A Brief History of the Patriarchal See of Alexandria

by Fr. Peter Boutros

Reprinted from Sophia, Volume 31, Number 1, Jan. – Feb. 2001

About 9,000 people living in Egypt, Sudan, and Libya (a few) make up the Melkite see of Alexandria under the authority of His Beatitude Patriarch Gregory III Laham and his Vicar Archbishop Paul Antaki. This is about 1/150 of the million and one half Melkites around the world today and a very small fraction of the Egyptian population. Although very small, the Melkite Catholic Church is a well-known community in Egypt.

It all started in 1724, when the first Syrian and Palestinian immigrants went to Egypt to escape the persecution inflicted on them by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Sylvester. In the seventeenth century the number of immigrants, reaching the friendly shores of Egypt, grew tremendously, and in 1838, Pope Gregory XVI gave Patriarch Maximos III Mazloom the title of “Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, of Alexandria and of Jerusalem”.

These immigrants were faced with either persecution or latinization to survive in their original countries. Their refusal to accept either of the choices offered to them is an indication of their strong belief, courage, and tenacity. Many families settled in the port of Damietta, Egypt’s main port at that time, and brought with them their trades and their artistic abilities. Some of the most noticeable trades were: merchants, goldsmiths, diamond-cutters, and tailors. Once settled, their friends and relatives joined them and in the following years many additional families followed their example. From that point on the Greek-Melkite Catholic Church started to expand and prosper in Egypt.

They spread out to most of the large cities of Egypt and became known for their exceptional meticulousness in handling commercial projects. Some of them were entrusted with high positions like the management of the Port Authorities which stayed with the Melkites for about half a century.

They were known as the Damascene Traders, “El Touj jar El Shawam,” because most or at least a large number of them came from Damascus-Syria, “El Sham”. Some of the priests who came with the immigrants to Egypt are: from Damascus Father Fadl-Allah Fadil, Father Elias Faraoun, Father Ibrahim Faraoun, and Father Jacob Kassab, and from Aleppo Father John Constantine.

Since 1750, the Melkites living in Cairo and their clergy used the Franciscan church to meet and pray. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchs Samuel Kabasilas (1724), Cosma 11(1724-1737), and Cosma III (1737-1746), welcomed the Melkites and helped them. When Patriarch Matta (1746—1766) headed the Greek Orthodox Church, he incited the Mameluks, the rulers of Egypt, to arrest many of the Melkites. Those who where arrested had to pay an exorbitant amount of money — 225,000 gold franks – to gain their freedom.

Given that their practices and their traditions where closer to those of the Greek Orthodox Church than to the Latin Church, this was a real blow to the Melkites. Moreover, the priests who came with them were getting old and dying.

At the suggestion of the Franciscan Fathers, the Melkites asked their Patriarch Cyril VI Tanas, to send them some priests. Since he was residing at the monastery of The Holy Savior, he sent them Salvatorian Missionaries to serve them. The Melkite families took turn to care and house the missionaries until Patriarch Maximos III Mazloum stopped this practice, in 1837. It was called “Eldour” , meaning cycle or turn. The priest resided with a different family each day of the week. Since 1772, the Melkite Church in Egypt had its own hierarchy separately from the Franciscan Fathers covering Cairo, Damietta, Alexandria, and the other cities.

During the French campaign in Egypt (1798), France made use of the Salvatorian Melkite Priests, for their language and translation capabilities. Some of the outstanding names are:

  • Father Raphael (Antoine Zakhoura Rahbeh) was born, in Egypt, to a Syrian family. He studied in Egypt and finished his theological studies in Rome. He was the only person from the Middle East to become member of the French Educational Council in Egypt. He managed the instant translation in many of the official meetings. Then he became the lead-translator and translated the documents for the French scientists to produce the “Description of Egypt”. He traveled to France after the campaign and taught at the Middle Eastern Languages Institute in Paris. He returned to Egypt and by his translating ability became the most significant link between the French Campaign and the builder of the modern Egypt, Mohamed All. He was one of the founders of the “Publisher of Boulak”. The first book published was his translation of “The Prince,” “El-Amir,” and then his Italian-Arabic Dictionary.
  • Father Gabriel El-Tawil participated in the translation of the laws and the publications as well as the instant translation at the meetings of the Egyptian Council. He also traveled to France and taught with Father Raphael at the Middle Eastern Languages Institute in Paris.
  • Many more Melkites can be enumerated for their participation in the growth and development of modern Egypt. Names like Elias Fakhr from Damietta; Goubran Sakrouj; Aboud and Michael Nicholas Sabbagh; Elya Fath-Allah who was a translator and the administrator of the Arabic division of the French Campaign; and Elias Hanania Faraoun the personal translator to Napoleon Bonaparte and Jean-Baptiste Kleber.
  • In 1831, Ibrahim Pacha, the son of the Vice-King of Egypt Mohamed All, invaded Syria. Ibrahim’s team included some prominent Melkites. Among them is Hanna Bahri, who by his closeness and friendship with Patriarch Maximos III Mazloom, helped to establish the spirit of freedom of religion.

The growth of the Melkite Church in Egypt produced some of the leaders of the Egyptian society in newspaper journalism, poetry, movies, and music:

  • Philip Takla (1849-1892) and Bishara Takla (1852-1901), the founders of “El-Ahram” the first and to this date a major newspaper.
  • George (Gorgy) Zedan (1861-1906) who founded “Dar El-Helal”.
  • The poets Adel El-Ghadban (1892-1972) and Khalil Moutran.
  • The famous journalist Khalil Sabat.
  • The movie producers Fatouh Nashaty, Yousef Maalouf, and the famous Henry Barakat (1914-1977), who left an awesome mark on the movie industry.
  • We find in the movie industry, Yousef Shaheen, Simone Saleh, and the movie industry historian, Farid El-Mazawi (1913-1988), and the movie critic, Marie Ghadban.
  • In the music industry we find, Fouad El-Zahery (1916-1988), and Angele Ratl, teacher at the Conservatory.
  • In the financial field, the name like Habib El-Sakakiny (Pacha) will never be forgotten. An entire city within the city of Daher was named after him as well as “Hakr El-Sakakiny” in Sharabieh. Another unforgettable name is “Sednawi”. Selim and Semaan Sednawi started with their first store in Cairo in 1896, to see it mushroom and booming to this date, unfortunately, under a different name.

People like Bahiya Karam, the first Egyptian to be the school inspector for the English language and Naoum Shabib (1918-1985) the engineer who designed the Tower of Cairo and “El-Ahram” building are a small testimony of what the Melkites are for Egypt.

The Melkite Egyptian Clergy especially the so-called “The Cairo School”, which included His Beatitude Patriarch Emeritus Maximos V Hakim (born in Tanta, Egypt), the late Archbishop Joseph Tawil, Archbishop Elias Zoghby, I the late Archimandrite Orestes Karame, and Father Michel Geday, fought hard to recover the Melkite identity and oppose the rampant latinization process that started after the First Vatican Council in the 1870’s. Moreover, their work became the background for the work done by the late Patriarch Maximos IV Sayegh during the Second Vatican Council.

The lack of immigration to Egypt, after the Suez war in 1956, redirected many Melkites to America, Australia, and Europe. This phenomenon coupled with the instability of the Middle East, as a whole, reduced the size of the Melkite Church in Egypt, Sudan, and Libya from approximately 35,000 in 1938 to about 9,000 in the last five years.

( Fr. Peter Boutros writes from Tampa, FL.)