After the vast emptiness of the Sinai, the intense bustle of modern Cairo comes as a dramatic contrast. Here the pilgrim’s trail leads to Coptic Cairo, the oldest part of the city. Encircled by walls that date back to a third-century Roman fortress, Coptic Cairo is a peaceful enclave of narrow, winding lanes that include a number of Christian and Jewish landmarks.
Among the Christian sites, the most famous landmark is the seventh-century Hanging Church, so-called because it is suspended above an area that was once a Roman gatehouse. Visitors enter through a decorated gate and pass through a mosaic-lined courtyard before climbing a set of 29 steps to the church. Inside, a wooden screen in an intricate geometric design covers the front of the sanctuary and a marble pulpit stands in its center. Along the walls, flickering candles set before icons indicate that this is still an active place of worship.
A number of other ancient churches can be toured in the area. One of the oldest Coptic landmarks in Egypt is the fourth-century Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church, which sits above a cave where the Holy Family is believed to have stayed at the end of their flight into Egypt (St. Joseph may have labored on the Roman walls that surround the quarter). The church, which is named after two early martyrs, is entered through a set of steps which leads below street level. Its holiest section lies farther underground still: a crypt into which the faithful drop scraps of paper on which they have written prayers. The church is known as a healing shrine, and a steady stream of visitors journey here each day to make their supplications.
Nearby, the Coptic Museum gives additional insights into the rich history of the Christian church in Egypt. Frescoes, ivory carvings, metalwork, textiles, icons, manuscripts and other artifacts tell the story of how Christianity changed ancient Egyptian culture. Particularly fascinating are the ways in which traditions from the period of the Pharoahs found new life in Christian iconography. For example, the stylistic similarities between the ankh, the ancient Egyptian symbol of eternal life, and the Christian cross helped make new believers more receptive to the message of the Gospels.
Another major landmark in Coptic Cairo is sacred to the Jewish faith: Ben Ezra Synagogue, which by tradition is said to be built on the site where the baby Moses was found floating on the Nile. The famous medieval rabbi and philosopher Moses Maimonides worshipped here during his time in Cairo, and the synagogue was a place of pilgrimage for North African Jews for many centuries. Beautifully restored, it is no longer an active place of worship but remains an important Jewish landmark.
Here in Coptic Cairo, as well as in the Sinai, strands from the histories of the three faiths of Abraham often intertwine. Inside Egypt’s holy landmarks, visitors may be greeted with Salaam (the Arabic word for peace) or Shalom (the Hebrew form). Amid the throngs of Christian and Jewish visitors can be found many Muslim pilgrims as well, a testimony to the shared traditions that link the three faiths. In a world too often torn by religious strife, the spirit of goodwill felt in these Egyptian holy sites gives one hope for a more peaceful future.