The bells still ring in Coptic Cairo

It’s carolling time in Coptic Cairo, as January 6 that marks the arrival of the three kings in the western calendar, is celebrated as Christmas day here

December 27, 2017 03:01 pm | Updated 03:01 pm IST

Old Cairo

A heady mix of incense and antiquity lingers in the narrow lanes of Old Cairo, home to Cairo’s Coptic Christian community, who comprise almost 11% of the population in Egypt. Old Cairo, on the east bank of the Nile, is today the centre of the Coptic Orthodox Church, which traces its founding to Saint Mark the Evangelist, who introduced Christianity to Egypt in the 1st century AD. Coptic Cairo is a must-visit during Christmas, with churches that are nearly 1,600 years old and interesting museums. Traditionally, the Copts go back to Biblical times, when Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt along with the Infant Jesus, and lived there for a few months. Many Coptic churches are dedicated to Virgin Mary, and to events surrounding the Nativity, than to any other theme. The Coptic Christian community celebrates Christmas on January 6, with prayers and chants that have remained unchanged for the past 2,000 years. Coptic liturgy is chanted in both Arabic and ancient Copt, a very old language derived from transcribing the language spoken during the Pharaonic period, using Greek characters.

The Cavern Church

The oldest church in Coptic Cairo, the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, is also known as Abu Serga. It is built over the cavern-house where Mary, Joseph and the Infant Jesus took shelter after fleeing to Egypt, to escape from King Herod of Judea, who ordered the massacre of all infants.

The church houses some great icons representing the life of Christ, various saints and Virgin Mary. The cave of the Holy Family, now a 10-metre-deep crypt, is reached by descending steps in a chapel to the left of the altar. Venerated as the place where the Holy Family stayed, there is a niche in the wall where the Infant Jesus is supposed to have slept. A well that the Holy Family drank from, and an ‘Epiphany Tub’ connected with Coptic Epiphany — the Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist — are other attractions.

The Church is credited with antiquity that dates back to the 4th Century, and is dedicated to Roman soldiers Sergius and Bacchus, who were martyred in Syria by the Roman Emperor Maximian for their Christian faith, in 296 AD.

Hanging Church

The most popular tourist attraction in Old Cairo — the Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church, also known as the Hanging Church — is located on a historic site dating back to 3rd Century AD. The Church was built around the 7th Century, and does not have a foundation of its own. It is suspended over the gatehouse of the ancient Roman Babylon Fortress, hence the name.

The vaulted wooden roof of the church looks like an upturned ark, while a 11th Century marble pulpit rests on 13 elegant pillars representing Christ and His apostles. The main altar screen is made of ebony inlaid with ivory, and carved into segments showing several Coptic Cross designs. The church has 110 icons, including a series on the life of St John the Baptist, and a sacred painting of Virgin Mary known as the Coptic ‘Mona Lisa’. Nearby is the Greek Orthodox Church of St George (Mari Girgis) and monastery with relics belonging to the saint, the Coptic Museum and the Ben Ezra Synagogue — associated with the Biblical Moses. The Geniza Manuscripts were found here!

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