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Marcus SimaikaFather of Coptic Archaeology$

Samir Simaika and Nevine Henein

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9789774168239

Published to Cairo Scholarship Online: January 2018

DOI: 10.5743/cairo/9789774168239.001.0001

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The Patriarchs

The Patriarchs

(p.75) 8 The Patriarchs
Marcus Simaika

Samir Simaika

Nevine Henein

American University in Cairo Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses Marcus Simaika's relationship with the Coptic patriarchs of his time as a member, then vice president, of the Coptic Community Council (Majlis al-Milli) for thirty-nine consecutive years. In his attempts to start a Coptic museum, which needed patriarchal approval, Simaika fought many battles and used much diplomacy and compromise in his dealings with the Coptic hierarchy. The full title of the patriarch, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church, is “Pope and Lord Archbishop of the Great City of Alexandria and Patriarch of all Africa on the Holy Orthodox and Apostolic Throne of Saint Mark the Evangelist, Holy Apostle and Martyr, that is in Egypt, Pentapolis, Libya, Nubia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and all Africa.” These patriarchs include Cyril IV, Cyril V, and Yohannes XIX.

Keywords:   Marcus Simaika, Coptic patriarchs, Coptic Community Council, Coptic Orthodox Church, Egypt, Cyril IV, Cyril V, Yohannes XIX

S imaika had a close, sometimes stormy relationship with the patriarchs of his time, as a member, then vice president, of the Coptic Community Council (Majlis al-Milli) for thirty-nine consecutive years. In his attempts to start a Coptic museum, which needed patriarchal approval, he had to fight many battles and use much diplomacy and compromise in his dealings with the Coptic hierarchy.

The full title of the patriarch, the leader of the Coptic Orthodox Church, is “Pope and Lord Archbishop of the Great City of Alexandria and Patriarch of all Africa on the Holy Orthodox and Apostolic Throne of Saint Mark the Evangelist, Holy Apostle and Martyr, that is in Egypt, Pentapolis, Libya, Nubia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and all Africa.” The patriarchate was transferred from Alexandria to the Mu‘allaqa Church at Babylon (Old Cairo) in 1047 by Pope Christodoulos (1047–77) to be closer to Egypt’s rulers, and in 1300 was relocated to the Church of Abu Sayfayn (Saint Mercurius) by Pope John VIII (1300–20). From there, it was moved in 1400 to the Church of the Virgin Mary at Haret Zuweila by Pope Matthew I (1378–1408). Pope Matthew IV (1660–76), on his first day as the Coptic Pope, transferred the patriarchal seat from Haret Zuweila to the Church of the Virgin Mary at Haret al-Roum. It remained there until 1800, when it was moved to Saint Mark’s Cathedral at Azbakiya under Pope Mark VIII (1797–1810), before moving to its present site, the Cathedral of Saint Mark at Anba Ruways in 1971, under Pope Cyril VI (1959–71).

(p.76) Cyril IV (1854–61)

Cyril IV, the 110th successor to Saint Mark in a direct line, was known as the “Father of Reform.” Born Daud Thomas in 1816 into an impoverished Coptic family of farmers in a small town in the province of Girga in Upper Egypt, he entered the Monastery of Saint Antony in the Eastern Desert at the age of twenty-two, becoming its abbot two years later. Simaika wrote in A Coptic Layman: The Awakening of the Coptic Church79 that Cyril had been a regular attendant at the Bible classes of the Church of England’s Church Missionary Society (CMS), which were given by the Reverend John Lieder, who lived in Cairo between 1830 and 1850. This exposure to Protestant influence may explain some of the decisions he took as patriarch.

On assuming the patriarchal throne in 1854, Cyril IV built schools, including the Coptic Patriarchal School, so that Copts could continue their education, since they were not allowed to attend state schools until 1867, when Isma‘il Pasha decreed otherwise. Prior to the Patriarchal School, Coptic education stopped with elementary Coptic schools and the learning of Coptic, Arabic, and the Bible, as well as simple mathematics. He also built a school for girls, a revolutionary step at the time. He imported a printing press from Austria, as Copts were also not allowed access to the state printing press. When the printing press arrived in Alexandria, it was welcomed by the city’s Coptic archbishop, with his clergy and singing deacons.

Cyril IV also reached out to the Anglican, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian churches. Greek clergy often took part in Coptic ceremonies, and in towns and villages with no Greek churches, Greeks would attend the Coptic service and vice versa.80 It was widely believed that the wali, Said Pasha, had Cyril poisoned in 1861, fearing Russian influence as a result of the patriarch’s rapprochement with the European Orthodox churches.

By cleaning up the clergy and rooting out corruption, Cyril IV began the first wave of Coptic reform, the only one to be initiated by a patriarch until Cyril VI in 1959. Subsequent attempts at reform always started with laymen and were fiercely resisted by the sitting patriarch and his senior clergy. The successive patriarchs, Demetrios II (1862–70), Cyril V (1874–1927), and Yohannes XIX (1928–42), all detested the foreign ideas that Cyril IV had introduced and that were subsequently supported by prominent lay Copts. This ingrown hatred of foreigners can be explained by the harsh persecution of the Copts by the Eastern Orthodox Christians (Melchites) from Constantinople before the Arab conquest, and later on by the Christian Crusaders, both of whom despised the Copts, regarding them as heretics. This legacy left the Copts deeply suspicious of European Christians.

(p.77) Cyril IV, together with Abuna Takla, the dean of the cathedral, and Arif Quzman, the leader of its choir, was responsible for the changes in the pronunciation of the Coptic sounds.

It was during his tenure of office that a great innovation took place which was not approved by foreign scholars. The accent of the Coptic language was changed to correspond with modern Greek, which differed considerably from the old traditional accent drawn from the ancient Egyptian language.81

This policy was continued by his successors, Demetrios II and Cyril V. Cyril IV started this policy to initiate closer ties with the Greek Church. He also introduced a number of hymns sung in the Greek Church into the Coptic service. Some sections of the liturgy, and especially the responses used in the Coptic Church to the present day, are identical to those used in the Greek Church.

History will judge Cyril IV harshly, however, for burning all the icons he could lay his hands on when rebuilding Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Azbakiya, considering them forms of idolatry. He also forbade the painting of new ones. This decision was probably influenced by his studies at the Anglican seminary. Addressing the crowds after the burning of the icons, Simaika relates that the patriarch said, “Behold, these wooden pictures you used to adore and worship can neither avail nor harm. God alone should be adored.”82

Cyril IV died at the age of forty-five and his patriarchate lasted only seven years, of which more than two were spent on a mission to Ethiopia. In spite of his short papacy, Cyril IV’s reforms are considered a turning point in the history of the Coptic Church.

Cyril V (1874–1927)

Cyril V, pope and patriarch of Alexandria, the 112th successor to Saint Mark in a direct line, was one of the most remarkable characters of his time. He succeeded Demetrios II (1862–70), who had been present at the opening of the Suez Canal, where he met the Ottoman sultan, Abd al-Aziz. Demetrios was neither a learned man nor a brilliant administrator, but according to Simaika, was very popular with the masses, as he was good and just.83

Cyril V was to become the longest-serving pope in the history of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Born Hanna Matar to impoverished parents in Beni Suef Province, he became a monk at the Monastery of al-Baramus (the Parameos Monastery) in Wadi al-Natrun, where he was known as John (p.78) the Calligrapher. He was chosen for the eminent position of patriarch on account of his piety and the exemplary life he had led. Simaika recounted:

I was present at his consecration in 1875 as a member of the Choir of the Coptic Cathedral of which my brother Rizkallah was the leader. I assisted in this capacity at a series of banquets given in honour of the new Patriarch by the most important Coptic notables. Higoumenous Philotheos, Dean of the Cathedral—a highly gifted orator and a proficient liturgical musician—delivered speeches which were highly appreciated by all present.84

Cyril took a great liking to Simaika because he wrote a good Coptic hand, and asked him to copy in Coptic letters several Greek hymns that were to be introduced into the Coptic service. He encouraged the building of new churches and contributed very generously to the funds for the construction of the Coptic churches at Haret al-Saqqayin and Faggala in Cairo. He took a special interest in the restoration of old books, personally copying missing sections. Simaika would often find him sitting on the carpet in his room, with a lot of old manuscripts in bad condition strewn around him, copying missing parts. Cyril was very fond of reading and would also listen daily for hours to his secretary reading aloud to him from theological and historical books.

It was Cyril who first supplied all churches with liturgical service books printed in big, clear Coptic and Arabic type instead of old manuscripts. He commissioned Claudius Bey Labib to produce the service books and defrayed all the expenses incurred in the purchase of the printing presses and the setting up of the Coptic and Arabic type. The introduction of these books was a great reform, as the old manuscripts were often illegible.

Cyril V had one great failing, though, according to Simaika, that of condoning the faults of the clergy, a policy most disastrous to discipline and detrimental to the real interests of the Church.

It is painful to me, as a loyal son of the Coptic Church, to relate that grave irregularities, affecting both honesty and morality, were committed by certain bishops and priests in responsible positions during his pontificate. When they were reported to him, he failed to inflict exemplary punishment on the culprits. What a contrast this was to the attitude taken towards clerics in other lands. I remember having read in the English papers that an archdeacon of the Church of England, convicted of such irregularities, was deposed, (p.79) his portrait appearing in the Press and the greatest publicity given to his misdemeanors.85

Simaika recounted the case of the bishop of Beni Suef as an example. The bishop had been petitioned by a man with newly acquired great wealth to divorce his wife, so that he could marry a younger woman of better class. That petition was accompanied by a valuable present and was then submitted by the bishop to the provincial synod of the Majlis al-Milli, of which he was president ex officio. The members of the council saw no grounds for divorce, and the petition was rejected. The petition was resubmitted and again unanimously rejected. The rich man redoubled his presents to the bishop, who consequently decided to celebrate the marriage to the other woman, although a sentence of divorce had not been pronounced. The first wife appealed to Cyril V, and the case caused great scandal. As a result, the patriarch suspended the bishop from his functions, but just three months later reinstated him in his position and promoted him to the dignity of archbishop.

Another cause of general scandal was Cyril’s resort to the practice of alchemy to obtain gold for building new churches when public subscriptions proved insufficient. He also encouraged people to look for hidden treasure in remote places, even under the altar of ancient churches, to the detriment of the stability of these buildings. He sent for Simaika one day and said, “Here is an Armenian who tells me that in the church of the Archangel Michael at Old Cairo there is a big coffer containing rich vestments, gold crosses, old manuscripts, and I want you to go with him and superintend the digging.” Simaika asked the Armenian, “Who do you think has concealed this treasure?” He replied, “This was done by Nakhla Bey El Barati when he was arrested along with his chief, Isma‘il Pasha El Mufattish.”86 Simaika said to the patriarch, “This cannot be true, for after the death of El Mufattish, Barati was set at liberty and afterwards lived for several years in peace during which he had ample time to recover the concealed treasure.” However, the man insisted, and Cyril V begged Simaika to see the matter through, undertaking to defray all expenses.

I went with the Armenian to the church in question. He had a fire lighted on which he threw some incense and began mumbling cabalistic words, and then he put some ink on the hand of a child, who stated that he saw in the ink the image of a man on a throne who directed him to proceed with us. We followed at his heels to the point where the supposed treasure lay hidden in the interior of a stable next to the guest-room. After digging at this point (p.80) for two hours I heard the axe strike a solid body. At this juncture the Armenian, turning round, said, “It is time to partake of some refreshments I brought with me.” I said, “No, pray go on, let us see this through first.” The diggers went on and to my great amusement and the Armenian’s disappointment the diggers excavated the trunk of a big tree, and that was the end of a futile adventure.87

Cyril V was a mass of contradictions to Simaika. During his journey with Simaika to Sudan in 1909, great banquets were given in his honor in every place they stopped. At every banquet, twelve to fifteen courses of the most enticing food would be served. Cyril would sit at these banquets and only allow one dish to be presented to him. When he called at the houses of the Coptic notables of Sudan, certain sums of money, varying from five to a hundred pounds, were given to him to distribute in aid to the charities and other good causes in which he was interested. This he did, and also used the money to repair churches and build new schools.

It was only towards the end of his life that he began to give a considerable part of this money, intended for charitable and philanthropic work, to his own relatives. His failings, however, were only known to a very limited circle, but the mass of the people regarded him as a holy man, for he was frugal, pure, and chaste in his private life. Cyril, therefore, exercised great influence on the mass of the people.88

Cyril V was also regarded as an ardent nationalist, although S.H. Leeder, in his book Modern Sons of the Pharaohs,89 stated that Cyril V hung portraits of Edward VII and George V in his reception room at the patriarchate.

In 1926, Cyril fell so seriously ill that his treating physicians informed Simaika—at the time vice president of the Majlis al-Milli—that they did not expect the patriarch to live more than a fortnight. Simaika felt it his duty to find out from Cyril V the name of the person he would recommend as his successor. Simaika put this question to him in very guarded terms. He replied, “The time has not yet come for me to answer your question.”90 This was in midsummer, and when Simaika and his family returned three months later from their summer vacation in Alexandria, he found Cyril convalescing in Helwan and in perfect health. He would often visit him there in connection with the business of the majlis. On one of these occasions, he found Cyril digging in the garden and asked him, “What are you doing, Holy Father?” “I am planting date trees,” he said. “Dear me,” Simaika replied, “date trees take such a long time to bring forth fruit.” He (p.81) answered, “We have enjoyed the fruits of trees planted by others, and we in our turn must plant trees for others to enjoy their fruit.”91

A year later, in 1927, Simaika contracted blood poisoning and was laid up for several months. During this time, Cyril asked to see him urgently to name his successor, but was told Simaika was too ill to move.

Thereupon he urgently begged that I might be carried to his presence, which unfortunately could not be done, and he died before I could leave my bed, and my question about his successor remained unanswered.92

Yohannes XIX (1928–42)

Yohannes XIX succeeded Cyril V as the 113th successor to Saint Mark in a direct line. He was an old colleague of Simaika, both having served in the Legislative Council. Reading Simaika’s memoirs, one gets the impression that he did not have a very high opinion of Yohannes. He considered him a man who was easily influenced and who lacked the courage of his convictions, specifically mentioning his weak stand in the Legislative Council when the issue of Bible instruction was debated.

Simaika recounted another story as a further example of Yohannes’s lack of courage. According to the canons of the Coptic Church, widowed priests who had been married only once could be promoted to the rank of bishop. Simaika mentions letters of investiture in the name of a widowed priest who had been promoted to the episcopacy in the library of the Coptic Museum, as well as a thirteenth century manuscript on the rules concerning the election and consecration of bishops. According to the document, a widowed priest could be promoted to a bishopric provided he had only been married once.

This rule was followed until the beginning of the nineteenth century, when it was abandoned under Patriarch Peter VII, thus excluding the nonmonastics, from which parish priests come, from government of the Church.93 Priests occupying senior positions in the Church should not have been married, so that they would not have family cares and could thus devote all their attention to their sacred positions. Therefore, they were always chosen from among monks. This rule was strictly observed. Simaika cited the case of a priest, Abuna Hanna Salama, who, upon losing his wife just a few months after marriage, retired to a monastery, where he led an exemplary life. Appointed assistant to the bishop of Khartoum, Anba Sarapamon, Abuna Hanna introduced order and discipline where only chaos had existed. He reorganized schools, reconciled families, and succeeded in greatly developing educational and philanthropic work (p.82) throughout the diocese. He not only gained the respect of the Coptic community, but also other Christian communities, as well as their Muslim compatriots in Sudan.

In 1935, on the death of Anba Sarapamon, a foolish and ignorant man by all accounts, the entire Coptic community of Sudan petitioned the patriarch to appoint Abuna Hanna in his place. This petition was signed by all the Coptic notables of the various districts of Khartoum, Omdurman, Atbara, and Halfa. However, the recommendation was opposed by a few persons Simaika considered malevolent and with ulterior motives.

The Patriarch Yohannes approved in principle and asked me to find out whether the Sudan Agent and the British embassy had any objections. Both told me that they approved of the choice. I presented my report in that sense to the Patriarch and we all expected him to consecrate Abuna Hanna. Unfortunately, because of the intrigue of a monk in the suite of the Patriarch, Doumadios by name, who wanted the position for himself, the matter fell through. Doumadios argued that Bishoprics were reserved exclusively for monks, and Anba Yohannes had not the courage to carry out his intention in spite of the fact that he knew that some of the Bishops were leading unholy lives.94

The transfer of bishops from one diocese to another, and their promotion to higher ecclesiastical dignities such as that of patriarch, was strictly forbidden, and all kinds of anathemas were leveled against any person attempting to break these rules. Simaika gave credit to Yohannes for putting an end to these unreasonable rules at the death of Cyril V.

I was personally most pleased when he took upon himself the responsibility to make this great change, in which he was unanimously supported.95

This change gave the Copts a greater choice in the patriarchal elections, so they could choose from among the bishops the man who had already given proof of capacity, of good life, and of practical experience in the management of the affairs of his diocese instead of narrowing the choice down to a limited class of simple monks with neither education nor practical experience of life. Nonetheless, Simaika admitted that some of the greatest patriarchs of the Church of Alexandria had come from among that very class of simple monks of the Thebaid and from all the other celebrated Coptic monasteries of Egypt. Many of them were great (p.83) men, men of genius, holy men, whose exalted mentality, mode of living, and ability were an example to the entire Christian world.

It must also be said that many poorly educated priests proved to be good men, by their mode of life and their devotion to duty, in spite of the little encouragement they got and the poor pay they received. They had proved to be worthy ministers of Christ, and it was owing to the existence of such men that the Coptic Church had retained its vitality. No priest could be ordained unless the principal members of his parish elected him, and this also applied to bishops, who could not be consecrated unless elected by the most prominent members of the diocese, both lay and clerical.

Meanwhile, the most democratic rules are followed in the matter of the choice of the clergy from all classes, and there is no doubt that these rules go back to the time of the Apostles.96

If, therefore, the appointed minister, priest, or bishop proved unfit, the fault lay in those who elected him, so it was up to these people to be careful and wise in their choice.

Unfortunately men generally give their consent carelessly, taking no trouble to find out whether the person whose candidature is submitted to them is worthy or not of this high and responsible position.97

Simaika said it was very common for kind parishioners to petition for the son of a deceased priest to be ordained, despite not having the necessary qualifications. A clerical college had been established for nearly a century, but until recently, outsiders were still preferred to its graduates, whose theological studies rendered most of them more eligible for the priesthood. In 1960, Cyril VI issued a decree that all priests must be graduates of the clerical college. (p.84)


(79) A Coptic Layman, “The Awakening of the Coptic Church,” The Contemporary Review 71 (1897): 734.

(86) Isma‘il Pasha al-Mufattish was Khedive Isma‘il’s trusted counselor until he fell out of favor. Nakhla Bey al-Barati later occupied a position on the Comité for some years while the patriarch denied the post to Simaika. Simaika also blamed him for mixing up icons during the refurbishment of the Mu‘ allaqa Church and not returning them to their correct order or location.

(89) S.H. Leeder, Modern Sons of the Pharaohs, a Study of the Manners and Customs of the Copts of Egypt (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1918; repr. New York: Hodder and Stoughton, 1973), 246. Citations refer to 1973 edition.