The churches of old cairo

The churches of old Cairo


Cairo has been the capital of Egypt for more than one thousand years, but the actual city and history of Cairo are the legacy of many previous capitals of Egypt, of great cultural centers and successive civilizations founded there. The earliest was a predynastic settle­ment dating from the 4th millennium before Christ, founded near Maadi, a suburb of present-day Cairo. To the northeast of Cairo stood Heliopolis, an important site since the predynastic period, which became the nucleus of intellectual and spiritual life during the time of the pyramid builders. It contin­ued to be a great cultural centre for more than 2000 years, visited frequent­ly by Greek intellectuals seeking to broaden their wisdom and knowledge.

In the district known today as Old Cairo stands the Fortress of Babylon, which provides an interesting example of Roman and Byzantine military archi­tecture. In 641 A.D., the first Islamic capital of Egypt, Fustat, and the first mosque in Africa were established to the north of the Fortress by General Amr Ibn Al-As. Also in Old Cairo stand most of Cairo’s ancient churches.

When Christianity first came to Egypt, churches were built in remote .areas away from the threat of imperial persecution, including in rock tombs hewn in the mountains, martyria and catacombs. The remains of only very few recently-discovered churches can be dated before the end of the 4th cen­tury. Early churches in Egypt are rare presumably because they were later incorporated into larger foundations.

A number ol churches from the Sth century show that the Coptic Church predominantly used various forms of the basilica for houses of worship. All the examples of this type arc in Lipper Egvpt: the large Basilica of Hcrmopolis Magna (Al- Ashmunein), which was interpreted as a church, the Church of the Archimandrite Shenoute (the White Monastery), the Church of Saint Bishoi (the Red Monastery), and the large church belonging to the pachomian monastery at Faw Qihli. The three-aisled basilica provides the largest amount of space that can be covered by a single roof. The central nave is usual­ly higher and longer than the parallel aisles on either side of it, with win­dows above the aisles throwing light onto the nave.

It is generally accepted that Coptic church architecture was based mainly on Roman basilica design, retaining only a few ancient Egyptian elements.

However, the basilican style was also employed in ancient Egyptian temples, as exemplified by the great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak. The Church of Dendera (Sth/6th century) is a good representa­tion of Coptic church architecture (Fig.l). It has a nave with two aisles. The trefoil-shaped sanctuary at the east end is fronted by two columns which once supported an arch. The church can be entered through side doors at the west end leading into the narthex, which is connected to the nave by three doors.

Fig. I Plan of the Basilica of Dendera
Fig. I Plan of the Basilica of Dendera

In the 7th century, the khurus appeared. Its function was probably to separate the clergy at the altar from the congregation. The gradual dwindling of church resources after the 7th century affected both the building of new churches and the restoration of many existing ones. Timber imports de­creased considerably. This meant that the massive roofs – spanning nave and aisles – of many early basilicas were changed into three contiguous vaults or replaced by a scties of brick cupolas. Existing columns were often encased within brick pillars, or new arcades had to be built to support the heavier loads.

The churches of Old Cairo played a significant administrative role through­out the history of the Coptic Church after the Arab conquest of Egypt, and they represent a fundamental aspect of Coptic heritage. This section looks at three groups of old churches in Cairo. The first group consists of churches which lie within the Fortress of Babylon (which are the most impor­tant), the second those situated outside the Babylon Fortress, and the third group covers several notable churches located in and around Fatimid Cairo.

The fortress of Babylon

In the southernmost area of the 13th province of Lower Egypt stand two important sites mentioned often in ancient Egyptian ,texts. One was called Pr-Hcpi (Pr-Hapi), where a Nilometer was constructed to measure the inunda­tion of the Nile; the other, Hr-Ch3 (Khr-Aha), was connected with the mythological conflict between Horus and Seth. Both sites grew in impor­tance during the Graeco-Roman period.

It is in this area on the east bank of the River Nile that the Fortress of Babylon stands. Known today as Old Cairo, this district constituted an area of great strategic significance, being located on the border between Upper and Lower Egypt. From this point the construction of a canal joining the Nile to the Red Sea was begun; it was originally dug in the reign of King Necho around 600 B.C.

It would seem that a large town called Babylon extended north of the Fortress of Babylon. Its name probably originated from the ancient Egyptian name pr-hcpi-n-Iwnw (Pr-Hapi-n-lwnw: or Nile house of Heliopolis), which sounded like ‘Babylon’ to the Greeks. The Arabs called the fortress ‘Qasr Al-Shama’ (The Palace of Candles), a name which the historian Al-Maqrizi (fl 441) suggested came from the Persians’ illumination of the fortress towers with innumerable candles.

Fig. 2 Sketches of two Byzantine mosaics representing Babylon From: Badawy 1978, op. cit.
Fig. 2 Sketches of two Byzantine mosaics representing Babylon

From: Badawy 1978, op. cit.

Fig. 3 Sketch of Old Cairo at the end of the 19th century From: Coquin 1974 op. cit Ack: IFAO Cairo
Fig. 3 Sketch of Old Cairo at the end of the 19th century

From: Coquin 1974 op. cit Ack: IFAO Cairo

The Fortress of Babylon dates from early Roman times, when a Roman legion resided in this strategic area on the apex of the Nile Delta. Apparently it was enlarged and fortified by the Emperors Trajan (98-117 A.D.) and Arcadius (395-408). Two Byzantine mosaics from Um Al-Munabia (Jordan) and Haditha (Palestine) suggest that the Fortress of Babylon was the edifice which most characterised and symbol­ized Egypt (Fig. 2). The Coptic historian John of Nikon tells us that the Arabs were able to spread their authority over Egypt only after capturing this well-for­tified bastion (Fig. 3).

Although the Fortress was sadly ruined at the turn of this century, it is considered to be one of the best-pre­served military structures of Roman times. Most of the walls are built of three regular layers of red bricks alter­nating with five stone layers, bound together with a mortar of sand, lime, pebbles and charcoal. The walls were constructed on an irregular five-sided layout with numerous semi-circular bastions (Fig. 4).

The western side facing the Nile had no bastions but featured a draw’ bridge with two massive circular towers of about 33 metres in diameter, structures not common, to Roman fortresses. Now, the gateway leading to the Coptic Museum stands between these two towers (Fig. 5). The Greek Orthodox Church of Saint George is built over the north tower. Another gateway facing south is flanked on both sides by two large projecting semi-circular towers leading into an inner court which can be reached from the garden of the Old Wing of the Coptic Museum. It is above this gate­way that the Church of Al-Mo’allaqa was built.

Since the erection of the Babylon Fortress the course of the river has changed: it now flows about 400 metres further west.

Plan of the Fortress of Babylon showing its irregular five-sided layout From; Badawy 1978 op. cit 
Plan of the Fortress of Babylon showing its irregular five-sided layout From; Badawy 1978 op. cit

Churches within the fortress

When studying Cairo’s old churches, it must be remembered that they never enjoyed the patronage of a court and were thus not intended to be great imposing buildings. Moreover, they often suffered from pillage in times of disorder or persecution and many of them were completely demolished, rebuilt and restored various times over the centuries. Many building elements of classical, Roman and Byzantine archi­tecture – columns, capitals, architraves and lintels – were taken from earlier constructions and reused in the erec­tion, reconstruction and restoration of Coptic churches. Nevertheless, Cairo’s old churches are very interesting for they still preserve the atmosphere of medieval Coptic churches.

We have no information on the churches within the Fortress of Babylon before the Arab conquest of Egypt. But it is known that Cyrus, Bishop of Babylon, participated at the Council of Ephesus held in 449 A.D., and his cathedral cannot have been the only church in Babylon. Moreover, beautiful pieces of woodwork dating from the 4th to 6th centuries were found in the churches of Saint Sergius, Saint Barbara and Al-Mo’allaqa; these are now on display in the Coptic Museum (Items 38, 45, 41). On the other hand, it seems incongruous that these churches existed inside a fully-operational Roman and Byzantine military fortress; one of them, Al-Mo’allaqa, was built above one of the gateways to the fortress.

Fig. 5 One of the Roman towers of the Fortress of Babylon
Fig. 5 One of the Roman towers of the Fortress of Babylon

The Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus

This is the oldest church in Cairo, hav­ing been built over a traditional site blessed by the Holy Family. It is dedi­cated to Sergius (Abu Sarga) and Bacchus who suffered martyrdom in Syria in the reign of the Roman Emperor Maximinus. The church has much historical importance. Many patriarchs of the Coptic Church were elected there, the first being Patriarch Isaac (681-692). It is the episcopal church of the city. The Episcopal See of Misr (the district of Old Cairo) replaced the former See of Babylon and many bishops of that See were conse­crated in the Church of Saint Sergius until the reign of Patriarch Christodulus (1047-77).

Fig. 6 Plan of the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus
Fig. 6 Plan of the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus

Despite restoration and reconstruc­tion the basilican design of the church is easily recognisable; the two-aisled basilica, with a western return aisle (a passage at the west end of a church) and a tripartite sanctuary, measures 17 by 27 metres and is IS metres high (Fig. 6). The sanctuary was presumably fronted by a khurus, which no longer exists. Two rows of six columns each separate the aisles from the nave. Eleven of these monolithic columns are of marble, and one is of red granite.

The columns still preserve faint traces of painted figures which probably rep­resent apostles or saints. Some of the panels of the old wooden pulpit have been transferred to the Coptic Museum, others are in the British Museum. The pulpit has been replaced by a copy of the ambon in the church of Saint Barbara. The sanctuary iconostasis is a wonderful piece of art dating from the 12th-13th centuries. Its several pan­els are inlaid with ivory and ebony and covered in a very attractive relief fea­turing arabesques. The large surface area of the wooden iconostasis provided much space for incised relief.

Some of the wooden panels in the church arc of earlier origin and engraved with fine figures representing three saints on horseback, the Nativity and the Last Supper. The altar stands inside the sanctuary, surmounted by a wooden canopy supported by four pil­lars. Against the east wall of the sanctu­ary rises a fine semi-circular tribune with seven steps. The apse is encrusted with strips of marble and decorated with mosaics.

The Church of Saint Sergius contains many relatively old icons, some of which could be attributed to the 17th century. They show various themes representing the life of Christ, the Virgin Mary and some of the saints. The oldest Christian wooden altar in Egypt was found in this church and is now displayed in the Coptic Museum (Item 38). The Egyptian Antiquities Organisation is currently undertaking a huge project to restore the entire church due to it being in sudden danger of collapsing about three years ago.

The Crypt

The Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus houses the crypt where the Holy Family are believed to have taken refuge during their flight into Egypt. The crypt is sometimes inaccessible due to the presence of subterranean water. It is situated beneath the church’s sanc­tuary and measures 6 metres long, 5 metres wide and 2.S metres high. The northern, southern and eastern walls feature niches. At a later date the crypt took the form of a nave with two aisles when two rows of slender columns were erected there (Fig. 7).

Fig. 7 Plan of the crypt beneath the sanctuary of the Church of Saint Sergius
Fig. 7 Plan of the crypt beneath the sanctuary of the Church of Saint Sergius

This church and its crypt were visit­ed frequently by medieval pilgrims. On the 24th day of the Coptic month Bachons, corresponding to the first day of June, the day on which the Coptic Church commemorates the Flight into Egypt, a mass is celebrated in this church.

The Church of Saint Barbara

This church is situated to the north of the Coptic Museum and to the east of the Church of Saint Sergius. It was originally dedicated to Saint Cyrus (Abu Qir) and was probably recon­structed in 1072-3 to house the relics of Saint Barbara which were transferred from the Church of Al-Mo’allaqa. Saint Barbara was a beautiful young woman from Asia Minor. She converted to Christianity, was tortured by her father and the Roman governor Marcaian for her faith, and finally martyred together with her attendant Saint Juliana. According to Eutychius, the church was built by Athanasius, a secretary of Abdel-Aziz Ibn Marwan, Governor of Egypt (685-7OS).

This church, as well as the other churches of Babylon, was destroyed by the two great fires of Fustat in the 8th and 12th centuries, and subsequently restored several times. Al-Maqrizi described it as the most famous church of his time. It is a sister building of the Church of Saint Sergius, and designed in basilican style with galleries (Fig. 8). The exterior of the church, like most ancient Coptic churches, is not impos­ing so that the church might not be dis­tinguished from the neighbouring houses by fanatical mobs who frequent­ly pillaged the churches in times of unrest and persecution.

Fig. 8 Plan of the Church of Saint Barbara
Fig. 8 Plan of the Church of Saint Barbara

The church measures 26 metres long, 14.5 metres wide and 15 metres high. Two rows of five columns each separate the northern and southern aisles from the nave (Fig. 9). The columns are joined by a finely carved wooden architrave. In the nave lies the ‘Mandatum Tank’ which was filled with water and used for the Service of Feet- washing on Maundy Thursday and on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, but today a portable basin is used. Only the main sanctuary features an apse; the other two flanking it are rectangular rooms.

Fig. 9 The interior of Saint Barbara’s Church showing the iconostasis
Fig. 9 The interior of Saint Barbara’s Church showing the iconostasis

The Church of Saint Barbara endured extensive restoration at the beginning of this century. At the same time more space for the altar was required to fulfil the demands of modern worship; the khurus, which originally fronted the sanctuary, was sacrificed. In the nave stands the beautiful marble ambon sup­ported by ten columns.

Many important monuments were found in the Church of Saint Barbara and are now exhibited in the Coptic Museum. The remarkable sanctuary screen of sycamore and cedar woods from the Fatimid Period consists of 45 panels of various sizes carved in relief and depicting musical ceremonies, rid­ers on galloping horses, gazelles and monks (Coptic Museum No. 778). An elaborate silver gospel casket decorated with floral motifs bears witness to the refined production of intricate metal­work in the earlv 1 Sth ccnturv (No. 1526). The icon of Saint Barbara is one of the oldest icons in the Coptic Museum (No. 3451). It probably dates from the 16th century and might have been imported from Spain. When the church was restored by the Committee for the Preservation of Arab Monuments, a magnificent door from the 4th/5th century was discovered encased between two walls; it is now one of the treasures of the Coptic Museum (Item 45).

The area to the north of the sanctu­ary in Saint Barbara’s Church is nearly square in shape and features three chapels; this area is dedicated to Saints Cvrus and John. The complex was built at the beginning of this century.


Al-Mo’allaqa: ‘The Hanging Church’

This is the most famous church in Cairo. It is dedicated to the Virgin Marr and known as Al-Mo’allaqa, ‘the suspended one’, because it is construct­ed over the south gate of the Babylon Fortress. When the patriarchal seat of Alexandria was moved to Cairo in the 1 1 th ccnturv it was established at Al- Mo’allaqa in view of the church’s importance. In 1672 the Frenchman Vanselb described Al-Mo’allaqa as the most ancient and beautiful church in Egypt. A famous wooden lintel showing Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem was found at Al-Mo’allaqa; it dates from the Sth/6th century (Museum Item 41). However, the earliest mention of the church came during the reign of Patriarch Joseph (Yusab, 831-849), when he referred to the destruction of the church’s upper section down to the columns on the orders of the Governor of Egypt.

During the period from the 11th- 14th centuries, many patriarchs were elected, consecrated or enthroned at Al-Mo’allaqa, where they then resided, the first being Patriarch Christodulus (1047-77). A number of patriarchs of the 11th and 12th centuries were also buried there. Church synods were held in Al-Mo’allaqa to determine on which day Easter would fall or to judge priests or bishops suspected of heretical teachings. The Holy Chrism (sacred oil) was consecrated several times in the church under the direction of patriarchs during this period. Some of the preists who served at this church enjoved a high reputation; Shams Al-Riasa Abu Al-Barakat (fl 324), the celebrated Coptic encyclopaedist, was a priest at Al-Mo’allaqa.

The church’s structure has been modified and restored many times. Apparently it was originally built in the traditional basilican style with three aisles, a narthex and tripartite sanctuary. An additional chapel, known as the ‘little church’, was built over the eastern tower of the Babylon Fortress’ south gateway, which now represents the old­est part still remaining of the original construction.

In the 19th century the church was considerably modified and the three-aisled basilica became a church with four aisles (Fig. 10). The church, which measures 23.5 metres long, 18.5 wide and 9.5 metres high, can be reached by steps (Fig. 11) which lead to a passage, beyond which lies an open court. The entrance to the church is through the south door in the east wall of the narthex, now an outer porch decorated with geometric and floral designs in relief on stucco.

Fig. 10 Plan of the Church of Al-Mo’allaqa
Fig. 10 Plan of the Church of Al-Mo’allaqa
Fig. 11 The steps leading up to the west door of the Church of Al-Mo’allaqa
Fig. 11 The steps leading up to the west door of the Church of Al-Mo’allaqa

The body of the church features a central nave and two narrow aisles sep­arated by eight columns on each side. Between the nave and the north aisle is a row of three columns spanned by wide lancet arches. The columns that separate the aisles arc of marble, except for one which is of black basalt. Some of the capitals are Corinthian; these were presumably taken from older buildings. The attractive pulpit is attributed to the 11th century, but some of its white and coloured marble may be of an earlier period; it rests on fifteen graceful columns. The south-fac­ing marble facade of the pulpit’s steps is carved with a design showing a shell and a cross on stairs, representing the Resurrection.

In the eastern part of the church stand three sanctuaries dedicated to the Virgin Mary (centre), Saint John the Baptist (right) and Saint George (left). These sanctuaries are fronted by wood­en screens. The splendid screen adorn­ing the central sanctuary features ebony inlaid with ivory and dates from the 12th/13th centuries.

It is carved into segments showing fine geometric- designs and crosses. A series of icons decorates the top of this screen. In the centre Christ is enthroned, with the Virgin Mary, the Archangel Gabriel and Saint Peter to His right, John the Baptist, the Archangel Michael and Saint Paul to His left. The altar inside the sanctuary is surmounted by a canopy supported by four columns. Behind the altar is a marble tribune, where the clergy usually sit.

In the church’s southern aisle there is a small door of fine pine wood inlaid with translucent ivory plating. It leads into the so-called little church, which is actually a side chapel built over the eastern tower of the south gateway. It is now the oldest preserved section of Al-Moa’llaqa. To the left is the sanctu­ary of Tecklc Haimanout, a national Saint of Ethiopia who lived in the 1 3th century.

Traces of fine wallpaintings probably representing Christ flanked bv the Apostles arc still visible on the east­ern wall. During the most recent restoration of the church carried out by the Egyptian Antiquities Organisation in 1984, a wonderful Nativity scene was discovered, which can be attributed to the 14th ccnturv. To the south of the sanctuary is the baptistery housing a deep round basin of red granite and a niche ornamented with mosaic. Partiarch Michael IV (1092-1102) extended the upper floor of this side chapel to be used as accommodation for the patriarchs, afterwards labelled a patriarchal qillaya.

Many other Coptic monuments were erected within the Fortress of Babylon. Although they are not as famous as these churches, they demonstrate the significance of this site for Copts. The Church of Saint George, like Saint Barbara’s, was built bv Athanasius dur­ing the reign of Ibn Marwan, Governor of Egypt, and was mentioned in the History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church (Alexander II: 704-729) and bv Al-Maqrizi.

The church was destroyed bv fire in the middle of the last century and later reconstructed without cupo­las. The modern church, of the four- pillar type, is without architectural interest, but the Qa’at Al-Irsan (the Nuptial Hall), which belongs to the complex, is a small palace from the 13th/14th ccnturv measuring 15 bv 12 metres. The hall contains beautiful trac­ery and carving reminiscent of orna­mentation found in some Cairo mansions from the Mameluke period.

The Church of the Virgin Mary, known as Qasriat Al-Rihan (the Pot of Basil) is referred to in the History of the Patriarchs of the Egyptian Church (Michael III: 895-909) as the Church of the Ladv, the Mistress (Kanisct El-Sett El-Saveda) (Fig. 12). It belonged for a time to Cairo’s Greek Orthodox com­munity. The church was rebuilt in the 18th century but was destroyed bv fire in 1979. A fascinating gospel casket, now on display in the Coptic Museum, originates from this church (Item 30).

According to a report bv the Committee for the Preservation of Arab Monuments, the church belonging to the Convent of the Nuns of Saint George (Deir Al-Banat) was originally a qa’ah (hall). It was converted into a nunnery in the 14th or 15th century.

The synagogue of Ben-Ezra lies to the east of the Church of Saint Sergius and Bacchus and near Saint Barbara’s. It was originally a Coptic church but was sold to the Jews when Ahmed Ibn Tulun extorted money from Patriarch Micheal III (895-909). It is the oldest synagogue in Cairo, in which the Geniza archive, a collection of Jewish documents, was found. These docu­ments are very valuable for the history of the Jews and of Egyptian Red Sea trade during the Middle Ages. The architectural design of the church can no longer be detected.

Fig. 12 Plan of the Church of the Virgin Mary: Qasriat Al-R.ihan
Fig. 12 Plan of the Church of the Virgin Mary: Qasriat Al-R.ihan


Churches outside the fortress

To the north of the Fortress lies an important group of churches, not far from the Mosque of Amr at Fustat.

Within the area known as the Abu Savfavn Cloister stand three churches and a convent.

The Church of Saint Mercurius

The church dedicated to Saint Mercurius (Abu Savfavn) (Fig. 13) is the largest church in the district of Ancient Babylon. It represents perhaps the only church in Cairo with its origi­nal Christian foundation intact. The church measures 31.5 metres long by 21 metres wide. At an unknown lime this church was demolished and tem­porarily became a sugarcane warehouse, but it was rebuilt under Patriarch Abraham (974-979).

In 1080, 47 bish­ops assembled there by order of the Fatimid vizier Badr Al-Gamal to estab­lish the canons to be adopted by Copts. A number of patriarchs of the 11th-15th centuries resided in the Church of Saint Mercurius; some patriarchs of the 16th and 18th centuries were conse­crated there. Also, the church served as a burial site for many patriarchs.

Fig. 13 Plan of the Church of Saint Mercurius
Fig. 13 Plan of the Church of Saint Mercurius

The church’s main entrance leads into the narthex which is separated from the nave of the church by a fine wood­en screen. Huge piers divide the nave from the northern and southern aisles; the two eastern piers help to support the large cupola over the khurus and the sanctuary, which was erected during the reconstruction of the church after a large and destructive fire in the second half of the 12th century. The nave is sheltered by an arched wooden roof.

The attractive ambon in the church, decorated with mosaic and supported by IS marble columns, is one of the most beautiful of its kind in Cairo.

The central sanctuary is dedicated to Saint Mercurius. Its iconostasis (Fig. 14) is a wonderful piece, of art featuring ebony inlaid with engraved plaques of ivory. Over the doorway of the iconos­tasis are two rows of icons. In the mid­dle of the upper row an icon of Christ is flanked on the left bv icons of the Virgin, the Archangel Michael and three Apostles, and on the light by icons of John the Baptist, the Archangel Gabriel, and three Apostles. The lower row is ornamented with small icons showing biblical scenes. All these icons were painted by John the Armenian and Ibrahim Al-Nasikh in 1762. The church is remarkable for the icons adorning its walls and for the piers separating its aisles.

Fig. 14 The iconostasis in the Church of Saint Mercurius
Fig. 14 The iconostasis in the Church of Saint Mercurius

The central sanctuary is imposing. Its altar is surmounted by an attractive canopy decorated with wonderful paint­ings. The most significant scene shows Christ surrounded bv the Four Creatures, symbolizing the four Evangelists, and bv the seraphim. A fine tribune of red and white marble is behind the altar. The east wall of the niche preserves frescos showing Christ and the seraphim; and the walls around are decorated with paintings depicting the twelve Apostles.

In the northeastern corner of the church is a door which opens into a sanctuary leading to the crypt of Saint Barsum the Naked, a famous saint who lived in the 13th-14th centuries. We are told that he dwelt in this small chamber for 20 years.

From a door in the north aisle one reaches a courtyard northeast of the church where a building with three sanctuaries and a baptistery stands; one of the sanctuaries is dedicated to the Persian martyr Yacoub Al-Muqatta or Al-Farisi. The most interesting monu­ments in this complex consist of the carved wooden arches and screens, some of which were, executed in the late Fatimid period.

One of the iconos­tases is particularly elaborate: its wood­en panels feature a foliate Arabesque design showing birds, animals and saints, some on horseback. This iconos­tasis was formerly part of the Chapel of Saint George at the eastern end of the southern aisle of Saint Mercurius’ Church. It survived the fire which destroyed most of the church in the 12th century.

From the courtyard, steps lead to an upper church with galleries and five sanctuaries. In the last few years great efforts have been made to save its wall- paintings and to preserve the frescoes which were recently discovered in the southern gallery.

The Church of Saint Shenoute

This church stands slightly south of Saint Mercurius’ Church. It is dedicated to Saint Shenoute (Anba Shcnouda), a great monastic figure, who accompa­nied Patriarch Cyril to the Council of Ephesus in 431. The church was first documented in relation to the election of a new patriarch in the year 743, but it certainly existed before that time. Patriarch Athanasius III (1250-61) was elected in the church. Also, Al-Maqrizi stated that the Fatimid ruler Al-Hakim (996-1021) converted it into a mosque.

This church has been reconstructed and restored many times over the cen­turies. One restoration took place under Patriarch Benjamin II (1327-39); a commemorative wooden plaque at the end of one of the walls of the church’s northern aisle bears traces of an Arabic inscription, which reads: “Benjamin, in the year of the pure Martyrs 1045 (1329 A.D.). May God confer His blessings upon us. Amen.”

Apparently, the church was original­ly of basilican type featuring a khurus (Fig. 15), which was added at a later time. The church measures 35 metres long bv 15 wide and is nearly 15 metres high. The main entrance is as usual in the west end despite the fact that in medieval times the church was entered from the south side, where a columned portico and the Epiphany Tank can be seen today. This Tank was used during the Feast of the Epiphany, but now a portable basin is used instead for the Blessing of the Water. The nave of the church, sheltered by an arched wooden roof, is separated from the side aisles by ten marble columns, five on each side.

The columns are connected by a contiguous wooden architrave, with arched openings above, one between every two columns. In the nave stands a wooden ambon ornament­ed with a design of crosses. The iconos­tasis in the central sanctuary is made of red cedar wood inlaid with ivory; it is. crowned by seven icons: the Virgin with the Christ Child is in the center and on each side arc three icons, each showing two Apostles. In the east wall of the apse is a marble tribune and in the niche a fresco depicting Christ in Glory making a gesture of benediction. The Church of Saint Shenoute houses many icons, the majority of which date from the 18th century.

Fig. 15 Plan of the Church of Saint Shenoute
Fig. 15 Plan of the Church of Saint Shenoute

The Church of the Virgin Mary: Al-Damshiriyah

The third church located within the enclosure of the Abu Sayfayn Cloister is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It is said that the church is called ‘Al- Damshiriyah’ because a Coptic notable of Damshir undertook its restoration in the 18th century; however this title was not affirmed before 1756.

According to Al-Kindi (t961) the church was demolished by order of Ali Ibn Sulaiman in the 169th year of the hegra (785-786 A.D.). Al-Maqrizi stat­ed that the church was subsequently rebuilt during the time of the caliph Harun Al-Rashid (786-809). The Committee for the Preservation of Arab Monuments has also undertaken several restoration projects in the church.

The present structure of the church is an example of a sturdily reconstruct­ed basilica that reused columns of dif­ferent sizes (Fig. 16); it measures 19 meters long bv 11.5 wide and 9 metres high. The entrance is at the southeast end of the south wall. While the roof of the nave is high and waggon-vaulted, the narthex and the north and south aisles feature horizontal roofing. The central sanctuary has a domed ceiling. The northern sanctuary has been con­verted into a shrine of the Virgin Mary and is now used by women to receive Holy Communion.

The southern sanc­tuary is dedicated to the Archangel Michael. An interesting 18th-century ­icon depicting the Archangel Michael originates from this church and is now exhibited in the Coptic Museum (No. 3771); the Archangel is shown holding a balance and a long cross-staff. The church’s walls are adorned with icons.

Fig. 16 Plan of the Church of the Virgin Mary: Al-Damshiriyah
Fig. 16 Plan of the Church of the Virgin Mary: Al-Damshiriyah

The Church of Saint Menas

Al-Maqrizi refers to the Church of Saint Menas (Mar Mina) at Fom Al- Khalig as being situated at Al-Hamra, between Cairo and Misr (Old Cairo), the very place where a new capital of Egypt, north of Fustat, was established: Al-Askar. Abu Al-Makarim (of the 12th centurv), whose valuable work on the churches and monasteries of Egypt is often erroneously attributed to Abu Saleh, stated that the Church of Saint Menas, standing between Fustat and Cairo at Al-Hamra, was destroyed in the hegra year 106 (725 A.D.) during the reign of the caliph Hisham lbn Abdel Malik lbn Marwan, but was rebuilt in the same vear.

This church provides evidence of the expansion of Christian buildings north of the Babylon Fortress and Fustat manv years before .two new Islamic capitals, Al-Askar and Al-Qatai, were established, and long before the founding of Fatimid Cairo.

The church is dedicated to Saint Menas, an Egyptian recruit in the Roman army who was martyred due to his Christian faith. Many churches arc dedicated to him, the most famous of which is the complex at Maryut near Alexandria. When this church was reconstructed in 1164, cupolas were added and marble columns replaced by pillars. Little remains of the earlier 8th centurv building, namely sections of the central sanctuary and outer wall.

The present church, which measures 20.5 by 15 metres and nearly 13.5 metres high, has the usual division of narthex, nave with side aisles and sanctuaries. The central sanctuary is dedicated to Saint Menas; to its left is the shrine where the relics of the saint are kept. The southern sanctuary is now used as a shrine containing a number of icons. In the southeast area of the church stands the baptistery, which leads into the Church of Bchnam. Both churches are adorned with manv icons represent­ing scenes from the Old and New Testaments, angels and saints.

Churches to the south of the Babylon fortress

About half a kilometre to the south of the Fortress lie some minor churches. This area still bears the name of Babvlon. It should be pointed out that these churches are relatively difficult to reach; however, their architectural fea­tures are worth including here.

The Church of the Virgin Mary in Babylon Al-Darag

This church is said to be located in ‘Babylon Al-Darag’, which means ‘Babylon of the Steps’; in fact, Al- Maqrizi called it the ‘Church of Babylon’. In the History of the Patriarchs of the Egyptian Church: Patriarch Zacharia (1004-32), the church is described as the “Church of the Mistress at Bani Wayil known as the Church of the Steps.” In fact, Patriarch Zacharia is buried here. In the time of Patriarch Cyril II (1078-92) it was considered to be one of the sites where the Holy Family sojourned dur­ing their Flight into Egypt.

The plan of the church (Fig. 17) is roughly 18 metres square. It is in the basilican style featuring two aisles and stone vaulting over the nave. The narthex includes two baptisteries. The earlier and original parts of the church appear to be in the west wing. A rela­tively old lectionarv dated 689 of the hegra (1289-90 A.D.) came from this church and is now preserved in the manuscripts library of the Coptic Museum.

Fig. 17 Plan of the Church of the Virgin Mary in Babylon Al-Darag
Fig. 17 Plan of the Church of the Virgin Mary in Babylon Al-Darag

The Cloister of Saint Theodore

This lies near the Church of the Virgin Mary in Babylon Al-Darag, and contains two churches. A courtyard divides the cloister into two areas: to the south is the Church of Saint Theodore (Al-Amir Tadros), to the north the Church of Saints Cyrus and John.

The Church of Saint Theodore

This church is mentioned in 11th cen­tury records (Patriarch Christodulus: 1047-77). Al-Maqrizi also referred to “the Church of Theodore the Martyr.” Little remains of the earlier building. The present structure of the church probably dates from the 18th century as it is characterised by the absence of a khurus. The church’s nave, which features an ambon, is covered by -three domes. In the northern section of the church stands a shrine ornamented with icons; it is believed that some of the relics of Saint Theodore are kept here.

The Church of Saints Cyrus and John

This church was first recorded by Ibn Duqmaq (13+9-1407), who referred to it as the Church of Abu Qir (Cyrus). It has been completely reconstructed (Fig. 18) and it is now impossible to trace its original architectural plan. Only the remains of the khurus dividing wall are still to be seen.

Fig. 18 Plan of the Church of Saints Cyrus and John
Fig. 18 Plan of the Church of Saints Cyrus and John

The Church of the Archangel Michael: Al-Qibli

This is Cairo’s southernmost ancient church. It is situated less than a kilome­tre to the south of Saint Theodore’s cloister. In the History of the Patriarchs of the Egyptian Church (Patriarch Philotheus: 979-1003), the church is described as “the church given the name of the Archangel Michael.” It was constructed under the caliphate of Al- Hakim Biamri ’Allah Mansour (996- 1021) and has been restored several times. Patriarch Gabriel (1268-71) was enthroned in the church. A few pillars hidden in the more recently-built enclosure and perhaps some sections of the outer walls are all that remain of the earlier building. Some of the 13th and 14th century church manuscripts are preserved in the Bibliotheque Nationale de Paris, the British Library and the Vatican.

Churches in and around Fatimid Cairo

Many historians, among them Abu Al- Makarim and Al-Maqrizi, stated that Fatimid Cairo and its environs boasted many churches. But most of the ancient churches were demolished in times of disorder and anarchy, especially during the rule of the Mameluke Sultan El- Naser Mohamed Ibn Qalawoon (1310- 41). Of those that survived, the Churches of Haret Zuwaila and Haret Al-Rum are considered to be the most significant.

The Church of the Virgin Mary at Haret Zuwaila

In the district known as Al-Khurinfish, near Al-Muski, an important group of Coptic monuments stands on a site blessed, it is said, by the Holy Family. The complex comprises the Church of the Virgin Mary at Haret Zuwaila and its convent, the Church of Saint Mercurius and the Church of Saint George.

The oldest of the three, the Church of the Virgin Mary, was probably founded in the 10th century, but it was first recorded in the early 12th century on the occasion of the consecration of the new’ Bishop of Cairo during the reign of Patriarch Macarius (1 102-28). For three centuries, until 1660, the church held a patriarchal seat.

The church was at some time incor­rectly reconstructed. Some of the out­lines of the original basilican structure, which featured a relatively small transept, can hardly be traced (Fig. 19); the sanctuary once had a semi-cir­cular apse fronted by a khurus. The restored church measures 28 by 19 metres and 11.5 metres high. The nave is separated from the narthex and aisles bv three rows of reused marble columns with Corinthian capitals.

The marble ambon rests upon four slender columns;/its lectern is in the form of an eagle carved in wood. Of special inter­est is the screen in front of the central sanctuary inlaid with ivory and surmounted by 13 icons representing the Virgin surrounded by the Twelve Apostles. Above the icons is a rood with an eagle in conflict with a dragon on either side.

On each eagle rests a panel showing, on the right, John the Baptist and on the left, the Virgin Mary. The sanctuary’s door, which dates from the Fatimid Period, comprises fine ivory panels sculptured in relief depicting birds and animals. The church contains many icons, including one that represents the Annunciation and dates from 1355. The church’s library boasts of a number of valuable manuscripts.

Fig. 19 Plan of the Church of the Virgin Mary at Haret Zuwaila
Fig. 19 Plan of the Church of the Virgin Mary at Haret Zuwaila

Gawdat Gabra

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