Journal: Friday 3 January 2003
As Sam and I sat at breakfast in the rooftop restaurant the morning sky looked grim and grey with low leaden clouds hanging over the surrounding buildings. Undeterred we decided to go and have a look at the area known as Old Cairo, the original Coptic part of the city and found that we could take the Metro all the way from Mubarak (Rameses station) to Mari Girgis, six stops away. Descending into the long tunnels of the Metro station we eventually found the platform we were looking for, bought our tickets for 50 piastres, and waited for the next train which arrived a few minutes later. The Metro is surprisingly clean and bright and the trains run every few minutes, which made the journey very easy and by the time we got off the train we were above ground.
Egypt was one of the first countries outside Rome to embrace the new Christian religion in the First Century AD. The part of Cairo that we were now in is actually the oldest part of the city and was probably known as Misr, a name now used for the whole of Cairo and the whole of Egypt as the modern city spread out from these Roman remains. At the time of building the Roman fort it was on the eastern bank of the Nile, but over the centuries the course of the river has moved gradually westwards. Our first stop here, just opposite the Metro station, was the Roman gate of Babylon, (called Babalog by the Egyptians), built as part of the Roman defences for the city of Memphis, on the edge of the ancient city of ‘On’ (ancient Heliopolis). The name itself is obscure, but may have derived from ‘Bab al-On’ or ‘Gate of Heliopolis’. The high Roman tower is the largest part of the remains of the old fortress and is currently being reconstructed, much of it below ground level, but we could lean over the railings and see the layered pattern of limestone blocks and red brick, similar to other Roman buildings in Europe and North Africa.
Babylon tower is next to the Coptic Museum but we couldn’t go in because it was closed. The Greek Orthodox Church of St George, who tradition tells us was martyred near here, rises high on the other side of the tower, built on top of the northern tower of the fortress. The only circular Christian church in Egypt, it has an impressive dome, but the present building is obviously modern. We carried on walking down the street with the intention of finding the first Arabic settlement in Cairo, al-Fustat, and after several twists and turns through narrow alleyways we came to a fenced area which is currently under excavation. A large area of rubble stood before us but we could make out the foundations of buildings and an impressive drainage system. This was the forerunner to the present city of Cairo, built between 640 and 969 AD. At the time of the Arab invasion, the Roman fortress of Babylon was besieged and the Muslim army made their headquarters at al-Fustat in a city of tents. Although this was a military garrison and several other satellite towns were built which eventually absorbed al-Fustat and Babylon, becoming the al-Qahira we know today, Fustat is still thought of as the first Arab capital of Egypt. The settlement was burned down in 1175 to prevent it falling into the hands of the Christian Crusaders.
It was lovely to explore the winding alleyways in this compact area of Old Cairo. In each street we turned into we found crumbling mushrabiya windows high on the walls above heavy studded wooden doors that looked like they had been there forever. Sam and I were really just wandering and we didn’t have any idea of what there was to see here when we came upon what was obviously an important building whose sign told us it was the Nunnery of St George. Although we didn’t go inside this ancient church, we looked into the courtyard which was very beautiful. Apparently relics from the saint’s martyrdom are kept inside the church.
Wandering again we found ourselves in a large leafy cemetery, with tall trees and winding paths revealing at every turn, wonderfully ornate tombs and mausolea of pashas and beys, as well as more simply constructed shrines containing statues of The Virgin. This was a Greek Orthodox cemetery, a world apart where we spent a very peaceful half hour escaping from the traffic and tourists. A gate on the western side led us back to Sharia Mari Girgis and we confronted by the two white towers of the ‘Hanging Church’. We entered the church through a courtyard in the Coptic Museum and went up the steps beneath a Christmas banner. The front part contains a bookstall and souvenir stall and I bought some booklets about the church and a little rosary made from olive wood. El- Moallaqa is the local name for the Metropolitan Church of St Mary the Virgin, which was built at the site of Babylon in the 4th century AD, right on top of the postern gate of the Roman fortifications with its nave suspended over the passage of the gatehouse, giving it the name of ‘Hanging Church’. It is said to be one of the first churches in the world to host Coptic rituals, though the oldest parts of the church extant today date to the 11th century and there have been many modifications. The three original sanctuaries were dedicated to the Virgin Mary, St John the Baptist and St George. It is very dark inside and very decorative in the style of orthodox churches, though I though it looked quite shabby. Well, I suppose it is rather old!
When we came back out of the Hanging Church we noticed that the Coptic Museum was open now – it must have closed for lunch, though we had assumed it was closed for renovations. Set in lovely tranquil gardens, the museum was inaugurated in 1910 to contain Christian objects then housed in the Egyptian Museum and to collect together other pieces scattered throughout Egypt. We bought our tickets and went inside to find a beautiful airy space, though dark with ancient heavily carved wood. The rooms, on two floors, were filled with wood and stone Coptic artefacts and beautiful painted icons and frescos, painted wooden ceilings and marble fountains. The objects on display illustrate a period of Egypt’s history which is often neglected and they show how the artistic development of the Copts was influenced by the pharaonic, Graeco-Roman and Islamic cultures. Many of the earlier objects were clearly styled from Greco-Roman mythology endowed with Christian symbolism and I also noticed a stone Coptic cross that looked more like an ankh from ancient Egypt as well as a ritual musical instrument that looked like a sistrum. Among the many documents on display are two papyrus pages from the Nag Hammadi Codex, found by a farmer in 1945 sealed in terracotta jars near Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt. These pages represent 13 invaluable books written in Coptic which serve as the primary source of gnosticism, a religious movement in the early years of Christianity. The museum was renovated in the early 1980s with two new annexes, which with the original aisles, houses the collection of 16,000 artefacts arranged in chronological order through twelve sections. It’s a lovely museum and well worth a visit.
Back outside, we stopped to admire the wooden mushrabiya windows on the walls of the museum before going back to the Metro station and taking a train to Rameses and our hotel. Sam and I stayed in the Ciao only long enough to shower and change before going out again to take a taxi to the Khan el-Khalili. Here we had a meal in an Egyptian restaurant before wandering once more in Cairo’s ancient alleyways – this time the old Islamic Quarter. Here I was on more familiar ground as I’ve been here a couple of times before and I love it. We ended the night at the famous Fishawy’s coffee shop. In a back room here, Naquib Mahfouz, Egypt’s Nobel Prize-winning author, wrote many of his famous novels. The inside of the cafe is decorated with old lamps and many ornate mirrors and really feels like the ‘old Cairo’ I’ve been looking for. Outside in the narrow alley there are tables and benches packed down either side through which street traders walk up and down trying to interest the patrons in their goods. It’s a really entertaining place to sit and watch the world go by and the coffee, Egyptian ahwa, is delicious. We didn’t leave until almost 2.00am!