Old Cairo

Cairo, Egypt

Old Cairo Area

In south Cairo, a short drive from Saladin’s Citadel and only 700m south of the Cairo War Memorial Cemetery, lies the area of Old Cairo (also known as Masr al-Qadima and Coptic Cairo). As the name of the area suggests, this is an ancient area of Cairo that is now the popular home to Cairo’s Coptic Christian community. Part of this area, known as Fustat (also known as Misr Al-Fustat) was briefly the capital of Egypt in the seventh and eighth centuries CE, and again for a brief period in the tenth century CE.

The area is famous for its narrow alleyways and shops and for housing a number of buildings of religious significance, including the Church and Monastery of St. George, the Churches of St. Sergius (Abu Serga) and St. Barbara, the Sharia Mar Girgis (also known as the Hanging Church), the Ben Ezra Synagogue, and the Mosque of Amr ibn al-As. All of these sites are located within a relatively small geographic area (the majority of these are within a 150m x 150m block of buildings), and are thus easily accessible on foot. The Mar Girgis Metro station is also located within Old Cairo and can be a convenient way to access the area for those who wish to take a train.

Visitors to all sites in this area should be mindful of the different religious/cultural conventions and etiquette expected. This may include dressing modestly, removing footwear upon entering buildings (or parts of some buildings), and withholding photography in certain areas of buildings. It is also recommended that visitors plan their visits outside of prayer time.

Creator: Jon ‘southtopia’

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/southtopia/5709418829/

Babylon Fortress

Many of the buildings that can be seen in Old Cairo today were originally built above an ancient Roman fortification, known as Babylon Fortress. This fortification was reportedly built by Trajan, Roman Emperor from 98 CE to 117 CE, upon the eastern bank of the Nile River near a canal linking the Nile to the Red Sea. In addition to defending these water approaches, the fortification also protected the nearby city of Memphis. Some remains of the fortification can still be seen quite clearly in the open, as seen in this image, and as part of the construction foundations in other nearby buildings (see for example the Hanging Church). 

Image: Babylon Fortress

Creator: Christopher Karykides

St. George Greek Orthodox Church

One of the most visible buildings in the area is the St. George (Mari Gerges) Greek Orthodox Church and Monastery, seen in this image. Located directly across the road from the Mar Girgis (Mari Gerges or St. George) Metro station, the Church is usually open to the public from 9:00am to 5:00pm.

The original Church of St. George was built on this site in the 10th century, CE, and the present structure was built in the 1900s. It is reported to be the only circular church in Egypt, and it is believed that it took this shape principally from the circular foundations of a Roman round tower upon which it was built, similar to that seen in the image of Babylon Fortress. A flight of stairs reportedly down into the ruins of the old Roman tower that form these foundations, but this is generally closed to the public. Similarly the stairs leading up to the church were built upon the walls from the original Roman fortification. Whilst the current building is relatively new, it utilises the beautiful stained-glass windows from the earlier church.

The seat of the Greek Patriarch of Alexandria is in the Monastery of St. George, which adjoins the Church, but this is generally closed to the public.

Image: St. George Greek Orthodox Church

Creator: Christopher Karykides

Hanging Church

The Hanging Church (also known as the Suspended Church or Al-Moallaqa) is Cairo’s most famous Coptic Church. It takes its name from the fact that it was built on palm tree logs and layers of stone that were layered above the southern gate of the Roman fortification (Babylon Fortress). These foundations, including the pine logs and the remains of the Roman fortification, are open to public viewing from within the church.

Churches on this site date back to the third century CE, with the foundations of the current church being established in the seventh century. Since then, substantial changes have been made to the church with little of the remaining structure remaining. Nonetheless, the Hanging Church remains an important Coptic Church in Egypt, being the official residence of the Coptic Pope and housing 110 religious icons, with the oldest dating back to the eighth century CE.

Image: The Hanging Church

Creator: Christopher Karykides

 

Sources:

Richard Yeomans, The Art and Architecture of Islamic Cairo, American University of Cairo Press, 2006.

Gawdat Gabra, Marianne Eaton-Krauss, Majlis al-A?lá lil-Athar, The illustrated guide to the Coptic Museum and churches of Old Cairo, American University in Cairo Press, Cairo, 2007.

Jim Antonious, Historic Cairo: a walk through the Islamic city, American University in Cairo Press, Cairo, 1998.

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