Cairo Churches: The Hanging Church

The Hanging Church
El Muallaqa, Dedicated to the Virgin Mary

by Jimmy Dunn

The Hanging Church

The Hanging Church (El Muallaqa, Sitt Mariam, St Mary) derives its name from its location on top of the southern tower gate of the old Babylon fortress (in Old, or Coptic Cairo) with its nave suspended above the passage (Muallaqa translates to 'suspended'). It is the most famous Coptic Christian church in Cairo, as well as the first built in Basilcan style (possibly). It was probably built during the patriarchate of Isaac (690-92), though an earlier church building may have existed elsewhere dating as earlier as the 3rd or 4th century. However, the earliest mention of the church was a statement in the biography of the patriarch Joseph (831-49), when the governor of Egypt visited the establishment. The church was largely rebuilt during by the patriarch Abraham (975-78) and has seen many other restorations including one very recently, after which objects of historical interest that were no longer of service went to the Coptic Museum.

By the 11th century AD, it became the official residence of the Coptic patriarchs of Alexandria. With the reign of the patriarchate of Christodoulus (1047-77), infighting between the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus and the El Muallaqa Church broke out due to the wishes of that patriarch's desire to be consecrated in the Hanging Church, a ceremony that traditionally took place at Saints Sergius and Bacchus. Nevertheless, Christodoulus was consecrated at El Muallaqa as well as several others after him including Cyril II and Michael IV (1092-1102). Other patriarchs were either enthroned or elected at El Muallaqa, and a number of others were buried at the church during the 11th and 12th centuries. Also, Coptic synods were held in the church to determine which day Easter would fall or to judge priests or bishops suspected of heretical teachings.

The Hanging Church

It became known to travelers during the 14th and 15th centuries as the "staircase church" because of the twenty-nine steps that lead to the entrance.

The church, which measures 23.5 meters long, 18.5 meters wide and 9.5 meters high, can be reached by steps 29 steps. It became known to travelers during the 14th and 15th centuries as the "staircase church" because of these steps, which in turn lead to an open court. The entrance to the church lies in the south door in the east wall of the narthex, which an outer porch decorated with geometric and floral designs in relief applied to stucco.

The Hanging Church

Apparently the church was originally built in a traditional basilican plan with three aisles, a narthex and tripartite sanctuary. Another chapel, built alter and known as the little church, was constructed over the eastern tower of the Babylon Fortress' south gateway. It now represents the oldest part of the remaining church. Later, during the 19th century, a fourth aisle was added.

The main body of the current church, with its notable timber wagon-vaulted roof, features a central nave and two narrow aisles separated by eight columns on each side. Between the nave and the north aisle is a row of three columns spanned by wide lancet arches. The columns between the aisles are made of white marble, with the exception of one built of black basalt. Some of the capitals are Corinthian, and so were probably removed from older buildings.

Within the nave was a tank, boarded up now, that once was used for foot washing on Maundy Thursday and on the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. There is also a marble ambon (pulpit, that dates from the 11th century, though some of its white and colored marble may predate the pulpit itself. It surmounts fifteen graceful columns. The southern marble facade of the pulpit's steps is carved with a design showing a shell and a cross on stairs, representing the Resurrection of Christ.

The Hanging Church

There are three haikals (sanctuaries) within the eastern section of the church. The central one is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the northern (left) to Saint George, and the southern (right) one to Saint John the Baptist.

The central haikal screen, which is made of ebony inlaid with ivory and carved into segments showing fine geometric designs and crosses, dates from the 12th or 13th century and on the top of it are a row of seven large icons. The center of these icons depicts the Christ, seated on a throne. To his right is the Virgin Mary, the Archangle Gabriel and Saint Peter, while to his left are John the Baptist, the Archangle Michael and Saint Paul. Within this sanctuary, the altar is surmounted by a canopy supported by four columns, and behind the altar is a marble tribune where the clergy usually sit.

The Hanging Church

The northern haikal screen has a design of squares with crosses that are alternately ivory and ebony, and across the top of it are seventeen icons representing different scenes from the martyrdom of Saint George. The southern screen shows a cruciform pattern and dates from the thirteenth century. Atop it are seven small icons that depict the life of Saint John the Baptist. However, all of these icons are the work of a single Armenian artist, Orhan Karabedian, and were executed in 1777.

The Hanging Church

One of the icons within the church

Within the church's southern aisle is a small door of fine pine wood inlaid with translucent ivory plating. This leads to the "little church", actually a chapel, which represents the oldest section of the structure. To the left is the sanctuary of Teckle Haimanout (Takla Haymanot), a national Saint of Ethiopia, who lived during the 13th century. The haikal screen here dates to the 13th century. Faint traces of fine wall paintings on the east wall probably represent Christ flanked by the Apostles, and during a restoration that took place in 1984, a beautiful 14th century Nativity scene was also discovered. At one time, all of the columns of this chapel were adorned with paintings, but today, only the scene on the fifth column from the east in the southern row is visible. It probably depicts a female saint who was possibly either a queen or a princess. Just to the south of this sanctuary is the baptistery, which housed a deep round basin of red granite and a niche adorned with mosaic. Partiarch Michael IV extended this upper floor for use as accommodations for the patriarchs.

One of the icons within the church

Though now in the Coptic Museum, the oldest artifact unearthed in the church was a lintel showing Christ's entry into Jerusalem and dates from ether the 5th or 6th century. However, though there are many objects from the church in the Coptic Museum, inside the church are collections of over one hundred icons of which the oldest dates from the 8th century.

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Reference Number

2000 Years of Coptic Christianity

Meinardus, Otto F. A.


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 5113

Al Qahira

Sassi, Dino


Al Ahram/Elsevier

None Stated

Cairo (Giza-Sakkarah-Memphis)

El-Mallakh, Kamal



ISBN 88-7009-231-3

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Gabra, Gawdat


Egyptian International Publishing Company, The

ISBN 977-16-0081-8

Holy Family in Egypt, The



United Printing Publishing & Distributing Co.

None Stated

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Last Updated: June 16th, 2011