We begin our journey into Old Cairo just opposite of Rhoda Island and below it's southern tip. The area is known to the Egyptians as Masr al-Qadima and stretches down to the sub-area often called Coptic Cairo. Again, appropriate dress covering the body including shoulders and legs is required for entering both Coptic and Islamic monuments.
Old Cairo is so named because it is the oldest part of Cairo, and in fact, predates what is now Cairo. Some Egyptologists believe that there was a settlement here as far back as the 6th century BC. Later, the Romans built a fortress here which we call Babylon. Some of these Roman walls still exist. Later, it became a Christian stronghold, with as many as 20 churches built within an area of one square mile. There are only five remaining, but these are certainly a must see when visiting Cairo, along with the earliest Mosque ever built in Egypt. In addition, after the fall of Jerusalem in about 70 AD, the area also saw an influx of that religion into the area, where the oldest synagogue is also located. Most of Pharaonic Egypt is a relic of one of the Worlds first and grandest religions, including the great Pyramids outside Cairo. Yet if the modern world can be said to have four major religions consisting of Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism, then three of those are represented by some of their most ancient relics in this section of Old Cairo.
For simplicity, we will head south along Corniche el-Nile until we pass the southern point of Roda Island. Just before we arrive at the Masr al-Qadimah River Bus landing, we will pass the Mosque of Abdin Bey. At the river bus, take the first street available east and away from the Nile. This should lead us to Mar Girgis street. Make a left heading north and look for the first entrance to the right (east). This will lead us into at least part of the area now sometimes called by the government the 'Multi-religious Compound' and the area within Old Cairo known as Coptic Cairo. This main entrance is through perhaps one of the two oldest structures in Cairo, the rounded towers of the western gate of the Roman fortress of Babylon built in 98 AD by Emperor Trajan. The Southern gate is the other oldest structure.
The Coptic Museum
Here is the Coptic Museum (1), founded in 1908 and it is advisable that we visit this first, for an orientation of the area. Just southwest of here is the Hanging Church (2) (The Church of the Virgin Mary), built into the walls of the Water Gate of the Roman fortress. It is possibly the oldest Christian church in Egypt, dating to around the 4th Century. From here, the possibility exists that one must exit the first entrance due to construction work in the area and head up Mar Girgis north a few steps to a second entrance. This entrance leads into the Monastery and Church of St. George (3). This is not an old church, dating only from 1909, but there has been a church in Coptic Cairo dedicated to he Martyr since the 10th century. Turn left outside the door to St. George and the path leads to the Church of St. Sergius (4) (Abu Serga), which legend has it is built atop one of the sites where the Holy Family rested on their flight from Herod. Continuing on this path brings one first to the Ben Ezra Synagogue (5), which is Egypt's oldest and dates to the 9th Century. Past that is St. Barbara (6), named for the young girl who was martyred for trying to convert her father to Christianity. There is also a gate that leads to the Greek Orthodox cemetery, which surrounds the complex to the east.
Old Roman Walls
Northern Old Cairo
To exiting Coptic Cairo, go back out the door at St. Georges, and take a left back on Mar Girgis and head north. The rubbish fields one passes on the right are actually Fustat, the first Islamic city in Cairo and the origins of modern Cairo. The area was razed to the ground when the Fatimids took Cairo, and the Mamluks made it a dump ground, yet it is one of the most important Islamic archaeological sites in the world. Continuing past this, and veering right at a y in the street we will eventually come to the Mosque of Amr Ibn al-As (7). Though little remains of the original structure, this Mosque is the oldest in Egypt, it's ancestor having been built in 642 AD.
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