Our third day in Cairo was, quite literally, a religious experience. We visited the Citadel Mosque at Salahel Din's (or Saladin's) Citadel, the Coptic Quarters of Egypt where the Hanging Church is located, and the Ben Ezra Synagogue. Although 80% of Egypt is Muslim, the country is not ruled by Islamic law. And even though the Egyptian government is not a theocracy, there is very little religious freedom. The government only "allows" or "permits" three religions: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. That's it. And you have to declare which one you follow and it is required to be printed on your state I.D. So if you follow Hindu, Buddhist, Mormon, or Wiccan beliefs, you can't be an Egyptian citizen. Sorry.
The Citadel of Saladin was amazing. I hate that word - amazing. It gets so overused that when it really and truly applies, it sounds so watered down. Saladin, most famously, the sultan who fought the Christian crusaders around 1100 AD and ultimately took back the city of Jerusalem built the citadel in Cairo and had the mosque inside the walls fashioned after the Hagia Sophia.
The Citadel Mosque is no longer used for regular worship, it is more of a historical religious site than anything else. Despite that, all women are required to cover their arms and legs completely before entering and everyone is required to remove their shoes at the threshold.
It was enormous and elegantly ornate. Inside is the tomb of Mohammed Ali. Not the American boxer. The Wali of Egypt during the early 1800's, widely regarded as the "founder of modern Egypt".
Because we were in Cairo during a holiday, there were many local families at the Citadel the day we were there. Lots of children. If there's one thing I've learned through traveling, it's that kids are the same everywhere. It's true. And they were just as interested in us as we were in them.
After exploring the Citadel, we drove to the Coptic Quarters of Cairo. A Copt is a native Egyptian Christian. Copts are Egyptians whose ancestors embraced Christianity in the 1st Century. Approximately 10-20% of the Egyptian population is Christian, about 95% of those belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church and the rest are divided between the Coptic Catholic Church and the Coptic Protestant churches.
We went to the Hanging Church (also known as the Saint Virgin Mary's Coptic Orthodox Church), which is one of the oldest churches in Egypt dating back to the 3rd Century.
Compared to the grandeur of the Citadel mosque, this little church was much simpler, but no less beautiful. Sunday Mass is still held in this church regularly (although the mass is spoken in Arabic), and the church is divided into two halves with the men on the left and the women on the right. The original rituals from the very first centuries of Christianity have been preserved amongst the old churches of Coptic Cairo. After spending time at the church and in the courtyard, we wandered through some of the old, old streets of the Coptic Quarters.
From the Hanging Church, we went to the Ben Ezra Synagogue. If Christians are the minority in Egypt, Jews are the minority minority in Egypt. The Ben Ezra Synagogue is also located in the Coptic Quarters of Cairo and according to local legend, it was built on the site where baby Moses was found. The land for the synagogue was purchased in 882 for 20,000 dinars by Abraham ibn Ezra of Jerusalem.
Like the Hanging Church, the Ben Ezra synagogue was designed in the basilica fashion. Photography was prohibited inside the synagogue, so you'll have to take my word for it when I say it was quietly, serenely beautiful.
Also in the Coptic Quarter is the Saint George monastery where Saint George was chained. And the Saint Sergius Church where the infant Jesus and his parents hid from Herod in the crypt.
The histories and the legends and the immense age of our surroundings in Cairo was incredible. Walking in those very same places on those very same stones as some of the most prominent figures in history was very cool...to say the least.