Locality where minorities reside seems compelling; a chance to explore their distinctive tradition, rather their attempt to keep hold of that, in spite of intentional or unintentional blending with majorities’ culture & lifestyle. That was our key motivation of visiting Coptic Cairo area of Old Cairo, home to Egyptian Christians (Coptic = Egyptian). Legend says that the Baby Jesus was taken here by Joseph & Mary to seek refuge from Herod. Later, in 1st Century, St Mark arrived in Alexandria and Christianity was introduced to Egypt. For centuries Coptic Christians had been undergoing several conflicts, but still their identity did not fade away and today, they hold about 10% of Egyptian population.
Today, what we called Coptic Cairo was once named as ‘Babylon’ by Greeks, because of an Egyptian word for ‘The Nile House of On’ sounding close to ‘Babylon’; otherwise no connection with Mesopotamian Babylon! Initially, Babylon was important not as a Christian center but for a fortress built here, until 11th century, when the Patriarchate of St Mark was transferred here from declining Alexandria. Today, only an old Roman tower and remnants of the walls of the fortress had been survived; but number of churches and monastic settlements one can find scattered everywhere.
Out of all religious sites of Coptic Cairo we opted for few significant ones.
This ‘Babylon’ has a Hanging Church. Yes! Church! This one is officially known as St Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church. It was built in 7th century on the top of a gatehouse of Babylon fortress with the central part suspending over a passage. Due to the rising of land surface by some six meters, you may not find it prominently ‘hanging’!
It was Sunday morning and the mass prayer was going on inside. For a while, I thought that I was re-visiting Turkey! The geometric patterns of the stone-carvings set at the entrance of the prayer-hall reminded me the Selcuk art-form, followed by the interior decors resembled to what we found inside Hagia Sophia of Istanbul.
Coptic Christianity falls under the Orthodox Christianity and it was our first exposure to any Orthodox Church. The small anti-room used as the central sanctuary, the intricately carved black wooden wall separating the sanctuary from the prayer hall, the Holy icons painted everywhere, those unknown rituals being performed by a priest standing behind the sanctuary curtain, the ankle-length white robe with impressive headgear he wore; everything was alien, everything was intriguing for us!
The Christian antiquities, once exhibited in Egyptian Museum of Cairo was later transferred to Coptic Museum, located within the walls of the fortress of Babylon. Since then, all the materials found or excavated, related to the Christian history of Egypt have been archived here. I was impressed by the intricate weaving of Coptic textiles which were in display. Here one of the most prized collections was Nag Hammadi texts, a collection of 13 leather-bound volumes with nearly 1200 papyrus pages. These are probably the earliest books with leather covers; more to this, the written evidence of Gnostic Christianity, a long-forgotten and much-vilified branch of early Christianity. We were strolling through the different sections of the museum showcasing icons, frescoes, manuscripts, artifacts made out of stone, metal, bones, ivory etc; we saw them, but could not perceive them. We were lacking in the rudimentary knowledge on Coptic Christianity required for a deep understanding. Alas! Our pre-trip study on Egypt was focused only on Pharaonic era.
While looking for the next attraction, the Google navigator took us in a fascinating alley with unending book-racks loaded with thousands of books. Some black & white photographs were also exhibited for sale. I wish I could spend a whole day here! (To know more, click here: 7 Interesting Markets of Egypt)
St George Convent
Pictures of a horse-rider fighting with a dragon are seen everywhere, especially in front of the churches, chapels and nunnery named after St George. According to legend, this man of Greek origin was a Roman soldier under Roman emperor Diocletian. St George was sentenced to death for refusing to leave his Christian faith. In Orthodox Christianity he is respected and worshipped as a martyr.
Inside St George Convent, 7 meters high magnificent wooden doors from Fatimid-era were kept intact. Behind the doors there supposed to be an intact reception hall of that period, but the doors were kept closed.
Like St George, another two soldier-saints St Sergius and St Bacchus were also martyred for their Christian faith. Cavern Church aka Abu Serga, one of the oldest Coptic churches (dated back to the 4th century) had been dedicated to their memory. It was built upon the underground stone-chamber where the Holy Family took shelter according to the traditional belief.
The interior of the church looked like that of the Hanging Church, though smaller in size. The stone brick walls and ceiling enhance the old good charm. It is believed that the roof is constructed in the shape of Noah’s Ark. In the transept area we found old books on Christianity in display.
Ben Ezra Synagogue
Like Jesus, according to the local folklore, Moses also had a childhood connection with this place. This synagogue had been built on the location where the baby Moses was found in a basket. The golden rimmed marble shrine, the intricately carved woodworks, the multiple pendant lights all together were much photogenic, though photography was prohibited inside. After the Arab-Israeli conflict in 1950, the number of Jews in Egypt had been declining rapidly. Therefore, today this synagogue is not functional as a place for religious worship; rather it is just a tourist attraction. And like most of the other tourist attractions of Egypt, here also a self-declared guide appeared and started running after us. We would like to spend more times especially on those sites where photography is prohibited to create a long-lasting visual impact on our mind; but here somebody’s unwanted guidance made us leave the place within short time.
Church of St Barbara
This is another very old Coptic Church, built in 5th century, where the relics of St Barbara are kept. This church was famous for its precious possession, though most of them have been shifted to the nearby Coptic Museum. Just like the Cavern Church, here also we saw a marble pulpit and tri-parted sanctuary.
Since the interiors mostly look alike, therefore, the church-hopping started appearing monotonous at a time; though walking along those narrow stone-paved allies, in between the sepia yellow architectures with Orthodox carvings was fascinating; I would feel like time-traveling through Medieval Europe!
Though Coptic Christianity is a part of Orthodox Christianity, but this area is also popular among Catholics. Even we saw a large number of Muslim people gathering here, bowing before the Holy icons of Christianity. Regardless of the religious faith of the visitors, this is a nice place for family-outing and I love this liberal vibe of Coptic Cairo. In the Hanging Church we found Holy messages written in Arabic; along with the mass prayer which was also performing in Arabic. Those made me rethink over the stereo-type idea of relating a particular religion with a language; and also a particular dress-code. We noticed the lady devotees wearing head-scarves just like their Islamic co-citizens and this example of cultural fusion in today’s world should be, needless to say, much appreciated.
At the end of the prayer, devotees greeted each other by touching their both hands with others’ hands followed by kissing own hands. I did the same with the ladies standing around me, received pleasant smile and felt honored to be a part of their custom. Even after visiting Coptic Cairo, my knowledge on Coptic Christianity remained limited. I hardly perceived the antiquities, but I could feel the warmth of their greeting; and that was the most prized memory what I got from Coptic Cairo.
Coptic Cairo is adjacent to Mar Girgis metro station. Once you get out of the metro station you will find yourself in the Coptic Cairo area. Needless to say, the easiest and cheapest mode of transport to be there is the metro. Mar Girgis is on metro line-1. Download a map of Cairo metro from internet, locate the metro station nearest to your accommodation and figure out which metro line(s) you should take to connect line-1.
You have to buy tickets for Coptic Museum. Other sites are free.
Most of the sites are open from 9 am to 4 pm.
To attend the mass prayer of the Hanging Church one should be there between 8-11 am on Wednesday & Friday and 9-11 am on Sunday.
There are canteens adjacent to some churches and chapels. You can get light snacks and drinking water in cheap price.
Coptic Cairo is a place where people mostly gather for their religious interest. Whatever be your belief, try to respect others’ culture. Dress and behave accordingly.
Photography is allowed in most of the sites. Apart from the Coptic Museum, there is no fixed rule written anywhere. Sometimes they will allow you to take pictures, sometimes not! Usually people are more sensitive to big DSLR cameras than the mobile-phones. Anyway, never take selfie inside a place of worship.
If you are in search of books on Egyptology or any other topic written in English, the book-market of the Coptic Cairo may meet your requirement.
Wander with Reshmi & Saikat