Approximately 1,970 years ago one of the disciples of Jesus, Mark, travelled to Alexandria, Egypt. It was in Alexandria that the teachings of “The New Way” were introduced to the people of Africa, thus beginning the continental spread of the Good News about salvation by grace through Jesus, the Messiah. As you would imagine, this new teaching was in strong opposition to the diverse polytheistic beliefs that had held captive the hearts and minds of the people. Nevertheless, Mark’s message was as much provocative as it was exciting and it didn’t take long before the people began to abandon their previous beliefs to adopt this New Way which offered them redemption (right-standing) with God in a way that excluded the pride of self-redemption, ceremony, or proxies. In less than 50 years, this New Way had spread throughout most of Egypt. Fast-forward 150 years further and you’ll find the beginnings of the traditionalized Coptic Christian orthodoxy. Aided by the many writings and teachings of Origen Adamantius (considered the father of theology), the Coptic church began to formalize, leading to hierarchy and ceremony. Origen recognized that the early Christian teaching was simple and devoid of the traditions of men that were prevalent in the pagan religions. This made it a hard sell to the remaining population that resisted turning away from the splendor of their religions to the simplicity of redemption through belief in Jesus’s sacrifice for them.
Origen nailed it and his understanding of the “problem” inspired others to the formation of an highly-organized religion which prided itself in formality, awe-inspiring structures, icons and artwork. This man-made splendor drew people in like never before. A few hundred years of progression in this idea led to the monastics (monks, etc), asceticism(severe self-discipline), sainthoods, human proxies to God (popes, priests, etc). This swelling orthodoxy resulted in the construction of some of the earliest physical churches (buildings) ascribed to their religion. The oldest in Egypt is in Alexandria and is believed to have been built around the year 311. Cairo wasn’t far behind in constructing its own. It was here in Cairo that I explored the Coptic Area that contains within its walls some of these ancient churches. Among them, I visited The Hanging Church (est. 690 AD) and the Greek Orthodox Church of Saint George (est. 10th century).
The courtyard leading to the entrance of the Hanging Church.
The entrances to this building.
When I visit these buildings, I’m always more fascinated by the intricate craftsmanship displayed in even the simplest things, like this door.
The right-side nave.
Exquisite wood working adorns the many paneled walls inside the building.
I sat along a back wall to observe the circulation of people passing through. Paintings of religious figures lined the walls and in certain areas an altar was setup for burning candles. Candles could be purchased if you desired to fire one up. People would pass by each painting, either kissing it or touching it with their hand as they moved along.
Through a paneled wall at the front of the building, you could catch a glimpse of the altar room with a cloth screen depicting Mary and Jesus.
Another intricately detailed piece of craftsmanship that adorns a paneled wall.
This panel features a form of the Coptic cross.
On my way out of the Hanging Church, I came across this pleasant scene inside the courtyard.
From there I walked a little ways to the Church of Saint George.
This building contained an overwhelming amount of icons, idols, and kissable painted portraits.
Same as the Hanging Church, candles aplenty were for sale inside.
The large, stained-glass windows around the dome provided spectacular shafts of colored light throughout the nave
In addition to the standard rows of pews, seating also ran along the circumference of this circular nave.
I spent over an hour inside the Church of Saint George. There was not one surface inside it which did not show the handiwork of some fantastic craftsmen or artist. As it was getting on in the evening, the interior was getting quite warm so I decided to leave.
A view from the top of the stairs, looking out over Old Cairo. Through a warm haze, the silhouette of a minaret to a mosque can be seen.
The wall surrounding the Coptic Area had some particularly beautiful scenes. The setting sun glances off the lens to set a warm glow about this decorated portion of it.
I’m definitely going to print this one for the house.
Across the street from this spot is a line of old shops and street cafes. I walked around inside an antique store for a few minutes and found a few interesting details to photograph.
While I was touring these shops I met a man who I’ve now spent several evenings with, chatting together for hours with his friends and family who live in the surrounding Old Cairo area. Last weekend, I was invited by him to attend an Egyptian street wedding – the marriage of his brother’s son. That was an epic night which resulted in some great photos to share with you. Stay tuned… these are coming up soon. Until then, I hope you’ve enjoyed this post and will return soon.