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January 21, 2013

Coptic cathedral khartoum 1923Figure 1: A rare photo from 1923 of the Coptic Cathedral in Khartoum (source unknown).

I would like to present my readers here with a rare photograph of the Coptic Cathedral of the Virgin St. Mary in Khartoum, Sudan. Unfortunately the photographer and publication are not known but the picture appeared on eBay recently, and gives the date of 1923 to the photo. The seller says the photo is an original 1923 black and white halftone print of “The Coptic Church at Khartum (Khartoum), in The Sudan in Africa”.[1]

Underneath the print is the comment:

Services at the Coptic Church at Khartum sometimes last five hours, while the worshippers stand barefooted on the cold floors. The Copts, direct descendants of the ancient Egyptians, have been Christians since St. Mark preached at Alexandria.

This beautiful Coptic church was built after Sudan was reconquered by Britain in 1898. Copts resided in Sudan for a long time before that. When Muhammad Ali (1805 – 1948) conquered Sudan in 1821, he sent many Copts to Sudan to work as clerks and accountants in his administration. Many Copts from Upper Egypt were also trading with Sudan. The Coptic Pope Peter VII (1810 – 1852) ordained a bishop for the Sudan to look after the growing Coptic community. When the Islamic Mahdist revolution broke out in Sudan in 1881, Coptic churches in Sudan were sacked, many Copts were enslaved or killed, some were forced to convert to Islam, but some, including the bishop of the time, managed to escape to Egypt just before the Mahdi stormed Khartoum in 1885.

With the return of religious freedom to Sudan at the hands of the British, the Copts were quick in rebuilding their churches and on a bigger scale. Churches were constructed in Omdurman and Wadi Halfa (1900), Khartoum (1905), Ad Damir (1011), Khartoum North and El Obeid (1913).[2] Pope Cyril V (1874 – 1927) consecrated the St. Mary Coptic church in Khartoum; and the church became the residence of the Coptic bishop for Khartoum, South of Sudan and Uganda. Another bishop was ordained for Omdurman and Atbara.

This 1923 photo shows a beautiful architecture which combines both Coptic and English influences. I do not know who the architect was but he must have been the same architect who built the Gordon Memorial College (later Khartoum University) in 1902 as there are similar architectural features between the two.

The Coptic Cathedral in Khartoum still exists but although it still retains the same plan, its exterior, and possible interior, has experienced many changes, not to the better, one must say. The reader can see for himself the changes, which have affected not the building but the garden and surrounding structures, by examining this recent photo from 2009 by the Czech photographer, Petrus Adamus:[3]


 Figure 2: Holy Virgin Mary Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Khartoum in 2009 (Photo by Petrus Adamus, Czech Republic).


The photo of the Coptic Cathedral in Khartoum, I found, was actually taken by the American travel writer Frank G. Carpenter, who published it in 1923 in his book Cairo to Kisumu: Egypt-Sudan-Kenya Colony (published by the Garden City, New York, firm of Doubleday, Page & Company). You can learn about both Carpenter and his interesting book by reading my article THE COPTS IN FRANK G. CARPENTER’S CAIRO TO KISUMU here. The photograph was published in p. 179 of the book under the title “Where worshippers stand barefooted for hours”!

[2] Riad Surial: The Coptic Community in Egypt in the Nineteenth Century (in Arabic. Cairo; no date).

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