I can still remember the time when I sat down with my friend Janet and she insisted that I should visit Coptic Cairo, when I visited the city. I on the other hand, had never heard about the landmark and had no clue why it was famous. Like everyone else, the Pyramids of Giza were bang on top of my list. If I have learned one thing, it is to do my research before travelling. With a twist of fate, Shawn and I landed up visiting the Coptic Cairo before we reached the pyramids. To be quite honest. We did a lot of stuff before we reached the pyramids but that is another story for another time.
LOCATION OF COPTIC CAIRO
Like I said… The architecture is gorgeous!
If you search for Coptic Cairo in Google maps, you probably will draw a blank. The easiest way to find this part of the city on the maps is to search for the Coptic Museum or the Hanging Church. Both of which are located in the area. That being said you can use the landmarks to guide your Uber or Taxi driver to the location.
A quick side note that I must add that the driver will not drop you at the door of the museum. Quite the contrary. The police barricade dissuades any and all motorized vehicles from entering, so one needs to get down and walk the distance after being screened. If you don’t like to walk, don’t worry… It isn’t far. The walk itself is pretty scenic.
Another way to get to Coptic Cairo is by using the metro. A mode of transportation that we did not get to use in Cairo. The station (Mar Girgis) lies a stone’s throw away from the Coptic museum.
WHAT TO CARRY WHEN VISITING
A lot of what you carry when you visit Coptic Cairo depends on which season you are visiting. But as a rule of thumb it usually is either hot or scorching. With two trips to Coptic Cairo, these are a few things I think you really should carry.
- Sunglasses: The glare can be pretty intense.
- A Camera: You don’t want to be here without one!
- Water: It is hot, and you will get thirsty. Hydrate… Hydrate… Hydrate!
- A Hat: Again… The Sun…
- Sunscreen: Do I need to repeat myself? Duh… the sun!
- Comfortable Walking Shoes
- Egyptian Pounds: Museums accept fees only in EGP
POINTS OF INTEREST IN COPTIC CAIRO
Many people aren’t aware of how much there is to see in Coptic Cairo. We certainly were taken by surprise. One thing that one should keep in mind is to avoid visiting on Coptic religious holidays. We happened to stumble through the area on the Coptic Great Friday and it was so crowded. Additionally, since every church has a prayer service going on, the church is closed to visitors. Which is pretty fair. So, do yourself a favour and visit on a regular day. That being said there is plenty to see. The list includes churches, a convent, a museum and even a synagogue.
As you walk down the street you will come across a flight of stairs to your left. The descent downwards will probably remind you of an entrance to a metro station. If you aren’t sure whether you have reached the location, just look above the entrance. You will find a list of all the famous structures there and arrows pointing you in the right direction.
Once you descend down the stairs, you will find that the whole scene has changed. Yellow stone walls form a picturesque corridor. One that sunlight partially penetrates. It is cooler here and pleasant. One of the noteworthy sights in the stone corridor are the lines of books that are for sale. I had a lovely time browsing through them. Many of which were in English so that definitely helped.
THE NUNNERY OF ST. GEORGE
A glimpse of the Babylon fortress from the Nunnery of St. George.
The first time around we were unlucky to miss this little sanctum. The second time around we had the fortune to visit it. The Nunnery of St. George is the first of the numerous Coptic structures that you will find as you walk. The door enters into a small but gorgeous square. Bear in mind that at this point (the corridor onwards) you are in the Babylon Fortress. I find that the square in the Nunnery of St. George is one of the best places to get the real feel of what the Babylon Fortress is like.
On your right, you will find a small gift shop where you can buy religious articles and if I’m not mistaken, pickles and jams! It is quaint, and you can pick up a conversation with the nuns there. People are really friendly! Straight ahead you will find the entrance to the nunnery of St. George. The brown brick walls and arches are super cute. A well which has religious symbolism is another noteworthy sight.
The main hall has a lot of information about the martyrs and their relics. I would advise visiting that before heading in to see the relics themselves. The stories are intriguing, and they talk about a past that few of us can visualize.
SERGIUS AND ST. BACCHUS CHURCH
The famous crypt.
This church holds particular interest for Christians across the world. It is believed that this church was built upon the resting place of the Holy Family when they fled from King Herod. The crypt lies 9 meters below the church and in order to access it one must climb down a series of stairs. It does get dark, but the passage is navigable. Due to the fact that the crypt lies so low, it often gets flooded when the Nile levels are high. Never the less if you do visit, you can see where Jesus slept as a baby and the actual ground where the Holy family trod on (allegedly). The church is thus an important part of many religious tours that visit the area.
The church itself is beautiful. Unlike the walls of the fort, these stones have a darker colour. White lines highlight each brick making them look even more pretty. The St. Sergius and St. Bacchus church was originally built in the 4th century. It was burned down in a fire and was reconstructed again in the 8th century.
BEN EZRA SYNAGOGUE
You aren’t allowed to click pics in the Ben Ezra Synagogue of Coptic Cairo but I got one of the gates which I thought was very pretty.
The Ben Ezra Synagogue is another popular religious structure that tourists love to visit. Unfortunately, quite often people can pass it by as it lies in one of the corners of Coptic Cairo and the footfall there is much less. As you head out from the St. Sergius and St. Bacchus church, don’t head back the way you came. Instead follow the path further till it bifurcates into a T-junction. To your left you will find a gate that takes you to the Ben Ezra Synagogue.
It was the first time we had been into a synagogue and I was startled by the realization of how little we knew about Judaism. While we did want to change that, there wasn’t much information for us to read.
Historically, it is said the patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria sold a piece of land in Coptic Cairo to the Jews in 882. It is believed that that is how the Ben Ezra synagogue came to be located in Coptic Cairo. The Ben Ezra synagogue however was torn down in 1012 when Fatimid Caliph Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah ordered the destruction of Christian and Jewish places of worship. The timber and stones were sold for scrap. The Ben Ezra Synagogue was then rebuilt in 1025 – 1040 period.
Wikipedia has a great article on the Ben Ezra Synagogue should you want to read more about its history.
CHURCH OF SAINT BARBARA
The inside of the Church of Saint Barbara.
Next stop after the Ben Ezra Synagogue is the Church of Saint Barbara. To visit this church one must head back to the T-junction and take the right instead of the left (left heads to the synagogue). The Church of Saint Barbara has all of the rustic charm that the other churches in the vicinity have. The high arched roof and the low yellow light give the church of Saint Barbara a calm and peaceful aura.
If you like exploring a place thoroughly and don’t mind cemeteries, then take the road less walked and continue down the path. A couple of security guards guard the entrance of the cemetery, but they will let you in.
MONASTERY AND CHURCH OF SAINT GEORGE
Monastery and Church of Saint George in Coptic Cairo.
Next stop the Monastery and Church of Saint George. The Church is hard to miss as it is built in the Babylon fortress and is the largest church in the vicinity. As you walk down the Coptic Cairo road, you will see it popping out above the walls in the distance. The architecture of the church is impressive, and it certainly is worth visiting. A number of relics lie within it and the religious visit frequently to see them.
THE HANGING CHURCH
The Hanging Church in Coptic Cairo.
The Hanging church is actually known as Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church. It however gets its popular nickname from the architecture used in its construction. The Hanging Church is built on top of a gatehouse of the Babylon Fortress and as such has the knave is suspended over a passage. You wouldn’t realize it if you strolled in, but a part of the floor has a small opening covered in glass so you can see it with your own eyes.
The Hanging Church is said to be one of the oldest churches in Egypt and dates back to the 3rd century A.D. As you enter and pass through security, you are greeted by white walls awash with beautiful artwork. The green of the gardens in the centre contrasts beautifully with the church in the background. The twenty nine steps that lead up to the church are what gave the church its early nick name, i.e. The Staircase church.
If you do want to read more about the history of the Hanging church I would suggest reading article on Wikipedia on it.
Gorgeous stained glass work in the Coptic museum.
Entrance fee: 100 EGP per person, 50 EGP camera fee
Timings: 9 am to 4 pm
Best Time To Visit: Midday. The Coptic museum is not crowded but being indoors midday definitely helps you escape the heat outside.
One thing that we noticed was that not many tourists visit the Coptic Museum. It certainly is worth the visit not just because of the artefacts that it houses but because of the building itself. The Coptic museum is located in the heart of Coptic Cairo and the building is beyond gorgeous. In fact, I would go so far as to say that building is a work of art itself! Stained glass work filters the harsh light from outdoors and adds an extremely gorgeous ambiance to the inside. Carved windows with lovely siting areas invite you to spend more time sitting and enjoying the artefacts in the museum.
The Coptic Museum has two wings: The old wing and the new wing. Unlike most museums there is a predesigned path, so you don’t miss any of the artefacts on display and you don’t have to look at the map. Just keep walking and you will find your way through both wings easily. The Coptic Museum has numerous old bibles written in different languages and on different material. I even caught a glimpse of one that had the text written on linen. Sculptures from ancient ruins and from old churches across the country are also on display.
RESTAURANTS IN COPTIC CAIRO
There are a couple of restaurants on the Coptic Cairo road that I definitely suggest visiting. The laid-back atmosphere is quiet (remember no vehicles!) and peaceful. It is a great place to get a budget meal and a nice chance to try the local Egyptian cuisine. If you do visit, try the lemon mint. It’s a lemonade with mint added to it and it is quite popular across Cairo. Other than being delicious it also keeps you hydrated so win-win.
Coptic Cairo is definitely one of the most beautiful and fascinating places that I have visited in Cairo. Not only does it feel like stepping into another world, it makes you feel as if you have arrived on the crossroads of many religions, which isn’t surprising as many originated in the general vicinity. It’s a trip that wows you and simultaneously educates you!