The afternoon of our first day was spent exploring Coptic, or Old Cairo and its medieval streets upon which sit Orthodox, Christian, Muslim and Jewish houses of worship. That people of different religions could worship peacefully together in ancient times made us wonder why it is so difficult in contemporary times.
The Amr ibn al-As mosque is Cairo’s first, following the Arab conquest of Egypt in 640 AD. We had arrived at the call to prayer and so were not permitted to visit inside.
The “Hanging Church” (St. Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church) was built in 690 AD atop two bastions of the Babylon Fortress, and its nave is suspended, or “hangs” above a passageway between them.
The main altar is composed of ebony and inlaid ivory, with the Coptic Cross as a visible pattern.
St. George, the Greek Orthodox Church, dates to the 9th or 10th century, though the structure was rebuilt in the early 1900’s following a fire. Its circular design is believed to be a result of the church having been built atop ancient, circular Roman ramparts.
The Orthodox Cemetery tombs barely visible over the cemetery walls. Unfortunately the cemetery was closed to visitors because of a security concern. Why the hate?
Egypt’s oldest serving synagogue is the Ben Ezra Synagogue, dating to the 9th century. Photographs were not permitted, alas. For us, seeing an intact synagogue was particularly striking; most of the few remaining here in Central Europe suffered damage of one kind or another, and many have been neglected over the last 80 years.
The sheer amount of history and beauty we absorbed on this first day in Cairo mentally exhausted and thrilled us at the same time, but also exposed the large gaps in our personal knowledge of ancient Egyptian history. Humbled, we tucked into bed after dinner, eager for the morning and the promise of more exploration.