Babylon, an early historical settlement in what is now Egypt's capital, is the heart of Old Cairo. Jenny Jobbins takes a walk round
As I got off the metro at Mar Girgis station I couldn't help thinking of the 1960s song about the train running through the middle of the house. It seems quite bizarre that the line should almost slice the sides off several churches, and I am reminded of my son whose local commuter line in the United Kingdom runs past the ruins of the 11th-century Berkhamsted Castle. He swears he once heard an American passenger say to her companion: "I wonder why they built the castle so close to the railway line?"
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The south drum tower built by the Emperor Trajan in 98 AD, recently cleaned and reinforced; the Greek Orthodox Church of St George, built on top of the north tower; the Coptic Museum; the Hanging Church with its restored façade; a very early baptismal font, still in use, in the west side of the Hanging Church
Well, it might seem intrusive, but the metro being so close to Babylon is no bad thing. It makes it really easy to get to. And on a day when you look out of the window and see the sun shining and realise this is the first day of spring -- it must be, by now, surely? -- it seems a good place for a spur-of-the-moment visit.
The fortress of Babylon is thought to have been built by Persians or Assyrians who may have named it after the original Babylon back home. The notion that the name derives from an Arabic reference to its being the "gate" (presumably the Nile gate) "of On" (the name of the great, ancient city the Greeks later called Heliopolis) seems rather fanciful, since the name was already in use in Roman times, well before the Arabs brought the Arabic language to Egypt.
A Roman legion was garrisoned here, and the Emperor Trajan restored the fortress and built the two drum towers. A town grew up within its walls and before the Arab invasion there were farms, villages and country villas in the surrounding countryside. After the Arabs came and built their town of Fustat immediately northeast of Babylon, the walls formed an enclave for Egyptian (Coptic) Christians -- both Greek Orthodox and Jacobite or monophysite (later known as the Coptic Church) -- and Jews.
This is a vibrant area, and the churches are not just tourist sites. One is well aware, not only because of the railway line, that life moves on. Near the metro entrance is the Church of the Virgin, the Hanging Church -- Al-Mu'allaqah (suspended) -- which was built with its sides affixed to the two towers of the fortress, supported on palm cross beams. This has been so much restored recently that it has tipped the balance to over-restoration while remaining unfinished. The quiet garden is now enclosed by a new wall and paved with glossy granite tiles. The walls prevent one from seeing how the church is suspended, and just how breathtakingly suspended it is. One sees just a flight of stairs leading up to the 19th-century marble entrance.
Our visit happened to be on a public holiday and the church was bursting at the seams, with many of the pilgrims clamouring to see the western aisle which was still under restoration and out of bounds. We asked for, and got, permission to enter -- a press card can be a wonderful instrument -- at which we were followed through the ivory-inlaid doorway by a hundred others (something that a few minutes before had been "not possible" now becoming "no problem").
Currently under restoration are some beautiful frescoes discovered under the plaster and thought to date from the fifth century: one is of the Nativity, one of the 12 apostles, and others are of Gabriel and St Mary at the Annunciation. Through the window is one of the clearest possible views of the surviving Roman tower, and through a window set in the floor is a view of the deep wall below the church, thoroughly cleaned, and the original palm logs, now reinforced with new wood.
John Salama, a member of the congregation who showed us round, said that when the Emperor Trajan restored the fortress in 98 AD he built a small temple here which, in the fourth century, was converted into a church. There are remains of this early church in a small chapel on the west side of the church. For icon lovers this is paradise -- the church contains no less than 90 icons dating from the 13th to the 19th centuries.
From the Hanging Church we strolled into the garden of the Coptic Museum, now being paved with grey limestone. I can't really see the advantage of this over the original mud. One used to be able to imagine -- without even closing one's eyes -- this busy town with its comings and goings, its daily street corners meetings and gossips, its complex family structure. Now it all seems sterile. We didn't go into the museum, although this is really worth repeated visits and is by far one of my favourite museums in Cairo. The rooms are laden with objets d'arts from early Coptic textiles to icons, jewellery and pre-Coptic sculpture as well as Gnostic codices and other interesting documents.
The Greek Orthodox Church of St George, which sits on top of the north Roman tower, was built in 1909 after the original 10th- century building burnt down. In spite of the fact that the church is Greek Orthodox and the seat of the Greek Patriarch of Alexandria is in the adjoining building, the Monastery of St George, it is here that one of the largest Coptic mulids (religious festivals) is held on 23 April.
The image of St George as a Roman soldier mounted on a fine Arabian horse and spearing a dragon (or was it a crocodile?) is a familiar one throughout Old Cairo. It continues to haunt you as you go behind the church and down some steps into an alley where you find you really are in the part that is still a town. On the left is a convent (to non other than George) and a crypt chapel with a pair of fine studded doors more than a thousand years old. The crypt contains more of St George's relics -- happily there appears to have been a lot of him to go round.
Around the corner we tried to compete with a large group of Italians to enter the Church of St Sergius. In a room underneath this church, Coptic legend says, the Holy Family hid for six months on their flight through Egypt before being hounded out by residents afraid of being accused of harbouring them. The story seems a little far-fetched today, but in those days this was a Roman garrison town and the population was small, and King Herod -- a Roman vassal -- had ordered all Jewish baby boys to be killed, so if one were discovered here the crime wouldn't have gone unpunished.
More legends live on around the corner in the Synagogue of Ben Ezra. Here Pharaoh's daughter is said to have found the baby Moses in the bulrushes. Even in Roman times the Nile came right up to the fortress walls, so before the fortress was built this spot could have stood on the banks. The Nile is, indeed, underneath us still: The water lurks at the bottom of the flight of steps where, originally, one viewed the legendary spot. Another vantage point is now enclosed within a structure not unlike a well.
Part of the old Roman wall runs round the back of the building. The synagogue was originally a church but was closed on a whim of the Caliph Al-Hakim, after which it was purchased by the Jewish community and reopened as a synagogue. Much of it was rebuilt in the 19th century. It was here that, during the rebuilding, a cache of manuscripts was found -- in case they were inscribed with the name of God holy papers were never destroyed, but buried -- which provided a history of the community from the early 11th to the 16th centuries and are known as the Geniza documents.
The synagogue used to be much shabbier before outside help arrived in the form of funding for renovation. Dear Mr Cohen, who would enthusiastically show visitors round in return for a large tip for the collection box, has sadly passed on. But the row of peddlers who formed a gauntlet as one passed has gone too, and one welcomes the respite from endless sales patter. All the buying and selling has been concentrated into one area: the small tourist bazaar has grown into a huge one selling everything a tourist could want.
Our last church was St Barbara, which is also being renovated. There was an earlier church here, built in 684 and dedicated to Saints Cyrus and John -- who were torn to pieces in the circus -- but this building was razed by Al-Hakim. St Barbara's relics had been placed here, and when the church was rebuilt it was dedicated in her name.
A courtyard behind St Barbara's leads to the Greek Orthodox and Coptic cemeteries, a grid of avenues lined with tombs and shaded with casuarina, ficus and eucalyptus. Several of the tombs have an upper storey of painted brick which are used as dwellings by the ghaffirs (guards). Some of them, neatly-dressed men and a woman, were sitting in a group on white chairs, relaxing in the sun. The cemetery was quiet and green like a residential village. We asked if they had water. Not inside, they said, but there was a hammam (bathhouse). Just then a girl leaned out of an upper window and yelled: "Ya Mama! Telefon!" That answered our second question. And electricity? Oh yes. Were there any that were empty? "Yes, lots," came the answer, "Do you want one?" We had certainly seen much worse accommodation, even in Zamalek. A block away a mobile phone rang. We asked about ghosts. "Not just here," a teenage boy told us, "but the path over there, that's scary at night."
We strolled on, and on the way back asked our new friends -- though probably not future neighbours -- about the abundance of smart cars, which included a brand-new Jeep Cherokee and a small BMW. Did they come with a ghaffir's salary? No, they belonged to the people in the bazaar inside the old walls or to the tomb owners, who parked them here. And the bus? To the church.
We retraced our steps to St George's -- the Greek one -- and walked north beside the metro line along a street trimmed with shops selling soft drinks and souvenirs. Almost ahead of us was the Amr Ibn Al-'As Mosque, which stands on the site of the first mosque to be built in Cairo and indeed in Africa. It was built in 641-2 by Al-'As to mark his entry in the city in 640 -- he encamped here, northeast of Babylon (besieging the Coptic patriarch Cyrus, known to the Arabs as Al-Muqawqis, inside the fortress) before marching up to the capital, Alexandria. Al-'As built the Arab city of Fustat on the site of the encampment and made it his new capital. Fustat is now a wasteland: it burnt down nearly 1,000 years ago. But Babylon, with its Christian (and a few Jewish) residents, has continued as a town- within-a-town up to this day.
The grand new shopping mall for bazaar goods and Egyptian crafts which opened two years ago with a much-hyped exhibition is almost empty, with only a handful showing goods in the windows -- and, on this holiday, closed. Traditional potters used to fire their ware in kilns along the side of the road here, but these have been moved on. As a replacement for all this activity, a pottery and crafts museum has been built not far away. Members of the public can attend art classes here under the teacher, Ali Ibrahim, on Saturdays and Wednesdays from 2-5pm.