After the drama with Ana’s passport at the Egyptian Museum, the tour group headed to the Coptic Quarter of Old Cairo, part of the UNESCO World Heritage listing for Historic Cairo. There has been a Coptic Orthodox community in this section of Cairo before the city even existed. Hundreds of years before Cairo was founded, it was a small Roman outpost. The Holy Family was said to have sheltered in the area on their flight into Egypt.
We got out of the bus and first walked past an old Greek cemetery, then past the gates to the Greek Orthodox Monastery of St. George. The monastery is occupied by a small group of nuns and has been around since the 7th century.
The Church of St. George is attached to the monastery. It’s the only round church in Egypt and is the seat of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria (although there are still offices and a cathedral in Alexandria). There has been a church on the site since at least the 10th century, but the current church was built after 1904. It was constructed on top of a 1st century Roman gate tower. The church was under construction when we walked by.
Next was the remains of the Babylon Fortress, built by the Romans and used as the foundation for many of the churches in the area. It stood from the time of Roman conquest of Egypt after 30 BC until its capture by the Arabs during the Muslim conquest of Egypt in April 641. The siege on the fortress lasted seven months.
The main attraction during our stop in Coptic Cairo was Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church (Ⲉⲕⲕⲗⲏⲥⲓⲁ ⲛⲧⲉⲙⲁⲥⲛⲟⲩⲧ), better known by its popular name of the Hanging Church (Ⲉⲕⲕⲗⲏⲥⲓⲁ ϫⲓⲛⲓⲱⲓ). It was established in the 3rd century and was the seat of the Coptic Orthodox Pope of Alexandria from 1047 to about 1300.
The first part of the church we entered was the courtyard, where we were able to get a look at the most famous church in Cairo.
There were a few interesting modern mosaics in the courtyard.
From there, we entered the main part of the church through the narthex. The interior is peaceful and awe inspiring.
The altar is made of carved ebony with inlaid ivory and is decorated with several different Coptic cross designs. Above the altar are seven icons, with the central one being Christ seated on the throne. The pulpit was carved out of marble in the 11th century. It has 13 columns to represent Christ and his disciples.
There are several other icons in the church, some dating back to the 8th century, as well as the relics of many saints.
In the Chapel of Takla Haymanot, part of the original 4th century church, it becomes obvious why it’s called the Hanging Church. A window in the floors show how the church was built on top of the Water Gate of the Babylon Fortress.
After visiting the church, we returned to Islamic Cairo, but I wish we had spent more time in Coptic Cairo. There are several other historic churches in the area and a museum I hope to return to visit one day.