The Church of the Virgin Mary, known as the Hanging Church, is now almost ready for its expected reopening in February following a renovation project that began in 1999 and cost LE 55 million.
The Hanging Church in Old Cairo earned its name from its construction thirteen metres above ground on the remains of two towers attached to the Roman fortress of Babylon. Built in the fifth century, it is the highest building in the area. The church served as the papal seat from the eleventh century when Pope Christodoulos moved it from Alexandria to Old Cairo, and continued as the papal seat for two centuries. Several popes who reigned during that period are buried beneath the church and have their portraits hanging in it.
The original church design followed the Roman basilica style with four doors at the cardinal points, the main door being on the west side. The interior of the church is divided into four sections, three of which are covered with wooden domes and end in three long sanctuaries separated from the rest of the church by wood and ivory partitions acting as iconostasis. Each sanctuary has a wooden dome supported on four pillars surrounding the altar. Another small church was attached to the main church on its south east side, where the baptismal font was placed. This church was consecrated to St Mark.
The Hanging Church suffered severely from high levels of ground water that endangered the basic structure, as well as damage from the 1992 earthquake, which led the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) to set forth with a huge renovation and reconstruction project for the entire church. According to Ali Hilal, head of the Projects Sector at the Culture Ministry, the renovation work covered architectural, ornamental, marble, woodwork, and icons, as well as electric and lighting aspects. The underground water levels of both the church and the next-door Coptic Museum were contained.
The project included repairing and fortifying the foundations, ceiling, floors and cracks in the walls that resulted from the 1992 earthquake, as well as the complete renovation of the bell tower.
Farouq Sharaf, general manager of the restoration department of the Projects Sector at the Culture Ministry and director of the restoration project of the Hanging Church, told Watani that all the inlaid wooden elements in the church have been restored. These include the church doors, the iconostases, the pulpits, as well as the columns carrying the altar domes, and the timber roofs. The marble works were all cleaned, restored, and completed where there were parts missing, and the marble columns were restored to the upright position since some of them had tilted over the years.
A new project is being planned that will cover the renovation of the outer church walls and stairways, installing air conditioning units and a complete fire alarm system.
The Hanging Church is renowned for its huge, priceless collection of icons and censers. The SCA has recruited the services of a group of Russian icon specialists who are painstakingly working on the renovation of all the icons and paintings in the church. This work is taking around 20 days, and will be completed by the first of February, ready for the reopening.