The Political History of the Butrusiyya Church

On Sunday, December 11, 2016, a bomb attack near the Coptic Patriarchal Cathedral of Saint Mark in the Abbasiyya district of Cairo led to the killing of at least 25 people, mostly women and children, during Sunday mass.

The attack occurred in the Romanesque-style Coptic Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, also known as the Butrusiyya Church (or El-Botroseya) and sometimes as the Petrine Church, thus striking “at the heart of Coptic Christianity, occurring adjacent to the Patriarchal Se[at] of Pope Tawadros II” (MEI Editor’s blog).


The Butrusiyya Church in 2010 (Source: Wikipedia)

As the Middle East Institute Editor’s blog also notes,

a particularly political connection of the site of the bombing has largely been missed. . . . The Church of St. Peter and St. Paul . . . sits in the shadow of the Pa[t]riarchal Cathedral of Saint Mark, but it is a separate building that predates the Cathedral by several decades. The Butrusiyya was built in 1911, while the Cathedral was completed in 1968. The area around the cathedral is the site of numerous churches, some, like Anba Ruis nearby, dating from the 1400s. The land [which was used for centuries as a cemetery for Copts] was given to the Church in Fatimid times. The Butrus[i]yya was built by the family of Prime Minister Boutros Ghali, who was assassinated in 1910. . . . Ghali, 1846-1910, was a rarity as a Copt who became Egypt’s Prime Minister, 1908-1910. His role in the [1906] Denshawai trials led to his being viewed as a tool of the British; his Christianity also worked against him. (He was also the grandfather of the late UN Secr[e]tary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.) The Butrus[i]yya Church contains the grave of the original Prime Minister Boutros Ghali. So there are whole layers of potential political and sectarian symbolism.

Indeed, the Butrusiyya Church was built in 1911 over Ghali’s tomb, and it contains several family tombs, including the tomb of Ghali’s grandson Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who was the sixth secretary-general of the United Nations and Egypt’s former minister of foreign affairs and who was also buried in the crypt beneath the altar (al-Masry al-Youm).

It was designed by the renowned Antonio Lasciac, an Italian architect and engineer of Slovene descent, who became the chief architect of Khedive Ismail, designing the Tahra Palace and Kamal al-Din’s Palace in Cairo. It also holds numerous mosaics and paintings, including “the mosaic of the baptism, which represents Jesus Christ and John the Baptist in the Jordan River” and paintings all over its ceiling which narrate stories from the lives of Jesus and several saints (al-Masry al-Youm).


Photograph by Sherif Sonbol. Source: al-Ahram Weekly.

Although it was originally named the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, it became commonly known as the Butrusiyya Church, making it “the first church to be named after a political family” (al-Masry al-Youm).


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