In 1419, Venice was almost able to get a second head of Saint Mark the Evangelist, but were foiled by the efforts of Egypt’s Coptic Christian community and the Mamluk Sultan. This episode is recounted in a new book by Georg Christ entitled Trading Conflicts: Venetian Merchants and Mamluk Officials in Late Medieval Alexandria.
This would have been the second time that Venice got the relics of their patron saint. In 828, relics believed to be the body of St. Mark were stolen from Alexandria by two Venetian merchants and taken to Venice, where a basilica was built to house the remains. But according to Coptic tradition, not all of Saint Mark left Egypt. According to their accounts, the Venetian ship that tried to sail away with the relics was forced to return by adverse winds, and was not until the Venetians agreed to leave the head behind that they were allowed to depart. This head of Saint Mark continued to be venerated among the Copts in Alexandria.
By the fifteenth-century, a large Venetian community was based in Alexandria, where they traded with the local Egyptian community and bought goods coming in from Asia. This community had their own self-government, which often had to deal with various issues between Venetians and the local Egyptians.
According to Venetian accounts, they were able to convince a local Christian named Zorzeis to remove the head from the church where it was being stored, and sell it to them. When Alexandria’s Coptic community learned of these actions, they pleaded for help from their Patriarch in Cairo (who ignored them) and then to the Mamluk Sultan, Mu’ayyad Shaykh (1412-1421) who ordered Islamic judges to decide on the matter.
Although Islamic law should have allowed the Venetians to keep the head (for even if an item was originally stolen, if the third party acquired it by a valid contract then should be allowed to keep it), the judiciary sided with the local Christians. Still, it took several weeks before the Venetians agreed to return the head.
Christ adds, that while the Venetians firmly believed that they already had the true head of Saint Mark back in their basilica, they “justified the acquisition, less with religious reasoning, than with reasons politically informed by the Venetian state cult. The Venetian documents contrive a conspiracy theory: Behind the demarches of the local Copts, the Venetians perceived a Genoese plot to appropriate the relic in order to humiliate Venice.”
Trading Conflicts narrates several interesting episodes that happened in Alexandria between 1418 and 1420, that included trading slaves, harassment of Christian pilgrims, the large trade in wine in the city, and various disputes that involved Venetians. Described as a microanalysis of a particular place and time, the book offers new insights into the interactions between Christians and Muslims in the Middle Ages.