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.

NAME THAT COUNTRY

Known as the Colossi of Memnon, these two statues of Amenhotep III have stood on this spot for well over 3,000 years. They were dubbed Memnon by ancient Greek tourists after their mythological hero. Memnon was the son of Eos, the goddess of dawn and it was said that sounds came from one of the statues (the one on the right in this picture) at or near dawn.The statues are 60ft tall and weigh over 700 tons, each.

 

Can you name that country? 
See below for answers.

Continue reading

Deir el-Medina, Egypt

Deir el-Medina - Valley of the Kings workers village on the west bank of the Nile, near Luxor

Deir el-Medina – Valley of the Kings workers village on the west bank of the Nile, near Luxor

Deir el-Medina (also known as Valley of the Artisans) is the remains of a village near the Valley of the Kings, where the workers lived – architects, craftsmen and laborers – who designed and built the tombs that would usher their pharaohs to the world beyond.

This was extremely important work; a proper tomb helped ensure the pharaoh’s passage to the afterlife, as important for the people he left behind, his subjects, as it was for him. Although pharaohs were understood to be mortal men (and a very few women), they were believed to be a channel for divine power. Their actions directly affected whether Egypt was blessed or cursed by the gods. If pharaohs successfully entered the afterlife, they became fully divine and continued to represent their people as the sun god Ra and/or the god of the dead, Osiris.

Tomb builders and craftsmen worked in the oven-like insides of mountains by the light of small oil lamps. They carved long corridors and rooms out of solid rock with copper chisels. Rock walls were covered in plaster to make a smooth surface for the tomb paintings. Paints were made mostly from minerals. Blues and greens signified status because they were more expensive to produce.

The Egyptian Royal Cubit was the measurement used by the architects and engineers. It was approximately 52 centimeters, based on the length of the forearm from the elbow to the end of the middle finger. The cubit was subdivided into 7 palms, which were further subdivided into 4 fingers.

Egyptian Royal Cubit rod from the Louvre in Paris

Egyptian Royal Cubit rod from the Louvre in Paris

We know a lot about the architect and foreman of Deir el-Medina during the reigns of Amenhotep II, Tutmose IV and Amenhotep II in the 14th century BCE. His name was Kha and his wife was Meryt. Their exquisite little funerary chapel in the village is beautifully painted with scenes of their everyday life as a kind of prayer for what they hoped to carry into the afterlife. Even better, in 1906 their tomb was discovered in the nearby hills, INTACT. It’s one of the very few Ancient Egyptian tombs discovered that was not robbed of its contents many centuries ago. Kha and Meryt were quite well to do, probably noble, and they packed beautifully crafted objects to serve them in eternity. The contents of the tomb are in the Egyptian Museum in Turin Italy.

small statue of Kha from his tomb, Egyptian Museum of Turin, Italy

small statue of Kha from his tomb, Egyptian Museum of Turin, Italy

objects from the tomb of Kha and Meryt, Egyptian Museum of Turin, Italy

objects from the tomb of Kha and Meryt, Egyptian Museum of Turin, Italy

objects from the tomb of Kha and Meryt, Egyptian Museum of Turin, Italy

objects from the tomb of Kha and Meryt, Egyptian Museum of Turin, Italy

Deir el-Medina makes a good contrast to the grandeur of the Valley of the Kings. Clear footprints of the homes and the very human scale of the place, as well as the scenes of everyday life in tomb paintings give a good sense of how average Egyptians lived 3,500 years ago. A number of jewel-like little tombs have been discovered and are open to visitors. Admission tickets generally allow entrance to 3 tombs, which ones will rotate. Extra admission may be required for some tombs and chapels.

wall painting from the tomb of Inerkhau, Deir el-Medina, Egypt

wall painting from the tomb of Inerkhau, Deir el-Medina, Egypt

wall painting from the tomb of Pashedu, Deir el-Medina, Egypt

wall painting from the tomb of Pashedu, Deir el-Medina, Egypt

wall painting from the tomb of Sennedjeu, Deir el-Medina, Egypt

wall painting from the tomb of Sennedjeu, Deir el-Medina, Egypt

Temple of Hathor from the Ptolemaic period, more than 1,000 years after Kha and Meryt lived in Deir el-Medina

Temple of Hathor from the Ptolemaic period, more than 1,000 years after Kha and Meryt lived in Deir el-Medina

The path used by the workers to travel to work each day is still very usable and takes roughly an hour to walk.

Click here to see our tours to Egypt. Deir el-Medina can be added to fully private programs. Touring from Nile cruises may not include the site.

Kom el Shoqafa – the catacombs of Alexandria, Egypt

Kom el Shoqafa catacombs, Alexandria, Egypt

Kom el Shoqafa catacombs, Alexandria, Egypt

The Kom el Shoqafa catacombs of Alexandria were lost to the world for many centuries until discovered accidentally in 1900. The oft-cited tale of their discovery, that a donkey fell through the ceiling from the road above, may or may not be true.

The catacombs were carved from the bedrock in the 2nd century CE and used for about 200 years. They consist of three levels, with a central shaft. A funerary temple likely also stood on the surface over the tunnel entrance. A staircase winds around the shaft, which may have been used to lower bodies of the deceased to their final resting place. On the first level below the surface, there is a banquet hall, the Triclinium, where families of the deceased would feast at the time of burial and on periodic visits thereafter. The name of the catacombs, Kom el Shoqafa, translates to pile of shards, which refers to the large amounts of broken pottery found at the site. The pottery containing food for the funerary and memorial feasts was broken and left behind because it was considered tainted by the place of death. The 2nd and 3rd levels hold burial niches and chambers, including the so-called Hall of Caracalla, which contains the mass burial of Christians slaughtered by the Roman emperor Caracalla. The 3rd level is currently inaccessible due to flooding.

Kom el Shoqafa was built at a time of convergence of three cultures – Egyptian, Greek and Roman; and the unique, hybrid style of architecture and art within the necropolis may be its most interesting feature. Egyptian-style sarcophagi have been found, as well as niches for the remains of those who followed the Greek and Roman tradition of cremation.

We recommend visiting Kom el Shoqafa with a licensed guide.