In 576 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar (King of Babel) invaded ancient Egypt. It was a fortification on the eastern bank of the Nile near the capital city of Memphis.
Location of Old Cairo
In Arabic, the district of Old Cairo, Masr al-Qadima, is located in the south part of the city, on the right bank of the Nile opposite the Island of Roda.
Historical Insight of Old Cairo
King Menes, the unifier of the two regions, built this fortification for protection. Although the building of the fortress was time-consuming, it served its purpose for a period.
Holy Family Settlement in Old Cairo
As for the Holy Family, when the divine command came to Joseph, the carpenter came to Egypt fleeing from the tyrant Herod in 3 CE. Mary, Jesus and the midwife who witnessed the virgin birth came from Palestine and entered Sinai on the Northern side of the city of Farma (today between el-Areesh and Port Said). They then went down to the town of Tell al-Basta in Sharqiyya, following Mostorod, Belbeis and Sammanoud, Kafr al-Sheikh and afterwards directly to Wadi el-Natrun in the western desert.
Something miraculous happened there and whoever visits Wadi el-Natrun knows of the spring of Mary. When the baby Jesus got thirsty, God sprang for them lovely water, and this spring still exists and is surrounded by salt lakes. Of course, it is a miracle that freshwater exists amongst these lakes. It is still known as Mary’s spring today.
After the western desert, they moved on to Matariyya, Ain Shams, and then to Old Cairo. However, before they came to Old Cairo, they went to an alley called Zuweila, which now is a church called the Church of the Virgin. So they came to Old Cairo. The Virgin settled in the cave (below the church of Abu Serga) that is now a visiting site. It opens the door for anyone desiring to feel the holiness of this sacred place of the Virgin Mary, Joseph the Carpenter and the Baby Jesus.
Trajan, the Roman emperor, invaded Egypt and began to expand the property around the fortification. He extended roads and captured property around the area of the fortification.
For those who are unaware, Memphis was the capital of ancient Egypt. It remained famous until the 7th century CE, But after some time, its popularity declined and what remains now is a tiny village named Mit Rahina, next to a town called Badrashein in Giza.
When Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, he established the city of Alexandria and the fortress of Babel’s name changed from Babel to Babylon, according to the Greeks of the time.
Historians think that the Roman Emperor Trajan (100 CE) entered the Egyptian territories and concentrated on this Babylon fortification. He then started to build many things within it and expanded the fortress around the area where we stand today.
He started building grinding stations for grains, extracting juice from raisins, and living spaces inside the defence. The fortress is said to have a massive wall of 2.5 meters and 20 meters. The southern side (of this fortress) is the Hanging Church of the Virgin.
After this, the city started developing outside the walls of the fortress. There was a tiny cave where people would seek refuge and live. So when the Holy family: the Virgin Mary, Joseph the Carpenter, baby Jesus and the midwife Salome (who accompanied them) fled from Palestine, they came to this cave. It is now underneath a church named Abu Serga, located next to the Church of the Martyr Saint Barbara.
After Christianity spread in the 4th century CE, the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as the state religion. Roman authorities living around this area heard that the Virgin Mary inhabited the cave. Hence, they built a church on top of it named Abu Serga for two martyrs belonging to the Patriarch of Constantinople. It became a small church where the Romans prayed. This church is the oldest (in Egypt) from the 4th century CE.
When the Arabs arrived in 645 CE, they conquered, looted the city and ousted the Roman authority. They then expanded the area, and the Copts used the situation by building a church on two high towers in the fortress by the Hanging Church of the Virgin. It is present today in Old Cairo.
Afterwards, Copts built other churches around the fortress and in an area a bit further away. Within the fortress walls was a group of Roman Orthodox who built a church named Mar Girgis in the 10th century CE. Also, a group of Jews bought a church from the Orthodox Copts named for the Angel Michael next to the Church of Saint Barbara, turning it into a synagogue named Ben Ezra.
When Amr Ibn Al-‘As expanded the Islamic empire into Egypt, he established another town nearby named Fustat and a mosque named Amr Ibn Al-‘As. He built a large city with streets, parks and luxurious buildings. History states that Coptic architects, engineers and artisans contributed their ideas.
During this period, Copts built other churches in Fustat: The Church of Abu Sayfayn, the Church of the Virgin and the Church of his Holiness Father Shenouda. Furthermore, a convent for nuns and this location started to expand considerably.
Holding Meetings with Arab governors in Old Cairo
Old Cairo was also where the Patriarch from Alexandria would come to meet with the Arab governors and discuss the state of the churches in this area, also known as the area of Babylon.
From the early times of Christianity, there were three famous bishoprics in Egypt: Old Cairo or Babylon, Memphis (Capital of Ancient Egypt) and Ouseem.
The fortress has also produced Patriarchs as a learning centre for the patriarchic fathers. There have been many famous bishops who emerged from here throughout history. His Holiness Father Michael the 46th was part of the Church Abu Serga.
In the 13th century, Monk Boulus al-Boushi and among the famous priests was Ibn Khabar, the pastor of the Hanging Church in the 14th century. His educators were the sons of ‘Asaal, famous in Church history. Among the renowned present was the monk Boutros Ibn T’abaan who lived here in the Hanging Church.
Also, the liturgical cantor famous from this church (the Hanging Church), Abu Shaakir Rahib Abu al Karam Boutros, has been written about in favourite books in the libraries of ancient churches. We cannot forget the Saint Sam’aan Al-Kharaaz, known from the Church of the Mountain Muqattam. Finally, Barsoum Al-Aria’an was present in the Church of Abu Sayfayn.
Ahmed Ibn Tulun
During the days of Father Theodosios II (129C.E.E.), engineers completed the Chrism of the Hanging Church, and 25 bishops contributed to its making. Not to mention the famous architect S’aid Ibn Al-Kaatib Al Fara’aani, the contemporary of Ahmed Ibn Tulun, who designed and made the nilometer in Rhoda and the designer of the mosque Ibn Tulun, a masterpiece of architecture.
In the place where I stand came many prominent people. It was the seat of the Patriarch after it left Alexandria. The Hanging Church witnessed the naming of 11 Patriarchs and two in the Church of Abu Sayfayn.
Arab historians said that there was a castle with lit candles in it, and this is how it acquired its name. When Amr Ibn Al-‘As and his troops surrounded the fortress at night, the Copts and the authority in Rhoda would give signals with lights to each side, and each other would understand. Therefore, Arab called this place the “wax castle”.
Currently, it is considered a visiting site for all those who desire to visit ancient places, and you notice tourists coming daily to see this place or that. Egyptians or Christian people feel they must come to these sites for their antiquities. It has become a ray of antiquities, monuments, and churches. It is a spark of light to anyone who wants to know about Christianity in Egypt because Christianity in Egypt stems from this location. Another significance of this location is the presence of famous popular saints. Moreover, many believers come during saints’ birthdays to celebrate.
There are many Churches in Fustat:
- Mercurius, the Convent of Father Shenouda
- the Church of the Virgin
- Abu Sayfayn
- Church of the Monk Father Shenouda
- Church of the Father of Babylon
- And Church of Amir Tadros
- Church of the Angel Michael
- Also, the Church of Mar Mena dates back to the days of his Holiness Father Kyrillos IV.