Egypt Moblog #9 – Citadel, Church of St. Sergius, Ben Ezra Synagogue

Yesterday afternoon we reached Cairo from Luxor.

We first went to the Citadel – one of the largest fortresses in this part of the world built on a plateau that has a beautiful view of Cairo.

The fortress was built by Saladin, one of the greatest Islamic kings around 1176 AD to protect Cairo from the crusaders. During his time he also built a 3 mile long aquaduct to the Nile to supply the fortress with water.

Later the Mohammed Ali family built a palace here (which has been completely damaged by a fire). Mohamed Ali also built a beautiful mosque completely made of Alabaster – a marble like stone which has been used since the pharaonic times. The fountain in the courtyard of the mosque currently not in use is connected to the Nile aquaduct.

Then we went to the Church of St. Sergius (Abu Serga in Arabic) – this is the oldest church built in the 4th century AD in honor of the roman Sergius who followed christianity even before Rome converted. Of course, all of you must know that all of Rome converted only in 395 AD when Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity as the official religion starting the Roman catholic order.

At this point, we learnt some very interesting history lessons from our guide. First, we went to the back of the church to see a stairway leading down below to a small room. It is believed that Virgin Mary and Jesus have visited the room below and stayed for 12 days. Jerusalem is not that far from Cairo, so it is possible for this to have happened. Coptic Church as the church in Egypt is called predates the catholic church. Our guide told us that by 395 AD all of Egypt was christian but they couldn’t proclaim their religion because the Romans persecuted the early christians. They became free to practice christianity openly only after Constantine’s embrace of the faith. This was the first chuch built by the coptic christians.

Then we went to the Ben Ezra synagogue – one of the oldest jewish temples and the only one still open, although there are fewer than 50 jews left still in Egypt. Ben Ezra, a wealthy man, bought a old church and refashioned it as a Jewish temple. His tomb is also inside the temple.

Interestingly, it is believed that the temple is at the original site where tjhe basket bearing infant Moses was found by his foster mother – the pharoah’s daughter!

That covered two of the holiest of holy sites of christianity and judaism.

Then we visited the Roman towers built by Trijian in 98 AD. A church has been built over one portion of these towers and is called the Hanging Church because it has no under structure. We visited the church and in a couple of spots on the floor they have laid some glass for you to see a vast space below most of it empty with the Roman towers below giving it a sense of hanging in the air and hence the name.

Our history lesson continued – by 641 AD a full 20 years after the founding of Islam by Prophet Mohammed, Amr Ibn Ilas conquers Egypt for Islam – a mosque built then still survives. In the next few decades 85 percent of Egypt converts to Islam with the remainder still adhering to Christianity. That ratio 85:15 of muslims to christians holds to this day in Egypt.

From an anthropology perspective, we found it very interesting to note that a group of people had switched from one monotheistic religion Christianity to another Monotheistic religion Islam. Usually, people switch from a pantheistic religion such as the Pharoanic religion to a monotheistic one. Wonder if there are such enmasse conversions elsewhere in human history from one monotheistic to another monotheistic religion?

Then we went back to our hotel, took some rest and then did a short walk around the hotel, had coffee at a small restaurant, bought some souvenirs and went back to the hotel.

Cairo reminds us of any large city in North India – lots of chaotic traffic, liberal doses of grime and garbage. People are very friendly.

On the political front (Joe’s question) – people don’t seem to like Mubarak. Take this with a pinch of salt because we spoke to only our guides and tour manager. It appears Mubarak is pushing his son Gamal to the center stage (sounds familiar, eh!).

Women can’t enter the police force or military or become judges. Mubarak is not doing much to improve the economy – perception here. Elections seem to be gamed to favor Mubarak.

The economy’s main engines are the incomes from Suez Canal operations (masterfully nationalized by Nasser), Tourism and Oil Exports. Gas is quite cheap here – approx 1 USD per gallon.

We are told that it is hard for women to find jobs. Given the general moderate nature of Egypt, we were wondering why no one has thought of using Egypt as the BPO back office of the Arab world.

More to come….


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    I hope you have some good pictures of the hanging church. Would love to see it.

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    Great post Sukumar. Thanks for answering my query.

    The Indian Orthodox Church ( also known as Malankara Orthodox Church – has a lot of similarities to the Coptic Church in Egypt & the Syrian/Greek Churches. The first church in India was setup in AD 52 by St. Thomas who was one of the 12 Apostles of Jesus. The Indian Orthodox Church is largely influenced by these Eastern Churches ( including Coptic, Greek & Syrian ). Many of the traditional rites & liturgy have been untouched in these Orthodox Churches in India for more than 19 centuries. Another important aspect of these Eastern Churches was that it never Proselytized. This explains the reason Christianity never spread in India even though it was prevalent in India much before Europe converted to Christianity. The conversion phenomenon is attributed mainly to the missionaries of the Catholic (Portuguese & Dutch) & Anglican churches that spread Christianity from 15th century in India mainly through forced conversions.

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    Sukumar (subscribed) said November 27, 2007, 4:56 am:

    Thanks Archana. Photography is not my forte. Please don’t expect too much from my photos.

    You’re welcome. I knew that Indian christianity started with st. Thomas’s arrival. I grew up in Mylapore not far from Santhome Basilica. I didn’t realize the aspect of proselytization of Indian Christianity. That’s a very interesting explanation for the turn of events. Do you have any theories on how most of Egypt became Islamic converting from coptic christianity? Is there any other precedent for this in Christianity?

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    I think the converison from coptic christianity to Islam was influenced by 2 factors.

    1. Once Egypt was conquered by Arabs, non-Muslims in Egpyt would have become second class citizens. While Arabs rarely forced conversions, the people of Egypt might have converted to Islam to enjoy a better status in society. I have read of taxes being levied by muslim rulers to non-muslims (In India). I am not sure if that was the case in Egypt.

    2. Both Islam & Christianity are monotheistic religions and along with Judaism are also Abrhamic religions with a lot of common threads uniting them. Given the common threads, I am guessing a switch was relatively easy.

    Regarding enmasse conversions, Syria is a good example. Like Egypt, Syria had a Christian Majority till Arabs conquered Syria. Currently the ratio of Christians to Muslims is 10:90. I will have to lookup if there are other such precedents elsewhere.


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    Sukumar (subscribed) said November 29, 2007, 10:48 pm:

    Thanks Joe. Both the points are insightful. Our guide Ms. Marwah (a muslim) was explaining how close Islam was to Christianity and boiled it down to 2 major differences – Islam doesn’t recognize Jesus as a Son of God but only as a prophet and second, Jesus was not crucified because God doesn’t let prophets suffer like that. I haven’t verified this with Muslims in India, but clearly Islam is also an Abrahamic religion and so as you say the switch would have been easy.

    I didn’t know the happenings in Syria, seems like a close parallel with Egypt.

    From your previous comment, it seems that Eastern Christianity was non-proselytyzing and I don’t think Islam can lay claim to that. So when Arabs took over Egypt and Syria, they might have actively proselytized with both carrots and sticks and given the close similarities the switch was easy.

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    Interesting post sukumar.. As archana said, photos would have added colour to it 🙂 ..

    Regarding enmasse conversion, i remember the spanish reconquisto, where the whole of spain is liberated from muslim rulers and people converted enmasse back to christianity. (That was very intersting part of the crusade)..

    I heard, that first christians arrived in the kerala coast, prominently the syrian christian, due to persecution of christians by the romans.

    One of my room mate, when i was in chennai was a syrian christian, and he told that they never used to have any relationship with other christians, particularly the catholics & converted. They have completely integrated in to Indian system. He said, now attempts are made to convert those early christians to catholicity.

    (I heard, some church in Goa also claims of the St. Thomas story, and it was one of the controversary some years ago. It seems, that even the vatican doesnt seem to endorse any of the claims.)

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    Are pharaohs, the predecessor of Jews? Does judaism exist in Egyptian era?

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    Sukumar (subscribed) said December 1, 2007, 5:13 am:

    Thanks. I didn’t know all of Spain was reconverted. I do know that Moors were muslims living in Spain. I need to research that one a bit more. thanks for the tip.

    On Syrian Christians, you must have heard right. the Coptic Christians in Greece were also persecuted by the Romans before Constantine’s famous embrace of Christianity.

    If you visit Santhome Church in Mylapore, Chennai you will hear about St. Thomas’s visit to India. St. Thomas Mount is also named after the apostle.

    There are some records of Pharoahs defeating Israelites. And given that Egypt is quite close to Jerusalem, jews must have lived in egypt as well. At present, only a few jews still live in Egypt. But there is no record of the famous story of Moses which is there in the Old Testament.

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    The first Christians in India were not Syrians fleeing from Roman persecutions as it is widely believed.
    I thought I would provide a brief time line of Christianity in India to provide some more clarity around your comment.

    St. Thomas came to India to Kerala (Crangannore) in AD 52 through established trade routes and setup seven churches by converting prominent Nambudiri families. This set of Christians were known as the St. Thomas Christians & were to become the foundation for Christianity in India. After St. Thomas’s death in Mylapore, the successor of St. Thomas kept ties with the eastern Church.

    While the St.Thomas Christians welcomed the Christians from the middle east fleeing persecution, there is no evidence of a mass exodus till AD.342 when around 72 families from Edessa fled Syria to settle in Kerala. These families became the ancestors of the Knanaya Christians ( numbering around 300,000 today ).

    The traditions of the St. Thomas Christians remained untouched till the 15th century when Portuguese started enforcing the conversion to Catholicism that you referred to in your comment. The St. Thomas Christians looking for leadership & to stave off the Vatican ordained the Bishop of Antioch as the leader of the Indian Church & that is how the term “Syrian Christian” took root.

    Without delving into a lot of details, the original St. Thomas Christians rebelled against the Syrian Bishop after couple of years and broke away to form the “Syrian Orthodox Church” ordaining a local bishop in Kerala as the head of its church. The section that continued to support the Syrian Bishop became the Syrian Jacobite Church. The St. Thomas Christians who converted to Catholicism under the influence of Portuguese became the Syrian Catholic Christians. Anglican Missionaries in the late 1700’s converted some of the Orthodox Christians into the Protestant faith & these Christians became the CSI (Christians of South India ) & CNI (Christians of South India ) that currently follow the Anglican rites.

    The reason Vatican does not seem to endorse the claims of St. Thomas as the founder of Indian Christianity is mainly due to the rebellions that the Indian Christians had against the Vatican during the 15th & 16th century.

    Hope I have not bored you with a lot of History.


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    Thanks for the explanation jeo..

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    Karthik PK said December 6, 2007, 12:27 pm:

    Nice explantion Joe…..really interesting…

    I have heard another story ..I am not sure of the authenticity though….
    When 12 tribes of Isreal migrated to different places…one tribe landed in India…Now story goes that St Thomas came down to convert them.. and they contitute the present day orthodox…again ..I am not sure of the authenticity though..

    Again convesrsion from chritsianity to islam is relatively easy but i guess the conversion from Paganism to Christainity would have been difficult..atleast in egypt

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    Sukumar (subscribed) said December 6, 2007, 1:38 pm:

    Thanks for the history lesson Joe. Thanks Senthil.

    Thanks Karthik. I have heard that too. I doubt the authenticity of it though.

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