McMurdo’s Camp

Coptic Patriarchs

At least two “Coptic Patriarchs”

Well, the immediate question, my dear Watson, happens to be, What will you do? – If you will be good enough to understudy me. You know that I am preoccupied with this case of the two Coptic Patriarchs, which should come to a head today.” – Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of the Retired Colourman.

Like the dog in the nighttime in The Adventure of Silver Blaze, some of the best tales of Sherlock Holmes will never be heard.

I am speaking of the renowned “untold tales” with which Dr. Watson often teased us in his narratives.

How I’d always wished I could have learned how the Dutch steamship Friesland nearly cost Holmes and Watson their lives! How I’d longed to learn more of the Giant Rat of Sumatra, not to mention Ricoletti of the clubfoot and his abominable wife!

While such tales are lush fodder for pastiche writers, alas, the “official” versions will never be known.

Holmes found himself in far-flung locales during the three-year hiatus following his supposed demise at Reichenbach.

He traveled first to Florence and then to Tibet, visiting the head lama, adventured as the Norwegian explorer Sigerson, passed through Persia, looked in at Mecca, paid a visit to the Khalifa of Khartoum and conducted research in France.

Following his return to the world of the living, was he in the Middle East for a visit that was more complex than simply passing through or looking in?

Consider the untold tale of the two Coptic patriarchs mentioned in the very last short story, The Adventure of the Retired Colourman.

This story took place a short time after 1897.

It turns out there are at least four major Coptic Patriarchs and possibly more Holmes may have counseled and if, like me, you are a bit hazy on what a Coptic patriarch is, I offer the following illuminations.


Copts are native Egyptian Christians. Christianity was the majority religion in Roman Egypt from the 4th-6th centuries until the Muslim conquest.

Cathedral at Alexandria

Copts remain the largest Christian minority in the Middle East, representing between 10-20 percent of the population, depending on which statistic you use.

There are about 20 million Coptic Orthodox Christians in the world. Between 7-10 million of them are found in Egypt under the jurisdiction of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria.

They unfortunately sometimes are the victims of systematic persecution by extremist Muslim groups.

Most Copts adhere to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. The remaining (around 800,000) are divided between the Coptic Catholic and various Coptic Protestant churches.

The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria 

This is the official name for the largest Christian church in Egypt and the Middle East.

The Church belongs to the Oriental Orthodox family of churches, which has been a distinct church body since the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451, when it took a different position from the body of churches that would later split into Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic.

The precise differences in theology that caused the split with the Coptic Christians are still disputed, highly technical and mainly concerned with the nature of Christ.

The foundational roots of the Church are based in Egypt but it has a worldwide following. Saint Mark the apostle and evangelist established the church in the middle of the first century (around AD 42, according to tradition). 

The head of the church and the See of Alexandria is the Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of All Africa on the Holy See of Saint Mark, currently Pope Shenouda III.

In Holmes’ time, he would have been Pope Cyril V.

Other churches also claim Patriarchates and Patriarchs of Alexandria, the most prominent being:

The Coptic Catholic Church

The Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandra

The Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarchate of Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem.

The Coptic Catholic Church 

This church is in full communion with the Pope of Rome. It is thus part of the larger worldwide Roman Catholic Church.

Historically, Coptic Catholics represent a schism from the Coptic Orthodox Church, leaving that church in order to come into full communion with the Bishop of Rome.

The current Coptic Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria is Archbishop Antonios Naguib, who replaced Stephanos II Ghattas in 2005.

The offices of the Patriarchate are located in Cairo. The Cathedral (Our Lady of Egypt) is located in Nasr City, a modern suburb of Cairo.

In 1824 the Holy See created a Patriarchate for Coptic Catholics, but it existed only on paper. The Ottoman authorities permitted the Coptic Catholics to begin building their own churches in 1829.

In 1895 Pope Leo XIII re-established the Patriarchate. During Holmes’ time, he would have been Kyrillos Makarios.

The Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria

Also known as the Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa, it is a self-headed Greek Orthodox Church within the wider communion of Orthodox Christianity.

Officially, it is called the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria to distinguish it from the non-Chalcedonian Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria.

Members were once known as Melkites, because they remained in communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople after the schism that followed the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

The Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria head bishop is the Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa.

His full title is “His Most Divine Beatitude the Pope and Patriarch of the Great City of Alexandria, Libya, Pentapolis, Ethiopia, all the land of Egypt, and all Africa, Father of Fathers, Shepherd of Shepherds, Prelate of Prelates, thirteenth of the Apostles, and Judge of the Œcumene“.

At the present time he is Pope and Patriarch Theodoros II.

In Holmes’ time, he would have been Sophronius IV.

Like the Coptic Orthodox Pope of Alexandria and the Coptic Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria, he claims to have succeeded the Apostle Mark the Evangelist in the office of Bishop of Alexandria, who founded the Church in the first century, and therefore marked the beginning of Christianity in Africa.

It is one of the five ancient patriarchates of the early church, called the Pentarchy.

After the Arab conquest of North Africa in the 7th century the Eastern Orthodox were a minority even among Christians, and remained small for centuries.

In the 19th century Orthodoxy in Africa began to grow again. One thing that changed this was diaspora, with Greek, Syrian and Lebanese members in particular moving to different parts of Africa, some establishing Orthodox Churches.

Greeks settled in Alexandria from the 1840s and Orthodoxy began to flourish again.

The Melkite Greek Catholic Church 

This is an Eastern Catholic Church in full communion with the Holy See as part of the worldwide Catholic Church.

The Melkites, Byzantine Rite Catholics of mixed Eastern Mediterranean and Greek origin, trace their history to the early Christians of Antioch, Syria, of the first century AD, where Christianity was introduced by St. Peter.

The Melkite Church has a high degree of ethnic homogeneity and the church’s origins lie in the Near East, but Melkite Greek Catholics are present throughout the world due to migration. At present worldwide membership is about 1.6 million. 

The Melkite Catholic Church’s roots and liturgical practices are similar to those of the Eastern Orthodoxy, while the Church has maintained communion with the Catholic Church in Rome since a split from the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch in 1729.

Melkite” is the Syrian word for “King” and was originally a pejorative term for Middle-Eastern Christians who accepted the authority of the Council of Chalcedon and the Byzantine Emperor, a term applied to them by non-Chalcedonians.

The current Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, of Alexandria and Jerusalem of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church is Gregory III Laham.

In Holmes’ time, he would have been Peter IV Jaraijiry.

So now you know more than you probably ever wanted to about some of the Coptic patriarchs Holmes may have dealt with.

Unfortunately, the service he performed for them will forever remain a case for speculation.


  1. Excellent article and very thorough research.

    Comment by Red — December 24, 2012 @ 10:20 am

  2. Excellent job. Well written! I always wanted to read the one about ” Wilson, the canary trainer.”

    Comment by Maureen Mosher — July 11, 2013 @ 12:16 am

    • There is a major industry writing Sherlock Holmes pastiches, and “untold tales” are a major source of subject matter for the authors. Some are good, and many are of far lower quality than Doyle’s originals. I bet you can find some about Wilson without too much trouble. If you don’t, try to contact the Madison, Wisc Scion The Notorious Canary-Trainers. I bet they could help.

      Comment by Matilda — July 11, 2013 @ 10:38 am

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