St. Mark, one of the four evangelists, was one of the seventy two apostles sent by our Lord Jesus Christ (Luke 10) and is the founder of the Coptic Orthodox Church. He is the first of an unbroken succession of 117 patriarchs, H.H. Pope Shenouda III being the current Pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark.
St. Mark was an African native born of Jewish parents. His family lived in Cyrene (one of the Five Western Cities, Pentapolis, in present day Libya) until they were attacked by barbarians and lost their property. Consequently, they moved to Jerusalem with their child John Mark (Acts 12:12; 25; 15:37). He was given a good education and became conversant in both Greek and Latin in addition to Hebrew. His family was highly religious and in close relationship with the Lord Jesus. He was present at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, and was the man who had been carrying the jar when the two disciples went to prepare a place for the celebration of the Pasch (Mark 14:13–14; Luke 22:11). [He was also the same man who fled naked before the Crucifixion (Mark 14:51, 52)]. Thus, his home (known as the Upper Room of Zion) became the first Christian Church in the world where the Lord himself instituted the Holy Eucharist (Mark 14:12–26). It was in this same place that the Lord appeared twice to the disciples after His resurrection (John 20:19,26) and His Holy Spirit came upon them (Acts 2:1–4). St. Peter having been delivered by an angel from prison, went to that same house of “Mary the mother of John also called Mark”, where many had gathered and were praying (Acts 12:12).
The first Biblical mention of St. Mark’s ministry is with Sts. Barnabas and Paul from Jerusalem to Antioch (Acts 12:25). From there he journeyed with them to Cyprus and Asia Minor, leaving them in Perga to return to Jerusalem (Acts 13:13). It is then mentioned after the Council at Jerusalem that St. Paul chose St. Silas and St. Mark traveled with St. Barnabas back to Cyprus (Acts 15:37–40). Afterwards, there is no further mention of St. Mark in the Book of Acts. However, he is mentioned in several of the following Epistles in the New Testament. St. Paul describes him as his “fellow laborer” in his epistle to Philemon (verse 24). In his epistle to the Colossians, St. Paul identifies St. Mark as the “cousin of Barnabas” (Col. 4:10); and the Colossians are counseled to receive him if he comes to them. In Second Timothy, St. Paul urges, “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministry” (2 Tim 4:11). He is also mentioned by St. Peter in his first epistle as “my son” (1 Pet 5:13).
Although not documented in the Holy Bible, it is clearly documented in several historical texts that St. Mark is the founder of the Church of Alexandria. The date of his arrival is not clear based on these texts and ranges from 43 AD to 61 AD Thus it is possible (and most likely) that St. Mark had more than one visit to Alexandria.
On his arrival, the strap of his sandal broke, and he went to a cobbler to mend it. When the cobbler, Annianus, was working on it, he injured his hand and cried out, "God is One". Upon hearing this, St. Mark prayed to our Lord Jesus Christ that Annianus’ wound be healed. After performing this miracle, St. Mark began preaching about the True and Only God. Annianus took the Apostle home with him, and afterwards he and his family were baptized followed by many others.
Eventually the pagan people of the city, hearing that a Galilean had come to do away with idolatry, sought to kill him. Thus, the Apostle ordained Annianus a bishop, three priests (Milaius, Sabinus, and Cerdo), seven deacons, and eleven other persons for special service to shepherd the flock of Christ. He left Alexandria to Pentapolis where he ordained bishops, priests, and deacons. Then he traveled to Rome upon the request of St. Paul and remained there until the martyrdom of St. Peter and St. Paul in 67 AD.
Upon returning to Alexandria, St. Mark found that the Church had grown in spirit and in number to the extent that a church was built in a place called Boukolou (can mean “cow pastures”), near the seashore.
During his preaching in Alexandria, he established a class for the catechumens which later developed into the Catechetical School of Alexandria. He also handed down one of the ancient liturgies bearing his name (later recorded by St. Cyril of Alexandria, the Pillar of Faith, who made some additions), and was the first of the evangelists to write his gospel.
In 68 AD, the Feast of the Resurrection fell on the same day as the feast of the Egyptian god Serapis. The furious heathen mob had gathered in the temple of Serapis at Alexandria and then descended on the Christians who were celebrating the Divine Liturgy at Boukolou. St. Mark was seized and dragged with a rope around his neck through the city as the crowds were shouting, "Let us drag the boubalos (buffalo) in Boukolou.” They dragged him thus, the holy Mark giving thanks to Christ all the while. At nightfall the saint was thrown into prison. During the night, St. Mark was visited first by an angel and then by Christ Himself, receiving words of encouragement. Thus, we call St. Mark the Beholder of God, because he lived with our Lord Jesus Christ and he saw our Lord prior to his martyrdom.
On the following morning he was again dragged around the city until he departed. The mobs built a fire in the place called Angeloi and put the body of St. Mark on it, but a great storm arose, and the pagan crowds fled in terror. The faithful rescued the body and brought it to where the services were going on. They prepared the body according to custom, and placed it in a stone tomb, located to the east of the city. The feast of St. Mark’s martyrdom in the Coptic Orthodox Church is on the 30th day of the Coptic month of Baramuda (May 8).
In 644 AD, his head was separated from his body and each was kept in a separate church, the head with the Copts (non-Chalcedonian) and the body with the Melkites (Chalcedonian). Early in the 9th century, the body was taken to Venice, however his head remained in St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Alexandria. A portion of his body was brought back to Egypt in 1968 during the papacy of Pope Cyril VI and is kept in the new St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo.