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Cairo Churches: The Church of the Holy Virgin in Babylon Al-Darag


The Church of the Holy Virgin in Babylon Al-Darag

by Jimmy Dunn

The Church of the Holy Virgin in Babylon Al-Darag (Babylon of the Steps, or the Steps of Babylon), a Christian church, is located just south of the ancient Babylon Fortress in Old Cairo. It is situated south of the village of Qasr al-Sham' and also beyond the bridge across the Old Cairo-Muqattam highway. It is conveniently reached by traveling along Sharia Athar Al-Nabi turning left and crossing the Cairo-Helwan railway tracks.


The Church of the Holy Virgin in Babylon Al-Darag

The church dates from the 11th Century. Al-Maqrizi, the famous church historian, referred to it as the "Church of Babylon". It was described by Patriarch Zacharia (1004-32) as the "Church of the Mistress at Bani Wayil known as the Church of the Steps".

According to A.J. Bulter, the church was built at a time when the city of Babylon was still standing, though the first mention of it appears to be that made by Ibn Duqmaq around 1400 AD.

The Church of the Holy Virgin in Babylon Al-Darag

According to tradition, this is one of the sites that the holy family visited while in Egypt. However, it is also believed that Saint Mark and Peter visited the site, and that Peter sent his epistle from here (1 Pet. 5:13). From the 11th through the 15th centuries, a number of Coptic patriarchs resided at this church, and seven of them were buried here, including Patriarch Zacharia. On August 4th, 1991 during a restoration of this church, the relics of Saint Simeon the Tanner were discovered in the church, though now some of these have been spread about to other area churches. However, this must have come as some surprise, as tradition held that Saint Simeon disappeared into the Muqattam mountain after having moved it.

The church is surrounded by a gray brick wall about ten meters high, and a flight of steps leads down to the enclosure. The surrounding ground level has risen considerably since the church's execution, which attests to its antiquity.

The Church of the Holy Virgin in Babylon Al-Darag

The plan of the church approaches a square of approximately 18 meters per side, with the earliest and original parts of the church in the west wing. It was built as a basilica, and consists of a narthex (the entrance leading to the nave), nave (the central part of the church flanked by aisles), choir, northern and southern aisles and three sanctuaries. There is stone vaulting over the Nave, and within the narthex there are two baptisteries. The one on the left has a small font (the basin for holding baptismal water in a church), while the one on the right has a very large font.

The screen of the central sanctuary is wood inlaid with ivory with a cross in a square pattern. Along the top of the screen are a row of icons. The northern sanctuary, dedicated to the Holy Virgin, has a screen of wood, but with no icons. The southern sanctuary, which is now used as a shrine, has a lattice work wood screen.

Within this southern sanctuary are a number of 19th century icons depicting the Holy Virgin, Saint Damiana, Saint Stephen, Saint Antony, Saint Paul the Hermit, Saint Barbara, Saint Shenute and Saints Peter and Paul. There are also two bolsters, one with the relics of Saint Simeon the Tanner, and the other said to hold the relics of Saint Damiana.

A lectionary, dated 1289-90 AD) came from this church and is now preserved in the manuscripts library of the Coptic Museum.

The Church of the Holy Virgin in Babylon Al-Darag

Last Updated: May 25th, 2011

References:

Title

Author

Date

Publisher

Reference Number

2000 Years of Coptic Christianity

Meinardus, Otto F. A.

1999

American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 5113

Cairo (The Coptic Museum Old Churches)

Gabra, Gawdat

1993

Egyptian International Publishing Company, The

ISBN 977-16-0081-8

Holy Family in Egypt, The

Unknown

1999

United Printing Publishing & Distributing Co.

None Stated

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Last Updated: June 16th, 2011

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