Sunday June 4th, 2023
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Old Cairo: the Capital of Faith

World-renowned Egyptologist and poetic historian Ahmed Seddik takes us on a journey through time and faith in Old Cairo; the beating heart of Egypt's cultural, architectural and religious past...

Staff Writer

The genesis of Coptic Cairo is a story of life and light. The stars of the story appear in the Bible and in the Quran. Thanks to its exceptional location, you may explore the sophistication of every treasure at your leisure with pleasure beyond measure. There is an exuberant mix of mystic and domestic architecture in a hearty harmless harmonious fashion.

Once upon a tower, around the seat of power, in the fortress of Babylon, the Babylon of Egypt, a house worthy of worship was founded in the name of Virgin Mary. The Hanging Church of Virgin Mary, the most beautiful in Egypt, is still suspended in time and space on the remains of the southern gate of the Roman fortress. As people congregate at the gate that is ornate to promulgate the message, they read above the entrance: Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you. We ascend to the church through a flight of steps that led western pilgrims to call it the Church of the Steps. Before we climb, to the left we see a modern mesmerising mosaic relating the old story of the miracle of moving the Muqattam mountain. 

Under the Fatimids, there a new era was unveiled, the ecumenical spirit prevailed, as the Caliph held interfaith dialogues. One day, the vizier brought to the attention of the caliph a verse from the Bible, “For truly I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it shall move; and nothing shall be impossible to you." The Caliph asked the Pope Abraham to prove it. The patriarch asked for three days to work the miracle. While praying on the third day in the Hanging Church, the Virgin Mary appeared to him at a column which gave the church yet another name, the Church of the Column.


Mary instructed the pope to seek a one-eyed man in the great market, and just like a teacher, furnished him with his unmistakable features. He turned out to be Saint Simon the Tanner. Pursuant to the story, the mountain moved. The reward was the restoration of the Hanging Church, which was extremely dilapidated. When a monument is extremely dilapidated, it is hard to date it. If you are attuned to the divine oneness wave, you bring yourself to the principal area of the church known as the nave; Latin for a ship. Look up and you will see a ceiling in the shape of a ship, curvy topsy turvy. The message is clear, you are the captain of your ship, if you believe, your faith will save you and your worship is your warship that will never tip over.

In the seventh century, the Egyptians were not living in the Nile valley but rather wallowing in the valley of despair, suffering from the Roman persecutions. But only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. In 641 AD, General Amr bin Al-'Aas conquered Egypt. Ready to march on, Amr ordered his soldiers to strike his tent. Yet they found a dove that had laid eggs on top. While all is fair in war and love, Amr, Arabic for life, spared the life of the dove and her children. The new urban baby was named Al-Fustat, Arabic for a tent. With ample time on hand to expand the tentative camp, it became the nucleus of the sprawling metropolis of Cairo. Around the carefully choreographed core of Coptic Cairo in the fortress of Babylon is the Museum of Coptic Art. The architectural façade of which is a Coptic copy from the Fatimid mosque of Al-Aqmar, an exquisite testimonial to the spirit of tolerance that became the spirit of the time.  

Now we are off to the ramification beyond the fortification. As we walk north and literally go down the corridors of time, we encounter a cluster of churches constructed in memory of the martyrs of faith. The tsunami wave of the Great Persecution that swept Christian Egypt under the Romans came to a climax in AD 284, the inaugural year of Emperor Diocletian. It was so devastating that it marked the beginning of the Coptic Christian Calendar. The most glorious of those houses of God belongs to Saints Sergius and Bacchus. It is founded where a cave was found. That cave gave a safe shelter in the sweltering heat to the Virgin Mary and her son, Jesus. The house took shape as a church to cherish the memory of the Flight of the Holy Family to Egypt. As we contemplate this temple of God where the crypt is kept, we may decrypt the code of a life lived in refuge to escape from the horror of King Herod.

The Flight of the Holy Family to Egypt is reminiscent of the story of Moses. A prophecy of old foretold the fate of pharaoh at the hand of a Hebrew slave. To evade the eminent destruction, pharaoh gave instructions to kill all male babies born to the Hebrews. To save Moses, his mother cast him in a basket of reeds that drifted downstream. "Behold! We sent to thy mother, by inspiration, the message: Throw him into the chest, and throw (the chest) into the river: the river will cast him up on the bank, and he will be taken up by one who is an enemy to Me and an enemy to him': But I cast love over you from Me: and in order that you may be reared under Mine eye." As the basket of Moses moored at the pharaoh's palace, the pharaoh's daughter picked him up. If Moses was raised in the palace of pharaoh, then he learned to speak Egyptian, the predecessor of Coptic. The Coptic language is the most up-to-date version of the ancient Egyptian language. In fact, Moses was given an Egyptian name, Moses which means born. I believe that it is a prophetic name, miraculously so. Moses is just born. He was not born of Ra, then he would have become Ramoses. He was not born of Thoth, then he would have become Thuthmoses. Moses is just born. He is born free from all the gods of ancient Egypt. The sacred site where Moses was found attracted early Christians to build a church. In the ninth century, Abraham Ben-Ezra, the rabbi of Jerusalem purchased the church, hence the name, the Ben Ezra Synagogue. The synagogue tells a tale of two arks and how the word of God made a medieval archive survive the ravages of time and man. Inside the oldest synagogue in Egypt, there is a symbolic Ark of the Covenant where the stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments would have been placed. In the late 19th century, scholars made a stunning discovery as they stumbled upon a Geniza, a storage room, in the attic of the synagogue. This treasure trove sheds a flood of light on the lost and found world of Cairo in the middle ages.

Old Cairo is a capital of faith where we find relief beyond belief. It is a beautiful place redolent of history, and you never know what the sands of time may hide in the way of mystery.  

Photography by Shady Ismail.