Saint Mark the Evangelist and the Founding of the Church in Egypt

The Preaching and Martyrdom of Mark According to a longstanding tradition, Saint Mark the Evangelist visited Alexandria, where he preached the gospel, founded the See of Alexandria, and on May 8, A.D. 68, received the crown of martyrdom.

Eusebius, who wrote his Ecclesiastical History in the first quarter of the fourth century, records this tradition and states that Mark came to Egypt in the first or third year of the reign of the Roman emperor Claudius, in A.D. 41/42 or 43/44. If these dates are correct, Mark's stay at Alexandria could not have been a long one, for in 46 he was at Antioch and the following year in Cyprus. From 49 to 50 he was again at Antioch, and from 58 to 62 at Rome with Saint Paul. For the intervening period between 50 and 62, however, the New Testament is silent in regard to Mark, and, therefore, it is quite possible that the Evangelist may have visited Alexandria at this time. It is generally held that when Paul was released from his first captivity in Rome in 62, Mark did not accompany him on his new missionary journey, and this being the case, the Evangelist could very well have left Rome for Alexandria.

The Copts pride themselves on the apostolicity of their national church, whose founder was none other than St. Mark, the author of the oldest canonical Gospel used by both St. Matthew and St. Luke, and probably also by St. John. Mark is regarded by the Coptic hierarchy as the first in their unbroken chain of 117 patriarchs. The apocryphal Acta Marci record that after setting sail from Cyprus he came to the Pentapolis and from there proceeded to Alexandria; other sources inform us that he went first to the land of Egypt before he began his missionary work in Alexandria. The chronology of the apostolic age is so uncertain that no final decision on the travels of Mark can be offered.

The Coptic tradition states that the first Egyptian to be converted by the Evangelist was Anianus, and the story of his conversion is told by the different Coptic sources with almost no variation. As the Evangelist entered Rhakotis and walked along its stony paths, the strap of his shoe was torn, and he went to a cobbler by the name of Anianus to have it fixed. When the cobbler took an awl to work on it, he accidentally pierced his hand and cried aloud, "God is one." Mark rejoiced at this utterance, and after miraculously healing the cobbler's hand, preached the gospel to him and his whole household. They were ignorant of the Old Testament prophecies that Mark quoted, and the only books they knew were those of the Greek philosophers.

Anianus and all his household believed and were baptized. The Christians in Egypt multiplied in number, and the pagans took notice of them and sought to lay hands on the Evangelist. Sensing danger, Mark ordained Anianus bishop, together with three priests and seven deacons. Afterward, he seems to have undertaken a missionary journey to Rome, whence he proceeded to Aquileia and later to the Pentapolis, where he spent two years performing miracles, ordaining bishops and elders, and winning more converts. When at last he returned to Alexandria, he was overjoyed to find that the church had increased in numbers.

Rumors that the Christians threatened to overthrow the pagan deities infuriated the people of Alexandria. On Easter Sunday of the year 68, the pagans celebrated the festival ofSerapis. Searching for the Evangelist, they found him in the church at Bucolia where the Christians celebrated the Easter service. Mark was seized, dragged through the streets by a rope around his neck, and then incarcerated for the night. Around midnight, an angel appeared to him, strengthening him and promising him the crown of martyrdom. On the following day, the idolatrous populace of Alexandria again dragged him through the streets, until he finally gave up the ghost. But they were not satisfied, and prepared to light a great fire, on which they placed the body to burn. But nature would not permit disrespect to the body of the saint, for it thundered and rained heavily, and the fire was put out. Then the faithful assembled and took the body of Mark from the ashes, and nothing in it had been changed. They carried it to the church in which they celebrated the liturgy and enshrouded it and prayed over it according to the established rites. Then they dug a place for him and buried his holy body there that they might preserve his memory. And finally they placed him in the eastern part of the church, on the day on which his martyrdom was accomplished.

The History of the Relics of Mark

According to Coptic tradition, the body of the Evangelist still reposed in the Church of Saint Mark at Bucolia at the time of the martyrdom of Peter I, the seventeenth patriarch of Alexandria, in 311. There is no question that this site was highly venerated by the Christians of Alexandria. Patriarchs were enthroned here, and pilgrims from all over the ancient world repaired to the holy relics of Saint Mark. Following the schism that separated the Chalcedonians, or Melkites, from the non-Chalcedonians, or Copts, in 451, the church in which the body of the Evangelist reposed remained in the hands of the Melkites. At the time of the Arab conquest, the Church of Saint Mark escaped destruction. It was only during the recapture of Alexandria from Manuel and his troops in the summer of 646 that the Arabs destroyed, plundered, and burned a great part of Alexandria, including the Church of Saint Mark. The account in the History of the Patriarchs describes the event as follows:

In the year 646, the Muslims captured Alexandria, and they burned the Church of St. Mark, which was built by the sea where his body was laid, and this was the place to which the father, the patriarch Peter the Martyr, went before his martyrdom and blessed St. Mark. At the burning of said church a miracle took place which was performed and that was that one of the captains of the ships, namely the captain of the ship of the duke Sanutius, climbed over the wall and descended into the church and came to the shrine, where he found that the coverings had been taken, for the plunderers thought that there was money in the chest. But when they found nothing there, they took away the covering from the body of St. Mark, but his bones were left in their place. So the captain put his hand into the shrine and there he found the head of the holy Mark, which he took. Then he returned to his ship secretly and told no one of it, and hid the head in the hold among his baggage The ship in which the head of the Evangelist was hidden was miraculously prevented from leaving the harbour of Alexandria. Therefore, the duke returned the head of St. Mark to Benjamin the Patriarch, and as soon as he had received the pure head, the ship got under sail at once and departed in a straight course. The patriarch returned to the city, carrying the head in his bosom, and the priests went before him with chanting and singing as befitted the reception of that sacred and glorious head. And he made a chest of plain wood with a padlock on it, and placed the head therein, and he waited for a time in which he might find means to build a church.

The narrative of this miracle should be assigned to a considerably later date than the theft of the body of the Evangelist by the Venetians in the ninth century. The account seems to indicate that the body perished with the destruction of the church and that the head was saved from destruction by being stolen and later returned, not to the original owners, the Melkites, but to the Coptic patriarch Benjamin I. The narrative of the manufacture of the wooden reliquary for the head reflects a period in the history of the Coptic Church when, indeed, the head was actually carried from person to person and used for the ceremony of the consecration of the Coptic patriarchs. In this context it is interesting that in the year 700 a tradition was still maintained that the whole body of the Evangelist reposed in Alexandria. Bishop Arculfs account written from his dictation by Adamnan, abbot of lona, states explicitly that "there [in Alexandria] is a large church in which St. Mark the Evangelist is interred. The body is buried in the eastern part of the church, before the altar, with a monument of squared marble over it."

The translation of the body of Saint Mark from Alexandria to Venice was a well-known fact in Alexandria in the ninth century, as is evident from the report of Bernard the Wise, who visited the city in 869 and recorded his impressions:

The city of Alexandria is adjacent to the sea. It was here that St. Mark, preaching the gospel, bore the episcopal dignity, and outside the eastern gate of the city is the monastery of the saint, with the church in which he formerly reposed. But the Venetians coming there obtained his body by stealth, and, carrying it on shipboard, sailed home with it.

Neither Bernard the Wise nor the Venetians refer to the translation of a body without a head. We must assume, therefore, that the tradition pertaining to the severing of the head from the body developed at a time when a relic of the Evangelist became important for functional or liturgical purposes, in this case probably the consecration of the patriarchs of the Coptic church, who used to take the apostolic head of the divinely inspired Mark in their bosoms at the end of the rite of consecration. From the History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church, we learn that from the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries, the head of Mark played an increasingly important part in the history and the tradition of the Coptic Church. It is in this period, therefore, that we should place the emergence of the tradition of the above-mentioned miracle of the manifestation of the head.

The eleventh-century Bishop Michael of Tinnis, compiler of the biographies of the patriarchs from Kha'il III (880-907) to Shenute II (1032-46), implies that during the eleventh century, the head of the Evangelist reposed in the desert of Wadi al-Natrun, undoubtedly in the Monastery of Saint Macarius. Shortly after Zacharias (1004—32), the sixty-fourth patriarch of Alexandria, retired to Wadi al-Natrun, a Turkish amir obtained the head of Mark. It was said to him, "The Christians will pay to thee whatsoever thou desirest for it." Then he carried the head to Misr (Cairo). When Buqayra al-Rashidi, known as 'the Crossbearer,' was informed of this, he took the head from the Turk for three hundred dinars and carried it to the father, the patriarch, who was at that time in the Monastery of Saint Macarius, where most of the bishops were dwelling. In the middle of the eleventh century, the head of the Evangelist was translated from the Monastery of Saint Macarius in Wadi al-Natrun to Alexandria. During the patriarchate of Christodoulus (1047-77), the sixty-sixth patriarch of Alexandria, the head of Mark was in Alexandria.

A very significant reference to the head of the Evangelist appears in the biography of Cyril III (1235—43), the seventy-fifth patriarch of Alexandria, where it is stated that the head reposed in the house of Ibn al-Shukri:

And it is said that it was the head of Peter the beatified martyr, because the head of the Apostle, the Evangelist, was with his body when the Ventians transported him to Venice.

Undoubtedly, Venetian merchants must have spread in Alexandria their local tradition that the whole body reposed in Venice. Yet a head did exist, a head that had been used for some time in the rite of consecration of the patriarchs of the Coptic Church. It is interesting that the chronicler should include the tradition that it was the head of Peter. The possibility of this being the head of the beatified 'Seal of the Martyrs' is increased by the tradition that states that his martyrdom in 311 took place at Bucolia near the tomb where Mark was beheaded.

Yet doubt and uncertainty about this relic, so important for the liturgical life of the Coptic hierarchy, had to be dispelled. Numerous stories and traditions must have circulated in Cairo and Alexandria, and some of the more thoughtful theologians must have wondered about the truth. In the fourteenth century, Abu al-Barakat ibn Kabar, the most distinguished of the medieval Coptic theologians, wrote an account of the head of the Evangelist, which was to become the standard version for the Coptic church, often repeated and believed to this day:

And his [Mark's] martyrdom was at the end of Baramuda, Nisan 27, in the reign of Tiberius, and it is said that it was still buried in the eastern church on the shore of Alexandria up to the time when it was taken by craft by some Franks [al-Farang], those of Venice, where it is now. And it [the head] was transferred to a house in Alexandria and it is still in it now.

Regarding the relic's location, Abu al-Barakat merely confirms the statement of the biographer of Cyril III; otherwise he clearly assigns the body to Venice, and the head to Alexandria!

The Return of the Relics of Mark

The recent translation of several holy relics inaugurated by the See of Rome has renewed the interest of clerics and historians in long-forgotten traditions pertaining to these relics. With genuine gratitude and jubilation, Christians of the eastern churches have welcomed the return of the relics of their patrons.

It is within this context that we should place the request of Pope Cyril VI of Alexandria to Pope Paul VI of Rome to "return to the Coptic Church the relics of Saint Mark which repose in the Cathedral in Venice." On March 29, 1967, it was announced in Cairo that once these relics were returned, they would be buried with the head of the Evangelist together with the relics of forty-two popes of the Coptic Church in the Cathedral of Saint Mark in Alexandria. In fact, the Copts requested the return of the whole body so as "to join the head with the body of the Evangelist as a tribute to the African Church."

On June 20, 1968, a delegation of bishops and notables of the Coptic and Ethiopian churches left Cairo for Rome to receive the relics of the Evangelist. The delegation consisted of the Metropolitan Mark of Abu Tig, Tima, and Tahta; the Metropolitan Michael of Asyut and the Monastery of Saint Macarius; the Metropolitan Antonius of Suhag; the Metropolitan Peter of Akhmim and Saqulta; the Metropolitan Domitius of Giza; the Metropolitan Paul of Helwan; Gregorius, Bishop of Theological Studies; Archbishop Luke of Arusi; Archbishop Peter of Bagemder ; Archbishop John of Tegre; ten priests; and some seventy Coptic notables. On June 22, 1968, Pope Paul VI presented to the delegation an alleged relic of Saint Mark—a small particle of bone, which had been a gift from Cardinal Giovanni Urbani, the patriarch of Venice, to the pope of Rome. This relic had reposed in a reliquary in the treasury of the Cathedral of Saint Mark in Venice, for the martyrium of the Evangelist was not opened for this purpose.

Late in the evening of June 24, the delegation, accompanied by the papal delegation, arrived at Cairo Airport. The papal delegation consisted of Cardinal Leon Etienne Duval, the archbishop of Algiers; Cardinal Willebrands, Secretary of the Secretariat for Christian Unity; Monsignor Olivotti, Coadjutor to Cardinal Urbani; Pierre Duprey; Abbé Teissie; and Monsignor Nicotra, representing the Oriental Congregation. Upon the plane's arrival, the relic was personally carried by Pope Cyril VI of Alexandria to the car. The same night, the relic was translated to the patriarchate at Azbakiya. The small particle, lying in a magnificent silver reliquary, was placed in a wooden box covered with a rich green velvet and fastened with golden cords in the form of a cross.

On June 26, the day following the inauguration of the new Cathedral of Saint Mark in 'Abbasiya, Cairo, a Divine Liturgy was celebrated by Cyril VI in commemoration of the 1,900th anniversary of the martyrdom of the Evangelist in Alexandria. Afterward, Cyril VI offered the relic to H.I.M. Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia, for veneration. Then Cyril VI carried the relic to the crypt beneath the high altar. Here the reliquary was solemnly lowered into a cavity in a square block of polished Aswan granite. As the heavy granite lid was placed on the cavity, the choirs of the Coptic Catholic and Coptic Evangelical Churches sang to the glory of God.

In spite of the previous pronouncements by the Coptic hierarchy, the relic was not joined to the head, which was believed to repose in Alexandria. On the contrary, a new cult center was created in Cairo. Moreover, instead of the whole body of the Evangelist, only a small particle of a relic was returned. Neither the box with the head nor the reliquary containing the other relic was opened for veneration or inspection, thereby either intentionally, or, more likely, unintentionally perpetuating the mystery of the relics of the Evangelist.

On June 27, the representatives of the Vatican proceeded to Alexandria, where they were received by His Most Divine Beatitude Nicholas VI, the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Alexandria; the Reverend Father Nicholas Tenedios, the recorder of the patriarchate; and Dr. Theodore D. Moschonas, the remembrancer and librarian. Then, while the members of the delegations stood reverently, Cardinal Duval offered the Greek Orthodox patriarch a precious, dark-colored reliquary containing a part of the relics of the Evangelist. The cardinal said:

When in 1952 the urn was opened, they took reverently and for a future blessing the holy fragments, and the urn of the patron of Venice was closed.

Now, on our coming to Cairo, His Holiness the Pope gave to us also the present reliquary specially for the Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria, which is also a daughter of Saint Mark.

Having kissed the holy relics enclosed in the silver reliquary, the patriarch thanked them with words of brotherliness, saying, "The Church of Alexandria receives joyfully for blessing and strengthening the reliquary of her holy founder, and she will guard it as the apple of her eye.

On July 7, these relics of Saint Mark were exhibited for veneration by the faithful in the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Sabas in Alexandria. Since 1970, some relics of the Evangelist repose in the crypt of the new Coptic Cathedral of St. Mark in Alexandria. Other relics of St. Mark are kept together with those of St. Anianus in the reliquary chapel north of the altar.

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