Cairo Churches: Church of Saint Barbara

Church of Saint Barbara (Sitt Barbara)

By Jimmy Dunn

Saint Barbara

We are told that Saint Barbara was a beautiful young lady possibly of Asia Minor descent (though some stories say she lived in Heliopolis). She apparently lived during the early part of the 4th century (though again some references place her in the early part of the 3rd century). She was the daughter of a wealthy nobleman and merchant, Djoscorus, who was a pagan.

Tradition provides that Djoscorus built a magnificent tower to safeguard his daughter, perhaps from the growing influence of Christianity. However, during his frequent business trips abroad, she was converted to Christianity.

Legend has it that when her father discovered her conversion (possibly when Saint Barbara tried to convert him), in a fit of rage, he turned her over to Marcian, the Roman prefect who, under the watching eyes of her father, was to torture her until she denied Christ. She was stripped and struck with whips and clubs until she stood in a pool of her own blood, yet she would not deny Christ. Afterwards, she was thrown in to prison where, during the night, god completely healed her wounds and filled her with heavenly joy.

The next day, while Marcian was amazed to see her wounds had healed, he demanded that she denounce Christ, and when she refused. After additional torture, Marcian became frustrated with her, and ordered her to be taken out and killed. It was her father himself who led her from the city and with his own sword, decapitated her (along with her servant and friend, Juliana). On his way home, however, a god had him struck by a bolt of lightning, killing him instantly.

The Church of Saint Barbara

The Cairo church that is now dedicated to her in Old (Coptic) Cairo stands north of the Coptic Museum and to the east of the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus (Abu Serga), on the eastern side of Fort Babylon. Al-Maqrizi tells us that it was the most famous and beautiful church of his time in Cairo, but exactly when the Church of St. Barbara was built is speculative to some extent. Eutychiustells says that Athanasius, a secretary of Abdel-Aziz Ibn Marwan (the governor of Egypt between 685 and 705 AD), had the church built, but a door found during one of the church's restorations could date as early as the 4th Century. Originally, it was dedicated to Saint Cyrus (Abu Qir), but was probably reconstructed between 1072 and 1073 to house the relics of Saint Barbara. The chapel still contains her remains.

The Church of Saint Barbara

We know that the church burned during the Fustat fire of 750 but was restored during the 11th century, and was probably again ruined in a fire during the 12th century. The church as renovated extensively at the beginning of the 20th century, when the khurus, a transverse room preceding the sanctuary, was sacrificed in order to allow more space for the altar.

The church, which is not particularly impressive from the outside, having been designed to blend in with other local architecture, takes the basilican form. It measures 26 meters long by 14.5 meters wide and 15 meters in height. There are two rows of five columns each that separate the northern and southern isles from the nave. A finely carved, wooden architrave surmounts the columns to support the roof.

Detail from the ancient door
Detail from the ancient door

Within the nave stands a beautiful marble ambon (a pulpit) supported by ten columns. A "Mandatum Tank" also lies in the nave, which was filled with water and used for the Service of Feet washing on Maundy Thursday, and on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. However, more modern, portable basin is used for this purpose today. Only the main sanctuary features an apse. Two other sanctuaries to either side are rectangular rooms.

The ancient door

Left: The ancient door

The small area to the north of the sanctuary is fairly modern, dating from the beginning of the 20th century. Nearly square in shape, with three chapels, it was dedicated to the Saints Cyrus and John.

Nearby there is a convent which comprises several buildings, including a school built by the well known architect, Ramesses Wissa Wassef.

A number of important, as well as beautiful Christian artifacts were discovered within the Church of Saint Barbara, most of which are now on display in the nearby Coptic Museum. These include a remarkable sanctuary screen of sycamore and cedar woods from the Fatimid Period. It consists of 45 panels of various sizes carved in relief and depicting musical ceremonies, riders on galloping horses, gazelles and monks. Other items include an elaborate silver gospel casket decorated with floral designs that dates from early 15th century, and an icon of Saint Barbara that probably dates form the 16th century and is one of the oldest icons now in the Coptic museum. This icon may have been imported from Spain. Also, the door mentioned above, which dates from the 4th or 5th century and was discovered encased between two walls during restoration work. The door's magnificent decoration has made it one of the treasures of the Coptic Museum.

Ground plan of the Church of Saint Barbara

Ground Plan

Last Updated: May 25th, 2011


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Cairo (The Coptic Museum Old Churches Gabra, Gawdat 1993 Egyptian International Publishing Company, The ISBN 977-16-0081-8
Holy Family in Egypt, The Unknown 1999 United Printing Publishing & Distributing Co. None Stated
Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity, The McManners, John 1992 Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-285259-0

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Last Updated: June 16th, 2011