Coptic Cairo: Island in the Stream

When one thinks of Cairo, or even Egypt, ancient artifacts and Islamic culture come to mind. But what most people overlook is that Egypt is home to a fairly substantial number of Christians, most of whom are Coptic. Although they are a minority, they are a big part of the culture of Cairo. Remember, they were there and practicing their religion before Islam came into being

There is a whole area in Cairo referred to as “Coptic Cairo,” where many Christians live and work and worship. It is also the area containing many fabulous historical, mostly Byzantine, churches and relics. The Copts I encountered on my brief visit to the neighborhood were very proud of their identity and tradition, and were happy to share with me. A group of young men stopped to talk to my tour guide, and wanted to show me their tattoos. Many Copts have a small tattoo of the Coptic cross on their wrist. This identifies them as being Christian believers. These young men also had several other religious-themed tattoos such as the Virgin Mary, or Jesus wearing a crown of thorns.

In Christian history, Egypt is known as the place where Mary, Joseph and an infant Jesus fled to escape King Herod’s horrific decree to kill all male children under the age of two years. I saw many works of art in Coptic Cairo depicting this scene. In addition, I toured the basement or cave area (now beneath a church) where it is said the Holy Family resided while in hiding. It doesn’t really matter to me whether or not these religious landmarks are the actual place where something happened; what is important is that being there helps you really imagine what it was like and helps to bring the Bible to life in your mind.

The Byzantine Church is well-known for its amazing mosaics and tile work. I have seen many lovely examples of this artistry and workmanship all over the world. Coptic Cairo is also home to some great examples of religious handiwork and architecture. In the Holy Family Hiding Place, they also had an old wine press. I really enjoy seeing the antique implements.

Coptic Cairo is not just about tourists and relics. Normal people are going about their daily, modern lives in this richly historic location. While popping in to buy some drinking water, I met a shopkeeper and his very sweet pre-teen daughter. She was doing her homework in the shop while listening to Western pop music. She wore a Hello Kitty Sweatshirt and was eager to practice her English with me. I also spied a woman in traditional dress with an impressive amount of pita bread in a bowl on her head passing by the Metro station. Like much of the Middle East, there were a fair number of feral cats and kittens.

Coptic Cairo is a gem of a neighborhood in the middle of the massive city. The rich history and fortitude of these Egyptian Christians who have proudly maintained and continued their faith, practice and heritage is something to experience and see. Do not miss it on your trip to Cairo!

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