The Churches and Convent of Harat Zuwaila in Old Cairo

The Churches and Convents of Harat Zuwaila in Old Cairo
by Jimmy Dunn

Entrance to the Church of the Virgin Mary

Sometimes the number and extent of antiquities in Egypt even amazes us. Everyone at least has some idea of the pharaonic monuments in Egypt, such as the Pyramids and ancient pagan temples. More casual observers might realize that Egypt, and particularly Cairo, is simply packed with important archaic Islamic monuments. However, though some may know of Egypt's most important Christian monuments, few may realize the extent of these important, early churches and monasteries built during that religion's formidable years.

Almost everyone, it would seem, who embarks on a standard tour of Egypt will venture into Old or Coptic Cairo and will gain some experience with the churches of Fort Babylon. Yet there are many important churches and monasteries outside that district, though not so far away, and example of which is the area of Zuwaila in the district known as Al-Khurinfish (Khurunfish, al-Qurunfish) in the Fatimid section of Cairo near Al-Muski off Shari Bain al-Surain. Here, we find the ruins of an old monastery, some important churches, along with a several more modern monastery (or convents). We know little about the ancient monastery, but there survives the churches dedicated to St. Mercurius (Abu al-Seifein), St. George, and its convent, and the oldest, dedicated to the Holy Virgin, including its convent.

This district is important because tradition holds that it was blessed by the Holy Family during their travels in Egypt. However, The Church of the Virgin Mary was also the patriarchal seal for some three centuries, until 1660 AD.

The church of the Virgin Mary is known as the "Lower Church", because it sits about five meters below ground level with the Church of Saint George, known as the "Upper Church", above it. The church of Saint Mercurius is annexed to the lower church to the Northwest, and close by is the Convent of the Nuns of the Holy Virgin Mary.

The Church of the Virgin Mary

The church of the Virgin Mary, which predates the other churches in this district, was probably founded in the 10th century, though we only find it first mentioned at the beginning of the twelfth century on the occasion of the consecration of the new bishop of Cairo under Macarius' patriarchate (1102-1128).

Unfortunately, the church was destroyed in 1321, but when it was rebuilt, it had the honor of being the see of the Coptic Patriarchate. During the following centuries, it was often remodeled and restored, with the result that the fourteenth century structure has been notably altered. Hence, today the original basilican structure can hardly be traced. Originally it featured a relatively small transept and a semi-circular apse fronted by a khurus (choir).

Today, the church measures 28 by 19 meters and stands 11.5 meters high. It comprises a narthex (entry hall), a naos (a nave with two side aisles) and choir, along with three sanctuaries (haykal). There is also a library that boasts a number of valuable manuscripts and we may also find a number of important icons, including a representation of the Annunciation that dates from about 1355 AD.

Floorplan of the Church of the Virgin Mary

Three rows of ancient (reused) marble columns with Corinthian capitals separate the nave from the narthex and the northern and southern aisles. There is a marble ambon (ambo, a pulpit) which is supported on four slender twisted columns that rests against the northern columns. Its lectern is in the form of an eagle carved in wood. Stretching across the choir is a beam adorned with a modern painting of the Last Supper.

The screen (iconostasis) of the central sanctuary is made of ebony and inlaid with finely worked ivory. The screen is surmounted by thirteen icons representing the Virgin surrounded by the Twelve Apostles. Above the icons is a rood with an eagle in conflict with a dragon on either side. On each eagle rests a panel showing, on the right, John the Baptist and, on the left, the Virgin Mary. The sanctuary door, which dates to the Fatimid Period, is made of fine ivory panels sculptured in relief depicting birds and animals. Over the sanctuary rises a lofty dome ornamented with gated pendentives1. The altar canopy itself is a dome, supported on four marble columns. in the apse there is a fine tribune that rises in six marble steps. In the center is the synthronon2.

In the floor just before the southern sanctuary is a well where, according to tradition, the water was blessed by the young Christ during the flight of the holy family in Egypt. Its waters are said to have a healing effect on the sick, and each year, Ethiopian priests come to take water from the well.

Ewer ornamented with geometrical designs in relief, it was used during the Mass service at the Holy Virgin Church. This item is now in the Coptic Museum.

The southern sanctuary has a screen with inlaid ivory and is dedicated to the archangel Gabriel. Along the top of the screen are seven icons dating to the 19th century that represent the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Baptism, the Entry into Jerusalem, the Resurrection, the Ascension and the Descent of the Holy Spirit.

A door on the right of the southern sanctuary gives access to a shrine where several well known icons may be found. On the southern side is a 14th century (probably) icon of the Holy Virgin Mary. We are told that whenever the Patriarch Matthew I (1378-1408) fell into temptation, he would stand before this icon, addressing it in supplication as if it were a person. It was then that the Holy Virgin would appear before him, easing his burdens and comforting his soul. Saint Ruwais is also said to have prayed before this very icon. The icon depicts the Holy Virgin Mary, seated on a tree that grows from the back of Jesse (Isa. 11:1-10). About her are the four major, and twelve minor prophets. Above them are two angels.

At the east end of the northern aisle of the church are two sanctuaries, also separated by screens with inlaid ivory. The screen before the first sanctuary, dedicated to the archangel Michael, is dated to about the year, 1778, The second sanctuary is dedicated to Saint John the Baptist.

There is also a shrine on the west end of the church were we find an additional three icons. The center most of these depicts the Crucifixion, while on the right is the Baptism of Christ and on the left, the Holy Virgin.. A doorway in the northwest corner of the northern aisle communicates with the Church of Saint Mercurius.

The Convent of Nuns of the Holy Virgin Mary

A convent is annexed to the Church of the Holy Virgin Mary at Harat Zuwaila. It was built by the Patriarch Cyril IV (1854-61). The nuns have a chapel in the gallery on the north side of the Church.

The Church of Saint Mercurius

The Church at Harat Zuwaila dedicated to Saint Mercurius was built by al-Mu'allim Ibrahim al-Gawhari in the late 1700s (1773-1774 AD). It consists of a nave, a choir, the northern and southern aisles, three sanctuaries and a baptistery. The nave is surmounted by a dome and the central sanctuary with a semidome. The nave has an ambon supported on six wooden columns.

The aisles are separated by two rows of three columns. The screen of the central sanctuary is wood inlaid with ivory, and along the top of it is a row of icons.

The Church of Saint George (Also known as the Upper Church)

This is a small church which sits atop the Church of the Virgin Mary at Harat Zuwaila. Dedicated to Saint George, it consists only of a nave and three sanctuaries. Just outside this church is a small chamber that contains a shrine of the Holy Virgin Mary. Behind the latticed screen is an icon of the Holy Virgin together with icons of saints. Apparently, for their is little information concerning this, there is also a convent of nuns attached to this church as well.

1. Architecturally, a triangular segment of a sphere, bordered by arches and resulting from the interpenetration of a cubic space (bay or room, square in plan) and a hemisphere, the latter constructed from the circle circumscribed over the square of the plan.

2. In East Christian and Byzantine churches, the bench or benches reserved for the clergy; arranged either in a semicircle (sometimes amphitheatrically) in the apse or in straight rows on either side of the central sanctuary.

Return to Christian Monasteries of Egypt






Reference Number

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Last Updated: June 28th, 2011