Old Cairo is the land of unspeakable greatness. It's not just the Pharaonic monuments that have drawn travelers to this city since long before the birth of Christ - it's the legacy of the Romans and early Christians, and the profusion of art and architecture accumulated from centuries of successive Islamic dynasties. Old Cairo is the living proof that Egypt is the mother of the world. Once you get into that ancient city, you will notice a magnificent portrait of religious harmony, as mosques are standing next to churches. Whomever you are, Muslim or Christian, a historian or just a tourist, being in Old Cairo, namely the area that is now called Mogama3 El Adian (multi-religions compound) will just overwhelm you.
Coptic Cairo is one of Old Cairo’s most archaic parts, and it is the original site of the Roman built Babylon. Some of these Roman walls still exist. Later, it became a Christian stronghold, with as many as 20 churches built within an area of one square mile. There are only five remaining, but these are certainly a must see when visiting Cairo, home of the oldest churches in the world. Its Roman remains and old cobbled alleys are capable of leaving any historian speechless.
The Hanging Church
The Hanging Church or St. Mary’s Church is possibly the most famous Coptic Christian as well as the first built in the Basilican style and simply one of the oldest in Egypt dating back to the 7th Century on the site of the site of an older 3rd and 4th century church. The church got its name for its location, suspending over a passage above the gatehouse of the Roman fortress of Babylon.
Entrance to the Hanging Church is via a beautifully-decorated gate leading into an open courtyard, flanked by mosaics, from which there are 29 steps to the church, the thing that made travelers in the olden days call it the Staircase church. At the top of the stairs are three wooden doors decorated with geometric patterns, framed with decorative carvings in the stone wall.
The church is known for its beautiful collection of restored ancient icons, the oldest of which dates back to the 8th century, and an old iconostasis inlaid with ivory and ebony. Many other artifacts from this church are now displayed in the Coptic Museum, including a lintel showing Christ's entry into Jerusalem that dates from the 5th or 6th century.
In the 11th century, it became the official residence of Alexandria’s Coptic patriarchs. When you visit this church, your soul will be captured by its impressive marble podium, icons, and friezes.
The Monastery and Church of St. George
There are two churches with the same name, Mar Girgis or St. George Church both commemorating christianity. One is a Greek Orthodox Church which was built in the 10th Century atop a Roman tower, that lends it its unique round shape, was torn down by fire and rebuilt in 1904.
The other Church of St. George was founded in 684 and rebuilt later after a fire tore it down in 1857. The only surviving chamber holds some real works of art, like the ceiling with colored frescos. It’s also believed that the Holy family rested where the church is standing, during their journey to Egypt.
The St George convent is an ancient nuns convent and inside it there is a huge shrine commemorating the martyr and is dated back to the tenth century, and its gate is about seven meters high.
The Coptic Museum
Visiting the Coptic Museum cannot be missed while visiting old Cairo, as it has largest collection of Egyptian Christian artifacts in the world. It was founded by Marcus Simaika Pasha in 1910 to house Coptic antiquities. The museum traces the history of Christianity in Egypt from its beginnings to the present day. It was erected on 8,000 square meters offered by the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria under the guardianship of Pope Cyril V.
The world’s Islamic Beacon
Old Cairo embraces between its walls the world’s oldest and most renowned mosques. These mosques were constructed since the declaration of Islam as a new faith, and still standing till now proving their magnificence.
Mosque of Amr Ebn El-Aas
It’s the first mosque that was ever built in Egypt and Africa. It was constructed by the commander of the Muslim army that conquered Egypt and introduced the new faith of Islam. The mosque served as an educational institution and a court of setting religious and civil disputes, besides being the house of worship. The mosque was demolished and rebuilt twice. Due to extensive reconstruction over the centuries, nothing of the original building remains, but the rebuilt Mosque is a prominent landmark. It is an active mosque attended by earnest worshippers, and when prayers are not taking place, it is also open to visitors and tourists.
Al Azhar Mosque
Al Azhar mosque is considered as the first mosque that was constructed in the city of Cairo. It’s the reason why Cairo was called the “the city of a thousand minarets”. In addition to being a spectacular monument in its own, the mosque is surrounded by remarkable Islamic monuments from the 10th century. In order to let the Islamic world benefit from its significance, the mosque has became a teaching institute, and with the first lecture that was conducted in 975, the mosque was officially distinguished as the oldest university in the world. Schools were added to the complex of the mosque, and today lectures are conducted in the adjacent buildings while the mosque is only serving as a prayer area.
Al Hussein Mosque
The mosque was named after grandson of Prophet Muhammad, Hussein Ebn Ali, whose head is believed by some to be buried on the grounds of the mosque. The mosque, considered to be one of the holiest Islamic sites in Cairo, was built on the cemetery of the Fatimid caliphs, a fact that was later discovered during the excavation. The Mosque hosts some very sacred items like the oldest believed complete manuscript of the Quran.
Ibn Tulun Mosque
For the visitor wishing to explore the heart of Islamic Cairo, the Ibn Tuln Mosque should not be missed. Situated in the Sayida Zainab, this mosque was built by Emir Ahmed Ibn Touloun in 879. The classic grandeur of its scale makes it one of the most imposing of all Cairo's great mosques. Its structure is an open court with a central ablution fountain, surrounded by four walls.
Al Azhar Park
Al Azhar Park, the largest green space built in Cairo for over a century, was constructed to act a window from which visitors can relive the Islamic Medieval Era. It provides an impressive view of the long standing Fatimid mosques, madrasas, and mausoleums form the west, overlooks the Citadel from the south, and to the east lays the infamous City of the Dead, a dense neighborhood within cemeteries. It wasn’t designed to provide a meditative landscape that overlooks the historic monuments only, but it also serves as the “green lung” that was much needed for a crowded city like Cairo. The park encompasses shaded walkways, marvelous lakes, and water fountains, kids’ area, a museum, a hilltop restaurant, and lakeside cafes.
A Jewish insignia
Synagogue of Ben Ezra
The 9th century Synagogue is one of the oldest in Egypt and occupies the shell of a 4th century church. It was renovated by a rabbi from Jerusalem, Abraham Ben Ezra, after whom it got its name. One of the legends that marks the place is about the prophet Jeremiah who gathered the Jews there, after the temple of Jerusalem was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. A spring nearby is said to be where Mary washed Jesus, and where the Egyptian princess found Moses in a basket. The synagogue was the hideout of many manuscripts. These manuscripts included the Hebrew- Arabic documents, dating back to the Fatimid Era, and portrayed the conditions of Jews living under the Arab rule and described the different Jewish sects and the relation between them. A rare interpretation of the Old Testament was also unleashed, in addition to describing the relationship between the Jews and the Muslim Authorities.