HARIT ZUWAYLAH, together with HARIT AL-RUM, probably the oldest quarter in Cairo that was inhabited by a Coptic community. Harit Zuwaylah is situated in the district of al- Jammaliyyah or Khurunfish. The concentration of Copts in this area during the Middle Ages led to the foundation of some of the most ancient churches in Cairo. Of these, three have survived to the present day: the Church of the Virgin (Sitt al-‘Adhra’), the Church of Saint Mercurius (Abu Sayfayn), and the Church of Saint George (Mar Jirjis).
The first two were probably originally built at the street level. At present they have sunk to a subterranean depth of about 18 feet (6.5 meters) on account of the accumulation of Nile silt through the centuries. The third, smaller in dimension, was constructed at a later date above the other two at the modern street level.
Apparently this area was marked as one of the spots where the Holy Family stopped during its FLIGHT INTO EGYPT, immediately after their previous resting-place, with its traditional sycamore tree, at al-MATARIYYAH. At the time of the construction of the first of these churches, that section of the area may have been still relatively open ground utilized by the Copts as a dayr, in the sense of a cemetery rather than a regular monastery inhabited by monks.
The Church of the Virgin (al-‘Adhra’) is the oldest of the three in Harit Zuwaylah. It is accessible from the southwest and the southeast by two entrances, one for women and the other for men. The church is dedicated to the Virgin, known to the native Copts by the title of "Hallat al-Hadid," that is, she who melts the iron fetters of Matthias, the disciple who replaced Judas Iscariot. Though it is difficult to give a precise date for its foundation, the historian al- Maqrizi says it was built 270 years prior to the Arab conquest of
Egypt, that is, approximately in A.D. 350. After the advent of Islam, it suffered numerous destructions and subsequent restorations. It was attacked in 1131, in Fatimid times, and repeatedly in the following centuries, notably under the Mamluks and the beginning of Ottoman rule around 1559.
In the year 1303, the church became the patriarchal seat that had previously been transferred from Alexandria to the Church of al-
Mu‘allaqah and then to the Church of Abu Sayfayn in Old Cairo. It remained in Harit Zuwaylah for almost three centuries amid the
greater security of a Coptic community. The first pope to reside in Harit Zuwaylah was JOHN VIII (1300-1320), the eightieth
patriarch; the last was the 102nd patriarch, MATTHEW IV (1660- 1675). Subsequent popes moved to the neighboring Harit al-Rum.
Abu al-Makarim, the twelfth-century historian of the Coptic churches and monasteries, cites this church as the center of ecclesiastical activities and the place of celebration of major feasts such as the feast of the Sunday of Olives (Palm Sunday), when the faithful held a procession with the olive branch, the Gospel, crosses, censers, and candles. After the Gospel reading and praying for the caliph and vizier, they returned to the church for the completion of the offices. This function was repeated twice annually on the third day of Easter and the feast of the Cross on 17 Tut. However, these celebrations were suppressed under the rule of the Kurds in 1169.
The architectural components of the church are interesting. Besides the narthex, the nave comprises five rows of marble columns and a sixth in red granite to signify the teaching of Judas Iscariot and the blood of Christ. The nave is flanked by two aisles with two rows of twelve grayish marble columns surmounted by Corinthian and Byzantine capitals adorned with crosses among foliage. The marble ambo rests on four columns shaped like torsades.
The choir aligns with the nave on an elevated platform, and this again is followed by the principal sanctuary (haykal), another few
steps higher than the choir. The sanctuary and the nave are separated by a twelfth-century iconostasis constructed of old ebony divided into panels inlaid with ivory and sculptured with geometrical designs and animal figures. This is surmounted by a row of thirteen icons of the twelve disciples with the Virgin in their midst, a great cross above her head.
The sanctuary itself, at the east end, contains the rectangular altar with a wooden canopy overhead. This is adorned with a painting of Jesus surrounded by angels. Farther east and behind the altar is the apse, decorated with mosaics in the form of a semicircular tribune. It is reached by seven steps signifying the seven grades of the clergy. The dome above the sanctuary is decorated with stained glass windows.
On the north and south sides of the main sanctuary, beyond the central colonnade, the southern sanctuary is dedicated to Saint
Gabriel. In front of it there is a well containing water presumably of a miraculous healing power. To the right stands a chapel dedicated to the miracle-working Virgin Mary. The north aisle has another chapel dedicated to the archangel Michael. To the left of it, there is a sanctuary dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. This aisle contains the relics of four unidentified saints.
In the Chapel of Our Lady stands a wooden icon, supposedly dating from the thirteenth century, representing the genealogy of
Jesus Christ. In general, the church is richly supplied by numerous historic icons dated from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century.
Other icons represent the baptism, crucifixion, and Resurrection of the Lord. Saint Mercurius, Saint Shenute, Saint George, the
archangel Michael, and Saint Helena and Emperor Constantine appear in icons distributed over many parts of the church.
Since the construction of the Aswan Dam, the rising water table has begun to endanger this structure.
Contiguous to the subterranean Church of the Virgin is the Church of Saint Mercurius, better known among the Copts as Abu Sayfayn, literally he who is in possession of the two swords. In Cairo alone, two other churches are dedicated to the saint: one in
QASR AL-SHAM‘ in Old Cairo, dating from the sixth century, and another associated with a convent known as Dayr al-Banat
(Monastery of the Virgins). The present chapel at Harit Zuwaylah was added in 1774 by Mu‘allim IBRAHIM AL-JAWHARI, an
important Coptic archon. The structure was completed approximately 15 feet (6 m) below street level. It is reached from the
main Church of the Virgin through its northeastern wall. It is built in traditional Coptic style with a nave and two aisles separated by two rows of columns and surmounted by a dome lined with icons. The finely carved wooden ambo in the nave stands on six slender
columns, also made of wood. The iconostasis is constructed of wood carved in geometrical panels inlaid with ivory. The sanctuary
(haykal) beyond is slightly elevated above the floor of the nave with the altar surmounted by a canopy standing on four wooden columns. A series of icons of Coptic saints adorn the walls of the church, including Saint Sophia (dated 1837).
The Church of Saint George, originally known as the Upper Church because it was built over the other subterranean Churches of
the Virgin and Saint Mercurius, is a small church south of the Church of the Virgin. Above it is a convent by the name of Saint
George that has direct access to the church. The church has lost many features of its antiquity on account of the numerous modern
restorations. It contains four sanctuaries, two of them surrounded by domes.
This church is highly revered by Copts, who throng its building as pilgrims on the commemoration day of Saint George (7 Hatur).
The date of the foundation of this church is unknown, but the oldest part of the building is its medieval iconostasis. It contains a
multitude of icons, of which one representing Saint George is dated 1782. Its library comprises a number of interesting manuscripts.
Some of them are the Life of Saint Cyprian (1391) and the Life of Saint Bartholomew (1438). More dated manuscripts include Saints'
Miracles (1342) and the Liturgies of Saint Basil, Saint Gregory, and Saint Cyril (1344).
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