Once Upon a Tower

The genesis of Coptic Cairo is a story of light upon light. The stars of the story shine in the Bible and in the Quran. Thanks to its exceptional location and the remarkable demarcation that had served once as a great point of embarkation, you may explore the sophistication of every treasure at your leisure with pleasure beyond measure. 



There is an exuberant mix of mystic and domestic architecture in a hearty harmless harmonious fashion.


Once upon a tower, around the seat of power, in the fortress of Babylon, the Babylon of Egypt, a house worthy of worship was founded in the name of Virgin Mary. The Hanging Church of Virgin Mary, the most beautiful in Egypt, is still suspended in time and space on an enticing trace of the remains of the southern gate of the Roman fortress. As people congregate at a gate where the faithful carried a mandate that is forever to date to propagate a message of peace and love, they read at the lintel above: Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you. We ascend to the church through a flight of steps that led western pilgrims to call it the Church of the Steps. Before we climb, if you are keen on keeping the keys of history and you wish to do it right, turn left and behold, as stories of old unfold on the wall. We see a modern mesmerizing mosaic relating the old story of the miracle of moving the Muqattam mountain.


Under the Fatimid founders of Cairo, there was a new era unveiled and the ecumenical spirit prevailed, as the Caliph held interfaith dialogues. One day, the vizier brought to the attention of the caliph a verse from the bible, “For truly I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it shall move; and nothing shall be impossible to you." The caliph asked the pope Abraham to prove it. The patriarch asked for three days to work the miracle. While praying on the third day in the Hanging Church, the Virgin Mary appeared to him at a column, which gave the church yet another name, the Church of the Column. Mary instructed the pope like a teacher and furnished him with an unmistakable feature, to seek a one-eyed man in the great market. He turned out to be saint Simon the Tanner. Pursuant to the story, the mountain moved. The reward was the restoration of the Hanging Church, which was extremely dilapidated. When a monument is extremely dilapidated, it is hard to date it. If you are attuned to the divine oneness wave, you bring yourself to the principal area of the church known as the nave, Latin for a ship. Look up and you will see a ceiling in the shape of a ship curvy topsy turvy. The message is clear, you are the captain of your ship. If you believe, your faith will save you, and your worship is your warship that will never tip over.


In the seventh century, the Egyptians were not living in the Nile valley but rather wallowing in the valley of despair, suffering from the Roman persecutions. But only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. In 641 AD, General Amr bin Al-'Aas conquered Egypt. Ready to march on, Amr had his soldiers sent to strike his tent. Yet, they found a dove that had lain eggs on top. While all is fair in war and love, Amr, Arabic for life, spared the life of the dove and her children. The new urban baby was named Al-Fustat, Arabic for a tent. With ample time on hand to expand the tentative camp, it became the nucleus of the sprawling metropolis of Cairo. Now, the Egyptians can worship freely again. The arrival of a new rival was a key to survival. Around the carefully choreographed core of Coptic Cairo in the fortress of Babylon is the Museum of Coptic Art. The architectural façade, which is a Coptic Copy of the Fatimid mosque of Al-Aqmar, is an exquisite testimonial to the spirit of tolerance that became the spirit of the time.  




Now, we are off to the ramification beyond the fortification. As we walk north and literally go down the corridors of time, we encounter a cluster of churches constructed in memory of the martyrs of faith. The tsunami wave of the Great Persecution that swept Christian Egypt under the Romans came to a climax in AD 284, the inaugural year of emperor Diocletian. It was so devastating that it marked the beginning of the Coptic Christian Calendar. The most glorious of those houses of God belongs to Saints Sergius and Bacchus. It is founded where a cave was found. That cave gave safe sheltering in the sweltering heat to the Virgin Mary and her son Jesus. The house took shape as a church to cherish the memory of the Flight of the Holy Family to Egypt. As we contemplate this temple of God where the crypt is kept, we may decrypt the code of a life lived in refuge to escape from the horror of King Herod.


The Flight of the Holy Family to Egypt is reminiscent of the story of Moses. A prophecy of old foretold the fate of pharaoh at the hand of a Hebrew slave. To evade eminent destruction, pharaoh gave instructions to kill all male babies born to the Hebrews. Dangerous times were coming. "Finally Pharʹaoh commanded all his people: “You are to throw every newborn son of the Hebrews into the Nile River, but you are to keep every daughter alive,” Exodus 1:22.


To save Moses, his mother's measure sounds extreme. She cast him in a basket of reeds that drifted downstream. "Behold! We sent to thy mother, by inspiration, the message: Throw him into the chest, and throw (the chest) into the river: the river will cast him up on the bank, and he will be taken up by one who is an enemy to Me and an enemy to him': But I cast love over you from Me: and in order that you may be reared under Mine eye." As the basket of Moses moored at the pharaoh's palace, the pharaoh's daughter picked him up. If Moses was raised in the palace of pharaoh, then he learned to speak Egyptian, the predecessor of Coptic. The Coptic language is the most up-to-date version of the ancient Egyptian language. The baby was given an Egyptian name, Moses, which means born. I believe that it is a prophetic name, no pun intended. Moses is just born. He was not born of Ra. Then, he would have become Ramoses. He was not born of Thoth. Then, he would have become Thuthmoses. Thoth would have influenced his thoughts. Moses is just born. He is born free from all the gods of ancient Egypt.


The waterfront where Moses was extracted attracted early Christians to build a church. Phenomenal data detected, a sacred site selected. In the ninth century, Abraham Ben-Ezra, the rabbi of Jerusalem purchased the church, hence the name, the Ben Ezra Synagogue. The synagogue tells a tale of two arks. Inside the oldest synagogue in Egypt, there is a symbolic Ark of the Covenant where the stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments would have been placed. The community that lived in harmony with the commandments received the divine grace. Listen to the third commandment of the Ten Commandments: You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain. This is the story of how the word of God made a medieval archive survive the ravages of time and man. In the late 19th century, scholars made a stunning discovery as they stumbled upon a Geniza, a storage room, in the attic of the synagogue. This treasure trove sheds a flood of light on the lost and found world of Cairo in the middle ages.


In Old Cairo, we step into a world of great equanimity, a capital of faith that reflects the intellectual tide of the time where we find relief beyond belief and the allure of the holy land. It is a beautiful place redolent of history, and you never know what the sands of time may hide in the way of mystery. It's literally a triumph of faith: the oldest synagogue, the oldest church, and the oldest mosque in a single place.




Ahmed Seddik




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  • Once Upon a Tower

    The genesis of Coptic Cairo is a story of light upon light. The stars of the story shine in the Bible and in the Quran. Thanks to its exceptional location and the remarkable demarcation that had served once as a great point of embarkation, you may explore the sophistication of every treasure at your leisure with pleasure beyond measure. 

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