Old Cairo

Tailor-made Travel

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.

Brief history

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.

Coptic Christianity

While Egypt’s Copts share a common national culture with their Muslim compatriots, they remain acutely conscious of their separate identity. Intercommunal marriages are extremely rare and bring problems from both sides. The Coptic church belongs (along with the Armenian Orthodox and Ethiopian churches) to the Monophysite branch of Christianity, which split from Eastern and Roman Catholic orthodoxy very early on, and the Copts even have their own pope, chosen from the monks of Wadi Natrun. The Coptic Bible (first translated from Greek c.300 AD) predates the Latin version by a century. While Coptic services are conducted in Arabic, portions of the liturgy are sung in the old Coptic language descended from ancient Egyptian, audibly prefiguring the Gregorian chants of Eastern Orthodoxy.

Christianity in Egypt

Tradition holds that St Mark made his first Egyptian convert (a Jewish shoemaker from Alexandria) in 45 AD. From Jews and Greeks the religion spread to the Egyptians of the Delta – which teemed with Christian communities by the third century – and thence southwards up the Nile. The Christian faith appealed to Egyptians on many levels. Its message of resurrection offered ordinary folk the eternal life that was previously available only to those who could afford elaborate funerary rituals, and much of the new religion’s symbolism fitted old myths and images. God created man from clay, as did Khnum on his potter’s wheel, and weighed the penitent’s heart, like Anubis; Confession echoed the Declaration of Innocence; the conflict of two brothers and the struggle against Satan echoed the myth of Osiris, Seth and Horus. Scholars have traced the cult of the Virgin back to that of the Great Mother, Isis, who suckled Horus, and the resemblance between early Coptic crosses and pharaonic ankhs has also led some to argue that Christianity’s principal symbol owes more to Egypt than Golgotha.

Emperor Constantine’s 313 AD legalization of Christianity eased matters until 451, when the Copts rejected the decision of the Council of Chalcedon that Christ’s human and divine natures were unmixed, insisting that his divinity was paramount. For this “Monophysite” heresy (monophysite meaning “single nature”) they were expelled from the fold, and persecuted by the Byzantines. Most Egyptians remained Christian long after the Arab conquest (640–41) and were treated well by the early Islamic dynasties. Mass conversions to Islam followed harsher taxation, abortive revolts, punitive massacres and indignities engendered by the Crusades, until the Muslims attained a nationwide majority (probably during the thirteenth century, earlier in Cairo). Thereafter Copts still participated in Egyptian life at every level, but the community retreated inwards and its monasteries and clergy stagnated until the nineteenth century.

The Copts today

In recent decades the Coptic monasteries have been revitalized by a new generation of well-educated monks, and community work and church attendances are flourishing, but Coptic solidarity reflects alarm at rising Islamic fundamentalism and sectarianism. In Egypt religion is recorded on official ID cards (Egyptians may only be Muslim, Christian or Jewish), and it is illegal for a Muslim to convert to Christianity. There have been several cases of Christian children being abducted and “converted” to Islam, making it extremely difficult for them to return to their original faith. To build or even repair a church requires permission from the local governor, usually denied, and even when given, it often results in sectarian attacks from local Muslims. The Mubarak regime happily pandered to sectarian sentiment, using the 2009 swine flu epidemic, for example, as an excuse to slaughter all of the country’s pigs and close down all butchers selling pork, despite the fact that swine flu cannot be caught from pigs, and that pigs played a vital role in Egypt’s rubbish recycling.

Meanwhile, Egypt’s liberal intelligentsia became more vocal in their opposition to sectarianism, satirizing it, for example, in a 2008 movie, Hassan and Morqos, starring Omar Sharif and Adel Imam. During the revolution (which came shortly after a bomb attack on an Alexandria church that killed 21 people), intercommunal solidarity was a theme commonly voiced by those in Tahrir Square, symbolized by a ubiquitous crescent-and-cross symbol. Salafists and regime supporters had different ideas, however, with attacks by Salafists on Christian communities in Upper Egypt leading to a demonstration in Cairo in October 2011 which was in turn attacked by regime supporters and soldiers, leaving 24 dead. In the face of this, the high vote obtained by the Salafists in the elections has heightened the fear now felt by Egypt’s Christian community. The most forthright reporting on this comes from the Coptic diaspora, especially in the US, with regular updates at w copts.com and w freecopts.net.

Features of a Coptic church

As in Anglican and Catholic churches, the congregation of a Coptic church sit in the nave, the main body of the building, and pray towards an altar – a consecrated table covered with a cloth, on which the wine and wafer used for mass are placed. As in Greek and Russian Orthodox churches, however, the altar is hidden behind an altar screen (iconostasis), usually decorated with icons (paintings of saints), and only priests may enter the haikal (sanctuary area) behind the screen.

In front of the screen, the pulpit is typically made of marble. The thirteen pillars holding it up represent Jesus and the twelve disciples. Usually, one of the pillars is black, for Judas, and another, perhaps rather unfairly, is grey, for “doubting” Thomas.

The thrice-burned city

Fustat was founded in 642 AD by the victorious Arab general Amr Ibn al-As, near the fortress of Babylon which had just fallen to his troops. According to tradition, its location was chosen by a dove, which laid an egg in Amr’s tent before he was to march on Alexandria. Amr declared this as a sign from God, and the tent was left untouched as they went off to battle. When they returned victorious, Amr told his troops to pitch their tents around his, giving his new capital its name, Masr al-Fustat, “City of the Tents”. From an array of tribal encampments around a mosque, it grew into a wealthy city populated by Copts and Jews and settlers from Yemen and Arabia, communicating in Arabic and Coptic, and trading as far away as India.

In 750 AD, the final Umayyad caliph, Marwan II, made his last stand here, and then had Fustat burned behind him as he fled the victorious Abbasids, who proceeded to usurp the caliphate from him. The Abbasids ordered a new city to be built further north, but Fustat was never depopulated, and never stopped growing: in the early eleventh century, the Persian poet and traveller Nasir Khusraw saw fourteen-storey buildings with roof gardens here, irrigated by ox-powered waterwheels, which drew from a piped water system unmatched anywhere else until the eighteenth century.

This huge conurbation peaked demographically long after the Fatimids had founded Al-Qahira, when its population topped two hundred thousand. Even the sacking and burning of Fustat ordered by the “mad caliph” Al-Hakim in 1020 left such vast remains that in 1168 the Fatimid vizier Shawar decided to evacuate and burn it yet again, rather than let the invading Crusaders occupy the defenceless old city and use it as a base outside Al-Qahira’s walls. Set ablaze with ten thousand torches and twenty thousand barrels of naphtha, “flames and smoke engulfed the city and rose to the sky in a terrifying scene”, wrote the historian Al-Maqrizi. Fustat burned for 54 days, and was not occupied again. Under the Mamlukes, its ruins became a rubbish dump, entirely ignored except for the Mosque of Amr – the sole surviving monument to its bygone glory.

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updated 4/26/2021
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