Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Hanging Church of Cairo

Copyright © Egypt, Cradle of Civilization

Built during the 3rd and 4th century the Hanging Church translated in Arabic to El-Mu'allaqa or "the Suspended" has also been known as Sitt Mariam and St Mary, and during the 14th and 15th centuries travelers called it the "Staircase Church" because of the twenty-nine steps that led to the entrance.

One of Cairo's most beautiful churches, its impressive location is due to the fact that it was built on top of the southern tower gate of the old Babylon fortress with its nave suspended over the road beneath. The land surface has risen by some 6 metres since the Roman period so that the Roman tower is mostly buried below ground; this has reduced the visual impact of the church's elevated position. The entrance to the Hanging Church is via a beautifully decorated gate on Shar'a Mari Girgis Street in Coptic Cairo (Old Cairo). Coptic Cairo is the oldest part of modern-day Cairo, a tightly walled enclave, with narrow alley-ways that lead to Churches dating back to the origins of Christianity in Egypt.

The Hanging Church is a World Heritage Site, and is still used to this day for Coptic Mass on Friday and Sunday. In Egypt this church has played an important role in the Coptic Church History, as it had been the seat of the patriarchs after it was transferred from Alexandria to Al- Fustat (Old Cairo). The 66th patriarch Pope Ana Christodolos (1039- 1079) chanted the liturgy in the church. The Church holds several important festivals and celebrations like the enthronement of the patriarchs.

Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the church contains an eleventh-century pulpit, a thirteenth-century ebony and ivory screen and also has been a place where antiquities have been preserved especially in the Coptic Museum, with some 110 medieval icons and murals, the oldest among them belonging to the 8th century. But the oldest artifact unearthed is a lintel showing Christ's entry into Jerusalem that dates from the 5th or 6th century. The church was badly damaged in the 1992 earthquake, which affected many of Cairo's medieval buildings, but has since been renovated.

The Hanging Church in Egypt was possibly the first built in Basilican style with three aisles, a narthex and tripartite sanctuary. Later another chapel known as the "little church" was constructed over the eastern tower of the Babylon Fortress' south gateway and now is the oldest part of the remaining church. In the 19th century a fourth aisle was added. The church is 23.5 meters long, 18.5 meters wide and 9.5 meters high.

Although the original church was founded during the third and fourth century; the current building may date from as early as the seventh century, but it was rebuilt in 977AD and heavily restored in the nineteenth century. However, the earliest mention of the church was a statement in the biography of the patriarch Joseph I (831-849 AD), when the governor of Egypt visited the establishment.

The entrance to the church leads into an open courtyard, flanked by mosaics, from which the 29 steps take you up to the church. At the top of the stairs are three wooden doors decorated with geometric patterns, framed with decorative carvings in the stone wall. The inside is impressive and is truly a work of art, lending the atmosphere an air saturated with medieval history, even the ancient timber wood of the magnificent ceiling is reminiscent of Noah's Ark.

About the Author:
Gawhara Hanem