Cairo Churches: The Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus (Abu Serga)

The Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus (Abu Serga)

by Jimmy Dunn

The Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus (Abu Serga) is a 4th century church and today is considered to be the oldest of Cairo's Christian churches. It is dedicated to two early martyrs and traditionally believed to have been built on the spot where the Holy Family, Joseph, Mary and the infant Christ, rested at the end of their journey into Egypt. They may have lived here while Joseph worked at the fortress.

Above: A view of the chapel

Hence, the church is of significant historical importance, and in fact, it is where many patriarchs of the Coptic Church were elected. The first to be elected here was Patriarch Isaac (681-692) It is the episcopal church of Cairo, and it was the episcopal See of Misr (the district of Old Cairo) that replaced the former See of Babylon. Many bishops of the See were consecrated in the Church until the reign of Patriarch Christodulus (1047-1077). The church is dedicated to Sergius and Bacchus, who were soldier-saints that were martyred during the 4th century in Syria by the Roman Emperor, Maximilan.

The building was probably constructed during the 5th century. It was burned during the fire of Fustat during the reign of Marwan II around 750. It was then restored during the 8th century, and has been rebuilt and restored constantly since medieval times.

Above: Bisilican Floor Plan of the church

However it is still considered to be a model of the early Coptic churches and its basilican style is easily recognizable. This church resembles religious structures in Constantinople and Rome. It has two aisles with a western return aisle (a passage at the west end of the church), along with a tripartite sanctuary that measures 17 x 27 meters and is 15 meters high. Within the sanctuary is an altar surmounted by a wooden canopy supported by four pillars. On the east wall of the sanctuary rises a fine, semi-circular tribune with seven steps. There was probably a khurus, a transverse room preceding the sanctuary, in front of the sanctuary but which no longer exists.

In much the same style as the Hanging Church, two rows of six columns each separate the aisles from the nave. Eleven of these unique columns, with faint painted decorations of probably apostles or saints, are marble, while one is of red granite. While the pulpit was replaced by a copy of the ambon (a pulpit) in the church of Saint Barbara, some of the older wooden pulpit now reside in the Coptic Museum in Cairo, while a few others are in the British Museum. Also, the oldest wooden altar in Egypt was found in the church, but it too is now in the Coptic Museum.

However, the sanctuary iconostasis, a screen separating the sanctuary from the rest of the church on which icons are usually displayed, is a beautiful work of art which probably dates to the 12th or 13th century. The several panels are inlaid with ivory and ebony, and covered in a wonderful relief that features arabesque designs. The apse is encrusted with strips of marble and decorated with mosaics. There are some wooden panels within the church that are of earlier date, and depict fine scenes of saints on horseback, the Nativity and the Last Supper. There are any number of other relatively old icons that date, perhaps, to the 17th century. They show various scenes depicting the life of Christ, the Virgin Mary and some of the saints.

This crypt contains the remains of the original church where tradition says the Holy Family lived. Unfortunately, this area of the church has sometimes been inaccessible due to the presence of subterranean water. Originally this crypt, which is under the modern sanctuary, was itself the sanctuary of the church, but became the crypt after the larger church was built. It measures six meters long, by five meters wide and is 2.5 meters high. Within its north, south and east walls are niches. Sometime after the crypt was originally built, two rows of slender columns were erected to form a nave with two aisles.

Left: The stairs leading down into the crypt where it is believed the Holy Family stayed during the flight to Egypt;

Above Right: The floor plan of the crypt below the main sanctuary of the more modern structure

Being tied to the Holy Family, the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus continues to be a draw for Christian visitors, as it has since medieval times. On the 24th day of the Coptic month called Bachons, which corresponds to the first day of June in the western calendar, the Coptic Church commemorates the Holy Family's flight into Egypt. A mass is still held on that day in this ancient church.

The Church of Abu Serga - Old Cairo

Interior of the Church of Abu Serga


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