The Church of the Holy Virgin (HARAT ZUWAYLA)
THE CHURCH COMPLEX OF HARAT ZUWAYLA, situated in the center of the busy shopping district of Muski and Khan al-Khalili, consists of three churches. The main church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the northern church to St. Mercurius, and the upper church to St. George. The stairs descending to the entrance of the Church of the Virgin testify to its antiquity: since the building of the church, probably in the ninth century, the street level has risen about six meters. The church was repaired and renewed so many times that the original plan, a transept basilica, is barely recognizable, and there are hardly any parallel walls to be found. According to tradition, it was built on a spot where the Holy Family rested: it contains a well that was blessed by the Christ Child and whose water is believed to cure illness.
Patriarch John VII (1300-1320) moved the patriarchal seat to the Church of the Virgin, where it remained until Patriarch Matthew IV (1660-1675) took up residence at the Church of Harat al-Rum.
Through a doorway in the north wall of the church, one enters the Church of St. Mercurius, the equestrian saint with two swords. This church, also known as “the little church of St. Mercurius,” was built in AM 1490/ AD 1773-1774 by Mu’allim Ibrahim al-Guhari and was constructed on the foundations of an Armenian church dedicated to St. John the Baptist. In the nineteenth
century, Alfred Butler reported that during Lent the Eucharistic wine “for all churches” was made in this church. Every year, a wine press belonging to the Church of St. Mercurius in Old Cairo was brought in for this purpose.80 The Church of the Virgin and the Armenian Church are mentioned several times in The History of the Churches and Monasteries of Egypt (ca. twelfth century). One of the compilers, Abu al-Makarim, apparently lived in the vicinity of the church complex and reported on several festivities going on there.81
The upper church of St. George can be reached from the staircase outside. On account of multiple renovations, it is difficult to date. Annexed to these churches are two convents, the Convent of the Holy Virgin and the Convent of St. George.