INTERVIEW WITH BISHOP SLIVANUS, OLD CAIRO
This location is in a Fortress named the Fortress of Babylon. Its foundation is in the site where we stand today. Within the fortress are a lot of churches and other buildings: Abu Sarga, the Church of the Virgin Mary, the Church of Saint Barbara the Martyr, Mar Girgis (Coptic), The Hanging Church, The Church of the Monk Mar Girgis, the Fortress of Babylon, The Greek Orthodox Church Mar Girgis, the Coptic Museum and the Ben Ezra Synagogue.
In the Name of the Father, Son
and Holy Spirit: The One True God. May he bestow upon us
righteousness and blessings, now and forever. Amen.
A beautiful saying from his eminence the Pope Father Shenouda III says:
“Whoever cannot visit the holy city of Jerusalem in the Holy land, may he or she visit the religious sites and/or the churches of Ancient Egypt”.
So in this way, he encourages us to visit the sites in Egypt and these are amongst the oldest and most ancient churches that exist in all of Christianity.
In 576 B.C.E ancient Egypt was invaded by Bokhas Nasr (King of Babel). In it was a
fortification on the eastern shores of the Nile near the capital city of Memphis.
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.
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 at that time and remained famous until the 7th century C.E. But after some time its popularity declined and what remains now is a very small village named Mit Rahina which is 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 Greek of the time.
It is said, that the Roman Emperor Trajan (100 C.E.) 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.
The southern side (of this fortress) is the Hanging Church of the Virgin. Inside of the fortress, he started building grinding stations for grains, sites to extract juice from raisins and also living spaces.
The fortress is said to have a large wall with width of 2.5 meters and height of 20 meters.
After this, the city started developing outside the walls of the fortress. There was a very small cave in the city where people would go to 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. This is now underneath a church named Abu Sarga which is located next to the Church of the Martyr Saint Barbara.
After Christianity spread in the 4th century C.E. the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as the state religion, Roman authorities living around this area heard that the cave had been inhabited by the Virgin Mary. Hence, built a church on top of it named Abu Sarga for two martyrs belonging to the patriarch of Constantinople. It became a small church where the Romans prayed. This church is the oldest church (in Egypt) from the 4th century C.E.
When the Arabs arrived in the year 645 C.E. they conquered, looted the city and ousted the Roman authority. They then expanded the area and the Copts made use of the situation by building a church on two high towers in the fortress by the name of 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 that is a bit further away.
Within the walls of the fortress was a group of Roman Orthodox who built a church for themselves named Mar Girgis in the 10th century C.E. There was also a group of Jews who 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 in it a mosque named Amr Ibn Al-‘As. He built the foundation for a large city with streets, parks and luxurious buildings. History states that Coptic architects, engineers and craftsmen contributed their ideas.
In this period other churches were built 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 greatly.
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 and has been a center of learning for the patriarchic fathers. His Holiness Father Michael the 46th was said to be part of the Church Abu Sarga which is next to us now. There have been many famous bishops who emerged from here throughout history.
In the 13th century, Monk Boulus al-Boushi and also from among the famous priests is Ibn Khabar who was the pastor of the Hanging Church in the 14th century. Amongst the famous who were present was the monk Boutros Ibn T’abaan who lived here in the Hanging Church. His educators were the sons of ‘Asaal who were famous in Church history.
Also the liturgical cantor famous from this Church (the Hanging Church), Abu Shaakir Rahib Abu al Karam Boutros has been written about in famous books which exist in the libraries of ancient churches. We cannot forget the Saint Sam’aan Al-Kharaaz who is known from the Church of the Mountain Muqattam. Finally, Barsoum Al-Aria’an, whom was present in the Church of Abu Sayfayn.
During the days of Father Theodosios II (1298 C.E.) the chrism of the Hanging Church was completed 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 of 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 from Alexandria. The Hanging Church witnessed the naming of 11 Patriarchs and two in the Church of Abu Sayfayn.
Another piece of information is that this area is called the “wax castle”. It is so called because when Amr Ibn Al-‘As and his troops surrounded the fortress at night the Copts and the authority in Rhoda (as it is known today) would give signals with lights to each side and each would understand. Arab historians said that there was a castle with lit candles in it and this is how it acquired its name. This is just a quick historical insight of the significance of Old Cairo.
Currently, it is considered a visiting site for all those who desire to visit ancient places and you notice tourists coming daily to visit this place or that. Egyptians or anyone who is Christian feel they must come to these sites for the antiquities in them. 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 the famous popular saints and it is present in their birthday celebrations and many people come to celebrate.
As for the Holy Family, when the divine command came to Joseph the carpenter to come to Egypt fleeing from the tyrant Herod in the year 3 C.E. Mary, Jesus and the midwife who witnessed the virgin birth came from Palestine and entered Sinai on the Northern side in the city of Farma (today between el-‘Areesh and Port Said). They then went down to the city of Tell al-Basta in Sharqiyya following Mostorod, Belbeis and Sammanoud, Qafr 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 very sweet water and this spring still exists and is surrounded by salt lakes. Of course it is a miracle that fresh water 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 they came to Old Cairo. However, before they came to Old Cairo, they went to an alley called Zuweila in which now is a church called the Church of the Virgin. So they came to Old Cairo and the Virgin settled in the cave (below the church of Abu Sarga) that is now a visiting site for anyone who desires to smell the holiness and sweetness of the place blessed by the Virgin Mary, Joseph the Carpenter and the Baby Jesus.
There are many Churches in Fustat: Mercurius, the Convent of Father Shenouda, the Church of the Virgin, Abu Sayfayn, the Church of the Monk Father Shenouda, the Church of the Father of Babylon, the Church of Amir Tadros, the Church of the Angel Michael, the Church of Mar Mena from the days of his Holiness Father Kyrillos IV.
We made a CD that includes beautiful pictures of relics, icons, antiquities and churches. Also visible is the beautiful celebrations from the Church of Mar Girgis. There are examples how we pray, how we revere him, like we treat relics, how we go around (benediction) the church with the cross and devotional singing. Afterwards, we go to the convent of Mar Girgis and this is a representation of the similar fashion we celebrate of all the saints (for example Abu Sayfayn or Saint Barbara) and remember their martyrdom and their lives.
This is the conclusion to the discussion of Old Cairo.
Anyone interested in further explanations about Old Cairo is welcome to call or send an email with any questions that he or she may have and we would be more than happy to answer them or provide more information: firstname.lastname@example.org
May our Lord bless you all. May his light shine upon us and on Old Cairo. We pray for our Pope Father Shenouda III (may God watch over and protect him) and we pray for all of our fathers and all of us as well.
Bishop Slivanus, Old Cairo
Interview translated by Stefanie Boyle