Coptic Cairo, Cairo
Old Cairo or "Coptic Cairo" as it is known to foreigners is the historic link between Egypt's Pharaonic and Islamic civilisations and was once known as Babylon where the Holy Family is supposed to have taken refuge. It is the heart of Cairo's Coptic Christian community and houses several medieval churches, a synagogue and the Coptic Museum.
The nearest metro station is "Mari Girgis" which we took from Sadat station near to the Egyptian Museum (see transport tip for metro map).
Just outside Mari Girgis station you will come across the 2 circular towers of Babylon's western gate. Above these you will see the Orthodox Church of St. George with it's mural of George and the dragon outside. Open 8.30am - 4pm daily (free entry). The Hanging Church is also nice to visit and is open daily from 9am-5pm (free entry). At the Convent of St. George you can see the casket containing relics of St. George and try on the chains used for the "chain wrapping ritual" (symbolizing the Saint's persecution by the Romans) (free entry). The Church of St. Sergius is open from 8am - 4pm (free entry) with the Ben Ezra Synagogue nearby (open from 9am - 4pm). No photos allowed here and I seem to remember that there was a small fee to enter of 10LE pp.
The christian community in Cairo is very old and they remain today, but the christian quarter is not very impressive. The shrines are tucked away in the mud brick convents...the peaceful walkways with underground passageways leading to churches and monastary shrines that appear to have been storage barns at some point. Not impressive architecture but considered a must see.
The taxi driver said he knew where it was, but he lead me to like a back entrance i think, because i didnt see the great sites others saw. I wandered through strange areas with long white washed walls all over, and abandoned rows of housing, and evident poverty, and the area seamlessly went from the Coptic Cairo Museum grounds to the desolate desert roads. (see pictures)
I decided to see old cairo while i was out in the midday heat. BIG MISTAKE. I wondered through the heat until finding a beautiful mansion with a gate in the middle of nowhere. There was a man driving a truck who offered to drive to old cairo! YAY! I experienced first hand egyptian kindness. So there was gates to the medieval world that i concede i didnt have the stomache for. So I wandered and continued my journey through cairo...
Saint George , one of the most important Saints in Greek Orthodox tradition, couldn't miss from this particular side of Cairo. I didn't understand why Greek flags were needed around the Church as most of us can read and those who don't...well, they wouldn't distinguish the country the flag belongs to anyway.
As a side comment, the cemetery is very quiet and some grave stones have beautiful carved monuments of granite and marble.
Coptic Cairo is the South Eastern part of Old Cairo, an oasis of tranquility and calm in late hours of the day and a crowded touristic attraction otherwise.As an insight, I noticed many Muslim couples meeting around Saint Georges Church and in the Graveyard, probably to stay away from acquaintances' nosy eyes.
The settlement dates back to the 2nd century AD when the Romans settled here, building a fortress called Babylon in Egypt.
The Hanging Church and Coptic Museum go without saying as the main attractions.
Walking on the narrow cobbled alleyways you shouldn't miss the oldest synagogue on Egypt's teritory: Ben Ezra.
There is a little Coptic Church on the River Nile at Maadi which is fascinating. You can have guided tours or just go for a look or a prayer if you wish. Some very interesting artefacts there and it is said that it is the spot where Moses landed in Egypt and also where Joseph Mary and Jesus fled to, to escape the invading Romans.
I have the name, address and telephone number plus some photos of this most interesting place, but as I have just recently moved house I will need to unpack a bit more before I can update the posting information here.
The Roman Tower is a leftover section of the 1st century AD Roman wall surrounding the Fort of Babylon. The Fort became what is known today as Coptic Cairo. The Tower was restored recently to look as new as any recent wall, unfortunately! Though there is a section that was left alone (see photos).
The Christians in Egypt are known as Copts. Christianity was the predominant religion in Egypt before Islam.
This area in Cairo feels totally separated from the chaos of the city.
Here you will find churches, a synagogue and mosques.
A very rich history will be found in this area.
Curious as ever I accidentally spotted the sign on the old house not far from the entrance to Coptic Cairo. The sign showed the name of the famous Coptic family-Ghali . I asked my guide about it and he explained that house belongs to the same family from which ex Secretary General of the United Nations Butros butros Ghali is.
Narrow cobbled allays and almost sleepy streets are real refreshment after busy and noisy streets of Cairo. It is almost unbelievable that you are still in the center of that metropolis. Pay attention to the details such as the doors and windows and watch out not to step on some sleepy cat:).
If you are looking for some souvenirs you can as well buy them here. There are a few very large shops that sell them and you will be able to take your time looking around as nobody will bother you. It was refreshing change after other shopping experiences in Egypt.
The Arabic name for this part of the city is Masr al-Qadima. As its name says, it is inhabited by Copts, the ancient Christians that lived here much before the islam came into the country. The Coptic religion is very similar to the Eastern Orthodox but it slightly differs in some beliefs. They had their own language that had its roots in the pharaonic but it is almost lost, today they speak Arabic.
The settlement existed here from 6th century BC but the oldest remains can be found from the roman period.
Coptic Cairo is secluded from the rest of the city by the walls and would be secluded anyway since it is lying on much lower level so you have to go down the stairs to get into it. That fact is telling us that it really is the oldest part as the rest of the city was built on the level that have been risen during the centuries. No wonder, taking into consideration that the sands surrounds the city.
This old part of Cairo is must see as it treasures numerous sites which tell us the story of the ancient Christianity in this part of the world.
It is said that Mary, Joseph and Jesus stopped to rest at one of the Churches. The buildings and insides are amazing! I would save this tour/trip for a day when you want out of the hustle and bustle. The Church grounds and grave yards are open airy and have good shade to rest in. It is very quiet and there are opportunities to just sit and relax, no people trying to sell you stuff and the like.
A good guide book should see you through this one. I only did Giza and Sakkara pyramids with a guide.
Al-Mu'allaqah Church (Hanging Church)-Its origin date to the late 4th and early 5th Century, this basilica was named "Al-Mu'allaqah'' because it was built on top of the south gate of the Fortress of Babylon. "Muaallaqah" means "hanging".
Church of Marie Guirgis (Church of St. George)
Built on the ruins of an ancient church, this basilica has a unique hall dating to the 13th Century AD and is one of the last round churches to be seen in Egypt.
Church of Abu Sergah (Church of St. Sergius)
Dating back to the beginning of the 5th Century, this basilica is built on the cave in which the Holy Family stayed and is regarded by visitors as a source of blessing.
Church of Sitt Barbara (Church of St. Barbara)
Founded in the 5th Century, it was rebuilt in the 10th C. and still retains its wooden door which constitutes a magnificent example of fine art.
Church of St. Mina
Located in the Old City, it was built in the 6th Century AD.
St. Marcarious Church (Abu Sefein)
Built in the 6th century AD, and located in the ancient area of old Cairo. One of its prominent relics is the crypt of St. Barsoum Al-Arian.
Ben Ezra Synagogue is the oldest synagogue in Egypt which is fully restored after the damage during the Six Day War in 1967. The entrance to the courtyard marked by a Star of David over the gateway in the wall. No photography in this Synagogue.
The most famous of Coptic churches in Cairo, el-Muallaqa or the "Hanging" Church owes its name to the fact that the church appeared suspended over a section of the Roman wall. It is believed that a church has existed on the site since the 3rd century AD, although it was completely rebuilt in the 11th century. Changes and additions continued through out the centuries, so the result is a mix of architectural styles. The interior decorations include geometric motifs similiar to those seen in mosques.
Also referred to as Qasriyet el Rihan (Basil Pot), this Coptic church is believed to be located where the Holy Family had spent time and drank water from a well. While a church existed here since the 9th century, the current edifice is recent.
Another church dedicated to Saint George in Coptic Cairo, this one serves the Coptic community. The church was originally built by Athanasius in the 7th century, but was damaged in a fire and rebuilt in the 18th century. Only the famous marriage chamber, pre-dating the church itself, survived.