Old Cairo is the home of Cairo's Coptic Christian community. The Coptic Orthodox Church claims to date back to Saint Mark the Apostle in 42 AD, and thus lays claim to being the world's oldest Christian denomination. While the majority of Egyptians converted to Islam in the 12th century, the Church has survived through centuries of persecution, not only from hostile Muslim rulers such as the Fatimids, but also at the hands of the Crusaders, who viewed the Coptics as heretics. Today, Egypt has some 12 million Copts, but the narrow alleyways of Old Cairo still have the feel of an island set apart from the rest of the city.
Visitors are welcome to visit Coptic churches, even during services, which are now mostly held in Arabic. Copts use the Julian calendar, so Christmas falls on January 7 and Easter can fall on a different date.
The Metro is by far the easiest mode of travel into this district. 1 Mar Girgis station on Cairo Metro Line 1 is immediately outside the Coptic Cairo quarter. From Midan Tahrir in central Cairo, take the Metro south, "direction Helwan"; coming back follow "direction El Marg". The fare is LE2 and trains run every few minutes.
Exit the station east onto pedestrianised Sharia Mar Girgis. The Coptic Museum is straight in front of you and the Hanging Church is 100 m right (south). Go left (north) 200 m for the entrance to the other main sights in the Coptic precinct but you could easily miss it: it's the small staircase leading down from the street, as if into a basement. Instead it enters a series of little alleyways - most churches and the synagogue are along here, clearly signed.
- 1 Mosque of Amr ibn al-As, Midan Amr ibn al-As (off Sharia Mar Girgis, walking distance from Mar Girgis metro station). Open daily to non-Muslims, with the exception of prayer time. The Mosque of Amr ibn al-As was built (in Fustat) in 642, as Cairo's first mosque, following the Arab conquest of Egypt. It has been rebuilt several times, and most of what you see now is from the 18th century or later.
- 2 National Museum of Egyptian Civilization. Daily 10AM-10PM. A museum covering all of Egyptian history from early mankind to the present day. It opened in 2017 with a few exhibitions. Material will gradually be transferred from other collections such as the downtown Egyptian Museum. It's intended that the permanent collection will be in two parts, one chronological the other thematic. The chronological areas will be Early Dynastic/Archaic, Pharaonic, Graeco-Roman, Coptic, Medieval, Islamic, modern and contemporary. The thematic areas will be Dawn of Civilization, the Nile, Writing, State and Society, Material Culture, Beliefs and Thinking and the Gallery of Royal Mummies. LE10.
- 3 Babylon Fortress (Religious Complex) (entrance to all sights except for the Coptic Museum and the Hanging Church is about 150 m left of the entrance to the Coptic Museum via a lower staircase). Established by the Roman emperor Trajan, at the entrance of the former canal to the Red Sea, it became a fulcrum of the Roman occupation. Not long after the fall of the Empire, some of the very first Coptic landmarks were built upon its foundations. No admission except for the Coptic Museum.
- 4 Coptic Museum, Sharia Mar Girgis (The entrance is directly in front of the metro exit.), ☏ . Daily 9AM-5PM. Established in 1908 and restored in 2015 to a high standard, the museum houses Coptic art and artifacts from Late Antiquity, from the late Roman empire through to the Islamic era and beyond. The presentation is clear in English, French and Arabic with generally well thought-out lighting. The display of mainly stone architectural fragments on the ground floor shows the development of the early fusion between Christian and Egyptian symbolism. They also demonstrate that the early Christian era was much cruder in its use of stone than its Pharaonic ancestors. Several frescoes from the early monasteries are displayed. The tapestries and embroideries on the second floor illustrate more homely but highly developed arts. The building itself is a treat, with elaborate wooden screens called mashrabiyya on the windows and ornately carved wooden arabesque ceilings. admission LE100, photo permit LE50.
- 5 Hanging Church (St. Maria Church, Arabic: Kineeset al-Muallaqa), Sharia Mar Girgis (the entrance is about 100 m to the right from the Coptic Museum). This church was built in 690, upon two bastions of the Roman fortress. Its nave is suspended over a passageway. Its wooden roof is supposedly shaped like Noah's ark. Free.
- 6 Church and Monastery of St. George (Agios Georgios, Mar Girgis), Mar Girgis St. Church: daily 9AM-5PM (the monastery is not open to the public). The Church of St. George dates to the 10th century or earlier, but was re-built in the early 20th century after a fire in 1904. Although it's sited in the Coptic quarter and gives its name Mar Girgis to the neighbourhood, it's not a Coptic church, but Greek Orthodox, as a sign at the entrance testily points out. (The Greek lettering is the clue.) Indeed it's the seat of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria: their offices are here but not open to tourists. Unlike the basilica design of most early churches, St George's has an unusual circular ground floor plan (as seen in the photograph), perhaps because it was built over circular Roman ramparts. The remains of bygone Patriarchs can be found downstairs in the church crypt, while out in the cemetery is another Greek Orthodox Church, that of the Dormition of the Virgin. The Festival (or saint's day - "moulid") of St George is celebrated annually here on 23 April. Free.
- 7 Church of St. Sergius and St. Bacchus (Abu Serga) (Down steps from Mar Girgis St into alley). Daily 9AM-4PM. One of the oldest churches in Cairo, named for two early Roman martyrs, the interior is remarkable and distinctive. The basilica nave is decorated by 12 columns - 11 white marble and one red granite - and a beautiful iconostasis. It's built over a cavern where, supposedly, the holy family of Mary and Joseph reared the infant Jesus after their flight from Herod into Egypt. The cavern is usually accessible but has sometimes been flooded by groundwater. St Bacchus saint-day and the flight into Egypt are celebrated annually here on 1 June.
- 8 Ben Ezra Synagogue (El-Geniza). Daily 9AM-4PM. Egypt's oldest surviving synagogue, dating to the 9th century and housed in the shell of a 4th-century church; restored in the 12th century and continually through to the 20th century. Charming interior but it's most famed for the Geniza Documents, discovered in the basement in 1890. Religious teaching was that old documents may not be discarded or destroyed if they contain the name of God, but reverentially buried. "Geniza" means storeroom and here lay a fabulous archive from the 11th to 13th century, some written by Maimonides, who lived nearby. Cairo's 80,000 Jewish population of a century ago has dwindled to a handful, so Ben Ezra is no longer in use as a synagogue. That means it remains open to visit on Fridays and Saturdays. Free, donations welcome.
- 9 Church of St. Barbara (in the alley near Ben Ezra). Basilica style, multiple restorations from 5th to 20th centuries, its main interest is the collection of icons and relics.
- 10 Nilometer (south end of Rhoda Island (Sharia el-Malek as-Salah) on the Umm Khultum Museum complex). closes at 4PM. Dating back to 861, the Nilometer is a large stone obelisk, now inside a small building, that was used to measure the level of the Nile was measured and therefore the tax rates for the farmers fixed. The Nilometer became obsolete when the Aswan Dam was built. While this may not sound particular specular, the interior of the small building is surprisingly beautiful. It reminds of the endless staircase by graphic artist M.C. Escher and is an archaeological gem, whose stairs you can climb down if acrophobia is not your issue. LE40.
- S.S. Nile Peking (Dinner cruise), Corniche el-Nil (near the El Malek El Saleh Bridge, opposite Ministerly Palace), ☏ . Cruises at 8-10:30PM on Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday; 3-5:30PM Friday; also open when not cruising for dining along the riverside.. It's said that this is the boat from Agatha Christie's famous novel "Death on the Nile". The boat features a dining room, where set menus are served, the Shanghai Pub, and a deck from which to watch the Nile.
There are a number of small shops along Mar Girgis Street, near the metro station, selling items including pottery and other crafts.
Small cafes along Mar Girgis St are a bit tourist-trappy but have loos. Cross the metro tracks to the west side for more authentic cheap eats.