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Coptic Cairo - Day 8

EGYPT | Thursday, 22 December 2016 | Views [351]

Day 8 Coptic Cairo

Before heading off to the Coptic section of the capital city, Cairo Ahmad and I stopped at the Blue Mosque, which isn’t really like the one in Istanbul despite the nickname and having been built by the same architect. The external structures are similar other than that there are only two minarets on the Cairo version whereas there are four in Turkey, but inside they are vastly different.  The one here is dark with burgundy, dark green and blue interior colors, whereas the other one has the magnificent blue and white tiles that radiate light. The inside pillars in Cairo are also of a different shape and material.  Alabaster is used throughout the building, including on the pillars, which from a distance looks like marble. Alabaster is also used on the external tops of the various domes with the exception of the mid-sized green one. It is an impressive structure with commanding a view on the top of the hill. The view over the city was hidden through fog and pollution. (Though, I was told that there wasn’t any air pollution in Cairo as there are no industrial factories in the city.  I think the person who told me this wasn’t thinking about all the cars that clog the roads in this 22+ million metropolis.)

 The next stop was the famous Citadel, the very large fortress on a neighboring hill built by Saladin.  Saladin was quite an amazing figure. Highly intelligent, wise, just to those in his territories, and yet the consummate warrior king. Poor Richard of Lionheart fame didn’t stand a chance against him. While I can admire the man, I’m not too interested in forts or weapon museums so we headed straight to the Mohammad Ali Mosque. Mohammad Ali was originally from Libya and was the one who kicked the French out and reunited the country in the early 19th C,; his rather large mosque follows a classical Ottoman style.

 After wandering in and out of Darb al-Ahmar (Red Road) mosques and the Citadel, we drove over to the Coptic section with our first pause at the Hanging Church dedicated to the Virgin Mary and St. Dimiana. The Church is adjacent to the Roman Babylon Fortress built by Trajan in 98 CE, which appears to be a circular construction dug deep into the ground. With the exception of all the niches, passageways and additional rooms, one could almost mistake it for a cistern. The Hanging Church got its name from the way it was on stilts next to the fortress and because at one time it did have a garden that draped over the railings.  The Church is home 110 icons including what is considered to be the Coptic Mona Lisa, a hauntingly intriguing image of Mary with the Christ Child. The wooden ceiling is built to resemble Noah’s Ark. The iconostasis is carved in ebony and ivory, and the walls are decorated with frescos.  Some of the earliest frescos predate the Christian church as they show Roman gods, although these were plastered over by the 5th or 6th C.

 There is a vision story associated with this church that is recounted in the pamphlet “The Principal Ancient Coptic Churches of Old Cairo, The Fort of Babylon and Ben Ezra Synagogue” by Father Marcus Azizkhalil:

The church of El- Moallaqa (the Hanging Church) played an important part in the history of the Coptic Church. It became the seat of the patriarchs after transferring it from Alexandria to Al-Fustat (Cairo) ….

The Holy Virgin appeared in a vision to Anba Abraam the 62nd Patriarch (968-971), who had spent three days in prayer and fasting when the Caliph, Al-Imam El-Mouiz Lidin illah, (about the year 969 A.D.) asked him to move the Moquattam hill in order to prove the words of the gospel “If you have Faith as a grain of mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain: remove from hence to yonder place, and it shall remove” “Matt. 17:20.”  According to that story, there was a great earthquake and the mountain moved.

After witnessing this miracle the Caliph allowed the Patriarch Abraam to restore the churches of El-Moallaqa and Abu-Sefein. (13)


Across the plaza from El-Moallaqa is the Coptic Museum, which occupies two full floors. The collection starts with a few Greek and many Roman fragments of walls and pillars. It then moves on to objects that demonstrate the transition from Egyptian to current monotheist religions, for example, from the ankh to the cross. There are a number of rooms dedicated to artifacts from various monasteries in the region, many of which were damaged by religious fanatics across the ages.  The rooms on the second floor highlight Coptic woodworking, textiles and writing.  The oldest book of psalms is housed in an opaque case in the middle of a room on the second floor. Icons are on display scattered throughout the museum.  This isn’t a particularly large museum, but it is well laid out and useful to understanding the history of Coptic art.

Not far from the museum is St. George’s Church, which has recently been restored by a Greek couple.  The iconostasis is impressive with a golden eye of God looking out at the congregation. It is a large round building that is filled with light, very different from the next stop the ancient Ben Ezra Synagogue.  The oldest synagogue in Cairo, was, according to Coptic sources originally a church that had to be sold to pay taxes to the Muslim governor; Jews on the other hand believe that the structure was first a synagogue that goes back to the pre-Christian era when Moses lived in the area. The Spring next to the synagogue is reputed to be the place where Moses was found among the reeds and where Mary took baby Jesus to be washed. The spring is now encased in a cement well with a grid iron cover locked behind iron fences in the middle of a dilapidated trash strewn ‘yard’. The site of the spring and synagogue is said to be the place where Jeremiah gathered the Jews after Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the First Temple in Jerusalem. The synagogue itself is quite dark inside, but an ancient Torah from about 475 BCE is on display and a drawing of a seven branched menorah on deerskin can be made out. Photography is, unfortunately, not allowed.

The highlight of any visit to Coptic Cairo is the Holy Family Cave beneath the Church of St. Sergius and Bacchus, two early martyred saints. The 4th or 5th C Church is built over what is considered to be the place where the Holy Family took refuge while they were in Egypt. The entrance to the cave is down a set of stairs on the right side of the altar. The cave is fairly small but has pillars creating a mini church with three naves with rounded roman arches and an altar at the back. The exit is up a set of stairs on the left side of the altar. On the ground there are a few glass cases with the original stones showing through with the description “stones from Jesus’ time.” The cave is in very good condition with brick walls, roman pillars, and a tiled floor; certainly not anything the Holy Family would have found, but the site does have a special feel to it.

The next stop was to St. Barbara’s, the martyr who tried to convince her pagan father to convert and for her troubles was tortured and beheaded. Her church was built around the same time as the others in the area, the late 4th or early 5th C, with three naves, an iconostasis of ivory and ebony and a gallery of saints’ portraits above the entrance to the sanctuary. On the left side of the altar area and lining the sides of the church are the relics of a number of venerated people wrapped in burgundy and gold inscribed velvet cloth.  Icons grace the walls on either side.

The last church I visited was a new one dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The iconostasis covered the whole front of the building and was clearly modern. Upon entering I heard voices and found there were three readers chanting the liturgy rehearsing for the Christmas celebration.  The singsong of the Coptic chant was a perfect way to end the visit to this ancient section of town while providing an auditory introduction to its religious traditions.


Tags: city visit, religious tradition


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