Religion is an essential piece of Egyptian heritage, and mosques are the foundation of the country’s architectural landscape, particularly in Cairo – a town labeled, “the City of a Thousand Minarets.” This shouldn’t come as a surprise because the majority of the country’s people are Muslim. Islam isn’t the only religion, however. Just as there are devout Muslims in Egypt, there are dedicated Christians, many of the Coptic faith.
When meandering the streets of Cairo on your Egypt trip, take note of the many religious structures – both mosques and churches. Most Egypt tours will include a local guide who’s an expert on these ancient Egyptian buildings, pointing out the intricate details of each and revealing the pivotal roles that mosques and churches have played in the history of Egypt. The list below is by no means comprehensive, but these are some of the most significant houses of worship that you’ll encounter. Dedicate some time to exploring the most beautiful mosques and churches in Cairo.
Founded by the Fatimids in 970 AD, this mosque is one of Cairo’s oldest, but it’s also recognized as the preeminent university in the Muslim world. The building has undergone multiple expansions and renovations, so different architectural styles comprise the five minarets representing the congregations that have occupied the mosque over the centuries. Mosque of Al Azhar is next to the famed souk, Khan El-Khalili, so you cannot miss it.
Some guidebooks claim that this massive structure is one of the most impressive ancient mosques in Cairo and it’s one of the largest in the world. For this reason, many Egypt tours include a stop here. Dating back to the 14th century, the masterpiece sits in the heart of downtown and near the Citadel, so it’s a must-see while touring the Old City of Cairo. You’ll surely be captivated by its grand entrance and huge domes, but Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan is a bit more primitive inside, so not as ornate as some other mosques.
Most Egypt tour packages incorporate time at the Citadel of Saladin, so you should be able to experience Mosque of Muhammad Ali since it’s part of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Soak up the panoramic views of Cairo from this Ottoman-style mosque with double minarets, an oversized central dome, and a clock tower in the central courtyard.
Named after the sixth Fatimid Caliph, Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, this peaceful mosque next to Bab Al-Futuh in Islamic Cairo calms the senses. Four arcades surround its interior courtyard, and the facade features a striking elevation with Cairo’s oldest surviving minarets on opposite sides. The structure was once a prison, warehouse and school before it was restored as a mosque in 1980. Take special note of the grand stone porch, also the entrance.
In the Darb El-Ahmar district, this 14th-century mosque incorporates a mix of architectural styles including Islamic, Christian, Ottoman and Roman. Don’t miss the mashrabiya screens (latticework to protect from sunlight), the wooden ceiling, and gorgeous stained glass windows. Collect yourself in the courtyard while listening to the chirping birds as this setting is in the heart of Cairo yet miles away from the hustle and bustle.
Also called The Hanging Church, Suspended Church or Al Moallaqa, this structure was built above the southern gate of the Roman Fortress and dates as far back as the 3rd century. Take special note of the wooden roof modeled after Noah’s Ark, the magnificent pulpit on 15 gracile columns from the 5th century, the icon of St. Mark in the main church and the 100 other figures, as well as the Nativity fresco in the chapel.
It’s the oldest Coptic church in Heliopolis, a lovely suburb of Cairo, the largest Coptic church in Africa and the Middle East, and the seat of the Coptic Orthodox pope. Named after Mark the Evangelist (a disciple of Jesus and founder of the Coptic church), St. Mark’s is one of the most magnificent Coptic cathedrals in the world, featuring a blend of traditional Coptic architecture with building techniques of the Egyptian temples.
Discover this beautiful church in the eastern section of the Babylon fort. Styled after a Roman Basilica, this church consists of an entrance, narthex, nave, and three sanctuaries, the middle (main) one has been dedicated to St. Barbara. Most icons in the church date back to the 13th century, but the sycamore door inside dates back to the 5th century. From the southern sanctuary, access the chapel – an addition to the original cathedral – which also pays tribute to St. Barbara.
One that should top your list of churches to visit in Egypt is St. Mercurius. This house of worship is the largest in the ancient Babylon District of Cairo and seemingly, dates back to the 12th century. Don’t overlook the pulpit – it’s one of the most magnificent in the city, adorned with mosaic and supported by 15 columns.
In existence since at least the 10th century (some say it dates back as early as the 4th century), it’s the oldest church in this historic district. Tucked in the alleyways of Medieval Cairo, the Church of the Virgin Mary exemplifies the abundance of Coptic history in Egypt. Supposedly, there’s a well in the sanctuary that was blessed by the child Jesus when the Holy Family fled to Egypt to escape King Herod. The water is sacred and has healing properties. This church has undergone extensive alterations over the years, so little of the original remains. Still, this relic is worth a visit.