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).
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 with my insider’s tips and hidden gems.
Here are the best things to do in Coptic Cairo:
1. Hanging Church
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:
On Google Maps: 264J+43
2. Coptic Museum
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 offers a fascinating look at how Coptic Christianity interacted with different cultures across Egyptian history, from the Pharaonic gods and Roman paganism to early Christianity and Islam.
The museum is housed in a beautiful building with elaborately carved wooden ceilings.
The well-labeled exhibits are easy 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.
- It also has beautiful bibles from the 11th and 13th centuries, ancient ankhs, walls of monastery frescoes and 6th-century Christian writings on papyrus.
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
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
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, 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 Fustat Pottery Village, about a 5-minute Tuk Tuk ride from the Coptic Cairo religious complex, is a great destination for browsing artsy plates, mugs and vases – and to catch a few artisans at work in their workshops.
Fustat (and the Coptic Cairo area) is known for its centuries-old tradition of pottery. Artisans have been shaping clay into vessels and bowls here for generations.
Today there are several initiatives to revive this old craft – and Fustat is home to many workshops and ceramics stands. You’ll likely spot pottery along the main roads that include huge plant pots, quirky stork figurines and clay tagines.
Head to the Fustat Pottery Village to browse an array of locally-made ceramics. Start at the long row of shops right past the entrance, which is marked from the street by two enormous Arabian horse figures.
There’s a great selection of pottery that’s all handmade just a few steps away in the workshops inside this massive village. You’ll find anything from minimal mugs in pastel glazes to colorful figurines of Egyptian icons like singer Umm Kulthum.
The village itself is interesting with its domed ceilings and arches. It’s built in the style of Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy, who championed sustainability and local materials.
Getting to the Fustat Pottery Village is tricky because the village isn’t listed in English on Google Maps. So instead, direct your Uber/Careem to this location and keep your eye out for the Arabian horses at the front gate: 263P+84 Old Cairo
Or grab a Tuk Tuk and tell them “fuahir el Fustat” or show them the pottery village Instagram account and every local will direct you there.
6. Church of St. George (Mar Girgis)
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 (believed to have been 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 Egypt’s main Greek Orthodox church and the seat of the Greek Patriarch of Alexandria.
Notice the facade with a relief of St. George atop a horse as he slays the dragon. Inside there’s a beautiful domed ceiling with a portrait of Jesus.
7. 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.
- The mosque was reportedly built where the general pitched his tent and formed the basis of the old capital of Fustat.
- The mosque was first built with only palm trunks thatched with leaves, and it’s had numerous expansions and renovations.
- The mosque 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. A tour guide friend of mine says this mosque is overrated, but it’s definitely still worth a visit if 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. Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church
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 is historically important 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.
9. Ben Ezra Synagogue
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 is allegedly the site where Moses was found among the reeds by the pharaoh’s daughter.
- The synagogue is crucially 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 records researchers got an invaluable glimpse at the local daily life of the 11th to 13th centuries.
- The synagogue is likely built on the foundations of an old church. 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.
10. Souq El Fustat
Souq El Fustat is an airy shopping arcade with rows of boutiques offering handicrafts from across Egypt – all at clearly-marked prices.
It’s one of my favorite places to shop in Cairo for its diverse selection of shops. Plus it’s a breezy and pretty place to browse, lined with benches and potted plants.
You’ll find unique items like locally-made jewelry from recycled materials, Fayoumi pottery, straw baskets and fragrance oils.
There are also a few specialty shops that offer original artworks that you won’t find anywhere else. You can sometimes spot the artisans working away on their paintings or brass pieces right inside their shops. And they’re always happy to chat about their work.
Here are some of my favorites shops:
- Thaer Irab has imaginative brass and metal creations. These include sculptures inspired by Ancient Egypt, landscapes made of metal pieces and jewelry, bookmarks and more. You’ll find ankh rings, dazzling lanterns made with handblown glass and enormous brass ships.
- Vetro (see top photo) does cookware, plates, tea kettles and kitchen utensils in colorful enamel. Their pieces and lively and very durable too. Vetro put their own modern twist on traditional Egyptian enamel and they have some beautiful platters too.
- For foodies, there’s also a small shop (at gallery 39) with an array of products from the Sinai desert, from jars of delectable olives, to honey, olive oil and spices.
Souq El Fustat is right outside the Coptic Cairo religious complex, next door to the mosque of Amr ibn al-As (#7).
On Google Maps: 264H+CV
11. Church of St. Barbara
This small church houses some brilliant icons and relics of St. Barbara, who was killed by her father after she converted to Christianity.
- Built between the 4th and 5th centuries, the Church of St. Barbara was originally dedicated to St. Cyrus and St. John, martyrs who were worshiped for their healing powers.
- It was later restored in the 11th century to house the relics of St. Barbara. The relics remain inside the church to this day.
- The church facade looks very unremarkable from the outside. And that’s because it was intentionally built to blend in at a time when Christians were persecuted by the Romans. Its plain architecture was its saving grace.
Inside, the church has a sanctuary dedicated to St. Barbara and beautiful icons depicting the Virgin Mary and Jesus.
Many of the church’s most notable relics are now on display at the nearby Coptic Museum.
12. Red Sea Bookstore
This well-stocked bookstore has a great selection from the latest beach read to coffee table books on Ancient Egypt.
There are lots of titles from the wonderful AUC Press, publishers of numerous books on Egypt. Stock up on books on just about anything Egypt-related that you’re curious to read up on. There are books on anything from Fayoumi pottery to Egyptian football Ultras to travel guides.
There are also books on Egypt in foreign languages including German and French. And if you’re travelling with family, check out the selection of Egypt-themed children’s books and games.
If you’re looking for Arab fiction, anything by Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz is a great choice. This Nobel Prize winner is an incredible realist writer who chronicles the intrigues of his cast of Egyptian characters.
The bookstore is located right at the entrance to the Coptic Cairo religious complex.
On Google Maps: 265J+89
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.