things to do in coptic cairo
Egypt,  Travel

13 Best Things To Do In Coptic Cairo

From dusty book stalls to some of Egypt’s most splendid churches, Coptic Cairo is a quiet neighborhood with incredible religious history.

Coptic Cairo is an old part of the city lined with Coptic churches and historical sites that were the stronghold for Egypt’s Christianity before the Muslim conquests. It’s believed the Holy Family sought refuge here after they fled from Herod.

It’s also home to some of Cairo’s most fascinating hidden gems – from pottery centers to contemporary art galleries and rooftop concerts.

Today Coptic Cairo boasts five original churches, Egypt’s first mosque and a 12th-century synagogue (reportedly the site where baby Moses was found on the banks of the Nile).

things to do in coptic cairo

things to do in coptic cairo

Highlights include the Coptic Museum, which houses the world’s largest collection of Coptic art, beautiful manuscripts, icons, frescoes and relics. The nearby 3rd-century basilica-style Hanging Church houses icons that date back to the 8th century.

Coptic Cairo is also filled with book stalls and souvenir shops that are perfect for an afternoon of browsing. The area is quiet and closed off to cars.

I’m a long-time expat living for years in Cairo and I love exploring this historic district. I’ve discovered so many treasures strolling this neighborhood – and I even lived here for a few months when I first moved to Egypt!

So here’s my ultimate local’s guide to the best things to do in Coptic Cairo – along with my insider’s tips and hidden gems:

1. Hanging Church

hanging church cairo

hanging church cairo

The Hanging Church was originally built on top of a Roman fortress suspended above two gate towers. It contains a stunning wooden ceiling, an ornate interior and centuries-old icons.

When the church was first built, it towered over its surroundings atop the pillars of the gate house that were visible below. But over the centuries the ground level rose and the pillars are now completely buried.

Built in the 7th century, it’s one of Egypt’s oldest Christian religious sites.

The Hanging Church boasts a courtyard with fountains and beautiful Biblical mosaics, and a 19th century facade with twin bell towers.

Insider’s tip: Coptic Mass is held Wednesday, Friday and Sunday mornings. It’s a fascinating service to observe with chanting and incense smoke.

The lavish interior is decorated with intricate geometric patterns, lotus-shaped panels and Coptic-style paintings of the disciples.

The stunning domed wooden ceiling is designed to mimic the shape of Noah’s Arc.

The church houses 110 different icons, the oldest of which is the Coptic Mona Lisa dating back to the 8th century.

Need to know:

Tickets: Free.

On Google Maps: 264J+43

2. Coptic Museum

coptic museum

coptic museum cairo

Photo: HoudaBelabd, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Coptic Museum contains the world’s largest collection of Coptic Christian artifacts, including dazzling icons, manuscripts, wooden panels and frescoes that chronicle centuries of Christianity in Egypt.

The museum holds more than 1,200 pieces that date back to the origins of Coptic Christianity in the 3rd century. It also has beautiful bibles from the 11th and 13th centuries, ancient ankhs, walls of monastery frescoes and 6th-century Christian writings on papyrus.

The museum offers a fascinating look at how Coptic Christianity interacted with a series of different cultures across Egyptian history, including the Pharaonic gods, Roman and Greek paganism, early Christianity and Islam.

The Coptic Museum was opened in 1910 in an effort to preserve Coptic heritage. It’s housed in a beautiful building with elaborately carved wooden ceilings. The modern and well-labeled exhibits are a pleasure to browse, though some are dimly lit (for preservation).

Don’t miss the exquisite 4th to 7th-century Coptic textiles, and the oldest book of psalms in the world with original wooden covers.

Need to know:

Tickets: 100 EGP per adult and 50 EGP for students with valid ID.

Hours: Open daily from 9 am to 4:30 pm.

On Google Maps: 264J+62

3. Book and antique stalls

coptic cairo

coptic cairo

There’s a cluster of small antique shops and souvenir stands right at the entrance to the religious complex that are perfect for browsing piles of old books, vintage cameras and curiosities that make for some very unique Egyptian souvenirs.

Go deeper inside the complex and stroll through the narrow alleyways that are lined with book stands crammed with Egyptology, history and Arab literature.

There are lots of titles from AUC Press, which publish very thorough books on just about any topic related to Egyptian history and culture.

4. Babylon Fortress

Babylon Fortress

This Ancient Roman fortress, built around 30 BC on the banks of the Nile, can still be clearly seen today enclosing the churches and museum of Coptic Cairo.

It was built near the start of an ancient canal that once connected the Nile to the Red Sea. And it marked the boundary between Lower and Middle Egypt where boats paid a toll to cross.

Built in the Roman style with red and white banded masonry, this fortress served in the age of Augustus as the headquarters of three legions that controlled Egypt.

Legend says the fortress’ foundations were laid by Persian King Nebuchadnezzar, who named the fortress after his Macedonian capital of Babylon.

The fortress later fell in 641 to the Arab conquerors led by General Amr Ibn Al Aas (who also established Egypt’s first mosque, located just down the street). The thick walls of the fortress were taken apart and much of the stone was used to build Coptic Cairo.

Stroll around the fortress and spot the two round Roman towers, one of which now houses the Hanging Church. And notice the distinct Roman pattern of five limestone blocks followed by three blocks of red brick used in construction.

The fortress is just across from the Mar Girgis metro station and can be seen around the grounds of the Coptic Museum.

5. Fustat Pottery Village

The area is also known for its pottery. Artisans have been shaping clay into vessels and bowls here for centuries. Today there are several initiatives to revive the old craft and you’ll likely spot pottery workshops along the roads.

6. Church of St. George (Mar Girgis)

coptic cairo things to do

coptic cairo things to do

coptic cairo things to do

This 10th-century Greek Orthodox church is one of the oldest in Cairo – and it’s built on the site where the Holy Family reportedly rested after their journey into Egypt.

The rich interior boasts elaborate woodwork, stained glass windows and frescoes depicting the dragon-slaying saint (who’s believed to have been imprisoned and martyred nearby).

The church is built on an old, round Roman-era tower that gives it its circular shape.

It was rebuilt after a 1904 fire and it’s still an active church today. The church is Egypts’ principle Greek Orthodox church and the seat of the Greek Patriarch of Alexandria.

Notice the facade with a relief of St. George in Roman attire atop an Arabian horse as he slays his dragon nemesis. Inside there’s a beautiful domed ceiling with a portrait of Jesus.

7. Mosque of Amr ibn al-As

Mosque of Amr ibn al-As

Mosque of Amr ibn al-As

Amr ibn al-As was the first mosque to be ever built in Egypt – founded in 642 by the commander of the Muslim army that conquered Egypt.

It was reportedly built where the general pitched his tent and formed the basis of the old capital of Fustat. Though the mosque originally consisted of only palm trunks thatched with leaves, it’s had numerous expansions and renovations.

It was scorched by a fire during the Crusades, shaken by an earthquake and razed then rebuilt by a Mamluk sultan.

The current structure is a restoration and nothing like the original – Egypt’s oldest mosque that’s still standing is actually Ibn Tulun. And though a tour guide friend of mine called Amr ibn al-As overrated, the mosque is still worth a visit when you’re in Coptic Cairo.

Insider’s tip: Amr ibn al-As is a working mosque so it’s closed to tourists during prayers.

It’s a cool and breezy mosque with a sweeping courtyard that features a labyrinth of 200 marble columns (many taken from ancient sites). It takes influences from both Greek and Roman architecture, and was an important center for religious scholars for 600 years.

Need to know:

On Google Maps: 266M+27

8. Darb 1718

Darb 1718

Darb 1718

Darb 1718

Head to the arts and culture center Darb 1718 (a 5-minute walk from the Hanging Church) to browse a complex of pottery shops and artists studios. Stop by the Darb 1718 gallery for some modern Egyptian art. Darb also hosts fun events like yoga in Old Cairo, rooftop concerts and film screenings.

Darb offers exhibits of contemporary Egyptian art in the heart of Old Cairo.

When the weather’s nice, there are rooftop concerts by anyone from Pink Floyd cover bands to Egyptian folk-inspired jazz. In the summers there are films and movie festivals in the small garden where you can sit back on bean bags and catch some subtitled masterpieces.

Insider tip: Browse the pottery workshops around Darb to find some sleek and colorful pottery. You can also often see the potters at their wheels working inside their workshops.

Fustat was Egypt’s first capital known for its pottery. And Darb offers ceramic workshops where you can learn this ancient craft. It’s an artsy hotspot in a neighborhood filled with mechanics workshops and shisha cafes.

Need to know:

The basics: Sign up for the workshops on Darb’s website and check their Facebook page for upcoming events.

Location: on Google Maps (263J+7P Old Cairo).

9. Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church

Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church

Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church

Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church

(photos: Sailko, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The magnificent 4th-century Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church (aka Abu Serga) is one of Egypt’s oldest Coptic churches.

It features a 10-meter deep crypt (which you can access down a staircase) where the Holy Family reportedly rested after their journey into Egypt. And the church still commemorates their arrival every year on June 1st with prayers inside the cave of the church.

The church holds further historic importance as the site where many Coptic patriarchs were elected from the 7th century onwards.

The rich brick-spotted interior features a pulpit, an inlaid ivory and wood templon and images of saints and apostles across the domes and columns.

The church is dedicated to Sergius and Bacchus, two high-ranking officers in the Roman army how were martyred in 4th-century Syria. They were outed as Christians and then killed for their beliefs.

10. Ben Ezra Synagogue

ben ezra synagogue

ben ezra synagogue

(photos: Schlanger, Abdelrahman Farag, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

According to local folklore, this beautiful 9th-century synagogue is built on the site where baby Moses was found on the banks of the Nile.

A spring nearby (outside and behind the synagogue) is allegedly the site where Moses was found among the reeds by the pharaoh’s daughter.

The synagogue is also historically significant to scholars. In the 1890s, more than 250,000 historic papers in Aramaic, Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic were found in the synagogue’s basement. And thanks to these invaluable records (now held at the University of Cambridge) researchers learned about the life of local Jewish communities in the 11th to 13th centuries.

The synagogue is likely built on the foundations of an old church that was sold in the 9th-century to Egypt’s Jewish community. It’s named after prominent Jewish religious scholar Abraham Ibn Ezra.

The interior of the Ben Ezra Synagogue is rich with marble columns, woodwork and unique details like lotus flowers and fan palms.

Today, because of the decline of Egypt’s Jewish community, the synagogue serves more as a museum than a functioning synagogue.

Note that no photography is allowed inside.

11. Souq El Fustat

Souq El Fustat

Souq El Fustat

Head to Souq El Fustat, a cozy arcade with fixed prices. It’s full of boutiques that offer handicrafts from across Egypt. You’ll find unique items like jewelry made by local women from recycled materials and colorful cookware.

On Google Maps: 264H+CV

12. Church of St. Barbara

This small church houses some brilliant icons and relics of St. Barbara, who was reportedly killed by her father after trying to convert him.

Built between the 4th and 5th centuries, the Church of St. Barbara has a quiet ambiance and breathtaking architecture.

13. Red Sea Bookstore

This well-stocked bookstore has rows of titles from the wonderful AUC Press, publishers of numerous books on Egypt. Stock up on books on just about anything related to Egyptian history and culture.

How to get to Coptic Cairo:

Take an Uber to the Mar Girgis metro station. The station is right inside the complex where all the churches and main attractions are. The Uber drops you off at the security gate at the entrance since the complex is closed off to cars.

You can also easily take the metro to Mar Girgis, of course.

Or take an Uber to the Amr ibn al-As Mosque. It’s a 5-minute stroll down that main street to the complex (just ask a local to point you towards Mar Girgis).

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