September 30, 2019
As a third generation Aniano in my family, I had ancestral legacy for my name. But I didn’t always appreciate this heritage from my father and grandfather. Even in the 70s, it was an unusual and antiquated name compared with all the Michaels and Anthonys in grade school. It got me bullied from day one’s roll call. When I hit high school, I masked it with a cool yet common nickname – AJ. But the etymology of my name intrigued me for much of the 50 years of my life. Why did my great grandparents christen their son Aniano? Dad had no explanation either.
The answer to the burning question lay in faraway Egypt. A few hours into my first day in Cairo, I perked up at a footnote mention of a strangely familiar name by our tour guide, John. He dropped a piece of trivia: St. Mark the Apostle’s first convert in Egypt was an Alexandria native named Anianus! It was the first time I had heard of the man.
Was Aniano derived from the name of the Second Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, Pope Anianus? He, in turn, got his Latin name from Greek – Anianos, meaning pang of distress. Who was he? Long story short, it all began as an accident by divine appointment. As the apostle was passing through the city, a sandal tear led him to a cobbler who managed to clobber his own finger with an awl. Immediately, St. Mark healed the injury with a mixture of dust and spit. The miracle opened the door to the Christian conversion and baptism of Anianus the cobbler and his family. They were the first Copts – Egyptian Christians – in the first century CE.
Anianus was ordained Patriarch of Alexandria in 64 CE by St. Mark and clandestinely preached the Gospel in Roman Egypt. He dedicated 22 years of his life to the establishment of Christianity that spread and endured through the Arab conquest. Pope Anianus’ legacy in modern Egypt was the community of Coptic Christians comprising ten percent of the Muslim majority population at present.
Alas, our itinerary did not include Alexandria, and John could not show any icon of St. Anianus in Old Cairo. Not that it was necessary. After all, I was in Coptic Cairo, an area around the Roman ruins called Babylon Fortress, an ancient structure built by Mesopotamian captives and turned into an aqueduct by the Romans. This part of Old Cairo had been defined by the tangible legacy of St. Anianus. To the north rose the massive tenth century Greek Orthodox Church of St. George and to the south, the Hanging Church, originally built in the third century and suspended as it were over a passageway.
The Hanging Church was my first Orthodox experience. There were doctrinal, such as the veneration of Mary, and structural, as in the ornate interiors, similarities with Catholicism, which I was more familiar with. But a stark difference emerged as my eyes adjusted to dim lighting. In place of statues in Catholic churches was a rich collection of religious icons rendered in various artistic media: painting, mosaic, sculpture, bas-relief, woven fabric depicting Jesus, the disciples, and Mary.
The church was known for the icon of Mary called the Coptic Mona Lisa dating back to the eighth century. Like the famous Da Vinci painting, the eyes of Mary eerily followed the movement of the viewer. I saw and believed. Another notable icon was the fifth century marble pulpit held up by pillars representing the twelve disciples. One was painted black for Judas and another gray for doubting Thomas – both marked by the world but still fulfilled their destinies.
In the Old Testament, Egypt represented the oppression of God’s chosen people. Savoir faire kept me from asking John how this went down with Egyptian Christians like him. A mosaic in the courtyard leading to the Hanging Church put my curiosity to rest. It depicted Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus in their journey to escape murderous persecution at the hands of King Herod the Great. In the New Testament, Egypt received redemption of its reputation in the life of Jesus. The mosaic placed the Holy Family in a distinctly Egyptian backdrop: the waters of Nile, papyrus reeds, and date palms.
A shrine commemorating the time Jesus spent in Egypt actually existed. John led our tour group snaking through Harit Al-Kidees Girgis, or Alley of St. George, a narrow alley flanked by shelves of books for sale. Religious icons made from electrical cables adorned walls of stone.
Deep into the alley stood Abu Serga, or Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church, built in fifth century CE over the site where the Holy Family sought asylum for three weeks. The church was named after two Roman soldiers who were martyred in the second century CE for their faith in Jesus and refusal to bow to Roman gods. Abu Serga and the Hanging Church shared a similar ceiling design – shaped and supported by wooden trusses like Noah’s ark. The Church was a vessel of salvation from the inundation of evil forces in this world.
A flight of stairs led to a crypt ten meters deep. The infancy of Jesus was spent mainly in caves. He was born in one, hid in another. As such, the site was also called Cavern Church. Christianity, indeed, started as an underground movement. Small wonder that Jesus rolled the stone away to escape permanent burial in yet another cave. In the same way, He had redeemed us from cavernous darkness to glorious light.
We had come directly from the airport to Coptic Cairo on the first day of our Holy Land pilgrimage. God wasted no time. On day one, I received this personal message on identity and spiritual heritage. What an honor to be named after my father and the father of Christianity in a country. My grandfather, the original Aniano in the family, was born on St. Anianus’ feast day, April 25th. Apparently, my great grandparents got the name from the book of saints.
The name I had carried as a burden was the same that lifted me up. The place that represented suffering in the Old Testament turned into one of refuge in the New. This epiphany underlined the purpose of the pilgrimage: to find myself in my spiritual journey.
Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
This post is dedicated to my father, Aniano B. Poliquit, Jr. I wish he knew too.