The oldest part of the city of Cairo. Babylon is situated on the east bank of the Nile, to some extent on the border between Upper and Lower Egypt. The same spot marks the mouth of a canal, originally cut about 600 B.C., which connected the Nile to the Red Sea. The city was widely regarded among ancient writers (Diodorus Siculus 1.56. 3; Strabo Geography 17. 1.30) as having been built by the Babylonians of Mesopotamia. More probably, however, the name goes back to the Old Egyptian Pr-h’pj-n-Jwnw (“Nile house of Heliopolis”), which sounded like “Babylon” to the Greeks (Gardiner, 1947, p. 143).

In late antiquity, “Babylon” designated the settled country between Heliopolis and the Roman fortress situated to the south. Today it refers to what is left of the Roman fortress itself. The Arabs named this fort QASR AL-SHAM‘ (Palace of Candles), a designation difficult to explain. In the Roman period, one of the three legions controlling Egypt was stationed in the fort, which was the most important bastion in the country. From here as late as the seventh century was conducted the decisive battle against the Arabs, into whose hands it fell on 9 April 641 after a seven-month siege. A bishop of Babylon called Cyrus is mentioned in the first half of the fifth century. His residence, however, like that of his immediate successors and of course all other remaining civilians, was situated outside the fortress.

The Fortress

The present fortress (Butler, 1914; Toy, 1937, pp. 52-78), which conventionally dates from the period of the emperor Trajan in the second century, is, according to the sources, a reconstruction of a fortress that goes back to the Persian period (Josephus 2.15, 1). Of this, however, there is no certain knowledge.

Although the Roman fortress was used as a quarry down to the end of the nineteenth century, it must be regarded as one of the best-preserved fortress structures from the Roman period. Certainly one can still recognize the course of the curtain wall with its numerous half-rounded bastions and flights of stairs. On the west side, where the fortress was bordered immediately by the river, there was a river gate flanked by two remarkably strong, fully circular towers, a rare feature in the layout of Roman fortresses. A second gate faced south with a door between two half-rounded towers opening out in traditional fashion from an inner court and functioning as a land gate. Almost certainly there was at least a second land gate on the north side of the fortress. Ruins of the buildings within the fortress are not visible.

After the conquest of the fortress, the victorious Arab army created the new city of al-Fustat to the north of Babylon around the mosque, named after the commander-in-chief ‘Amr ibn al-‘As. The native, the mostly Christian population, who had probably lost most of their houses, settled in the razed fortress, where they had already taken up quarters during the siege.

Churches Within the Fortress

The oldest churches within the fortress also belong to this Arab period. The oldest foundation that is known is the Church of Saint Sergius (Abu Sarjah), which exists to this day (Butler, 1884, pp. 181ff.; Middleton, 1885, pp. 397ff.). It is the episcopal church in the city and was built at the turn of the seventh to the eighth century in the period of ‘Abd al-Malik under the patriarchate of JOHN III. It is a basilica with a gallery built over columns with a western return aisle and tripartite sanctuary, which was presumably separated from the nave by a narrow room now no longer in existence.

There is a crypt beneath the sanctuary with wall niches arranged crosswise. At a later date it was given a three-aisle form by the insertion of two rows of columns. Because of its structural connection with the upper church, the crypt could have been built only after the construction of the church. Since the later Middle Ages, the legend has circulated that the Holy Family found shelter in this crypt during the flight to Egypt. Al-MAQRIZI, in the fifteenth century, is the first serious historian to give an account of it. Earlier references are found in some reports of pilgrims from the west (listed in Coquin, 1974, p. 97), but these simply reiterate the accounts of the local dragomans. Nevertheless, the crypt of Saint Sergius is never mentioned in descriptions of the various stops of the Holy Family in the large historical works of the Coptic church.

The Church of Sitt Barbarah (Monneret de Villard and A. Patricolo, 1922) is a sister building of the Church of Saint Sergius. It comes from the same period and likewise was designed as a basilica with galleries, although it is substantially less well preserved. Extensive restoration work was carried out at the beginning of the twentieth century, and at the same time the opportunity was taken to adapt the building to the demands of modern worship, which above all required more altar rooms. As a result, the khurus, originally situated in front of the sanctuary, was sacrificed. The side chapel on the south side may belong, at least in outline, to the original building, but the row of chapels attached to the north side was first built at the beginning of the twentieth century. The rooms originally situated in this area had quite a different shape.

The Church of Sitt Maryam (al-‘Adhra’), called al-Mu‘allaqah (the Suspended One), was for a time the church of the patriarchate in the city (Butler, 1914, Vol. 1, pp. 206ff.). It is over the south gate of the Roman fortress and consequently can only have been built after the Arab conquest. It is first mentioned in in the period of the ninth-century patriarch YUSAB I in a report dealing with the destruction of the gallery. In its original outline, the church appears to have been a columned structure with a nave and two aisles built in the traditional manner with a narthex and tripartite sanctuary. Attached to it was an additional chapel over the southeast tower of the Roman fortress and connected to the actual basilica by a colonnade, once open. In the late tenth century, MICHAEL IV extended the upper floor of this side chapel in order to provide accommodation for the patriarchs. During the last restoration, it was erroneously turned into an additional chapel. What is left of the Church of Sitt Maryam in its original state is confined to the area of this side chapel. The basilica itself, however, was inexpertly restored in the nineteenth century, whereby a church with a nave and four aisles came into being, and in the process the gallery was removed.

The Greek Church of Saint George, which like its predecessor was built over the north tower of the former river gate of the Roman fortress, was rebuilt after a devastating fire on 4 August 1903. In its structural outline, it comprises a double-shelled rotunda with a concentric inner colonnade supporting an elevated cupola. The eastern section of the ambulatory is occupied by the sanctuary. The entrance to the church lies to the north. How far this arrangement corresponds to the original outline, which was already destroyed once before in the course of the disturbances of the year 1882, can no longer be ascertained from the present state of the building. The church may be regarded as old, even though mention of it in the sources does not go back very far. The earliest mention is by Ibn Duqmaq in the fourteenth century. At that time the church was connected with a nunnery.

Other churches are not significant. The Coptic Church of Saint George, belonging clearly to the four-pillar type of building, was burned down in the middle of the nineteenth century and was rebuilt without cupolas at the end of the century. To the same complex belongs a Qa‘at al-‘Irsan (Wedding House), a small palace of the Mamluk period. The Church of the Virgin, Qasriyyat al-Rihan, mentioned in the late ninth century, was substantially a late- eighteenth-century construction and with its two inner pillars comprised, to an extent, a reduced form of the late medieval four- pillar building in Egypt. In the spring of 1979 the church fell victim to a fire. The church of the Coptic nunnery dedicated to Saint George (Dayr al-Banat) originally functioned as a Mamluk palace. The synagogue of Ban Ezra was originally a Coptic church but was sold in the ninth century to the Jewish community, who converted the building into a synagogue. Today the shape of the original church can no longer be seen.

Churches Outside the Fortress

The preserved parts of the Church of Mar Mina go back to its foundation in the first half of the eighth century. It was preceded by a small chapel of unknown date that was destroyed in 725. This eighth-century building was presumably a basilica with a nave and two aisles with galleries in the traditional manner. Of this only sections of the sanctuary of remarkable depth, together with the southern outer wall, have survived. In the eleventh or early twelfth century, the church was furnished with a parekklesion, but in the present state of rebuilding, only scarcely identifiable remains on the south side have survived. Judging by its present shape, it would appear that we are dealing with an oblong church with cupolas characteristic of Upper Egypt.

Churches in Dayr Abu Sayfayn

The most important church in Dayr Abu Sayfayn and the largest ancient church in the area of ancient Babylon is dedicated to Saint Mercurius (Marquriyus). Of the original building, the foundation walls, a part of the present outer wall, and the eastern section of the sanctuary are best preserved. They give a picture of a wide church of generous proportions with a northern annex—perhaps used as a baptistery—on the level of the sanctuary. In this form, the church is perhaps the only church building left standing that goes back to a pre-Muslim foundation. At an unknown point in time, the church was partly destroyed and subsequently secularized. In the late tenth century had the church rebuilt, making extensive use of the existing building. In that building the area of the khurus is clearly proved to be a later installation. The windows in the south wall and the rows of pillars on both sides of the nave originate from the time of Abraham. The dome over the khurus goes back to a reconstruction after a conflagration in the second half of the twelfth century, when only the chapel of Saint George situated at the east end of the south gallery is reported to have remained intact.

In the northeast corner, the church has two extra chapels, which were probably added in the twelfth century. The one situated closer to the church follows the model of a reduced four-column construction. Its spatial irregularities result from its architectural fusion with the remains of the north annex of the original construction.

A few steps south of the Church of Mercurius lies the Church of Saint Sinuthius (Anba Shinudah), which is mentioned as early as the middle of the eighth century and certainly had an existence before that time. In its present form the church is a basilica with an often reconstructed gallery and a subsequently extended sanctuary and a later khurus. It is no longer possible to determine exactly the original shape of the sanctuary, but it seems that it had the conventional tripartite division. In the Middle Ages the entrance lay on the south side of the church, where today the epiphany tank and the remains of a columned portico are preserved. In modern times the entrance was shifted back to the west side.

The third church in Dayr Abu Sayfayn is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, called al-Damshiriyyah. It is mentioned by al-Kindi in the tenth century among the new buildings torn down by ‘Ali ibn al-‘Abbasi in the eighth century. Whether there are vestiges of the eighth century in the present structure remains doubtful, although on account of the irregularities of its shape, the possibility cannot be ruled out absolutely. It gives the appearance of a sturdily reconstructed basilica with several reused columns. The sanctuary has the usual tripartite division. The apse side chamber on the north was transformed in more recent times into a BAYT AL- NISA’ (area for women to receive communion).

The al-‘Adhra’ church in HARIT ZUWAYLAH was mentioned in the early twelfth century when it was used to consecrate a bishop. In the second half of the twelfth century the church was apparently taken over by the Armenians. Today it belongs to a women’s convent.

The building itself has been very badly reconstructed, and none of the walls seems to be older than the eighteenth century. However, because of the incorporation of the older foundations, one can recognize roughly some of the outlines of its original structure. They suggest that the original building had the outline of a transept basilica. In comparison with other examples of this type, the size of this building is remarkably small, despite the multi-aisled transept. An origin in the early Christian period has thus clearly to be excluded. The sanctuary certainly had a central semicircular apse, and it appears that only this apse had a khurus in front of it. One cannot recognize the original appearance of the side rooms from their present state. Only reused columns were utilized as supports.

Churches in the Monasteries South of the Fortress

The Church of the Virgin in Babylon al-Daraj is first mentioned under the in the eleventh century, and since the late eleventh century was considered to be one of the sites where the Holy Family stopped during the flight to Egypt. Architecturally it is a basilica, whose nave at present is covered by a barrel roof. Apart from this, the only original elements are preserved in the west part of the church with the walled-in columns of the western row of supports.

Dayr al-Amir Tadrus contains two churches that are arranged on the two sides of an inner court. The one on the south side, dedicated to Saint Theodorus (Tadrus), is first mentioned in the second half of the eleventh century and still contains remains of a centralized building with an ambulatory originally around four corner pillars. Otherwise its present construction is substantially from the eighteenth century. Characteristic are the large semicircular sanctuaries and the absence of a khurus.

The church on the north side is dedicated to Saint Cyrus and Saint John, and its earliest mention is by Ibn Duqmaq in the fourteenth century. Inside are preserved the remains of a powerful khurus dividing wall. On the outside the church has been completely reconstructed so that it is no longer possible to recognize its original form.

The Church of Saint Michael is the most southerly of the Babylon churches and, according to a note in the History of the Patriarchs, was built at the beginning of the eleventh century. Indeed, all that survives of the original layout of the church are a couple of pillars concealed in the later surrounding wall and also possibly a few sections of the original outer walls. They indicate that the building was once a basilica. Today the church shows all the signs of various reconstructions with numerous alterations and additions on all sides.


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