Known in Arabic as al-Muallaqah ("The Suspended"), the Hanging Church is the most famous Coptic church in Cairo. The church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and is thus also known as Sitt Mariam or St. Mary's Church.
The Hanging Church is named for its location above a gatehouse of the Roman fortress in Old Cairo; its nave is suspended over a passage. The church is approached by 29 steps; early travelers to Cairo dubbed it "the Staircase Church.
The Hanging Church was built in the 7th century, probably on the site of a 3rd or 4th century church for the soldiers of the bastion. It has been rebuilt several times since then, including a major rebuild under Patriarch Abraham in the 10th century.
By the 11th century, the Hanging Church became the official residence of the Coptic patriarchs of Alexandria and several Coptic synods were held in the church. The main furnishings - the pulpit and screens - date from the 13th century.
Entrance to the Hanging Church is via a beautifully-decorated gate on Mari Girgis Street. This leads into an open courtyard, flanked by mosaics, from which there are 29 steps to the church. At the top of the stairs are three wooden doors decorated with geometric patterns, framed with decorative carvings in the stone wall.
Inside, only the section to the right of the sanctuary, above the southern bastion, is considered original. Nevertheless, the Hanging Church remains one of the most impressive churches in the city, remarkable for its marble pulpit, inlaid screens, icons and murals. The timber roof of the nave recalls Noah's Ark.
The 11th-century marble pulpit surmounts 13 graceful pillars, representing Jesus and the 12 disciples. As customary in Coptic churches, one of the pillars is black, representing Judas, and another is gray, for doubting Thomas. Its steps are carved with a shell and a cross.
The oldest icon in the Hanging Church dates from the 8th century. Many other artifacts from this church are now displayed in the Coptic Museum, including a lintel showing Christ's entry into Jerusalem that dates from the 5th or 6th century.
In the eastern end of the church are three sanctuaries with altars, dedicated to the Virgin Mary (center); St. George (left) and St. John the Baptist (right).
The central iconostasis (sanctuary screen) dates from the 12th or 13th century. It is made of ebony inlaid with ivory, carved with geometric designs and crosses, and has a row of seven large icons. The center icon depicts the Christ Enthroned; to his right is the Virgin Mary, the Archangel Gabriel and St. Peter; to his left are John the Baptist, the Archangel Michael and St. Paul.
The left screen has a design of squares with crosses in alternate ivory and ebony, surmounted by 17 icons depicting scenes from the martyrdom of St. George. The right screen dates from the 13th century and has a cruciform pattern. Across the top are seven small icons representing the life of St. John the Baptist. All the icons on these screens are the work of a single Armenian artist, Orhan Karabedian, and date from 1777.