Ron and I took a tour of “Ancient Christianity” in Cairo two weekends ago. It was sponsored by the CSA, cost $29 (plus lunch), lasted seven hours, and took us through at least nine churches, some dating all the way back to the 1400s. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to get a proper listing of exactly what we saw (still waiting for a response to my email request), so I’ll have to make do from the photos I took, our memories and some scant online info.
The first six churches were located together just north of downtown Cairo in Fum al-Khalig, north of the Roman aqueduct, all in one compound: Church of Saint Minas, Saint Benham Church, Saint Mercurios Chapel, Saint George Church, Nativity Altar and Church of Martyr Saint John of Senhout. Some were extremely small (like the Nativity Altar), but others were large and exceptionally beautiful (Church of St. Minas). The guide gave us a rather extensive (read: long) lecture on the history of Christianity in Egypt. At one point he joked that he didn’t want to be like the father in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” and claim everything derived from Egyptian, but then he went right on and basically stated that, well, everything (including Christmas, I might add), is derived from Egyptian. Ron was mildly annoyed at his posturings, especially his claims that he knew all the answers to any of our questions. Like a red flag to a bull, Ron couldn’t resist asking a question that the vast majority of us didn’t even understand. The tour guide made some generic response and said it wasn’t really topical to our tour today. (Right.)
Many of the churches we saw were built semi-underground. It’s said that some of these have been built in caves that are believed to be locations where the Holy family rested on their journey through Egypt.
I was able to find the following information online:
Church of Saint Minas/Menas… one of the oldest Churches in Cairo dating back to the fifth century… in the year 725 (or 724) AD, the church was destroyed during the reign of caliph Hisham Ibn Abdel Malik Ibn Marwan, but was rebuilt in that same year at the expense of the Christians who lived in that quarter… The church was again reconstructed in 1164, when cupolas were added and its marble columns were replaced by pillars, and in recent times was restored… Today, only sections of the central sanctuary and the outer wall remain from the 8th century building… there was once a monastery associated with the church… A passage from the baptistery leads into the Church of Bahnam. (The photo is of a shrine to the Virgin Mary.)
Church of Saint Bahnam only consists of two sanctuaries… The screen before the northern sanctuary, which is relatively modern dating to 1813, is inlaid with ivory. The screen on the other, southern sanctuary is somewhat older, dating to 1775… From this church, a stairway leads up to the Church of Saint George.
Church of Saint George also has two sanctuaries. It is dedicated to Saint George, and has a screen that dates to 1747.
We then took a break and went to lunch on the Nile. This was our third “on the Nile” restaurant and while the view was of course nice, and there was a lovely breeze blowing, the food was just so-so. But we were privy to witness a movie being filmed at the other end of the restaurant. All we know is that the “movie star, Lucy” was sitting at a table talking to another woman. So our first Egyptian movie star sighting and I cannot guarantee you we could pick her out of a line-up. But we can at least make the claim that we’ve seen her.
Following lunch, we went to an area called Foustat. This is also an area known for its pottery. There are stacks of clay and mosaic pots all along the main road. Here we saw The Church of Saints Abakir and Yohanna, The Church of Saint Mercurios Abu Sefein (“he of the two swords”) and Virgin Mary Church of Al-Damsheria.
Again, beautiful churches with marble, ivory inlay, and elaborate shrines. At the Church of Saint Mercurios/Marcorious there’s a cave off one wall in which the story of Saint Barsoum and the serpent is alleged to have taken place. The story goes:
“Saint Barsoum was born in the year 1257 A.D. of devout Christian parents who were charitable to the poor. His father held a very prominent position in the royal palace and he was brought up according to the disciplines of the Holy Gospel.
“When Barsoum became a youth, his parents passed away. At this stage he felt that his uncle was after his inheritance, so he willingly renounced it to him, left the city life for dwelling in a cave for five years during which he endured the scorching heat of summer and the freezing cold of winter.
“He then went to the Church of St. Marcorious Abu Seffen (holder of the two swords) in old Cairo where a cave was within the vicinity. When he tried to enter the cave some of the monks prevented him as there was a large snake inside. The saint prayed to the God who gave us the power to trample on serpents and scorpions, he said few verses of Psalms, blessed himself with the sign of the cross and entered without fear. God removed the vicious nature of the snake and made it tame, it dwelt with the Saint for the period of his stay in the cave – 20 years.” (Note the photo of the shrine to Saint Barsoum next to the doorway leading down to the cave where he lived with the snake. We were able to enter the cave, after removing our shoes, and in addition to it being rather tiny and cramped, it was also a bit stinky.)
The Church of Saint Mercurios/Marcorious (he of two swords)– According to online sources: “The church is named after St. Philopater Mercurius who is known as Abu Saifain (double sworded)… The Church of Saint Mercurius served as the Seat of the Coptic Orthodox Pope of Alexandria between 1300 and 1500 AD and is perhaps the only one in Cairo with its original foundation intact… Many Coptic patriarchs resided in the church during the 11th through the 15th centuries, and later during the 16 and 18th centuries… [The church] itself was demolished and turned into a sugarcane warehouse, but was rebuilt by Patriarch Abraham (974-979). Afterwards, in 1080, 47 bishops met in the church by order of the Fatimid vizier Badr Al-Gamal to establish the Coptic canons.”
Saint Marcorious was born in Romania to Christian parents. He became a soldier in the army when he was only 17. Emperor Desius sent his army to go fight the enemy (nebulous “enemy” as I can’t find who they were). During the war the angel of the Lord appeared to St. Marcorious. The angel had a sword of light with him and said that God has sent him to help St. Marcorious and lead him to victory. Then the angel gave him the sword of light. St. Marcorious used the sword and led the army to victory. (Hence the “he of two swords” title.)
The only information I could find on Saints Abakir and Yohanna (John) was: “St. Abakir was a monk since his young age, and St. John was a soldier in the private guards of the Emperor. They left Alexandria, their own home town, and lived in Antioch. When Diocletian incited the persecution against the Christians, they confessed their faith in the Lord Christ along with the virgins and their mother. When the Emperor knew that they were from Alexandria, he returned them to the governor of Alexandria. When they came to Alexandria, and were brought before the Governor, they confessed their faith in the Lord Christ. He ordered them beheaded. St. Athanasia was comforting and confirming her daughters and telling them that if they were martyred, they would become the brides of Christ. The virgins were beheaded first, then their mother, then St. Abakir and St. John. Their bodies were cast to the wild beasts and to the birds of the sky. However, some believers came and took their bodies by night and they placed them in a coffin and hid them until the end of the time of persecution.”
Virgin Mary Church of Al-Damsheria – Again, very little information found. The church was originally built in the 7th century, destroyed around 785 A.D., rebuilt over the next 30 years and was restored in the 18th century by a man from Damshir in Upper Egypt.
As you can guess, it was a very full trip, but we were quite lucky to see so many sites that were well off the beaten track. I’d actually be willing to take it again, but this time I’d need a notebook and a lot of pens.