Coptic Cairo is a fascinating site full of history and religiously important to Christians, Jews, and Muslims. I’ve explored the sites in Coptic Cairo 4 times as it is a spot many visitors want to see! Most recently I took my husband’s siblings.
I’ll start out with a very brief summary and description of Coptic Cairo and then talk about the sites we visited. If you want more information about Copts and their religion, visit my blog post about the Coptic Museum where I also gave facts on them.
Cairo’s city-center was not always in its current location. It used to be in the area now known at Old Cairo towards the southern end of current Cairo. It was at the beginning of a canal between the Nile and the Red Sea. As with most civilizations, strategic water locations become important cities. The Nile River used to flow right by this historic area and archaeological evidence shows settlements beginning as early as 6th century BCE.
This archaeological evidence includes the fortress of Babylon which divided Upper and Lower Egypt and sat near the mouth of the canal beginning around 525 BCE. It helped protect the ancient capital of Memphis. A Roman Fort was built there later and you can still see some of the walls from that fort, particularly near the Coptic Museum. The Church of St. George rebuilt and uses one of the former circular towers as part of its structure.
Between the Pharaonic religion’s decline and the rise of Islam in Egypt, most Egyptians were Christian and many of the sites in Coptic Cairo have a religious focus.
Muslims attacked this fort in 641 AD when Amr Ibn Al-Aas’ army invaded Africa in their attempt to overtake Egypt. Evidence of that time period remains across the street from the entrance to Coptic Cairo where the first mosque on the African continent remains–the Amr Ibn Al Aas Mosque (much of it has been replaced or renovated over the years, but the site is the same and a few original parts remain). The Nilometer on Rhoda Island was also built shortly after Muslim conquest (it is easy to visit the Nilometer in connection with Coptic Cairo as it is a short drive away).
The area around Coptic Cairo is known as al-Fustat (“the tents” in Arabic) and was Amr Ibn Al-Aas’ headquarters and later capital. Interestingly, when the Muslims took over they did not destroy the Babylon fortress or the Copts. The two groups lived together peacefully for centuries. Al-Fustat flourished until the Fatimid period (969-1171) when a new capital was built farther north.
There is also the oldest synagogue in Cairo–the Ben Ezra Synagogue–founded in the 9th century.
When exploring Coptic Cairo, keep in mind that some of the churches still hold active services. So sometimes my order changes depending on what is happening.
My preferred order is:
Coptic Museum–Open 9-4–The Coptic Museum has a huge collection of Coptic art and antiquities. It was built in 1908 and the building is really cool. I love the ceilings and the stained glass. It also holds the Nag Hammadi documents, which were discovered in a jar by a dude with a camel who was digging for fertilizer. These documents outlined a ton of information about Coptic life and beliefs long ago and are considered to be very important. It also has the oldest known copy of the Book of Psalms. For more information about the museum, check out this blog post. You can go through the museum in about 1.5 hours unless you like to really read everything. There are bathrooms in the courtyard between the ticket booth and museum. Cost is le100 and photo fee is 50le. If you have a regular camera with you, they’ll expect you to pay the photo fee whether or not you use it. There are 2 stories.
Synagogue of Ben Ezra–Built in the 9th century on the remains of a 4th century Christian church, this was the first synagogue in Cairo. It claims to be the site of where the pharaoh’s daughter found Moses in the reeds and also the site of the Temple of Jeremiah. It was restored in the 12th century by Abraham Ben Ezra, a famous rabbi of Jerusalem. Also of importance for the site is the discovery of a cache of over 250,000 historic papers in 1890. These documents, called the Geniza documents, detailed life of the North African Jewish Community from the 11th to 13th centuries and provided the most complete information on Medieval Jewish practices anywhere. These documents are now at Cambridge University. It is small and doesn’t take much time to visit, but is beautiful. No cost and no photos allowed. They have a few postcards and books for sale.
Church of St. Sergius and the Crypt of the Holy Family–8 am-4 pm–This church is supposedly the oldest in Cairo and is built on the spot where the Holy Family is said to have rested in a cavern when fleeing into Egypt. The church is dedicated to St. Sergius and St. Bacchus, who were soldier-saints martyred during the 4th century by Roman Emperor Maxi Milan. The church was probably built in the 5th century but was restored in the 8th century after a fire destroyed it. It’s been rebuilt and restored regularly. When you enter, there are many paintings of saints and the Virgin Mary with Jesus. You can pay a little money (amount is up to you) and then light a candle. If you go at a time without crowds, it is peaceful to sit and soak up the atmosphere. At the front right, you can enter a back room and then go down into the cavern where the Holy Family stayed. There is no charge to enter the church, but there is often a priest sitting near the exit with a collection box and it is appropriate to drop a small amount inside. Photos are allowed inside.
Nunnery/Shrine of St. George–this was the first time I visited this site and it was worth our time. You can go down a flight of stairs to the Shrine of St. George and see some art, chains used to restrain him, and his shrine. If you feel inclined, you can write a note and light a candle to him. There is also a lovely gift shop on the premise with Coptic souvenirs and other items. There are also bathrooms. Photos are allowed inside.
Mari Girgis aka Church of St. George–Originally built in 684 and rebuilt in 1857 and again in 1909. It is round and built on the Roman tower of the Babylon Fortress. When you go up the long steps of the church, you’ll see a massive relief of St. George and the dragon on the brickwork at the halfway point. The church alternated between Copt and Greek ownership, but has remained Greek Orthodox since the 15th century. Before entering the main church building at the very top of the stairs, enter the lower room to see prayers stuck into rocks. There is not cost to view the church, though you can leave some money and light a candle if you so chose. If you have extra time after the church, go to the opposite side of the walled in area, past several gift shops and an outside area, and enter a cemetery for some old tombs and exploration. Photos are allowed inside.
The Church of al-Mu’allaqa aka The Hanging Church aka the Church of the Holy Virgin–9 am-4pm– (but with services 9-11 on Fri and 8-11 on Sun and Weds. Only Coptic Christians allowed inside during services). It sits on top of the southern tower gate of the Babylon fortress. It was probably built in 690 or so, though it wasn’t mentioned in text until about 200 years later. The facade at front is a 19th century addition. The ceiling inside is vaulted timber intended to resemble the interior of Noah’s Ark. There are 13 columns supporting the pulpit representing Jesus and his 12 disciples. Two are darker–a black one for Judas’ betrayal and a grey one for Thomas’ doubt of the resurrection. We found them both to be the same color, but perhaps that’s due to the passage of time. Inside you’ll also find sanctuaries to St. George, the Holy Virgin, and St. John the Baptist. However, they are normally blocked off with curtains. You may take photos outside of the facade, but not inside. There is a small gift shop selling books and postcards and other small items. There are bathrooms in the courtyard and a small snack shop near the entrance where you can buy water and food. More info here.
Transportation—getting there by taxi is easy. You cannot drive up to the museum and other sites. There is street parking outside the blockaded area. Your dropoff point is the intersection of Mari Gerges, El-Imam Malik and Sidey Hassan Al Anwar. On Google Maps, find the Coptic Museum and then follow Mari Gerges north to where it deadends. Once dropped off, it is an easy walk down Mari Gerges and the museum is well marked. It also has a metro stop right there. Note: If you have diplomatic plates, you can drive through the barricade on Mari Gerges and park outside the museum or the Church of St. George. Be prepared to show your diplomatic ID as well and answer a few questions from the police officer. It is very easy to drive to and parking is easy. Be prepared for some multi-point turns to turn around.
Need a guide? Walk Like an Egyptian does a great walking tour of Coptic Cairo. Not for children under 10. However, it is very easy to navigate around and you can easily tour on your own without a guide.
Navigating–The sites essentially are two layers. The Museum, Church of St. George, and the Hanging Church are all street level and in a row. The Church of St. Sergius, Ben Ezra Synagogue, Nunnery/Shrine of St. George and other sites are down a flight of stairs near the Church of St. George and down little alleyways.
Costs—Museum–Adults are 100LE. Our kids were free, not sure the age cutoff. (Updated cost as of Dec 26, 2018). Churches and Synagogue–free, though many have collection boxes if you desire
Hours—Museum is open daily 9-4. Churches and synagogues are all either 8-4 or 9-4. However, the churches close for services. Friday and Sunday mornings are most likely. Church of St. George is closed on Mondays.
Camera—Museum–photos allowed, but you need a 50LE camera ticket and they do check for it. Free Photos–Church of St. George, Nunnery of St. George, Church of St. Sergius. No Photos Inside–Synagogue of Ben Ezra, Hanging Church
Food and Drink—They are fine with you bringing it in, but be respectful and eat outside. The Cafeteria at the Museum is closed due to low visitor numbers. There are small cafes and stores on the road outside the museum if you need a drink. Hanging Church has a small shop at entrance for water. Between the Nunnery of St. George and the Church of St. Sergius is a small shop that sells icecream bars–a “souvenir for my tummy” as DD5 put it!
Strollers—Not stroller friendly over all. Inside the Museum is wide enough for strollers, but there are stairs to get between levels. All the churches require stairs to reach and walkways between buildings is not smooth.
Child friendliness—My 4 year old was fairly bored in the museum when we went 1.5 years ago. Not a topic she knew much about (she enjoyed the Egyptian Museum as she knows all about Pharoahs and Pyramids) and she kept asking to go. The museum is fairly childproof however as displays are either behind glass or unbreakable (like large stone pieces). Update: We went again Dec 2018 with our now 5.5 year old and she did fine. She really enjoyed the stained glass and found the textiles beautiful. She also visited the other sites in Coptic Cairo and did fine with a bribe of ice cream! She also found a keychain with her name on it in the giftshop at the Nunnery/Shrine of St. George for 5le (about 30 cents) and was thrilled.
Bathrooms—there are bathrooms in the museum courtyard after buying your ticket. No toilet paper, but clean and a sink with soap. There was a woman there expecting a tip upon exiting, so bring small change. The Nunnery/Shrine of St. George and the Hanging Church also have bathrooms.
Combine it with—exit the barricaded area and go to the Souq al-Fustat for some shopping and lunch. Or go just down the street to the Amr Ibn Al Aas Mosque. We drove about 20 minutes to the Nilometer–an easy drive north, then across the bridge onto Rhoda Island. The only challenge was the police officer didn’t allow us to turn left to head to the southern tip of Rhoda Island so we had to do a series of right turns down very narrow alleys to get headed the right way. Street parking near the Nilometer’s entrance was easy (use the Umm Kolthoum Museum as the GPS guide).