Symbol of Egypt’s unity: Restoring the Hanging Church in Old Cairo

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In the Old Cairo quarter of Mogamaa Al-Adian, where the Amr Ibn Al-Aas Mosque, the Coptic Museum, the Ben-Ezra Synagogue and the Abu Serga church are located, stands the Hanging Church on top of the Babylon Fortress proudly welcoming its visitors and worshipers.

Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab, Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II and Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh Al-Damaty officially inaugurated the Hanging Church after 16 years of restoration with a budget of LE101 million. The opening ceremony was also attended by Cairo Governor Galal Al-Said along with a group of ministers and high-ranking government officials.

The church, like many religious monuments located in the heavily populated area of Old Cairo, suffered from environmental degradation including air pollution, high subsoil water levels, humidity, water leaks, and decayed sewage systems installed 100 years ago, not to mention the adverse effects of the earthquake in 1992, which increased the number of cracks across the church’s walls. Structural neglect also had its negative effects on the church’s wooden ceiling, icons and decorations, which were heavily covered with black smoke.

Al-Damaty upon arriving to the church

In 1998, a major restoration project began not only to return the church to its original allure but to restore and stop any further causes of its deterioration. The project also included the development of the whole area of Mogamaa Al-Adian in an attempt to make it tourist-friendly and closed off to pedestrians.

Waad Mohamed, Charge d’Affaires of the Project Section, explains that the restoration project of the church was carried out in three phases. The projected aimed at removing cracks, consolidating the foundation, reinforcing columns, and restoring icons and decorations. New lighting and security systems were also installed.

The Babylon Fort on which the church was constructed in the 4th century AD was also restored, said Mohamed. Its walls were reinforced and decayed blocks replaced with new ones made of the same material.

“Same restoration works also took place at Ben-Ezra synagogue and Amr Ibn Al-Ass mosque,” asserted Mohamed, adding that the project also extended to revamping the streets and alleys surrounding the three religious edifices in the area.

The sewage system of the whole area has also been upgraded.

Though the restoration project neared completion in 2010, much of the work was put on hold following the 25 January revolution of 2011.

Tawadros II welcomes Mahlab at the Church

Mahlab witnessed the start of the church’s restoration in 1998 when he was the chairman and head of The Arab Contractors Company which carried out the restoration work in collaboration with Orascom.

“The restoration and inauguration of the Hanging Church is a symbol of Egypt’s national unity,” Mahlab told reporters at a press conference held during the opening ceremony at the church.

“This event reminds me of the Late Pope Shenouda’s word: ‘Egypt is not a nation that we are living in but a nation that lives inside us.’”

The restoration project was completed by Muslim and Christian restorers who faced several architectural challenges to preserve Egypt’s Coptic shrine and return the Hanging Church to its original allure.

Coptic engraving at the entrance of church

Mahlab pointed out that the area of Mogamaa Al-Adian is another symbol of Egypt’s unity as its houses shrines of the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism represented in the Ben-Ezra synagaguge, Christianity found in the Hanging Church and the Abu Serga Church, and Islam which is seen in the adjacent Amr Ibn Al-Ass mosque.

Mahlab explained that the restoration project took a considerable amount of time because it was carried out in three phases and the architectural condition of the church was critical. He added that decreasing the water level of the aquifer that was threatening the foundation of all the monuments in the area was not an easy task.

Pope Tawadros II described the event as eternal in the history of Egypt because it sends three messages to the entire world: a message of redemption towards our ancestors; a message of awareness to Egyptians regarding the glory of their heritage, history and civilisation; and a message highlighting the peaceful environment that Egypt has always lived throughout history.

“The existence of these three religious edifices in one place reflects how Egyptians always lived together in peace and with love,” said Tawadros II.

“The Mogamaa Al-Adian where the Hanging church is located, asserts that the three religions did not exist for rivalry but for spreading love and peace,” he added.

A wooden door decorated with Virgin Mary holding Jesus behind the church’s altar

On his part, Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh Al-Damaty described the event as paramount as it marked the end of a process that rescued one of the most important monuments in the history of Egyptian civilisation and shows Egypt’s commitment to securing its Coptic heritage.

“I am very happy to witness such a great event which shows that in critical conditions the stone can be convereted into a symbol and the history into a fort that protects and defends our times and becomes a path towards the future to stand against all terrorism,” Al-Damaty told reporters during the the opening ceremony.

“Recently, as several countries are suffering from terrorism, Egypt stands proudly that it is the cradle of civilisation and a country that embraces the three religions in one place where the prayer call is mixed with the church’s ringing bells in a very tuned rhythm,” asserted Al-Damaty,

The Hanging Church is the most famous Coptic Christian church in Cairo and the first to be built in the basilica style with a wooden roof in the shape of Noah’s Ark. It was built during the late 4th century but was reconstructed by Pope Abraham (975-78).

In the 11th century, during the tenure of Pope Christodolos, the seat of the Coptic Orthodox pope, originally in Alexandria, was transferred to the church when the clergy moved from Alexandria to Cairo following the Arab conquest of Egypt. The Hanging Church was restored in the Islamic era during the rule of the caliphs Haroun Al-Rashid, Al-Aziz Bi’allah Al-Fatemi and Al-Zaher Al-Ezz Al-Din Allah.

The church exhibits 110 icons, the oldest of which dates back to the 8th century, though most of them date to the 18th Century. In 1898, Nakhla Al-Baraty Bey offered many of the icons on display as a gift when he was the overseer of the church.

The entrance of the church

The French monk Vansleb, who was sent to Egypt in 1671 by King Louis XIV in order to study the state of the churches and the monasteries in Egypt, mentioned that he had seen inscriptions on one of the walls of the Hanging Church written by the hand of the great Muslim commander Amr Ibn El-As, asking the Muslim people to treat this church with respect.

The church was once spacious though it dwindled in size, throughout the ages, following several modifications. Obeid Bin Khozam made the last modification in 1755 AD.

The church consists of an entrance known as the narthex, the nave with two aisles and three sanctuaries located at its eastern part. The most important of these sanctuaries is the one in the middle, which is dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

The church has two upper floors dedicated to the dwelling of the priests.