CAIRO – 7 November 2017: In the heart of a busy Islamic Cairo area, we asked a waiter in a local café for directions to Zuweila alley. He figured we were looking for the old church and monasteries there, and noted that nuns only receive women.
The holy family left Heliopolis for the area near Port Said street, a famous street in Bab el-Shereya district of Cairo. Walking through one alley to another, we finally found a metal detector and realized we arrived at the complex of churches and monasteries holding the Virgin Mary church of Zuweila, saint George monastery for nuns, and the Virgin Mary monastery for nuns.
1: Edited map of the holy family’s flight into Egypt – Egypt Tourism Authority
We entered the church, as a man in civilian clothes stopped us and inquired about our cameras. We showed him our press IDs, but he asked for a permit signed by the Minister of Interior Affairs himself. We thought he was only joking, and asked him to meet the priest serving the church. He answered he had left minutes ago and would not be back that day. After some negotiations, he asked us to come back at 6:00 p.m. to meet the priest and agreed to give us his phone number to call him and get his permission.
Reverend Matthias answered our call in a friendly way, saying that the guard, Mr. Fayez, is only keen on preserving the church’s security.
We went again on the appointment given to us and reverend Matthias welcomed us before opening the doors of the church.
He told us that this church was blessed by a visit from the holy family, through al-Khaleeg al-Masry (the Egyptian gulf) street, which was once a small canal off the River Nile. It is unknown how long they stayed here.
Reverend Matthias took us to his office and made us tea, and told us that the story of this old church began in the fourth century A.D. He said, “there was a rich Copt called Al-Hakeem Zayloun, who chose this area to build a church in the fourth century to commemorate the holy family’s visit. It was called ‘Virgin Mary Dissolver of Iron Church,’ which is a reference to a miracle that occurred to saint Matthias when the virgin was alive, it is believed.
2: Ancient silver candle lamps at Virgin Mary church in Zuweila Alley, Cairo – Ashraf Fawzy
He emphasized that, in the past, churches used to be given names of miracles. This miracle of dissolving iron took place in Anatolia, where saint Matthias was preaching Christianity. When he was imprisoned, the virgin prayed to God to save him, so the iron locks dissolved and he escaped.
Reverend Matthias took us on a tour in the church, which is below ground level. He opened the gate to the church, a gate to history. We felt like we were in a Fatimid mosque, and could hear the groundwater streaming as it surrounds the church from all directions. You can smell the scent of incense that priests burn during every prayer and, in your mind, the past and the present become one.
The church was full of ancient icons and chandeliers with Fatimid architecture style. The Ministry of Antiquities is giving this church special attention; it is one of the few churches in Islamic Cairo. Reverend Matthias told us that it used to be the seat of the Coptic pope for more than three centuries, that is, it used to play the role of Saint Mark's Coptic Orthodox cathedral in Abbasiya today.
3: A man at the icon of Egyptian saint Demiana in Virgin Mary church of Zuweila Alley, Cairo – Ashraf Fawzy
Reverend Matthias pointed out that the church was subjected to a number of attacks in the Fatimid era, and that the worst was in 1113 A.D.
In the church cloister, there were marble and stone pillars, each adorned with a crown at the top. These pillars were built in different eras and are witness to all the civilizations of Egypt. Some were Pharaonic, others Greek, Roman, Coptic (adorned with crosses and pigeons), and others were Islamic. A copper cross hung down from the ceiling called “the True Cross,” and you could see a statue of Jesus crucified on it, and symbols of the four Bibles.
4: Relics at Virgin Mary church in Zuweila Alley, Cairo – Ashraf Fawzy
In addition, the church is home to the belongings of popes who served their time there, and the Ministry of Antiquities is responsible for preserving them.
We continued our tour in the church. Like all areas visited by the holy family, it has a well of fresh water. Pastors built it as a shrine for Mary, where visitors would pray and light their candles.
Matthias drew the curtains of the sanctuary, revealing what looks like the direction of the Muslim qiblah, the direction which Muslims face when they pray. He indicated that Muslim architecture influenced the architectural style of the church. The workers who built Barsbay mosque in al-Gamaliya district in Cairo were the same as those who built the church; hence, the strong resemblance.
In the middle of our tour, we heard the voices of women glorifying the virgin, “Bless you Mary, the virtuous, and the sublime. Bless you Mary, the strong and the faithful.” The women were the nuns of Saint Mary and Abu-Sefein church, who were beginning their noon prayer. We heard their voices from the upper-level church, with a balcony that overlooks the Mary Dissolver of Iron church.
We thanked Reverend Matthias for the tour and left to the nearby Virgin Mary monastery for nuns. I knocked the door and a doorman opened, leading me to the reverend mother responsible for receiving guests that day. She refused to be photographed and did not tell her name, as nuns usually turn down media appearances.
She told me that the monastery is open because the church is ancient and therefore cannot be closed. The monastery has a letter “U” design, where the church is in the middle, and beneath it, there is the Mary, Dissolver of Iron church where we heard the nuns prayers, and the nuns’ residence is on the other side.
The nun told us that the monastery recently built in the area blessed by the holy family used to be a hall annexed to the church, but was then turned into a monastery for nuns. She refused to tell the number of nuns living there, but said they do handiwork, like embroidery and handicrafts. As for land cultivation and leather crafting, they are done at another branch of the monastery in Nubariya town, Beheira governorate.
The reverend mother said, “a nun’s day begins at 4 a.m., with the midnight vigil, then each tends to her work. They pray the morning mass at 6 a.m. and at noon, they also have group prayer.”
“We put the girls aspiring to be nuns through tests for years before we decide that they join us in the monastery. Girls at first visit the monastery regularly but go back to their parents’ homes, and then a girl becomes a nun only when we decide she is ready for this path, as she cannot change her mind later.”
The nun turned around, looked at the icon of Mary on the wall and said she felt happy whenever she prayed.
We left the small monastery and headed to Abu-Serga church in Masr El-Qadima district, perhaps the most famous church in Egypt.
Translated by Heba Fadel