The area known as Mari Girgis (Saint George) is centuries older than the Islamic city of Cairo. But even calling it Coptic Cairo isn't entirely accurate, because it includes an important synagogue and, nearby, some significant mosques. Known from the ancient historians as the town of Babylon, it was here that the Roman emperor Trajan (AD 88–117) decided to build a fortress around the settlement. At a time when the Nile flowed 1,300 feet east of its current course and was connected by way of canal to the Red Sea, the fortress occupied a strategic location.
Tradition holds that Saint Mark brought Christianity to Egypt in the first century. The Christians of Egypt became the first in Africa to embrace the new faith, and they were persecuted harshly for it. Many fled to the desert or south to the Upper Nile Valley. Later, under the Byzantine emperors, the local Christian population—known as Copts (an Arabic derivative of the Greek word for Egypt)—came out of hiding and began building several churches within and around the town walls.
But harmony within the church was not to last; serious theological disputes about the unity of God (the Coptic view) versus the trinity of God (the Byzantine) arose between the Egyptians and Constantinople, and once again the Copts were threatened with persecution. So when the Arabs arrived across the desert, local Copts initially welcomed them as liberators from the tyranny of Byzantium, despite their religious differences. Fustat, the encampment that the Arabs established just outside the walls of Babylon, quickly grew into a major city, leaving the older town as an enclave for Christians and Jews.
Thus Coptic Cairo encompasses elements from all these eras: portions of the Roman fortress survive; within the walled city stand four churches, a convent, a monastery, and a synagogue that was originally a church; and the oldest mosque in Africa is nearby. The Coptic Museum has a collection of local Christian art that displays pharaonic, Hellenistic, and even Islamic influences. And there is a soothing quality to the neighborhood. In contrast to the big-city feel of Downtown Cairo, or the hustle of the al-Husayn area, Coptic Cairo is relatively quiet and calm.
The sites are generally open to visitors daily from 9 to 4. However, places of worship are not open to tourists during services: no mosque visits during Friday prayers (around noon), no church visits during Sunday services (7–10 am), and no temple visits Saturday. In churches it is customary to make a small contribution, either near the entrance or beside the votary candle stands.