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Thursday, November 3, 2016

10/20: Coptic Cairo, Nileometer & Tentmakers' Market

 After a very special day yesterday touring the pyramids in Giza, we got a taxi into Cairo just after breakfast even though our original plan had been to take the metro instead. Steven and I continued to be surprised at what looked like the almost endless number of unfinished buildings as we drove toward the city. Not sure if I mentioned previously that we were told that actually the buildings were completed, or at least the lower floors were finished and occupied. 
The upper floors would only be completed once money was available and the children grew up and needed to live in the upper floors. Certainly a new way of construction we hadn't heard of before coming to Cairo.
The taxi driver told us that 30 million Egyptians crossed this bridge over the Nile River on their way to reach Tahrir Square in October of 2011 as part of their country's revolution. To be in that spot where history had been made was very special.
The entrance to our hostel in Cairo which would be our home for the next three nights! It was a bit of a shock after the comparitive luxury of our hotel across from the pyramids.
Our room was actually very nice and much larger than most of the rooms we've been in all trip. On top of that, the location was great, we had our own bathroom and a free breakfast was served - all that for only $25 per night. Quite a deal, I'd say.

Cairo is the capital of Egypt and the largest city in Africa. Its name means 'the victorious city.' It is located on both banks of the River Nile near the head of the river's delta in northern Egypt and has been settled for more than 6000 years, serving as the capital of numerous Egyptian civilizations. Cairo is known locally as 'Misr,' the Arabic name for Egypt, because of its importance in Egyptian life.
Since it was only about ten, our room wasn't ready so we dumped our bags and then walked to the metro station in Tahrir Square which was only a few blocks away. Being in a place that had led every TV newscast around the world for so long felt like we were reliving that time in Egypt's history.
From the sublime to the ridiculous: Hardee's was on the corner of one of the nine streets that feed into the enormous square.
We took the metro to the Coptic part of the immense city so we could visit the city's oldest church, the oldest mosque and the oldest mosque in addition to a beautiful museum. I would think that, if you're at all like me, you would equate Cairo pretty well exclusively with the Muslim faith especially in light of its more recent history too. But the Copts are the original Egyptians; before the Muslim invasion, all Egyptians were Christian. The Copts played an extraordinary role in understanding the distant past of Egypt because the ancient Coptic language on the Rosetta Stone was key to deciphering hieroglyphs. 

Coptic Cairo, we read, was a maze of ancient and modern churches and monasteries set within the walls of the fortress of Babylon founded in the 6th century BC and expanded by the Roman Emperor Trajan in 98 AD. At one time, more than 20 churches were clustered in just one square kilometer of this area of Cairo. We were just visiting a few of those that remained; the first one was the Hanging Church. 

A stone facade inscribed with Coptic and Arabic marked the entrance to the 9th century St. Mary's Church but more commonly known as the Hanging Church, so named because it was suspended over the Water Gate of Roman Babylon.
The exterior entrance led to a small inner courtyard which in turn led to 29 steps. The church, topped by twin bell towers, was at the top of the stairs. Early travelers dubbed the church 'The Staircase Church.'

Just prior to entering the sanctuary was another courtyard that had a very similar feel to that of many mosques we've been fortunate enough to visit.

The ebony and ivory inlaid screens which hid the altar showed the same intricate geometric designs that were only distinguishable from Islamic patterns by their tiny crosses.
The crosses are more easily seen here.
I overheard a guide explain that the church had no foundation as it had been built on top of two other churches. 

There was also a very sacred painting of the Virgin Mary known as the ‘Coptic Mona Lisa.’ Like her namesake’s, her eyes seemed to follow us.

One of the granite columns was much darker than the others; it is believed to represent Judas.

This was one of seven trap doors in the church but I don't know why there were so many.
The church had 110 icons including a series which described the life and torture of St. John the Baptist.

With its three barrel-vaulted, wood-roofed aisles, the interior of the church felt like an upturned ark that rested on 13 Apostles symbolizing Christ and his Apostles.

More photos of the first courtyard we entered:

A good photo of Egypt's flag blowing in the wind at the base of the steps to the very special Hanging Church.
Just steps away from the Hanging Church were the Roman Towers. In 98 AD, the Roman Emperor Trajan enlarged an existing fortress here called Babylon. All that remained are two round towers from Babylon’s Western Gate. 
They were part of riverfront fortifications and the Nile would have lapped right up against them. Emperor Trajan also reopened the canal that ran through the area connecting the Nile to the Red Sea.
We visited the Coptic Museum which was next to the church and the Roman Towers. Founded in 1908, it housed Coptic art from the earliest days of Christianity in Egypt up to early Islam.

According to what we read, textiles are the most characteristic product of Coptic art. The term 'Coptic textiles' is used to designate a huge amount of textiles - tens of thousands of them - found in Egypt and dating from Roman, Byzantine and Islamic periods. Most of the textiles come from burials but illegal digs at many important grave sites during the 19th and early 20th centuries resulted in textiles appearing on the antiquities market. As a result, it is very difficult to date them with any precision. The textiles provide information about the social classes, daily life, beliefs and customs of the people who not only made them but who they were made for. The major fibers used were linen and wool although cottom was also used. 

Isn't it amazing that this 4th-5th century linen and wool tapestry has survived all these centuries later? The colors were still so very rich too, I thought.
Ankh from Sakkara: The ankh or key of life were the first crosses seen in tombs.
5th-6th century limestone tombstone carved with a cross resembling the monogram of Christ between two crosses formed the ankh sign.
5th-6th century cornice block decorated in the center with a shell, a symbol of resurrection.

From Sakkara's Monastery of St. Jeremiah: a 6th century limestone niche decorated with a conch shell carved with a cross in the center.
The museum was a beautiful place as much for the elaborate woodcarving in all the galleries as for the treasures they contained.

The trees in the interior courtyard didn’t have much room to grow any higher before hitting the roof!

6th-7th century fragment of a curtain or tunic with tapestry decorations:
6th-7th century fragment of a wall painting from the Monastery of St. Jeremiah at Sakkara showing Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his cherished son, Isaac, in obedience to God's command. To the left is the lower half of a male figure. To the right, a tree with a sheep tied to it, the substitute for sacrifice.
A 5th century roundel woven in tapestry with woolen and linen threads. In the middle are geometrical designs surrounded by fruit baskets and turtles.
4th-5th century tapestry of the bust of a woman:
The Nag Hammadi Library is a group of codices (ancient manuscripts in book form) and the most valuable collection of ancient texts ever found as it provided a wealth of information for specialists in the history of religion, philosophy, etc. The collection was found in a large jar by a camel driver in December, 1945 whil he was digging for fertilizer in Upper Egypt, i.e. southern Egypt!
Two pages from the Nag Hammadi Codex on papyrus dating from the 3rd quarter of the 4th century: The left page shows the beginning of the Gospel of Thomas; the right page is part of the composition 'On the Origin of the World.' They were translated from Greek into Coptic.
From 1226, the four gospels in Arabic and a miniature of St. John in tempera and gold.
Piece of pottery with Coptic text mentioning produce sold to someone on credit. It was to be repaid in grain and camel fodder! 
The oldest book of psalms in the world, the Psalms of David, dating from the 4th-5th century, had two original wooden covers.

It was very tough to take the above photos through the special glass that protected the ancient text for generations to come. I felt very privileged being able to view such a book. Chris: I am sure you also would have loved being able to see it. Just know I was thinking of you when I did though.
Another example of the exquisite woodcarving throughout the museum:

Thanks to the arid climate, Coptic Egypt has preserved more evidence for the study of daily life in Roman and Byzantine times than any other country.  Daily life scenes such as grape gathering and hunting were popular in Coptic art.
Pull along toys from the Byzantine period: Don't they look remarkably alike wooden toys that can still be bought today?!

The word 'icon' comes from the Greek word meaning image. Coptic churches, both ancient and modern, are always decorated with icons. A number of medieval icons were in the museum; they were painted in Cairo in the 13th century when the city was the center of an organized workshop of Christian painters responsible for icons and wall paintings and manuscript illumination.

St. Menas aka the Miracle Worker, after leaving his regiment, and withdrawing into the desert, declared his Christian faith. He was martyred in 296.
St. Barbara, a 3rd century martyr, was beaten to death by her father, a pagan ruler, for trying to convert him to Christianity.
This 18th century painting depicting Christ entering Jerusalem as the king is considered to be one of the most important in the Coptic church.
This very unusual 18th century icon shows a group of events painted on a piece of cloth. Visitors to Palestine used to take similar ones home as souvenirs.
It was wonderful seeing some green space as we left the museum as that was the only time we saw it in all of Cairo.

These boys wanted their pictures to be taken as we walked to the next Coptic church - easy enough request to accommodate as my camera is seemingly attached to my right wrist!

Greek Orthodox Monastery & St. George Church: I read that St. George is one of the region’s most popular Christian saints. 
Greek and Egyptian flags side by side at the church:
I could hear the hot wax just sizzling.
It was very touching when one of these Arab women kissed me on both cheeks after I took the photo in front of the cross. 
When we hear so often in the news of the hatred exressed between followers of one religion or another, it was hopeful there were a number of Muslims also visiting the churches when we were there. 

St. George was a Palestinian conscript in the Roman army who was executed in 303 AD for resisting Emperor Diocletian’s order forbidding the practice of Christianity. There has been a church dedicated to him in Coptic Cairo since the 10th century. This one dated only from 1909. The adjacent monastery was closed to visitors.

While strolling through the nearby historic graveyard, we spent time reflecting on family members and friends who were no longer with us.

The smaller Church of the Virgin Mary, hidden in the middle of the cemetery, was apparently a site used by the Holy Family while escaping persecution. 

The Old Cairo Bazaar was down one level from the street and was an interesting area to explore for a bit. Of course, Steven and I do like all bazaars!
The first time I had ever heard the word 'chaplet' was here:

Another cavern church was the Church of St. Sergius & Bacchus, the oldest church inside Coptic Cairo. It was built in the 11th century but had pillars from the 4th century. The chuch honored the Roman soldiers Sergius and Bacchus who were martyred in 296 AD in Syria for their Christian faith. 
There was also the same style of roof as at the other churches.

There were 12 columns: 11 of them were white alabaster; the other one was red granite and represented Judas’ betrayal just like at the Hanging Church. Some of the columns had traces of images of saints.

We caught a glimpse of the now far below street-level site where the Holy Family may have stayed during their time in Egypt.
The sign said this was the original ground that Jesus and the Holy Family walked on. Pretty heady stuff being there, let me tell you.
It was thrilling to worship at some of the sites connected to Jesus, Mary and Joseph as recorded in the Bible. 
Just outside the walls of the Coptic enclave, the 9th century Ben Ezra Synagogue occupied the shell of a 4th century Christian church. 
Tradition marked this as the spot where the prophet Jeremiah gathered the Jews in the 6th century after Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Jerusalem temple.
Unfortunately no photos were allowed inside the magnificent synagogue. 
This was the fountain where the pharaoh’s daughter found Moses in the reeds and also where Mary drew water to wash Jesus!
In the 12th century, the synagogue was restored by Abraham Ben Ezra, the rabbi of Jerusalem. In 1890, a cache of more than 250,000 historic papers was uncovered in the synagogue. From them, researchers have been able to piece together details of the life of the North African community from the 11th to the 13th centuries. The synagogue had been recently restored by a Canadian Jew.
St. Barbara’s Church: I described St. Barbara above in our visit to the Coptic Museum.
It was as beautiful as all the others and had many of the same features: the dark wood and inlaid mosaic, the upturned ark-like roof, stunning icons and columns.

It did have though a tiny but lovely chapel dedicated to St. Barbara.
Walking through Coptic Cairo showed us the peaceful coexistence of a Christian community in a huge and predominantly Muslim city. The enclave was a testimony to the Christian life of a branch of Christianity that predated the famous great schism of 1054 AD between the East (Orthodox) and the West (Rome) by almost a thousand years. 
As we walked toward a mosque a couple of blocks away, we saw some buildings that should have been named the Leaning Towers of Cairo! I wonder who had approved their building permits and how much longer they might be standing as they looked so precarious.

I watched for a while as a woman used a pulley system to haul up items to her apartment on one of the top floors. She saw me watching and waved at me.
The Amir Ibn al-As Mosque, the first mosque built in Egypt, was established in 642 AD by the general who conquered Egypt for Islam. On the site where Ibn al-Asn pitched his tent, the original structure was only palm trunks thatched with leaves. It expanded to its current size in 827 AD and it has continuously evolved since then. Most recently, a wood roof was installed over part of the mosque to mimic the original style more closely.
The oldest section was to the right of the sanctuary. The rest of the mosque was like a forest of some 200 columns, most of which were taken from other sites. 

Not one of the most flattering abayas I have ever worn!

This was the first time we’d actually seen the Call to Prayer being chanted after hearing it at mosques around the world so it was very special.
We walked a good piece through areas of Cairo we were convinced few tourists ever go to reach our next destinations. At no point did we feel in any danger or were at all concerned for our welfare.

We walked across the Nile to go to the very southern tip of Roda Island to see Umm Kolthum Museum and the Monastriki Palace.

Umm Kolthum Museum was a shrine-like space dedicated to the most famous Arab diva known for her signature rhinestone-trmmed glasses and glittery gowns. We got there just as it was closing but read that she performed in the beginning disguised as a Bedouin boy. Her magnetic performances brought Cairo to a standstill amd millions of mourners flooded the streets of Cairo during her funeral.
The Museum was part of the Monastirili Palace built in 1851 for an Ottoman pasha whose family came from Monastir in northern Greece. I had forgotten the 'green space' here when I talked earlier about how little vegetation we saw in Cairo.

Inside the place compound was the Nileometer that was constructed in 861 AD. It measured the rise and fall of the river and thus predicted the fortunes of the annual harvest. 
The Turkish-style pencil point dome was a reconstruction of an earlier one destroyed by Napoleon's troops.
If the water rose to 16 cubits - a cubit is about the length of a forearm - the harvest was likely to be good, inspiring one of the greatest celebrations of the medieval era. Any higher though, and the flooding could be disastrous, while lower levels meant hunger.
The measuring device sat below the level of the Nile at the  bottom of a flight of steep steps.

I found it quite fascinating learning about the effect of the rise and fall of the Nile and seeing with my own eyes how it was measured in a bygone age.
We took a taxi then to a part of Islamic Cairo known as the Tentmakers' Market. It’s one of Cairo’s remaining medieval specialty quarters and takes its name from the artisans who produce the bright fabrics used for ceremonial tents used at wakes, weddings and feasts. 
First though, we had to walk or wade through the masses of people in the Carpet and Clothes Market - what a hardship, I know!
It was a far more conservative area and that is why I wore my scarf as a head covering.
Bales of Egyptian cotton:

Bab Zuweila was the only remaining southern gate of the medieval district in Islamic Cairo and was the entrance to the Tentmakers' Market.

Hand-make intricate appliqué wall hangings, cushion covers and bedspreads are also made in the market. We had heard of The Street of Tentmakers when we saw a fantastic exhibition of their work last year at the Islamic Art Museum in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I remember writing in the post then how much I would love to visit this street if we ever came to Cairo. I can’t tell you how neat it was to walk up and down the fairly short alley watching the men sewing the appliquéd wok right in front of our eyes. 
The only difficulty we had was trying to decide which lovely pieces to bring home! We ended up walking back to our hostel which was a good 40 or so minute walk back. Good exercise but we sure did have to keep our eyes pealed to the ground while watching every step we took as the sidewalks were virtually nonexistent and the roads in desperately poor shape.

How sweet it was to come 'home' at long last to our lovely room at the hostel. Granted it didn't have a view of the pyramids as our oom of the last couple of nights had but it was far quieter and cheerier.

Posted from Nizwa, Oman on November 4th, 2016.

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