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Discover Coptic & Islamic Egypt

COPTIC EGYPT

Most people associate Egypt with Islam today, but Christianity was actually the dominant religion between the fourth century AD and 641 AD, when Islam officially took over. St. Mark first preached Christianity in 50 AD, and Egypt was one of the first countries to adopt the still young faith.

The Egyptian branch of Christianity is called the Coptic Church. Unlike other branches of Christianity, the Coptics believe that Christ was a wholly divine being and not God made flesh. One in every ten Egyptians is a Coptic today. The Coptic Church has its own Pope, and many ceremonies are still held in the ancient Coptic language.

The Holy Family's Journey
If you know the bible well, you'll remember that Jesus and the Holy family fled from Bethlehem to Egypt, seeking refuge from a bloodthirsty King Herod. They made an arduous 2,000km trek by donkey over four years which took them over 30 different places in Egypt, from Al-Farma down to the Al-Muharraq monastery.

Needless to say, the Holy Family's Journey is an extremely important event in the Coptic tradition, and they celebrate Jesus' arrival in Egypt every year on June 1st (the 24th day of the Coptic month Bashans).

Coptic Monuments
Alexandria was once one of the major seats of the Roman Empire and many beautiful Coptic monuments record the great triumphs of those years of glory.

Virgin's Tree
Many places are named in honour of the Virgin Mary, but the Virgin's tree is one of very few to have been visited by Mary herself with young Jesus by her side.
They're thought to have taken shelter beneath the tree's bowed branches, refreshing themselves from the same spring that waters its old roots.

Al-Muallaqa (Hanging) Church
Dating the al-Muallaqa church definitively has proven difficult due to its various makeovers throughout the years, but it was completed sometime between the seventh and ninth century on top of what was the Water Gate on the southern wall of the fortress of Babylon. In fact, the gate is still visible through a hole in the baptistery's floor.
The church's two bell towers soar to an awe-inspiring 13m at their highest peak. Beneath its hallowed vaulted ceilings, the major events of the Coptic calendar are celebrated to a spectacular effect. During the Enthronement of the Patriarch, its impressive collection of censers, chalices and crosses in gold, silver and gilt go on full display.

Saint Catherine's Monastery
It was at the top of Mt Sinai that Moses received the ten commandments from God. At its base, besides what is rumoured to be the burning bush of biblical fame, is the Greek Orthodox Monastery of Saint Catherine.
The monastery was named after an early Christian martyr from Alexandria and the Emperor Justinian had a basilica built to house her recovered remains many centuries later. Today, the church is lined with spectacularly ornate icons and scriptural paintings. Its monastery museum is home to the world's second largest collection of illuminated manuscripts in Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, Coptic and Georgian.

Church of Mar Guirguis (St George)
Not to be confused with England's dragon-slaying hero, Mar Guirguis was an early martyr from Palestine, put to death by the Romans in the fourth century. The first church to bear his name was built some six centuries later.
The elegant circular domed church you see today stands on its fire-ravaged remains, built at the turn of the twentieth century. Inside, the church is bathed in the magnificent multicoloured glow of its striking stained glass windows.

The Coptic Museum (Old Cairo)
Just approaching it's first century, the Coptic Museum in Cairo is a treasure trove of relics from Egypt's early Christians, where you can find : scraps of painted textiles, manuscripts and icons, frescoes and carvings in wood, ivory, glass and stone.
Behind its understated scallop-shell archways, the 13 halls of the old wing are currently undergoing a massive face-lift. However, the 17 halls of the new wing house the bulk of the exhibits and an enclosed garden.

Church of Abu Serga (St Sergius)
Built on the site where the Holy Family is said to have taken refuge on the flight into Egypt.

  ISLAMIC EGYPT

In 642 AD, the Byzantine Empire (the empire that introduced Christianity to Europe) was conquered by an army of Arabs and Egypt became part of an expanding Islamic Empire. Islam became the dominant religion and it's stayed that way ever since. Today, nine out of ten Egyptians are Muslim.

A new capital was established at Fustat, the first Islamic city of Egypt (modern day Cairo). When the Fatimids invaded in 969 AD, they built a new seat of power and Fustat became al-Qahirah (the official name of the city of Cairo). Only traces of their legacy survive to this day. It was the legendary Saladin who finally vanquished the Fatimids in the twelfth century and he built the magnificent Citadel as we know it today.

Regarding the Fatimids, the Mamluks and the Ottomans, each dynasty left its own unique mark through elegant domed mosques, "Madrassas" and mausoleums, with slender, soaring minarets. Well over a millennium of uninterrupted Islamism, Egypt has a wealth of architectural, historical and religious mosques and these are just a few of the 'must-see' across the country.

The Citadel (Cairo)
The seat of Egypt's power and the lifeblood of Cairo for seven centuries, the Citadel was Saladin's creation of an imperial Islamic complex with unrivalled views over the medieval city.
Partly a palace, partly an inaccessible fortress, the Citadel is split into three different sections inside its tremendous walls. Though entirely Islamic, its myriad mosques and palaces were shaped by different kingdoms.
The Ottomans rebuilt the Citadel in their own image. Mohammed Ali's nineteenth century typically Turkish Mosque dominates the entire city. Its bubble-like domes loom over the modern city skyline. The Mosque of an-Nasr Mohammed, with its towering spiral minarets, is the only of Mamluk's fine buildings to survive the Ottoman's demolition derby.
Today, the Citadel's grand palaces have been given a new lease of life to their medieval masters as modern museums.

Mosque of Amr Ibn al-As
It was Amr Ibn al-As who brought Islam to Egypt, and his namesake was Egypt's first ever mosque. In fact, it's the oldest mosque in Africa, as well as one of the most unconventional.
The original mosque was rather rudimentary, rumoured to be built of mud bricks, palm trunks and leaves. What you see today is the result of endless re-invention. Most striking is the conspicuous absence of the usual minaret or domed roof. With its rectangular figure, clean lines and eclectic clash of styles, it looks as different to the average mosque today as it must have then.

Al-Azhar Mosque
It was the Fatimids of Tunisia who built the Al-Azhar Mosque in 970 AD, with its myriad minarets and assortment of domes. The modern day mosque has evolved architecturally over many centuries.
But its purpose and status remain unchanged as It is still the epicentre of study and teaching for Egypt's Sunni Muslims to this day. Al-Azhar's Mosque is not just a religious school, it is a fully fledged academic institution, the equivalent of the Ancient Greek academies only older. Lectures no longer happen in the mosque itself, but it is still the official home of the university.

Mohammed Ali Mosque
No, not that Mohammed Ali, this Mohammed Ali ushered in Egypt's modern age. Now the finest jewel in Cairo's fantastic Citadel and an unmissable part of the city skyline, this is a modern mosque, in honour of a thoroughly modern man.
Designed in the grand Ottoman style by a Greek architect, the construction of the alabaster began in 1830. It opened its sacred door 27 years later. Its needle-like minarets pierce the clouds at a dizzying 270 feet.

The Blue Mosque (The Aqsunqur Mosque)
The Blue Mosque gets its name from its most spectacular feature, a blue mosaic of majolica tiles that cover the eastern wall. The Blue Mosque is a Mamluk monument, commissioned by Prince Aqsunqur al-Nassery in 1347. It's also renowned for its unorthodox 4 storey minaret, its magnificent marble mihrab, and its vine leaf and grape patterned Minbar (pulpit).

 



Mosque of Sultan Hassan

Standing at the foot of the Citadel, this building (1356-1362) is a perfect example of Mameluk architecture austere and imposing outside, curving and spacious inside. The Rifai Mosque opposite, where kings Farouk and Fouad and the Shah of Iran are buried, is merely a showy pastiche constructed at the beginning of the twentieth century.