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Coptic Cairo

Coptic Cairo

Historical evidence suggests that Coptic Cairo is where the modern city began. But successive later conquerors shifted the urban center ever northward, to the point that Coptic Cairo now lies out on the southern fringes, well away from all the clamor and noise. Its high stone walls enclose a compound of silent narrow lanes, ancient holy places, and an important small museum.

For a few hundred years following the decline of the old pharaonic religions and before the arrival of Islam, Egypt was Christian. Alexandria was the seat of power and the country’s only city of importance. Cairo-to-be existed as a modest port and river crossing in use since pharaonic times, and as a Roman fortress that went by the name Babylon-in-Egypt.

As you arrive today by subway at Mar Girgis station, you have been traveling along the line of the banks of the Nile before the river changed its course 700 or more years ago. Steps down from the platform face the remains of two round Roman towers that formed the western gateway to the fortress, built in AD. 98 by Emperor Trajan. As you pass between them, you are really standing on top of the walls because centuries of mud and debris have raised the ground level by some 30 feet (10 m). Excavations down to the base of the right-hand tower have revealed traces of an ancient dock. Its twin on the left has been pressed into service as the foundation for the circular Greek Orthodox Church of St. George. George (in Arabic “Girgis”) was an early Palestinian Christian martyr, executed by the Romans about AD. 300. Returning Crusaders popularized his cult in Europe, and sometime around the 13th century, he was adopted by the English as their patron saint. His veneration in Cairo dates back earlier, and there has been a church dedicated to him in Coptic Cairo since the tenth century, although the present round basilica dates from the early 20th century.

Across a small garden with shady gazebos is the Coptic Museum. Founded in 1908, the museum houses a fascinating collection representing a period of great change in world cultural history, when all around the eastern Mediterranean the old pagan gods–Greek, Roman, and Egyptian-were being usurped by the beliefs and icons of Christianity. Here you can see how Greek goddess motifs have become crosses, as have pharaonic ankhs, and the hawk-headed pharaonic ‘ deity Horus nestles at the corners of Coptic basket-weave capitals.

All these objects are ‘on the lower floor of the museum’s New Wing, which is to the left on entering. On the upper floor are textiles, early Bibles, manuscripts, and an array of 17thand 18thcentury icons. The exhibits are almost upstaged by the museum’s beautifully painted wooden ceilings and mashrabiyya windows. The Old Wing is even finer, but since the violent earthquake of 1992, it has been closed while structural defects are attended to. If the wing has reopened, take the chance to descend the staircase off the south side of the courtyard, which leads down into an area enclosed by the Water Gate, another twin-towered portal from the Roman fortress.

Built right on top of the Water Gate is the Church of the Virgin Mary, also known as the Hanging Church (Al-Muallaqa, “the suspended” in Arabic) because it rests on top of, and literally hangs over the Roman towers. It was probably founded in the ninth century, so it is not the oldest of Coptic Cairo’s half dozen ancient churches, but it is arguably the most beautiful. You enter the church from the museum garden up a steep staircase to a twin-towered 19th-century portico. In an inner court, stalls do a good business in reproduction icons, taped liturgies, and videos of papal sermons. Inside, much of the decoration dates from the 13th century, including the bone-and ivory screens shielding the altars. Mass is still held celebrated here each Friday and Sunday morning. On leaving the church, return to the main road and walk north beside the subway line to a flight of stairs that leads down, through a short tunnel, and back into the Coptic compound. Through a gate on the left in the high-walled alley is the Convent of St. George, closed to the public except for the main hall and chapel.

Farther on down, past several large “antiques” emporiums and around the corner, is the Church of St. Sergius, also called Abu Serga. You have to descend another flight of stairs, which is an indication of the building’s age around here, the lower you go the older things are. Historians dispute the age of this church but the likely consensus is the fifth century. According to tradition, it is built over a crypt in which the Holy Family took shelter during their stay in Egypt. In more recent times the crypt has been flooded by rising groundwater and cannot be visited.

At the end of the same lane, a left turn leads to the 11th-century Church of St. Barbara, while a right brings you to a small gate through which you’ll find the Ben Ezra Synagogue. Venerated as the oldest synagogue in Cairo (it was founded in the 9th century and remodeled in the 12th by Abraham Ben Ezra, Rabbi of Jerusalem), it is associated by tradition with the prophet Jeremiah, whose temple is said to have stood on this spot.

Another tradition has this as the place where the pharaoh’s daughter found Moses in the bulrushes. The real find, however, happened in the 19th century with the discovery of the synagogue’s intact geniza, or treasury. Since the 11th century, Cairo’s Jewish community had been depositing documents in this chimney-like space in the synagogue because any paper bearing the name of God had to be preserved. The thousands of letters, promissory notes, deeds, accounts, contracts, and petitions recovered amounted to an account of medieval life comparable in completeness to the Domesday Book, William the Conqueror’s 1086 survey of England. This priceless collection was rapidly spirited away to academic institutions abroad-most of it to Cambridge, England-and not one single bundle or sheaf remains in Cairo.

A short walk north of the walls of the Coptic compound is the Amr ibn al-As Mosque, established by the Arab general who captured Cairo in AD. 640 and claimed Egypt for Islam. As it exists today, the mosque is a patchwork of countless rebuilding and restorations, but it holds a special place in the story of Cairo as the site where Islam was first introduced into Egypt. To get to the mosque, follow Mar Girgis Street which runs beside the metro line north for 200 yards (180 m).

From Coptic Cairo, it is just a brief walk to the Nilometer Cross the bridge over the subway tracks and keeps going west until you reach the river where a footbridge takes you across to the island of Rhoda.

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Coptic Cairo

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