THE HISTORY OF THE BABYLON FORTRESS
In “A Guide to the Ancient Coptic Churches of Cairo”, O.H.E. KHS-Burmester records significant historical information about the fortress area. According to him, Ptolemy (121-151 A.D.), in his book “Geography”, mentions a town named Babylon which existed from Pharaonic times on part of a site of what is now included in Cairo.
A canal ran through this town connecting the Nile with the Red Sea. Roman Emperor Trajan (98-117 A.D.) reopened this canal and also enlarged and equipped a fortress which was located at the southern end of the town. The fortress, known as the “Castle of Babylon”, or “Castle of Egypt” (Khemi), was further enlarged by Emperor Arcadius (395-408 A.D.). There was a fluvial port at this location where ships could anchor. In 335 A.D., the Roman Emperor altered shipping routes from Alexandria to the Babylon fortress. The area of Old Cairo was the first nucleus of present-day Cairo.
It is not known exactly when this city became a bishopric but it must have been before the first half of the 5th century as a certain Cyrus, Bishop of Babylon, was present at the Council of Ephesus held in 449 A.D.
At the time of the Arab conquest of Egypt, Babylon seemed to have been a large city extending northwards as far as Tendounias (‘Um Dunain’), the present district of al-Azbakiah, where there was a fortified outpost. The Arab general ‛Amr Ibn al-‘As captured this outpost and occupied the city as far as the Castle of Egypt, to which he laid siege. On April 9th, 641 A.D. this castle, which the Arabs named “Qasr ash-Sham’a (wax castle) surrendered. After the Arab conquest of Egypt, the name Babylon was more commonly used to denote the district immediately around the Castle of Egypt or Qasr ash-Sham’a. Eventually this became a quarter inhabited mainly by Christians.
This fortress is similar to the Roman ones found in Europe and North Africa. At one time the course of the River Nile flowed under the fortress walls at the Roman Orthodox St. George’s Church. Roman methods of construction used a pattern of five blocks of limestone with three blocks of red bricks. The fortress, as well as older parts of the church, contain such patterns in their foundations.
The fortress’ towers are almost 10 meters high and 31 meters in diameter. The walls are almost 3 meters thick. The floor of the fortress is below the level of St. George Street by about 6 meters due to city construction over time.
The Nuns of St. George Convent, Old Cairo