Pilgrimage to the Patriarchate of Alexandria


By Bishop John of Amorion

Since my seminary years (1951-1957) at the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Theological School in Brookline, Mass., I have entertained a special interest for the Patriarchate of Alexandria due to its historic, theological, and monastic significance during early Christian times. Alexandria, with its superb harbor and famous lighthouse “Pharos” and a population of 1,000,000 was the most important city in the East when the Christian Church was founded there by St. Mark the Evangelist in the first century A.D. it enjoyed great religious fame due primarily to its famous Catechetical School where distinguished theologians as St. Clement (189-202), Origen (202-232), St. Athanasios (328-373) and St. Cyril (412-444) taught there. This Catechetical School (which later became the first Christian university) was founded about 180 A.D., and one of its directors was Pantainos (212 A.D.), who as a Stoic philosopher before becoming a Christian, and later traveled to India to preach the Christian Gospel. Secondly, Christian monasticism had its beginnings in Egypt with St. Anthony as its founder and St. Pachomios (292-346) as the first organizer of the monastic life. Thirdly, Alexandria was famous for its outstanding library with hundreds of thousands of books and was the center of intellectual learning and scientific pursuits, so much so, that the date of Easter was announced by the Patriarch of Alexandria, according to the Easter Canon of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.).

Furthermore, according to Canon VI of the First Ecumenical Council the Patriarch of Alexandria was officially recognized as “the Pope of Alexandria and Ecumenical Judge with jurisdiction over Egypt, Libya and Pentapolis.” Of course, since then his jurisdiction has extended to include all of Africa. Dean Arthur P. Stanley of Westminster (1864-1881), in his “Lectures on the History of the eastern Church,” states that “ the Pope of Rome was a phrase which has not yet emerged in history ….. The name was fixed to the Bishop of Rome in the 7th century.”

Before the rise of Constantinople, no one disputed the predominant position in the East of the Pope of Alexandria. For decades, Alexandria was the champion of the Orthodox faith against heresy. However, Alexandria lost its influence and importance at the Byzantine Court, when the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II took up residence in Constantinople. Then, too, as a result of the many Christians in Egypt and Syria embracing the Monophysite heresy and their refusal to accept the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451), they broke away from the unity of Christendom and became the Coptic Church of Egypt and the Jacobite Church in Syria. As Timothy Ware observes in his book “The Orthodox Church” “Chalcedon was more than a defeat for Alexandrian theology; it was a defeat for Alexandrian claims to rule supreme in the East. Canon XXVIII of the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon confirmed Canon III of the Second Ecumenical Council (381), assigning to New Rome (Constantinople) the place next in honor after Old Rome.” The final blow to Alexandria was when it fell, along with all of Egypt, to the Arabs (638 A.D.). Today, the Alexandrian Patriarchate is partly Greek, partly Arab and mostly African.

So it is on Wednesday, May 23rd, I flew TWA from New York to Egypt. When I arrived at the Cairo airport, on May 24th, 2001 (in the midst of a 100 degree heat wave), the afternoon of Ascension Day, I was met by Archimandrite George El Samaa and Archimandrite Emmanuel Kiagias from the Patriarchal Offices in Cairo, on behalf of His Beatitude Patriarch Petros who was on an official visit to the Orthodox Church of Greece. Whereupon, I was warmly welcomed and driven in a patriarchal vehicle to the Patriarchal Offices in Cairo, in the center of the city, at the end of a narrow street, leading to tall metal and wooden gates. Once inside the walled facility, we entered the large courtyard, encompassing the three-storied Patriarchal mansion (where St. Nectarios served as Patriarchal Vicar under Patriarch Sophronios of Alexandria) and the St. Nicholas Cathedral, built in the 11th century.

Promptly, I was led to the office of the new Bishop Alexios of Nitria, Patriarchal Vicar in Cairo, an energetic and kind hierarch from Greece, who extended a very cordial welcome. Being that he was to depart for Greece the next day, he was most anxious to make all the necessary arrangements for my week’s stay in Egypt. The bishop designated Fr. Emmanuel to serve as my guide so as to visit the major Greek Orthodox Churches in Cairo and the Cairo Museum the following day. Likewise, he arranged for my personal pilgrimage to St. Katherine’s Greek Orthodox Monastery at Mt. Sinai, and to be driven by a commercial vehicle for the 6-hour desert journey on Saturday, May 26th, followed by a train trip on Monday, May 28th, for a private audience with H.B. Patriarch Petros of Alexandria who was scheduled to have returned from Greece.

After which, we all relaxed to a fine dinner at the facility’s dinning room with Fr. El Samaa who speaks and writes four languages and is the official translator of the Patriarchate and Fr. Kiagias who serves as the Priest-in-Charge of the St. Nicholas Cathedral there. Arrangements had been made for my stay at the Nile Hilton Hotel with a room overlooking the Nile River and facing the tallest building in all of the Arab East, that being, the Cairo Tower.                        

Being that the Cairo Museum was located nearby, we began our tour there on Friday morning, May 25th. I was most impressed with the exquisite collections of Pharaonic antiquities, including the King Tutankhamen treasures. We then visited the St. Constantine & Helen Church, a truly beautiful edifice with an impressive separate belfry. This church, built in the 17th century is very large, with the pulpit situated above the Royal Gate of the Iconostation. Afterwards, we visited St. Mary’s Church, which is situated in a great location, surrounded by beautiful gardens. It is said that the Virgin Mary, the Christ Child and Joseph rested there during their flight to Egypt. Fr. El Samaa is the Priest-in-Charge here with Fr. George Athanasiou from Cyprus as Assistant. Across the way, to the left, is the parish Parochial School with an enrollment of 100 pupils. The was school closed, for it was Friday, the Moslem Sabbath day, which begins from sunrise to sundown.

At this point, we were driven to Old Cairo where the famous St. George Greek Orthodox Monastery, a massive church complex with many buildings is located. The new Bishop Theofylaktos of Babylon is the Presiding Hierarch here, assisted by Archimandrite Parthenios (an African) and Archimandrite David (from Greece). Bishop Theofylaktos is a dynamic and engaging hierarch who in a matter of a year or so has accomplished many renovating projects at the monastery. His enthusiastic welcome was most heartwarming. Prior to being a priest in Libya, he had been a monk for many years at the Vatopedi Monastery at Mt. Athos in Greece. Since lunch was not to be served until 2 pm, Fr. Emmanuel gave me a tour of some of the many facilities at the St. George Monastery. We began with the St. George Church. I was especially keen in visiting this church, because as I had written in my publication “Patriarch Meletios Metaxakis – A true Visionary “ was buried here.

However, I did not expect to have to walk up some 50 steps to gain entrance to this huge, rotunda church. For the first time in my life, I saw 2 pulpits located high above the Iconostation with entry being made from inside the Bema (Altar area). Then, too, as most churches in Egypt, there was a Koubouklion over the Altar Table. This church possesses relics of St. George the Great Martyr. Thus, many pilgrims and worshippers are constantly in and out this edifice. Then, we visited the Burial Chapel of the Patriarchs. I had expected an exterior Patriarchal cemetery. However, under the St. George Church, in a massive crypt-like setting, there were some 10 chapels. This area, today, is not open to the public, because of the extensive water leakage along the walls, for which extensive repairs have to be made, and Patriarch Petros is still seeking for a major benefactor to underwrite the construction costs. The crypt of this church could easily become a popular attraction for pilgrims with its various chapels and especially with the Chapel of the Patriarchs. As one enters this chapel, a large, marble sarcophagus comes into view, with a photo of the late Patriarch Parthenios who is entombed there. To the left there is a huge glass case with wooden panels, in which there are the marble, small coffins of each of the former, late patriarchs, upon which is engraved their names and the date of their death.

At this point, we rejoined Bishop Theofylaktos for lunch at the bishop’s dinning room. Our gracious and most hospitable host made it an enjoyable and relaxing experience. After which, Fr. Emmanuel and I continued our tour of some of the remaining facilities of St. George’ Monastery, including the convent which was closed due to the afternoon hour, as well as, the new museum donated by one of Greece’s leading newspaper publishers. The Orthodox cemetery, at the far end, with its many artistic monuments, was most interesting. We also visited a couple of Coptic Churches, which were also being renovated. Pope Shenouda of the Coptic Church was visiting Lebanon, so I decided not to visit the Coptic Headquarters.

On Saturday morning, May 26th, I was driven through the desert country of Egypt to St. Katherine’s Greek Orthodox Monastery at Mt. Sinai. (That will be a separate article). Upon returning to Cairo on Monday morning, May 28th, after the 6-hour desert journey, I took the 2-hour express train to Alexandria, where I was met by Archimandrite Joachim Koutokos, Chief Secretary of the Holy Synod, on behalf of Patriarch Petros. The Patriarchal Headquarters are located in the heart of Alexandria, just a few blocks from the Mediterranean Sea. Thus, my hotel accommodations were nearby. After an early dinner, I settled for the evening, for I had been traveling all day, beginning at 5 am, from St. Katherine’s Monastery.

On Tuesday morning, May 29th, Archimandrite Demetrios Zaharengas, Patriarchal Public Relations Director, who had recently served the Metropolis of Hong Kong in India, arrived and we were driven to the impressive St. Savvas Monastery, where the Patriarchal Offices are temporarily housed while the Patriarchal Headquarters are being rebuilt, except for the four walls, with the financial assistance of Greece. Since being elected and enthroned four years ago last February, Patriarch Petros of Alexandria has begun an extensive restoration and renovation program of patriarchal edifices and churches. Likewise, the Patriarch has restructured the Alexandrian Patriarchate, created new Dioceses, recruited new, young clergymen from abroad, some of whom he has ordained as Bishops, fostered greater missionary efforts among the Africans whom he has visited throughout Africa, cultivated greater Orthodox cooperation and promoted ecumenical dialogue. So much so, that it can be said without exaggeration that Patriarch Petros has brought about “the renaissance of the Alexandrian Patriarchate.” Upon my arrival at St. Savvas Monastery, I was introduced to the new Bishop George of Neiloupolis, Patriarchal Vicar in Alexandria, a kind, humble and efficient hierarch. At the appointed time, I was ushered into the Patriarch’s Office, where I was welcomed warmly by the spiritual and energetic, humble Pope and Patriarch Petros VII of Alexandria and All Africa. His Beatitude quickly set me at ease and inquired about my pilgrimage, as we sat opposite each other, sipping Greek coffee, in the sitting area of his office. It became obvious to me that this charismatic and erudite Patriarch was very focused in renewing the Alexandrian Patriarchate and enhancing its role with the Africans who comprise the majority of Orthodox Christians on the African continent. Patriarch Petros was especially appreciative for the missionary programs and financial assistance of the Orthodox Church of Greece, Orthodox Church of Cyprus, Orthodox Church of Finland and the Orthodox Christian Mission Center in the U.S.A., etc., for ministering to the Orthodox Africans. As a matter of fact, during the past year, Patriarch Petros has visited all the Metropolinates and Dioceses of Africa, including the St. George Church in Cape Town, South Africa, upon its 100th Anniversary of the establishment of the Greek Community there. By the way, the Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria, from centuries ago, wears a distinctive mitre, which is cone-shaped and different from all other Orthodox bishop’s mitres which owe their origen the Byzantine Emperor’s crown. Also, as Ecumenical Judge (Canon VI, First Ecumenical Council – 325), the Patriarch of Alexandria wears a second epitrahilion (stole) over his sakkos.

Patriarch Petros was born in Keryneia, Cyprus on September 3, 1949. In 1962, he entered as a novice the Monastery of Maharia in Cyprus, and is a graduate of the Apostle Barnabas Seminary (Cyprus) and the Divinity School, University of Athens (Greece). He was ordained a Deacon in 1969 by the then Bishop Chrysostom of Constantias (now Archbishop of Cyprus), and transferred to the Patriarchate of Alexandria in 1970. Upon being ordained a priest in 1978, he was assigned as Priest-in-Charge of the Theotokos Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. Later, the Holy Synod of Alexandria elected him Bishop of Babylon in 1983 and was thereupon appointed Patriarchal Vicar in Cairo. In 1990, he was elected Metropolitan of Cameron and finally on February 21, 1997, he was elected the 114th pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa. Patriarch Petros speaks and writes Greek, Arabic, French and English.

The Patriarchate of Alexandria is governed by a Holy Synod, consisting of 15 Metropolitans, presided by the Patriarch of Alexandria. The Patriarchate is composed of some 15 Metropolinates and 5 Dioceses throughout Africa, along with 5 Auxiliary Bishops and 5 retired Bishops. Likewise, the Patriarchate maintains 5 monasteries, 4 Metochia (2 in Greece and 2 in Russia), with 16 Churches and 16 priests in Alexandria and 16 Churches and 16 priests in Cairo. The clergy in these 2 cities are mostly Greek and Arab. In the African parishes and missions (some 500) of the Alexandrian Patriarchate there are some 500 clergymen, mostly trained and educated at the Archbishop Makarios Seminary in Nairobi, Kenya with Patriarch Petros as President. The two Patriarchal publications are “Pantainos” and “Ecclesiastical Pharos.” Finally, there is a hospital, nursing home, orphanage and parochial school in Cairo, Alexandria, as well as, those maintained by the different Metropolis. The address of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch ate of Alexandria is P.O. Box 2006, Alexandria, Egypt.

At the conclusion of my most inspiring and informative audience with Patriarch Petros, he invited me to join him and his executive staff for lunch at the Patriarchal dinning room. In the meantime, Fr. Demetrios had arranged for me to visit some of the Greek Orthodox churches in the area. The first was the St. Savva Church of the Monastery, which turned out to be quite a large edifice that possesses the relics of its Patron Saint. In this church, there is also of special significance a large, marble column, to the left of the Iconotation, upon which St. Katherine was beheaded. Thereafter, we visited the Annunciation Church, where Fr. Demetrios is the Priest-in-Charge. This massive, large church is the largest Orthodox Church in the Balkans and Mediterranean. So much so, that it is referred to as “the diamond of the Orthodox Church.” Its Bema (Altar area) is so large, that an entire church could fit in it. After touring the waterfront of the Mediterranean Sea, we returned to St. Savvas Monastery for lunch, at which His Beatitude presented me with an exquisite icon of St. Mark the Evangelist, mounted on a dark wooden panel, with a silver border of pheasants and grapevines, below which there was a silver plaque with the inscription and blessing of Patriarch Petros. Needless to say, I thanked His beatitude profusely for this unexpected presentation and for his most gracious hospitality during my pilgrimage to the Patriarchate of Alexandria, which, God willing, will not be my last. Receiving the Patriarch’s farewell blessing and embrace, I was taken to the Alexandria train station for my 2-hour train trip to Cairo. The next day, prior to my flight to Constantinople to attend the ordination and consecration of the new Metropolitan Tarasios of Buenos Aires at the St. George Patriarchal Cathedral and my much anticipated trip to the partially excavated Amorion Church (100 miles southwest of Ankara in the middle of Turkey) whose Diocese title I bear, I made a 2-hour visit to the Pyramids and Sphinx of the Ancient Egypt located 9 miles west of Cairo in the barren desert countryside. I entered the Great Pyramid, built by King Cheops, about 2690 B.C.  The purpose of a Pyramid was to serve as a sepulcher for the Pharaoh, thereby preserving his body since the Ancient Egyptians believed in the resurrection and immortality. I thought that I would enter a flat surface, however, this was not the case. One had to walk down a wooden plank some 100 steps. If you suffer from claustrophobia, you should not attempt it. My only disappointment was that there were no inscriptions or engravings on the walls and all the furnishings have been transferred to the Cairo Museum.

So it is, that my trip to Egypt came to an end. Egypt which for four centuries B.C. enjoyed unequal prosperity, only to be conquered by the Persians in 525 B.C. It once again enjoyed prominence in 332 B.C. when Alexander the Great captured Egypt and it became a Greek Province, followed by the Roman Period and eventually part of the Byzantine Empire in 395 A.D.  In 641 A.D., the Byzantines in Egypt were defeated by the Arab Moslem armies and its capital was transferred from Alexandria to Cairo. A short-lived royal dynasty ended in 1954 when Egypt was proclaimed a Republic and Abdel-Nassa became its first president (under whom the Christians suffered greatly, especially the Greek Orthodox who were forced to flee Egypt and leave their properties, etc. which were confiscated by the government). In 1970, Nassa was succeeded by Mohamed Anwar El Sadat who was assassinated and its current President Hosni Moubarak was elected. Such is the story of the Patriarchate of Alexandria in the land of the ancient Pharaohs.