Cairo, or Al Qahera as it’s known in Arabic, means “the conquerer.” It is an ancient city where countless religions have resided. From the time of the pharaohs to modern, Islamic Cairo, a piece of every religion remains somehow in one form or another in some part of Cairo. In El-Fustat, a complex area near downtown Cairo, the three Abrahamic religions come together in rare harmony. These places of worship have been turned into museums for interested tourists. This area is called Mugamaa Al Adyan, meaning “the Complex of Religions.” Stepping behind the gates of the complex, you will find that you’re transported to another century, yet not knowing which one exactly –every structure is from a different time in history.
Before we start our journey through the Complex of Religions, we need to understand the history of how such different symbols of different religions came to be in the same space. The area itself is ancient and was a war zone for thousands of years. The Holy Family was stayed there during their journey to Egypt, making it a religiously significant place for Christians. One of the earliest significant structures in this area is the Fort of Babylon, which was built during the Roman Empire in the second century AD. It’s said that the name “Babylon” comes from a similar phrase from the ancient Egyptian languages meaning the entrance of the region of “lono” – or at least that’s what we learned in social studies!
When you get to the Fort of Babylon, resembling a large shield with visually noticeable cracks, you will also be crossing off another monument on your list: the Hanging Church. It’s not a church that’s hanging off the ground, but it’s still worth the visit. It’s called the Hanging Church because it was built on the Babylon Fort, and the church itself is elevated 42 feet above the ground. The “hanging” effect has degraded over the years, so when you visit it, it will not be as noticeable. However, you’ve got to give the church some credit, since it is one of the oldest surviving churches in Egypt dating back to the third century.
If you’re interested in researching the Christian faith, stay in this area a little longer. First, we have the Coptic Museum just steps away from the Hanging Church. The museum was founded in the early 1900s, and the included houses are significant Coptic artifacts to this day. They are also representative of the cohesion of Christianity with Islam in modern-day Cairo. There are more than 1200 pieces of art curated in the museum. The museum consists of two wings: one for ancient artifacts curated by Morcos Samika Basha, a Coptic researcher in the early 1900s, and a newer wing created in the late 1940s.
In the vicinity, you will find the Mar Girgis Church of St. George, which is a marvel of Coptic architecture. It’s massive and was also built above another Roman tower. Nearby is the Abu Serga Church of St. Sergius and Bacchus, and it’s said that the church was built on the cave where Joseph, Mary and Jesus resided in their time in Egypt. It was built in the 4th century AD, making it almost as old as the Hanging Church.
You might want to visit the main Jewish temple in the area: the Ben Ezra Synagogue. This place of worship is built in a similar style to the nearby churches. According to the Al-Maqrizi, an Egyptian historian from the 1400s, the temple was originally a church that was sold to the Jewish people under the Tulunid rule. It is said that the synagogue had an old copy of the Old Testament written by Ezra the Priest. Others also say that this is where Baby Moses was found after being sent adrift on the Nile.
Not too far away, we have a symbol of Egypt’s most prominent religion, Islam. The mosque of Amr Ibn El Aas was the first mosque ever built in Egypt and the continent of Africa as a whole. During the First Crusade, the whole city of Fustat was set on fire and the mosque was destroyed. It was rebuilt again only a few years later. The mosque is spacious with a lot of space for worship and prayer — it’s based around Indian architecture and the temples located there.
Before you end your historic, religious, and cultural journey through the ancient city of Al Fustat, make sure you also go through the Old Cairo Bazaar. It’s a narrow area with paths leading around the churches and temples. You can find a lot of interesting and rare souvenirs, and it’s an experience of its own.
Cairo is a marvel of religious history and culture, and it is a major center for religious diversity. Al Fustat will have you relive that history for a day, and help you think of what could have been.
Here’s how you can enjoy some of the main temples on your trip to Egypt!