Religious buildings in Egypt tell a complex and rich history of religious life. A once thriving cosmopolitan country, Egypt was home to its local Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities. It also became a site of refuge for many (im)migrant communities, such as Greeks, Armenians, Syrians, and others. The visibility of religious buildings belonging to various faith communities evoke a sense of nostalgia of a perceived pluralistic past. Today, lesser known faith communities such as Baha’is and Quranists do exist, although in many ways are intentionally marginalized and made invisible. In this article, we will explore the history of various faith communities by highlighting visible houses of worship in Egypt.
St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, Cairo
Seat of the Coptic Orthodox Patriarch, this Cathedral is central to Coptic Orthodox religious life in Cairo. The Cathedral was inaugurated by Pope Cyril VI in 1968, and named after Jesus’s apostle, St. Mark the Evangelist who founded the Coptic Church. This Cathedral, located in the Abassia District in Cairo, is the largest in Africa and the Middle East and has a capacity for 5,000 attendees.
St. Peter and St. Paul Church (El-Botroseya Church), Cairo
Neighboring the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral is St. Peter and St. Paul Church. In 1911, the Church was built over the tomb of Boutros Ghali, Egypt’s prime minister from 1908 to 1910 and the grandfather of Boutros Boutros Ghali, the sixth Secretary General of the United Nations (also buried there in 2016). On December 11th, 2016, a suicide bombing resulted in the death of 25 people. Today, the church has preserved remnants of the attack as a way to commemorate the martyrs.
St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church
Egypt is not only home to Orthodox Copts, but also to many Orthodox Greeks and Armenians. The original St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church was built during the 10th century. However, a fire destroyed the original building and the Church was rebuilt in 1904. St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church is the only round church in Egypt, built on top of the foundations of a round Roman tower. Neighboring this Church is the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, seat of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria.
St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Apostolic Church, Cairo
The Church of St. Gregory the Illuminator was built in 1928, and is one of six Armenian Churches in Cairo and Alexandria. This Church was built to cater to the flood of Armenians who arrived in Egypt during and after the 1915 genocide by the Ottoman Empire. During the 1940-50s, the Armenian population in Egypt peaked at approximately 45,000. However, many emigrated during Nasser’s regime and only 7,000-10,000 Armenians remain in Alexandria and Cairo today.
Ben Ezra Synagogue (el-Geniza Synagogue)
The Ben Ezra Synagogue has undergone major and minor renovations to its structure throughout the years. Although the current building dates back to the 1980s, the original foundation of the synagogue remains unknown. According to local folklore, this is the site where Moses was found. This synagogue is a testament to the long and rich history of Jews in Egypt. In the 19th century, a sacred collection of Hebrew, Aramaic and Judeo-Arabic manuscripts were found detailing the 1,000-year history of Jewish Middle-Eastern and North African history from 870 CE to the 19th Century. Unfortunately, due to a declining Jewish population in Egypt, the Ben Ezra Synagogue primarily operates today as a tourist attraction.
Al-Hussein Mosque and Khan al Khalili Bazaar, Cairo
Al-Hussein Mosque is one of the most sacred in Egypt. It is located near the Khan al-Khalili bazaar, a vibrant and bustling souk in Islamic Cairo. In 1154, the original mosque was built over the cemetery of the Fatimid Caliphs. The current building, which is influenced by Gothic Revival architecture, dates back to the 19th century. The Mosque is named after prophet Muhammed’s grandson, Hussain ibn Ali. Many Shi’a Muslims believe that Hussain’s head is buried below the mosque, and a silver zarih was created to honor it. The mosque’s historical significance to Shi’as and its contemporary Sunni practices is a reflection of the Egyptian saying: سنيّ المذهب و شيعيّ الهوي (Sunni al-mathhab wa Shi’a al hawyiyya / Sunni by appearance, and Shi’a by identity).
Coptic Cairo, Old Cairo
Coptic Cairo is a part of Old Cairo, which was once an area central to the spread of Christianity prior to the Islamic era. It continues to be a significant historic and religious site. Housed in Coptic Cairo are the Coptic Museum, the Fortress of Babylon, the Greek Orthodox Church of Mar Girgis, the Ben Ezra Synagogue, the Hanging Church – where there have been several reported apparitions of St. Mary – and Abu Serga Church, which is believed to be where the Holy Family rested during their journey into Egypt. Coptic Cairo has long been a tourist attraction, particularly for many Middle Eastern Christians. Lately, however, it has witnessed a decline in tourism.
These photographs are a glimpse into Egypt’s various faith communities. The buildings continue to stand tall to tell a complicated story of pluralism, migration, and exile.
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Miray Philips is a PhD student in the Sociology Department at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Her research focuses on knowledge production on conflict.