Most people think Cairo only in terms of the Pyramids and the Nile river. You might be surprised to know that there a lot of religious history there which includes (Coptic) Christian and Jewish history too. In fact, Jesus sheltered in Cairo at the site of the Saint Sergius and Bacchus Church with his family as a child, and there are some of the first Christian Coptic churches in Cairo (and in fact the world). It is also home to several ancient Jewish temples. Of course, there are many breathtaking and interesting Islamic Mosques that are must visits as well.
Mom and I spent the day with our wonderful tour guide Doaa from Egypt Travel. What impressed me most about this day was her depth of knowledge about every single place we visited especially the Christian and Jewish history. It made our tour that much more interesting. Even though I had visited the area before, I got to see far more with her expert guidance.
We started off our tour on this day in the area known as “Old Cairo or Coptic Cairo” which is a walled city area encompassing The Hanging Church, The Babylon Fortress, The Coptic Museum, Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church, The Greek Church of St. George, and Ben Ezra Synagogue.
The Hanging Church
I had visited The Hanging Church before and it was one of the things I was most anxious for my mother to experience while we were in Cairo. Even if you aren’t a religious person, one can’t help but be absolutely fascinated by the history, the architecture, and its significance.
Every single thing in the hanging church has significance and iconology built into it. For example, if you look at the photo below, you can see columns running along the sides of the church. There are thirteen columns for Jesus and his disciples: nine of them are the plain creamy alabaster color, two of them are grey (Thomas and Peter), one of them is black (Judas) and one of them is white (Jesus). Looking at the top picture you can see up close the detail of the back wall panels shown in the bottom photo. They are slotted together like puzzle pieces yet are solid and strong. There is such intricate workmanship throughout. The symbol of the fish and the cross are used over and over again in all of the designs.
It is called “The Hanging Church” because of its very special architecture which allows the churches foundation to be suspended over the ruins of a Roman fortress. The pulpit slides back and forth over a hidden staircase for concealed escape.
I could write an entire post about this amazing church, but I wouldn’t have time to talk about all of the rest of the things we saw. If you are interested in learning more about the places we visited in this area, visit: Coptic Cairo.
Saint Georges Church
The next big impressive church we visited in this area is St. George Greek Orthodox Church. It’s very interesting to see this massive church which stands boldly amongst the others in the area. It was built on top of the ruins of the Fortress of Babylon and echoes its round shape. It is still in use today and we got to see the beginnings of a service.
Saint Sergius and Bacchus Church
The Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church was a tour that took us into the underground caverns or cellar area where the Holy Family lived in their time in Cairo. Apparently, it used to be flooded but has now been pumped out so you can go and see. It gave me chills being there. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to hide in these dark cellars with a child.
Ben Ezra Synagogue
The Ben Ezra Synagogue was interesting as it started its life out as a Christian church. It was sold and converted to a Synagogue to pay back taxes that had been owed. Sadly, it is no longer in use as a synagogue, only a tourist attraction. An interesting note about this synagogue is that it is said to be on the site that the baby Moses was found.
In between all of the churches are little tourist shops and bookstores. Most of the trinkets seemed covered in dust and dirt in the little passages but it was fascinating to see all of them there. There was a gallery of old photographs of the area too, but alas I didn’t get a picture of that.
*Note: much of this tour was up and down stairs, uneven pavements, and going through dark and narrow passages. It’s a good thing to keep in mind when you are visiting. Also, the bathroom areas are BASIC so you may want to make sure you go before you start your tour. My mother got tired after each church so we had to stop and take a breath between each visit. Cars are not allowed in the walled city so this is all walking.
Mohammed Ali Mosque
We then moved on to the Mohammed Ali Mosque (also known as the Alabaster Mosque) which is located in the Saladin Citadel that sits high above Cairo, looking down on the city sprawling below it. This area was a former fortress and there are huge defensive walls surrounding the entire structure. It is such a tourist area these days that they are building shops and restaurants inside the walls along with seating areas so that tourists can linger and enjoy the amazing views and history of the place.
The interior of the Mohammed Ali mosque is completely made out of Alabaster which has been carved and polished. There are handmade carpets on the floor in the center, but each worshiper gets a personal prayer rug to kneel and pray on. Women pray in a separate space above the main floor.
It has huge decorated domes on the inside that lead the eye to heaven and you can’t help but marvel at the beauty. The wide-open corridors and intricate carvings on all of the walls and doors are just awesome. The open courtyard has a gazebo type structure that worshippers use to complete their ritual washing of the hands and feet before prayer.
*Note: This part of the trip was walking uphill a lot. You also need to remember that women are asked to wear a headscarf and be modestly dressed when visiting any Mosque. Please don’t be “That person” that totally disrespects their culture and religious beliefs. You are also asked to remove your shoes before you enter any mosque. There are attendants who are happy to keep your shoes safe while you tour the gorgeous buildings. This post just touches on some of the amazing religious historical places to see in Cairo. For me, this was one of the highlights of my trip to Egypt. Our final post will include Islamic Cairo which takes us to even more amazing historic mosques and through the Khan El Khalili Market.
Wow Amber, These photos are amazing and thank you so much for sharing the history. I really had no clue (guess I didn’t pay enough attention in the 5 years of catholic school I was “tortured” in! I love the columns. That is definitely something that shows it is worth finding a great tour guide. I’m sure people just visit on their own and miss most of the significance.
Lori, I can’t even describe to you how amazing this tour is. Seeing the actual place where Jesus stood takes one’s breath away. I was also told by one of the curates that Christians used to escape persecution through the tunnels in the hanging church. Egypt brings religious history to life right in front of your eyes. No matter what religion you are. It’s the people, and the history.. and why we believe what we do today that interests me.
I have a Master’s Degree in Christian History (which is basically history of everything) so I do know in depth about the religious history of Egypt. I love your images. I think it is great you are sharing another point of view. So many fall into the danger of a single story. Excellent!
Thank you, Michelle. I really appreciate your kind words. I truly believe that we need to embrace our commonality more and differences less. The Muslim Prophet Mohammed called Christians and Jews “The Brothers of the Book”. He called for all Muslims to treat them as their brethren and cautioned them that the book “bible” was the truth. Wouldn’t it be nice if we all treated each other that way?
I knew about your Master’s Degree. How fascinating of a subject to study. My husband has an English qualification in Religious Studies. I have long studied world religions, so I can better understand how other people think and where they are coming from.
Thank you for another chapter in the Egyptian history lesson – accompanied by stunning photographs, no less. Such a rich culture, with ties to so many of our own personal stories. Happy to be along for the ride!