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A walk through Cairo's religious history

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The Mosque of Sultan Hassan from al Qalaa. Photo / Jill Worrall
The Mosque of Sultan Hassan from al Qalaa. Photo / Jill Worrall

A quick dash around the treasures of Tutankhamun and a battle through the tourists around the pyramids and the Sphinx can be the extent of many Cairo itineraries.

But east of the Nile lie two neighbourhoods where life continues at a less frenetic pace than in the rest of the city and that have associations with no less than Jesus, Mary and Joseph and the Islamic hero who retook Jerusalem from the Crusaders, Salah ad-Din (Saladin).

Egypt's Christian heritage is said to date back to the arrival of Mark, one of the 12 Apostles in the first century AD. Believers were known as Copts (which, via Arabic and Greek simply means Egyptian).

Today there are about six million Copts in Egypt, about 10 per cent of the population, but 1600 years ago Christianity was the official religion of the entire nation.

I reached the area through a vegetable market where fresh produce was still arriving by donkey cart and men were sitting in shady alleys over tiny round tables sipping coffee and smoking sheesha.

Our car had to brake suddenly when a boy in a bike shot out a doorway in front of us, a tray of circular breads balanced on his head.

Cairo's Coptic quarter developed inside a 3rd century Roman fortress and within its walls are not only churches but a monastery, a convent, a mosque and a synagogue.

It is, despite what one might expect, an extremely tranquil place.

It is also still a very active Christian community as I discovered at the entrance to the Hanging Church.

A limousine was pulled up at the gate and just before I stepped through a venerable gentleman in black robes and sporting an impressive white beard emerged and was ushered into the car. I asked my guide who it was.

"Oh, I think it is the Patriarch," he said, meaning the 17th patriarch of the entire Coptic church, Pope Shenouda III.

How serendipitous I thought, only later reflecting that it was unlikely such an illustrious figure would be hopping into his car with only one flunkey in attendance. I suspect maybe I'd nearly run into a more minor bishop.

The Hanging Church is so named because it was built on top of the old fortress's water gate. Building of the church began in the 4th century but it's been destroyed, rebuilt and restored on and off ever since.

Inside the barrel-vaulted interior there was a mix of worshippers lighting candles beneath walls full of icons and tourists being lectured to in hushed tones by local guides. The screens and doors in the church were exquisite wooden works of art made from cedar inlaid with ivory.

Tucked down a nearby alleyway is the Church of St Sergius, which is built over a cave widely believed to be where the Holy Family stayed on their flight from King Herod. Sadly, the cave crypt is currently closed while experts try to stop water seeping in.

No one seemed able to tell me what evidence, if any, there was to support the story, but the diminutive old lady who lived nearby was in no doubt.

She invited me in for a cup of tea in her tiny house, where she lives alone. Bathroom, kitchen, living room and bedroom took up a floor area of about five metres by five. She told me she'd lived here all her life and that the peaceful feel to the neighbourhood was genuine. There were no problems here between Christians and Muslims.

Not far from Coptic Cairo is a building that dominates the city's eastern skyline - al Qalaa or the Citadel, built by Salah-ad-din in the 12th century.

Enclosed inside its ramparts is the Mohammad Ali Mosque, which is Ottoman (Turkish) style rather than Egyptian. Visiting was like stepping inside an Istanbul mosque - with its low chandeliers and tiles.

In the courtyard is a clock that was given to Egypt by French King Louis Philippe in exchange for one of the ancient obelisks from Luxor that now stands in the Place de la Concorde. The clock arrived damaged and has never been repaired. The French definitely got the better side of this deal.

From the terrace outside the mosque was a panoramic view of the city, especially romantic when viewed from a tiny wooden lattice gazebo perched on the walls. This had been roped off, but the guards sitting on the side of a fountain nearby hinted to me that for a small payment, they might look the other way if I really wanted to go in.

Amazingly, considering the pall of pollution hanging over the city, I could see in the distance the pyramids silhouetted against the late afternoon sun. Below me was the Mosque of Sultan Hassan, built from money left behind by people struck by the Black Death in the 14th century.

The pages of Egypt's past just kept unfolding.

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