On 21 April 1632, Father Paolo da Lodi, appointed Custodian of the Holy Land less than a year earlier (22 August 1631), was offered a fixed abode for the Franciscans in Cairo, by Giovanni Donato, Consul of Venice. The Franciscans had been chaplains for the Venetian colony in that same city for many years. For this purpose the Venetian merchant Domenico Savio let the Friars use his home, “next door to the choir of the Venetian chapel”. The Embassy was located in the Mouski district, the famous Cairo bazaar, now 12 Bendaka (Venetians) Street. On 16 January 1633, the same Consul made a similar concession to the Friars in Alexandria, “acknowledging it to be perfectly correct to protect the Franciscan Fathers who come here for Christianity then move on to Jerusalem …”
In this way the Franciscans were able to perform their activities with greater regularity. As time passed, the great flow of Europeans favoured by Mohammed Ali and his successors made the Mouski convent the largest Latin parish in Cairo, with three succursals: St Joseph, Bulacco and Meadi, which later became independent parishes. The parish of Mouski enjoyed its greatest moment of development in the last ten years of the 19th and the early 20th century, with about 20,000 worshippers, mostly Italians, but also many Maltese, Austrians, Slavs, French and Oriental nationalities. The Mouski church, which has been a cathedral since 1858, was a point of reference for all these ethnic groups, as proved by the vast parish archives, whose earliest entries date back to 1611. During the preparations for the Easter celebrations, at the time of the great parish, the Lenten sermons were preached in five languages: Italian, Maltese, French, German, Slav. Much pastoral activity was undertaken around the Sanctuary of Our Lady, declared Queen of Egypt by Cardinal Gustavo Testa, in 1939.
With the creation of the three parishes of St Joseph, Bulacco and Meadi (1920), Mouski was no longer the largest parish. After World War II, the number of worshippers decreased. The Egyptian Revolution (1952), and especially the occupation of the Suez Canal (1956), provoked a huge exodus. Today the Latin parish has but a few families.
To revive the great convent, the Custody of the Holy Land decided to found a Franciscan Centre for Oriental Christian Studies.
On 16 September 1954 the Franciscan Centre for Oriental Christian Studies was inaugurated in the Mouski convent. The founders were Venetian Father Giacinto Faccio, at that time Custos of the Holy Land, and the first Director, Father Martiniano Roncaglia. The inauguration was attended by the first President of the Egyptian Republic, Mohammed Naguib, the Apostolic Nuncio, and a number of civil and religious dignitaries. The Custos of the Holy Land had long nurtured the desire to found an eastern opus. Following the Egyptian Revolution in 1952, the great Mouski friary – once the large Latin parish of Cairo – had been empty. This was when our Studies Centre was founded, to make good use of this convent. At the beginning the aims were not very clear. There was even talk of a Catholic University, and Islamic Studies and Arab literature subjects were published Soon, however, two objectives were established: a) to continue research into the history of the Holy Land, following in the footsteps of Father Girolamo Golubovich; b) to increase the studies regarding Christian communities in the Middle East. These are still the aims of the Centre at this moment in time.
The Centre has always had two main activities:
- a) contact with the Christian and non-Christian cultural world.
- b) publication of studies and research into these communities.
The intention of Father Giamberardini, the Centre’s second Director, was to acquire a specialist for each community. This idea was later revealed to have been well-founded. In fact, the best developed sectors are those lucky enough to have this sort of specialist. At the moment the Coptic, Arab-Christian, Armenian and Holy Land sections are the most successful.
The library has two large sectors: general (theology, history, geography, art, etc) and special subjects, i.e. the cultural heritage of the other Oriental Christian communities: Coptic, Arab-Christian, Syrian, etc. These specialist sections are flanked by the Arab Christian section, in other words the religious-cultural Christian material written in Arabic. The library’s initial nucleus comprised books more useful for the Centre’s mission, gathered together from the Custody’s various convents. More books arrived as time passed, either purchased directly or donated, or by subscription to reviews and collections. There are occasional acquisitions locally and some from the Cairo book fair (late January each year). Currently our library may be considered one of the best in Cairo, unique of its kind for its specialization. There are over 50,000 volumes here, as well as a good collection of Arab-Christian and Western magazines and manuscripts (over 1,000), as well as another collection of Islamic manuscripts (awaiting classification).
From the start, given its lack of staff, the Centre has availed itself of external consultants, whose assistance is a precious support for the Centre. We might mention dear Kush Burmester, Otto Meinardus, Prof. Khater and, lately, Prof. B. Pirone of Naples School of Oriental Studies, Prof. Serra from Sapienza University in Rome, Mr Alberto Elli, etc.
Centre staff not only work on research and publications, they also undertake another very important activity: they assist readers. Many degree theses have been written thanks to our Centre. Countless students from Cairo’s religious seminaries and institutes find books and assistance in our library. Professors and students from Egyptian universities, most of whom are Muslims, can also find support and assistance from us. We are pleased to point out the Arab world’s open-mindedness towards Christian studies. Particular attention is given to the Byzantine period and the Crusades. In 1982, with our assistance, a thesis on St Ephraim was presented at Al-Azhar University. The University of Cairo and others have presented theses regarding Byzantium under Heraclius (1985), speaking of Enoticon, Monotheletism, etc; the Oriental Schism and its influence on the relations between the East and the West; St Bonaventure’s theory of knowledge; Origen’s Contra Celsum. Currently an Arab translation is being undertaken of the Annals of Caffaro, one of the first historiographers of the Crusades, with the assistance of a professor from the University of Tanta; etc.
Research is the Centre’s main activity at the moment. The work of the Centre staff and their assistants is published either in the periodical Studia Orientalia Christiana Collectanea (SOC), for convenience called SOC Collectanea, which has now reached Volume 37, or in the Monograph series.
"Collectanea has been published since 1956 and includes contributions in Italian, French, Arabic and Coptic and is distributed by Brepols International (the numbers published before 2007 are available at the Terra Santa Bookshop, Milan, tel. 02 34 91 firstname.lastname@example.org or by contacting the distributor: www.brepols.net)."
The publications of Father Gabriele Giamberardini (+1978) – who may be considered a pioneer in Coptic Christian studies – are a first-rate collection. Apart from the Coptic world (Coptic translation of The Fate of the Deceased, 1965; San Giuseppe nella tradizione copta [St Joseph in Coptic Tradition], 1966; Il Culto Mariano in Egitto [The Marian Cult in Egypt], 1975-58; etc), Father Giamberardini was also interested in the history of the Franciscans in Egypt (Lettere dei Prefetti Apostolici [Letters of Apostolic Prefects], 1960; Cronaca della Missione Francescana [Chronicle of the Franciscan Mission], 1962, etc).
Following his departure, the 1967 war, the war in Lebanon, and the lack of personnel, publications slowed down considerably, and recovered first in the 1980s, then even more so in the early 1990s, thanks to the arrival of a new worker (Father L. Cruciani) and the computerization of the editorial process. Some of the best recent publications include: La Cronaca di Santa Caterina [Chronicles of St Catherine], 1994; a bilingual (Arab-Latin) edition of Canonical Law in Oriental Catholic churches, 1995; Ibn al’Assal’s monumental Summa Teologica (seven volumes) 1999; lastly, in 2003, La Storia della Chiesa Copta [The History of the Coptic Church], 3 volumes. The Armenian section has many studies and texts on Eliseus the Armenian, biographies of Georges de Skevra, and the latter’s comment on Isaiah, documents regarding the 1915 Mardin massacres, etc.
The assistance provided to Emanuela Trevisan Semi, of the University of Venice, is thus acknowledged in the preface of her book Gli Ebrei Caraiti tra etnia e religione, on page 16: “The Fathers of the Cairo Franciscan Centre for Oriental Christian Studies demonstrated a truly fraternal willingness to help me both materially in the contact with the Karaist community in Cairo, and also by recovering – from their rich and mysteries library – texts that I never thought I would find in Cairo”.