The original structure was built possibly as early as the 4th century, but it was destroyed and rebuilt in the 11th century. Expansion and reconstruction have gone on ever since, making it difficult to date precisely any specific part of the church. The foundations of the Church can be seen from the courtyard of the Coptic Museum or through the glass panels interlaced with the wooden flooring. The façade is surrounded by its distinctive twin bell towers, and the whole front section is a relatively recent addition, dating only from the 19th century.
On the porch at the top of the staircase are stalls selling cassettes of Coptic liturgies and videos of papal sermons. There is a carved frieze of Christ flanked by angels just above the staircase leading to the inner courtyard of the church. You can see the earliest pieces of this frieze at the nearby Coptic Museum. The outer porch, dating back to the 11th century, is decorated with glazed tiles in geometrical designs. The Roman Towers belonged to the southwestern bastion of the original Roman fortress and date from around the 1st century.
The walls on the interior are adorned with icons of St. George, the Virgin and John the Baptist. It is ornately furnished with a marble pulpit that rests on 13 columns, representing Christ and His disciples, and the inlaid ivory screens that hide the three altar areas date from between 10th and 13th centuries. The Sanctuary Screen is carved from cedar wood and delicately inlaid with ivory, adorned with icons, and the central screen that shields the main altar is the finest of its kind in Egypt. Other notable features include the three barrel-vaulted, wooden-roofed aisles, supported on columns with Corinthian capitals, an indication that they were recycled from earlier buildings!
Despite its venerable name, the church is still used for regular public services, which are held every Friday and Sunday morning. Open Monday to Thursday and Saturday from 9am to 4pm. Friday from 8 to 11am and Sunday from 7 to 10am.
Part of the church interior was under restoration when I visited in Dec 2003.
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Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
October 27, 2004
From journal Phascinating Pharoahs
The main entrance, leading to the interesting Coptic Museum and the beautiful Hanging Church, is between two round Roman towers, against which the waters of the Nile once lapped before the river shifted its course to the west centuries ago. A second, stepped entrance to the north leads along a sunken alley to the rest of the churches, the synagogue, and the cemeteries. Standing within the compound are the Churches of St. Barbara, St. Sergius, St. George, and the most beautiful of all, the Hanging Church. There is also the Convent of St. George and the Ben Ezra Synagogue, with its Greek Orthodox Cemetery.
The Coptic Museum houses artifacts which trace the origins of Christian art in the Near East. The building itself is beautiful, especially the older, southern wing. There is also a garden and café (which was under restoration when I was there in Dec 2003). Hours are from 9am to 5pm daily and 9am to 3pm during Ramadan.
Long before the Crusaders carried tales of his legendary exploits back to Europe, St. George was venerated throughout the Christian Middle East as Mar Girgis. Famed for his dragon slaying feat, he is said to have been a Roman legionary who defied a decree by Emperor Diocletian outlawing the worship of Christ and was martyred for his beliefs some time in the 3rd century. There has been a church dedicated to St. George on this site since the 10th century, but today's striking round structure dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. The circular form of the church echoes the shape of the 1st century Roman gate tower on top of which it was built. The remains of the tower are still visible beneath the church on the north side. It is frequented by members of the local Christian community who regularly light the candles and say prayers here. Open to the public daily from 8am to 12:45pm and 2:30pm to 3:15pm.
The Hanging Church is ornately decorated on the inside and is definitely worth a visit. See my separate entry about this beautiful and unusual building.
New York, New York
January 5, 2011
From journal A Jewel on the Nile