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THE CATHEDRALS OF SAINT MARK IN EGYPT


THE CATHEDRALS OF SAINT MARK IN EGYPT

BY DR. NEVINE ABD EL-GAWAD

EDITED BY MONA IBRAHIM

The Evangelist, the Martyr, the Apostle and the Missionary. These are the titles of Saint Mark that reflect not only his religious value for the Egyptian Christians, the Copts, but also his impact in forming the distinguished identity of the Egyptian Church. As the first Evangelist to preach Christianity in Egypt and thus the founder of the Church of Alexandria, Saint Mark granted the Egyptian Church the legitimacy to be one of the oldest Christian churches in existence.

Among the most important cathedrals in the world, actually, are the cathedrals of Saint Mark in both Cairo and Alexandria. Their religious significance, other than being the patriarchal sees of Egypt, is due to containing the shrines of Saint Mark, the first in a long line of bishops (Alexandrian patriarchs), and who is lovingly called among the Copts He Who Saw Christs Face (the beholder of the Lord).

In the New Testament, he was called John, Marcus, and sometimes both. John, which means God is affectionate and merciful, was his Jewish name as he was born into a Jewish family in the city of Cyrene, one of the five cities of Pentapolis, during the reign of the Roman emperor, Augustus Caesar (26 BCE-14 A.D.). He was also surnamed Marcus, a Latin name meaning hammer. The name John was used alone twice in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 13:5, 13), while the name Marcus (Mark in English) was used alone in the first Epistle of Peter the Apostle (1 Pet. 5:13)m in the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Colossians (Col. 4:10), in the second Epistle of Paul to Timothy (2 Tim. 4:11), in the Epistle of Paul to Philemon (Philem. 24), and in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 15:39), where also the two names John and Mark were used together three times (Acts 12:12, 25; 15:37).

Three sacred shrines of Saint Mark in Egypt are some of the very important religious destinations for Egypts Orthodox Christians, the Copts. One of them is located in Alexandria and two in Cairo, specifically in al-Azbakiyya and al-Abbasiyya.

The Cathedral of Saint Mark in Alexandria had been the patriarchal see until 1047 A.D. It is the supposed resting place of Saint Marks head. Its name in historical sources is al-Muallaqa (the hanging) and it was also called al-Qamhah. Now it is in Kanisset al-Aqbat Street in Raml Station, downtown, having been demolished and rebuilt several times over the centuries. Supposedly, it was the church named after Saint Mark and rebuilt by the patriarch Agathon in 677, who was the one who placed Saint Marks head in it. It was destroyed by Napoleons military campaign in Egypt in 1798, and rebuilt in the Byzantine style in 1870. The recent building dates back to 1952 when the first mass was held by the patriarch Yusab II (19461956). The last inauguration after its expansion was in 1990.

Tomb of Saint Mark in the Cathedral of Alexandria
Tomb of Saint Mark in the Cathedral of Alexandria

In the middle of the church, on the south side, lies the cemetery which contains the relics of the patriarchs of Alexandria's See of the first millennium. Their names were engraved on a marble plate in Coptic, Arabic and English. Before descending to the tomb, there is a small area that has a group of mosaic icons depicting the life of Saint Mark, starting from his appointment as one of the Seventy Disciples of Christ (or the Seventy Apostles according to the Eastern Christian Tradition), until his martyrdom in Alexandria. The last mosaic depicts the return of a part of his relics from Italy to be deposited in the shrine prepared for him in the Cathedral of Saint Mark in al-Abbasiyya. Now the passage leading to the tomb (an underground room) is sealed, with only the patriarch being allowed entry. There is a mosaic icon of Saint Mark to the right of the tomb.

Chest of Saint Marks relics in the Cathedral of Alexandria
Chest of relics of Saint Mark in his shrine in the Cathedral of Alexandria

In 2003, some of Saint Marks relics that were brought back from Venice were preserved in a tube in a room in the north east part of the church. Wooden chests in the shrine also contain the relics of the second patriarch, Saint Anianus (6885 AD), the martyrs of Akhmim and al-Fayoum regions, and Saint Apollo (the disciple of Saint Samuel, The Confessor).

Shrine of Saint Mark in the Cathedral of al-Azbakiyya in Cairo
Shrine of Saint Mark in the Cathedral of al-Azbakiyya in Cairo

The Cathedral of Saint Mark in al-Azbakiyya is in al-Kanisa al-Murqusiyya Street near Ramses Square. Its construction began in 1800 by Mark VIII (17961809), the one hundred and eighth patriarch of Alexandria. The patriarch Cyril IV (18541861), the one hundred and tenth patriarch of Alexandria, rebuilt the cathedral in 1859. Renovation works were completed in it by later patriarchs of Alexandria. This cathedral had been the patriarchal see until 1971, when it was replaced by the cathedral in al-Abbasiyya. The wooden shrine of Saint Mark, which contains a tube for his relics and a modern icon of him, lies in the north east side of the church.

The altar in Saint Marks shrine in al-Abbasiyya Cathedral
The altar in the shrine of Saint Mark in al-Abbasiyya Cathedral in Cairo

In 1965, the foundation stone of the Cathedral of Saint Mark in al-Abbasiyya on Ramses Street in Cairo was laid. The relics of Saint Mark were deposited in it after arriving from Italy on June 24, 1968, which the Copts record in their calendar as the date Baunah 17. On the next day, the cathedral was officially opened, and on Baunah 19 (June 26) the first mass was held on its altar. After that, the relics of Saint Mark were deposited in the recent shrine situated under the main haikal (sanctuary) in the eastern part of the cathedral. It has been the Holy See from 1971 until now. In the middle of the shrine there is an altar under which the chest of relics is preserved. There are two recent icons of Saint Mark in addition to wall paintings on the right depicting his torture and martyrdom in Alexandria, and then the return of his relics from Italy to Cairo.

Commemoration Days of Saint Mark in the Coptic Orthodox Church

His Martyrdom is on Baramudah 30 (May 8).

The Apparition of his head and dedication of his church in Alexandria is on Babah

30 (November 9).

The deposition of his relics in his cathedral, Anba Ruways, is on Baunah 17 (June 24).

References:

Title

Author

Date

Publisher

Reference Number

Churches and Monasteries of Egypt and Some Neighbouring Countries (Attributed to Abu Salih, The Armenian), The

Evetts, B.T.A.

(ed.)

1895

Clarendon Press, The

ISBN 977-16-0081-8

History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church of Alexandria (I) Saint Mark to Theonas

1907

Librairie de Paris

ISBN 0-300-03642-6

History of the Copts (known as Al-Qawl al-Ibrizi)

Maqrizi (D. 1441), Al-

1998

Cairo

None Stated

Arab Conquest of Egypt and the Last Thirty Years of the Arab Dominion, The

Butler, Alfred J.

1978

Clarendon Press, The

None Stated

History of the Patriarchs

Vols. 5,6

Nakhla, K.S.

2002

Dair al-Surian

ISBN 0-19-285259-0


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