Cairo, in comparison to the other truly ancient parts of Egypt, is actually a much more modern city, founded around 969 AD. (sooo modern lol) However, the area known as Coptic Cairo, the locals just call it Old Cairo, predates the founding of modern Cairo by several centuries and is one of the oldest parts of the city with settlements dating as far back as the 6th century BC when a town grew up in this area around a fortress intended to guard the canal linking the Nile and the Red Sea. It was during this time that legend holds that the Holy Family (Joseph, Mary & Baby Jesus) visited the area and stayed here while fleeing from King Herod.
Later the Romans came in and built a fortress here called Babylon, which would then later become a Christian stronghold, with as many as 20 churches built into an area only about the size of one square mile. Of these original churches, there are only 5 remaining. Today, the area still serves as the home for much of Cairo’s Christian population.
It’s Built Inside An Old Roman Fortress
The first thing you can’t help but notice when you first arrive at the site are this massive rounded towers.
Built in 98AD, these two towers are the remnants of a fortress constructed here by the Romans that was part of a series of riverfront fortifications during the time. Believe it or not, in those days the Nile would have been lapping right up against the brickwork here.
The rounded towers of the western gate of the Babylon fortress (there are so many hypotheses on how it got that name btw), together with the existing southern gate, they are amongst the oldest structures in all of Cairo. Standing 10 meters high, the towers have a diameter of 31 meters and feature the typical alternating red and white pattern of a traditional Roman fortresses with five blocks of limestone and then three blocks of brick.
The Roman Emperor Trajan would eventually place his legions of troops here to subjugate the people of Egypt, at which time it served to mark the boundary between Middle and Lower Egypt and controlled all trade along the nile from a canal connecting it to the Red Sea.
When the Arabs eventually invaded Egypt, the fortress defended the city for seven months before falling to the army led by General Amr Ibn Al As.
The Hanging Church
While “hanging” seems a bit of a stretch to me, the church is built on top of the southern gate of the old Roman fortress, logs of palm trees and layers of stone were constructed above the ruins and used as the foundation of the church, there-by “suspending” it in the air between the two towers.
Built as early as the 4th century AD (or 3rd, 7th or 9th, apparently everyone has a different opinion), the original structure in any case was destroyed and rebuilt in the 11th century and has been expanded on and added to continuously since then. Which makes it hard to date any one specific part of the church.
The iconic facade with its two towers however, we know is a relatively recent addition to the structure, dating from the 19th century. Inside the church, (where no photos are allowed sadly) the wooden three barrel-vaulted roof is supported by 13 corinthian columns swiped from earlier buildings and representing christ and his apostles (one of these is a tad darker than the rest of them and is thought to represent Judas).
The church features a whopping 110 icons plastered literally everywhere around the building, but the oldest and most famous of these paintings is one of the Virgin Mary dating from the 8th century and known as The Coptic “Mona Lisa”.
My favorite thing about this church though? Holy intricate patterns batman! Seriously, carved wooden patterns, carved stone patterns, painted patterns, patterns in metal work, patterns everywhere FOR DAYS….
Saint George Greek Orthodox Church
Compared to the rest of these churches, the St. George Greek Orthodox Church is the new kid on the block, originally constructed during the tenth century AD, at which time it was dedicated to Saint George who is said to have once killed a dragon…. yes A DRAGON. I’m so team Saint George now.
The original church was pretty much completely destroyed by a major fire, and was later rebuilt on top of an ancient Roman tower which connects it to the monastery below. Construction on this new church was completed as recently as 1904 and is one of the few round churches ever built in Egypt.
The Coptic Museum
Originally established in 1908 the Coptic Museum contains over 15,000 ancient artifacts and houses the largest collection of Coptic textiles, tapestries, stone work and other artifacts in the world.
Sadly, I completely forgot to ask if I could purchase a photo pass for the museum (most of them let you do this, but this was our first stop where we ran into this on our trip and I wasn’t used to asking if that was a possibility yet) so I don’t have any images from our tour of the museum. However, in comparison to other museums we toured while in Egypt, this one was incredibly well marked with detail descriptions and histories in most of the rooms in english and often on each of the items as well.
The museum highlights the transition between the dominate polytheistic culture of Egypt’s past through the Islamic era and how Christian symbols adopted ancient Egyptian mythological characters and pharaonic icons, updating and modifying them for their own use.
You get a lot for your admission here as the museum is quite large and takes over an hour or so to fully explore.
Note: If you decide *not* to purchase a photo pass, be aware that the guards will take your camera away from you before you enter the museum. I was not prepared for this the first time and it made me very nervous as they just place it in a little open wooden cubby on the wall in the guard house. Then when you exit you just say, “that one’s mine” and they give it back to you. That said, we never ran into any issues in these situations but it’s good to be aware of in advance so you aren’t caught off guard.
Harit Al Kidees Girgis (the Alley of St. George)
All the locations I’ve mentioned above you can access directly off the main street fronting Coptic Cairo, to see the rest of the sites you’ll need to locate a small stairwell with a green sign that will take you down to the Harit Al Kidees…
I’m not going to lie. Joe and I walked around for a good hour or so, totally confused on how to get to the rest of the sites we knew should be in the area before we realized that this little staircase, right on the main street out front, was the entrance to the alley way that takes you to the rest of the sites and not the exit/entrance for the nearby metro stop lol… So, hopefully with this heads-up you won’t wander around lost like we did.
The Harit Al Kidees Girgis, or the Alley of St. George, is a sunken alleyway that connects the rest of the Churches in the Coptic Cairo area together and is lined with book sellers, art dealers and side streets with residential dwellings.
And unlike other market areas we visited in Egypt, the vendors in the Harit Al Kidees Girgis tend you leave you alone and just let you wander and browse without bothering you… unless you try and take a picture of any of the stalls with artwork that is…
St. George Convent
After you’ve entered the Harit Al Kidees Girgis the first church you will come to on your left is the St. George Convent, and while the orgin of the monastery is obscure, it is believed that the foundations of the building dates from the 7th or 8th century and is home to between 30 and 40 nuns today.
Also dedicated to our main man, the dragon slayer St. George, there are some beautiful mosaics depicting his epic dragon slaying deeds in the main courtyard. Inside, the chaplet is said to originally have been a palace dating from the mamluk period, and then later transformed into a church in the 14th or 15th century. The most obviously impressive objects about the room though are the carved wooden doors that stand nearly 25 ft tall adorned by carved animal figures.
To enter the chaplet you’ll first need to remove your shoes, after you enter, look to your right and you’ll see an iron collar and chain attached to the south wall. Sentenced to trial under the Persian King Dadianos. It is said that 70 rulers were gathered to cast judgement on St. George’s faith and sentenced him to be tortured. They used all sorts of instruments if torture on him, including this chain, which he was bound in during his tortures.
The nuns of this convent believe that this holy relic, can work miracles and that whomever places the halter of the chain around his/her neck and winds the chain around their body, kissing the chain piously and offering prayers to Saint George, is considered to be in a state of exceptional grace and… stay with me here… can be cured of demonic possession, paralysis, mental illness, mental disorders, anxiety, hysteria, and even schizophrenia… Yep… Apparently in 1737, Richard Pococke saw the chains and reported:
“They say they have the arm of the saint, and they showed me a pillar, to which an iron collar with a chain is fixed, and they say mad people confined in it for three days certainly recover. They informed me that the Turks often try this experiment and, having a great admiration for the saint, frequently come and say their prayers here on Friday.”
The Church of Martyrs Sergius and Bacchus in The Cave (AKA Abu Sarga)
The Church of Martyrs Saints Sergius and Bacchus in The Cave (also referred to as Abu Sarga, (because apparently TCMSSBTC wasn’t a catchy enough acronym) is traditionally believed to have been built over a cave where the Holy Family (Joseph, Mary, baby Jesus and the gang), rested at the end of their journey into Egypt. They may even have lived here for a bit while Joseph worked at the fortress. Gotta keep those carpentry skills up…
Just based on how far below the modern street level this church is located at, it’s not surprising that this is the oldest church in all of Egypt, dating back to the 4th or 5th century, although most of the current structure dates from the 11th century (although the pillars are closer to 4th century)
If it’s open like it was when we were there, (although I’ve heard it’s usually locked) you can head through the doorway to the right of the alter and then take a quick left and you’ll see a staircase that will let you descend down into the crypt/cave below the church. This is believed to be the exact spot where the holy family stayed.
Ben Ezra Synagogue
Of all the churches we visited in Coptic Cairo, this was the only one that didn’t allow photos to be taken. So all you get it words sadly.
Built in the 9th century, the Ben Ezra Synagogue occupies the shell of an old 4th century Christian church. It is believed that this is the spot where the prophet Jeremiah gathered the Jews in the 6th century after Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Jerusalem temple AND that the adjacent spring is the same spot were pharaohs daughter found a floating baby Moses in the reeds AND (because that’s not enough for one spot apparently), it’s also supposedly where Mary drew water to wash Jesus.
The Synagogue was restored in the 12th century and then in 1864 a cache of historic documents was discovered on the property, from which researchers have been able to piece together the details of what life was like for the North African Jewish communities from the 11th-13th centuries.
Other Sites To See In Old Cairo
While the above is all we had time to check out on trip with having to get back to the hotel in time to pack up and catch our overnight sleeper train to Aswan. Here’s a few other spots you may want to check out!
- Other Sites In Coptic Cairo
- Church Of St. Barbara
- Church Of The Virgin
- Other Sites Nearby
- The Fustat
- Mosque Of Amr
- Deir Abu’l-Sayfayn
- Burg al-Saqiyya
Things To Know Before You Go
You Can Do This On Your Own
While Joe and I hired guides for a lot of the areas we explored in Egypt, this is one area you can really handle on your own. The area is small and very self-contained, and besides from the fact we were somehow blind to the staircase off the main street for way longer than I’d like to admit, it’s pretty easy to navigate around and find all the different sites. If you do go on your own, I would recommend bringing along a guide book because there are no informational plaques at any of the locations.
PRO TIP! Don’t want to lug around a heavy guide book? Snap a few photos of the relevant pages with your phone before you go and then just read them off your phone! Or download a few web pages with the relevant information you need to your phone before you set off from the hotel.
You’ll Need To Wear Appropriate Attire
Since you’ll be going into a lot of religious buildings, be sure and have your shoulders and knees covered. I’d also recommend wearing a pair of shoes you can slip off without too much trouble.
Food Is Scarce
There is simply just not a lot of options for food around the Coptic Cairo area, with the exception of a few small gift shops and one tiny cafe near the Greek Orthodox Church by the entrance to the cemetery. Where, fun story, Joe ordered a pita sandwich with fries and received a pita sandwich filled with fries lol… so plan accordingly.
Getting There Is Easy But Leaving Can Be Hard
Joe and I took Uber everywhere in Cairo and for the most part it was super easy and cheap (I’m talking like $4 for a 45min ride across town cheap). However, one issue we ran into when we went to Coptic Cairo was when we were ready to leave and head back to the hotel so we could pack up and catch our night train to Aswan, there were no cars available anywhere near us. Which led us to going on a pretty wild ride from a local taxi who was parked just outside the main entrance (I’m honestly not even sure it was a taxi, I think it was just a dude with a car… an old car so old that I was amazed it even still worked). So if you are arriving by Uber, just be aware that leaving that way may be more challenging.
Most Of The Sites Are Free But Request A Donation
While a visit to the Coptic museum requires a paid ticket, pretty much all the churches are free to enter and explore. However, keep in mind that its a good idea to come prepared with a lot of small change to in the requested donation box at each location.