The Coptic District
We decided to visit the Coptic district, which is the oldest part of Cairo. The car dropped us near the ancient city wall, and we followed the crowds, walking along the street to where there were steps going down, and signs directing us to various places. There was no big sign saying This way to the Coptic district so we were a little unsure where to go—usually we avoid underground passages in unfamiliar cities—but we walked down the steps.
There was a short tunnel, under the old city wall, and then we were in a narrow lane, the walls lined with books for sale. It was very unexpected! Tour groups and local people all seemed to be walking in the same direction, so we followed the crowd, round a corner, to a junction with signs on walls and archways in the wall. It was too busy to check our map, but I remembered we planned to see the Church of St. Sergius and Bacchus so we followed the sign for that. It all felt rather disorientating to be honest, and I was disappointed because I knew there were several places I hoped to visit but I was beginning to think it would be too difficult to find them.
The church was built in the 11th century, in honour of Sergus and Baccus, a couple of Roman soldiers who were martyred for being Christians. I had read that under the church is a cave, where it is believed Mary and Joseph lived when they ran to Egypt with baby Jesus, to escape King Herod. Several places in Egypt claim to have been visited by the holy family during their time here, which I guess makes for good tourism, but it’s easy to mock—and who knows? They must have lived somewhere and maybe afterwards they told people, and it was remembered.
We found a sign to the cave, and went down some steps, to the area below the church. Much of the Coptic area has stuff below it, because it was built on top of a Roman city. We were in a long line of tourists visiting the cave, so there was no great atmosphere to it, and it was hard to imagine how it might have been, with a young couple and a baby sheltering there.
The church itself was very glitzy, with lots of icons, gilt and tourists. Places like that don’t inspire me to pray, I find it hard to discover God under all the religion, but I guess people are different. To be honest, I found the mosques, with their ornate outsides and big empty interiors to be much better at inducing thoughts of God and prayer. I feel there must be a balance, something between the plain ugliness of a Baptist church and the distracting gloss of a high church. Somewhere special, but that doesn’t distract away from God.
Anyway, next we went to the Coptic Museum (because the Ben Ezra Synagogue, which I really wanted to see, was closed for renovations). We wandered into a private area by mistake, and were stopped by a friendly smiling man who turned out to be head of security. People in Egypt were always friendly. After being pointed in the right direction, we went to see the Nag Hammadi manuscripts (which are the source for Gnosticism—the belief that spirit is entirely separate to anything physical, and that Jesus was spirit, not physical). They also have the oldest surviving copy of the Psalms of David, but that was being restored so we couldn’t see it. We did see some very cool examples of early letters, written on pottery, in ancient Greek. (The museum also has very clean public toilets, if you’re interested.)
Finally, we visited the Hanging Church or Al Kineesa Al Mu’allaqa. It has a barrel-shaped ceiling, and white pillars that represent the 12 disciples, with a black one for Judas. Again, there were lots of icons, and gilt, and red bricks, and tourists. Part of the floor was glass, so you could peer down at the Roman towers below. (Which actually makes it less of a ‘hanging’ church and more of a ‘suspended’ one.)
We walked back to the hotel along busy roads. It was more of a slog than yesterday, and I found the constant honking of horns, the music of Cairo, to be very draining. We saw more poor people begging this time, including a young boy. I am uneasy refusing children, but I had no food to give him and money would possibly end up with the wrong person—so I told him no, and then felt guilty for the rest of the holiday and carried packets of Hulahoops everywhere in the hope I would see him again (but I never did).
At one point the road was very crowded with men, all waiting outside the Kuwait embassy. They queue there to apply for visas so they can go to work in Kuwait. It rained, quite heavily at one point, which I think is very rare here. Fingers up noses and men peeing behind parked cars seem to be a thing here. But mostly, I am interested by how friendly everyone is, how children smile and say hello, and people wave at us from buses, and greet us when we pass.
Later, there was a thunderstorm, and more rain. We watched from the balcony as big puddles formed on the roads. An unusual sight in Cairo. Thanks for reading. Hope you have a good day. Take care.
Love, Anne x
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