Mar Girgis: The Churches of Christian Old Cairo

In this destination trip report we take the metro to Mar Girgis station to visit the Coptic churches of Christian old Cairo such as the famous Hanging Church.

Cairo history

As I still had some time left in Cairo before the departure of my overnight train to Aswan, I decided to visit the Christian old town of Cairo.

Not to be confused with the Medieval Islamic old town in the heart of modern-day Cairo, Christian Old Cairo is located is located on the southern edge of the Egyptian capital.

Old Cairo is basically where the first settlements in this area of Egypt were built and were there Romans constructed a fortress called ‘Fort Babylon’. Only in the year 969 AD, Cairo proper was founded to the north, which has since grown into such a sprawling city that it has since encompassed all of Old Cairo.

Christian old town

To this date, Old Cairo still remains a predominantly Coptic Christian enclave and it has some historic churches and other important sights which are well-worth visiting.

It is estimated that between 5 and 15 percent of Egypt’s population are Coptic Christian, making it the largest Christian community in the Middle East.

Old Cairo is centred around Mar Girgis metro station, from where the main Coptic churches are just a short walk away. As Cairo’s traffic is so chaotic and gridlocked, the metro is by far the best way to get here, although you can of course always take a taxi or Uber as well.

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A Cairo metro train at Mar Girgis station. Note the purple ‘ladies’ signs which indicates the location of female-only carriages! ©Paliparan

Security

The first thing which you will notice when setting foot outside of Mar Girgis station is the increased security presence and you will find police officers and even army soldiers in front of all the main buildings.

The main street in Mar Girgis is made car-free by some police road blocks, presumably to prevent car bomb attacks from happening.

Unfortunately, there is quite a long history of terrorist attacks on the Coptic Christian community in Egypt by Islamic extremists, so this increased security presence does not really come as a surprise.

At not a single point during my visit to the Coptic Christian areas of Old Cairo did I feel unsafe or unnerved, although I can imagine that first-time travellers to Egypt (and the wider Middle East) might be less accustomed to it.

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Heavily armed police officers in front of the Greek Orthodox St. George’s church. ©Paliparan

Hanging Church

One of the most iconic sights in Old Cairo is the Hanging Church, a Coptic Christian church which was built in 690 AD.

The Hanging Church is by far the most famous of all Coptic Christian churches in Cairo and it features a wooden roof which is built in the shape of the Ark of Noah.

Because the church was built on top of the gatehouse of the old Roman fortress with its nave being suspended over a passage, it was simply named ‘the Hanging Church’ by the local Coptic Christian community.

The Hanging Church is sometimes also called “the staircase church” due to the 29 steps you have to walk up from the inner courtyard to the actual church.

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The entrance to the Hanging Church. ©Paliparan
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The inner courtyard of the Hanging Church. You have to walk up 29 steps to enter the actual church. ©Paliparan
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View over Old Cairo from the top of the steps of the Hanging Church. ©Paliparan
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Entering the Hanging Church. ©Paliparan
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Entering the Hanging Church. ©Paliparan
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The Hanging Church. ©Paliparan
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The Hanging Church. ©Paliparan

St. Sergius Church

Another famous Coptic Christian church in Old Cairo is the Church of Martyrs Sergius and Bacchus in The Cave, whose name is often shortened to the Church of Saint Sergius or simply called Abu Serga.

Built in the 4th Century AD, St Sergius Church is one of Cairo’s oldest churches, although much of what you see has been built in later centuries as the church has been destroyed and rebuilt quite some a few times.

The St. Sergius Church was built over a cavern where the Holy Family (Joseph, Mary and the Baby Jesus) once rested when they fled from the Holy Land to Egypt.

Unfortunately, when I arrived in the late afternoon the caretakers were about to close the church for the day, but some baksheesh (a small tip/bribe) did wonders and I was promptly given a short tour through the church and cavern.

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Saint Sergius (Abu Serga) Church. ©Paliparan
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The cavern below St. Sergius Church where the Holy Family allegedly stayed after fleeing to Egypt. ©Paliparan
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The well from which the Holy Family drank. ©Paliparan

Other Old Cairo sights

There are a couple more interesting sights in Old Cairo such as the Church and Monastery of Saint George, the Ben Ezra Synagogue (Egypt’s oldest) and the Coptic Museum.

Another notable sight is the Mosque of Amr ibn al-As (Amr Mosque), which is not only considered as the oldest of all mosques in Egypt, but even as the first ever mosque in all of Africa.

On nearby Roda Island in the middle of the River Nile you can also find the Nilometer, a historic structure built to measure the water level during the flood season. This was used by the rulers of Egypt to determine how good the harvests would be and how much they could tax the Egyptian farmers that year.

Wandering through Old Cairo

Due to the late hour, I unfortunately did not have the time to visit anything else in Old Cairo. Instead, I just wandered a bit more around the streets surrounding Mar Girgis metro station.

In fact, I was searching for an alcohol store to buy some booze for the coming days. On previous travels through the Middle East (such as in Syria) I had learned that Christian neighbourhoods are usually the only places in Islamic countries where you can buy booze, and given that I was about to embark on a Nile Cruise, some wine and gin for the journey would surely come in handy.

Although I did indeed find a great little hole-in-the-wall alcohol store close to Mar Girgis metro station, it turned out it was part of an Egyptian chain called ‘Drinkies’ which has several more outlets throughout Cairo and other major cities in Egypt.

As there are also Drinkies stores in downtown Cairo (and other areas of the Egyptian capital) you therefore do not necessarily need to travel all the way to a Christian area to get some booze.

With some beers, wine and gin loaded in my backpack, I returned to the metro station for the journey back to my downtown Cairo hotel.

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The streets of Old Cairo around Mar Girgis metro station. ©Paliparan
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Taking the metro back to the city centre of Cairo. ©Paliparan
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Some supplies for my upcoming Nile cruise. ©Paliparan

Conclusion

Although it does not have the same fame as the Pyramids of Giza or the medieval (Islamic) old town of Cairo, the Christian neighbourhood of Old Cairo is certainly worth to visit as well if you have the time to spare.

It’s the oldest part of Cairo and it has a few important Coptic Christian sights such as the Hanging Church and Saint Sergius Church (Abu Serga).

The Hanging Church is the most important Coptic Christian church in all of Cairo and has a beautiful and interesting design. Abu Serga in turn is arguably Cairo’s most important church from a historical point of view as it was built on top of a cavern where the Holy Family rested when they fled to Egypt.

Given that Old Cairo can be quickly reached by metro and all the main sights are just walking distance away from Mar Girgis station, this Coptic Christian neighbourhood with all its historic churches is an easy add-on to any Cairo itinerary.

Trip report index

This article is part of the ‘Walk Like an Egyptian: A Grand Tour of Egypt‘ trip report, which consists of the following chapters:

1. Red-Eye Ramblings of a Late Night Flight to Cairo
2. A Visit to the Pyramids of Giza by Camel
3. Review: Sofitel Nile El Gezirah, Zamalek, Cairo
4. Exploring the Medieval Old Town and Islamic History of Cairo
5. Visiting the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo
6. Mar Girgis: The Churches of Christian Old Cairo (current chapter)

** rest of the chapters to follow soon **

Koen

Koen works as a freelance journalist covering south-eastern Europe and is the founding father and editor-in-chief of Paliparan. As a contributor to some major Fleet Street newspapers and some lesser known publications in the Balkans, he travels thousands of miles each year for work as well as on his personal holidays. Whether it is horse riding in Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan mountains, exploring the backstreets of Bogotá, or sipping a glass of moschofilero in a Greek beachside taverna, Koen loves to immerse himself into the local culture, explore new places and eat and drink himself around the world.

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