The Coptic Orthodox Church of St. Barbara is one of the many famous Coptic Orthodox parishes found in the district of Coptic Cairo. The building is located on the eastern part of the Babylon Fortress and is one of the oldest buildings in Cairo, dating back to the 5th or 6th century AD. However, like many other buildings of Coptic architecture, Coptic Christians rebuilt it several times, most notably by the end of the 11th century. Moreover, the church of Saint Barbara houses some of the rarest icons.
Location of Saint Barbara Church in Coptic Cairo
The church of St. Barbara is among the churches of Old Cairo with historical importance. St. Barbara’s Church stands north of the Coptic Museum and is east of the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus (Abu Serga), on the eastern side of Fort Babylon. It was initially dedicated to Saints Cyrus and John, who were worshipped for their healing powers. A small church at the northeastern building commemorates these two martyrs.
Christians initially dedicated it to Abu Kir and Yohanna (or Ss. Cyrus and John). Documents from the 13th century mention that the relics of Saint Barbara were kept in this church. When the orthodox church brought the remains of St. Barbara here, Christians built a separate sanctuary for it. Consequently, there exist now two independent churches on this site.
Athanasius, a wealthy scribe and a secretary of Abdel-Aziz Ibn Marwan (governor of Egypt between 685 and 705 AD), had constructed the church. A door found during one of the church’s many restorations could date as early as the 4th century. Between 1072 and 1073, Copts fully restored the church to house the relics of Saint Barbara. These relics remain to this day.
Again another fire during the 12th century damaged the church. However, Christians renovated the church as recently as the 20th century. By then, architects sacrificed the Khurus – a transverse room preceding the sanctuary, to allow more space.
Recently, many of its precious items, like two door panels, a wooden screen, an icon and Bible caskets, were transferred to the nearby Coptic Museum.
The basilican structure and tripartite sanctuary of the church closely resemble the one of Abu Serga. The Church of Saint Barbara is notable for its many precious items. These items were sent to the nearby Coptic Museum, only a two-minute walk from the church. The basilican structure and tripartite sanctuary of the church closely resemble the one of Abu Serga.
Nearby, a convent comprises several buildings, including a school built by the well-known architect Ramses Wissa Wassef.
While Saint Barbara’s Church has been a long-lasting example of ancient Coptic architecture, it resembles the shape of ancient Basilicas. It comprises an entrance, a narthex, a long nave, several aisles and three sanctuaries.
Like most other Coptic Orthodox churches with more than one sanctuary, the central sanctuary is of paramount importance, dedicated to St. Barbara. After entering, from the narthex’s lobby, five marble columns separate the nave from the two aisles. There is a semi-circular choir in front of the central sanctuary, consisting of 7 giant steps.
There were several other icons on the southern aisle of the church, representing the Virgin Mary and Jesus when he was a child, Jesus entering Jerusalem and the baptism of Christ.