Christians in the Arab World: Coptic Cairo
By: Lindsey Penn/Arab America Contributing Writer
The modern Arab world may be a Muslim majority, however, there is still a significant presence of Christian Arabs. Christians have been present in the Middle East for centuries, and one of the oldest Christian neighborhoods is Coptic Cairo in Egypt. Coptic Christians split from the other Christians in 451 AD and can trace their establishment to the apostle St. Mark, who was the first bishop in Alexandria. After the split, they built their own little neighborhood. The Coptic Christian neighborhood in Cairo, known as Coptic Cairo, is one of the oldest parts of the city, a testament to the different religions (and the history) present in the Arab world.
The Christian History in Cairo
Coptic Cairo was established in the 6th century BC. When the Romans invaded, the Romans built the walls of Babylon around the neighborhood. Some of the walls are still standing today. Many people claim that the Holy Family (Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and Joseph) traveled through the city when King Herod forced them to flee Judea. When the Romans invaded, they began to persecute the Christians. The Copts call this period the “Age of the Martyrs”, as many Christians died under Roman rule.
The Christian neighborhood predates the Ottoman expansion that brought Islam, yet many of the existing buildings were built after the Muslim rule in Egypt began. There are a total of six churches in the neighborhood, although the most famous is the Hanging Church. In the 6th century BC, they built a canal connecting the Nile River and the Red Sea, boosting trade in the area and establishing it as an important and strategically-located neighborhood.
One of the reasons why Copts (and Coptic Cairo) have been able to survive for so long is because of their ability to adapt. Throughout the history of Egypt, there have been many invasions, such as that of the Arabs, the Ottomans, the Greeks, and the Romans. In spite of these multiple major changes in Egypt, the Copts maintained their neighborhood and presence, even when the population around them started turning to Islam instead of Christianity. For the Copts, maintaining their presence meant adapting, but also accepting the influence of the cultures. For example, in Ancient Egypt, the Copts’ Christian designs incorporated the ankh.
More recently, the government has made an effort to preserve and maintain the buildings in the neighborhood. Today, most of these places are open to the public as museums.
Abu Serga is believed to be the oldest church, as it was built in the 4th century AD. The Copts built the church on the exact spot where they believed the Holy Family stopped and rested after their course to Egypt. Since building it, the Christians use it as the location where they elect the patriarchs of the Coptic Church. In 750 AD, the original church burned down in a fire, but they restored it in the 8th century and repaired it multiple times since then. Inside the church, there are three altars and twelve columns, each with a portrait of one of the twelve disciples.
The Hanging Church
The Hanging Church is named for its location on top of the old gate to Babylon, where the center of the church rests above the passage. It was likely built around 690 AD and has become the most famous church in Coptic Cairo. The Christians built the church to look like a basilica and many aspects of its architectural design stand out. One such aspect is the design of the two bell towers in the church, meant to resemble Noah’s Ark. The porch of the church is another feat since it has survived centuries of people walking on it through multiple efforts to preserve it. The church is also known for the wooden panels shaped like lotus flowers inlaid with pearl. Just above the panels, there are portraits of the twelve disciples, each painted in a uniquely Coptic style. In the 14th century, the church had fashioned panels made from cedar-wood to go in front of the entrance of the chapel, although those panels have been moved to the British Museum.
The Hanging Church is open to the public as a museum, but they also hold Coptic services and allow people to observe the services.
The Coptic Museum
Established in 1910, the Museum has the largest collection of Coptic artifacts. The artifacts show the interaction of Coptic Cairo with the many invasions over the centuries, such as how the Coptic art style was influenced by the pharaonic art as well as Roman and Islamic cultures. The earliest artifact is from the 2nd century. In total, the Museum has 16,000 artifacts, ranging from stone sculptures to wood sculptures, to textiles and manuscripts. Gardens and courtyards surround the Museum. The building itself is located right next to the churches.
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