The church was built around the fourth century in honour of the miracle performed by the Holy Virgin in the first AD century when she rescued the apostle St Matthias from prison by melting the iron chains that bound him. Hence the name: al-Adra Halet al-Hadeed (The Virgin Who Melted The Iron) was bestowed on the church which today lies in an old quarter in Cairo, known as Haret Zuweila. Every year on 21 Pa’ouna (28 June) the Coptic Church marks the feast of the Holy Virgin Who Melted The Iron, and the Haret Zuweila church is at the centre of the celebrations. The highlight of the evening services is a celebratory procession that begins with deacons chanting praises and carrying icons of the Holy Virgin in front of which the priest raises incense. The procession starts inside the church then goes out to tour the narrow streets of the neighbourhood where the locals, Muslim and Christian, joyfully join forming a large crowd of passionate chanters in honour of the widely loved Holy Virgin.
Pope visits underground church
This year’s feast was marked by a special highlight: Pope Tawadros II paid a pastoral visit to the church in Haret Zuweila. He consecrated the four altars after recent renovation. He opened a special gallery that showcased historical artefacts which had long been scattered around the church, as well as the acquisitions of 23 popes who had used the church as papal seat from 1303 to 1660 and were buried there. He also blessed a desalination station installed to treat the underground water that has taken its toll on the building for more than 20 years today.
The church is located in Haret Zuweila near the medieval gate of Bab Zuweila in Fatimid Cairo, one of the few gates of the Cairo Wall built during that period and still standing today. The Fatimids ruled Egypt from 969 to 1171 and built Cairo as an enclosure for the palaces and mosques of their elites. The church of the Holy Virgin goes back to a much older date; the 14th-century Egyptian historian al-Maqrizi dates it back to 352 whereas archaeologist Alfred J. Butler (1850 – 1936) wrote that it must have been built around the sixth or seventh AD centuries. It stood at the edge of Fatimid Cairo, but is today close to modern-day Downtown Cairo and can be easily reached by underground metro. A few hundred metres from the metro station the visitor leaves the main road and walks down a descending, winding alley to reach the church. The main gate off the alley leads to a flight of stairs that descends to the church’s doorway. The church lies some 4m under street level.
The church is part of a complex of adjoining, interlinked buildings that include three churches built at different time. At the lower level is the Church of the Holy Virgin, and annexed to it is the small church of Abu Seifein (St Mercurius) built in the late 18th century; at an upper level is the church of Mar-Girgis (St George). Two convents are included in the complex: the convent of Mar-Girgis is annexed to the church on the upper level; while the convent of the Holy Virgin, built in the 19th century, is annexed to the church of the Holy Virgin and rises two floors above it. It includes a gallery on its upper floor which overlooks the nave of the Holy Virgin’s church. All the churches and convents are interlinked; their gates open into or close to the other churches or convents, or into streets parallel or perpendicular to one another; a first-time visitor is bound to get confused by the layout.
According to tradition, the region was one of the spots trodden by the Holy Family on its flight into Egypt.
According to al-Maqrizi, the church, among many others, was attacked by fanatics and destroyed at the time of Sultan Nasser Ibn Qalawoon in the early 14th century. He issued a decree that the churches of Cairo be closed and the Coptic Patriarch be forbidden to pray in public. At that time the ruler of Barcelona, who had good commercial ties with Egypt’s rulers, succeeded in persuading them to open a few churches so that Christians in the country might be able to pray. The choice was the Church of the Holy Virgin in Zuweila for the Coptic Orthodox.
One of the pastors of the Church, Fr Marcos Zaki, guided Watani along a tour of the church and gallery.
After going down the flight of stone stairs to the doorway of the Holy Virgin’s, the visitor finds on the right a marble board engraved with the names of 23 patriarchs who had the church as papal headquarters. The door is, unusually, in the centre of the church. Inside are four altars and, to the right of the door, a stained-glass icon depicting the Holy Family in Egypt, showing the pyramids in the background. Another icon depicts St Mary holding Baby Jesus at the centre of a tree that emanates from an image of David, son of Jesse—the Bible calls Jesus the son of David. At the tip of each branch is one of the 16 prophets who said prophesies that refer to St Mary as the Mother of God. Another old and beautiful icon depicts the symbols and titles of the Holy Virgin, while a modern one is a triptych with the middle portion depicting St Mary with Matthias as the iron chains hang unbound in his hands.
Icons and a splendid Cross
There are many other very old icons; some 32 of which have been restored. Thirteen of these icons hang above the iconostasis of the altar of the Holy Virgin; the central one is of the Virgin Mary, with Christ’s 12 disciples surrounding her.
The focal point in the Church is the ‘Cross of Crucifixion’ which, unlike in other churches where the Cross hangs directly above the altar, is right before the deacon’s choir near the pulpit. The Cross consists of three parts. The main Cross depicts the scene of the crucified Jesus Christ surrounded by the four non-embodied animals as symbols of the four evangelists; the second represents the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Between the first and second are two huge objects: the first has a human face and dragon body-shape, while the second has a human face and the body of a giant bird. The third part of the Cross is divided into two icons to the left and right, one depicting John the Baptist and the other the Virgin Mary. This Cross is similar to that hanging in the Monastery of Saint Catherine, but with a few technical and liturgical differences.
The visible trend of the Ibrahim al-Nassekh school suggests that most of the Church’s icons, even the Cross, were painted in the 17th and 18th centuries (the 15th century according to the Martyrs’ Calendar). There are, however, inscriptions on some of the icons written in Coptic, Arabic, and Armenian that indicate touches by Yuhanna al-Armani (1720 – 1786), an artist of Armenian origin in Ottoman Egypt. He is most notable for his religious works, especially his Coptic icons that decorate the Hanging Church in Old Cairo, and the 19th century artist Anastassi al-Roumy.
Detrimental treasure hunts
The nave includes 36 marble and stone columns with capitals of varying design: palmiform, Corinthian and Roman. Some of these capitals have been restored or rebuilt, giving evidence of the 150 attacks on various levels to which the Church was subjected to through the course of its history.
Fr Marcos told Watani that a major reason for the destruction, so the legend goes, was that the man who built the church and who is said to have been called the Wise Zylon buried a treasure under the foundations. Everyone searched for the treasure: the Berbers, robbers, and even a church supervisor, Mitry Christo, who said that if he found it he would give it to the poor.
The recently opened gallery is a spacious room on the northwest side of the church that had long lain neglected. Old manuscripts, however, which indicated there was a vault below the room where the patriarchs were buried drew attention to the place which was then cleaned up, searched, and renovated to host the gallery which is now a first-class small museum.
An old staircase was discovered at the far end of the room, which led to the Convent of the Holy Virgin. A wooden box was found which contained bones, thought to be the relics of the patriarchs or some saints of Haret Zuweila. Upon recommendation by Anba Raphail, Secretary-General of the Holy Synod, the relics were anointed and placed in tubes on shelves to the right of the entrance; the old wooden box is displayed close to them.
At the centre of the room is a long showcase displaying handwritten manuscripts in Coptic and Arabic. A manuscript in a separate showcase includes the texts of Pascha, the prayers said during Holy Week, in Arabic and Coptic. Other manuscripts include the copies of the Holy Bible, the Synaxarium, and prayer books for various occasions.
On the left of the long showcase stands a large cupboard with vertical and horizontal partitions on which are displayed items that date back to the 16th – 18th centuries. These include several silver and copper candelabras and censers inscribed with images of the Holy Virgin, and a number of crowns used in the marriage ceremony, on one of which is inscribed, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill towards men”. Among other objects is a copper belt worn by the patriarch when celebrating religious feasts, a brass-and-silver Bible cover used in ceremonies such as enthronement of patriarchs, a collection of cymbals and triangles—the only musical instruments used in the Coptic Church, as well as a set of huge iron keys for the church door. There are also altar utensils such as bottles and jugs used to hold the wine and water, and an ostrich-egg holder which is usually placed in front of the altar. All the contents of the cupboard have been restored and polished.
At the centre of the room is a column behind which is a lectern on a carved, gilded wooden eagle. On the column hangs a painting of one of the patriarchs, believed to be Pope Yu’annis XIII.
A singular four-metre long icon depicting the seven major feasts has been restored by the Russian expert Suzanna Esclova, who described it as comparable in cultural value to the Great Pyramid. It dates back to the 12th century and is thought to have been painted by a Coptic artist from the village of Meleig in the present-day east Delta province of Menoufiya.
For many years, underground water flooded the church and seeped into all the walls, eating them up bit by bit. Much effort was put into ridding the church of the groundwater. Finally, holes were made in the walls for the water to run through, and the water is now collected and desalinated for reuse.
Near the old staircase in the gallery is a wooden chair padded with red velvet. When Pope Tawadros visited the Church and opened the gallery, he asked who was the chair for? On being told that many patriarchs of the Coptic Orthodox Church had sat on it, among them Pope Kyrillos VI and Pope Shenouda III, Pope Tawadros said, “Then I too will sit on it.”
17 August 2016