Cairo today is a modern city with virtually nothing to see of pharaonic remains. It was founded in the 10th century on the site of a Roman fortress town called Babylon but represents a varied culture and history since that time. The area known as ‘Old Cairo’ is a relatively tiny portion of the vast city, but is the oldest part of Cairo and has some interesting churches and museums as well as the remains of Babylon.
The fortress of Babylon (pronounced in Egyptian, ‘Babalog’) was built as part of the Roman defences for the city of Memphis, on the edge of the ancient city of ‘On’ (Heliopolis). The site would have been on the east bank of the river at that time, but the Nile has since shifted westwards leaving the area of Old Cairo further to the east of the river. The original fortress town was founded around 30 BC – the year in which the Emperor Augustus entered Alexandria. The Romans brought Christianity to Egypt in the 1st century AD and the town of Babylon became known as a centre of the new religion, a safer place for Christians during the times of conflict than Alexandria to the north. It was built on the outskirts of an even older town, Heliopolis, which had been an important religious centre throughout Egyptian pharaonic history and was known as ‘On’ in biblical times. A new fortress was built in the 2nd century by the Emperor Trajan and these are the remains which can be seen today. Of Trajan’s waterside battlements, only the southern part of the towered entrance remains and below this, excavations have revealed parts of a quay below the modern street level.
The origin of the name ‘Babylon-in-Egypt’ is obscure, but it is suggested to come from ‘Per-hapy-en-Yenu’ (Nile house of ‘On’), which is derived from both the nearby Nilometer on the Island of Roda and the city of ‘On’ – Babylon may have been the name given to the town by the Romans. Old Cairo is known as Misr el-Qadima and visitors to the area can see the remaining restored towers of Trajan’s Babylon fortifications opposite the metro station at Mar Girgis (St George) and flanking the entrance to the Coptic Museum.
The word ‘Coptic’ derives from the ancient Egyptian language and was the word used to describe the early Christian religion in Egypt. This became the transitional period between pharaonic times and the Islamic era, but the Orthodox Coptic Church was very important for many centuries and remains the second religion in Egypt today. Numerous churches and monasteries were built in the Old Cairo quarter, which is still considered a sacred area by both Copts and Jews, because legend states that the Holy Family rested here in a cave when they came to Egypt.
There are many Coptic churches to be seen in Old Cairo, most notably the ‘Hanging Church’ (el-Moallaqa). This is the nickname for the Metropolitan Church of St Mary the Virgin, which was built at the site of Babylon in the 4th century AD, right on top of the postern gate of the Roman fortifications with its nave suspended over the passage of the gatehouse. It is said to be one of the first churches in the world to host Coptic rituals, though the oldest parts of the church extant today date to the 11th century. It has seen many modifications, most recently in the 19th century when a fourth aisle was added to the original structure. The three original sanctuaries were dedicated to the Virgin Mary, St John the Baptist and St George. The Hanging Church is actually entered through a courtyard in the Coptic Museum which is surrounded by many buildings and churches of the old quarter. National restoration project funding has been allocated to the Hanging Church and Babylon Fortress in order to preserve the monumental identity of the Old Cairo area. Nearby churches of Old Cairo include Saints Sergius and Bacchus (the oldest church in Cairo), the Monastery and Church of St George and the Convent of St George and the Church of St Barbara. Many of the old churches can be visited with permission.
In AD 642, the conquering Muslim army commanded by Amr Ibn-el-As besieged the fortified town of Babylon and made their headquarters a little to the north in a ‘city of tents’ known as el-Fustat. Although Fustat became the seat of a military garrison for Arab troops and a base for future campaigns against the Egyptians, Babylon was preserved intact within its boundaries. Despite the great religious differences between the Arabs and the Copts, the two towns merged into one inseparable urban area which grew and evolved over three centuries. Other satellite towns were also built and they eventually became the Cairo (el-Qahira) we know today, but Fustat is always thought to be the first Arab capital of Egypt. The remains of Fustat and Babylon have been mainly preserved because there was little of interest from pharaonic times beneath the towns and they were consequently left alone. It was also known as the first official place of Muslim worship in Egypt.
The ruins of Fustat became prominent in the 19th and early 20th centuries when there was a growing interest in Islamic art. Unfortunately the early treasure hunters did a great deal of damage to the stratigraphy and archaeology of the site. The first systematic excavation took place in 1912-1924 by Ali Bahgat for the Museum of Arab Art and thousands of artefacts were found. In 1964 Fustat was more thoroughly and scientifically excavated when it was threatened by urban development and again in the 1970s by the Egyptian Antiquities Department. Although it was severely damaged by fire in the 8th century Fustat has revealed a great deal of information about early Egyptian Arabic history into the medieval period.
Fustat was an ancient centre for the pottery industry and a new Pottery Centre is currently being built there (begun in 1996) with the aims of preserving the traditional art. The new centre will display both contemporary and ancient pottery and includes a large workshop and kilns, an amphitheatre and an open-air museum. There are also plans proposed for a new Civilisation Museum at el-Fustat, with the foundation stone having been laid in December 2002. It is anticipated that the project will take three years in the making under full UNESCO supervision. The museum will house thousands of artefacts to illustrate the development of Egyptian civilisation from the whole historic period.
Today there is little to see at Fustat. The main landmark is the Mosque of Amr Ibn-el-As which was originally founded in AD 642 and still remains, but has little of its original structure. The excavated ruins of Fustat can be visited if you get permission from the custodian of the site. The site can be found just north of the walls of Old Cairo on Mar Girgis Street. Entrabce costs EGP 10.
For an up to date account of recent excavations at Fustat see the Wasada University website.