Officially called the Church of the Virgin Mary, the Hanging Church resides at the heart of Old Cairo. It is built atop the southern gatehouse of the Roman-built Babylon Fortress and gets its name from the fact that its nave is suspended over a passageway. This unique location gives the church the impression of hanging in mid-air, a spectacle that would have been even more impressive when it was first built when the ground level was several meters lower than it is today.
The church’s Arabic name, al-Muallaqah, also roughly translates as “The Suspended”.
History of the Church
The current Hanging Church is thought to date back to the Patriarchate of Isaac of Alexandria, a Coptic Pope who held office during the 7th century. Prior to that, another church existed on the same site, built some time during the 3rd century as a place of worship for the soldiers inhabiting the Roman fortress. The church’s fascinating past makes it one of the oldest places of Christian worship in Egypt. It has been rebuilt several times since the 7th century, with the most extensive restoration taking place under Pope Abraham during the 10th century.
Throughout its history, the Hanging Church has remained one of the most important bastions of the Coptic Christian Church. In 1047, it was designated as the official residence of the Coptic Orthodox Pope after the Muslim conquest of Egypt caused the Egyptian capital to be moved from Alexandria to Cairo.
Around the same time, Pope Christodolos caused controversy and in-fighting within the Coptic Church by choosing to be consecrated at the Hanging Church despite the fact that consecrations traditionally took place at the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus.
Pope Christodolos’ decision set a precedent, and thereafter several patriarchs chose to be elected, enthroned and even buried at the Hanging Church.
Visions of Mary
The Hanging Church is known as the site of several apparitions of Mary, the most famous of which is related to the Miracle of Mokattam Mountain. In the 10th century, Pope Abraham was asked to prove the validity of his religion to the ruling Caliph, al-Muizz. Al-Muizz devised a test based on the Bible verse in which Jesus says “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, “Move from here to there” and it will move”. Accordingly, al-Muizz asked Abraham to move nearby Mokattam Mountain through the power of prayer alone.
Abraham asked for three days’ grace, which he spent praying for guidance in the Hanging Church. On the third day, he was visited there by the Virgin Mary, who told him to seek out a one-eyed tanner named Simon who would give him the power to perform the miracle. Abraham found Simon, and after travelling to the mountain and saying words prescribed to him by the tanner, the mountain was lifted. Upon witnessing this miracle, the Caliph recognized the truth of Abraham’s religion. Today, Mary remains the focus of worship at the Hanging Church.
The Church Today
To reach the church, visitors must enter through iron gates into a courtyard decorated with biblical mosaics.
At the far end of the courtyard, a flight of 29 steps leads to the church’s carved wooden doors and beautiful twin-towered façade. The façade is a modern addition, dating back to the 19th century. Inside, the church is divided into three main aisles, with three sanctuaries located at the eastern end. From left to right, these sanctuaries are dedicated to St. George, the Virgin Mary, and St. John the Baptist. Each one is decorated with an elaborate screen inlaid with ebony and ivory.
One of the Hanging Church’s most notable features is the ceiling, which is built of vaulted timber and intended to resemble the interior of Noah’s Ark. Another highlight is the marble pulpit, which is supported by 13 marble columns meant to represent Jesus and his 12 disciples. One of the columns is black, portraying Judas’ betrayal; while another is grey, to represent Thomas’ doubt upon hearing of the resurrection.
The church is perhaps most famous for its religious icons, however, of which 110 remain on display within its walls.
Many of these decorate the sanctuary screens and were painted by a single artist during the 18th century. The oldest and most famous icon is known as the Coptic Mona Lisa. It depicts the Virgin Mary and dates back to the 8th century. Many of the Hanging Church’s original artifacts have been removed, and are now on display at the nearby Coptic Museum. Nevertheless, the church remains a highlight of any trip to Old Cairo. Here, visitors can explore the church's fascinating interior between services, or listen in on masses given in the ancient liturgical Coptic language.
The church is located in Coptic Cairo and is easily accessed via the Mar Girgis metro. From there, it’s a few steps to the Hanging Church. Visits should be combined with a tour of the Coptic Museum, which is conveniently located just two minutes from the church itself. The church is open every day from 9:00 am - 4:00 pm, while Coptic Mass is held from 8:00 am - 11:00 am on Wednesdays and Fridays; and from 9:00 am - 11:00 am on Sundays. Admission to the church is free.