Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, this church is popularly known as the "Hanging" or "Suspended" Church (Al-Muallaqa in Arabic) because it was built over the Water Gate of the old Roman fortress of Babylon. Remember the ancient wonder, Nebudchadnezer's The Hanging Gardens of Babylon?
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.