Archive | August, 2010

Off the Deep End, Part 8

23 Aug

By Eric Shipley

The next stop on our tour of Coptic Cairo was the Hanging Church. Also known as Saint Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church, this is one of Egypt’s oldest churches, thought to have been built in the seventh century AD (although it has been rebuilt several times).

The nickname “Hanging Church” has nothing to do with hangings (which is the first thing that popped into my perverse mind when I heard the name). Rather, it comes from the fact that the church does not actually have a foundation. It is built over the gate of an ancient Roman fortress, called the Babylon Fortress, and is supported by massive, upright palm trunks embedded in the sand far below.

The exterior is white (I’m guessing sandstone or adobe) and is topped by twin bell towers. We approached the main entrance by a long stairway that leads to three intricately carved wooden doors. Inside is a high barrel vaulted roof and some amazing artwork. The stone and wood carvings are exquisite and include an 11th century marble pulpit and many examples of amazing inlaid woodwork. There are also a number of impressive paintings, one of which, known commonly as the Mona Lisa of Egypt, depicts Mary with the infant Jesus. We were in awe of the skill and craftsmanship of the anonymous artists and artisans that did such magnificent work.

One non-artistic sight that I found impressive, though, was a small plexiglass window in the floor that afforded a view under the church. We could see the palm logs that provide support and the sand they rest in some forty feet below (if I recall correctly). It’s an impressive feat of engineering—there never was any indication of instability.

Next: The Citadel

Hanging Church exterior.

Hanging Church interior.

Hanging Church 'Mona Lisa.'

Hanging Church pulpit.

Hanging Church woodwork.

Off the Deep End, Part 7

14 Aug

By Eric Shipley

After the Church of Saint George, we made our way along narrow roads surrounded by high walls to the Ben Ezra Synagogue, which, according to local tradition, is the site where the baby Moses was found.

It is the oldest synagogue in Egypt, but it began as a Christian church. In 882 AD, however, the Coptic Christians sold it to Abraham Ben Ezra for 20,000 dinars so they could pay their annual taxes.

The original synagogue collapsed at some point, and the building we saw is a faithful reconstruction built in 1892. Interestingly, when the reconstruction was done, the geniza (store room) was found to contain thousands of Hebrew manuscripts from the Middle Ages.

From the outside, it is an unremarkable rectangular stone building with high arched windows. We had to pass through an armed security checkpoint before going inside. Once we were inside, we found a beautifully crafted interior. There is a lower level for the men and an upper level for women, and in the center of the main floor is a raised marble platform where the Rabbi reads the Torah. Behind this, there is an alcove in the facing wall which is the ark of the Torah. It is also on a raised platform with steps leading up and a row of columns partitioning it from the rest of the interior. Everywhere we looked there was intricately carved stonework and woodwork, some of it with inlaid pearl. There is an impressive Star of David in the middle of the ceiling, and I also remember seeing at least one menorah. But, given my lack of familiarity with Jewish symbolism, I’m sure the significance of many details was lost on me—much to my regret.

Both Charlotte and I found this synagogue particularly beautiful and at the same time very peaceful and meditative. Unfortunately, visitors aren’t allowed to take pictures, so we’re left mostly with memories. In a way, though, I find those more valuable.

Next: The Hanging Church