Old Cairo

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.

Roman walls of the Babylon Fortress in Old Cairo

Roman walls of the Babylon Fortress in Old Cairo

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.

the Hanging Church, Old Cairo

the Hanging Church, Old Cairo

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.

Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, Old Cairo

Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, Old Cairo

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.

St. George's Greek Orthodox Church, Old Cairo

St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church, Old Cairo

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.

Mount of Olives, Jerusalem

The Mount of Olives looks out on Jerusalem’s Old City from the east. In purely geographical terms, it shelters Jerusalem from the Judean Desert and catches and directs precious water toward the city. It was once covered in olive trees, but not so much any more.

For 3,000 years the Mount of Olives has been Judaism’s most sacred burial ground. Some 150,000 Jews are buried there, including biblical prophets and revered rabbis. The Kabbalistic Zohar text tells that when the Messiah comes, the Mount of Olives will be his first stop and on that day, the righteous will rise from the dead.

Looking out at Jerusalem's Old City from the Mount of Olives, with the ancient Jewish cemetery in the foreground.

Looking out at Jerusalem’s Old City from the Mount of Olives, with the ancient Jewish cemetery in the foreground.

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The Jesus Boat

one of replicas of the ancient

one of replicas of the ancient “Jesus Boat” carrying a Ya’lla group on the Sea of Galilee

One of the most popular experiences included in our Christian tours of Israel is the boat ride on the Sea of Galilee.

The Sea of Galilee is actually a large freshwater lake, 13 miles long and 8 miles across, better known in Israel as Kinneret, Gennesaret or Lake Tiberias. The lake feeds the Dead Sea, via the Jordan River, and, at roughly 700 feet below sea level, it’s the 2nd lowest lake on the planet, after the Dead Sea. It’s located in the Galilee region in northern Israel.

During a period of severe drought in 1986, the lake receded significantly, revealing the remains of an ancient boat buried in the sediment. The boat was excavated and dated to the 1st century, the time of Jesus. The boat is now housed in a small museum at Kibbutz Ginosar on the western shore of the lake. Close replicas of the boat take passengers on the lake past Christian sites, such as Tabgha (site of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes) and Capernaum (the headquarters of Jesus’ ministry), and stop to visit the remains of the ancient boat.

remains of a 1st-century Galilean fishing boat known as the Jesus Boat or the Ginosar Boat

remains of a 1st-century Galilean fishing boat known as the Jesus Boat or the Ginosar Boat

For Christians, the lake and its surroundings are significant as the area where much of Jesus’ ministry and many of his miracles took place. Four of Jesus’ disciples were fishermen on the Sea of Galilee, the brothers Simon Peter and Andrew and the brothers James and John.

One day, after hours of pulling up empty nets, the four fishermen had just pulled into shore. (Andrew was already a disciple of Jesus, the first, but he hadn’t yet convinced the others.) Jesus approached and asked Peter to take him out on the lake a little way so that he could better address the crowd that had gathered to hear his teaching. Later, after the crowd had dispersed, Jesus asked Peter to move into deep water and cast out his nets. Peter thought this would be a waste of time, based on his experience earlier in the day, but out of respect, he did as Jesus asked. When the nets were pulled in, they were so heavy with fish the boat couldn’t hold them all. James and John came to help and their boat was also filled to the brim with fish. Jesus gained three more disciples that day.

Later in his ministry, Jesus had spent a long day preaching to a large crowd near the lake and needed to rest. While he and his disciples sailed to a quiet spot on the opposite shore, Jesus took a nap. When they reached the middle of the lake, a nasty squall rose up, bad enough to terrify the experienced fishermen on board. Jesus slept peacefully through the waves crashing on the deck and the pitching and rolling of the boat, until the disciples woke him, certain they were about to die. He told the storm to simmer down, which it promptly did, expressed his disappointment in his disciples’ lack of faith, and resumed his nap.

the Sea of Galilee

the Sea of Galilee

I could go on and on about Jesus and the Sea of Galilee, but I’ll save some stories for future posts.

The city of Tiberias on the western shore of the lake makes a good hub for visiting the area. For privately escorted Christian tours that include a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee and a visit to the ancient boat at Ginosar look here and here.