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November 9, 2002
Everything in Coptic Cairo closes by 4pm, so get there early. You can get to Coptic Cairo two ways. One, take a Taxi, about 10 LE from downtown, or take the Metro for 0.75 LE. I prefer the latter option. It is cheap, quick, and drops you off right in front of the entrance. If you take the Metro, buy a ticket in the direction of Helwan, and get of at Mar Girgis. The Metro is very clean and there is a special car just for women at the front, and I suggest you use it. The other cars are crowded and you won't get a seat.
Coptic Cairo is walled off from the rest of the city. Once you get there I suggest you first head to the right, around the walls and towards the Greek Catholic Cemetery. There are some beautiful mausoleums here. After the cemetery head back and go in the first entrance on your right. Here is the famous Hanging Church which was built in the 3rd Century AD and was suspended above ground so the Copts could have a place to hid from the Romans. After the Hanging Church head to the next entrance and the beautiful Church of St. George. This huge round church has amazing ornamentation inside. After St. George head back outside and to the underpass. Here you will be able to walk through some of the streets of Coptic Cairo and see some more sights. Inside there is the Convent of St. George as well as the Churches of St. Barbara and St. Sergius. St. Sergius is supposedly where Mary took Jesus when they fled to Egypt. Also in this complex is the oldest synagogue, Ben Ezra. This closes at 2:30, so get there quick. The inside has beautiful ivory inlaid woodwork. Also inside Coptic Cairo is another Greek Orthodox Cemetery as well as the Coptic Museum and a very tacky Egyptian souvenir store. The Coptic museum is worth a quick stop. That about does it for Coptic Cairo. If you still have some time, I suggest heading to the Island of Rhoda and checking out some of the sights there, such as the Nileometer.
From journal A Year In Cairo
February 18, 2002
Old Cairo looked very medieval with it's cobbled narrow streets that led past ancient walled churches and homes. It reminded me of Ollyantatambo, Peru, with its narrow, walled "street" where no transportation other than donkeys or horses could travel.
To get to Old Cairo proper, we descended a stairway near the Babylon Fortress, and went through a tunnel to enter the ancient lower level. We passed remnants of old homes whose massive decorated doorways no longer functioned properly, warped over time. Walking here was a relaxing respite from the frenzied touristy places. People were laid back selling their wares, or sitting on benches, listening to music. Many would courteously say "Hello" as we passed, to which we replied "Sebaah ieh heer" or "A ha lan" which pleased them. We passed doorways leading to convent and churches from the 10th century, and went inside a few.
Church of Abu Serga was on our right as we continued down the cobblestone street. A picture of Mary with a place to light candles marked the entrance. This church was built in the 4th century over the crypt where Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus hid after they escaped King Herod's persecution and fled to Egypt. Peering into the crypt, I saw remnants of concrete and sand. I watched three little Egyptian girls quietly enter the room, remove their shoes (like Muslims do in the mosques) and sit next to the barred steps leading to the crypt in respectful silence. The church is very similar in design to the Hanging Church, with it's inlaid ivory, ebony, walnut and cedar patterned into crosses and pentagons. It also has three sanctuaries and two side aisles with pillars and a free standing pulpit. It is the oldest church in Cairo, and was rebuilt in the 10th century. Every June 1st a special mass is held to commemorate the Holy Family's presence.
After exploring a convent and Jewish synagogue, we walked back up to the main level of Old Cairo to see the classical ruin of Babylon's Fortress which was built in 1 AD. Drastically reduced from it's original 60 acre size, it now contains a tower, partial wall and a Coptic church. In the 3rd century, a church Al-Mullaqa was built over part of the fortress. This "Hanging Church" was at one time suspended 13 meters off the ground between two bastions of the fortress. Inside, there are beautiful icons throughout the church, with many symbolic features. The arched roof represents Noah's ark and salvation, 12 pillars represent the disciples, including a black marble one for Judas. Masses are held Fridays and Sundays at 11 am.
From journal Honeymoon in Cairo
November 10, 2001
From journal Cairo: Come peel the historical onion!