JUST TWO OLD CHURCHES
By Ethel Nielsen

     It was our third day in Cairo, Egypt. We had just returned from a donkey ride in the city of Memphis, the capital of the first dynasty, which dated from 3100 to 2600 B.C. We were sitting on the terrace at the Mena House looking at the fascinating pyramids, and reflecting on the incalculable history and mysteries of this great city of antiquity. Suddenly, we were brought back to reality when we heard someone say: “But, the trip isn’t worth $2. The only thing you will see is just two old churches!”

     Our interest was aroused. We wondered what trip they were talking about. Could it be the $2 tour of the old city of Cairo which we had just scheduled for the next morning? We felt anxious so we joined the discussion group. We learned that several people had just returned from a tour of the Cairo Museum where they had met some American tourists who had just completed a tour of the old city of Cairo. Those tourists had reported that the trip was a total waste of time and money; they said the old city looked just like any other old city, and that the two old churches were no different from others they had seen.

     When we left the terrace, we felt discouraged and were almost influenced to believe that we should cancel our proposed tour. But, fortunately, in the quiet of our room, we remember the old adage, “that what pleases one does not necessary please another.” We also remembered the many tourists we had met who had no capacity for enjoying or absorbing the history of the past, present, and future which surrounded them; their interest did not extend beyond their own personal comfort and the lobby of the hotels. We decided to risk the $2 per person price of the tour and find out for ourselves what history laid hidden behind those old city walls.

     The next morning, our first stop was on the banks of the River Nile where Moses had been found in the bull rushes. We then entered the old city where we walked through the gates that had been used for centuries; gates that used to be closed at sunset and not opened again until sunrise.

     We visited the well-preserved old Fort built in 30 B.C.; and we walked through the same gates that the Christians had secretly opened for the Arabs in 640A.D. which made it possible for the Arabs to conquer and take the city of Cairo from the Romans. Incidentally, you will probably be interested to know that there has always been a friendly feeling between the Arabs and the Christians and that this spirit of friendliness and tolerance still exists throughout the Arab world.

     Near the old fort, we also saw the old Nile Meter as well as the new Rhode Meter. The Nile Meter building was constructed in the 11th century and was used to measure the flood waters of the Nile River until the new one was constructed. It is those old records that have made possible the flood control program of the present era.

     Next, we visited the two old churches that our friends had discussed the day before. What demons were at work that day to keep our friends from being impressed that what they were seeing will never be known. The first church visited was called St. Sargius, and it is the oldest church in Egypt. Beneath the floor of the church there is a Crypt whose history goes back to before Christ. Historians say that when Harod, the Roma ruler of Jerusalem, ordered that all the male children must be killed, the Virgin Mary, Joseph, and child Jesus, fled to Egypt and were sheltered in this Crypt for three months. Following the preaching of St. Marks in Alexandria in 61 A.D., the Egyptians who had adopted Christianity used this place as a chapel until the church proper was built in the fifth century. St Sargius is a Coptic church and their rituals date as far back as the sixth century and Coptic is still used in their services. The nave of the church is divided into three parts separated by twelve pillars, on each side of which there is an icon representing one of the apostles. One of the pillars is not painted on top and has no cross; it is made as a sign to Judas who betrayed the Lord. There are Byzantine paintings on some of the pillars. There are ebony panels inlaid with ivory dating from the eleventh century; and there is a beautifully carved wooden image representing the miracle of the loaves of bread and the fishes.

     The other old church turned out to be the oldest synagogue in Egypt. The history of this synagogue goes back to the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar: 606-538 when news of the first destruction of Solomon’s Temple was brought to Egypt by the Jews who returned with their prophet Jeremiah. The Jews accidentally found the Marks of Moses and there they built a Synagogue in the name of Jeremiah. Within this Synagogue was built a special place called Guenizah (safe keeping) for the incomplete Torah. The present building was built in 868 A.D. and was renamed Ben Ezra Snagogue. Inside we saw the rock where Moses prayed for the last time before leaving Egypt; and, we saw an old Torah which had been written on deer skin about 475 B.C.

     Just two old churches! That’s what our friend had said we would see. We wondered what they saw when they stood at the base of the 481 foot high Pyramid of Cheops and the Sphinx built some 2,500 years before the birth of Christ; what did they feel when they stood in the courtyard of the famous City of Eternity—the Mamluks—a monument of carved stone with the graceful minarets built by the Sultana during the Arab Middle Ages. Or, did they sit in the hotel lobby while others went to see the 42 foot high statue of Rameses II, and the 60 ton 70 ton granite stone vaults where the sacred bulls had been buried during 1400-1600 B.C. Or, was it too hot to visit the Thi Tomb, 2500 B.C. where the passage ways were lined with carvings depicting every phase of daily life during this period.

     We were glad we had spent our $2. And, we recommend that when you visit Cairo that you too investigate what treasures of history lay hidden behind those old city walls!

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