Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church, Church of Mother of God Saint Mary in Egyptian Babylon, also known as the Hanging Church, is one of the oldest churches in Egypt. It belongs to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. The history of a church on this site dates to the third century.
The Hanging Church is also referred to as the Suspended Church or Al-Moallaqa. It got the name Hanging Church because early Christians built it on the southern gate of the Roman Fortress. Copts constructed logs of palm trees and layers of stones above the ruins of the Roman fortress as a fundament. The Hanging Church is unique and has a wooden roof in the shape of Noah’s ark.
From the 7th century to the 13th century, the Hanging Church served as the residence of the Coptic Patriarch. Al-Moallaqa has witnessed important elections and religious ceremonies.
Location of the Hanging Church
Name and description of Church
The Hanging Church stands above a gatehouse of Babylon Fortress, the Roman fortress in Coptic Cairo (Old Cairo); its nave is suspended over a passage. The land surface has risen by some six metres since the Roman period. So the Roman tower is mainly buried below ground, reducing the visual impact of the church’s elevated position. Twenty-nine steps approach the church; early travellers to Cairo dubbed it “the Staircase Church”.
The entrance from the street is through iron gates under a pointed stone arch. The nineteenth-century facade with twin bell towers shows up beyond a narrow courtyard decorated with modern art biblical designs. A further small yard leading to the eleventh-century outer porch is up the steps and through the entrance.
History of Hanging Church of Cairo
Historians believe that Christians built the Hanging Church probably during the patriarchate of Isaac (690–692). However, an earlier church building may have elsewhere existed that dating as early as the 3rd or 4th century. However, the earliest mention of the church was a statement in the biography of the Patriarch Joseph I (831–849), when the governor of Egypt visited the establishment.
The church was rebuilt mainly by Pope Abraham (975–978) and has seen many other restorations, including an extensive repair and restoration of the church and its surroundings completed in 2011. However, Objects of historical interest that no longer served went to the Coptic Museum. The British Museum exhibits a set of 10 wooden panels engraved with Christian iconography of a door at the church that dates back to 1300 CE.
The Babylon Fortress was a citadel built by the Romans, and Coptic historians dispute its origin. Some date its foundation to the nineteenth century BC after Pharaoh Sesostris defeated the Babylonians and enslaved the prisoners of Egypt. However, the prisoners rebelled, building a fortress around their home, known as Babylon. On the other hand, some historians believe the fort was built in the late sixteenth century BC by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, after conquering Egypt.
The Hanging Church was established over the citadel’s old south Bastions, which marked the main gate to the fortress, and gave the church its ‘hanging’ feature. Beneath the church is the old atrium entrance, with niched walls that once contained statues. Engineers later added superimposed columns and brick arches to reinforce the building.
Restoration of the Early Church
The Hanging Church is among the earliest churches in Cairo, competing only with Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church, or Abu Sergah. The church was restored in the sixth century, erasing much of the evidence of the church’s origin. Carved reliefs, believed to belong to the earlier structure, closely resemble those found in the first Syrian churches, dating to the third or fourth century. There is also a carved beam over the entranceway, dated to 284 CE, the starting date for the Coptic era.
Destruction of the Church
In 840 CE, governor Ali ibn Yahia the Armenian partially destroyed the church during a conflict with Anba Yusab. Muslims later converted it into a mosque until the tenth century, when it was reconsecrated. In the eleventh century, the Hanging church became the residence of the Coptic patriarchate, previously in Alexandria.
Restorations of the Church
Pope Abraham (975-978) commissioned one of the first significant restorations of the church. In 1983, the chapel ceiling collapsed when an engineer had removed an interior column, damaging much of the artwork inside. The 1992 Cairo earthquake caused further damage to the structure’s walls, leading to an additional restoration in 1998 completed in 2011. The church has also undergone repairs during Caliph Haroun El Rasid, El-Aziz Bi’allah Al Fatemi and Al-Zaher Al Eazaz Din Allah.
The Hanging Church is the most famous Coptic Christian church in Cairo and possibly the first built-in basilican style.
The church is the site of several reported Marian apparitions. According to traditions, the Marian apparitions appeared in a dream to Pope Abraham in the 970s, in the story of how Mokattam Mountain has moved Simon, the Tanner faith.
Copts dedicated the Hanging Church to the Virgin Mary; thus, it contains sanctuaries to her and Saints John the Baptist and George. The church held many important ceremonies for the Coptic hierarchy of Cairo. These ceremonies included the selection and burial of patriarchs, the former occurring from the 11th to 14th centuries, while the latter only between the 11th and 12th. It also had the consecration of holy oil and judgement of heresy trials; selection of the date of Easter for every year was another vital proceeding held within. These processes occurred at the Hanging Church before the patriarchal seat movement to Cairo from Alexandria in the 11th century.
The seat of Coptic Pope
Historically, the Seat of the Coptic Orthodox Pope of Alexandria was Alexandria. However, as ruling powers moved away from Alexandria to Cairo after the Muslim conquest of Egypt during Pope Christodolos’s tenure, Cairo became the fixed and official residence of the Coptic Pope at the Hanging Church in 1047.
Infighting between the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus and the el Muʿallaqah (the Hanging Church) broke out because of Patriarch’s desire to be consecrated. This ceremony traditionally took place at Saints Sergius and Bacchus.
Icons and decoration
The Hanging Church has 110 icons, the oldest of which dates back to the 8th century, but most of them date to the 18th century. Nakhla Al-Baraty Bey gave some of them as gifts in 1898, when he was the church’s overseer.
The iconostasis of the central sanctuary is made of ebony inlaid with ivory and is surmounted by icons of the Virgin Mary and the Twelve Apostles.
Altar: screen and icons
The main altar screen is ebony inlaid with ivory, carved into segments. It shows several Coptic Cross designs, dating back to around the 12th or 13th century. Over the altar screen lies a long row of seven large icons, the central one of which shows Christ sitting on the throne. On one side, the icons of the Virgin Mary, Archangel Gabriel and Saint Peter are lined up. However, on the other side, St. John the Baptist icons, Archangel Michael and St. Paul.
Layout architectural features
The church’s present structure comprises the primitive church in the south and a principal church to the north. Historians believe that Copts built it between the third to the seventh century and between the fifth to the seventh century, respectively.
The principal church is a basilica plan within a rectangular outer wall and features three apses. Three aisles surround its nave. It has a double-aisled layout, but this layout lacks transepts. The ambon features 15 Islamic columns mounted on a white marble slab.
By the late 19th century, the primitive church consisted of three chapels and a baptistery, connected to the south nave of the principal church by the first chapel. The church was periodically altered and restored in response to plundering. This reconstruction included the addition of a barrier wall during the reign of caliph al-Hakim.
Due to neglect, specific original components did not endure—the date of the modern replacement to the 19th century.
None of the three ancient altars typical of Coptic churches remained by the 19th century, and instead, Christians replaced it with marble slabs.
According to reports, the original ciboria was present at the altars, but later, Copts replaced it.
Mosaics and reliefs
Mosaics in crosses in relief exist within an ambo located north of the principal church’s central nave. The primitive church contains mosaics in a hollow in the south wall.
Miracle of Moving the Moqattam Mountain
The famous miracle of moving the Moqattam Mountain is closely related to al-Moallaqa. Al-Mu’izz, a Fatimid khalifa, asked Patriarch Abraham (975-978), the 62nd Patriarch, to prove the truth of a verse in the Bible. Al-Mu’izz asked Patriarch Abraham to move the Moqattam Mountain to confirm the words of the gospel:
If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain: Remove from hence to yonder place, and it shall remove “(Matthew 17-20)
After three days of praying and fasting in front of the painting of the Virgin Mary depicted on a column in al-Moallaqa, the Virgin Mary appeared to Patriarch Abraham in a vision and told him what to do. Al-Mu’izz supported the truth of the Christian belief and thus allowed the Coptic Church certain privileges. The painting of the Virgin Mary exists in the church to this day.
Architecture of the Hanging Church
There are three altars on the eastern side of the church. Copts dedicated the central sanctuary to the Virgin Mary, the left to Saint George, and the righthand altar to John the Baptist. Inside these sanctuaries, painted baldachins hang above the altars. The wooden screen is a unique piece of art and richly decorated with geometric patterns and crosses in ebony and ivory.
Beloved icons crown the wooden screen. In the centre, the enthroned Jesus, on the left side the Virgin Mary, Archangel Gabriel and St. Peter, on the right side John the Baptist, Archangel Michael and St. Paul. Fifteen icons describe the life and torture of St. George; 7 icons give an insight into the life of John the Baptist.
Numerous altar icons date back to the 18th century AD. The oldest icon is for the Coptic Mona Lisa, dating back to the 8th century AD, representing the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ and John the Baptist. There is an icon of St. Mark on the southern wall of the main church (St. Mark is the first Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church). The Hanging Church holds 110 icons.
Pulpit of the Hanging Church
The impressive pulpit of the Hanging Church is from the 5th century and rests on 15 gracile columns. There is a cross depiction above three steps on each pulpit side. This cross symbolises the three days when Jesus Christ was in his tomb and resurrection.
Sanctuary and Baptistery
There is a door at the south-eastern corner of the church leading to the oldest part of the building. This part has three sanctuaries on the eastern side. The middle one gained its name after St. Damiana, the left one got its name after St. Takla Hymanot (an Ethiopian saint), and the right one carries the name of Saint Andrew. Beside these sanctuaries is the baptistery.
There is also a fresco on the chapel’s eastern wall showing the Nativity (the birth of Christ) and the midwife Salome, the second fresco of 24 men of the apocalypse. Furthermore, there exists a church of Saint Mark on the first floor.