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Coptic Cairo

Qasr al-Sham, the Coptic District of Cairo , is one of the most interesting neighborhoods in the city.

The Copts were the native Egyptians , that is, those who lived in ancient Cairo before the arrival of the Arabs. Later the term “Coptic” came to have a religious meaning that designates the Christian Egyptians, who still live mostly in this part of the city.

The Coptic Quarter of Cairo is also a pilgrimage site because, according to the New Testament, Jesus’ family took refuge there for a few weeks when he fled to Egypt. In the cave where they say they lived, the church of San Sergio and San Baco was built in the fifth century.

The architecture of the Coptic neighborhood is very interesting, as there is influence from many different cultures: Greek, Egyptian, Arabic, Byzantine . And, many times, we will find in the same building details of different styles and times.

The Coptic neighborhood is located in the same place since its foundation: a fortress called Fortress of Babylon , within which there are, in addition to a museum, numerous churches of different religions.

BABYLON FORTRESS

The date of its foundation is unknown, although it is known that it already existed a hundred years before Christ, because Ptolemy mentions it in his book “Geography”. At the time of the Roman Empire it was also called Castle of Egypt .

The fortress walls , reinforced by the Roman emperors, are 3 meters thick and the towers are 10 meters high and 31 in diameter.

From the Arab conquest, the name Babylon extended to the whole area surrounding the castle of Qasr ash-Sham’a.

COPTIC MUSEUM

Without a doubt, the Coptic Museum is the heart of the neighborhood. It houses the world’s largest collection of Christian Egyptian objects and tells the history of Egypt from the beginning to the present: frescoes, reliefs, manuscripts, religious objects, wood carvings and others. Many objects are an interesting example of religious syncretism.

HANGING CHURCH

It is probably the most famous church in the Coptic District. Its name is Al-Moallaqa, but it is popularly known as Hanging Church or Suspended Church because it is built on one of the gates of the Roman fortress. Between the 7th and 13th centuries it was the official residence of the Coptic Patriarch.

The wooden dome of the church has the shape of Noah’s Ark, as described in the Old Testament.

Inside the church there are three sanctuaries , one dedicated to the Virgin Mary, another to St. George and the third to St. John the Baptist.

In addition to its beautiful decoration, the marble altar, and the seven altars with 110 icons, one of the main attractions of the church is the V-century pulpit , which retains some of its 15 original columns. It was built in the image of the Church of Santa Barbara.

WHAT ELSE TO SEE IN THE COPTIC DISTRICT

  • Abu Sarga: it is the oldest church in Egypt . It was built in the 5th century on the cave where, it is believed, the Holy Family took refuge for several days. It is dedicated to the saints Sergio and Bacchus, of which part of their relics are preserved in this church.
     
  • Ben Ezra Synagogue : it was originally a church, but in the ninth century it was sold to Abraham Ben Ezra, who gave him his name, to get the money needed to pay the high taxes demanded by the Roman government. There are preserved thousands of ancient Jewish manuscripts.
     
  • San Jorge : it is a Greek Orthodox church built on the north tower of the Fortress. It can only be accessed through a ladder. The current building is a reconstruction of the early twentieth century.
     
  • Convent of San Jorge: its origins date back to the 10th century and some parts of the original building are still preserved. It houses a variety of relics of the saint to whom it is dedicated and a library with old books and manuscripts.
     
  • Santa Barbara Church: It is a church of great historical importance, which was originally dedicated to San Ciro and San Juan. From the thirteenth century he dedicated himself to Santa Barbara as his relics reached this church. It houses some of the oldest and rarest icons of Coptic art.

One of the epicenters of the city of Cairo that the traveler must take into account is the today called Qasr al-Sham neighborhood, also known as the Coptic neighborhood of Cairo . The denomination of “Coptic” was given to those native inhabitants who resided in the city when the Arabs conquered Egypt. These, mostly Egyptian Christians , became called “Copts”, continuing to this day under that name those who are mostly of Orthodox confession.

According to the Gospel, it was in this area of ​​the city of Cairo that the Holy Family lived in its exile to Egypt , so the streets of the Coptic neighborhood are full of Christian history, but also Jewish. The Museum of Coptic Art is in the center of the area, and around it different religious temples are erected. In addition, some canvases of the ancient walls are preserved.

The Coptic Museum was held in 1908 and, as you will suppose, is dedicated to Coptic art. They emphasize the famous Manuscripts of Nag Hammadi (of the III and IV centuries), together with those that exhibit other ivory objects, papyri or pieces of architecture that date between the years 300 and 1,000 and make up its museum background.

The Byzantine people are an important contributor to the historical wealth of the area, because here there was an important fortress on which some emblematic buildings rest. This is the case of the churches of St. George (Keniset Mari Guirguis), of Greek Melchite worship, and St. Mary (Keniset Sitt Mariam). Its circular plan stands out of San Jorge, as well as the icon of San Jorge, which is an attraction for many pilgrims .

The Church of Santa María is also known as the Hanging Church , precisely because it is located above the previous fortress. It was also called in the past “Staircase Church”, because to access it you have to climb some steep stairs. It consists of a nineteenth-century facade with white twin bell towers. From its viewpoint we can contemplate several of the canvases of the Roman fortress that are still standing.

The Palestinians go to their religious services to the Ben Ezra Synagogue (also called the El-Geniza Synagogue), built in the 19th century, built on a former Roman in the place where it is believed that Moses was found as a baby. Around it, we can visit the crypts of some churches, which contain historical wells, which are believed to have been visited by the Virgin Mary. One of them is the Church of San Sergio (Keniset Abu Sirga) of the end of the 5th century and currently of orthodox worship.

It is also said that the crypt of the Church of the Virgin (Keniset al-Adra), which was built next to the ancient Greek Orthodox cemetery, was visited by the Virgin Mary . Both the church and the cemetery are part of a large architectural site that is completed with the Monastery of St. George.

The visit to the Coptic neighborhood completes the stop at the Church of Santa Barbara , from the end of the 5th century although the restoration that we can see is from the 10th century. It highlights the columns of the three interior ships that were brought from previous monuments , as well as polychrome marbles and fine marquetry works with which it is decorated.