9 Egyptian Churches, Cathedrals and Monasteries You Need to Visit at Least Once
Western Christmas (December 25th) and Coptic Christmas (January 7th) are right around the corner, so we decided to shine light on something that not many visitors (or even locals) recognize: the presence in Egypt of some of the oldest and most historically significant churches, cathedrals and monasteries in this part of the world.
You don’t need to be Egyptian or even Christian to appreciate the history of these centuries-old places of worship, or the beauty of the more modern ones.
While many of these churches can be found in Coptic Cairo, some are in more… remote places (Sinai mountains, anyone?). But whatever the destination, each of these churches, cathedrals and monasteries should be visited at least once.
1. The “Cave Church” - Monastery of St. Simon the Tanner
Location: Moqattam, Cairo
This awesome cave church (or technically, ‘churches’ -- the St. Simon monastery complex has seven churches) is unlike anything else we have in Egypt.
Carved into the Moqattam Hills, the main monastery hall can hold over 20,000 people and was named after the Coptic Saint Simon, who, according to legend, moved the Moqattam mountain in 979 AD as proof of the strength of his beliefs.
The cave church was built by the Zabbaleen community of Cairo’s Garbage City, and today is not only a religious spot but an educational center, kindergarten and school for the deaf.
2. St. Catherine’s Monastery
Location: Mount Sinai, Sinai Peninsula
Established: 6th century AD
Part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site (for other Egyptian heritage sites, head here), the Orthodox Saint Catherine Monastery is the oldest Christian monastery in the world still used for its original function.
Interior of St. Catherine's
According to UNESCO: “Its walls and buildings are of great significance to studies of Byzantine architecture and the Monastery houses outstanding collections of early Christian manuscripts and icons. The rugged mountainous landscape, containing numerous archaeological and religious sites and monuments, forms a perfect backdrop to the Monastery.”
St. Catherine's Monastery is at the foot of Mt. Sinai, where it's believed by the Abrahamic religions that Moses found the Burning Bush and received the 10 Commandments.
3. Wadi Natrun Monasteries
Location: Wadi Natrun Valley, northwest of Cairo
Established: 4th century AD
More than 1600 years ago, Saint Macarius of Egypt decided to build his monastery in the Natrun valley, known for its large alkali lakes. This attracted the attention of other Christian monks and hermits, who then decided to settle in Natrun as well, establishing four large early Christian developments.
The four Wadi Natrun Coptic monasteries that are still active to this day are:
The Monastery of Saint Macarius
The Monastery of Saint Bishoy
The Paromeos Monastery
The Syrian Monastery
All of the four can be seen and visited until today free of charge, but leaving a donation is always helpful in preserving these historic sites.
4. The Heavenly Cathedral
Location: Sharm el Sheikh
This modern church was considered by some one of the most beautiful in the world upon its completion almost ten years ago, and is now an unexpected must-see for many Sharm el Sheikh visitors.
The exterior is simple, but the interior took a team of 19 people two years to create. There are frescoes and murals, and the walls depict Biblical scenes such as The Creation and Exodus, and on the ceiling there’s St. John’s vision of The Apocalypse.
5. The “Hanging Church” - Coptic Church of St. Virgin Mary
Location: Coptic Cairo
Established: 690 AD
One of the most famous churches in Egypt, The Hanging Church is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Historic Cairo.
It got the name of ‘Hanging Church’ (or ‘Suspended Church’ in Arabic, ‘El Moallaqa’) because of its location above a Roman fortress gatehouse. When it was first built the pillars of the gatehouse would have been easily seen, creating the ‘hanging’ effect of the church, but now are buried due to the rise of the ground over the past 1300 years.
The church is believed to be the first basilica style church built in Egypt, and houses 110 icons, most made of ebony and some inlaid with ivory, the oldest and holiest dating back to the 8th century.
6. Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral
Established: the current cathedral is recent, but it’s said to stand on the site of a church built by St. Mark himself in 60 AD.
This cathedral is of importance to Coptic Christians because it’s the historical seat of the Pope of Alexandria, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church.
St. Mark the Evangelist was the author of the second Gospel and arrived in Alexandria in 60 AD, when he built his church (where the current cathedral now stands). In his seven year stint in Alexandria, he converted many to Christianity and is considered the founder of the Church of Alexandria and the first Bishop of Alexandria. He was buried under the church he founded.
The current cathedral was destroyed and rebuilt multiple times since the death of St. Mark.
7. St. Anthony’s Monastery
Location: Red Sea mountains, near Hurghada
Established: 356 AD
St. Anthony was one of the most famous “Desert Fathers”, a group of Christian monks who lived in the Eastern Egyptian desert in the 3rd century.
He was roaming the desert when he came across an oasis surrounded by trees, and it was in this spot that he was later buried and his monastery built a few years later.
Today St. Anthony’s Monastery is the oldest inhabited Christian monastery in the world and is home to paintings dating back to the 7th and 8th centuries, as well as 1,700 ancient documents.
8. Church of St. George (Mar Girgis)
Location: Coptic Cairo
Established: 10th century
One of the few round churches built in Egypt, St. George’s is built on top of an ancient Roman Tower that connects to the monastery below.
The interior of the church is known for its stained glass and rich woodwork.
St. George’s is one of the only still-active churches in the Coptic Cairo area, and is considered the principle Greek Orthodox church in Egypt. Visitors of all religions are welcome any time, except to the monastery, which is closed to the public.
9. Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church (Abu Serga)
Location: Coptic Cairo
Established: 4th century
The Abu Serga church is believed to be built on the spot where the Holy Family (Joseph, Mary, and infant Jesus Christ) stopped and rested towards the end of their journey to Egypt. The spot is now the crypt of the church, 10 meters deep.
It’s also believed that they might have lived here while Joseph was working at the Babylon fortress in what is now modern-day Coptic Cairo -- the fortress’ enclosure today includes the Coptic Museum and a few churches, like the previously mentioned Hanging Church and Mar Girgis.
Abu Serga is also of importance because it’s where many patriarchs of the Coptic Church were elected, the first being Patriarch Isaac in in 681 AD.