South Cairo church offers insight into Egypt’s Christian history
CAIRO - Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church — better known as Al Muallaqa (“the Hanging Church)” — in southern Cairo is considered the jewel of the historical treasures of Egypt’s Coptic Christian community.
Dating to the third century, the church has been of interest of visitors for years and is a piece of art that implies meaning, faith and historical depth. The church, probably the oldest in Egypt, derives its popular name from its location atop the southern gatehouse of a Babylonian fortress. The church’s nave hangs above a passageway.
Visitors climb several steps to the church’s iron gates in an ascent that probably represents spiritual elevation. The gates are under a pointed stone arch that creates an inspiring demarcation between the church’s interior and the outside world.
After passing the iron gates, visitors can admire the sanctuary’s beautiful twin bell towers that date to the 19th century as well as the front of the building. The towers stand proudly behind a narrow courtyard that leads into the outer porch that was built in the 11th century.
The church’s fascinating past makes it one of the bastions of the Coptic Christian church in Egypt. It has been rebuilt several times since the seventh century, with the most extensive restoration taking place during the tenth century.
“Deep under each part of this church there is an interesting story of the evolution of Christianity in this country,” said Bishop Julius Ava Mina, the general supervisor of southern Cairo churches. “This is what makes this place unique and important for the history of the Christians in Egypt.”
In 1047, the Hanging Church was designated the official residence of the Coptic Orthodox pope when the Egyptian capital was moved from Alexandria to Cairo under the Muslim conquest.
Around the same time, Pope Christodolos caused controversy within the Coptic Church by choosing to be consecrated at the Hanging Church. His decision set a precedent, and thereafter several patriarchs chose to be elected, enthroned and even buried at the Hanging Church. Today, the seat of the Christian pope is in a north-western Cairo church where Pope Tawadros II has his office.
The Hanging Church was probably the first to be constructed in Egypt in the basilican style, which originated in ancient Rome. It looks totally new today thanks to the many restorations it underwent, the last of which was completed in 2011.
The church is perhaps most famous for its icons, of which 110 are displayed within its walls. Many of the icons decorate sanctuary screens and were painted between the eighth and 18th centuries. The oldest and most sacred icon, known as a “Coptic Mona Lisa,” depicts the Virgin Mary.
The main altar screen is made of ebony out of which ivory juts to show Coptic Cross designs that date to the 12th and 13th centuries.
Girgis Fawzi, a 33-year-old civil servant and regular parishioner, said he never fails to admire the church’s interior.
“Every corner has its own beauty,” Fawzi said. “The beauty of the icons, the different sections of the church and the historical value of each of these corners make me a strong fan of it.”
Many of the Hanging Church’s original artefacts have been removed and are on display at the nearby Coptic Museum, which contains hundreds of pieces from the Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman eras.
The Coptic Museum was founded by a Christian politician Marcus Simaika Pasha. Many artefacts showcased at the museum were also donated by Egypt’s Christian community.
A few metres from the Coptic quarter stands Egypt’s and Africa’s oldest Islamic house of worship, Amr Ibn al-As Mosque. The huge mosque was built in 642 on the site where Amr Ibn al-As, the commander of the Muslim army that conquered Egypt that year, is believed to have erected his tent.
The mosque and the church confer unmatched spirituality on the area. They offer a historical record of Egypt, which experienced Christianity, then Islam and continues to harbour adherents of both religions.
“The two houses of Christian and Islamic worship are a reflection of Egypt, a country that in the most part functions as a melting pot of faiths,” said Ehab Hamdi, a tour guide. “They confer cultural, tourist and religious riches to the place that can be hardly matched elsewhere.”