Cairo Churches: The Monastery and Church of St. George

The Monastery and Church of St. George in Old Cairo

by Jimmy Dunn

The Church of Saint George in Old Cairo

The image of St George as a Roman soldier mounted on a fine Arabian horse and spearing a dragon is a familiar one throughout Old Cairo, where there are two facilities dedicated to him.Throughout the Christian East, Saint George is undoubtedly the most popular warrior-saint, and in the Coptic churches of Cairo there are now more than twenty relics of the equestrian saint.

The Coptic biography of Saint George does not mention his flight with and victory over the dragon. Hence, scholars believe that around the fourteenth century this theme was a transferal from the biography of St. Theodore Stratelates to Saint George, though it is also possible that the Copts adopted this tale from the Western Christians.

The origin of he monastery of St. George (Deir al-Banat), located in Old Cairo, is obscure, but it is believed that the foundation of the structure dates from the seventh or eighth century. Today, the monastery is actually home to between thirty and forty religious women

. Only the chapel which is dedicated to St. George and the large room with an anteroom offer any historical and artistic interest. The chapel is said to have originally been a palace dating from the Mamluk period, which was transformed into a church probably in the fourteenth or fifteenth century. Here, St. George's icon is venerated. The large room with an anteroom is separated from the chapel by a double door of surprising height measuring some seven meters. Animal figures adorn the door.

Ancient door in the monastery (convent)

The nuns in charge of the chapel offer for the veneration of the faithful an iron collar and chain. This wonder-working chain, some 4.2 meters long, is attached to the south wall of the inner room of the shrine. Normally the chain is applied to women, though men sometimes seek the blessings of the saint through the chain. Whomever places the halter of the chain around his neck and winds the chain around his body, kissing the chain piously and offering prayers to Saint George, is considered to be in a state of exceptional grace.

Ever since the fifth century, Western Christians have venerated the chains of the apostle Peter in the Basilica of Saint Peter of the Chains, on the Esquiline in Rome. However, in the Middle East, it is not the chains of St. Peter but of Saint George that are believed to posses miraculous powers to cure the demon-possessed and paralytics. The New Testament narrative of the Gadarene demoniac "who had often been bound with fetters and chains" (Mark 5:3-4) demonstrates that chains were used to restrain the mentally sick. A parallel story in the Coptic tradition tells of Theophanes (952-56), the sixtieth patriarch of Alexandria, who was so overcome by anger that he took off his vestments and the skhema (a four-meter long plaited leather girdle worn by monks), and an unclean spirit descended upon him and struck him down, so that he was bound with iron chains for the rest of his life. The origins of the Coptic attachment to the chains of Saint George are in the Byzantine tradition. Since the seventeenth century, the chains of Saint George in the Greek Orthodox Convent of Saint George have been used to tie up those suffering from nervous disorders, anxiety neuroses, conversion hysteria, obsessional neuroses and even schizophrenic psychoses.

In 1737, Richard Pococke saw the chains and reported:

"They say they have the arm of the saint, and they showed me a pillar, to which an iron collar with a chain is fixed, and they say mad people confined in it for three days certainly recover. They informed me that the Turks often try this experiment and having a great admiration for the saint, frequently come and say their prayers here on Friday."

Depiction of Saint George and his battle with the dragon

Today, large numbers of Copts and even Muslims visit the Shrine of the Chains of Saint George in the Convent on Fridays and Sundays. The "Coptic chains" have assumed the function of the medieval chain-cult. At the convent, Greeks from Greece, Lebanon, Cyprus and Egypt used to assemble for the panegyris of Saint George on the night of April 22 to behold the apparition of the celestial rider on his white horse above the dome of the old church. Apparently the nuns of the old convent have continued the age-old cult.

Nearby the monastery is the Church of St. George. The Greek Church of St. George is one of the few round churches still in existence in the East, formed from it's placement atop a rounded Roman tower. The Holy Family is said to have taken shelter in a place now covered by the Church. There is a long set of steps that lead up to the church that are built on the outer wall of the Roman towers. As one ascend these steps, there can be found a relief of St. George and the dragon wrapped around the outer brickwork of the tower. The church had been burned many times. It burned in 1904 and the current structure was built in 1909, but still has some of the older structure's beautiful stained-glass windows. For centuries, the church alternated between ownership by the Copts and the Greek, but since the 15th century it has remained Greek Orthodox

Sadly, the original Church of St. George that burned was considered one of the most beautiful and richest in the Roman fortress of Babylon. Traditionally, the earliest church was built in 684 by Athanasius, who was a wealthy scribe. During the Papacy of Pope Gabriel (88th Patriarch) the relics of the saint were relocated to his well-known church in Old Cairo.

Steps leading to the Church of Saint George

What remains of the ancient edifice is limited to what is referred to as the wedding hall (Arabic Qa'at al-'Irsan. The rectangular hall dates from the thirteenth century and measures fifteen meters in length and twelve meters in width. Its central area is lower than its lateral parts. The south wall is notable because of the high windows made of wood and inlayed in ivory and ebony. The walls and ceiling show the traces of wall paintings and fine stucco decorations.

However, the newer church is culturally interesting, for amidst a fury of burning candles, scenes from St. George's valiant fight for Christianity are depicted through the art of many different styles, periods and medias.

In spite of the fact that the church is Greek Orthodox and the seat of the Greek Patriarch of Alexandria is in the adjoining building, the Monastery of St George, it is here that one of the largest Coptic mulids (religious festivals) is held on 23 April.

Interior of the Church  of Saint George

Interior of the Church of Saint George

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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

Be Thou There: The Holy Family's Journey in Egypt

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Capuani, Massimo


Liturgical Press, The

ISBN 0-8146-2406-5

Coptic Monasteries: Egypt's Monastic Art and Architecture

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American University in Cairo Press, The

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Coptic Saints and Pilgrimages

Meinardus, Otto F. A.


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 692 6

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Last Updated: June 16th, 2011