Everyone knows about ancient Egyptian attractions in the Cairo area – the pyramids at Giza being the most famous, by far. While there were important settlements nearby for thousands of years, the city of Cairo proper originated with the Roman Fortress of Babylon in the 3rd century. The fort was built on the banks of the Nile around a harbor and the Nile-end of a canal that connected the river with the Red Sea. This had long been a strategic area, the border of Upper and Lower Egypt, where the river begins to spread out into the delta, only a few miles north of the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis, which dates back to 3,000 BCE, at least.
The Roman fort still stands, surrounding the area known as Old Cairo or Coptic Cairo. Coptic Christians settled within the fort very early in the Christian era and it remains a Coptic enclave still. The fort encloses numerous churches, monasteries and convents, as well as the Ben Ezra Synagogue and Amr Ibn al-As, Cairo’s oldest mosque.
The main attractions:
St. Virgin Mary’s Coptic Church/The Hanging Church (El Muallaqa) is the most famous church in Old Cairo. It’s built atop the bastions of one of the fortress gates, with the nave hanging over the passageway.
Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church (Abu Serga) stands on ground where, according to tradition, the Holy Family stayed on their flight away from the murderous Herod the Great.
The Greek Orthodox Church of St. George is built around a tower of one of the fortress gates. A peaceful cemetery stands within the grounds of the church.
Originally a church, the Ben Ezra Synagogue was established in the 9th century, when Abraham Ben Ezra purchased the building from Coptic Christians who needed to raise money for taxes.
Amr Ibn al-As Mosque is Cairo’s oldest mosque. It was built in the 7th century for the commander of the first Arab army to conquer Egypt.
This quiet, atmospheric area feels worlds away from the surrounding chaos that is Cairo. It’s well worth a few hours of exploring.
Click to see Egypt tours that include visits to Old Cairo.