COPTIC HANGING CHURCH, Cairo, Egypt
Built upon the 3rd century ruined gate of the Roman fortress, layers of palm tree logs and stones were used to construct the foundation for the Hanging Church. Probably the most famous church in Coptic Cairo, the Hanging Church is also one of the oldest. Between 7th and 13th century, the Hanging Church was the residence of the Coptic Patriarch. Although much of what we see today of the church’s exterior is from the 19th century, many of the interior architectural features and objects date back to various periods in history, including the 110 Christian icons in which the oldest dates back to the 8th century. Some parts of the church was off limits to tourists during our visit, but nonetheless the Hanging Church was the highlight of our visit of Coptic Cairo.
After Coptic Cairo, we spent much of the afternoon at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the huge museum filled with treasures from ancient Egypt since 1901. The exhibits seemed disorienting at times, though its collection of the 120,000 ancient Egypt artefacts, such as papyrus, stone statues, jewellery, royal mummies (famous pharaohs such as Ramses II), and funeral accessories were truly magnificent. The most impressive of all was undoubtedly the treasures of the tomb of boy King Tutankhamen. According to plan, the Cairo’s Egyptian Museum would be replaced by the new Grand Egyptian Museum at Giza in 2021. Unfortunately, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic would likely affect the visitor numbers for the new museum at its grand opening.
Leaving the museum, we strolled along the Nile and saw a few felucca owners cleaning their boats. We didn’t have the interest to hire a felucca. Instead, we headed to Cafe Niche for a quick bite. Back at Luna Hotel, my two travel buddies rested a bit before heading to the train station for their quick visit of Upper Egypt. For me, I thought more time would be needed for a decent visit of Luxor and Aswan in Upper Egypt. Instead, I planned to spend the remaining few days in Egypt on my own. My destination was off the beaten track at Siwa Oasis and the Western Desert.
COPTIC QUARTER, Cairo, Egypt
At around 42 AD, Saint Mark introduced Christianity into Egypt and found the Church of Alexandria, one of the five apostolic sees of early Christianity in the Roman Empire (Church of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem ). By the 3rd century, Christianity had became the most popular religion in Egypt. The local language used to translate the earliest scripture was Coptic, and the Copts are one of the most ancient Christian communities in the Middle East. As Islam and the Arabic language entered Egypt in the 7th century, the significance of the Coptic language declined. Coptic Orthodox Christianity, on the other hand, continues to evolve and has became the main stream Christianity in Egypt. It is also believed that many practices of early Christians had been preserved by the Coptic Church. Today, it is estimated that Copts account for 5 to 20% of the Egyptian population.
In the 12 century, the seat of the Church of Alexandria was relocated to Coptic Cairo, the area believed to be visited by the Holy family when Jesus was a child. Today, Coptic Quarter is included in Old Cairo, the historical area of the Egyptian capital that has been inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1979. Like many tourists, we took the metro to the Coptic Quarter on our second day in Cairo. We visited the St George Church, Synagogue of Ben Ezra, Church of Abu Serga, and the Hanging Church. We also toured the Coptic Cemetery. Every tomb in the Coptic Cemetery is like a small shrine on its own.
SAINT CATHERINE’S MONASTERY, Sinai Peninsula, Egypt
In the shaded valley of Mount Sinai stands the 1500-year fortified Eastern Orthodox monastery named after Catherine of Alexandria, the Christian saint and virgin who was martyred in the early 4th century in hands of Emperor Maxentius. Monastic life had been known since the 4th century at the Sinai location, in the barren land of austerity and remoteness. In AD 330, Empress Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine the Great, built the Chapel of Burning Bush and a small hermit refuge at the site where Moses was supposed to see the burning bush and was named by God as the leader to lead the Israelies out of Egypt. In the 6th century, Emperor Justinian I ordered the construction of the monastery complex that we see today to house the Chapel of the Burning Bush. Amazingly the monastery still remains functioning as a Christian monastery today, and became one of the oldest monastic communities in the world. Due to the site’s significance in the Old Testament, the monastery is considered a sacred pilgrimage site for all sects of Christianity, Islam and Judaism throughout history.
After a sleepless night and hours of hiking in the rugged Mount Sinai, we finally made it to Saint Catherine’s Monastery at around 08:00. From the outside, the monastery resembles a highly fortified defense complex. It was hard to imagine that beyond the high stone walls stand one of the world’s oldest monastery, together with the oldest library in the Western world. The thousand-year-old library contains 3300 manuscripts written in 11 languages: Greek, Arabic, Syriac, Christian Palestinian Aramaic, Georgian and Slavonic. These manuscripts have became an extremely precious collection: classical Greek texts, medical writing, monastic documents and other texts created in different period in history, including some splendidly made manuscripts with glided letters and illuminations crafted in Constantinople. While the library is off limits to tourists, most visitors and pilgrims who have braved the harsh landscape and remote location of Sinai would find peace and bliss for the real life encounter with the legendary Burning Bush mentioned in the Book of Exodus.
We waited outside the monastery for about an hour until 09:00. Inside the complex, only the main church, a small museum and the exterior courtyard where the Burning Bush stands are opened to the public. At the crowded courtyard, everyone was trying to take pictures of themselves with the legendary Burning Bush. We wandered around the complex for a while and slowly returned to the parking lot of Mount Sinai for the tour minibus. We were quite sleepy and tired by the time we reached Bishibishi. At the hotel we grabbed a quick bite, packed our backpacks, and took the 14:30 bus leaving for Cairo. It was a long journey, passing by the Suez Canal at sunset, and reached Cairo after 8.5 hours on the road. At the bus station in Cairo, we took a taxi to Midan Talaat Harb, a star-shaped plaza at the centre of a shopping district, where our guesthouse was located. It was 23:30 when we arrived, but it felt like 20:00 as most shops and restaurants were still busy. After our hermitic days in the Arabian desert of Wadi Rum and Sinai Peninsula, the vibrant scenes of Cairo almost gave us a little shock.: the way people drive, cross the streets, yell in the shops, and occasionally intimidate tourists for a little tip. This is Cairo, the largest city in Africa, Middle East and the Arab world, with over 20 million of inhabitants who are proud of their pharaohic history.
THE SACRED SUMMIT OF MOUNT SINAI, Sinai Peninsula, Egypt
In the moonless pitch-dark night, we took on the pilgrimage route to the summit of Jebel Musa (2285m). Commonly known as Mount Sinai, Jebel Musa is believed by many to be the spot where the legend of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments from God actually took place. The night was so dark that I could hardly see my own fingers without a flashlight. In the dark, the sound of cowbells worn by camels carrying tourists and elderly nuns was essential for us to keep a safe distance. On the narrow path, tourists rubbed shoulders with Jewish, Muslims, and Christian pilgrims, racing against time to reach the summit for the spiritual sunrise.
At 23:00, the tour minibus came to pick us up at our guesthouse in Dahab. After 2.5 hours on the desert highway in complete darkness (except occasional street lamp at road intersections), we finally arrived the trailhead of Mount Sinai at 01:30. In the middle of the night, groups after groups of tourists and pilgrims gathered at the parking lot, getting ready to climb the sacred mountain for the spectacular sunrise. Our guide walked extremely fast. We soon lose sight of him as clusters of locals and camel vendors gathered in front of us to sell their guiding or camel riding services. A German tourist from our minibus was interested on riding the camel, but immediately rejected the idea after he asked for the price. The camel vendors soon became aggressive, and led their camels to block our way. Our guide came for our help, but failed to get rid of the vendors until a tourist police came over to stop the vendor.
The climb was not a walk in the park due to the darkness. Between my friend and I we shared one small flashlight. We made four rest stops along the way and reached the end of the path in a little over two hours. Then came the last challenge: the 700 uneven steps to the summit. It was sweaty and exhausting but we eventually reached the top at 04:30. On the summit there was a small chapel and a few vendors renting out blankets and mattresses. It was quite chilly up there as we stood in front of the chapel to wait for the magical sunrise. I soon discovered a better spot on a east facing rock. The rock surface was a little slippery, and if we fell over it could be fatal. The sky turned white at around 05:30, and the sun finally came out at 06:00. I felt much warmer just by watching the rising of the sun over the rugged terrains. Not until the sun was out that I came to realize how crowded the summit actually was. Visitors and their sleeping bags were everywhere: on top of the chapel, on roof of distant mud houses, on the stone path, on the paved terraces, etc. Under the golden light, Mount Sinai and its surrounding scenery was spectacular. Rocky, dry, bare, not a single tree or a cluster of grass could be seen. At 06:15 we began the 2-hour descend to St. Catherine’s Monastery, one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world.
CHURCH OF SAINT SIMEON STYLITES, Aleppo, Syria
Simeon Stylites, a famous ascetic saint seeking for a spiritual life of extreme austerity, spent 37 years living on a small platform atop a pillar. Probably born in 390 AD, Simeon was devoted to Christianity since about 13 years old. His practice of extreme austerity led him to a pursuit of an ascetic life in seclusion. In order to avoid the crowd of pilgrims seeking for his prayers, Simeon found a pillar from an ancient ruins and built a platform of about one square metre on top and started his 37 year living on a pillar. He moved to different columns throughout his life. The last was recorded to be more than 15m from ground. Instead of isolated from the society, his fame grew even greater after living on a pillar. He would talk to visitors from a ladder, wrote letters, instructed disciplines, hosted lectures for an assembly down below. Even the Roman emperors greatly respected Simeon and his counsels. He died in 459 AD after 37 years spent on a pillar. After his death, stylites or pillar dwellers had become a kind of popular Christian ascetics in early Byzantine era. Qalaat Samaan, or the Church of Saint Simeon Stylites, is a 5th century church built on the site of Simeon’s pillar. Before the construction of Hagia Sophia, the Church of Saint Simeon had the most famous dome in the world of Christendom. Over the last 1600 years, the basilica survived earthquakes and wars, but had met its fate of destruction being at the wrong place at the wrong time: at the crossroad among forces of the Syrian, ISIS, Kurdish, Turkish, Russians and other rebels. Since taken by the ISIS in 2013, the complex had gone through several years of absolute chaos and madness, missile bombing and stone removal, all causing significant damages to the world heritage complex. What believed to be the remains of Simeon’s pillar was damaged by Russian air strikes in support of Assad’s regime. Along with the destruction of old Aleppo, Qalaat Samaan’s ill fate is another great loss to human civilization that no reconstruction work can ever restore.
A 1664 depiction of Saint Simeon Stylites the Elder, Musee d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva.
From the bus station of Aleppo we hired a car to Qalaat Samaan, the famous ruins of the four basilicas built in the 5th century dedicated to Saint Simeon Stylites. The ruins was rather remote, at approximately 2 hour of drive north of Aleppo. We were amazed by the grand scale of the complex, and found the ruined archways very photogenic. We finished our visit at around 11:00 and didn’t have a clue of how to return to Aleppo, as our hired car only offered an one way trip. No public transportation was available, and we were up on a hill far from the highway. At the parking lot, I decided to try hitchhiking. Since there were six of us it wasn’t easy. I headed towards a tour bus in which the driver was reading newspaper. I tried to communicate with him in English and luckily he understood my request. He led me to the tour guide and the group of Spanish tourists. They agreed to take us along all at once as they were leaving for Aleppo as well. They were not a big group, around 15 of them, mainly in their 50s. The bus was the most luxurious tour bus we had ever seen, with large comfortable chairs and a banquette seating area at the back where we settled ourselves comfortably. Their bus even dropped by one of the 700 sites of the Dead Cities along the way. We were invited to go along with them. On the bus, the Spanish group kindly offered us biscuits and snacks. The bus was so comfortable that at the end we all fell asleep. When we woke up we had already back at the Citadel of Aleppo. This remained as our only hitchhiking experience in the Middle East.
Saint Simeon was an influential figure 1500 years ago, prompting people to construct a large church complex shortly after his death at the site of his pillar. The ruined complex is consisted of the main Church of Saint Simeon, Baptistry, and Monastery.
The Church of Saint Simeon had about 5000 sq.m of floor space, almost comparable to that of the Hagia Sophia. It was designed in a cruciform with four basilica centered at the octagonal courtyard where the remains of the pillar of Saint Simeon stood.
Built in 490 AD, the church was one of the earliest churches in this part of the world.
The massive archways are the most well preserved elements of the complex.
The fine details of the arches and column capitals are valuable artefact from the early Byzantine era.
We could have spend a long time to study the fine details of the ruins.
Much of the walls of the four basilicas remained intact in 2006 when we visited.
Along with the Ancient Villages of Northern Syria, the church was declared an UNESCO World Heritage site in 2011. However taken by ISIS in 2013, the church had entered a few years of absolute madness and destruction.
Irina Bokova, the Director-General of UNESCO, strongly condemned the severe damage caused by an air-strike to the Church of Saint Simeon.
The most important spot of the complex is the octagonal courtyard where the remains of Simeon’s pillar stood before the war.
What remained from the 15m pillar where Saint Simeon once lived atop had become less than 3m tall before the Syrian Civil War. After the Russian air strike, the spot has become nothing but a pile of rubble.
There were hardly any explanations or signage at the ruins, but we were free to walk around the complex.
The Eastern Basilica was beautifully preserved. It was larger than the others, and used to held all major ceremonies.
Since 2003, the complex had been regularly surveyed and scanned by the French. Their 3D documentation prior to the building’s partial destruction in 2016 may prove to be crucial for its future restoration.
The octagonal Baptistery was a crucial part of the pilgrimage complex.
The Baptistery is one of the best preserved Christian architecture in Syria.
Baptistry Baptistry was constructed shortly after the construction of the main church. The wooden roof, either a cone or dome, didn’t survive to this day.
Since the complex was erected on the hill, there were spots where we could enjoy the surrounding scenery down below.
As of 2020, Idlib, the city near the Church of Saint Simeon Stylite, was the latest battle ground between the Jihadist forces, Turkish backed rebels, Russian backed Syrian government and Kurdish forces.