The Miracle that Saved Cairo’s Christians
Christianity is active and beautiful in Cairo. In the tenth and final part of his series on the recent Pilgrimage of the Peacemakers, GÜNTHER SIMMERMACHER visits Cairo’s Coptic Church.
Once upon a time Cairo had a tolerant caliph who took a keen interest in other religions, of course without compromising his Muslim faith. Caliph al-Muizz Lideenillah, who reigned from 953-972 enjoyed reading about religion and debating it. One day, the story goes, he presided over a debate with the Coptic Pope Abraam and the caliph’s Jewish vizier (or minister), Yaqub ibn Killis.
Pope Abraam was trouncing Yaqub in debate, so the vizier played his trump card by quoting Matthew 17:20 (“…if your faith is the size of a mustard seed you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’, and it will move; nothing will be impossible for you”), and demanded that Abraam prove his religion by turning Jesus’ figure of speech into literal action.
Caliph al-Muizz upped the ante: should Abraam fail to actually move a mountain through prayer, all Copts in Cairo would be expelled, enslaved or executed. Faced with the impossible, Abraam asked for three days in which to pray for a miracle. He called on the Christians of Egypt to fervently pray and fast, and got together the priests, monks and elders of the Church and retreated with them into the Hanging Church, or El Muallaqa, which is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The Hanging Church was built on top of the gatehouse of a Roman fortress and was so nicknamed because its nave is suspended over a hollow passage. One enters it by climbing 29 steps from the courtyard which is decorated with modern mosaics of biblical scenes, including one depicting the Flight into Egypt.
Its façade, with the two clock towers, is quite new, from the 19th century. But as one enters through the main door, one comes to a second courtyard, now covered, from the 11th century. The church itself was built in the seventh century, probably replacing one from the third or fourth century. Pope Abraam remodelled the church in the 970s, and alterations have kept going ever since. The surroundings of the church were completed in 2011.
It is a beautiful church, dominated by the striking 12th-century iconostasis (the wall in Orthodox churches that separates the nave from the sanctuary), made of ivory and inlaid with ebony, and by the intricate 11th-century marble pulpit which rests on 12 pillars, each representing an apostle. The church is decorated with more than a hundred icons from different eras, going back to the 700s.
We exited by the street entrance where a couple of our members of the Pilgrimage of our Peacemakers group were mobbed for selfies by school children on a class trip, as though they were Katy Perry and Beyoncé.
The Hanging Church is the seat of the Coptic pope, and therefore Egypt’s most important church. But when the seat of the pope was moved from Alexandria in 1047, the nearby church of Ss Sergius and Bacchus, also known as Abu Serga, had a stronger claim to being the city’s pre-eminent church. It had a good case as the long-standing seat of Cairo’s patriarchs, but the pope at the time preferred the El Muallaqa as the pope’s church, and so it has remained.
The Abu Serga was built in the fourth century on the site of a cave in which the Holy Family was hidden during the exile in Egypt. A local tradition has it that St Joseph worked at the Roman fortress during that time, which would be a case of hiding in plain sight. A map displayed outside the church’s side entrance shows the itinerary of the Holy Family in Egypt, according to Coptic tradition. It indicates 20 places where Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus took refuge after fleeing Palestine via Gaza.
Except for a detour to modern Wadi el Natroun at the edge of the Western Desert (which we visited in last week’s article), the route followed as far south along the Nile as the modern city of Assiut, about 380km south of Cairo. In almost all stations there is a monastery or church dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
Normally pilgrims can pray in the chapel of the Holy Family’s refuge in the church of Ss Sergius and Bacchus, but it is currently under comprehensive renovation, so when our group made a furtive visit, the place resembled a building site.
But let us return briefly to the Hanging Church, where we last left Pope Abraam facing his impossible task of having faith actually moving mountains.
On the third day of the retreat, the Blessed Virgin appeared to him in a dream. She instructed Abraam to go to the market and “find a one-eyed man carrying on his shoulder a jar full of water; seize him, for it is he at whose hands this miracle shall be manifested”. The pope did as he was told, went to the market and found a man fitting the Virgin’s description. That man was Simon the Tanner (not to be confused with St Peter’s host in Jaffa, of course).
As a leather-worker, Simon was a man of no import but one of a faith so rigorous that he gouged out his own right eye in obedience to Scripture As a leather-worker, Simon was a man of no import but one of a faith so rigorous that he gouged out his own right eye in obedience to Scripture: “If your right eye should be your downfall, tear it out and throw it away; for it will do you less harm to lose one part of yourself than to have your whole body thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:29). If you wanted a man who read the Bible’s metaphors literally, you wanted a man like Simon the Tanner.
The story goes that Simon instructed Abraam to gather his priests, monks and the faithful at the foot of Mokattam mountain in what is now south-eastern Cairo, and summon the caliph with his officials and soldiers there, too. Again, Abraam did as he was told. With the crowd of faithful and the caliph’s entourage gathered at the foot of the Mokattam, the pope called out 400 times the “Kyrie Eleison” (“Lord have mercy”) and then made the sign of the cross over the mountain. He repeated this twice more.
And the mountain lifted three times in a mighty earthquake, with sunlight seen beneath it.
The caliph was suitably impressed by the miracle and addressed the pope: “Patriarch, I have recognised the correctness of your faith.” According to a Coptic tradition, al-Muizz later abdicated and converted to Christianity. The Copts hold on to these traditions as fact, even as many historians reject them.
Later that day our group would walk down the magnificent and historic Al-Muizz Street, one of Cairo’s oldest and most important, lined with mosques and the ancient al-Azhar university founded by the caliph himself in around 970. It is unlikely that the Fatimid rulers would have named a street after an apostate caliph. But even if al-Muizz didn’t convert to Christianity, he did leave the Copts in peace.
As for St Simon the Tanner, he disappeared at the moment of the miracle. His remains were long lost until 1991 when they were discovered during restorations in the 11th-century church of the Holy Virgin in Old Cairo’s Babylon district.
A thousand-year-old pot was found in a nearby church. Copts believed this to be the clay jar in which Simon carried water to the poor. It is now kept in the new church of St Simon the Tanner on Mokattam Mountain, which our group visited for our final Mass.
Tour buses can’t go up Mokattam, so we went by mini-buses through the village of Zabbaleen. This is the suburb to which Cairo’s rubbish collectors were forcibly moved in 1969. The winding roads are lined with huge sacks of rubbish which the approximately 30,000 residents of the village, most of them Christians, sort through in search of recyclable materials.
The streets are covered in garbage, and the poverty is palpable. But it is this community that spearheaded the construction of the monastery of St Simon the Tanner on top of the mountain. And, unlike the streets leading to it, the monastery is spotlessly clean. This is no doubt one of the most extraordinary Christian places I have visited. It incorporates seven cave churches as well as several social services for the community, including a school for the deaf, a vocational training centre and a hospital.
The church of St Simon the Tanner is a central place in Cairo’s Christian life. In times of crisis and in times of thanksgiving, the city’s faithful ascend Mokattam to pray in the huge semi-outdoor church of St Simon, most of it cut into the rock, which can hold 20,000 people. Mass is celebrated there every day.
Throughout the monastery, a Polish artist referred to only as Brother Paul has cut striking biblical scenes into the rock, with much detail. Most of them are huge, so that they can be seen, and meditated on, from a distance. One of these, of the Resurrection, looms above the mega-church of St Simon; it appeared on the front-page of The Southern Cross’ Easter edition in March.
Our Mass would be in what we were told was “the small church”. On our way we came upon a huge cave church, big enough to seat a few thousand people. As I was scouting for the entrance to “the small church”, our guide said that this was it. The setting for this Mass was unusual as that of the previous day at the Anafora Retreat Centre, when we sat on rugs and pillows.
This big cave church is dedicated to St Mark, Egypt’s apostle and patron, and is lined with Brother Paul’s rock-cut reliefs. We had time to admire them as Archbishop Stephen Brislin, our spiritual director, and guide Maged Fawzy tried to work out how to uncork the bottle of wine that had been bought for Holy Communion without the essential aid of a corkscrew. These are the times when even the most zealous oenophile might see an upside to screwtops. Eventually a local caretaker managed to dislodge the cork with a screwdriver.
And so we had the final Mass of our pilgrimage, during which we celebrated the Eucharist in so many memorable places: a chapel just a few metres from the tomb of the Resurrection in the church of the Holy Sepulchre; on the shore of the Sea of Galilee; in the cave beneath the birthplace of Jesus where St Jerome translated the Bible; in the church of the Annunciation in Nazareth; on Mount Carmel; at the place of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor; and so on.
It was a unique journey of faith that also gave us a new understanding of the many issues facing the Holy Land, especially its Christians, and of the Church in Egypt. We left with our faith deepened and with much to pray for.
Last Week: The deep faith of Egypt’s Christians
Günther Simmermacher is the author of The Holy Land Trek: A Pilgrim’s Guide, published by Southern Cross Books. Join The Southern Cross on the Year of Mercy Pilgrimage to the Holy Land and Egypt in October, led by Fr Larry Kaufmann CSsR. Details and illustrated itinerary