Wondering Egypt

Coptic Cairo
By Ethan Gelber & the BikeAbout team
  |  Gorp.com

The word"Coptic" is used to describe the monastic, desert-dwelling life of solitude that developed during the short-lived times of Egyptian Christianity. Nevertheless, the traditions and practices have been maintained throughout the centuries by a small, but sometimes important population. (The most famous Copt is Mr. Boutros Boutros-Ghali, former Secretary General of the United Nations.) The Coptic sect even maintains an ancient language, although it is rarely used.

"Coptic" Cairo is, however, not devoted entirely to landmarks or houses of worship belonging to this religion. This area is particularly important to all religions because of the many legends about important religious people and their experiences here. In this very neighborhood, Moses' floating basket was said to have been found by the pharaoh's daughter as she sat along the Nile. It is also believed that the prophet Jeremiah is buried in the area. But that's just the beginning.

To get to Coptic Cairo we took the Egyptian Metro, which can be confusing for tourists since many of the interior maps are in Arabic. But we managed. And the relatively new underground station was still a pleasure: surprisingly clean and serene, complete with piped-in classical music and informational television screens near the seating areas. On the trains, there is even a special car just for women, should they choose, but our group rode together. The Metro (still very new) is expanding — which is great news, since other solutions to the traffic problem in Cairo seem few and far between.

After our short trip, the first thing we saw as we approached the walled area of Coptic Cairo were the ruins of the Fortress of Babylon. Built in 98 AD, this ancient Roman town was at that time strategically placed on the Nile. With time, however, the river slowly but surely changed its course westward.

A markedly more serene part of town, it reminded us how glad we were to have missed the spring season when zealots from all over descend on this part of Cairo to look at, among other things, the Holy family hide out. According to the Bible, King Herod, having heard rumor that the Savior had been born to a couple living in his kingdom, ordered that all the infant, first-born, male children be killed. Mary and Joseph fled into Egypt with their baby and apparently spent some time in the settlement that preceded the Fortress of Babylon. One spring nearby is even supposedly where the baby Jesus had a bath.

Our first visit was to the very dimly lit Church of St. George the Martyr. Amidst a fury of burning candles, art of many different styles, periods and media (metals, oils, and mixed media) depicted scenes from St. George's valiant fight for Christianity. In the nearby Convent of Saint George there was also a dramatic chain ceremony that many people took part in as acknowledgement of the suffering and persecution of St. George and others. No one in our party had the courage to wrap themselves in the metal ankle- and neck-clasps.

One fascinating element of this fast-paced jaunt through so many houses of worship, especially having visited so many mosques the previous day in Islamic Cairo, were the similarities of decor and architecture. The way the structures seemed to have developed and the doorways were used, the art work, alters, and different podiums used for special prayers all became comprehensible, and the commonality of purpose was very clear — regardless of the religion. Somehow the universality of all religions in terms of the the importance of community and meditation, expression and reflection was solidified.

This was even more intriguing given the diversity of the other people worshiping around us. It can be easy to forget that religion, race, and nationality are often not the same. Hence, the presence of people of Arab heritage walking around and praying with other tourists was at first a curiosity to us.


Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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