Broadly speaking, Old Cairo (Misr al-Qadima) incorporates the area south of Garden City down to the quarter known to foreigners as Coptic Cairo. Most visitors head straight to the latter. From there, you can also visit the Mosque of Amr i bn al-As.
In this traditional part of Cairo appropriate dress is essential. Visitors of either sex wearing shorts or showing their shoulders will not be allowed into churches or mosques. The liveliest time to visit is on a Sunday, when Cairene Copts come for services; but if you want a quiet wander, avoid Sunday and Friday as well. The churches do not charge admission, but most have d onation boxes.
The easiest way of getting here is by metro: trains run every few minutes, and Mar Girgis station is right outside the Coptic Cairo compound. It’s much better than a crowded bus (though the trip back to Tahrir isn’t as bad because you can board the bus at the terminal, beside the Mosque of Amr ibn al-As, and be sure of a seat). A slow but pleasant option is to take the orange-and-green river bus (autobees nahri) from the Maspero dock to its last stop at Misr al-Qadima in Old Cairo.
From there it’s a 10-minute walk east to the main cluster of churches. The service runs at 8am, 2pm and 9pm.
Coptic Cairo is the heartland of Egypt’s indigenous Christian community, a haven of tranquillity and peace that reveals layers of history. Archaeologists have found traces of a small Nileside settlement on this site from as early as the 6th century BC. In the 2nd century AD the Romans established a fortress here, called Babylon-in-Egypt. The name Babylon is most likely a Roman corruption of ‘Per-hapi-en-on’ (Estate of the Nile God at On), a Pharaonic name for ancient Heliopolis.
Babylon has always been a stronghold of Christianity. At one time there were more than 20 churches clustered within less than 1 sq km, though just a handful survive today. They are linked by narrow cobbled alleyways running between high stone walls: the place feels similar to parts of Jerusalem’s Old City. That might not be mere coincidence, because when Jews were exiled from their holy city in AD 70, some found refuge in Egypt; the country’s oldest synagogue is here in Coptic Cairo. There are three entrances to the Coptic compound: a sunken staircase beside the footbridge over the metro gives access to most churches and the synagogue; the main gate in the centre is for the Coptic Museum; and another doorway further south leads to the Hanging Church.
The main entrance to the Coptic compound lies between the remains of the two round towers of Babylon’s western gate. Built in AD 98 by Emperor Trajan, these were part of riverfront fortifications: at the time, the Nile would have lapped right up against them. Excavations around the southern tower have revealed part of the ancient quay, several metres below street level. The Greek Orthodox Monastery and Church of St George sit on top of the northern tower.
This museum founded in 1908, houses Coptic art from Greco-Roman times to the Islamic era in a collection drawn from all over Egypt.
Reopened after thorough renovation in 2006, it is a beautiful place, as much for the elaborate woodcarving in all the galleries as for the treasures they contain. These include a sculpture that shows obvious continuity from the Ptolemaic period, rich textiles and whole walls of monastery frescoes. There’s a pleasant garden out front; a small café was not yet open at the time of research.
Just south of the museum on Sharia Mar Girgis (the main road parallel with the metro), a stone façade inscribed with Coptic and Arabic marks the entrance to the Hanging Church (Al-Kineesa alMu’allaqa; Sharia Mar Girgis; h Coptic mass 8-11am Fri, 9-11am Sun). Still in use for Mass and by parishioners who come to pray over a collection of saints’ relics and an icon of Mary, this 9thcentury (some say 7th-century) structure is called the Hanging or Suspended Church as it is built on top of the Water Gate of Roman Babylon. Steep stairs lead to a 19th-century façade topped by twin bell towers. In a small inner courtyard, vendors sell taped liturgies and videos of the Coptic pope, Shenouda III.
With its three barrel-vaulted, woodenroofed aisles, the interior of the church feels like an upturned ark. Ivory-inlaid screens hiding the altar have intricate geometric designs that are distinguishable from Islamic designs only by the tiny crosses worked into the pattern. In front of them, a fine pulpit used only on Palm Sunday stands on 13 slender pillars that represent Christ and his disciples; one of the pillars, darker than the rest, is said to symbolise Judas. In the baptistry, off to the right, a panel has been cut out of the floor to reveal the Water G ate.
Back on the street, the first doorway north of the museum gate leads to the Greek Orthodox Monastery and Church of St George (Map p 124) . St George (Mar Girgis), is one of the region’s most popular Christian saints. A Palestinian conscript in the Roman army, he was executed in AD 303 for resisting Emperor Diocletian’s decree forbidding the practice of Christianity. There has been a church dedicated to him in Coptic Cairo since the 10th century; this one dates from 1909. The interior has been gutted by fires, but the stained-glass windows and blue-green tile ceiling remain bright and colourful. The neighbouring monastery is closed to visitors. The Coptic moulid (saints’ festival) of Mar Girgis is held here on 23 April.
Down a sunken staircase by the footbridge, along the alleyway, the first doorway on your left leads into the courtyard of the Convent of St George. The convent is closed to visitors, but you can step down into the main hall and the chapel. Inside the latter is a beautiful wooden door, almost 8m high, behind which a small room is still occasionally used for the chain-wrapping ritual that symbolises the persecution of St George during the Roman occupation. Occasionally, visitors wishing to be blessed are wrapped in chains by the resident nuns, who intone the requisite prayers. Usually, though, the nuns will merely offer to show you a chain that they claim was used to bind e arly martyrs.
To get to the Church of St Sergius (Abu Serga; h8am-4pm), walk down the lane that the Convent of St George is on, following it around to the right. Duck under the low arch and walk a few steps more to the entrance, below street level. This is the oldest church inside the walls, with 3rd- and 4th-century pillars. It is said to be built over a cave where Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus sheltered after fleeing to Egypt to escape persecution from King Herod of Judea, who had embarked upon a ‘massacre of the first born’. The cave in question (now a crypt) is reached by descending steps to the left of the altar. Every year, on 1 June, a special mass is held here to commemorate t he event. Further along the alley, a passage leads to the left, where another church dedicated to St George is being restored; the passage ends at a shiny new church – a surprise in the middle of all the ancient stones (as are its superlative restrooms). Returning to the main walkway, the Church of St Barbara (Sitt Barbara) is at the corner; she was beaten to death by her father for trying to convert him to Christianity. Her relics supposedly rest in a small chapel left of t he nave. Beyond the church an iron gate leads to the large, peaceful (if a bit litter-strewn) Greek Orthodox cemetery . Women on their own should be careful – we’ve heard reports of flashers lurking among the gravestones.
To the right of the cemetery entrance, the 9th-century Ben Ezra Synagogue, occupies the shell of a 4th century Christian church. In the 12th century the synagogue was restored by Abraham Ben Ezra, rabbi of Jerusalem – hence its name. Tradition marks this as the spot where the prophet Jeremiah gathered the Jews in the 6th century after Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Jerusalem temple. The adjacent spring is supposed to mark the place where the pharaoh’s daughter found Moses in the reeds, and where Mary drew water to wash Jesus. In 1890, a cache of more than 250,000 papers, known as the Geniza documents, was uncovered in the synagogue; from them, researchers have been able to piece together details of the life of the North African Jewish community from the 11th to 1 3th centuries.
A-8 days in Egypt, including a Nile River cruise and professional, private guides, will cost approximately $1,500 per person. Not bad considering this estimate also includes private guides for all of the sites and attractions.
A-There is no FCO advice against travel to Cairo, Alexandria, the tourist areas along the Nile, and the Red Sea resorts of Sharm el Sheikh and Hurghada. The section of the country between the Nile and the Red Sea is also considered mostly safe.
A-If weather is your primary concern, the best time to visit Egypt is during the northern hemisphere fall, winter or early spring (October to April), when temperatures are lower. To avoid the crowds at ancient sites like the Pyramids of Giza, Luxor, and Abu Simbel, try to avoid peak season (December and January).
A- An Egypt visa is required for most travelers including American and British passport holders. Americans and citizens fro 40 other countries can obtain an Egypt visa on arrival at the Cairo International airport at the bank kiosks before the immigration counters for $25 USD and are valid for visits up to 30 days.
A-Pants, Capris, Leggings, and Shorts...Basically, as long as your knees are covered, you are good. So whether you choose pants or capris, you will feel comfortable and remain respectful. Local women wear long pants or skirts.
A-On our Egypt tours that travel south to Aswan, include 3 or 4 night Nile cruise as standard. There is always the option to upgrade to a 5 star Luxury Nile cruise, which offers well–appointed and outward facing cabins.
A-The fixed deposit amount is 25% of the tours total price Except for Egypt Christmas tours, new years and other peak seasons where the deposit goes up to 50%.