The Hanging Church Painstakingly Restored
All the splendour had been buried underneath layers upon layers of smoke and dust. The years had taken their toll on the 5th-century church of the Holy Virgin and St Demiana, commonly known as the Muallaqa (Hanging) Church in Old Cairo, the Coptic Cairo quarter which goes back to Roman times. Now, after a 16-year, EGP101 million (USD5.4 million) restoration, the church is sparkling, back to its original magnificence.
Located in a heavily populated area, the Hanging Church suffered from air pollution, a high subsoil water level, and leakage of water from the outdated 100-year-old drainage system. Ornamentation of the church’s wooden ceiling was stained with smoke from decades of lit candles and incense, and the walls and foundation suffered from cracks brought about by the 1992 earthquake.
The area around the church is called Mugamaa al-Adyaan, Arabic for ‘religious compound’. It houses a large number of the oldest churches in Egypt; the Amr Ibn al-Aas Mosque which is the first mosque built in Egypt directly after the Arab conquest in the 7th century, and the Ben Ezra Synagogue.
The 5th-century church is among the oldest in Egypt and the first to be built in Roman basilica style. It earned its nickname, the Hanging Church, because it was built over two towers of the 2nd-century Roman fort known as Babylon Fort. The church was the papal seat from the 7th to the 13th century.
Last Saturday saw Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab join Pope Tawadros II in a celebration marking completion of the restoration. The restoration had in fact begun in 1998 and ended in 2010, but the onset of the Arab Spring in January 2011 threw Egypt into tumultuous times that made it impossible to celebrate the outstanding feat.
Watani was on hand to cover last Saturday’s event and offer its readers a glimpse into the epic-scale restoration and its stunningly beautiful result.
Cairo Governor Galal Said attended the ceremony, as did the Antiquities Minister Mamdouh al-Damati and a number of senior government officials, al-Azhar representative, a number of bishops, abbots, and abbesses of Coptic convents.
Pope Tawadros lauded the State-sponsored restoration executed by the Arab Contractors, one of Egypt’s top engineering contractor firms at the head of which sat Mr Mahlab before he was appointed PM. For his part, Mr Mahlab said the restoration took such a long time because of engineering challenges in dealing with the underground waters that threatened the entire area’s monuments. He asked the construction companies that had participated in the restoration to produce a documentary about the epic work.
Antiquities Minister Mamdouh al-Damati said that the restoration had been carried out over three phases. The first involved reducing the ground water and fortifying the church foundations and the Babylon Fort beneath it. The walls were then reinforced, missing and decayed stones were replaced, and the masonry cleaned and desalinated.
“The ornamentation and icons—the church is famous for its collection of more than 90 icons that date from the 15th to the 18th century—were subject to fine restoration in collaboration with Russian experts. New lighting and ventilation systems were installed.”
Saving all of Old Cairo
Watani talked to Anba Yulius, Bishop-General of Old Cairo, a parish which includes 17 ancient churches. Anba Yulius was keen to point out that even though he was the one today celebrating the completion of the restoration, he was “harvesting the fruit which many others had sowed”. He explained that when he was seated in 2013, the work had already been completed at the hands of bishops who had been in charge of the parish before him. These were Anba Yuhanna, Anba Silwanus and Anba Mina, and they worked hand in hand with the church’s pastors Fr Morqos Aziz and Fr Yacoub Soliman to make the project a success. “My bit lay in putting in place the final touches and arranging for this celebration,” Anba Yulius said.
Everyone is wondering why the restoration took so long, Watani remarked. “In order for anyone to understand why,” Anba Yulius replied, “he or she should know in what poor shape the church was before the restoration. I am originally an architect and, when I took orders, I served for ten years at the Pope Kyrillos Mill in Old Cairo, where buildings go back to the 18th-century. Even though they are not ancient, I gained experience in the proper way to handle old buildings and bricks.
“Restoring the Hanging Church was not easy; it was carried out over several phases and each phase took its time. Perhaps the greatest challenge was the underground water that threatened the entire district, not only the church. All the buildings here were built over huge amounts of rubble, which further compounded the problem. But the underground water was finally channeled through an excellent drainage system that serves all of Old Cairo. The waters no longer threaten the area or the buildings, nor will do so in the future.”
Restored not renovated
Next, the wall cracks were repaired while preserving the original walls and reinforcing them, replacing the missing or decayed stones, and cleaning and desalinating the masonry.
“In this context,” Anba Yulius said, “I insist that the church has been ‘restored’ not ‘renovated’. Restoration is a painstaking process that preserves all the original form and material, which is what was done with the Hanging Church. Had we conducted a ‘renovation’ it would have practically damaged it forever.”
Then came the especially difficult task of restoring the woodwork which had undergone centuries of damage by termites and insects. The wood was scrupulously treated, and the treatment insures that it will no longer be subject to such damage in the future.
The last phase involved the icon restoration, meticulously done by an expert Russian team.
According to Anba Yulius, the restoration work extended to other churches in Old Cairo, all of which go back to the 2nd to 4th centuries and need extensive work. “For now,” he said, “restoration of the famed Abu-Seifein’s is in its final touches and should have been celebrated by Pope Tawadros next December. But we decided to wait till the coming June 1st, so that the celebration would coincide with the day the Church marks the advent of the Holy Family into Egypt.” Tradition has it that the Holy Family stayed at Old Cairo during part of its visit to Egypt when it fled Herod the King who wished to kill the Christ Child.
Five other Old Cairo churches are currently under various stages of restoration, Anba Yulius said.
What does the Hanging Church mean to you?
Finally, Watani asked Anba Yulius what the Hanging church meant to him.
“When I was seated in March 2013, the bishop’s seat was at the church of St Joseph in Old Cairo, a modern-day church. My love for the Hanging Church, which goes back to my childhood years when I would visit it with my parents or Sunday School teachers, made me move the bishop’s seat here.
“The Hanging Church was the papal seat since the Arab conquest of Egypt in the 7th century when Pope Christodoulos moved the seat from Alexandria to the new capital in Fustat, present-day Old Cairo. There it remained till the 13th century; a number of the popes who sat there are buried in the crypt.
“But perhaps more than anything, the Hanging Church is for me a spot where prayers are answered. The great 8th century miracle of moving the Muqattam Mountain has its roots here through the ardent prayers of Pope Avra’am (c.975 – 979) and the congregation. The Pope had been asked by the Fatimid caliph al-Muizz li-Din Allah to prove the veracity of the Bible verse Truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move (Matt 17:20), at the peril of death or conversion to Islam. The Pope declared three days of fasting and prayer at the end of which the Holy Virgin manifested herself to the Pope on the 5th column on the south side of the Hanging Church and guided him to the man, St Simon the Tanner, at whose hands the miracle would occur. Her image is still on the column, and was preserved during the restoration.
Fr Yacoub volunteered to guide me through the church. “When I was first ordained in 1986,” he said, “I would feel the ground shake slightly under my feet in the nave or sanctuary. I thought I was imagining things, but later realised I was not. The church is built atop two towers of the Babylon Fort, the space between them was filled with palm trunks and stones. Since the wood of the palm trunks had begun to disintegrate, the ground was no longer stable; it shook.” In 1983, radioactive carbon testing conducted through the Antiquities Authority revealed the age of the wood to go back to 140 -150 years BC.
The church has no domes, but its roof is in the shape of Noah’s Ark.
The gate dates back to 1898, and bears an inscription that it was built at the hands of Nakhla al-Barani, the church master at the time. A big Cross is engraved above the gate, with the Bible verse: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” (Math 7:7)
In the nave there are lofty marble columns, eight on the right and left sides, and three in the middle. Their capitals are decorated with hyacinth shapes as in Roman temples.
Especially stunning are the restored iconostases made of walnut and ebony wood inlaid with ivory. Above is the verse, “Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.” (Ps 95:1)
Perhaps the most impressive of all is an area on the south side where a glass flooring reveals the foundation. The tower of the Babylon Fort can be seen, and the new palm trunks. A number of the original ones, however, have been left there for the record.
15 October 2014