My introduction to Coptic Cairo
When I started living in Cairo, my neighbour Miriam became my first friend and she is a very pious Coptic Christian. Thus my initial knowledge of this ancient faith came from her and her tales got me hooked. A few weeks later, a visit to the actual Coptic Cairo or Mar Girgis as it is locally called, helped me understand the Christian history of Egypt better and I came face to face with a religion as old as time. Egyptian Copts follow the Coptic Orthodox Church and consider themselves to the descendants of Ancient Egyptians, who were the first peoples to convert to Christianity. The word “Copt” is derived from the Arabic word “Qibt” – or “Gibt” which comes from the Greek word “Egyptos” meaning “Egypt.”. In fact, the ancient city of Memphis (predecessor of Cairo) was known as “Hikaptah” (Ha-Kaptah) in 3100 BC and it was at the time, the first capital of Ancient Egypt. The history of the Coptic Church is intimately tied to Christian monasticism and this ancient tradition is still practiced in Egypt.
Discovering Biblical Egypt, the refuge of the Holy Family
Bible declares Egypt as the place of refuge of the Holy Family when they were fleeing from Judea. In Matthew 2:12-23, it is said, “When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod the Great, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt I called My Son“. Thus the nineteen centuries old Egyptian Church prides itself on playing a pivotal role in many prophecies in the Old Testament. The first Egyptian Christians were mostly Alexandrian Jews and the Church of Alexandria was founded by St Mark during the rule of the Roman emperor Nero. St Mark is considered to be the founding father of the Coptic Orthodox Church and despite emperor Nero’s violent persecution of Christians, a large number of the population embraced Christianity during his reign. These included native Egyptians along with the resident Greeks. Christianity spread like wildfire throughout Egypt within fifty years of St Mark’s arrival in Alexandria and such was the popularity that in the 2nd century, Christian scriptures were translated into the local Coptic language.
Important religious sites apart from Coptic Cairo
Apart from Coptic Cairo Quarter, there are many Coptic monasteries and churches scattered all over Egypt and many important religious relics have been discovered from similar sites. The most important Coptic monasteries in Egypt are the monastery of St Simeon in Aswan, St Anthony and St Paul Monasteries in the Red Sea mountains, and Deir Al-Kashef Monastery, an early Coptic monastery in the Western Desert. Some of Egypt’s churches such as the church of the virgin in Asyut and the Coptic Cathedral of St. Mark in Alexandria are considered among the oldest Christian landmarks in the world, making them historically extremely important. Many of these monasteries and churches depict the journey of the Holy Family (Abraham, Mary, and Jesus) and it is a much revered Biblical trail.
Exploring Coptic Cairo is like walking down history
In Coptic Cairo, the Hanging Church which dates back to the 3rd Century AD is the most important site. It is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and contains 110 Holy icons depicting beautiful religious scenes. The neighbouring Saint Sergius and Bacchus Church is believed to have been built on the spot where the holy family rested at the end of their journey into Egypt. Then there is the famous Jewish Synagogue of Ben Ezra which has been mentioned in Amitava Ghosh’s novel “In an Antique Land”. The synagogue houses a very important Geniza or Storeroom which in the 19th century was discovered to be a treasure of abandoned Hebrew secular and sacred manuscripts. Being in the Coptic Cairo Quarter is to walk on ancient history which has formed the world we live in. You get goosebumps as you walk down the labyrinthine cobbled lanes, yet there also exists a sense of realism in form of drying laundry from surrounding apartment blocks, clusters of massive satellite antennas, vendors selling religious paraphernalia, and heavy presence of the military. You can’t help but wonder at the irony of religion being the biggest bone of contention in history and how it continues to spill blood. Somebody up there has a cruel celestial humour and the joke is on us.
A Guide to Coptic Cairo
The Coptic Cairo Quarter is one of the most historic and beautiful spots with many buildings going back to the 6th century BC. Presenting a guide to the not to be missed spots of Coptic Cairo.
How to Reach
The Metro is the easiest way to reach Coptic Cairo. The Mar Girgis station is located right outside the Coptic Cairo quarter and from Midan Tahrir (Tahrir Square) near the Egyptian Museum, take the Metro south for Mar Girgis. The ticket costs around 1 Egyptian Pound and there are connections every few minutes.
Visiting the Coptic Cairo is half to full day activity depending on your interest in religious history and relics. The Coptic Museum itself takes at least an hour.
What to see in Coptic Cairo
- Old Roman Walls – This is the first thing that you will see upon exiting the metro. In the 2nd century, the Romans built a fortress in this Cairo neighbourhood and called it Babylon. This fortress was built to control traffic and trade along the Nile and supposedly had a connection to the Red Sea canal. The remnants of the Roman walls of the now completely disappeared fortress are visible from the street and is a free attraction. no fee for viewing them or taking photographs.
- The Hanging Church – Also known as the St Virgin Mary’s Church, this old church takes its name from its location a.k.a sited above a gateway in the old Roman fortress. It is still a functioning Coptic church and has several beautiful religious icons.
- The Monastery and Church of St George – It is an early 20th-century church and also the only round church in Egypt.
- Abu Serga/The Church of St. Sergius and St. Bacchus – A 5th-century Coptic church with beautiful interiors containing 24 interior columns and 12th-century iconography on the walls.
- Ben Ezra Synagogue – This is the oldest synagogue in Egypt, which was 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 and was bought in the late 9th century by Abraham Ben Ezra, former Rabbi of Jerusalem. The synagogue is named after him. This synagogue houses the famous Geniza, which was discovered in the 19th century to be a treasure trove of ancient and rare Jewish manuscripts, which have given scholars insight into the North African Jewish community of the 11th and 13th centuries. According to legends, an adjacent spring marks the spot where the Pharaoh’s daughter found Moses among the reeds.
- The Coptic Museum – Founded in 1908, this fantastic museum houses Coptic art from the earliest days of Christianity in Egypt right through to early Islam. The building itself is exceptionally beautiful with elaborate woodcarving in all the galleries. The exhibits include sculptures that show obvious continuity from the Ptolemaic period, rich textiles, whole walls of monastery frescoes, along with the oldest book of psalms in the world, the Psalms of David, with two original wooden covers. Visiting Hours – 8am-4pm Entrance Fees – adult/student 100/50 Egyptian Pounds, camera 50 Egyptian Pounds Allow a few hours to enjoy this museum to the fullest.
- The Monastery of St. Simon the Tanner or The Cave Church – Located in El Mokattam hills area near the Zabbaleen slum or Garbage City, the Monastery of St. Simon the Tanner has an amphitheater with a seating capacity of 20,000. This is the largest church in the Middle East.
Things to remember when visiting Coptic Cairo
- Visitors must have shoulders and knees covered to enter churches or mosques.
- Churches celebrate Mass on Sunday, and some on Friday as well.
- There are a few basic cafes, with not so clean toilets, are scattered among the churches. There are also toilets at the Coptic Museum and the Hanging Church. Bring your own toilet paper.
- Bring small change if you wish to make donations at the churches.
- Wear comfortable walking shoes and bring sun hats.
For more information on Coptic Christianity, culture and Coptic languages, check out the Coptic Cairo official website.
P.S – This blog post is part of the weekly series called the Cairo Chronicles. Every week, Maverickbird will try to focus on a new theme, emotion, and beauty of expat life in the exciting, maddening city of Cairo.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE