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coptic cairo hanging churchThis church dedicated to the Virgin Mary is known as the “Hanging’ Church because it rests on the two southwestern bastions of the old Roman fortress of Babylon. Its nave extends over the portal that led into the ancient fortress. Some parts of the original church still survive, notably the section that lies to the right of the sanctuary, on top of the southern bastion of the fortress.

The Hanging Church was the seat of the bishop of Babylon in seventh century. In the ninth century the church was destroyed, but when it was restored in the eleventh century, it was made the seat of the Coptic Patriarchate. At this time it became the centre to which theologians, lawyers, and astronomers came for study. The church underwent periodic renovation from medieval right through to modern times. Some of the wood and stonework were reused, so that they date to an earlier period than the structure in which they are housed. Also, some parts of this church, and of others in Old Cairo, have been taken to the Coptic Museum.

The entrance gateway to the Hanging Church leads to a stairway, which lives onto a passage and a covered courtyard. The outer porch, decorated with glazed tiles in geometrical designs, dates to the eleventh century.

The main part of the church has a wide central nave and narrow side aisles, marked off by eight columns on each side. The vaulted timber roof has recently been restored. The columns have Corinthian capitals, indicating they were usurped form earlier buildings. With one exception in black basalt, they are of white marble. They were once painted with figures of saints, but only a single column still bears the traces of a figure, badly faded. There are three other columns in the centre of the nave, in the right half of which is the pulpit. The pulpit, with its straight-sided balcony, is thought to be among the earliest surviving. It assigned to the eleventh century but some of the material of which is made may be earlier. It is of marble, and rests on fifteen delicate columns arranged in seven pairs with a leader, symbolizing the seven sacraments of the church. The columns of each pair are identical, but not two pairs are alike.

The inlaid woodwork of this church is among the finest to be found. Calderwood and ivory were used for the sanctuary screen. The ivory is carved into segments of exquisite design and set in the woodwork to form the Coptic cross, which has arms of even length, each with three end points symbolizing the blessed Trinity. At the top of the sanctuary screen is a series of icons representing Christ enthroned(centre);the Virgin, the archangel Gabriel, and Saint Peter(right);and Saint John the Baptist, the archangel Michael, and Saint Paul (left).

Behind the sanctuary screen is the alter, High alters in the Coptic churches are covered by a canopy resting on four columns. The side altar of the Hanging Church is dedicated to the blessed Virgin and the side altars to Saint John the Baptist on the right and Saint George on the left. Saint George, a Roman legionary, defied Diocletian and suffered martyrdom in Asia. His body is said to have been brought to Egypt by the Coptic Patriarch Gabriel II in the twelfth century.

A small church dedicated to Takla Hamanout, the Ethiopian saint, leads off from the main the church, to the right, near the transept. It is of uncertain date, although the screen that separates it from the main church dates to the thirteenth century. It is regarded as one of the finest pieces of craftsmanship, and one of the highest examples of Coptic woodwork of the thirteenth century.

A small, newly restored stairway inside this chapel leads to another chapel on a higher level. This is thought to be the earliest part of the Hanging Church and it has been suggested that it may date to as early as the third century, when the fortress walls were built. It is a small square chamber with four wooden columns. It is dedicated, by tradition, to Saint Mark.

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