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Why Alexandria?

The inauguration of the new Province of Alexandria has been confirmed by the international Secretariat of the Anglican Communion. The province is the forty-first of the Anglican Communion and consists of four dioceses as follows: Egypt, North Africa, the Horn of Africa and Gambella. Bishop Mouneer Anis is archbishop of the new province as well as continuing as Bishop in Egypt until his retirement next year.

Archbishop Welby and Archbishop of Alexandria and Bishop of Egypt during Alexandria Inauguration
Archbishop of Alexandria  and Archbishop of Canterbury during the service of celebration

But why Alexandria? The place is significant and loaded with history, not least Christian history. First of all, what is Alexandria’s historical importance? This great city sits north-west of Cairo on the coast of Egypt and has been a major port in the Mediterranean since its founding by Alexander the Great in 331 BC. It became famous early on for a number of things, not least the well-known lighthouse or ‘Pharos’, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.

Also, Alexandria soon became a centre of Hellenistic or Greek Judaism and the philosophy emanating from this city spread around the Mediterranean. There was a famous library in Alexandria with more than a million books - a symbol of learning across the known world and often compared with the libraries at Pergamon and Ephesus. Alexandria’s library burnt down in several stages in the early Christian period.

Then there’s the tradition that the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek was done in Alexandria. Stemming from an account in the Letter of Aristeas the tradition holds that seventy-two translators were invited from Jerusalem to Alexandria to translate the texts. They each went into separate chambers to carry out the task and when they came out the translations were all the same! There were seventy-two translators but the figure was rounded down to seventy and the translation became known as the LXX (seventy in Roman numerals) or Septuagint (seventy). The New Testament writers knew and used this translation as well as the Hebrew text.

At the time of Jesus of Nazareth there was a Jewish philosopher called Philo living in Alexandria. His philosophy and theology influenced a great many in his day. He even used the Greek word Logos (Word) like the Fourth Gospel and his understanding may have influenced early Christian writers. Philo’s influence spread far and wide.

Imagined Portrait of Philo
Imaginative illustration of Philo made in 1584

But all this is background! Because Alexandria was an important city in Egypt in the pre-Christian period, it also became important in Christianity. Tradition has it that St. Mark took the gospel to Alexandria where he died. His remains were eventually transferred to Venice. The first Christians were Jews and their own traditions and intellectual culture influenced their thinking about Christ. In the first few centuries of Christianity Alexandria rose to significant importance alongside Jerusalem, Rome, Antioch and Constantinople and eventually became one of the five Patriarchates.

Earlier than that we know of several Christian theologians operating in Alexandria. From sometime in the second century there was a catechetical ‘school’ or tradition of theological study and training operating in the city. A theologian called Pantaenus was attached to this. Clement of Alexandria also wrote his work there. And Origen the controversial theologian of the third century operated in Alexandria. Origen’s theology and translations of the biblical texts became tremendously influential in the following centuries.

Perhaps the best known of the theological debates in Alexandria was between Arius and Athanasius in the fourth century. Arius spread the idea that the Logos or the Son was not one with the Father but was a creature created by God before he created the world. Athanasius disagreed saying that if the Logos were not really God, he could not save humanity from its sin. He wrote On the Incarnation of the Word setting out his views. The controversy grew to enormous proportions so that when Constantine became first Christian emperor, he called a council at Nicaea in 325 to try to settle the matter. The Nicene Creed came out of this gathering. Much of the theological debate and controversy had been in Alexandria.

In the next century another dispute blew up around Nestorius in Constantinople. He claimed that the Virgin Mary should not to be called the ‘Mother of God’ as it gave the impression that God could be born. The response came from Cyril of Alexandria who claimed that not to use this title of Mary denied Jesus’ divinity suggesting he was only a man. The controversy gave rise to the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD at which Cyril and his supporters were triumphant. Finally, after the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD when there had been an attempt to balance the humanity and the divinity in Christ’s natures, an Alexandrian called Dioscorus led the response.

So why Alexandria? Many of the characters involved in thrashing out classical Christian theology operated there or came from there and it was a leading Christian city in the early centuries. Although none of the seven ecumenical councils was held there, Alexandria played a key role in the theology which emerged from them. It is, therefore, wholly appropriate that a modern province in Egypt and the surrounding countries should be named after Alexandria.