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Saint Cyril of Alexandria (c. 376 - 444) was the Pope of Alexandria when the citymarker was at its height of influence and power within the Roman Empire. Cyril wrote extensively and was a leading protagonist in the Christological controversies of the later 4th, and 5th centuries. He was a central figure in the First Council of Ephesus in 431, which led to the deposition of Nestorius as Archbishop of Constantinople. Cyril is counted among the Church Fathers and the Doctors of the Church, and his reputation within the Christian world has resulted in his titles Pillar of Faith and Seal of all the Fathers, but Theodosius II, the Roman Emperor, condemned him for behaving like a proud pharaoh, and the Nestorian bishops at the Council of Ephesus declared him a heretic, labelling him as a monster, born and educated for the destruction of the church.

The Eastern Orthodox Church and Byzantine Catholic Church celebrate his feast day on June 9 and also, together with Pope Athanasius I of Alexandria, on January 18. The Roman Catholic Church did not commemorate him in the Tridentine Calendar; it added his feast only in 1882, assigning to it the date of February 9, the date on which it is still observed by those who use calendars prior to that of the 1969 revision, which assigned to it the date of June 27, considered to be the day of the saint's death. The same date has been chosen for the Lutheran calendar.

Early life

Cyril was born about 376 in the small town of Theodosios, Egypt, near modern day El-Mahalla El-Kubramarker. A few years after his birth, his mother's brother (or uncle) Theophilus rose to the powerful position of Patriarch of Alexandria. His mother remained close to her brother and under his guidance, St. Cyril was well educated. His education showed through his knowledge, in his writings, of Christian writers of his day, including Eusebius, Origen, Didymus, and writers of the Alexandrian church. He received the formal education standard for his day: he studied grammar from age twelve to fourteen (390-392), rhetoric and humanities from fifteen to twenty (393-397) and finally theology and biblical studies (398-402).

Patriarch of Alexandria

Theophilus died on October 15, 412, and Cyril was made Pope on 18 October 412, against the party favouring Archdeacon Timothy.

Persecution of the Novatians and Jews

Thus, Cyril followed his uncle in a position that had become powerful and influential, rivaling that of the city prefect in a time of turmoil and (frequently violent) conflict between the cosmopolitan city's pagan, Jewish, and Christian inhabitants.

He began to exert his authority by causing the churches of the Novatians to be closed and their sacred vessels to be seized.

Orestes, prefect of the city, saw no sense in the attacks and the commotion they caused, so he complained to Theodosius, but was overruled by Pulcheria, the rabidly Christian regent. According to some historians, all Jews were expelled from Alexandria, while others consider this an exaggeration and that only a portion of the local Jewish population was expelled

Some of the tensions between Jews and Christians was prompted by a slaughter of Christians at the hands of Alexandrian Jews who, after instigating the death of monk Hierax, lured Christians in the streets at night claiming that the church was on fire.

Murder of Hypatia

During his conflict with Orestes, Cyril was also involved in the murder of the female Platonist philosopher and head of the library of Alexandria, Hypatia, who was a frequent guest of Orestes and whose fields of study were considered heresy by Cyril.

Newer studies show Hypatia's death as the result of a struggle between two Christian factions, the moderate Orestes, supported by Hypatia, and the more rigid Cyril.
 According to lexicographer William Smith, "She was accused of too much familiarity with Orestes, prefect of Alexandria, and the charge spread among the clergy, who took up the notion that she interrupted the friendship of Orestes with their archbishop, Cyril."

Others contend that neither the riots nor the murder of Hypatia can rightly be attributed to Cyril. In the case of the riots, he had intended only to lead a delegation to the Jews, but he lost control of the situation; and in the murder of Hypatia, a group of his followers acted on their own initiative without consulting him. Orthodox Christian scholar John Anthony McGuckin states: "At this time Cyril is revealed as at the head of dangerously volatile forces: at their head, but not always in command of them."

Conflict with Nestorius

Another major conflict was between the Alexandrian and Antiochian schools of ecclesiastical reflection, piety, and discourse. This long running conflict widened with the third canon of the First Council of Constantinople which granted the see of Constantinople primacy over the older sees of Alexandria and Antioch. Thus, the struggle between the sees of Alexandria and Antioch now included Constantinople. The conflict came to a head in 428 after Nestorius, who originated in Antioch, was made Archbishop of Constantinople.

Cyril gained an opportunity to restore Alexandria's pre-eminance over both Antioch and Constantinople when an Antiochine priest who was in Constantinople at Nestorius' behest began to preach against calling Mary the "Mother of God". As the term "Mother of God" had long been attached to Mary, the laity in Constantinople complained against the priest. Rather than repudiating the priest, Nestorius intervened on his behalf. Nestorius argued that Mary was neither a "Mother of Man" nor "Mother of God" as these refered to Christ's two natures. Rather, Mary was the "Mother of Christ" which refered the the unified person of Christ. This however only stoked the fires. Eusebius of Dorylaeum went so far as to accuse Nestorius of adoptionism. By this time, news of the controversy in the capital had reached Alexandria. At Easter 429 A.D., Cyril wrote a letter to the Egyptian monks warning them of Nestorius' views. A copy of this letter reached Constantinople where Nestorius preached a sermon against it. This began a series of letters between Cyril and Nestorius which gradually became more strident in tone. In retrospect it is obvious that both Patriarchs were as much interested in ecclesiastical politics as in the theology of the matter. Finally, Emperor Theodosius II convoked a council in Ephesusmarker to solve the dispute. Ephesus was friendly to Cyril , Cyril and his supporters started and concluded the Council of Ephesus (in 431) before Nestorius and his supporters had even got there; predictably, the Council ordered the deposition and exile of Nestorius.

However, when John of Antioch and the other pro-Nestorius bishops finally reached Ephesus, they assembled their own Council, condemned Cyril for heresy, deposed him from his see, and labelled him as a monster, born and educated for the destruction of the church. Theodosius, by now old enough to hold power by himself, annulled the verdict of the Council and arrested Cyril, but Cyril eventually escaped. Having fled to Egypt, Cyril bribed Theodosius' courtiers, and sent a mob lead by Dalmatius, a hermit, to besiege Theodosius' palace, and shout abuse; the Emperor eventually gave in, sending Nestorius into minor exile (Upper Egypt). The events created a major schism, forming the Assyrian Church of the East.

Cyril died about 444, but the controversies were to continue for decades, from the "Robber Synod" of Ephesusmarker (449) to the Council of Chalcedon (451) and beyond.


Cyril regarded the embodiment of God in the person of Jesus Christ to be so mystically powerful that it spread out from the body of the God-man into the rest of the race, to reconstitute human nature into a graced and deified condition of the saints, one that promised immortality and transfiguration to believers. Nestorius, on the other hand, saw the incarnation as primarily a moral and ethical example to the faithful, to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Cyril's constant stress was on the simple idea that it was God who walked the streets of Nazareth (hence Mary was Theotokos (Mother of God)), and God who had appeared in a transfigured humanity. Nestorius spoke of the distinct 'Jesus the man' and 'the divine Logos' in ways that Cyril thought were too dichotomous, widening the ontological gap between man and God in a way that would annihilate the person of Christ.

The main issue that prompted this dispute between Cyril and Nestorius was the question which arose at the Council of Constantinople: What exactly was the being to which Mary gave birth? Cyril posited that the composition of the Trinity consisted of one divine essence (ousia) in three distinct realities (hypostases.) These distinct realities were the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Before the Son became flesh in Mary's womb, Cyril asserted that there existed two natures of the Son—one divine nature and one human nature. Then, when the Son became flesh and entered into the world, these two divine and human natures both remained but became united in the person of Jesus. This resulted in the slogan "One Nature united out of two" being used to encapsulate the theological position of this Alexandrian bishop.

According to Cyril's theology, there were two states for the Son: the state that existed prior to the Son (or Word/Logos) becoming enfleshed in the person of Jesus and the state that actually became enfleshed. Thus, only the Logos incarnate suffered and died on the Cross and therefore the Son was able to suffer without suffering. Cyril's concern was that there needed to be continuity of the divine subject between the Logos and the incarnate Word—and so in Jesus Christ the divine Logos was really present in the flesh and in the world.


Cyril of Alexandria became noted in Church history, because of his spirited fight for the title “Theotokos” during the Council of Ephesus (431). His writings include the homily given in Ephesus and several other sermons.. Some of his alleged homilies are in dispute as to his authorship. In several writings, Cyril focuses on the love of Jesus to his mother. On the Cross, he overcomes his pain and thinks of his mother. At the wedding in Cana, he bows to her wishes. The overwhelming merit of Cyril of Alexandria is the cementation of the centre of dogmatic mariology for all times. Cyril is credited with creating a basis for all other mariological developments through his teaching of the blessed Virgin Mary, as the Mother of God.


Cyril was a scholarly archbishop and a prolific writer. In the early years of his active life in the Church he wrote several exegeses. Among these were: Commentaries on the Old Testament, Thesaurus, Discourse Against Arians, Commentary on St. John's Gospel, and Dialogues on the Trinity. In 429 as the Christological controversies increased, his output of writings was that which his opponents could not match. His writings and his theology have remained central to tradition of the Fathers and to all Orthodox to this day.

In modern literature

Cyril plays a controversial role in the Arabic novel Azazeel (also transliterated as Azazil) by the Egyptian scholar Youssef Ziedan. The novel, which won the 2009 International Prize for Arabic Fiction and will be published in English under the title Beelzebub, is set in 5th-century Egypt and Syria and deals with the early history of Christianity. The book has generated controversy for depicting religious fanaticism and mob violence among early Christians in Roman Egypt. The narrator, Hypa, witnesses the lynching of Hypatia and finds himself involved in the schism of 431, when Cyril deposed Nestorius. Cyril is portrayed as a fanatic who kills Jews and others who have not converted to Christianity from the traditional religions of antiquity These exaggerated claims have angered many Christians. Many believe Cyril was not as anti-Jewish as the book claims. This has led to numerous book burnings.

Cyril has also been portrayed in a highly charged way in Ki Longfellow's Flow Down Like Silver, Hypatia of Alexandria[789] . Though Longfellow does not accuse Cyril of ordering the death of Hypatia, her work does not shy away from speculating on his part in the murder.

In film

In the 2009 film Agora, Cyril is played by Sami Samir as an extremist that opposes Orestes's attempts to harmonize the different communities of Alexandria.

See also



  • McGuckin, John A. St. Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004. ISBN 0-88141-259-7
  • Wessel, Susan. Cyril of Alexandria and the Nestorian Controversy:The Making of a Saint and a Heretic. Oxford 2004. ISBN 0-19926-846-0

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