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Cathedral of Abbasiya: “a masterpiece in the center of Cairo”

The cathedral at Abbasiya is the seat of the Coptic Orthodox Church. The main building, part of a campus including several churches, offices, library and official reception halls, became famous recently during the coverage of the passing of Pope Shenouda III. The new cathedral was inaugurated in 1968. At the time of its completion the new building was Africa’s largest church. Up until its move to the new location the seat of the church was at Masr el Qadima (Coptic Cairo).

The church owned the land since 969. According to the encyclopedia of Coptic history this is a brief story of the land where the cathedral is now built:

This land was given as a replacement for the land that was taken from the church to be included in building the Palace of Ma’ad al-Muizz Li-Deenillah as part of the planning of the new capital of Egypt, Cairo.

During the twelfth century the area contained ten Coptic churches, but during the rule of Qalawun on 18 February 1280 the churches were destroyed by the persecutors of the Copts. Two churches were subsequently built in the area under the rule of his son.[1]

In 1943 the governerate of Cairo attempted to expropriate the area for public use. This was opposed by the General Congregation Council led by its secretary at the time Mr. Habib Elmasry; their campaign proved successful as the Coptic Church maintained control of the land under the condition that a non-profit building be built on it in the following fifteen years. This condition spurred the building of the cathedral.

A competition was held for the design of the new cathedral and in 1966 the winner was announced. The first prize went to Awad Kamel Fahmy dean of the school of fine arts in Cairo at the time. His brother Selim Kamel Fahmy was the head of the Masr Gedida Development Company (شركة مصر الجديدة للتعمير) and he oversaw the construction. The second prize went to Foad Michael and the third prize went to Adel Paul Maqar.

Thirty five design practices submitted entries for the competition, all were Egyptian. The Jury consisted of mostly Coptic officials representing the church such as Father Antonios, or representing official institutions such as Ibrahim Naguib from the ministry of housing, William Selim Hanna who was a former minister of municipal affairs, and Hanna Samika, former representative of the Coptic Museum. The committee convened two weeks after president Gamal Abdel Nasser laid the foundation stone in July 1965.

The June 17 1966 issue of the popular weekly magazine al-Musawwar includes interviews with key figures participating in the realization of the new cathedral. There are many insights here such as questions about why the competition was not international, as it was initially intended. The interviewed church official confirmed that this was an opportunity for Egyptian architects to showcase Egypt’s modern architecture. He also stressed that the current main cathedral at the time, which was built in 1800 was not large enough and was suffering structural problems (it was undergoing renovations in 1966). Church officials also added that Gamal Abdel Nasser dedicated a gift of 100,000 Egyptian pounds towards the project (the newsreel above says 150,000) and he laid the foundation stone on the occasion of the nationalist celebrations of the anniversary of the July 1952 coup/revolution. It is difficult to miss the conflation of issues of modernism, nationalism and religious community which come across in the interview with church officials.

Al-Musawwar’s headline proclaimed the new cathedral was “a masterpiece in the center of Cairo.” Of course it was a masterpiece considering 1960s Egyptian modernist architecture and it was in the “center” of Cairo in the sense that it was closer to the regime’s expansion of the city, not the city’s old center.

Important to note that the move of the seat of the church to the north was also presented as a move along Cairo’s development at the time. The building of the new cathedral was in the context of the government’s expansion plans for Cairo from Abbasiya to what became Madinat Nasr.

When asked about the style of the building, the church rep responded: purely Coptic style, even though the Pope is open to modernizing it a bit. “We have our Coptic church style for generations and we will build upon it.” Regarding the portrait of Jesus painted in the main space he said “why should we need international artists, Egypt has the talents we need… Jesus will be painted by our artists and he will have our features.” He added “Arab hands only will build this church with its mashrabeyyas (wood work), painted glass, murals, mosaics… these are skills developed together by Muslims and Christians throughout our history and we aim to preserve them. All the materials for the new building will be local and nothing will be imported.”

In a way the new building is a reflection of the state imposing its power over the church, as it did with Al Azhar. Incidentally the military headquarters are also in Abbasiya. It is no surprise that the contractor and the architect were both close to the state. Nonetheless the building and its story also reflect the struggle for the church to negotiate its place, identity and visibility in the context of Egypt’s shifting politics.

The cathedral also became home to some of Saint Mark’s relics. Saint Mark of Alexandria was the first to preach Christianity in Egypt and therefore is considered the founder of the Coptic Church. His remains were stolen and sent to Venice in the 9th century. The story of the theft is proudly depicted on the facade of Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice (pictured above). The story has it that the grave robbers wrapped the remains in pork as to avoid inspection by the Muslim port control in Alexandria. Pope Paul VI returned some of the relics to Egypt on the occasion of the new cathedral which is dedicated to Saint Mark.

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