40 for 40 Day 6: Coptic Cairo and Historic* Cairo

Note: The * is not meant as anything sarcastic or weird. You’ll get the details later.

So today was another big day, which is bleeding into a potentially “big” night, though for different reasons than you might think.

Even though the majority of Egypt’s population is Muslim, they have had a strong Coptic Christian presence going back centuries. A Coptic presence that has also been persecuted and targeted at times, including some recent attacks on Coptic sites around Egypt. This morning, we went to check out Coptic Cairo, one of the oldest and probably the most beautiful part of the city.

The Copts moved in to the old walled fortress of Babylon (established 6th Century BC) and have had a presence there ever since. Two other presences are felt as well, that of the police, who are there to presumably protect the tourists and the Copts, and Egypt’s current President, Al Sisi, who has plaques up all over the neighbourhood noting restoration projects that have taken place. It’s a contained little city and is just beautiful.

Our first stop was the Coptic Museum, home mostly to Coptic artwork from around Egypt, but also from other places in the Middle East and Europe, and is home to the oldest book of Psalms in the world, the Psalms of David, and a manuscript that serves as the primary source for Gnosticism. The art is stunning and the museum itself is set up beautifully.

Next up was the Hanging Chuch,

Entrance to the Hanging Church, Coptic Cairo.

so named because it is perched on the old Water Gate of Babylon. It was built sometime between the 7th and 9th century and has beautiful ebony and ivory inlays that look more Islamic than Christian, were it not for the crosses. There are 13 Roman columns inside holding the church up, each one meant to represent Jesus and the Apostles. It is filled with beautiful icons and was another bastion of calm in Cairo today.

After that, we took a wander to try to find the Ben Ezra Synagogue, went the opposite direction, which ended up fine because a security guard and groundskeeper allowed us to look in at what looked like an amphitheatre that was rebuilt next to the remains of the Babylon Fortress. We moved in the other direction and first found the massive Greek Orthodox Monastery and Church of St. George, which led out to a beautiful cemetery. From there, we wandered out and found the underground passage which took us to three more of Coptic Cairo’s sights.

First, we ended up at the Church of St Sergius & Bacchus, which I thought was the best looking of the Coptic sites. It features a cave where Mary, Joseph and Jesus were said to have taken shelter from King Herod and his “massacre of the first born”. The hidden setting gives it an earthier feel than the Hanging Church, with red granite and white marble columns framing the nave. Moving onwards, we came upon the Church of St Barbara, which hosts several relics and rare icons, and where we heard a family engaged in some beautiful singing within chapel. Finally, we ended up at the Ben Ezra Synagogue, which occupies a 4th century converted church, and which supposedly houses the site where Moses was found in the reeds. Each of the sites was lovely on its own, and today, they made for a nice, calm start to the day.

Got a little less calm from there.

So we had taken the metro to Coptic Cairo in the morning, and decided to walk the Nile Corniche a bit before hopping back on to get to our next destination, Historic* Cairo. You might recall that asterisk from earlier. Well, later on in the day, when I referred to the area by the name that the guide book does, Islamic Cairo, a lady who would be sharing a sleeper train with us noted that “Historic” Cairo is considered more correct because it suggests that the rest of Cairo isn’t Islamic. Duly noted, and moving on…

Historic Islamic Cairo was a ways away by Metro, requiring a couple of changes, and a one-stop ride on Cairo’s newest line, which had air-conditioned cars!!! After having sweated on every other Metro ride, I can’t tell you how awesome that was. However, the rest of the trip was hot, and we were having trouble finding a place to sit and snack, so it was a water-filled, food free day for most of it. We got out at Bab Al-Shariyaa station and began our walk to the Al-Azhar Mosque, over a thousand years old and considered the most important mosque for Cairo’s Muslims. As we got closer, we encountered our favourite tourist trick.

A man approached us and pointed towards the mosque and said “Oh, it’s closed, and it opens in an hour” before offering to take us somewhere where I didn’t bother listening to, because I knew the mosque was open 24 hours a day. Soon after, another guy comes up to us and tries the same shtick, following us until I literally see people walking into the mosque and say “Oh look, it’s open”, at which point he says “It’s open! After, do you want some spices? Backgammon board? Anything you need!” Worst attempted save of a hustle ever.

The mosque was gorgeous, with a double minaret that is unique in the Muslim world and a gorgeous mihrab. After wandering for a bit, we went to the next nearest mosque, arguably an even more holy one, the Mosque of Sayyidna al-Hussein, which is supposed to be the burial place of the head of Mohammed’s grandson, Hussein. It was recently opened to non-Muslims, and walking around was beautiful, especially as the call to prayer started up. We saw several worshippers bowing to what I believe was the head, in a gilded burial area behind some beautiful bars.

After, we made the stroll through Khan El-Khalili, stopping at Fishawi’s, a 250 year old cafe which proudly boasts having had Morgan Freeman as a visitor, and does have a neat ambience, too, though it is definitely touristy and the touts know it, as Daina was offered a shoe shine twice, even after accepting the first one. We then strolled through the streets where we made a decent deal on some scarabs, which involved Daina taking the guy down to a fraction of the original price through a combination of walking away and lowering the offer. Funnily enough, even as the guy pursued us, he was informing other merchants we liked scarabs, in some kind of odd broken telephone network. After passing some more beautiful Historic Islamic sites, we ended up back at the Metro, back to our guest house, then showered and on a train to Aswan.

To say this train is interesting would be an understatement. It’s definitely showing its age, has a small hint of cigarette smoke, and an attendant to convert our chairs to beds, which I’m sure will be a show. Getting on was even more interesting, as we had about three different security guards escort us first to security, then to the platform, then to the “First Class” seating, which was a room with padded seats and a fan that may or may not have been hotter than outside, where we also met the aforementioned Historic Islamic lady and a few other travellers. Dinner was a simple beef stew and fish that “wasn’t crispy” in its breading, according to Daina. It’s dark outside, the rooms isn’t huge, but tomorrow morning we’ll be in the desert.

Have to say, I’ve heard a few complaints about Cairo, but I’m not having any of it. There is an energy and life to this city, and the everyday Cairenes have been insanely welcoming to us, constantly saying “Welcome to Egypt.” We literally scratched the surface on Historic Islamic Cairo today, and I can’t wait to go back and see the rest of it.

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