COPTIC CHURCHES IN THE HOLY LAND
There are five Coptic churches in the Holy Land in addition to the churches in Jerusalem.
The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem
This is one of the oldest Christian churches in the Holy Land, built by Constantine the Great in A.D. 326. A pilgrim from Bordeaux writing in 333 said that the tomb of Rachel is two kilometers from Bethlehem, where Christ was born and where a church was built at the orders of Constantine (Crowfoot, 1971, pp. 11, 17, 22, 30; Stewart, 1887, p. 27). The church was rebuilt by Justinian in 529 after the revolt of the Samaritans. It survived the Persian invasion of 614 and avoided the destruction that befell other churches in the reign of al-Hakim. When the Crusaders seized the Holy Land in 1099, they found the church intact.
An anonymous pilgrim writing in the twelfth century said, “At Bethlehem there is a church built with pillars of marble, wherein is the place where Christ was born. Not far from hence, on the right hand, is the Lord’s manger” (Stewart, 1894, pp. 4-5). In 1167 the church was renovated, and many other renovations have taken place since.
The entrance to the church is through a small door in the courtyard of the manger in front of the church. This door leads to the church’s gallery, from where another door leads to the church itself. In the body of the church are forty-four columns. Portions of the early mosaic floor have been found. Beyond the columns the building is divided into three. The middle section, higher than the other two, is Catholic, and this is where the Greek Orthodox pray. The Armenians, the Copts, and the Syrians hold their prayers at altars in the section on the left.
T. Richmond, writing about the Nativity Church, commented that pilgrims to the Nativity Church continued to come in the fourteenth century, particularly during Christmas (Harvey, 1935, pp. 11-12). Writing in August 1335, Jacques de Verone participated in the feast held in memory of the Virgin’s visit to the cave three days before her ascent to heaven. He describes the event thus: “In the morning each sect went to the altar specified for them. The main altar in the upper church was for the Romans, while the Franks had the altar in the vault near the manger. To the left of the church [in the northern wing] are three altars and a water reservoir. On each of these altars the Indians, Nubians and Nestorians hold their mass. In the south aisle is an altar where twenty-four children killed by Herod are buried (Mt. 16:2). At this altar the Jacobites [Copts] hold their mass.”
Morisini in 1514 reported that the Armenians held their mass at the altar of the Three Magi, while the Jacobites held their mass at a nearby altar (Cerulli, 1943, p. 374).
The Copts go to the Church of the Nativity in a formal procession in June of every year. They visit the Cave of the Nativity and return in procession. Later they hold the evening prayers. On the feast of Baramun they celebrate mass at the altar of the three Magi, then go out to receive the procession of the archbishop of the see of Jerusalem, which arrives at Bethlehem in January. The archbishop then visits the manger and at sunset prayer, the Copts descend to the Cave of the Nativity, where they pray before returning to resume the sunset prayers. On Christmas Eve they celebrate mass in the same place and then return in formal procession to the patriarchate in Jerusalem.
Anba Yacobos, archbishop of the see of Jerusalem from 1946 to 1956, bought four houses facing the Church of the Nativity where he planned to build a Coptic church and monastery, but he died before accomplishing this task. Archbishop Basilios turned one of the houses into a monastery and established a small church dedicated to the Holy Virgin, where prayers are held every Sunday. Some Coptic monks now live permanently in the monastery.
Saint Andrew’s Church in Jericho
In the days of Anba Timotheos, archbishop of the see of Jerusalem from 1899 to 1925, a church and monastery were built in Jericho for Coptic pilgrims on their way to the Jordan. The church was inaugurated in 1924, and the patriarchate in Jerusalem sent some of its monks to live at the monastery. The patriarchate looked for more property, and in 1935 a piece of land was purchased in the place that was believed to be the site of the house of Zacchaeus, in which he received Jesus (Lk. 19:2). When the place was cleared, the remains of a Byzantine church of Saint Andrew were discovered.
The Church of Saint Andrew lies in the southwest of Jericho, on the north bank of al-Qalt valley. On arriving at Jericho from Jerusalem, one reaches the remains of the church by walking along the first street to the west after crossing the bridge of the Al-Qalt valley. At the southern end of the street, there is a small monastery of five rooms set in the middle of an orchard, where usually one or more Coptic monks live. Among the Roman monuments, there is a pool that was apparently once used for fishing. There is also a water reservoir and two others to the west.
Saint Andrew’s Church was built sometime between the fourth and sixth centuries, like all the Byzantine churches in the area. The antiquity of this church is proved by the mosaic that covers its floor, this being of the black and white unrefined kind used in the first centuries of Christianity. The church was damaged by the Persians in 614. It seems that it was one of the first churches reached by pilgrims, monks, and hermits who spread into the al-Qalt valley at this time. Today there are still monasteries and hermit caves in the area.
Mosaic covers the floors of the building that was constructed over the ruins of Saint Andrew’s Church. It seems that Saint Andrew’s Church was built over a cemetery, for many ancient tombs can be seen in the vicinity.
The mosaic contains two Greek inscriptions. The first consists of six lines, while the second contains ten lines. The first reads: “Magnianos the soldier thanks Saint Andrew. The mosaic is made with the help of the priest Heraclios and Constantinos the deacon and Polikhronios.”
Polikhronios is probably the name of the artist who made the mosaic. Presumably, Magnianos caused the church to be built after his prayers had been answered by Saint Andrew.
The second inscription is on a tombstone and reads, “Here rests the blessed Triphon, the servant of Jesus, who died on 20 February, on the fifth day of the tenth decade.” The date given would be Thursday, 20 February 592.
There are some Roman, Byzantine, and Arabic antiquities from the church preserved in one of the rooms of the monastery. These include columns, capitals, and some old jars.
Prayers are now conducted over a mobile altar, which is put in one of the rooms before prayers. In view of the religious and archaeological importance of the church, the patriarch of the see of Jerusalem and the Near East decided to establish a large church on the top floor of the same building dedicated to Saint Andrew, and to maintain and preserve the mosaics in the floor of the original church.
The Church and Monastery of John the Baptist near the River Jordan
Coptic pilgrims who go to the Holy Land visit the River Jordan, where Jesus was baptized. C. L. Irby, who visited the Holy Land in 1818, said that he saw Christians at the River Jordan numbering around five thousand, including Greeks, Copts, and Ethiopians (1868, p. 100).
This holy spot not only attracts pilgrims but also monks and hermits who dedicate their lives to worship in the Jordanian desert. One of the first of these hermits was Saint Mary the Egyptian, who spent forty years thereafter her pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulcher in 382.
As time went on some of the Coptic monks who went to the Holy Land stayed to worship in the desert. Among those who went there at the beginning of the twentieth century were Shinudah al- Antuni and the archpriest Philubbus al-Maqari.
The Copts have a monastery by the Jordan called after John the Baptist. Here Anba Theophilos, archbishop of the see of Jerusalem from 1935 to 1945, laid the foundation stone of the Church of Saint John the Baptist, but this church is still not completed. Anba Yacobos, archbishop from 1946 to 1956, added some rooms to the monastery, the largest of which is used as a church. The other rooms are for the residence of Coptic pilgrims visiting the River Jordan.
Next to the monastery is some land which the patriarchate in Jerusalem leased from the government and which is used for the growing of vegetables, fruit, and palm and olive trees.
In order to secure the comfort of pilgrims visiting the monastery, the patriarchate in Jerusalem planted trees on the banks of the River Jordan and provided seating for five hundred people.
The patriarchate conducts annual prayers and celebrations on the feast of Baramun and Epiphany at the monastery. Usually on this occasion a big procession takes place, with the clergy and deacons preceded by Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts playing instruments. They proceed from the monastery to the river and there conduct prayers before returning to the monastery.
Since the war of June 1967, this has been a military area and the monks have been forbidden to live at the monastery.
The Church and Monastery of Anba Antuniyus in Jericho
During the days of Jesus Christ, Jericho was the first city in the Holy Land after Jerusalem. It was here that Christ made the blind see and that He was a guest in the house of Zacchaeus. In its fortress, Simeon the Macchabee was murdered, and Herod the Great died there, when the population was 100,000. In the Christian era it became the headquarters of the diocese. Under the Crusaders the city became the property of the Knights of the Holy Sepulcher. It was they who built the present citadel, and the houses surrounding the citadel formed the nucleus of the present city. The old city of Jericho lies about 3 miles (5 km) to the west of the present city. The nearby mountain was the setting for Christ’s sojourn in the wilderness when he was tempted by Satan.
Coptic pilgrims visited the holy places from the earliest times, and probably spent the night in Jericho on their way to the River Jordan, and also rested there on their way back to Jerusalem.
The present Coptic church in Jericho is named after Anba Antuniyus. The land upon which the church and monastery are built was bought by Anba Basilios II (1856-1899). The building of the church was begun in 1922 and was completed in 1924 under Anba Timotheos (1899-1925). The monastery was built in the time of Anba Basilios III (1925-1935).
The church was renovated in 1962. The icons on the iconostasis were restored and new seats were introduced. Prayers are performed every Sunday. The church and monastery are surrounded by a large orchard and are visited by Coptic and other pilgrims.
The Church and Monastery of Anba Antuniyus in Jaffa
In 1856, the newly consecrated archbishop of the see of Jerusalem, Anba Basilios II, stopped at Jaffa on his way to Jerusalem. While waiting for arrangements to be made for his trip to Jerusalem, he was taken to an Armenian monastery, there being no Coptic institution in the area. He was so moved at seeing numbers of Copts gathered outside the monastery that he started immediately to look for another place where he could stay with his fellow Copts. A rich Greek Orthodox offered to sell the archbishop a big garden containing a small empty house. The archbishop accepted immediately, and thus, on the very day of his arrival in Jaffa, secured a permanent place for the Coptic pilgrims.
When he returned to Egypt, he collected generous donations from his large diocese, which comprised most of the governorates of northern Egypt, and with these donations he not only purchased the property in Jaffa but also built there the church and monastery of Anba Antuniyus. The church, completed in 1858, has one sanctuary and its iconostasis and icons are in the Byzantine style. Prayers are performed weekly at the altar. Anba Basilios II and Anba Basilios III are buried in a shrine within the church.
The monastery consists of two stories with six large rooms on each story. Each floor is surrounded by a terrace. There is a big pool that was used for irrigating the orchard. Anba Theophilos built a residence on part of the orchard beside the church. The rest of the land was used as an orchard until the Israeli authorities occupied the city in 1947 and all the trees were cut down. In 1977 some necessary renovations were carried out.
For churches in Jerusalem, see: Jerusalem, Coptic See of.
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