In a city with two names – Masr and Al-Qahira – Cairenes distinguish between al-Qahira al-Qadima (Old al-Qahira, known in English as Islamic Cairo) and Masr al-Qadima, Old Masr, or as it’s known in English, Old Cairo. Depending on whether it’s broadly or narrowly defined, this covers everything south of Garden City and Saiyida Zeinab, or a relatively small area near the Mar Girgis metro station, known to foreigners as “Coptic Cairo”, which remains the heart of Cairo’s Coptic community. Featuring several medieval churches, the superb Coptic Museum and an atmospheric synagogue, it totally eclipses the neighbouring site of Fustat – Egypt’s first Islamic settlement, of which little now remains.
Perhaps as early as the sixth century BC, a town grew up in this area around a fortress intended to guard the canal linking the Nile and the Red Sea. Some ascribe the name of this settlement – Babylon-in-Egypt – to Chaldean workmen pining after their home town beside the Euphrates; another possible derivation is Bab il-On, the “Gate of Heliopolis”. Either way, it was Egyptian or Jewish in spirit long before Emperor Trajan raised the existing fortress in 130 AD. Many of Babylon’s inhabitants, resentful of Greek domination and Hellenistic Alexandria, later embraced Christianity, despite bitter persecution by the pagan Romans. Even after the Empire adopted Christianity, the Copts were oppressed by Byzantines for their adoption of the Monophysite “heresy”. Thus when the Muslim army besieged Babylon in 641, promising to respect Copts and Jews as “People of the Book”, only its garrison resisted.