Old Cairo's Hanging Church restored

Nevine El-Aref , Tuesday 4 Jan 2011

After more than a decade of restoration, the Hanging Church in Old Cairo regains its original lure and allure

(photo: Fouad Mansour)

At Mogamaa Al-Adian (religious compound) in Old Cairo, adjacent to the Amr Ibn Al-Ass mosque, Ben Ezra synagogue and a collection of churches, stands the Hanging Church with its Basilica-style architecture on top of the Roman fortress of Babylon, greeting its visitors and worshipers. This fourth century edifice has finally reached the end of its restoration after 13 years of hiding under iron scaffoldings, piles of sand and workmen who have been polishing and strengthening its walls, ceilings and towers.

The Hanging Church, like other monuments located in heavily populated areas, was suffering seriously from environmental hazards including air pollution, a high subsoil water level, a high rate of humidity, leakage of water from the outdated and decayed sewage system installed 100 years ago, not to mention the adverse effects of the 1992’s earthquake, which increased the number of cracks all over the church’s walls and foundation. Meanwhile, the decorations of the church’s wooden ceiling were also heavily stained with smoke.

In 1997 the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) launched a comprehensive restoration project to preserve Egypt’s Coptic shrine and return such a distinguished church to its original splendor.

Gamal Mahgoub, head of the central administration for restoration and maintenance at the SCA, says the aim of restoration, which was carried out in three phases, was mainly to reduce the water leakage into the church and strengthen the church’s foundations and the Babylon fortress in order to protect them from future damage. The walls were reinforced, missing and decayed stones were replaced, and masonry cleaned and desalinated. “The church now stands as proudly as it did in the past,” Mahgoub asserts.

The decorations and icons of the church were also subjected to fine restoration in collaboration with Russian experts and new lighting and ventilation systems have been installed.

Culture minister Farouk Hosni asserted that the restoration had been carried out "according to the latest and most scientific methods."

“Every effort was made to ensure that all the original architectural features were retained,” Hosni confirmed, adding that the restoration work had been extended beyond the church’s walls to reach its neighboring monuments and the streets surrounding it.

The streets have been upgraded and developed to bode well with the authenticity of such a great monument and the neighboring monuments like the Coptic museum, Amr Ibn Al-Ass mosque, and Mar Girgis and Abi Serga churches have also been restored.

“Restoring the Hanging Church had two important advantages,” said Hosni. “Individual monuments were being preserved for future generations, and the entire neighborhood was being revived and upgraded.”

Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the SCA, pointed out that during restoration work several new discoveries were uncovered. Among them were the entrance gate of the Babylon fortress and its extension under the church, a maze of underground corridors, stairs previously used to escape from inside the church to the street. At the gate of the Amr Ibn Al-Ass mosque, Hawass continued, the mission unearthed a docking station for boats.

Mohamed Mahgoub, head of the Old Cairo archeological site, said that the Hanging church is the most famous Coptic Christian church in Cairo, as well as possibly the first built in the Basilica style. It was built during the late fourth or early fifth century. However, the earliest mention of the church was in a statement in the biography of the patriarch Joseph I (831-49), when the governor of Egypt visited the establishment. The church was largely rebuilt by Pope Abraham (975-78). In the eleventh century, during the tenure of Pope Christodolos, the seat of the Coptic Orthodox Pope of Alexandria - originally based in Alexandria - was transferred to the church when the ruling powers moved from Alexandria to Cairo following the Arab conquest of Egypt.

The Hanging Church was previously subjected to restoration work in the Islamic era in Egypt during the tenures of Caliph Haroun El Rasid, El-Aziz Bi'allah Al Fatemi and Al-Zaher Al Eazaz Din Allah.

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