Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 December 2010
Issue No. 1027
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A pilgrimage to Egypt's churches

Nader Habib takes a step-by-step tour

Click to view caption
A wall painting of the Nativity from the 13th century at the Hanging Church's Chapel of Tekla Haymanot

Egypt is a beauty this time of year. The weather is moderate, the sun warm and the skies are clear. Sometimes it will rain, but that's only to prove that it is winter, then everything quickly goes back to normal. At night, it's a different story. The outings are joyous and the hotels prepare for the best seasonal shows on New Year's Eve accompanied by Christmas carols and hymns sung by the sweetest voices.

While many will go to the festive outings, some may forget to visit nearby sites which Jesus visited during his flight to Egypt. There are also landmark historic churches which present performances demonstrating what the angels said to revelers: "Exultation to God above; on Earth peace and joy to the people".

A journey to these churches can easily be arranged if you are in Cairo or ask a travel agent to make arrangements to visit those in other governorates, especially if your trip is short. The churches in Cairo can be visited over two or three days and could cost as little as LE6, the cost of a round trip ticket on the underground. But the historic, cultural and religious value of the excursion is priceless. Destinations outside Cairo can be included on your travel itinerary without adding much more to your budget. For this Christmas, we review the sites most prominent in Greater Cairo and the spectacular coastal city of Alexandria.


Taking the underground to visit historic and ancient churches makes for a quick and efficient commute, but also enjoy strolling through the streets of Cairo at this time of year. Divide your visit over two or more days depending on your pace and energy level. There are three main areas in Cairo which are must-sees: Ramses, Al-Matariya and Maadi, all located close to the underground.

Zone One: Mubarak Underground Station

St Mark's Church

If you decide to take the underground, disembark at Mubarak Station at Ramses Square near a district rich with significant and historical churches of unique architecture. Some were built during the reign of Khedive Ismail, the founder of Modern Egypt. Leaving the exit marked 'Fatah Mosque or Faggala', stand with the mosque behind you and look straight ahead and you will find three roads. The one on the right leads to Attaba Square, the one on the left goes to Faggala and the centre road leads to the famous Clot Bek Street, Al-Batrakhana previously -- or the Old Cathedral which was the headquarters of the papal seat of the Coptic Church before it relocated to Abbasiya during the presidency of Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

There are many street vendors on Clot Bek which may give you the impression that there won't be much to see here, but keep walking for a few metres and turn right and you will find the oldest papal headquarters in the area, where you can tour the ancient building of the Coptic pope. If you look closely, you will realise that you are in the centre of the largest compound of churches in the capital. There are many headquarters for monasteries in this area, as well as old churches which are well known to Coptic Christians.

The cathedral is on Morcosia Street. Entering through the large gates, to the right is a massive bookstore selling most publications of the monasteries and churches, religious books, recorded hymns and psalms, as well as church paraphernalia. To the right of the cathedral is an old building with a wooden staircase, and as you climb them you can view the portraits of the popes who occupied this ancient papal seat.

The church was built when Ibrahim El-Gawhari, the renowned Coptic civil servant at the end of the 18th century and head of the Egypt Chapter under Ibrahim Bek (equivalent to prime minister today), received a license from the Ottoman Sultan Salim III to build a Coptic church in the Azbakiya district. But it was his brother Girgis who oversaw its completion. Under Pope Morcos VIII (1796-1809) it became the papal seat, until Pope Kirolos IV built the cathedral which was the papal headquarters until the 1950s.

The cathedral was built according to 19th century Greek Orthodox style. As you enter, you see two rows of marble columns and the pulpit where preachers in the past stood so their voices would carry throughout the cathedral. The pulpit is attached to one of the North columns and is accessed via a spiral staircase. What is special about this cathedral is the collection of Italian Byzantine paintings and icons which are a distinct feature of the 19th century.

Once you've had your fill, return to the starting point and walk for two minutes along Ramses Street in the direction of traffic towards Abbasiya Square. There, you will find the Armenian Cathedral of St Gregory the Illuminator.

The Armenian Cathedral of St Gregory the Illuminator

This cathedral was completed in 1928. It is of distinct architecture, with walls of red Belgian marble, yellow Asian marble and floors from Paris. The distance between the floor and dome is 35m and the roof is held up by 18 granite columns, with crowns decorated with leaves, birds and animals.

The dome above the main altar has a dove etched on it, the symbol of the Holy Spirit. On the eastern one is the image of Jesus grandly sitting over his realm with three angels kneeling in front of him on each side, and beneath them are the 12 apostles. There are nine bells at this church, six named after Orthodox saints and the rest herald church celebrations.

Zone Two: Al-Matariya Metro Station

Virgin Mary's Tree in Matariya

The second stop is Al-Matariya underground station. Walk for a couple of minutes until you reach the shrine of Mary's Tree, a landmark tourist and religious destination. The Ministry of Culture built a wall around it in 2000 to protect it as part of celebrations marking the passage of 2,000 years since Jesus came to Egypt with the Holy Family to escape Herod's persecution. The tree is well known in the area, and elegant signs written in both English and Arabic at the corners of streets makes it easy to find. Soon you will see a yellow brick wall covered with Qur'anic verses referring to the Virgin Mary and how God bestowed His grace upon her.

The wall continues until it reaches the ticket office next to the entrance, with a sign announcing ticket prices and train hours above it. Once through the electronic gates, it becomes apparent that much thought and attention are given to the site -- elegant floors, painted walls, and non-stop cleanliness.

Opposite the entrance is a statue of the Virgin Mary with her famous blue head scarf, with a stone arch inscribed with 'from Egypt I called on my son', written in Arabic and Coptic. Slightly to the left, an open courtyard is centred by an ornate well, making it a true piece of art.

To the right of the well is a sandy courtyard where a tall green tree stands in the centre, with four massive dead roots propped up on wooden posts. Ishak Girgis, the caretaker, told us that they represent three generations of the tree. "We take a branch and replant it, and anything that withers we keep," Girgis explained. A roped area around the tree ensures that visitors keep their distance, but they are free to take photographs.

According to legend, the Holy Family took shelter under a fig tree and next to a well which baby Jesus blessed. When the Virgin Mary threw out the water that Jesus had bathed in, a Balsam tree sprouted, the resin of which is used to prepare the holy oil used in many ceremonies of the Coptic Church.

Visitors here are an eclectic collection of Egyptians and other foreigners who come for various reasons. Some visit the tree for its blessing, others seek out history and are keen on visiting the small museum which displays the journey of the Holy Family to Egypt in pictures. The third type of visitors, reveals Girgis, are simple women who are Muslim or Christian who usually come and walk around the tree asking for the Virgin's help in matters of their fertility. They are seeking the blessing of the lady who bore a child without being touched by man.

People talk about Al-Laimoun Alley which is close to the tree where bread does not rise because the Virgin Mary cursed it. This legend is based in a story which tells that while in the area, Mary and Jesus were hungry but could not find anything to eat. She asked the locals for a loaf of bread but they turned her away claiming that their bread doesn't rise. So she put a spell on them, that they may never have bread which rises, and so it stands until today.

Another folk story is that when there were attempts in the 1950s to cut down the tree blood drops appeared on the bark where the axe hit, and so it was left alone. The stories are many and the miracles are more, as people volunteer more stories about the Virgin Mary's Tree. Before we leave the area, we visit Mary's Tree Mosque, the Jesuits' Holy Family Church and the Copts Virgin Mary Church.

Zone Three: Mar Girgis

The Hanging Church

Mar Girgis station is not far away from the Mubarak underground stop. As soon as you arrive you will see the famous Roman fortress which over the ages witnessed many wars, but today is home to a number of churches. Close by is Amr Ibn Al-Aas Mosque and from within the fortress is a tunnel which leads to the nearby Synagogue. Accordingly, it is called the religious compound.

On Mar Girgis Street there are many bazaars which were recently overhauled and which sell a variety of Christian, Muslim and Pharaonic souvenirs. Although there are many historic churches in this area (six churches, along with a monastery and a synagogue), we visited two of the most prominent and historically significant churches, the Hanging Church which was the headquarters of the papal seat for Saint Mark after the main headquarters in Alexandria; and Mar Girgis Church located in the Greek Orthodox fortress.

The Hanging Church is one of the oldest remaining churches in Egypt. It is rectangular in shape, 24m long by 20m wide, and 13m high. The entrance to the church faces West and houses a fountain. The church, which is divided into two storeys, acquired its name because it was built on two towers of the Roman Babylonian Fort which was built by Emperor Trajan during the 12th century AD.

The church, on Mar Girgis Street, is in one of the most important districts in Old Cairo. Next to the Babylonian Fort lies Mar Mina Church near St Mark's Abu Seifein Church. The area's historic significance arises not only from the fact that it is home to these churches, but also because there are prominent Islamic sites such as Amr Ibn Al-Aas Mosque and the Jewish Bin Ezra Synagogue.

The Hanging Church is famous for its Basilica architecture with a main circular atrium and to small wings with three columns on each side. Between the atrium and each of the North and South wings are two rows of three marble columns and one made of black basalt. The columns have a number of crowns on them in Corinthian style.

The Hanging Church is especially prominent among churches in Cairo because it was witness to the prosecution of bishops and priests accused of heresy. It was also at times the venue for major Orthodox celebrations such as the ascension of the pope. It houses a large number of silver and gold incense holders and other church paraphernalia of historic significance.

The church dates back to the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. Historians believe they took refuge at that site upon their arrival in Cairo, and hence it was chosen as the location for the church. Other legends say it was the place of residence of one of the saints who lived in one of the passages dug out in the rock. At various times, the church was the headquarters of a number of bishops, pioneered by the Bishop of Mar Morcos, later chosen as Pope Christodolos.

The church also served as the final resting place for the bishops who served there in the 11th and 12th centuries, and displays their pictures and icons. It is an important visiting site for Copts because of its history, but is also visited by many Copts because the Holy Family rested there during their stay in Egypt.

The Mar Girgis Church

When you emerge from the Hanging Church onto the Mar Girgis Street, go right for a few steps and you'll find the gate to the Mar Girgis Church for the Greek Orthodox. Past the gate, you'll come face to face with the steps to the church, situated on top of one of the towers of the Roman fort. Centuries ago, you would have had a view of the river branch that used to run inside the fort a short distance to your left.

Once inside the church, you cannot fail to notice the splendid icons and the intricate interiors. The church has been rebuilt repeatedly over the centuries. According to Arab chronicler Ibn Duqmaq (1349-1407), the church belonged to the Melkites. According to another chronicler, al-Maqrizi (1364-1442), a Nilometer was situated inside the fort.

In the late fifteenth century, Bishop Smyrna Daniel mentioned that the church came briefly under Coptic control. The Melkite Patriarch Joachim (1487-1567) managed to get it back. Johann Wansleben, the German traveller, said that it served as a convent for Greek Orthodox nuns around 1672. A fire destroyed the church in 1903, and it was rebuilt by Partriarch Photius of Alexandria in 1909.

The Church is circular in shape and has a collection of golden icons of Virgin Mary and Jesus. Don't forget to take a look at the iron chains, which were used, according to tradition, to shackle Mar Girgis, the saint who was detained and killed in this place.


The Maadi Church

The best time to visit Maadi is in the late afternoon when the sun offers a lovely reflection on the Nile, exceptionally wide at this point in its course. Emerging from the train station, you will find yourself in a lovely shopping and dining neighbourhood intersected with leafy streets and lined with low-rise houses. Take a taxi from the metro station to the riverside church.

The church's three distinctive domes will greet you from a distance. Go through the narrow door and prepare yourself, after a short walk, to a most glorious view of the river. Enjoy the rustic scene for a moment, then go around the wall to the right to the church's front door. Once inside, notice the unique design of the church, with the altar dedicated to the Virgin Mary at the front and the relics of Mar Girgis, Mar Mina, and Mar Damiana at the back. On the left, you'll find the relics of Mar Bulus, Mar Antonius, and Anba Shenouda.

In the northern tip of the church, you'll come upon the baptistery and a well of water from which, according to tradition, the holy family drank.

Take your shoes off before entering the chapel dedicated to the relics and an old Bible with a bit of a story behind it. In 1976, a priest found a book floating on a river. When he fished it out, he discovered that it was a Bible, open on a page from the Book of Isaiah that read, "Blessed be my people of Egypt." Then go and take a look at the exceptionally delicate icons featuring 10 images of the Virgin Mary's life.

When you exit the church, rest for a while at the riverside courtyard where refreshments are available. Then go to the middle of the courtyard, where a staircase leads to the river through a tunnel. The staircase, now situated under a big dome, is said to have been used by the holy family to escape to South Egypt. A celebration is held in this church on 1 June of each year to mark the coming to Egypt of the Holy Family. In the course of the celebration, a bishop bearing the icon of the Holy Family leads prayers on top of the tunnel, after which everyone gets into sailboats as the celebration continues on the Nile.


The Mediterranean city which is a popular destination for local tourists in summer is much more relaxed in winter, the best time to take this tour. Start from Al-Raml Station where you can walk to the two main churches in town. Turn your back to the sea and start walking toward Saad Zaghlul Street.

First Stop

The Coptic Patriarchal Church of St Mark, or Al-Kanisa Al-Morqosia.

Alexandria is one of the first cities introduced to Christianity by St Mark, or Mar Morqos. His first convert was a shoemaker called Ananias. The house of Ananias became a church later on, and it is on top of which that the current St Mark Church stands today. Fittingly, it borders a neighbourhood of shoemakers.

The entrance to the church doesn't prepare you for the treasures inside, although the brass serpent topping the metal gate outside is worthy of note.

Walk to the main courtyard and admire the decorative arches and the two distinctive bell towers. Notice the geometric pattern combining the clock above the entrance and the cross above.

This church was demolished and rebuilt repeatedly. In 1879, it was built in a Byzantine style and decorated with lovely icons. In 1950, some parts of the church were demolished and rebuilt. In 1952, Pope Usab II inaugurated the new cathedral and led the first mass. The marble icon holder and the papal church were kept in their place in the renovation, but six marble columns were removed from the interior and taken to the entrance. The spires were made taller, reinforced with concrete, and embellished with Coptic motifs.

In 1985, with the large increase in the size of the congregation, expansion plans were made. Pope Shenouda inaugurated the church in 1990, which was by then one of the largest churches in Africa and the Middle East, with enough space to accommodate 1,200 seated and 1,500 standing worshippers.

With the expansion, four mosaic icons of the Virgin Mary, St Mark (Mar Morqos), St George (Mar Girgis), and the Archangel Gabriel were brought to the front of the church. In the central part of the church, close to the staircase leading to their chapels, there are two icons of Mar Mina and Anba Antonios, both made by Coptic artist Isaak Fanous. Take a moment to examine the two old icons of Jesus and the Virgin Mary displayed near the entrance.

In the south side of the nave, you can find the entrance to the famed tomb containing the remains of the patriarchs of the first millennium, with their names recorded on a marble plaque in Coptic, Arabic and English.

A small lobby at the entrance of the tomb is adorned with mosaic images telling the story of St Mark the Apostle, author of the Gospel of Mark and founder of the Church of Alexandria.

Going down the stairs, you'll reach the entrance tomb, which is an underground tunnel containing the mortal remains of the patriarchs and the head of St Mark the Apostle. The entrance is blocked completely for fear that the head would be stolen. Afterward, take note of the ancient icon holder and the papal chair made of interlaced wood. The chair was a gift from the congregation to Pope Shenouda III in 1994.

The church, which also operates as a cathedral, owns an older papal chair, one that was in use for most of the 19th and 20th centuries. One of the longest serving popes to use the chair was Kyrillos V (52 years and nine months). Walk around the church and find the old pulpit, now rarely used, adorned with icons of the four evangelists.

In the northeast corner of the church there is a balcony containing a relic of St Mark, adorned with an icon of St Mark inlaid with silver. The same balcony holds the relics of St Ananias, the martyrs of Akhmim and Fayyoum, and St Apollo.

Opposite is a staircase leading to the baptistery which is designed in the Coptic style and contains a mosaic icon showing Christ being baptised by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. Another icon, of stained glass, represents the burial of Christ.

Next to the baptistery, you'll find the Church of St Abanoub the Child Martyr. It is devoted to children who attend children's masses, receive religious education, and learn church music. Also connected with the church is a small chapel named after Anba Abram of Fayyoum, known for his charity work.

Next to the church you'll see the building of Morqosia School, built in 1910. It is now being used as administrative offices for the patriarchale. The school has moved to a modern building in the back.

Second Stop:

The Greek Patriarchale Church

Leave the cathedral through the main door, walk left, moving against the direction of the motorised traffic. You'll find yourself in the middle of a busy commercial district with shops selling clothes and pastries. Ask for the street of the Greek Partiarchale (Al-Batrakia Al-Yunania). Pedestrians will point you to an elegant street lined with high-end shoe shops, where you will notice the distinctive spire of the Cathedral of St Saba for the Greek Orthodox.

Saba was born in 439 in Cappadocia, now in Turkey, and died in 532. In 479, he founded a monastery near the Dead Sea that served as a papal seat for several years. Standing in the courtyard just outside the church, admire the decorative detail on the big bell, a gift from Patriarch Alexis of Moscow. The church is now two metres or so under street level. You have to descend 14 steps to enter the church, having passed amid six ancient granite columns.

Inside the church, a wooden icon holder is used to display a group of modern metal icons. The western wall is adorned with a collection of 18th century icons, including an image of the Virgin Mary ascending to heaven and a scene depicting St Mark the Evangelist in Egypt, with the Nile, the pyramids, and the Alexandria Lighthouse in the background.

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