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Cairo: History
Roman Cairo

Misr al-Qadima

Today, the area known as Misr al-Qadima (Old Cairo) is dominated by the Fortress of Babylon, the only visible trace of Roman occupation on this site. It was constructed by Trajan around 98 AD (the ancient geographer Strabo, who visited Egypt 130 years before the rule of Trajan, describes an older fortification near this site that has been linked with the Persian conquest of 525 BC). Over the centuries since the erection of the Roman fort, the course of the river has shifted westwards from its original position in front of the west wall of the fort. (Trajan also cleared the bed of an earlier canal from the Nile to the Red Sea, known as the Amnis Trajanas, which joined the river just north of Babylon.) Excavations at the spectacular south gate (also called the Iron gate) have revealed remains of a quay.

Old Cairo is the Christian canter of the modern city, and churches of great antiquity still stand here. One of the most impressive is the Hanging church (al-Mu'allaqa), so-called because of its position suspended over the south gate of the fort. The original church on this site was founded during the fourth century; the current building may date from as early as the seventh century, but was rebuilt in 977 and heavily restored in the nineteenth century. It was badly damaged in the 1992 earthquake with affected many of Cairo's medieval buildings, and both it and the nearby Coptic museum are still covered in scaffolding. The church, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, contains an eleventh-century pulpit, a thirteenth-century ebony and ivory screen and many medieval icons and murals, the oldest o which dates from the eighth century. Many of the artifact from this church are displayed in the Coptic Museum.

The Greek Orthodox Church and Monastery of St George (Maris Girgis) is built onto the northern of the twin western towers of the Roman fort.

The current structure was built in 1909 after being gutted by fire in 1904, but the original church is documented form the tenth century. This is the seat of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch and the Monastery is closed to the public. Until recently the basement of this church provided access to the lower rooms of the tower of Babylon, but these rooms have now been 'renovated' and no longer bear any trace of their Roman origins, nor are they open to visitors.

Also of interest inside the fort are the Convent of St George, the Churches of St Sergius/St Bacchus and St Barbara and the Synagogue of Ben Ezra. The Convent is closed, but its tenth-century chapel is worth a visit. The crypt of St Sergius's church is reputedly where the Holy Family sheltered after their flight to Egypt; it suffers badly form water damage (as indeed does all of Old Cairo, although steps are being taken by the Egyptian Government to drain groundwater from the area). This ancient Church was the seat of the Coptic Patriarch from the ninth-century, but has undergone some restoration. The Church of St Barbara, originally dedicated to Sts Cyril and John, was built in the fourth or fifth century; the present structure dates to the eleventh century but again, it has been extensively restored. The relics of all three Saints, as well as St Juliana, are housed here; contact relics are regularly handed out to visitors by the custodian.

The Synagogue of Ben Ezra, a converted Coptic church dedicated to St Michael, is Egypt's oldest Synagogue. It was acquired by the Jewish community around the ninth century and restored by Rabbi Abraham Ben-Ezra in the twelfth century. Allowed to decay, it was again renovated in the 1980s by the American Jewish Congress. One of the most important historical sources for Cairo was found in this building: the Cairo Geniza archive, a collection of more than 250,000 manuscripts dating from 1002 onwards, many of which are now in London and Cambridge. The Fort of Babylon also contains extensive cemeteries; these are leafy and pleasant, and some Roman brickwork can still be seen in places.
(Alison Gascoigne)



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