This settlement was constructed by the Persians in about 500 BC to guard the junction of the Nile and the canal linking it to the Red Sea. During the Christian period the fortified settlement of Babylon-in-Egypt grew into a large town. It was perhaps named by the fort's homesick building workers from modern-day Iraq or from the name for Gate of Heliopolis (Bab-il-On). Later the Arabs called it Qasr Al-Sham'ah (Fortress of the Beacon). Whatever its origins, it is now commonly known as Old Cairo (Masr Al-Kadima) or identified, not entirely correctly, by some as Coptic Cairo.
Old Cairo, is located on the east bank of the Nile, opposite the southern tip of Roda Island to which it was connected by a pontoon bridge. Leaving Mar Girgis station, you are confronted by two circular Roman towers some 33 m in diameter which comprised the west gate of the fortress. Built on what was at that time the east bank of the Nile, now 400 m further west, the towers sit on foundations now smothered beneath 10 m of Nile silt and rubble. Between them is the Coptic Museum, while the Hanging Church is entered to their right and the modern Church of St George to their left. The other main churches and synagogue of Ben Ezra are accessed via the little flight of sunken steps opposite the exit of the metro.
Ins and outs
The Coptic Museum
The easiest and cheapest way to get to Old Cairo is via the metro, E£1, which drops you right in front of the Coptic quarter. Get off at
(St George), four stops from
in the Helwan direction. For more of an adventure, river-taxis leave Maspero Dock between 0700-0800, E£1, and call at Mar Gigis five stops later. Alternatively, a taxi from Downtown costs E£10. The churches do not charge admission, but most have donation boxes. To get a taste of Coptic culture and see heaps of Coptic Cairenes milling about from holy sight to holy sight, come on Sunday; if you are in search of a peaceful stroll through Old Cairo, it is best to avoid it on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.
Recently restored and reorganized, the Coptic Museum is among Egypt's principal displays of antiquities and houses an outstanding collection of Coptic treasures. It was founded in 1908, with the support of the royal court, as a means of preserving Coptic artefacts and Egypt's Christian heritage against the acquisitive activities of local and foreign collectors. There was an expansion programme in 1947 that enabled the collection to include a number of small but very valuable objects and items from Coptic churches and monasteries throughout Egypt.
The museum gives an interesting insight into the evolution of Christian (and to some extent secular) art and architecture in Egypt in the period AD 300-1800. As well as demonstrating the interchange of ideas with the larger Islamic community, earlier pieces show how the transition from paganism to Christianity was a gradual process with many Graeco-Roman myths incorporated in proto-Coptic art and sculpture. The displays are arranged thematically across two floors in the New and Old Wings; reckon on about three hours for a thorough viewing or an hour to just whip round. It's a good idea to go over lunchtime, when the museum is virtually empty. The enclosed garden is neatly laid out with benches and large pieces of old stonework. There is also a giftshop, library and a small café, though the nearby Saint George Café (next to the church of the same name) is a nicer place to relax.
The Hanging Church
The Convent of St George
Beside the Coptic Museum, the other main attraction in Old Cairo is the Hanging Church (
or 'The Suspended One'). It is so called because it perches on top of the three stone piers of the semi-flooded Roman
from where the Melkite bishop Cyrus, the last Byzantine viceroy, fled by boat as the Muslim army arrived. The original church, built in the fourth century, was demolished in AD 840 by Ali Ibn Yahya who was the Armenian Governor. It was rebuilt in AD 977 and modified several times, most recently in 1775. The church is approached through a narrow courtyard from which steep steps lead, via a 19th-century vestibule, to the church's entrance. The painting of the Virgin on the right-hand wall on entering is known as the Coptic Mona Lisa, as her eyes and face follow you when you move from side to side. Against the left-hand wall are relics of saints contained in cylindrical vessels wrapped in red cloth: it is to these you should appeal for blessings. The church is divided into a wide nave and two narrow side aisles by two rows of eight columns with Corinthian capitals. Look out for the odd-one-out black basalt capital. The vaulted roof is of timber, and echoes the hull of the upturned ark. There are three supporting columns in the centre of the nave and an 11th-century marble pulpit supported by 15 delicate columns. On examination each pair of columns is identical but no two pairs are the same. One of the columns is black, representing Judas, and another is grey, representing either Doubting Thomas or Peter, who denied Christ. The 13th-century
, which separates the congregation from the three
(altar areas), is an incredible feat of fine woodwork and appears virtually transparent. To the right of the altar is a room that is built over the eastern tower of the southern gateway of the old fortress - there is a cordoned-off hole in the floor, through which you can see 13 m down to appreciate the fact there are no foundations - just date palm trunks holding the church up. The screen dividing this room from the main church is of very delicate woodwork - the mother of pearl inlay is enhanced by holding a candle or torch behind. To its left and right, two secret passageways lead down to the foundations. These recent discoveries are thought to be escape routes used by the Christians during times of persecution.
The Church of St Sergius
St George was a Roman soldier and one of the many Christians who fell foul of Diocletian. His body was brought to Egypt in the 12th century. Although you cannot enter the actual convent you can descend into the soaring main hall, a remarkable feature of which are the 8-m-high wooden doors studded with nails. Within are some beautiful icons while the windows are
, as this was once a Fatimid house. In the small room at the left hangs a chain which, it is claimed, was used to secure early martyrs.
The fifth-century Church of St Sergius is dedicated to two soldiers, St Sergius and St Bacchus, who were martyred in Syria in 303. The earliest pieces of the building date from the fifth century. It lies some 3 m below street level and was rebuilt in the Fatimid period after having been virtually destroyed by fire in the eighth century. The architecture of the church, which contains many antiques recovered from ancient monuments, follows the style of a traditional basilica with the nave divided from the side aisles by two rows of six marble pillars. Eleven of these monolithic columns are marble and one is of red granite. The remains of illustrations on these pillars represent the apostles or saints. Some of the series of icons found here are 17th century and show scenes from the lives of Christ, the Virgin Mary and some of the saints. The partially flooded crypt, to the left of the sanctuary, the only remaining vestige of the original church, is intriguing because it is claimed that the Holy Family sought refuge here during their flight to Egypt and the places where they sat are still visible. It has always been a popular place of pilgrimage and a special Mass is held annually on the 24th day of the Coptic month of Bechens (1 June) to commemorate the flight.
The Church of St Barbara
The Ben Ezra Synagogue
Just behind the church of St Sergius is the very similar 11th-century Church of St Barbara standing on the site of an older church dedicated to St Cyrus and St John in
AD 684 that was destroyed during an Arab assault. It is said that when some Christians from Damanhur, including Cyrus and John, confessed to their faith they were shot with arrows, burned in a furnace, tied to a horse's tail and dragged through the streets and survived - to be beheaded. The remains of these two martyrs are in the side chapel approached from the left of the altar. The third-century relics of St Barbara were brought to the church and are
now contained in a lovely little chapel to the left of the altar. St Barbara was an attractive young woman from Nicomedia in Asia Minor. In one version of her history she tried to convert her father to Christianity and he killed her. In the second version she was denounced by her family when she decided to become a nun - then tortured and finally put to death by the Romans along with her faithful attendant St Juliana.
Church of St George
South of the Church of St Barbara is the Ben Ezra Synagogue in the former sixth-century Church of St Michael the Archangel, which itself had been built on the site of a synagogue destroyed by the Romans. Hence, this is the oldest surviving synagogue in Egypt. In the 12th century it was sold back to the Jews
by the Copts in order to pay taxes being raised to finance the Ibn Tulun mosque. The synagogue is built in the basilica style with three naves and an altar hidden by doors, which are wonderfully worked and encrusted with ivory. When the synagogue was extensively repaired in the 19th century, medieval Hebrew manuscripts, known collectively as the
and providing details of the history of the 11th-16th centuries, were discovered. These are now kept in libraries around Western Europe.
The Church of St George is a modern construction from 1904 and the only circular church in Egypt, so shaped because it is actually built on top of the north tower of the old fortress. Part of the Monastery of St George, which is the seat of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, the church is nevertheless the scene of one of the largest Coptic
in Egypt on 23 April (St George's Day). It is worth a quick look for the brightly stained glass, piped music and heady scent of incense. The adjacent Café Saint George is a bit expensive but the best place to re-group after seeing so many churches, with alfresco wicker seating, whispering trees, good lemon juice (
) and passable coffee.
Other sacred sights
If you are going to walk from the main Coptic sights to the mosque and monasteries to the north, you will pass by the
, about 400 m north of the metro station, on the right-hand side of Sharia Saydi Hassan Al-Anwar, before the Mosque of Amr. You can't miss the freshly constructing building, which provides workspaces for local artisans (metal workers, leather workers, glass blowers, etc) in an attempt to keep traditional crafts alive. Goods are on sale in the shops on the ground floor .
Mosque of Amr Ibn Al-As
Convent of St Mercurius
The original Mosque of Amr Ibn Al-As (Gama Amr), 500 m north of Mari Girgis metro station, was built in AD 642 by the commander of the Arab army that captured Egypt in that year. Built near to both Babylon-in-Egypt and the Arabs' encampment (Fustat), it is the oldest mosque in Egypt and one of the oldest in the entire Islamic world. Because of the continual enlargements, which began in AD 673 only 10 years after Amr's death aged 93, and included major restoration work in the 15th and 18th centuries and the most recent work in the 1970s, nothing of the original mud-brick thatched-roof mosque still exists. Recently repainted and cleaned, its aspect today is virtually modern. As is often the case in the older mosques the interior includes many pillars taken from ancient Egyptian monuments. As a result the whole mosque is a hybrid with parts of the fabric dating from before the conquest of Egypt until the 19th-century alterations. In the north corner under the dome and surrounded by a bronze screen, on the site of Amr's house in Fustat, is the tomb of his son Abdullah who was born when Amr was only 13, became a Muslim before him and was a close companion of the Prophet.
This walled complex of churches is worth visiting to escape the presence of the soldiers, tourists and shops that infiltrate the main sights of Coptic Cairo. After a vision in which St Mercurius was presented with a luminous sword (hence his Arabic name Abu Seifein
- Mr Two Swords) in order to fight for the cause of Christianity, he was persecuted and killed for his faith. Relics are said to be here in the convent and also in the adjacent church. The convent has its origins in the sixth century but has gone through many stages of rebuilding especially in the 10th century. The Church of St Mercurius, the largest church here, is actually a church and four large chapels, that on the ground floor dedicated to St Jacob (containing the font used for adult baptism) and those upstairs dedicated to St George, John the Baptist and the children killed by Herod.
Church of St Shenuda
This church, noted for its 18th-century icons, is adjacent to the church of St Mercurius. There are seven icons in the ebony and cedarwood screen, the central one shows the Virgin and the others each have pictures of two apostles. Shenuda is associated with the Red and White monasteries. Nearby, the Church of the Virgin is thick with icons and hanging lanterns which, as shafts of sunlight pierce the gloom, create an intensely spiritual atmosphere.
Coptic Orthodox Cathedral
There are more than 100 Coptic Orthodox churches in Cairo but the special pride is the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral (1965) dedicated to St Mark. This is just off Sharia Ramses. It can seat 5000 worshippers, houses the patriarchal library and accommodates the patriarch Pope Shenuda III.
The Manial Palace
An island south of Zamalek, accessible by bridge from Garden City at the northern end and from Old Cairo at the bottom, Roda has a couple of interesting sights, the eccentric Manial Palace being chief amongst them. Strolling the 2 km between the palace in the north and the Nilometer to the south along mainly post-1950s streets is something few tourists find time to do, but offers plenty of scope for a relaxing
in shady streets that are more peaceful than most.
An oasis of tranquillity in noisy Cairo and well worth visiting, the palace was built in 1903 and is now a museum. It was the home of King Farouk's uncle Prince Mohammed Ali and comprises a number of buildings in various styles including Moorish, Ottoman, Persian, Rococo and Syrian. The first is the Reception Palace at the gate, beautifully decorated with polychrome tiles and stained glass. Upstairs are a number of luxurious rooms, of which the Syrian Room is the finest, and a mother-of-pearl scale model of Sultan Qaitbay's mausoleum. To the right is a mosque with a tall mock Moroccan minaret and then a macabre yet curious Trophies Museum with tatty and poorly stuffed animals including a hermaphrodite goat and a table made of elephant's ears. The Royal Residence in the middle of the garden is a mixture of Turkish, Moroccan, Egyptian and Syrian architectures and contains a number of rooms, nearly all of which are decorated with blue earthenware tiles. The Throne Hall behind the residence contains impressive royal portraiture and the Private Museum includes a varied collection of Korans, manuscripts, carpets, plates and glassware, and is fascinating. The palace gardens are 5500 sq m and contain a rare collection of trees brought back to Egypt by Mohammed Ali.
The Nilometer and Umm Kalthoum Museum
On the southern tip of Roda island stands a small kiosk containing the Nilometer
, originally built in the ninth century BC. There has probably been a nilometer here since ancient times but this one was constructed in AD 861 and is considered the second-oldest Islamic structure in Cairo, after the Amr Ibn Al-Aas Mosque. The original measuring gauge remains today and there is exquisite Kufic calligraphy on the interior walls and an elaborately painted dome.
contains memorabilia from the life of Egypt's ultimate diva . It's a small and well-curated museum set in pleasant grounds next to the Manasterli Palace (an impressive Rococco structure where concerts are infrequently held). In the museum are Umm Kalthoum's famous sunglasses and ubiquitous pink scarf, alongside photos, press cuttings and audiovisuals - most poignant of which shows her funeral procession that brought the streets of Cairo to a standstill in 1975.
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