consecrated on 14 September 1800 by pope Mark VIII.
St Mark’s Cathedral in Abbasiya
The papal headquarters since 1971, the cornerstone to the St Mark’s Cathedral in Deir Al-Anba Rowais in Abbasiya, was laid on 24 July 1965 in a ceremony attended by former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser. It was consecrated on 25 June 1968 in a grand ceremony that was also attended by Nasser as well as by emperor Haile Selassie. On 10 March 1971, the requiem mass was held in this cathedral for pope Cyril VI, who had laid its cornerstone. On 14 November 1971, the investiture was held for Pope Shenouda III. The cathedral in Abbasiya also served as the requiem mass for pope Shenouda, on 20 March 2012, which was followed by the investiture of the current patriarch, Pope Tawadros II, on 18 November of that year.
According to The Coptic Encyclopaedia, the land on which the cathedral in Abbasiya was built had several names: Deir Al-Khunduq, the name of a monastery on the site; the “Well of Bones” because it served as a repository for the bones of the dead; and Deir Al-Anba Rowais which, according to Al-Maqrizi, was derived from a certain Abu Rowais, a widely-revered devout ascetic who died in 1405 and was buried in this monastery.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 January, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Tale of the papal seat