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A visit to St Mark's
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 23 - 04 - 2013

The seat of the Coptic Pope of Alexandria has moved many times over the past two millennia. At first based in Alexandria, where St Mark preached the gospel for the first time in the first century CE, it later moved to the Hanging Church in Cairo and the Church of St Mercurius, ruined and used as a storehouse for sugar-cane in 978 during the time of Patriarch Abraham.
The papal seat was later based at the Virgin Mary Church in Haret Zeweila and more recently at St Mark's Cathedral in Abbasiya from 1968 onwards. The latter was the first Christian church ever to be sponsored by the Egyptian government, former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser's decision to order financial support for its construction indicating the true meaning of citizenship and rejecting any faith-driven divisions.
Although the Cathedral compound contains the Chapel of St Athnasius, the most important Coptic patriarch, the Shrine of St Mark, the author of one of the four Christian gospels, the papal residence, a college for clergy, the Higher Institute of Coptic Studies, a cultural centre and library and a number of offices, many Copts simply call it Al-Anba Ruways, after the smallest church in the compound but also the most famous one.
Members of the older generation remember that the compound was built on what was once a large cemetery that stretched from Sudan Street in Hadayek Al-Qubba to its current location. The Christian historian Abul-Makarem wrote in 1200 of a huge monastery called Deir Al-Khandak occupying the same spot and including eight churches, one of them called St George which later became the Al-Anba Ruways Church. The famous historian Al-Maqrizi also wrote about the same monastery and cemetery in 1442.
According to Gawdat Gabra, an expert on Coptic history and the author of a well-known book on The Churches of Egypt, the monastery was founded in 970 on a large site. In the 19th century, Ali Pasha Mubarak wrote about the same monastery and church in his survey of Cairo, the Al-Khotat Al-Tawfikiya.
Today, as you enter the compound from the main entrance a petrol station can be seen to the west. Inside, there is the papal residence and educational buildings in front of you to the north, and to the east is the main compound with the various churches. The cornerstone of the compound is the Shrine of St Mark, which is in the east of the compound on the ground floor.
The relics that the Shrine contains were originally kept in Alexandria until they were “borrowed” by Venetian merchants in 828 and smuggled out of the country to St Mark's Cathedral in Venice, where they were kept until July 1968 when they were partially returned to Cairo. The shrine is beautifully decorated with paintings by the famous Coptic artist Isaac Fmous and his assistant Mansour Farag.
Above the Shrine is the cathedral, with its altar being placed exactly above verses by St Mark. Next to it are two churches dedicated to the Blessed Virgin and Al-Anba Ruways, sometimes thought to be the most beautiful church in the compound. Also in the centre of the compound is the Chapel of St Athanasius, who played a major role in the Council of Nicæa in the fourth century CE.


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