The Coptic Church (x2)


Down some stairs and through a doorway we headed down a maze of alleyways lit in the morning light. People were coming and going, but most of the shops weren’t even open yet. Headed on yet another adventure, we were about to find out about Christianity in Egypt.

Islam is the state religion of Egypt, and statistics say about 90 percent of Egyptians are Muslim. Adel, our guide, quoted the number as closer to 95 percent (and walking the streets it seems like it may be even more than that). Not everyone in Egypt is Muslim, however; most of the rest of the population (around 15 million people) consider themselves Christian.

On our way to Sinai, we made a stop in the old part of town, what they call Coptic Cairo, to see firsthand how Christianity is practiced in Egypt. The Egyptian Orthodox Church, commonly known as the Coptic Church, is the largest church in Egypt. Coptic Christianity was something few of us, even the Religion/Philosophy majors, fully understood before we got off the bus. It is mostly confusing because the word “Coptic” really just means “Egyptian” (and indeed all true Coptic Christians are Egyptian), but Coptic Christians also have their own set of beliefs that separate them as a church. To me it is reminiscent of Judaism in the respect that while it is a cultural identity, it is also a certain set of beliefs. According to tradition, the Coptic Church was the church in Alexandria established by Mark (the apostle). Coptic Christians have been a distinct church body since the Council of Chalcedon and they even have their own Pope.

Back in the alleyway, we waited outside of Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church, which Adel called the Church of the Crypt. It wasn’t much to look at from the outside, just a sign outside some stairs in the alleyway leading down to a door built into the stone walls, but this place is said to surround the crypt where Mary, Jospeh and the infant Jesus rested at the end of their journey into Egypt: "When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod the Great, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt I called My Son" (Matthew 2:12-23). We were told that it’s the oldest church in Egypt. Though normally open as a tourist site, twice a week the churches are closed to tourists for services. As it so happens, we were there while they were having service, so Adel had to ask special permission for us to come in. We were all a little nervous about interrupting their service, but they kindly let us in the back for a few minutes. I’ve been to a lot of different churches here in America, but this was completely different than anything I’d previously experienced.

The inside of the church was ornate and filled with incense and icons. The priest was chanting in Coptic at the front and occasionally the congregation would respond. There seemed to be only a few faithful scattered among the tiny sanctuary, and most of the women had their heads covered with scarves (though in a different way than their Muslim neighbors). We waited in the back for a bit, staring at the icons and trying to take it all in without seeming like the total outsiders that we were. It was a little bit stuffy, though it was clear by the covered up fans and the people’s dress, that for them it wasn’t warm. Just as I was starting to wish I understood the Coptic the people were speaking, we went back outside into the cool alleyway.

We were going to head the Ben Ezra synagogue next (it was just down the alleyway), but they were insistent about not opening until they were supposed to open. Not even Adel could get them to change their minds, so we headed out of the alleyways and back into the street towards the next church.

Also known as St. Mary’s or the Staircase Church, the Hanging Church looked a lot more like the church I was expecting when we went to the Church of the Crypt. Probably the most well known Coptic Church, the Hanging Church gets its name from its location. The church is suspended over a gatehouse of an old Roman fortress and was first built in the 7th century. It was topped with crosses and the courtyard leading up to the church had some awesome mosaics depicting Biblical scenes. Inside, the church was also having service and it looked similar to the previous one in terms of people and the service itself. It was a lot bigger building and the lighting from the windows was beautiful. One of my favorite things about the church was that the marble pulpit was on top of 13 pillars, representing Jesus and the 12 disciples. As is customary in Coptic churches, one of the pillars is black, representing Judas, and another is grey, for doubting Thomas. I took a few pictures because it was allowed here and because the sunlight streaming in was just too pretty not to, but I felt bad since they were still having church. So after a couple of pictures we headed back to the Synagogue, and eventually down the street to another mosque.

The morning was a whirlwind, but especially for me it was very interesting to learn about the Coptic Christians and to experience a little bit more of the religious landscape unique to Egypt.

Posted at 1:57 PM by Jessi Krumrei