Hanging Church in the heart of Coptic Cairo. It is called the Church of the Virgin Mary. It is built on top of the southern entrance to the fortress of Babylon, which was built in Rome. Its name comes from its nave, which is suspended above an arcade.
This unique spot makes it look like the church is floating in the air. When it was first built, the ground level was several meters lower than it is now, and this view was even more impressive at the time. The church is called Al-Muallaqa in Arabic, which means “hanging” in English.
History of the Hanging Church in Cairo:
The current Hanging Church is thought to have been built during the Patriarchate of Isaac of Alexandria, who was a Coptic pope in the 700s. Before that, there was another church in the same spot. It was built sometime in the 3rd century as a place of worship for the Roman soldiers who lived in the fortress.
Because of its long and exciting history, the church is one of Egypt’s oldest Christian places of worship. Since the 7th century, it has been rebuilt several times. In the 10th century, when Pope Abraham was in power, the most work was done on it.
The Hanging Church has been one of the essential parts of the Coptic Christian Church for a long time. After the Muslims took over Egypt and moved the capital from Alexandria to Cairo, it became the official home of the Coptic Orthodox Pope in 1047.
Around the same time, Pope Christodoulou stirred up trouble within the Coptic Church when he chose to be consecrated in the Hanging Church instead of the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, where they had always been done.
Pope Christodolos’s decision set a pattern, and several patriarchs chose to be elected, crowned, and even buried in the Hanging Church.
At the Hanging Church, Mary has appeared more than once. The most well-known of these is the Mokattam Mountain Miracle. In the 10th century, al-Muizz, the ruler of the Caliphate, asked Pope Abraham to prove that her religion was true.
Al-Muizz made a test based on a Bible verse in which Jesus says, “Truly I tell you that if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move.” So, al-Muizz asked Abraham to move close to Mokattam Mountain by using prayer alone.
Abraham asked for three days of grace spent in the Hanging Church praying for help. On the third day, the Virgin Mary came to him and told him to find a tanner named Simon, who only had one eye, and Simon would give him the power to do the miracle.
After Abraham went to the mountain and said the words the tanner had given him, Simon was found, and the hill was raised. The Caliph saw that Abraham’s religion was true by witnessing this miracle. Even now, worship at the Hanging Church is still centered on Mary.
Restoration of the Hanging Church in Cairo
This church is one of the most beautiful in the Middle East. It was built on top of the Babylon gate of a Roman fort.
The Hanging Church is in Coptic Cairo’s crucial archaeological area of Masr Al-Qadima. It is one of the oldest churches in Egypt. It is called the suspension because it was built on two of the old towers of the Roman fort (Fortress of Babylon), which Emperor Trajan built in the second century AD.
The two-story facade of the church is on the west side of Marie Guerguis Street. The fountain on the other side was built in a basilica style. It had three suites, a corridor, and a structure split into three parts.
It has a central nave and two small suites with eight columns on each side. There is also a row of three columns with large pointed arches between the center and the north wing.
All the columns between the suites are made of marble except for one of black basalt. It’s important to note that some column capitals are in the “Corinthian” style.
On the church’s east side, there are three buildings. The one in the middle is called the Virgin Mary, the one on the right is called Saint John the Baptist, and the one on the left is called Saint Mary Guergis.
In front of the buildings are wooden veils. The most important is the central one, made of ebony inlaid with transparent ivory and dates back to the 12th or 13th century.
It is carved with geometric shapes and beautiful crosses and topped with icons of Christ on a throne, Mary, Gabriel, and Saint Peter.
John the Baptist, the Archangel Michael, and Saint Paul are on his left. On top of the altar in this temple is a wooden canopy resting on four pillars, and behind him is a platform for the priesthood.
Parts of Egyptian national newspapers were hung on one of the walls on the right side of the church, which showed events and scenes from the modern history of the Copts in Egypt.
What to see in Hanging Church in Cairo?
The church is located in the Coptic Quarter – in addition to it, there are several more Christian churches. Its facade looks laconic: two white bell towers rise above the entrance.
Just outside the gate begins a patio decorated with mosaics, from which a staircase of 29 steps leads to the church. You can get inside through one of three doors decorated with carvings and ornaments.
The main attraction of the interior is a carved iconostasis of the 12th-13th centuries made of Lebanese cedar decorated with ivory. It looks unusual since all the icons are grouped at the top.
The marble pulpit is even older, dating back to the 11th century. It is richly decorated and rests on 13 pillars, 12 of which depict the apostles of Christ.
Within three years, from 1968 to 1971, many extraordinary events occurred near the church: a luminous image of the Virgin appeared above the temple roof; it looked like a glowing statue that moved, periodically disappearing and reappearing.
Sometimes the temple was lit with magical light, and shining birds resembling doves circled above it. The sick were healed, and even those who professed a different faith – after the miracle, they accepted Christianity.
There are practically no frescoes in the church, but more than 100 icons have been collected here, many of which are very old. They are distinguished by their schematism and simplicity, even those written relatively recently.
The roof of the nave resembles Noah’s Ark in shape, and on the ceiling are seven small icons of John the Baptist.
The relics of several local saints are kept in the temple: wooden cases wrapped in cloth and many notes with requests from believers are visible in glass boxes. Some icons, statues, and bas-reliefs of the “hanging” church are now in the Coptic Museum of Cairo.
Hanging Church in Cairo Today
To reach the Hanging church, people must walk through iron doors into a courtyard with biblical mosaics. At the other end of the yard, 29 steps lead up to the church’s carved wooden doors and the beautiful facade with two towers.
The facade is a newer part that was added in the 1800s. The church is split into three main hallways; at the eastern end, there are three sanctuaries. These churches are dedicated to Saint George, the Virgin Mary, and Saint, from left to right.
John the Baptizer. Each one is decorated with a lampshade made of ebony and ivory that is very detailed.
The ceiling of the Hanging Church is one of its most noticeable parts, and it is made of domed wood. It is meant to look like the inside of Noah’s Ark. Another exciting thing is the marble pulpit, which is held up by 13 columns intended to represent Jesus and his 12 disciples.
One of the columns is black to show how Judas betrayed Jesus, and another is grey to show how Thomas doubted the resurrection when he heard about it. But the church may be best known for the 110 religious icons that still hang on its walls.
Many of these were painted by the same artist in the 1800s and were used to decorate the sanctuary screens. The Coptic Mona Lisa, which showed the Virgin Mary and was made in the 8th century, is the oldest and most well-known icon.
Many original things from the Hanging Church have been taken away and are now on display at the nearby Coptic Museum. But the church is still the best part of any trip to Old Cairo.
Here, people can look around the beautiful church when services aren’t going on or listen to Masses in the ancient Coptic liturgical language.
Practical information about the Hanging Church
The church is in Coptic Cairo and is easy to get to by metro to Mar Girgis. From there, the Hanging Church is just a few steps away. Tours must include a stop at the Coptic Museum, only two minutes from the church.
The church is open every day from 9 am to 5 pm. The Coptic Mass is held on Wednesdays and Fridays from 8 am to 11 am and Sundays from 9 am to 11 am.