Old Cairo, Masr el Qadima, lies within the  old Roman  fortress of Babylon. It
was  not only  a walled  but heavily  fortified city  with  narrow streets and
cobbled alleys. How the name of the famous Babylon of the Euphrates came to be
echoed in Egypt is not known. However, the Coptic historian John of Nikou, who
lived  at the  time  of the   Arab take-over  of Egypt,  claimed  that  it was
originally built during the Persian occupation of Egypt, 525-332  BC, and that
it was at that time called the "Fortress of Babylon". This story is reinforced
by  a much earlier  visitor to the   land  of  the Nile,  the classical writer
Diodorus Siculus, who asserted that  the name was brought  by prisoners of war
from great Babylon  (the 12th Dynasty  Pharaoh  Senusert, some 2000 years  BC,
brought them to build public works). These  Babylonians, he  claimed, revolted
against the Egyptians and built a fortification for protection, which had long
fallen to  ruin when Persians  came  and  rebuilt it keeping  the "Fortress of
Babylon" name.

When the Roman geographer Strabo came to Egypt early in the  Christian era, he
found that what is now  know as "Old  Cairo" was, indeed,  a fortress town and
was occupied by  three Roman garrisons. The  emperor Trajan (98-117),  it  was
said, cleared a  canal that was  running through the  city  and  included some
urban areas,  into   the enlarged fortress.  Moreover,    he  cleared a  canal
connecting the Nile  with the Red  Sea, which  had originally been dug  by the
pharaohs of the 26th  Dynasty, about 600 BC, and  was  revealed to him  by the
Egyptians [[ The Suez  Canal is  hardly  a  French idea; Egyptians 2500  years
earlier connected the Read and Mediterranean  seas!]].  By  this time the area
was known  as the "Castle  of  Babylon". Under the  Christian emperor Arcadius
(395-408), the Copts began to build numerous churches in Old Cairo.  Forty-two
are believed  to  have  once   stood in  an area  of  about sixty acres, which
extended to northwards  as far  as  today's Ezbekieh  Gardens, near the  Opera
Square in Cairo.

At  the time of  the Arab  conquest in 641   AD,  Babylon  was  such a sizable
community that part of the  fortress, including the  huge towers and bastions,
was connected by  walls to the  newly  founded Arab capital of  Fustat.  These
towers  as well  as the bastions  were  at  first  used  as dwellings for  the
garrison.  Later Amr  Ibn el-Ass,  leader  of the Arabs   at  the time of  the
conquest,  returned to  the Copts  the land that   the Imperial government had
taken from them. Forthwith the whole of Old Cairo became inhabited exclusively
by Copts and the Arabs recruited local labor from their ranks to build the new
capital (refer to the article about Coptic Art, Copt-Net Newsletter, issue #2,
for a detailed  discussion of  the Coptic   Craftsmenship). Today,  Old  Cairo
remains rich with Coptic monuments, churches, and monasteries.

Coptic churches were rebuilt and restored  time and  again over the centuries,
often re-using wood and stone-work. For this reason some parts of a church may
be of earlier date than the structure itself. Although they differ in size and
architecture features they bear the unmistakable stamp of a Coptic church. The
exteriors   are   characterized   by   great     simplicity    and  are  often
indistinguishable from  neighboring,   unadorned,  brick dwellings  flanking a
cobbled street. The axis of the building  runs east to  west with the entrance
to the west and the high altar placed in the east nearest the rising run.

The  interior  of  the  early  churches has a  simple ground plan in four main
divisions: the forecourt or narthex, the main body of the church with the nave
higher than the side aisles, a porch or transept,  and the inner chambers. The
nave, which  has an arched  timber roof, is separated  from the side aisles by
columns with  supporting  arches,  enabling a  second row  of    columns to be
superimposed on them and providing light from the clerestory.  The columns had
their shafts painted with figures  of saints.  The side aisles are also arched
with timber but are at a lower level.

There was  originally a low parapet with  curtains separating the main body of
the church from the sanctuary, which is  usually erected on  rising ground and
ascended by  a  few steps.  Later  the parapet became a rail  or screen beyond
which only  those in holy  orders may pass. The   sanctuary screen is  made of
wood, often  decorated  with   geometrical   segments of  ebony  and ivory  of
intricate workmanship. Facing the  congregation  (west),  icons of Christ  the
King and the ever Virgin Mary are hung on  the northern and southern  sides of
the screen, which was later called the "icon carrier". It is customary to find
icons for Archangel Michael, Saint  John the Baptist, and the  church's patron
saint  on the  icon carrier. It is common to find ostrich eggs hanging next to
the icon carrier, in  front of the  sanctuary. These eggs  are  ornaments that
symbolize  the  vigilance with which an  ostrich ceaselessly protects its egg,
and  is consequently meant to   remind  the congregation  that  their thoughts
should  be similarly focusing  on spiritual  matters.  Generally speaking, the
Coptic  tradition regards the  egg as an emblem of  the resurrection (the life
coming out  of the seemingly lifeless  egg). The  use of eggs as  ornaments is
undoubtedly adopted from  ancient  Egyptian customs. Ostrich eggs and  pottery
eggs have been used as decorative elements  in  churches  and later in mosques
that were erected by Copts after the Arabs' conquest of Egypt.

Behind  the icon carrier are three   domed apses (hayakel). The  central  apse
holds the altar of the saint to whom  the church is  dedicated  (the patron of
the church). The side apses  are used when  there is more  than one service of
the divine liturgy per day.  Coptic altars are free-standing and in the middle
of the chapel. Behind the central altar there is a tribunal  with a throne for
a bishop and  seats  for the officiating clergy. A  niche in  the wall usually
holds a sanctuary  lamp, known  as the  perpetual lamp (kandil).  In the early
years of  Christianity,  it was  customary  to bury   the bodies of saints  or
martyrs beneath the altar, either in a vault or in  a  crypt beneath the floor
of the sanctuary. Most of  the old Coptic  churches  (in particular the desert
churches of the  monasteries) still possess relics, which  are  enclosed in  a
casket beneath a silk  brocade or kept  beneath  glass beside a picture of the
patron saint.

In the narthex of some of the old churches there is an oblong tank sunk in the
floor. This was  originally used for libation or  blessing of water, for which
also  sunk in the floor, was  used  for the foot-washing service commemorating
the washing of the disciples' feet by the Lord on Maundy Thursday.

Another important   feature of  old   Coptic churches is  the  location of the
baptistry. In the  earliest surviving churches  (for example the church of Abu
Sarga), a candidate for baptism was first received in a small ante chamber and
then descended  three steps into  the  baptistry, where he/she was immersed in
the consecrated water. When  the sacrament was  completed he/she received  the
Eucharist and only then was allowed  to enter the church.   Only later was the
baptistry moved to the side of the narthex of  a church (but still  before the
nave and aisles).  This  change was in line with   the custom of  seating  the
church congregation in  the three main  parts  of the  church: the priest  and
serving deacons around the altar (behind the  icon  carrier), the believers in
the  nave,  and  the believers-to-be  in  the narthex.   And later still,  the
baptistry was  constructed at  the end of  the northern aisle near  the altar.
Today, scarcely a church  in Egypt has its baptistry  outside the main part of
the church. Instead, the baptistry is now generally situated  at the upper end
of the northern aisle of the church. The front is a basin deep enough to allow
the  priest  to fully  immerse  the  child in  the  consecrated  water  thrice
while pronouncing the baptismal formulary:  "I baptize you  <name> in the name
of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the One God, Amen."

Coptic churches that were built after the third century, had one of two common
floor plans.  They  were built on  the shape of  a cross to emphasize that the
"redemption is through the church" or they  were built on the  shape of a ship
to emphasize the notion of "the church as a ship protected by  God floating in
the midst of the world's torrents" (appealing to Noah's ark).

Among  the important  churches in Old Cairo, we  cite: The Hanging  Church "Al
Moallaka",  the Church of Saint  Sergius  "Abu  Serga",   the Church  of Saint
Barbara (originally the   Church   of Saint Cyrus   "Abu Kir" and Saint   John
"Yuhanna"),   the  Convent   of Saint  George,   and  the   Convent  of  Saint
Mercurius "Abu   Seifein".  [[Special  articles  will be devoted  to  each one
of these landmarks in separate issues of the Copt-Net newsletter.]]

Today,  building new  churches in  the  predominantly  Moslem  Egypt is  quite
difficult.  A Presidential  permit must be obtained to build a new  church and
very few permits have been awarded in the last few decades. As a result, Copts
find themselves obliged to unofficially transform  their houses, garages, etc.
to  places  of worship   so as  to  accommodate   their   growing communities,
especially  that  outdoor public Christian  worship  is generally not allowed.
Unfortunately,  such  haphazardly  "adapted" churches  bear  little   (if any)
resemblance to  the structure and  architecture  of the   ancient churches  of