Recent events in Egypt have highlighted tensions between Coptic Christians and the country’s Muslim majority. The Coptics are a tenacious lot, numbering anywhere between 10-23% of the population (though accurate figures are hard to come by), predating Islam and surviving to the present day. And while it’s easy to concentrate on sectarian conflict, there are also compelling examples of harmonious co-existence and cultural exchange.
For instance, one of Egypt’s most popular national holidays is Sham el-Nessim, which heralds the coming of spring and coincides with Coptic Easter celebrations (though it has even older roots). All over Egypt, families picnic in the open air, feasting on special fish dishes as well as colored eggs just like you’d find in the European tradition.
As Cairo returns to normality, it’s a good time to supplement your exploration of pyramids and mosques with some Coptic culture, centered on the southern district known, logically enough, as Coptic Cairo. Walking east of Mar Girgis Metro station you’ll discover numerous places of worship, including the famous “Hanging Church”, so called because its nave is suspended over a fortress which dates to Roman times, at a site used for Christian worship since the 3rd century.
This whole area has a long Christian heritage; legend holds that Mary, Joseph and the child Jesus stopped here on their Flight into Egypt at a spot marked by the church of St Sergius. If you want to put all this in context, the recently restored Coptic Museum is a must-see. Evolving distinctly from either Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy, Coptic Christianity has produced a wealth of art and artifacts, including icons, frescos, tapestries and intricate carvings. The museum has the biggest and best collection of such pieces in the world.