The history of Old Cairo:
Settlement of the area around Cairo did
not start near the current city center. The original seed of what has become
the modern city now sits on the southern edges of the city, known as Old Cairo. Over
two thousand years ago this was the beginning of an ancient canal between the
Nile River and the Red Sea and it was at this strategic location that the first
settlements in the area grew up.
The course of the river has changed, now
lying several hundred meters to the west, but this location is still marked by
several significant historic sites, many of which date back to the Greco-Roman
period when Egypt became a Christian nation. Archeological evidence suggests
that settlement on this site began before the 6th century BCE.
Around 525 BCE a fortress called Babylon
was constructed here at the mouth of the canal, which marked the boundary
between Upper and Lower Egypt. Later the Romans built a much larger fortress on
the same site, which now serves as the foundation upon which many of the sites
present there today were built.
The meters thick walls of the Roman fort,
striped with red and white brick, are still visible today as you exit the Mar
Girgis metro stop or walk down Mar Girgis Street into Coptic Cairo. It was this
fort that the invading Muslim army of Amr Ibn Al-Aas besieged in the first
battle of the Muslim conquest of Egypt.
Today Old Cairo is full of sites dating
from Egypt’s Christian past and the dawn of Islam’s presence in Egypt. Two of
the earliest sites from Islamic Egypt are here - Amr Ibn Al-Aas Mosque, the
first mosque built on the African continent, and the Nilometer that was
constructed on Rhoda Island soon after the Muslim conquest of Egypt.
Coptic Cairo is a unique area with Old
Cairo that has a concentration of Christian churches and other sites that date
from the centuries between the decline of the pharaonic religion and the
arrival of Islam when Egypt had a Christian majority. Coptic Cairo is largely
built around the fort of Babylon on upon the remains of its walls.
The Coptic Museum is here, which holds
the largest collection of Coptic Christian artwork and artifacts in the world.
Founded in 1910, the museum records Coptic history from the arrival of
Christianity in Egypt up through the Ottoman era, displaying a mixture of
artwork influenced by Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman
There are also six churches here that
date back to the early Christian era. The Hanging Church, or the Church of the
Virgin Mary, was built in the 9th century to ‘hang’ high upon the walls of
Babylon. The effect of this ‘hanging’ is now diminished significantly as ground
levels have risen around the walls.
Deeper into Coptic Cairo there are
several other older churches, including the Church of St. Sergius, which dates
from the 5th century and was supposedly built upon the site of a crypt where
the Holy Family (Jesus, Mary, and Joseph) to shelter during their time in
Egypt. Even further back is Ben Ezra Synagogue. This is the oldest synagogue in
Cairo, founded in the 9th century on what is claimed to be either the site of
the Temple of Jeremiah or the site where the pharaoh’s daughter found Moses
among the reeds.
Points of Interest
The Hanging Church | Coptic Cairo
The Coptic Museum in Cairo
Amr Ibn Al Aas Mosque | Old Cairo
Ben Ezra Synagogue | Coptic Cairo
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