Cairo Churches: The Church of Saint Mercurius

The Church of Saint Mercurius

by Jimmy Dunn

Just to the north of the Fortress of Babylon in Old Cairo lies a group of important churches, and within the area known as the Abu Sayfayn Cloister is to be found three churches and a convent. One of these churches, dedicated to Saint Mercurius, is the largest in the district of ancient Babylon.

The Saint

The Church of Saint Mercurius

Like the story of many saints, St. Mercurius' tale varies somewhat from source to source. Traditionally, he was believed to have been a Skyth by descent originally named Philopatyr, who was born in Cappadocia near the beginning of the 3rd century (about 225 AD). He and his parents were converted to Christianity at about the same time, after which their names were changed to reflect their new faith. Yares, his father, became Noah, the mother became Saphina, and Philopatyr became Mercurius.

The news of their baptism traveled fast in the city where the governor ordered them arrested, and charged them as Christians. They were sentenced to death by wild beasts. Surprisingly, the beasts became quit and tamed, and did not hurt them. At that point the governor of the city decided to release them. Then when the Berbers attacked the city, Noah went to fight for the city. He died afterwards, and Mercurius replaced his father as a soldier.

When the city was threatened again under the emperor Decius, Mercurius led the army to fight the Berbers with Christian faith. It was said that Archangel Michael appeared to Mercurius during the battle holding a shining sword. He gave the sword to Mercurius encouraging him, and promising him victory in the name of the Lord. With the two swords, Mercurius went on fighting, with divine power until victory. He earned at that time the nickname by which he is known in the East, Mercurius Abu Sifting (Mercurius of Two Swords), especially in Egypt. The grateful emperor rewarded Saint Mercurius great honors and riches for his bravery, and made him a military commander.

The Church of Saint Mercurius

Now we learn that an Angel of the Lord once again appeared before Mercurius and reminded him by whom the victory had been given, and bidding him to serve the Lord. Therefore he refused to participate in the solemn offering of sacrifice to the pagan gods and was summoned before the emperor. Openly declaring himself a Christian, Mercurius threw down his soldier's belt and mantle and he repudiated all the honors, after which he was thrown in prison. The Angel of the Lord once again appeared to Saint Mercurius in prison, encouraging him and inspiring him to bravely endure all the suffering.

Tradition has it that they stretched the holy martyr over fire, cutting at him with knives, and lashed at him so much that the blood from his wounds extinguished the fire. But each time, when they threw him back into the prison nearly dying from his wounds, Saint Mercurius received complete healing from the Lord. Condemned to a sentence of death, the saint was finally visited by a vision of the Lord Himself, promising him a quick release from his sufferings. Thereafter, Mercurius was beheaded at Caesarea Cappadocia.

It should also be mentioned that there are several of odd stories told about St. Mercurius, including one where he converts Cynocephali, dog like creatures, to Christianity, who then fight along beside him in some of his battles.

The Church inOld Cairo

The Church of Saint Mercurius

The Church of Saint Mercurius is perhaps the only one in Cairo with its original foundation intact. It stands 31.5 meters long by 21 meters wide. However, the church itself was demolished and turned into a sugarcane warehouse, but was rebuilt under Patriarch Abraham (974-979). Afterwards, in 1080, 47 bishops met in the church by order of the Fatimid vizier Badr Al-Gamal to establish the Coptic canons. Many Coptic patriarchs resided in the church during the 11th through the 15th centuries, and later during the 16 and 18th centuries, others were consecrated in the Church of St. Mercurius. The church also came to be the final resting place for many church leaders.

The Church of Saint Mercurius

The entrance to this church leads to the narthex, separated from the nave by a fine wooden screen. There are huge piers that divide the nave from the north and south aisles. The eastern piers help support the large cupola, build during restoration after a fire late in the 12th century, which surmounts the khurus, a transverse room preceding the sanctuary, and the sanctuary. The nave itself has an arched, wooden roof.

The ambon (a pulpit), one of the most beautiful in Cairo, is decorated with mosaic and supported by no less than 15 marble columns.

The central sanctuary is wondrous and imposing, with its iconostasis, a screen separating the sanctuary from the rest of the church on which icons are usually displayed, featuring ebony inlay with engraved plaques of ivory. Over the iconostasis doorway are two registers. The icons in the top register include one of Christ flanked on the left by the Virgin Mary, the Archangel Michael and three Apostles and on the right by icons of John the Baptist, the Archangel Gabriel and three Apostles.The lower register icons portray biblical scenes. All of the icons date from 1762 and were painted by John the Armenian and Ibrahim Al-Nasikh.

The Church of Saint Mercurius

The central sanctuary itself features a wonderful altar over which a canopy with beautiful paints stands. One of these scenes depicts Christ surrounded by the Four Creatures, who symbolize the four Evangelists, and by the seraphim. Behind the altar is a fine tribune of red and white marble. Frescos that depict Christ and the seraphim are located on the east wall of the niche, surrounded by paintings of the twelve Apostles.

In the northeast corner of the church, a door leads into a sanctuary which in turn leads to the crypt of Saint Barsum the naked. He lived sometime between the 13th and 14th centuries, and it is believed that he dwelt in this small chamber for 20 years.

To the north of the church proper, from a door found in the north aisle, is a courtyard. Within the courtyard stands a small building with three sanctuaries and a baptistery. One of these three, small sanctuaries is dedicated to the Persian martyr, Yacoub Al-Muqatta (Al-Farisi). This small building features carved wooden arches and screens, some of which were created during the Fatimid period, as well as iconostasis.

The Church of Saint Mercurius

One of the iconostasis is especially elaborate, with wooden panels decorated with foliate Arabesque designs showing birds, animals and saints, some of whom are on horseback. However, this particular work of art was at one time part of the Chapel of Saint George. Regrettably, this chapel, located at the east end of the southern aisle of the Church of Saint Mercurius proper, was destroyed by fire during the 12th century.

Steps in the courtyard lead to an upper church that has five sanctuaries, as well as galleries. Within recent years, some fine frescoes were discovered in the southern gallery, and preservation efforts are underway to save these works of art.

The nice thing about churches such as this one is that they are just slightly off the beaten path for many tourists, therefore lacking the crowd that visit other better known churches such as the Hanging Church in the fortress of Babylon proper. Therefore, there is a much better chance to enjoy the sanctity that, after all, most churches are intended to reflect.

Email the Editor






Reference Number

Cairo (The Coptic Museum Old Churches

Gabra, Gawdat


Egyptian International Publishing Company, The

ISBN 977-16-0081-8

Holy Family in Egypt, The



United Printing Publishing & Distributing Co.

None Stated

Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity, The

McManners, John


Oxford University Press

ISBN 0-19-285259-0

Back to Cairo Churches

Back to Churches in Egypt

Last Updated: June 16th, 2011