historic CAIRO By: Idris Tawfiq
OF THE Church
ust a short ride on the Metro from Tahrir Square in the Romans once had their military base in Egypt. Two
Central Cairo will take you back in time many centuries massive towers marked the Water Gate. The base
to the beginnings of Egypt’s Coptic Christian history. of one of them can be seen directly across the road
Getting off the Metro at Mar Girgis station, there is enough from the Metro station. The other one is beneath one
to entertain the visitor to ‘Old Cairo’ for many hours. of the highlights of the visit: the Hanging Church.
The Hanging Church (Al-Muallaqa) is so called because
it was built suspended directly over one of the Water
Towers of the ancient Roman fortress. Dedicated to the
Virgin Mary, it is one of Cairo’s oldest churches. If you
are looking for another of Cairo’s museums, though,
this isn’t one of them. In fact, at whatever time you visit
you will see a steady stream of visitors to the church,
wishing to make their devotions and to pay their respects.
On Fridays and Sundays, religious services take place
here, still using the same liturgical language which has
been in use by the Coptic Church for centuries.
Christianity is said to have been brought to Egypt in the
first century by the evangelist St Mark, who became the first
bishop of Alexandria. It remained the dominant religion of
the country until Islam arrived in 642. In fact, even after that,
Islam did not fully take hold for another two hundred years. In
Fustat, another name for this part of Cairo, you can combine
your visit to the areas of Coptic interest with a visit to the
mosque of Amr Ibn Al-As, the first mosque to be built in
Africa, as well as to the synagogue of Ben Ezra, proving that
Egypt has had a very colourful religious background and that,
contrary to the message spread by some, Islam and other
faiths have co-existed quite happily side by side for hundreds
of years and will do so for many hundreds more, inshallah.
The Hanging Church, then, is considered the
jewel in the crown of all the Coptic monuments.
Some suggest that a church has existed on this spot
since the fourth century. In all likelihood, the present
church goes back at least to the seventh century.
After recent renovations to the church and its
Whether it is to visit the splendid Coptic Museum, one surroundings, it is now to be seen at its best. Entering
of Egypt’s finest, or many of the centuries’ old churches, up a flight of stairs, visitors first come across a
this small enclave will delight the visitor. There are now small courtyard outside the church itself.
five churches within one square kilometre, but at one The interior of the church has three naves with beautiful
time this number was 20. For those who haven’t yet been wooden ceilings. The central nave is separated from the
there on their visit to Cairo, it is a must. For Egyptians, of others by white marble columns. For those unused to
whatever faith, it is an essential part of their national story. Orthodox religious architecture, the sanctuary area at
This part of Cairo is steeped in history. The course the front is separated from the nave by wooden screens.
of the River Nile, now a short distance away, has The idea for this is that the all-holy ceremonies of the
changed with time. It once came right up to the place liturgy can be performed at the altar by priests, separated
where visitors get off the Metro, and it was here that from the rest of the congregation in the nave. The
Idris Tawfiq would like to thank all those BCA readers who write to him every month. These messages of
support are much appreciated. You can write to Idris Tawfiq at email@example.com
sanctuary itself is also divided into three parts, which are
separated from the rest of the church by a very beautiful
ivory-inlaid ebony screen dating back to the thirteenth
century. The central part is dedicated to the Virgin Mary,
the church’s namesake, while the other two parts are
dedicated to Saint John the Baptist and Saint George.
In front of this screen is a 13th century pulpit, which
sits on 15 small pillars. These are said to represent
the 12 disciples with Saint Luke and Saint Mark.
The 15th pillar, at the front, is for Jesus himself. This
pulpit is used only once a year, on Palm Sunday.
It is the atmosphere of the church, though, rather than
any particular feature, which is most impressive. This is
a place of prayer, hallowed down the centuries by the
prayers of many men and women who have gone to
beseech help from God in times of need and to give thanks
to Him in times of joy. Those visiting the church, Christian
or not, should always bear this in mind when thinking
beforehand how they should dress or behave inside.
Muslims read in the holy Qur’an:
“And remember her who guarded her chastity:
We breathed into her from Our spirit, and We
Made her and her son a sign for all peoples.” 21:91
Muslims and Christians have great reverence for Mary,
the mother of Jesus (peace be upon him). Others outside
Egypt may have an interest in causing division between
Egypt’s diverse religious communities, but the facts on the
ground belie the propaganda from abroad. Christian and
Muslim have lived in peace in Egypt for fourteen centuries.
Respecting the deeply held beliefs of others does not
mean abandoning anything of our own. Believing something
different to someone else should not be a threat to those with
a firm faith. In fact, people of faith should honour goodness
wherever they find it. In visiting the Hanging Church,
Egyptians and foreigners alike can take in the beauty of a
truly remarkable part of Egypt’s history, and can give thanks
to the Creator for His gifts to us up to this day, inshallah.
British Muslim writer and broadcaster, Idris Tawfiq, is well
known for the gentle way he
speaks about Islam and the
Muslim world. He is the author
of eight books about Islam.
These are: Gardens of Delight:
a simple introduction to Islam;
Talking to Young Muslims;
Talking to New Muslims; Talking
to Muslims in the West; Talking
about Ramadan; Calling Others to Islam; Talking About Other
faiths; and Looking for Peace in the Land of the Prophets. He
writes an article every week in Egyptian Mail and another in
Sawt Al-Azhar. You can watch Idris Tawfiq every Wednesday at
18:00 GMT in his television show, “Let’s Talk,” on Huda TV, and
you can listen to him every Sunday afternoon at 13:00 GMT in
his radio show of the same name on IOL Radio. You can visit his
website at www.idristawfiq.com and also join him on Facebook.