The Hanging Church & resting spot of Joseph & Mary

Friday, after our weekly visit to the commissary (for Morningstar fake-meat crumbles (can we say, jump for joy, do a little gig, happy dance?), veggies, soy milk, cereal, etc.), Ron and I decided to explore a section of Cairo called “Old Cairo” or “Coptic Cairo.” Despite his whinings to my constant urgings for us to “do something,” his typical response being, “We’re here for three years. There’s no reason to cram it all in the first two months,” he does placate me often. We decided to explore this section because it was easily accessible by metro, and was something we could see parts of in just a few hours, instead of all day.

In my continuing attempts to use some Arabic, Ron sent me ahead to buy our four subway tickets. I know that everyone here speaks English, but they all seem to get a kick out of my Arabic murmles and I appreciate their smiles of encouragement. I bought the tickets and we were off. This was one of the first days that I really noticed the heat. And from what I’ve heard, this is nothing compared to July and August, when all the “smart” people leave the country. But this was a 90-degree-type day, where you feel the sweat slowly trickle down your back when you stand still and you seek out the shady side of the street to walk on.

If you haven’t gleamed by now, I find Cairo to be an amazing mix of contrariness. A perfect example is getting off the subway at Mar Giris, where there were high-rise apartment buildings on one side, buffeted by piles of rubble and trash, and the other side held “El Muallaqa,” or the Hanging Church, dating from the 7th century (though it’s suspected that it was built on a previous church from the 3rd or 4th century). According to

"Known in Arabic as al-Muallaqah ("The Suspended"), the Hanging Church is the most famous Coptic church in Cairo. The church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and is thus also known as Sitt Mariam or St. Mary's Church. The Hanging Church was built in the 7th century…. By the 11th century, the Hanging Church became the official residence of the Coptic patriarchs of Alexandria…. The main furnishings - the pulpit and screens - date from the 13th century….The 11th-century white marble pulpit surmounts 13 graceful pillars, representing Jesus and the 12 disciples. As customary in Coptic churches, one of the pillars is black (basalt), representing Judas, and another is grey, for doubting Thomas…. [The church] derives its name from its location on top of the southern tower gate of the old Babylon fortress with its nave suspended above the passage…. However, though there are many objects from the church in the Coptic Museum, inside the church are collections of over one hundred icons of which the oldest dates from the 8th century." They have constructed some glass-covered openings in the floor so visitors can see far below to how the church appears to be suspended over air (it seems to have been built on the remains of old Roman walls).

The word “Coptic” is currently used to describe Egyptian Christians. Statistics vary depending on the source, but somewhere between 6-15% of Egypt’s population are Copts. Wikipedia succinctly states: “According to ancient tradition, Christianity was introduced to the Egyptians by Saint Mark in Alexandria, shortly after the ascension of Christ and during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero. The legacy that Saint Mark left in Egypt was a considerable Christian community in Alexandria. From Alexandria, Christianity spread throughout Egypt within half a century of Saint Mark's arrival in Alexandria, as is clear from a fragment of the Gospel of John, written in Coptic, which was found in Upper Egypt and can be dated to the first half of the second century…. In the second century, Christianity began to spread to the rural areas, and scriptures were translated into the local language, today known as the Coptic language (which was called the Egyptian language at the time). By the beginning of the 3rd century A.D., Christians constituted the majority of Egypt’s population, and the Church of Alexandria was recognized as one of Christendom's four Apostolic Sees, second in honor only to the Church of Rome. The Church of Alexandria is therefore the oldest church in Africa.

After the church, we ventured into the Coptic Museum located next door (though I had to leave my camera outside). Founded in 1910, they positioned it within the walls of the Babylon Fort from the Roman times, like the Hanging Church. Some of these original Roman walls can still be seen today. The Coptic Museum was the complete opposite of the Egyptian Museum downtown, as it was clean, and well-labeled, and well-displayed, in the most beautiful building. The architecture of the museum alone was worth studying, with intricate wooden-carved ceilings, detailed mashrabiya window shutters (carved wood latticework), and an inner open courtyard filled with flowers and plants. The museum displayed artifacts dating back to the 3rd and 4th centuries. They had wonderful exhibits of clothing and fabrics, books and manuscripts, pottery, ivory and even original fresco paintings from Egyptian monasteries from the 6th and 7th centuries.

I found myself staring at a piece of cloth that had delicate embroidered flowers and vines, knowing that 1,400 years ago someone had sat and sewn that, having no idea, or probably intention, that it would survive for over 15 centuries for me to be examining it under glass on a hot Friday afternoon in Cairo in 2008. I felt the same way looking at the books and writings. Some were evidence of receipts for traded goods, even written on old pieces of broken pottery (10 bales of wheat for 4 camels, 5 goats and a fig tree for one slightly-gimpy daughter, etc.), but the religious texts were hand-written in florid script, with painted details and gilded letters. As self-admitted biblio-geeks, Ron and I thoroughly enjoyed the manuscript exhibits. (As further evidence of our biblio-geeked-ness, in the seven weeks we’ve been in Cairo, we have located and visited more than six new bookstores. It’s in my blood; I’ve learned to not fight it. Much like the naturally curly hair. Just accept your fate, live with the curls, relinquish the dream of Marsha-Brady-straight-hair, walk calmly into every bookstore you can find, and save your energy for other battles.)

The museum closed at 4:30pm (as most things do when their posted hours are 5:00pm). Ron took me down the street to an alleyway of shops selling everything from rugs to jewelry to pottery to papyrus to books to … well, everything. In addition, the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus (4th century) is located along here and considered to be the oldest of Cairo's Christian churches. It is said to have been built on the spot where Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus rested at the end of their journey into Egypt (though I don’t think they perused the same wooden pig carving I was eyeing).

We were getting the Cairo-dust-mouth feeling by this point so we hopped back on the metro and took it down to Sadat Station. Playing a bit of Frogger, we managed to cross over the traffic torrent and ate dinner at Felfela, a wonderful little restaurant with stone floors and walls, wooden-beamed ceilings covered in (fake) vines and grapes, and tables made out of thick slabs of petrified wood. We had fresh mango juice, hummus, tahini, and wonderful falafel! The only negative for me was the caged birds on display, but Ron requested a table far from them and allowed me to sit with my back to them.

[The issue of trying to avoid or ignore the animal abuse around Cairo is something I’m going to have to figure out how to deal with. It is constant, with emaciated stray dogs and cats rummaging through garbage, tired old donkey carts, horse carriages in the sun, camel rides, terrified cows and sheep being transported in pick-ups through the city – I can’t really avoid it. The suffering isn’t specific to animals, either. Children beg for money, rummage through garbage with the strays, and poverty is pervasive. Ron and I saw two little girls climbing the stairs at the subway together, covered in dried dirt, with matted hair and filthy dresses, and they couldn’t have been older than three and five. Their mother followed after them carrying two babies like sacks of potatoes. I don’t have an answer. It’s something I think about a lot and when I come up with a solution to diminish the world’s suffering, I will be sure to share it.]

So as to not end on a down note, I’ll close with our decision to ride the metro home instead of taking a taxi. I believe I’ve mentioned before that it was a hot day, and the subway cars do not have air-conditioning, though they do use small fans to gently distribute the steam and odors. Combine all these factors and I found myself in a crowded car, wedged up against Ron (my choice), and several others (not my choice), quite possibly being the only female in the car (though I may have spotted another at the far end), with armpits as far as the eye could see. I think the air started to take on a semi-solid state. By the time we peeled ourselves out of the car at our stop, my head was feeling a wee bit faint and my eyes had started to tear.

So far, Ron and I have come up with two things NOT to do in Cairo: 1) ride the subway at rush-hour during a hot summer day (without a respirator), and 2) have the taxi drop you off BEFORE the bridge in Maadi, do it after the bridge, or you will have an extremely harrowing walk up and over the bridge, balancing on the curb, grasping the filthy guardrail to prevent you from leaning into the traffic whizzing by all the while trying not to get your hip clipped by a side mirror (this was a lesson that we only had to be taught once).