Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Cairo Attractions (3): Coptic Cairo, Old Cairo Area

There is evidence of settlement in the area as early as the 6th century BC, when Persians built a fort on the Nile, north of Memphis. The Persians also built a canal from the Nile (at Fustat) to the Red Sea. The Persian settlement was called Babylon, reminiscent of the ancient city along the Euphrates, and it gained importance while the nearby city of Memphis declined, as did Heliopolis. During the Ptolemaic period, Babylon and its people were mostly forgotten.

It is traditionally held that the Holy Family visited the area during the Flight into Egypt, seeking refuge from Herod. Further it is held that Christianity began to spread in Egypt when St. Mark arrived in Alexandria, becoming the first Patriarch, though the religion remained underground during the rule of the Romans. As the local population began to organize towards a revolt, the Romans, recognising the strategic importance of the region, took over the fort and relocated it nearby as the Babylon Fortress.Trajan reopened the canal to the Red Sea, bringing increased trade, though Egypt remained a backwater as far as the Romans were concerned.

Under the Romans, St. Mark and his successors were able to convert a substantial portion of the population, from pagan beliefs to Christianity. As the Christian communities in Egypt grew, they were subjected to persecution by the Romans, under Emperor Diocletian around 300 AD, and the persecution continued following the Edict of Milan that declared religious toleration. The Coptic Church later separated from the church of the Romans and the Byzantines. Under the rule of Arcadius (395-408), a number of churches were built in Old Cairo. In the early years of Arab rule, the Copts were allowed to build several churches within the old fortress area of Old Cairo.

1 - The Hanging Church :
The Hanging Church is also referred to as the Suspended Church or Al-Moallaqa. It is called the Hanging Church because it was built on the southern gate of the Roman Fortress. Logs of palm trees and layers of stones were constructed above the ruins of the Roman fortress to be used as a fundament. The Hanging Church is a unique church and has a wooden roof in the shape of Noah’s ark. From the 7th century to the 13th century, the Hanging Church served as the residence of the Coptic Patriarch. Al-Moallaqa has witnessed important elections and religious ceremonies. 
Source: Coptic -Cairo
2 – St. Serguies church
This is the oldest church inside the walls, built in the 11th century with 3rd- and 4th-century pillars. It honours two Syrian saints and is built over a cave where Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus are said to have taken shelter after fleeing to Egypt to escape persecution from King Herod of Judea, who had embarked upon a ‘massacre of the first born’. The cave in question, now a crypt, is reached by descending steps in a chapel to the left of the altar (usually locked). Every year, on 1 June, a special mass is held here to commemorate the event. To get here, walk down the central lane (Haret Al-Kidees Girgis), turning right at the T, then left as it jogs; stairs lead down to the entrance, below street level.
Source: Lonely planet 
3 – Ben ezra synagogue 

The Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo is located behind the Hanging Church and was once a church itself.
The Ben Ezra Synagogue was originally a Christian church, which the Coptic Christians of Cairo had to sell to the Jews in 882 AD in order to pay the annual taxes imposed by the Muslim rulers of the time. The church was purchased by Abraham Ben Ezra, who came from Jerusalem during the reign of Ahmed Ibn Tulun, for 20,000 dinars.
The synagogue was a place of pilgrimage for North African Jews and the site of major festival celebrations. The famous medieval rabbi Moses Maimonides worshiped at Ben Ezra synagogue when he lived in Cairo.
4 – St. George Church 
The unique Church of St. George is the only round church found in Egypt. Built in the 10th century on top of a Roman tower of the fortified town called Babylon, the church is connected to the Monastery of St. George and is the seat of the Greek Patriarchate of Alexandria.

Ascend the steps along the Roman towers and see a relief of St. George slaying a dragon on the outer brickwork of the wall. Inside, the austere ancient artwork grace the church with depictions of St. George and his quest to defend Christianity.
5- Coptic museum

The Coptic Museum lies behind the walls of the famous Roman fortress of Babylon in the ancient district of Cairo (Misr Al-Qadima). The area surrounding the museum abounds in lively monuments in an "open museum" that depicts the history of the Coptic period in Egypt. Marcus Simaika Pasha founded this museum in 1910 to collect material necessary to study the history of Christianity in Egypt. At that time there were several museums in Egypt: the Cairo Museum for pharaonic antiquities, the Greco-Roman Museum in Alexandria, and the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo. The Coptic Museum was founded to fill the gap in the records of Egyptian history and art.

The largest collection of Coptic artifacts and the most significant collection of Coptic art in the world are found in this museum and include 16,000 pieces. The Old Wing of the museum is a fine piece of architecture consisting of a series of large rooms. In 1931, the Egyptian government recognized the importance of the Coptic Museum and attached it to the state. In 1947, a large New Wing was opened, its style similar to that of the Old Wing. President Mubarak opened the restored museum in 1984.

The old wing of the museum houses a collection of wood furnishings and inlaid doors. Of special note is the sycamore wood sanctuary screen from the Church of Saint Barbara. The panels are recognizable as having been crafted in the Fatimid period during the eleventh or twelfth century. The collection housed in the new wing contains objects decorated with geometric designs, scrolls of acanthus and vine leaves, and friezes inhabited by rabbits, peacocks, birds, and rural activities. These styles and themes were passed from the Hellenistic and Coptic legacy into the Islamic artistic vocabulary in Egypt.

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