The Church of St. Barbara: A Historic Gem in the Heart of Old Cairo
The Church of St. Barbara is one of Cairo's oldest and most remarkable churches. It is situated in the eastern part of the Babylon Fort. It dates back to the 5th century and was rebuilt around the 11th century. It is named after St. Barbara, born at the beginning of the 3rd century in Nicomedia. She converted to Christianity and refused to marry any of the aristocratic young men in Alexandria, devoting herself to serving Jesus Christ and God. Her father was a non-believing pagan who continually tortured her, and then he complained about her to the Roman governor Marcianus, who in turn tortured her even more. However, Barbara resisted and refused to leave Christianity.
Finally, she was killed and martyred, together with her companion, Juliana.
The Layout Of The Church Of St. Barbara
The Church is shaped like a Roman Basilica, comprised of an entrance, a narthex, a nave, two aisles, and three sanctuaries in the Church's east wing. The middle Sanctuary is the main one, dedicated to St. Barbara. After entering from the narthex, five marble columns with palm leaf capitals separate the nave from the two aisles. In front of the middle Sanctuary is a semicircular choir consisting of 7 steps. From the Church's southern Sanctuary, visitors can enter through a doorway to a rectangular hall, which contains an additional chapel dedicated to St. Barbara. This is a recent modification to the Church. From the northern Sanctuary, a doorway leads to the small Church consecrated to St. Cyrus and St. John.
This small Church has three sanctuaries. The middle one is dedicated to St. Cyrus and John, the right one is dedicated to St. George, and the third is used today for baptisms. The most precious item in this Church is a sycamore door dating back to the 5th Century. The Church also has many icons, and the most remarkable dates back to the 13th Century. The main icons depict Christ surrounded by Angels. There were other icons on the southern aisle of the Church, representing the Virgin Mary and Jesus when he was a child, Jesus entering Jerusalem and the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist.
Location and Accessibility
Located about 30 minutes from Downtown Cairo, the Church of St. Barbara is situated in the Old Cairo district amidst a private Christian community established and preserved since the 10th Century. The Church is easily accessible by taxi or by taking the Mar Girgis Station, directly adjacent to Coptic Cairo. This makes it convenient for visitors to explore the surrounding attractions, including the Coptic Museum and the nearby Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus.
A Brief History
The Church of St. Barbara has a long and storied history, having been destroyed and subsequently restored several times due to fires and other natural disasters. Dedicated initially to St. Cyrus and St. John, the Church became associated with St. Barbara when her relics were brought to the site in the 13th Century. The current structure is a product of 11th-century restorations, with additional renovations in the early 1900s.
The Fires of Fustat and Restoration Efforts
The Church of St. Barbara, like many other churches in the area, fell victim to the two great fires of Fustat in the 8th and 12th centuries. These devastating events led to the extensive restoration efforts that have shaped the Church into the architectural wonder it is today. Notable Egyptian historian Al-Maqrizi described the Church of St. Barbara as the most famous Church of his time, highlighting its historical and cultural significance.
The Church of St. Barbara is a prime example of Coptic architecture. Its basilican structure and tripartite Sanctuary resemble the nearby Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus. The Church's exterior is unassuming, designed to blend in with neighboring houses to protect it from fanatical mobs during unrest and persecution.
Inside the Church, visitors can marvel at the impressive marble columns, semicircular choir, and intricately carved wooden architrave. The main Sanctuary features an apse, while the two flanking sanctuaries are rectangular. The area north of the Sanctuary is dedicated to Saints Cyrus and John, featuring three chapels and a nearly square-shaped layout.
Rare and Precious Icons
The Church of St. Barbara is home to some of Egypt's rarest and most precious religious icons. Many items, such as door panels, wooden screens, icons, and Bible caskets, have been transferred to the nearby Coptic Museum for safekeeping. Despite this, visitors to the Church can still admire the beautiful icons and artwork adorning its walls.
Icon of St. Barbara
An ancient icon depicting the martyr St. Barbara is a standout piece within the Church. It shows her against the backdrop of a tower where her resentful father imprisoned her. This poignant representation is a testament to her enduring faith and courage in adversity.
Central Wooden Screen and Icons
Three icons crown the central wooden screen within the Church of St. Barbara. These depict Jesus Christ in the middle, the Virgin Mary on the left, and John the Baptist on the right, showcasing the central figures of the Christian faith.
13th Century Icon of the Virgin Mary and Jesus
Another notable artwork within the Church is a precious 13th-century icon showing the enthroned Virgin Mary with Jesus sitting on her lap. This tender portrayal highlights the deep bond between mother and child and the significance of the Virgin Mary within Christian belief.
The Marble Pulpit and Ambo
The Church of St. Barbara features a marble pulpit, which served as a model for the modern pulpit in the nearby Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus. Additionally, the Church houses a medieval ambo with ten columns that dates back to around 1300 and was rebuilt in 1911. These architectural elements further underscore the Church's historic and religious importance.
The Coptic Museum and Nearby Attractions
Visitors to the Church of St. Barbara will find themselves near many other historic sites and attractions in the Coptic Cairo area. The Coptic Museum, located just a two-minute walk from the Church, houses many precious items and artifacts once housed within the Church. This museum offers a fascinating glimpse into the history of Coptic Christianity in Egypt and is well worth a visit.
The Hanging Church, Babylon Fortress, and Ben Ezra Synagogue
Other nearby attractions include the famous Hanging Church, the Babylon Fortress, and the Ben Ezra Synagogue. These sites, along with the Church of St. Barbara, are essential to any walking tour of Old Cairo. The area's rich history and unique charm make it a must-see destination for anyone interested in Egypt's cultural and religious heritage.
The Holy Family's Resting Place
The Coptic area of Old Cairo is also believed to be where the Holy Family, consisting of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, stopped and rested on their way into Egypt. Legend says they slept in the cave under the 4th-century Church of Abu Serga. This adds yet another layer of historical and religious significance to this fascinating part of the city.