The Definitive Guide to Living in the Capital , Cairo , Egypt

Sights & Travel

Cairo Guide: Visiting Coptic Cairo

Cairo Guide: Visiting Coptic Cairo
    written by
    Aleksandra Sekinger

    Conceptualising over five thousand years of Egyptian history kind of makes
    our brains go fuzzy. The best place to learn about the period connecting the
    death of the last pharaoh, Cleopatra VII, and the Islamic era is Coptic Cairo,
    a neighbourhood that has fostered a vibrant Christian community for centuries.
    Conveniently accessible from the Mar Girgis Metro Station or by taxi, charming
    cobblestone roads connect dozens of churches, active monasteries and convents.
    The following five sights are must-sees for any visitor to Egypt .

    Old Roman Walls

    Upon exiting the metro, you’ll see the old Roman walls to your right. In
    the 2nd century, the Romans built a fortress in Cairo
    along this neighbourhood, which they called Babylon . The rounded towers of the western
    gate of the Babylon fortress were built in 98AD,
    and together with the existing southern gate, they are amongst the oldest
    structures in Cairo .

    This tall fortress once controlled traffic and trade along the Nile,
    while it was also connected to the Red Sea
    canal. The Roman Walls are visible from the street, and there is no fee for
    viewing them or taking photographs.

    The Hanging

    Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church, or the Hanging Church ,
    was built over the water gate of the old Roman fortress. It is called the hanging
    church because the sanctuaries are actually suspended over what was once the
    southern tower gate of the Babylon
    walls. A functioning Coptic church till this day, its contemporary structure is
    suspected to go back to the 5th or 6th centuries, though it underwent several
    renovations and additions.

    This impressive basilica has seven sanctuaries. There are dedicated
    alters to the Virgin Mary, St. John the
    Baptist and St. Mar Girgis. There are also several beautiful icons of Christ,
    the Virgin Mary, Archangel Gabriel and St. Peter. From the 11th to the 14th
    centuries, this church was the seat of the Coptic patriarchate.

    The Coptic Museum

    Established in 1908, the Coptic Museum
    houses the largest collection of Coptic textiles, tapestries, stone work and
    other artefacts. The museum contains over 15,000 ancient antiques, many of
    which were donated by the local Coptic community. The well-marked and recently
    renovated museum guides audiences through a very educational history of
    Christianity in Egypt .

    Serving as the transition between a polytheistic culture to the Islamic
    era, the Museum examines how Christian symbols took a new spin on ancient
    Egyptian mythological characters and pharaonic icons. The museum is divided
    into sections based on medium including textiles, frescos, stonework, woodwork,
    metalwork, glass and ceramics. Open to special researchers only is the Naga
    Hammadi Library, which houses 1200 ancient Coptic manuscripts.

    The Church of St Sergius and St.

    The Church of St. Sergius and St. Bacchus, also known as Abu Sarga, is
    the oldest church in Egypt ,
    dating back to the 5th century. Dedicated to two early martyrs killed in Syria by the Roman Emperor Maximilian, the
    Church has a beautiful old basilica style and shares much in similarity with
    the style of the Hanging
    Church .

    Rumour has it that this church was built upon the crypt that the Holy
    Family stayed in during their flight in Egypt , escaping Herod’s
    persecution. It is thus a popular pilgrim destination for many Christians. The
    house of worship is laden with interesting geometric crosses of ivory and
    ebony. There are also several icons of St. George and John the Baptist from the
    18 th century.  

    Ben Ezra Synagogue

    Just behind the Hanging Church , you’ll find Egypt ’s oldest synagogue. Originally
    built as a church in the 4th century, the building was sold to pay the taxes
    imposed on the church by Ibn Tulun’s government. It was bought in the late 9th
    century by Abraham Ben Ezra, former Rabbi of Jerusalem, after whom the
    synagogue is named.

    Legend has it that an adjacent spring marks the place where Moses was
    found in the reeds. This is also a tourist attraction; because tradition holds
    that this is where famous medieval rabbi Moses Maimonides worshipped when he
    lived in Cairo .
    The synagogue has a famous archive of ancient and rare Jewish manuscripts,
    which have given scholars insight into the North African Jewish community of
    the 11th and 13th centuries.

    If you have more time to spend in Coptic Cairo, check out the Greek
    Chapel of St. George, the Mosque of Amr Ibn Al As, Church
    of St. Barbara as well as the Greek Orthodox
    Cemetery . To view a map
    of these and other sites; visit the map on Coptic Cairo’s website.