Officially known as Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church or The Church of Mother of God Saint Mary, The Hanging Church dates to the third century and is one of the oldest churches in Egypt. However, it is popularly known as The Hanging Church as it was built atop the southern gatehouse of the Roman-built Babylon Fortress in Coptic Cairo or Old Cairo, and its nave is suspended over a passageway. In fact, when the church was first built, the ground level was several metres lower than it is today, and due to its unique location, it seemed as if it was hanging in mid-air.
The Arabic name of the church, al-Muallaqah also roughly means ‘the Suspended’. However, as the church is approached by twenty-nine steps, the early travelers to Cairo called it the Staircase Church. Today, as the land surface has risen by around 20 feet since the Roman period, the Roman tower is mostly buried below ground, reducing the visual impact of the church's elevated position.
The Hanging Church was probably built during the patriarchate of Isaac of Alexandria, a Coptic Pope who held office during the 7th century. Before that, probably another church existed on the same site, built sometime during the 3rd or 4th century as a place of worship for the soldiers inhabiting the Roman fortress. Since the 7th century, the church has been rebuilt several times, and largely rebuilt and extensively restored under Pope Abraham during the 10th century.
Historically, Alexandria was the Seat of the Coptic Orthodox Pope of Alexandria. However, as the Egyptian capital was shifted from Alexandria to Cairo due to the Muslim conquest of Egypt, Cairo became the fixed and official residence of the Coptic Pope at the Hanging Church in 1047, during the tenure of Pope Christodolos. It is said that Pope Christodolos caused controversy and in-fighting between the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, and the Hanging Church and finally, the Hanging Church broke out due to the desire to be consecrated in the Hanging Church, a ceremony that traditionally took place at Saints Sergius and Bacchus. The decision created a precedent, and thereafter several patriarchs chose to be elected, enthroned, and even buried at the Hanging Church.
The Hanging Church is known as the site of several apparitions of Mary. On one of such occasions, she is said to have appeared in a dream to Pope Abraham in the 970s, when the ruling Caliph, al-Muizz. Al-Muizz asked him to prove the validity of his religion by moving the Mokattam Mountain through the power of prayer alone, and justify the Bible verse in which Jesus said that anybody who has faith as small as a mustard seed, can ask the mountain to move, and it will move.
Abraham was granted three days’ grace, which he spent praying for guidance in the Hanging Church, and Mother Mary appeared before him on the third day. She asked Abraham to go to the great market and find a one-eyed tanner named Simon, who would give him the power to perform the miracle. Abraham found Simon, and according to his advice, he took the Caliph and his men before the mountain and prayed loudly to the Lord for his mercy three times and each time made the sign of the cross over the mountain. Finally, the mountain was lifted, as if by some unknown power, and upon witnessing the miracle, the amazed Caliph recognized the truth of Abraham’s religion.
The iron gates of the Hanging Church under a pointed stone arch leads into a narrow 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 the beautiful twin-towered façade, a comparatively modern addition, dating back to the 19th century, topped by the twin bell towers. The inner part of the church is divided into three main aisles, with three sanctuaries located at the eastern end, dedicated to St George, the Virgin Mary, and St John the Baptist, each decorated with an elaborate screen made of ebony inlaid with ivory. While the fascinating ceiling of the Hanging church, built of vaulted timber, resembles the interior of Noah’s Ark, the marble pulpit, supported by 13 marble columns, meant to represent Jesus and his 12 disciples. Thematically, one of the columns is black, portraying Judas’ betrayal, while another is grey, representing Thomas’ doubt upon hearing of the resurrection.
The Hanging Church is famous for its 110 religious icons, the oldest of which dates back to the 8th century, but most of them date to the 18th century. The icons include a series describing the life and torture of St George and the life of St John the Baptist. However, the oldest and most famous icon is known as the Coptic Mona Lisa, depicting the Virgin Mary that dates back to the 8th century. The screen of the main altar is carved into segments showing several Coptic Cross designs that date back to around the 12th or 13th century. There is a long row of seven large icons on the top of the altar screen. The central one depicts Christ seated on the throne, and while the icons of the Virgin Mary, Archangel Gabriel, and St Peter are lined up on his one side, and the icons of St. John the Baptist, Archangel Michael, and St. Paul are on the other side.
Still in use, the Hanging Church in Cairo is equally crowded with tourists and parishioners.