Sorry it’s been so long since the last post. The Mother came to visit about ten days ago and she ran me ragged from dawn till dusk doing everything
“Copt or Coptic?” This is what I woke up saying to myself one morning. I had decided to spend the day in Coptic Cairo but was annoyed that I had neglected to do my research in advance. Feeling weekend-lazy, the only way I could get moving was to excuse myself from doing some advance fact-finding. I decided I’d go in cold and figure out this mysterious district of southern
After a brief stop in Islamic Cairo to take some photos, I caught a taxi to Coptic Cairo. I wasn’t sure how to tell the driver where I wanted to go, but my knowledge of the city was good enough that I could get him headed in the right direction while I tried everything from repeating “Kanisa! Kanisa!” (Church! Church!) to genuflecting, to asking him to pull over so I could try to ask an English speaker for help. When all these failed, I was at a loss until I finally saw a church spire, which I pointed to while enthusiastically exclaiming in Arabic, “I want the place with lots of those!” That seemed to get to him, and with a big smile we made the next left and headed off.
Ten minutes later we pulled up to a police road block and I was made to understand that this was the end of the road. I paid my driver, hopped out, and started walking the rest of the way. It was a strange scene. Because no cars were allowed on the road, there was an unnatural calm and civility that was compounded by the fact that all the building were sparkly white. Although all the store fronts were filled with people, there was a tangible calm on this three block corridor to the world of Coptic Cairo.
Entering this strange place, I could not help but realize how defensive the layout of the area is. All of the churches are contained within a twenty foot tall white wall. Moreover, they are all huddled together in a way that reminded me of how the pioneers used to make camp by circling up all of their covered wagons in a defensive posture. Taking it further, the pioneers needed to create for themselves a small circle of harmony that could at least provide the illusion of safety because the outside world was vast and alien and almost always adversarial. This, too, is Coptic Cairo.
The geography of the place is confusing. You might think that once you enter the gates the Coptic world would open up to you. But you’d be wrong. Sometimes a church would be right through a gate along the wall. Other times you’d find churches down a number of turns through tiny alleyways.
I’ve tried throughout my time here to establish some independence from my guide book. I say this mostly tongue in cheek, but I do have to be careful sometimes to try to think a bit independently so that I can have a unique experience, all my own. As soon as I arrived to the first church, however, I decided to take a quick look in the book. At the beginning of the section is a little information box titled “The Copts.” First mystery solved. The bottom line is that the book proved so reliable in helping navigate the twists and turns of the neighborhood, that I used it all the way through. From here on, any history comes from The Rough Guide to Egypt, but the observations are all mine.
The first church was the
Instead, I saw a perfectly nice church, its perfect white front wall attesting to the care with which it’s been up kept. Ascending the dozen stairs to the church itself, I realized how picturesque and humble it all was. Upon entering the church, I took a look around and got my introduction to the plain style with which the Copts build their houses of worship. The walls were very plain, probably brick or plaster and there were some paintings of holy figures on the walls with candles lit in their honor. The ceiling of the church was wooden with intricate beams criss-crossing and leaving little room for the few stained-glass windows nestled within the maze of beams. The pews were all plain wood. In spite of the physical modesty, there was something grand about the place. Our church in
After I had checked it all out, I asked the souvenir saleswoman at the front while they called it the
After leaving the church, I followed the outside of the guard wall to the twin pillars of Trajan’s fortress build in 130AD. Because one of the turrets is falling apart, the bowels of thing are exposed and the sophistication of the architecture can be understood.
I also took a quick look into the grounds of the church and monastery of St. George where I saw the grandest and most regal church that Coptic Cairo has to offer. The only round church in
All of these buildings that I’ve mentioned thus far were accessible from the main road outside the gates, but past the
I took only a quick peek into the Convent of St. George, noticing he sheep and doves in the front lawn, and deciding against following my guidebook’s advice of begging the nuns to wrap me in
From here I would meander my way down many an alleyway to look in this or that church. Because many of the churches looked similar in their cimplicity, I’ll spare you the play-by-play, but I’ll note a few memorable moments.
After leaving the convent, I took a couple turns down the alley before ducking under a five foot tall opening in the wall and making my way down yet another road to the
I checked into a few more churches before trying to find the
One quick word. I’ve found that everyone in
After the incident with the policeman, I realized that I had seen all the churches, so I headed to the only place left in Coptic Cairo: The Ben Ezra Synagogue. According to my guidebook, there are fewer than two hundred Jews left in
When I left the synagogue, I followed the maze back out to the main road and set off on a small walk to find a taxi. Before I could find one, I saw the hulking structure of a monolithic mosque. Flipping through my guidebook, I found that this was the Amr Mosque, a direct descendant of
As I had my hand raised waiting for a taxi, my mind wandered, as it often does, to this blog. I thought with a good deal of excitement about the post I could write about the day. Visiting a church, a synagogue, and a mosque all in one day is certainly good material given what’s going on in the world today. But I’ve resisted rambling on about that point and will instead leave it to you, the reader, to consider the importance of that, to understand the magnitude of being able to do that in, of all places, Cairo, which is a place not all that far from countries where the privilege of visiting houses of worship of these three religions would be next to impossible.