Restoration pending for hanging church about to fall


Since the 1990s, Cairo residents had been hoping and praying for a facelift of an important church and popular spot in the Egyptian capital.

The Hanging Church in Cairo is about to cave in; but restoration talks have been just that – talks, until recently. Good thing, general secretary of the Supreme Council for Antiquities, Dr. Zahi Hawass, visited Pope Shenouda III at the papal residence on the occasion of inaugurating the Hanging Church. According to Father Marqus Aziz Khalil, the former pastor of the Hanging Church, he expressed pleasure at hearing the news and praised Hawass’ efforts.

Aziz however said that the restoration work, which should have been done in the church, has not yet been completed, contrary to what the antiquities council claims.

Father Marqus said the number of tasks that have not been done yet include landscape work, repairs on the hall that’s supposed to be rebuilt and that was emptied out two months ago without taking any practical steps to initiate work, the air-conditioning repair of which plans have been changed several times, and the fire alarm system that does not work at all. “This is in addition to the damage to the holy icons’ holder that resulted from errors by the engineers of the Supreme Council for Antiquities. Only partial repairs have been implemented,” said Father Marqus, who also referred to the fresco that was destroyed twice by humidity because proper materials were not used.

Aziz prodded Hawass to call on those responsible and who know the church restoration situation, stating that accomplishments are better than announcements and media attention the SCA gains from this saga.

Looking back, the initial restoration stage of the Hanging Church ended in 1986; the second stage was supposed to have begun immediately–the more important stage since it deals with the problem of underground water. Water has flooded the Babylon fortress, which supports the church. The columns that hold the church also needed reinforcement. The project stopped for a very long time and criticism started being heard from both the management of the church and others. The studies ended and the financing stopped because of the diminishing income of the higher council for antiquities due to slowed down tourism at the time.

But the surprise came when President Mubarak donated 100 Egyptian million pounds from the state’s budget to the national restoration projects, said Al Sayed Al Najjar of Al Akhbar. Foremost among these projects was the restoration of the Hanging Church estimated to cost 24 million Egyptian pounds. “The restoration process is indeed very complex because it is a comprehensive project that deals with underground water; the most pressing problem facing Islamic and Coptic antiquities since 120 years. The first stage of the project includes reducing the level of the water in the fortress. Following that will be the re-enhancement of the foundations and dealing with the antiquities themselves,” Al Najjar said.

Deep wells will have to be dug in the area around the fortress to trap any excess water. Two additional wells will be dug in front of the fortress and in front of the newly revealed door to the Mosque of Amr. The water that is gathered in the wells will then be siphoned out via pipes to the main sewage system, said Al Najjar.

The fortress remains open to visitors and can be entered from the door to the mosque. The walls and the ceiling of the fortress will be restored as well as the artwork throughout the fortress. The Coptic museum’s old wing, which has been gradually damaged throughout the past years, because of the changes in the ground, should have been restored. The new security system in the museum should have been fixed as well. But so far, since the 90s and 24 million pounds later, little has been done. Go figure.

The Al Moallaka (or Hanging Church in Old Cairo) is truly on the brink of destruction. Egyptians summoned organizations for support to help save the ancient structure. The Al-Wafd ran a request by Hanging Church archpriest Marcos Aziz Khalil asking government to come to their aid. Priests are concerned this is not the first time the ground in front of the Hanging Church has caved in. Government officials and architectural engineers have visited the Hanging Church after the initial collapse and they wrote their report on what happened. Nevertheless, no action has been taken to permanently solve the problem and save the Hanging Church.

Some officials in charge of antiquities claimed the renovation of the Hanging Church has no relationship to the depreciation of the ground in front of it. According to Azza Abdel Aziz, the building of the Hanging Church is sort of an architectural miracle because it is built over the Roman fortress Babylon with an ‘empty space’ beneath the church or basically standing on hollow foundations. Ground water has leaked through to the church. “The church was weakened by the 1992 earthquake, which forced the ministry of culture to design a renovation project. A committee has been look into the matter. Despite the team being informed about this alarming situation, little or no effort has been done to eliminate the threat of collapse.

Years back, the Tourism Development Fund granted Egyptian Pounds 4.994 M (US $ 1 = EGP 5.716) to the Supreme Council of Antiquities to help finance the restoration project. However Coptic officials did not take any steps to kick-start the project to rescue the dying landmark. Even after resident archpriest Father Marqus Aziz Khalil published the SCA resolution 2129 of July 2006, calling for immediate restoration be done on the Hanging Church, practically nothing has been done to conserve the crumbling site. The Al-Wafd ran a request by Fr. Khalil asking government to come to their aid.

Dr. Sumaya Mohamed, deputy of the faculty of tourism and hotels of Helwan University, and Dr. Hassan Abdullah, chief inspector at the center of antiquities, studied both proposed that the area be walled in with a gate built around it; and the alleys and streets suitably restored. However alluding to the danger, which threatens Old Cairo because of heavy traffic in the crowded city, Abdullah said the laws protecting antiquities cannot preserve the area. The by-laws only refer to antiquities and monuments on a one-on-one basis, not on the basis of entire towns or districts. Abdullah said, “The land in front of the Hanging Church had already caved in. This was mainly due to the conglomeration of all the main infrastructure activities. The area has always been much lower than the present road level and has thus been subject to several paving measures.”

(US $ 1 = EGP 5.716)