The Alexandria Patriarchate

Siege du Patriarcat grec Alexandrie

The sit of the Alexandria Patriarchate

Egypt received the light of the faith thanks to the missionary work of Marc the Apostle and Evangelist. He wrote his Gospel around the year 65[1], and afterwards, at the demand of the Christians newly converted by Peter the Apostle in Rome, he was sent by the latter to Egypt, to bring the Good News of salvation there too. He started his work in Alexandria, “a metropolis of paganism and of the Hellenic culture”. His words were “simple and lacked the futile embellishments of rhetoric, they reverberated like thunder and his miracles confirmed the prophecy that said: “God will give the word to the ones who announce the Good News the loudest” (Ps 67, 12). In the name of Jesus, Light of the World, he gave sight to a blind man and with his hands, cured the sick and the possessed. Upon seeing this, three hundred pagans asked to be baptized immediately.

Saint Marc

Saint Mark the Apostle and Evangelist

Just as Christ did, Mark resuscitated the son of a widow who had come to throw herself at his feet in tears. Upon seeing the young man rise, the crowd exclaimed: « There is only one God, the God Mark preaches!”

« When the evangelical seed started to yield, Marc organized the first liturgical institutions of the Church of Egypt and ordained Anien[2] as Bishop of Alexandria and also ordained three priests Milée, Sabin and Cerdon, seven deacons and eleven other clerics of inferior rank to assist him and went afterwards on his mission towards the West. From Alexandria he went to Mendession[3] where he delivered a blind child from the demon. The child’s parents, overjoyed, offered him a great sum of money but Mark refused it saying that God’s grace is not to be exchanged for money and that they should give the money as charity. Many pagans converted on seeing this miracle and Mark founded a church in this city and ordained a bishop, priests and deacons then he continued his voyage towards Cyrano of Pentapolis [4](9), where he delivered a number of pagans from the obscurity of idol worshipping. He then went on to evangelize Libya.


 Saint Mark’s Lion

Despite the tears and the supplications of the newly converted who wanted to keep their father and savior with them, the Apostle, convinced by a vision which told him that he should seal his mission with the glory of martyrdom, went back to Alexandria. Here, he admired the progress that the evangelical mission had made during his two years’ absence [5].

«However, the pagans and the Jews resented the success that Christ’s disciple had and grudgingly tried to find a way to bring about his downfall. On the year when Easter coincided with the celebration of the god Serapis, a god that the pagans of Alexandria celebrated through squalid debauchery, they seized the Saint when he was performing the Divine Liturgy and dragged him to the amphitheatre where they accused him of performing magic. The Apostle answered the hateful accusations calmly and presented in few words, as he always did, the doctrine of Salvation. Abashed and unable to counter his arguments, the governor asked the crowd what he should do with Mark. Some people cried that he should be burned in front of Serapis’s temple and others said he should be stoned to death. In the end, at the order of the magistrate he was laid down with his hands and legs spread and cruelly beaten.

« The crowd then took the Saint’s bruised body, tied a rope around his feet and dragged him all day on the streets of the town, bathing the Stones and the earth in his blood. When the night came he was taken to the prison where around midnight an Angel came to comfort him.

On the morning of Saturday April 4th [6], his persecutors tied him with a rope and dragged him, as they did the day before, to a steep place on the coast called Baucalis[7], where he died, at the age of 57.

The pagans wanted to burn his body but a great storm put them to flight and thus the Christians could take his body and lay it in a hollow rock. A church was built thereafter above the Saint Apostle’s grave at Baucalis[8]. This church later became the most important site of worship for the Christians in Alexandria. In the 9th century, Saint Mark’s body was taken to Venice, to the famous basilica that is dedicated to him.” [9]


Saint Mark’s basilica in Venice
It was built in 828, when Saint Mark’s body was transferred from Alexandria to Venice

 Liste des Evêques

The evolution of the title of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa, and of the Council of Chalcedon in the 20th century

Until the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451, the Holy Synod of the Church of Alexandria was known under the name of “Patriarchate of Alexandria”. The descriptive terms “Greek Orthodox” were added later on to distinguish the church from the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt, which was present in the same jurisdiction, but had not accepted the Chalcedonian definition of faith. Starting with the second half of the 5th century, it was necessary for the churches that accepted the Chalcedonian denomination to do so under the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria’s name.

Before the Sub-Saharan peoples discovered the tradition of the Orthodox faith in the beginning of the 20th century, and before the Sub-Saharan African churches fully integrated into the Holy Synod of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, the Patriarchate only had jurisdiction over the Northern part of the continent. In the beginning of the 20th century, all of Sub-Saharan Africa was under its canonical protection; therefore, its title had to change. Its new title was the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa.

In 451, the Council fathers established the Pentarchy, in Chalcedonia. This represented the five ecclesiastical entities that the canonical tradition gave patriarchal authority to. The Patriarchate of Alexandria is one of the five ancient patriarchates established according to the canonical order of 451. The other four were in: Rome, Constantinople, Antakya and Jerusalem. The Patriarchate of Alexandria, as the other patriarchates, remained loyal to the undivided faith of the Church, even after the Great Schism of 1054 which marked the separation between the Eastern and the Western Church.

[…]Pentarchy is a canonical system, not an institution. It is based on ecclesiastical administrative independence (autocephalous institutions) where each institution maintains its own patriarchal jurisdiction (jus patriarchati). This type of jurisdiction was created by the Church (Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451). To the pentarchy system, we add the metropolitan system (The First Council of Nicaea, in 325) and the autocephalous system (The Third Council of Ephesus, in 431). Indeed, the Christian ecumene was organised around five main centers that coincided with the major historical centers of Christianity: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antakya and Jerusalem. The Church’s authority was distributed to five patriarchates which were supposed to reflect a synodal organization. The autocephalous churches are to this day part of this organization.

This is how the Pentarchy system was created by the Church during the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 451. The canonical taxis defined the following structure: 1. Patriarchate of Rome; 2. Patriarchate of Constantinople; 3. Patriarchate of Alexandria, 4. Patriarchate of Antakya; 5. Patriarchate of Jerusalem. [10]

The jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Alexandria covered the ten provinces that make up today’s Egypt and Libya. At the time, the Patriarchate had ten metropolitan bishops and three hundred regular bishops under its jurisdiction [11].

The Patriarchate’s jurisdiction extended over all of Africa at the end of the 19th century, as a result of the immigration on the African continent of traditional orthodox communities such as Greeks, Serbs, Russians, Bulgarians and Lebanese. These communities were mostly made up of merchants and embassy personnel.

The Patriarchate of Alexandria is the only patriarchal jurisdictional institution for all of the Orthodox churches on the African continent

 Patriarches Bartholoméos de Contantinople detThéodoros d'Alexandrie

Patriarch Bartholomew 1st visiting Alexandria

Le Patriarche Théodoros II avec le Patriarche Cyrille 1er de Moscou et de toutes les Russies

Patriarchs Theodore IInd  and Kirill Ist  of Moscow and all Russia

Regardless of the jurisdiction that they belong to (be it Greek, Russian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Lebanese, American, Romanian….) all of the Orthodox followers on the African continent are under the jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa. This is in order to avoid having several canonical jurisdictions and to avoid the problems that could result from this, problems that existed for example in certain parts of Europe and of the United States. Therefore, at the beginning of the 20th century, it became necessary to add the “all Africa” terms to complete the title of the Patriarchate. This was also done in anticipation of the conversion to Orthodoxy of Africans on a large part of the continent.

The history of the Church of Egypt can be divided into five periods:

From its foundation to the first Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, in 325; from 325 to the Arab conquest of Egypt in 642; from 642 to 1517 when Egypt came under Ottoman Turk rule; from the Turkish conquest to the liberation of Greece from the Turkish yoke in 1821; and from 1821 to today. The Arab conquest of Egypt in 642 had a direct impact on the life of Christian communities. The conquest did not seriously damage the Patriarchate, but the first decade of Arab presence in Egypt did.

Christians who accepted the political authority of the ruling Muslims without converting to Islam were under the state’s protection, they were called dhimmis and had to pay the jizya to maintain their religious freedom and their legal autonomy. They had to refrain from colluding with the enemy and had to be loyal to the state that in turn protected them. The civil and religious administration of the country was punctiliously respected. The Christians maintained their legislative autonomy, including in civil matters, because they lived in a theocratic state where the laws given by God to Islam followers could not be imposed on those not of the same faith. Christians were treated as a separate nation and in fact each Christian denomination was treated as an autonomous nation, which further increased the dogmatic differences. The followers gathered around their bishops and patriarchs and thus these gained civil and religious prerogatives- they became the people’s chiefs and judges. […] Christians continued to apply among themselves the laws that they followed before they were conquered.[12]

After the first decade of occupation, from 642 to 651, the Patriarchate entered a difficult period that threatened its survival. From 651 to 727, only coadjutor bishops oversaw the patriarchal duties.

The situation in the country degraded during the Abbasid Caliphate and until the Turkish sultan Selim the 1st conquered Egypt in 1517. Several Arab and Turkish dynasties ruled Egypt since the Egyptian surrender in 642 and until the 17th century.[13]

In the 19th century, the Patriarchate went through a revival period which continued in the 20th century. A large-scale missionary activity began on the African continent in the 19th century, with the help of the Orthodox churches in Cyprus and Greece. The Patriarchate did not limit itself anymore to serving only the Greek or the European communities living in Africa, as it did until then. The Orthodox faith spread itself from Kenya, Ghana and South Africa to small expatriate communities in other countries such as Uganda, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo… In the beginning of the 20th century, The African people itself, whether Catholic, Anglican or Protestant, was looking for a Christian church which was loyal to the evangelical and apostolic tradition, to the Council fathers of the first centuries and to the undivided Church. This search came to an end at the beginning of the third millennium, when several Dioceses and Archdioceses were founded on the continent. A Theological Seminary in charge with the training of African clergy was open in Nairobi, Kenya in 1981 under the auspices of the Patriarchate. The Church is now waiting for the signs that will show that the Orthodox faith has taken root on the African continent and that the foundations laid through the evangelical work carried out by Mark the Apostle are consolidated and will promote the different cultures’ full integration into the Church of the True Faith.

[1] According to Saint Irenaeus of Lyon, Mark, Peter’s disciple and interpreter, passed the preaching of Peter on in writing (Contra haereses, Book III, chapter I, 1). The date of the Saint Apostles Peter and Paul’ martyrdom varies, according to historians. They were martyred in Rome, under Nero, between the years 65 and 68. (Saint Jerome mentions in Hommes illustres that Saint Paul was decapitated in the 14th year of Nero’s reign, which would be around 67-68.)

[2] Second bishop of Alexandria and Saint Mark’s successor, St. Anien died on the 26th November 86. He is commemorated in the Martyrology either on the 25th March or on the 2nd October.

[3]  Also known as Mendion or Bendédion. According to the Actes anciens (Ve s.), this is where he touched land near Alexandria and met Anien.

[4] Capital or Pentapolis and Cyrenaica, this great city, the administration of which was linked by the Romans to Crete, was the most important Greek colony in North Africa. It was then elevated to the status of independent province under the name Upper Libya, by St. Constantine. According to the Actes anciens, Mark first evangelized Cyrene and then Alexandria.

[5] Some say that he retired for some time then to assist to Saints Peter and Paul’s martyrdom in Rome.

[6] His commemoration day was later moved to the 25th, so that it is always after Easter.

[7] Where the Christians used to hold their prayer meetings, according to the Actes anciens.

[8]  This is where St. Peter of Alexandria was martyred. Before he was executed he asked permission to pray on the Apostle’s grave (cf. 24 nov.).

[9]Le Synaxaire, Vie des Saints de l’Eglise Orthodoxe, Fourth Volume, April (16 to 30)- May-June, Hiéromoine Macaire de Simonos-Petras, Editions  To Perivoli Tis Panaghias, Thessalonique 1993.

[10] Archimandrite Grigorios Papathomas, Modalités canoniques d’exercices de la Juridiction du Patriarcat Œcuménique de Constantinople, in « Témoignage et Pensée Orthodoxes » N°11-12, 4th trimester 1999.

[11] Ignace Dick, Organisation hiérarchique ancienne, Les Melkites, Coll. Fils d’Abraham, Ed. Brepols, 1996

[12] Ibid, Ignace DickLes Melkites

[13] The Turkish sultan Ahmand Ibn Tulun proclaimed himself ruler of the country in 868 and started the Tulunides dynasty. His son succeeded him a few years later. He was chased away in 905 by an Arab army belonging to the Abbasids. In 935, the Ikhshidid Turks took over the country and in 969 they were replaced by the Fatmid Ismaelite Shiites. They founded Cairo (al-Qahira, “The Conqueror“. In 1168, Saladin, a Sunnite, became the vizier of Egypt. For more than a century, Egypt was under his dynasty’s control, the Ayyubides. They are replaced by the Mamluks who took over the country in 1250. They are organized as a military oligarchy made up of former slaves who served in the Ayyubid sultans’ armies. Egypt remains under their rule until Selim the 1st’s victory against the Mamluk army in Alep in 1516 and in Cairo one year later. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate received a ratification of all of its patriarchal privileges and the guarantee that it could carry out its patriarchal duties undisturbed.