November 1971 Cairo, Egypt
I’d only been in Egypt a little over three months when I saw that the new Patriarch of Alexandria was going to be consecrated head of the Coptic Church, 117th successor to St Mark, gospel writer and head of the Christian Church in first century Egypt.
So, of course I planned to go.
Since I was so new to Egypt I asked some of my students (as a Teaching Fellow, I taught English Language classes in the university) and other colleagues who put me in touch with the offices of the Coptic church in Cairo. I went along to their offices, passport and Harvard Divinity School ID in hand, to request a ticket for the event. It took a bit of persuading but the Harvard Divinity School (HDS) ID did the job and I received a ticket for the installation of Pope Shenouda III, the 117th Patriarch of Alexandria and all Africa and Pope of the Coptic Church, in succession from Saint Mark who was said to have created the Egyptian church in 55 AD. I’m afraid I might have stretched things a bit when I said I was representing Harvard University’s Divinity School at the event, but so far as I knew I was the only person present from HDS
The service began at mid-morning November 14, 1971 at the brand new Cathedral of Saint Mark in the Abassiya district of Cairo. Two years earlier I had been travelling amongst the Orthodox Christian monasteries of Athos Greece and had sat through several services, usually involving lots of chanting and incense. So I felt fairly confident of what to expect.
Unfortunately I hadn’t done any research on what to expect at a papal enthronement but I should have had a bigger breakfast and definitely should have brought some water with me. I walked from the Ramses Train Station up to the cathedral, through the masses of people around the cathedral and found my way inside the gates. The place was mobbed. But being an obvious foreigner made such things easier and I smiled a lot.
Inside I showed my invitation and was escorted rhrough the crowds to a seat inside the cathedral, well to the front. Obviously flouting Harvard Divinity School brought one some perks! As with most public events, this one did not start on time and it wasn’t until after noon that the service got underway. It turned out that we had been waiting for the prime minister of Egypt, Mahmoud Fawzi and his entourage to arrive. They finally arrived and took seats directly in front of me. In fact, my students at the American University in Cairo saw me on the evening news seated obliquely behind the prime minister’s right shoulder.
Once the service began, large groups of Coptic church dignitaries proceeded down the main aisle, just to my right, and up into the chancel of the cathedral. The procession was accompanied by loud chanting in Coptic, derived from the language of the ancient Egyptians. And there was lots and lots and lots of incense. Like many orthodox services it was almost hallucinatory with the mix of rhythmic sounds and the clouds of incense.
Finally His Holiness Shenouda the Third came down the aisle and went up into the chancel. I had no idea what was happening since I spoke not a word of Coptic but one of my seat mates very kindly gave me ongoing summaries of the proceedings. However, after four hours of the celebration my bladder and stomach were both complaining. My body wanted food and drink.
Unfortunately, a papal enthronement is not something you can just get up and leave when you want to do so. Apart from the fact that the thousands of other spectators would have wondered who I was to walk out on His Holiness, it was a long hot (it is still in the 80s in Cairo in mid-November) and smoky walk back up the aisle to the exit.
I have to admit it was fascinating. And I do love incense. Copts use the same flavors of incense that mosques use so these odors had become familiar to me. Of course I was secrety impressed with myself, never having attended a papal enthronement before.
To my great good luck, His Excellency the Prime Minister of Egypt, after those four hours, had also had enough and decided to leave. At a low point in the service, the entire prime ministerial entourage rose and headed off to the side to one of the side exits. It was a crowd of police and government staff, and one lone American who had also risen and tagged along at the back of the Prime Minister’s crowd.
Today you would never be able to do that but in 1971 it was still possible. I explained to a couple of the Egyptians ahead of me that I was tired and needed to go. They agreed and told me how wonderful it was that I had attended.
So, finally, I was free and headed for the first men’s room I could find and then to a street vendor to get a cola and something to eat. I got home in time for one of Hussein’s hot meals and a cool evening on the balcony of may apartment overlooking the jacaranda tree and the yard of the girls school below.