post tab 0011Coptic Cairo occupies the oldest part of the oldest part of a very old city, and is of historical import to no less than four empires, three world religions, the two most important men in the Bible, and one of the oldest languages still spoken.  It is the heart of Old Cairo and the birthplace of the city itself. 

The architecture of Coptic Cairo tells the story of the passing of the ancient world and the drama of how the East and the West established a delicate coexistence, sometimes violent, sometimes peaceful, all within the space of a few city blocks.

This article looks at the history of the Coptic Quarter with special attention given to the Churches of Saints Sergius and Mary, and the Synagogue of Ben Ezra. 


Coptic Cairo

Coptic Cairo (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Coptic Cairo (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Coptic Cairo is a section of Old Cairo with a rich Christian history dating back at least to the 4th century, and possibly as far back as the time of Jesus.  There is a tradition that the Holy Family spent time in the area after fleeing to Egypt to avoid the Slaughter of the Innocents ordered by King Herod (Gospel of Matthew, 2:13-23).  Even older Biblical claims regarding the area involve the Prophet Jeremiah and Moses himself, which are detailed below.  While the literal truth of these claims may be open for debate, what is known is that this small neighborhood—where Judaism, Christianity, and Islam once flourished in mutual peace and respect—is the cornerstone around which the city of Cairo was built.

The earliest mention of a settlement in the area of Coptic Cairo dates to 730 BC, when the Kushite ruler Piye, having just sacked Memphis, is said to have passed through a town there called Kheraha while on his way to Heliopolis.  There is also a stele that says that Piye made sacrifice to Atum at Kheraha, which suggests that the area was of religious significance even then.

The area was further developed by the invading Persians in 525 BC when, according to Josephus, Babylonian soldiers in service to Cambyses II built a fortress there.  The fortress was named Fort Babylon, presumably after the capitol city of the soldiers bivouacked there.  Another theory is that “Babylon” may actually refer to the ancient Egyptian phrase Pr-Hapi-n-lwnw, which means “Nile House of Heliopolis,” in honor of Hapi, the god of the Nile.  Yet a third source, Diodorus of Sicily, claims that the area was once a prison colony populated by captives of King Sesostris from his exploits in Babylon, who named the camp after their home.  But this latter possibility is unlikely, as modern historians think Sesostris, a legendary Egyptian king who supposedly invaded southern Russia and Europe, may be just that—a legend invented to soothe the wounded pride of the Egyptians after their humbling encounters with the Assyrian and Persian Empires. 

But whether Fort Babylon was named for the Persian invaders, the god Hapi, or prisoners of King Sesostris, the fort came under Roman control when Egypt became the province of Ægyptus.   At one point Legio XIII Gemina, the 13th Legion made famous by the HBO series Rome, was stationed at Babylon.  Under Emperor Trajan the fort was relocated closer to the Nile, which has since moved away from Babylon’s ruins, lying some 430 yards to the northwest.  Coptic Cairo is arranged around the ruins of Trajan’s reconstructed Fort Babylon, with some structures incorporating the ruins themselves. 

Babylon Fortress - Ruins of a Roman tower

Babylon Fortress - Ruins of a Roman tower (Photo by Keith Payne)

 After the Emperor Constantine declared tolerance for Christianity with the Edict of Milan (AD 313), and particularly after being installed as the imperial religion of Rome by Emperor Theodosius I (AD 380), Christianity struck fertile ground in the vicinity of Fort Babylon.  Several churches sprung up in association with the legends regarding the Holy Family’s stay in the area.  The earliest of these were the Churches of St. Sergius and St. Mary, but later churches of historical import, such as the Churches of St. George and St. Barbara, would follow. 

The Church of St. George

The Church of St. George (Photo by Keith Payne)

 The area of Fort Babylon/Coptic Cairo is historically important for a number of reasons.  First, the ruins of the Roman fortress are the oldest ruins in the city of Cairo.  Recall that the Pyramids and Sphinx are actually associated with Memphis.  The city that would become Al Qahira really began with, and extended from, what is now called the Coptic Quarter.  Second, the emergence of Coptic Christianity, which developed along a different trajectory than other versions of the faith, and its actual growth rather than suppression when the Muslims supplanted the Romans, is historically significant.  The churches of Saints Sergius and Mary would come to rival those of Alexandria in importance.  And third, the Synagogue of Ben Ezra, one of the grandest synagogues of the Middle Ages, and the site of one of the greatest discoveries with regard to Jewish history, is located in this tiny neighborhood.


The Church of St. Sergius

The Church of St. Sergius (Arabic: Abu Serga) is also known as the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, after two Roman soldiers who were martyred in Syria for their Christian faith in the year AD 296.  It is the oldest church in Egypt, and the original sanctuary was located in a cave where the Holy Family is said to have dwelt after fleeing King Herod.  The church dates from the late 4th – early 5th centuries, and was rebuilt after a great fire swept through the area circa AD 750.  The underground sanctuary now serves as the crypt for the church, which was rebuilt over the site.  Subject to frequent flooding, the original sanctuary is often closed to the public. 

Flooded entryway to the crypt at St. Sergius' Church

Flooded entryway to the crypt at St. Sergius' Church (Photo by Keith Payne)

 The entrance to St. Sergius is unassuming and easily overlooked, but a few short steps below street level and through the rough door transport one back to the earliest centuries of Christianity.  The church is laid out basilica-style with three naves, each ending with its own sanctuary in the eastern section.  The central sanctuary is protected by an elaborate wooden iconostasis (a wall or screen that displays holy icons and separates the sanctuary from the nave) with ebony and ivory inlays of florets and crosses.  The iconostasis and icons mounted upon it date from the 12th century. 

Iconostasis and sanctuary at the Church of St. Sergius

Iconostasis and sanctuary at the Church of St. Sergius (Photo by Keith Payne)

 The large blue tapestry which hangs behind the iconostasis and above the sanctuary depicts the Ascension of Christ, while the red tapestry in front depicts the Resurrection.   The thirteen icons along the top of the screen are of the Virgin Mary surrounded by the Twelve Apostles.  The woodwork is arabesque in design and is common to the churches in Coptic Cairo.  Although the church has undergone countless renovations, the original design and, as much as possible, the original materials have been preserved. 

Detail of a wooden panel at the Church of St. Sergius

Detail of a wooden panel at the Church of St. Sergius (Photo by Keith Payne)

 Many patriarchs of the Coptic Church were elected at St. Sergius, starting in AD 681 with the seating of Patriarch Isaac, and ending in AD 1047 when Patriarch Christodulus insisted on being consecrated at nearby St. Mary’s Church.  This decision led to a rift between the two churches, but ultimately resulted in St. Mary’s becoming the Seat of the Coptic Orthodox Pope of Alexandria.


The Church of St. Mary

The Church of St. Mary is more commonly known as the Hanging Church (Arabic: al-Muallaqah) because it is built literally on top of the southern gatehouse of Fort Babylon, with its nave suspended over the entryway of the fort.  While there may have been a Church of St. Mary in the general location while the fortress was still operational, possibly as early as the 3rd century, the earliest mention of the current church is in the biography of Patriarch Joseph (seated AD 831-49), and was probably built during the time of Patriarch Isaac during the late 7th century.  However, a fresco depicting the veneration of pagan deities hints that the church may have once been a Roman temple.  This fresco was recently destroyed during renovations (see the Further Reading section below for details). 

St. Mary's - The Hanging Church

St. Mary's - The Hanging Church (Photo by Keith Payne)

 The church has been renovated during various periods, with the most comprehensive being at the behest of Patriarch Abraham (seated AD 975-78).  The walls and arches reflect the arabesque style in construction and décor, with geometric patterns and tessellations.  As with other churches in the Coptic Quarter, the original look and materials were preserved where feasible. 

Arabesque-stye geometric patterns on the walls and arches

Arabesque-stye geometric patterns on the walls and arches (Photo by Keith Payne)

 St. Mary’s is laid out in a basilica fashion similar to that of St. Sergius, with the three naves ending in their own sanctuaries along the eastern side.  The central nave is dominated by an impressive raised marble pulpit supported by fifteen slender columns.  The pulpit itself dates from the 11th century, although some of the marble used in its construction may date from as early as the 5th century.  The pillars are primarily white, although one (toward the back) is made of black marble, representing Judas, and another is grey, representing Doubting Thomas. 

Pillars and underside of the pulpit at St. Mary's Hanging Church

Pillars and underside of the pulpit at St. Mary's Hanging Church (Photo by Keith Payne)

 The central, and primary, sanctuary is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, with the other two being dedicated to Saints George and John the Baptist.  The iconostasis guarding St. Mary’s sanctuary, like that of St. Sergius, is a large wooden screen of ebony and ivory with inlays of crosses and florets.  The beamed ceiling is intended to resemble the shape and construction of Noah’s Ark, and is lit by beautiful stained glass.  The seven hallowed icons topping the screen are, from left to right, St. Peter, the Archangel Gabriel, the Virgin Mary, Christ enthroned, John the Baptist, the Archangel Michael, and St. Paul.  There are more than 100 other icons throughout the church. 

Central Iconostasis with Pulpit to left

Central Iconostasis with Pulpit to left (Photo by Keith Payne)


Central iconostasis and sanctuary dedicated to the Virgin Mary

Central iconostasis and sanctuary dedicated to the Virgin Mary (Photo by Keith Payne)

 Coptic Mass is still held at St. Mary’s Church on Fridays and Sundays, and service on Palm Sundays is delivered from the marble pulpit.  The Mass is delivered in liturgical Coptic, which is descended from the Ancient Egyptian language. 


Ben Ezra Synagogue

Ben Ezra Synagogue is sometimes called Ben Ezer Synagogue (or Temple) or el-Genizah Synagogue.  The synagogue began life as a Coptic Church named el-Shamieen, which was built in 6th century, although some sources claim the church actually wasn’t built until the 9th century.  The church was sold in AD 882 to raise taxes levied by the Muslim ruler Ibn Tulun, and was bought by Rabbi Abraham Ben Ezra for 20,000 dinars.  The original structure collapsed, but was rebuilt in exacting detail. 

Alleyway between the Hanging Church and Ben Ezra Synagogue

Alleyway between the Hanging Church and Ben Ezra Synagogue (Photo by Keith Payne)

 The synagogue and the church that preceded it are steeped in legend.  According to tradition, it is built where Moses was found on the banks of the Nile by the daughter of a pharaoh (possibly Ramses II) after having been set afloat in a reed basket by his mother (Exodus 2:1-10).  There is a well behind the synagogue which is supposedly over the spot where the young Law-Giver was discovered.  It is said that the Virgin Mary bathed the young Jesus in the well when the Holy Family resided in the area, connecting the spring to the most important figures of the Old and New Testaments.  It is further rumored that the Prophet Jeremiah built a temple which once stood where the synagogue now stands, and that he is buried under its foundation.  Perhaps less of a legend but no less legendary, the renowned rabbi and philosopher Moses Maimonides worshipped and taught at Ben Ezra after moving to Cairo in AD 1168.

The synagogue is constructed in the basilica-style common to the area.  A large memorial of white marble accented with gold leaf and topped with tablets of the Ten Commandments greets the visitor.  Behind the memorial is a hexagonal bimah, made of white alabaster, from which the Torah was read when services were held. Facing the bimah is the ornate ark, called the hekhal, where the Torah scrolls are kept. 

Marble memorial with stele of the Ten Commandmants

Marble memorial with stele of the Ten Commandmants (Photo by Keith Payne)


Stele with the hekhal in the background

Stele with the hekhal in the background (Photo by Keith Payne)

 The ark is made of ebony with ivory inlays of the Star of David and arabesque geometric patterns, in much the same manner as the iconostases of St. Sergius’ and St. Mary’s Churches.  The cabinetry of the ark recalls the pillars and dome of the Temple of Solomon, with brilliant gold and lapis details.  The Ten Commandments rendered in mother-of-pearl adorns the top of the hekhal. 

Steps up to the hekhal, the ark where the Torah is kept

Steps up to the hekhal, the ark where the Torah is kept (Photo by Keith Payne)


Detail of the top of the hekhal

Detail of the top of the hekhal (Photo by Keith Payne)

 The wooden panels of ebony and ivory so popular in the Coptic Quarter are used throughout the synagogue and reflect the Ottoman influence on the city.  The walls, arches, and ceilings are detailed in the scrolling Turkish style, with arabesque flourishes, and accented by glowing casements of stained glass.  The entire building is a perfect union of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic virtuosity without a hint of conflict or incongruity.  

Detail of woodwork at the Synagogue of Ben Ezra

Detail of woodwork at the Synagogue of Ben Ezra (Photo by Keith Payne)


Ceiling with Ottoman-Arabesque-Turkish details

Ceiling with Ottoman-Arabesque-Turkish details (Photo by Keith Payne)

 The Synagogue of Ben Ezra draws one of its other names, the el-Ginizah Synagogue, from an important cultural and historical discovery made in 1892.  During a major renovation to the synagogue and its grounds, a secret stash of medieval writings was found in a storeroom.  When Torah scrolls and other liturgical texts are damaged or become too worn for use, they cannot be destroyed or otherwise disposed of because to do so would be blasphemous.  Instead they are ceremonially entombed in a hiding place called a ginezah.  But sacred writings were not the only texts placed in a ginezah—anything with the name of God written upon or within it had to be entombed. 

The extensive Ben Ezra Ginezah contained nearly 200,000 texts spanning a thousand years, from AD 870 to the late 19th century.  They detail everything from the day-to-day business and routines of a medieval synagogue to descriptions of the different Jewish sects and their activities in the area.  The writings also shed light on the interactions between Jews , Christians, and Muslims during that period, and reflect a surprising level of tolerance and interrelation.  Of particular interest are writings from the 16th century that describe the circumstances of Jewish refugees who fled to Egypt to escape Christian persecution in Spain.  

The Ten Commandments in mother-of-pearl with stained glass above

The Ten Commandments in mother-of-pearl with stained glass above (Photo by Keith Payne)

 Coptic Cairo’s cultural and religious history provides a microcosmic view of Humankind’s endeavor to understand itself within the context of higher ideals.  From the most ancient of times, the powers have changed, empires have come and gone, and gods, saints, and potentates have risen, reigned, and retired.  But the constant which has remained in this tiny neighborhood is an enduring aspiration to manifest that which is the most noble within us.  Violence and destruction have been no strangers to ancient Kheraha, but healing and rebirth have inevitably followed.

Em hotep.


Further Reading


Coptic Cairo (Supreme Council of Antiquities website)


Tour Egypt:

Old Cairo

The Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus

The Hanging Church

Ben Ezer’s Temple


Egyptian Monuments:

Old Cairo


LookLex Egypt:

Old Cairo

Hanging Church

The Churches

The Synagogue


The Independent:

Restorers ‘damaged 4th century church’


Al-Ahram Weekly:

A restoration controversy

Rising from the ashes


Tales of a Wandering Jew:

The Jews of “Paris on the Nile”



                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  Copyright by Keith Payne, 2009.  All rights reserved.

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This entry was posted on Monday, June 22nd, 2009 at 7:30 am and is filed under Late Period, Roman Period, Byzantine Period, Islamic Period, Cairo, Lower Egypt. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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