Egypt: Ancient Christian Churches of Egypt

About Ancient Egypt

by Jimmy Dunn

Before Egypt became an Islamic state, it was a mostly Christian country with an ancient Christian heritage. It was a land where Jesus and his family were known to have traveled, and where early Apostles came to spread his word, particularly at first in Alexandria.


Churches of Coptic   Cairo in Egypt


Most of the ancient Christian churches of Egypt, contrary to what many travelers may believe, are not located in Old, or Coptic Cairo. What makes Old Cairo special is the fact that a number of ancient churches are located in the area, making visits by tourists convenient, since most of them arrive for tours in that city.


In reality, most of the ancient Christian churches, of which only a very few recently discovered examples predate the 4th century, are located in monasteries and smaller cities throughout Egypt, though in some areas there are concentrations not to be found elsewhere. Many of these churches are built on sacred ground where it is believed that the baby Jesus and his family made stops in their journey through Egypt. Others, many of which are associated with monasteries, are more isolated, built at a time when the Christian religion was outlawed within the Roman empire, or afterwards, when there were violent conflicts between the eastern Christianity of Egypt and the western Christians who ruled Egypt (the Romans).


However, while most text points to an ancient church in Egypt being Coptic, or for example, Greek Orthodox, the earliest churches were technically neither, because Christianity in Egypt predates these slightly more modern divisions. Today, Coptic Christians, who almost by definition are Egyptian Christians (though now, for example, the Ethiopian church has been . incorporated into the Coptic faith), are dominant, but by no means the only Christians in Egypt. There are, of course, the Greeks Orthodox, along with Catholics, and various Protestants variations, among others.


Design of a Coptic   Church


Design of a Coptic Church


Because of the journey of the Holy Family through Egypt, some of Egypt's Christian churches are very unusual. Some have been built in caves where folk tradition believes the baby Jesus rested. Others, and the less obvious in Egypt, took over ancient pharaonic temples and other pagan buildings where inscriptions and art was often destroyed to accommodate their beliefs. For example, while most of us familiar with pharaonic monuments associate Deir el-Bahri with ancient Egyptian mortuary temples, the name of this place is that of a church, though it is no longer used for that purpose. Others take more classical forms, such as the basilica, which was probably predominantly used for houses of worship during the 5th century. Many of these are in Upper (Southern Egypt), including a large Basilica at Hermopolis Magna, the Church of the Archimandrite Shenoute in the White Monastery, the Church of Saint Bishoi in the Red Monastery, and the large church that belongs to the pachomian monastery at Faw Qibli.



Layout of the Dendera   Chruch


Layout of the Dendera Chruch

Most Ancient Egyptian Basilicas mainly rely on Roman design, retaining very few ancient Egyptian elements. However, it should be noted that the basilican style was used in ancient Egyptian temples, such as the great Hypostyle Hall at Karnak. An excellent example representative of early Coptic church architecture is the Basilica at Dendera, It has a nave with two aisles and a trefoil shaped sanctuary at the east end fronted by two columns which once supported an arch. The church is entered by way of two side doors at the western end that led into the narthex, which is connected to the nave by three doors.


Ancient Church   Doors


Ancient Churches in Egypt (Also see Christian Monasteries1):


Other Information on Churches



None Specific Churches



Specific Churches








Eastern Desert









Near Sohag



Wadi Natrun



Near Malawi



1. Currently, many of the older churches are discussed in our Christian Monastery section. However, we will be working to increase the detail supplied on these churches in this section as well.




Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Cairo (The Coptic Museum Old Churches Gabra, Gawdat 1993 Egyptian International Publishing Company, The ISBN 977-16-0081-8
Christianizing the Roman Empire A.D. 100-400 MacMullen, Ramsay 1984 Yale University Press ISBN 0-300-03642-6
Holy Family in Egypt, The Unknown 1999 United Printing Publishing & Distributing Co. None Stated
Monastery of St. Catherine, The Papaioannou, Dr. Evangelos Undated Unknown None Stated
Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity, The McManners, John 1992 Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-285259-0



Last Updated: June 12th, 2011