As a historian, specifically as someone who knows a lot about the history of Egypt, I shouldn’t be surprised by the antiquity of this country. But I always am! At the end of October, we visited a part of town called Coptic Cairo. The Copts are, basically, the Christian denomination that began in Cairo. St. Mark the Evangelist came here in the first century AD to bring Christianity to the Egyptians and it’s been here ever since. There is a part of Cairo that has a concentration of very old Coptic churches, and that’s where we went on a very lovely day in October.
We started at the Coptic museum with a talk by a very knowledgable Coptic scholar, Stephen Emmel. He’s here at AUC for the year and he’s been a wonderful colleague, friend and all around great resource for new faculty like me. I think I bugged him with too many questions about Coptic saints, Coptic art, languge and more. The museum was beautiful and had a lot of great artwork and a manuscripts library that was closed to us.
The Museum was built right next to the Church of St. George, one of my favorite saints. He slayed dragons (the devil) and I kind of fell in love with him when I was a curatorial assistant one summer in KC. So I was pretty excited to see this church. The church itself was built on the ruins of a fortress that had been built on the site in the 3rd century AD, by the Emperor Diocletian. The foundations of the fortress were still there, and another church, called the Hanging Church, was actually built on top of the foundations as well.
The Hanging Church was built, they think, as early as the 4th century AD, but rebuilt in its present style in the 10th or 11th century and it’s the seat of the Coptic Pope. Inside it’s literally covered with art from the period and its all beautiful. It’s a pilgrimmage site, and there are quite a few relics inside that people come to offer prayers and simply touch for comfort or healing.
You can also see the foundations through the glass flooring they have in some parts, and you can see why it’s called the hanging church.
We moved on to the Church of St. George, where, they say, he was imprisoned and tortured. We saw the cell they claim he was imprisoned in and some of the devices that were used as torturing devices back then. Um, ouch.
The Church was BEAUTIFUL, inside and out. I was surprised how comforting it was to be in a building that was familiar to me–not because it was a church, necessarily, but because it was of a Western style and had familiar art motifs and I could actually read some of the words! It’s funny how being surrounded by things that are not your comfort zone makes you appreciate and realize what really is. But that’s what this time in Egypt is about–get out of my comfort zone and do, see, and experience new things.
There were a few other holy places we went to as well. The thing about Egypt is, if you subscribe to one of the 3 monotheistic traditions, it figures into your religious history. Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers and ended up ostensibly ruling Egypt; Jacob brought the rest of his family later during a famine and they stayed and multiplied; Moses left Egypt with Jacob’s descendants some 400 years later; Christ returned with his mother and earthly father to escape Herod’s murdering all the children under the age of 2 after Jesus’ birth; Islam has been the main religion in Egypt almost since the beginning of the faith in 632 AD.
We went to a synagogue, but not to a mosque–those are all over and we went to a 10th century one not too long before this trip. We also went to the church that was built on the site believed to have been a stopping place for the Holy Family (Jesus, Mary and Joseph) while they traveled through Egypt. There was a crypt with an altar, but it was flooded so we couldn’t go down. It was neat to think about though. I don’t really think we can know exactly where Jesus and his parents stayed while in Egypt, but we know they were here. They had to have seen the pyramids. They definitely saw and maybe cooled themselves in the Nile.
I think that’s why I like being a historian–I like to know what happened and imagine myself there. I’ve always liked that ever since I was young. Here, in Egypt, you can’t help but do it all the time.
Next up–the NILE!