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Coptic Cairo

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Nice old guy and his dog with crosses for sale
Egypt has great significance for many reasons. The mere mention of the name brings to mind fantastic visions of Pharaohs, magnificent pyramids, and mythical gods. While this is the picture that most would envision, it's a far cry from the reality of Egypt today. As we found out upon arrival, Egypt is no longer the land of splendid and powerful kingdoms, no longer a civilization built around the worship of great gods. Yet the ancient worship of that era laid the foundation for the rich spiritual heritage of this holy land today. After thousands of years of worshipping the ancient gods (such as Ra, god of the sun, Ptah god of the harvest, and Osiris, god of the under world), Saint Mark, author of the Book of Mark in the Bible, arrived in Egypt and introduced the gospel of Jesus Christ. Ancient beliefs gave way and Egyptians embraced the Christian faith.

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Al-Mullaqa Church and the Old Roman Tower
But Egypt is a Muslim country now, so where would one start to learn more about its Christian past? I began by taking a trip to Coptic Cairo. I was surprised to learn that such a place existed. I knew that Christianity was once the predominant religion of Egypt, but only 13% of today's Egyptians are Coptic Christians. It turns out that, despite the predominance of Islam, a number of Christian monuments and churches are actively used and well-preserved; together these places make up Coptic Cairo. It was very easy to find from our new home in Heliopolis. I jumped on the Metro toward Central Cairo and in 40 minutes I was there. The moment I stepped off the train I noticed something very different about this place. There were crosses everywhere, a sight you don't often see in Egypt!

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I crossed the street to visit the first structure I saw - a huge building that turned out to be Al-Mullaqa Church. This church, one of the oldest Christian places of worship in Egypt, was built on top of one of the old fortress gatehouses. Coptic Cairo used to be a Roman fortress town called Babylon. Only one tower that was part of the waterside Roman fort remains. The tower originally overlooked an important port on the Nile, but the river has long since shifted its course, and I'm sure the view is not nearly as spectacular as it once was. Today dirty roof tops of the neighboring communities and the nearby Metro station are all that can be seen for miles and miles.

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Jazz at the church the Holy family fled to
Service was just ending when I arrived, but many people stayed after to pray to the Saints who are pictured in murals inside. The church dates back to the 10th century and is very beautiful. It has been renovated many times over the years, and is adorned with icons of the Virgin Mary, Jesus, and the Apostles. In the center, a grand altar and pulpit stand on 13 pillars, representing Jesus and his disciples. It's only used once a year on Palm Sunday to commemorate Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem. I noticed that one of the pillars is darker than the rest. A nice lady explained its significance: it symbolizes Judas the disciple who betrayed Jesus with a kiss, revealing His identity to the Roman soldiers who later crucified Him.

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Entrance to Convent of St. George
As I walked to the next church, through a small underground tunnel, I couldn't think of words to describe the amazement I was feeling. I was walking on ground that Jesus himself had walked on as a child. The entire history of the Christian church began in this very place! And to think that this is only the beginning. We are headed to Jerusalem next…the beginning of the beginning. Now that will be mind-blowing! The next church I visited only added to my wonder, as it is said to be the place where The Holy Family (Joseph, Mary and Baby Jesus) found refuge when they fled from King Herod. Every year on June 1st a special mass is held here to commemorate this event. At the turn of the century this little church, which dates back to the 10th century, was the most important pilgrimage spot in Cairo for Christians from all over.

What Does It Mean To Be A Christian?

Egyptian Christians are known as 'Copts', or Coptic Christians. The term Copt comes from the Greek word 'Aegyptios' meaning Egyptian, which the Arabs later translated to Coptic. It originally referred to the native Egyptian Christian Church, but over time that meaning evolved. In general, Christians believe Jesus Christ was born the Son of God by immaculate conception. It is believed that he lived as a human and died by crucifixion to pardon the sins of humanity. Prior to His death humans sacrificed animals to God, but Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice.

So Christians believe in Jesus, and try to follow the example of his life and the teachings of the Bible. If they do this, they believe that their sins will be forgiven, that they will be accepted as children of God, and that they will be rewarded with everlasting life in heaven. As it says in John 3:16, "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life."

The oldest synagogue in Egypt is also located in Coptic Cairo. Although it is marked by the Star of David, there is not a rabbi, and often times services are not held there. It is used by the 40 or so Jewish families that reside in the area. It's named after a 12th Century Rabbi of Jerusalem, Abraham Ben Ezra. It was severely damaged by the Arabs after the war of 1967 with Israel, but it has been almost completely renovated. There are many legends about this synagogue.

It is said that the temple of the prophet Jeremiah once stood on the same spot and that Jeremiah is actually buried under a miracle rock on the grounds. There is also a spring which is supposed to mark the place where Mary drew water to wash Jesus, and where Pharaoh's daughter found Moses in the reeds. WOW! No one knows for sure, but just the thought that it's actually possible is awesome. One thing is for sure, this chapter is just beginning. In a few weeks Kavitha and I are headed to Mount Sinai, where Moses received the 10 Commandments from God! And then into the promised land…Israel, so stay tuned! You don't want to miss this!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


Abeja - A Day in the Life of a Coptic Monk
Kavitha - Egyptian Dynasty Part II
Monica - Meeting of the Minds: The Afro-Asian Peoples' Solidarity Organization (AAPSO)
Monica - Alexandria, Egypt: City of Legend
Monica - The Liberation of Women

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