Coptic Cairo

On January 3rd we arrived in Cairo and gave hugs to everyone in our group, then went off in our own taxi. It was strange to be alone after being with fourteen others and a tour guide. We had booked a tiny little hole-in-the-wall hostel on Tahrir Square, which is where the Egyptian Museum and several big-name hotels are.

At 1 p.m. we were picked up by our afternoon tour company. This would have been about $60 total, but we bought the tour through our bank using our credit card points, so we didn’t actually spend any money on this, besides the tip we gave our guide.

Our guide, Soha, took us to Old Cairo to show us the Coptic churches and one of the oldest standing synagogues. This is the same district our other guide took us to a week ago, but a different part of the district. Until now, we had focused primarily on ancient Egypt (pre-Greek conquest) so I realized I had a huge gap in my history of Egypt—besides the politics of Cleopatra, I had no knowledge of old Egypt and even modern Egypt. Soha was kind enough to explain the flow: Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332 BC, built Alexandria, and left much of the common Egyptian people to themselves. When he died, Egypt was given to Ptolemy, one of his generals. Cleopatra VII was from his line. During this time, the rulers of Egypt were not Egyptian, but Greek. One of the reasons Cleopatra was so popular in Egypt was that she learned Egyptian. At this time, the Greeks called the Egyptians Egypts, which eventually morphed in Copts. So “copt” means “Egyptian.” The Romans conquered Egypt around 30 BC, and Cleopatra killed herself. The Romans ruled Egypt (not quite as nicely as the Greeks did) until the Arabs began coming in around 640 AD. Egypt only took a little over a hundred years to become Christian almost entirely, but it took almost 500 years to fully convert to Islam (around the 10th century).

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Above is me inside the Coptic Museum. The woodwork throughout the place is just stunning.

There is great oral tradition that Jesus grew up in Old Cairo, after his family flew to Egypt. Almost all churches and monasteries in Egypt have huge icons and artwork portraying the holy family and claim that they stopped right there along the way. However, it does seem to be a good guess that they lived in Old Cairo (obviously not called that at the time–actually it was sometimes called Babylon), for Joseph could work at one of the Roman fortresses and there was already a Jewish population there. I grew very excited to think about Jesus running down the side streets, playing ball with friends, and growing up exactly where I stood, just two thousand years before.

Ben Ezra, one of the oldest synagogues, was our first stop. We weren’t able to get photos inside the building, but it was beautiful. The columns had been taken from ancient Egyptian temples and much of the interior dated back before the 10th century, though that is as long as the building has been standing. Of course, both Christians and Jews (At different times) had worshipped here since around the 3rd century, but the building was destroyed in the same earthquake that toppled the lighthouse of Alexandria.


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Abu Serga everything in it was just so old. Abu serga is named for two saints that were martyred in Syria around the second or third century. The church also claims to be built above the place that Joseph, Mary, and little Jesus lived while in Cairo. During renovations in 1990 they found the bones of another martyred saint. His remains were carefully preserved, wrapped up, and placed in a protective plastic bag and put on display at the entrance of the church.

The coptic cross is quite different from the Roman Catholic or the Greek Orthodox. Its bars are the same length as one another, making it a square. The four ends have three points each, for the trinity. All points added together make 12, for the disciples, and the four decorative spaces in between are for the four gospels. It is one of the lovelier cross designs I have seen.
From Abu Serga we went to another ancient and famous worship place, The Hanging Church. It was so named because it was built atop the ruins of the Roman fortress. Today it is about six or eight feet from the ground. Back then, it would have easily been 15 feet, hanging off the Roman beams. This church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, but because St. george is very popular in Cairo, icons of him were present as well. Here I got to speak to one of the priests (who are not required to be celibate) about Coptic Orthodox theology. They are separate from the catholics and Greek Orthodox and even have their own patriarch/pope. The main difference in beliefs from the catholics is their view on the divine nature of Christ. While both believe that Jesus was both God and  man, the son of God, the catholics bind up Christ’s identity much closer with God the Father. Coptics (which just means Egyptian) found a portion of the Bible that said, “give unto God’s which is God’s, to Caesar what is his, and unto me what is mine.” From that, they  believe that Jesus, although he is God, should have his manness emphasized more.this i vaguely remember learning in my early history of the christian church class. Vaguely. The Greek Orthodox differ from both the coptics and the catholics on some issue with the Holy Spirit.
We also stopped in a nunnery for st. George that had a portion of his body as a relic. The massive doors into the chapel were easily from the 15th century, though the building itself was no more than 250 years old.

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Afterward we visited a Greek Orthodox church. Like some buildings in the area, it is quite new, less than a hundred years old, but many of the accessories (doors, windows, columns, etc.) are thousands of years old. Easily.

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Directly across the street from our hostel is the Egyptian museum, built around 1898. It’s old and practically a museum of itself. Behind it, the burned building, was the political headquarters of the party the former president Mubarak worked in.

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During the revolution in 2011, as the Egyptian people mobilized, the political party realized that they would probably not survive the unrest. All the documents and proof of the decades-long corruption that riddled the “democracy” of Egypt was in the building, so they set it on fire–the easiest way to destroy it, they thought.

Tahrir Square is part of the central business district of Cairo, and much of the protests went on there. In fear of their history and culture, thousands and thousands of Egyptians went not to protest, but to gather around the museum with the military. They linked arms and stood, sometimes they camped through the night, and encircles the museum in protection. When the building next door was set on fire, the people brought water and tried to keep the flames as far from their beloved history as possible–and it worked. The museum was largely unharmed. Only minor looting occurred during one night, and it was only to minor artifacts.

The Egyptians had forethought to protect their heritage as they protested against the corruption of Mubarak and his personalistic dictatorship. And even though the results, four years later, are not what we had hoped they would be, I still have faith in the Egyptian people. One day they will have a government that serves them, I think, instead of the other way around. This is one step forward on a long road, and they are stepping nearer.

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Morgan S Hazelwood

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