According to the New Testament, when the Holy Family fled to Egypt they came to Coptic Cairo and stayed here. Reason enough for Christians around the world to want to visit the area. But the neighbourhood is also a spectacular place where surprises lie in wait around every corner and it’s an indispensable part of the Cairo experience, no matter what your religion is.
Coptic Cairo is south of the modern city, opposite Roda Island, and if it could be viewed from the air, you’d see a network of narrow streets of every size and a sprinkling of monuments. You’ll have to come down to earth to discover the rich history of Cairo’s earliest settlement (it’s also known as Old Cairo), such as the remains of the Babylon Fortress, which was built on the orders of Emperor Trajan in 130 AD on the shores of the Nile.
The first Christians in the 4th century settled here and it has numerous attractions to visit, many of which are religious. Churches, mosques, synagogues, an aqueduct and museum should all be added to your list of must-see sights. We recommend starting your route at the Coptic Museum where you’ll get a good historical and cultural overview of the area and Cairo in general. The museum houses the manuscripts of Nag Hammadi, which consist of 1,200 4th century papyruses that were handwritten in Coptic. This fascinating space is set in a garden from the old Babylon Fortress.
Once you’ve got a sense of the area’s history, you can organise your itinerary so you don’t miss any of the main monuments. These include the Hanging Church of the Virgin Mary, built on top of the remains of a guardhouse of the Babylon Fortress in the 7th century. Its presbytery has 17 icons by John the Armenian depicting the martyrdom of Saint George. You should also visit the church and convent of St George; a circular Greek orthodox temple; the church of Saint Barbara with beautiful panels carved in ivory; and the church of Saint Sergius, where the Holy Family are believed to have hidden during their flight to Egypt.
If you’re interested in visiting a mosque, head to the Mosque of Amr Ibn Al As, which was constructed in around 642 AD and is said to be the first in Africa. And if you’d like to see a synagogue, the synagogue of Ben Ezrah is of particular note; it was built on top of an old Coptic church at the place where Moses is believed to have been found in the Nile.
The most important work of civil architecture is the aqueduct to the north of Coptic Cairo, above the Corniche. Sultan Al Nasr Mohammad ordered a hexagonal tower to be built in 1311 and from here water was transported to the city via an aqueduct. It was expanded in later years, reaching three and a half kilometres in length.
A visit to Coptic Cairo is an essential part of any trip for travellers who want to discover the vibrant capital of Egypt in greater depth.
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