A pillar that spontaneously started bleeding and stopped at the behest of Pope Cyril (Kyrillos) VI, a cavern where the holy family is said to have stayed for months, a place that saw the election of Coptic popes between the 7th and 11th centuries: these are just a few of the wonders and mysteries that are said to be associated with the ancient Coptic Church in Old Cairo dedicated to the saints Sergius and Baccus. It is referred to also as the “cavern church,” or by the name that became customary after the Arabic conquest of Egypt, “Abu Serga.” As these saints are commemorated this month (October 15 in the Coptic Orthodox Church, and earlier in the month for other apostolic-rooted denominations), I wanted to share some interesting facts about the church in Egypt bearing their name.
As you wind through the ancient streets of Old Cairo, you are greeted by a sign that tells of you of the inspiring sites that await to greet you.
As you approach “Abu Serga” you are greeted with another sign in English, Arabic, and Coptic, reading: “Cavern Church, and the martyrs Sergius and Bacchus, known as Abu Serga.” Apparently, with a church this old (dating to the 4th century, and highly regarded as an example of early Church architecture in Egypt), and with all that has transpired over more 1500 years, it’s hard to land on just one name.
Epiphany / Theophany Tub
Upon first entering the church you are greeted with a large empty “epiphany tub” in the ground, right in the center back of the church. Egyptians used to celebrated the Epiphany/Theophany feast in the Nile, but about 1100 years ago Christians were forbidden from such public displays and so several churches dug a space in the entrance of their churches so they may fill it with water from the Nile to commemorate the feast of Epiphany / Theophany.
Inside the church, as you look around, you see an interesting array of ancient and more recent architectural elements, in part due to it having been burned and requiring restoration throughout its storied history.
Holy Family’s Visit
It is not surprising that the Holy Family visited this area, so that at the time they visited they would have found a thriving Jewish complex here, which was built around 2nd century B.C. (and today you will find a synagogue in Old Cairo). It is said that when the Virgin Mary arrived here with her son and Lord Jesus Christ, she dismounted her donkey and took her child inside a cave that had been prepared in advance to receive them. This was one of their many stops during their 3+ year flight to and throughout Egypt, as referenced in Scripture. Few realize that the Coptic Church also retains a writing purportedly by the 23rd Coptic Pope, Theophilus (papacy from 384–412 AD), who is said to have had a vision where St. Mary appeared to him and told him of many wondrous places and events during her time in Egypt, which many believe evinced and validated the spoken traditions held dearly by the Christians for centuries.
Walking deeper into the church you come to one of those moments in the Holy Family’s journey. You are met by a narrow passage and some stairs that lead down inside a cave, which is deemed a sacred place inhabited by the Holy family. There is an opening with a glass cover that shows a rock upon which it is said the Lord Christ stepped on and thereby blessed. Additionally, nearby there is a well from which the Holy Family drank is carefully preserved, standing as an enduring witness to their historical journey. Due to the significance of these events, it is said that Queen Helena (mother of the famed Emperor Constantine) commissioned the building of a church above the cave.
Bleeding Pillar and Pope Cyril (Kyrillos) VI
Maybe the least known miraculous event associated with this church can be found by looking to the right upon entering, where you will find one of the many pillars surrounded by a clear barrier. Upon looking at it more closely you notice that it the pillar has a dark stain, distinguishing it from the others. It is said that in 1967, a few weeks before Egypt’s defeat in the war with Israel, blood began to come out of the pillar, until Pope Cyril VI visited and prayed so that it may stop, at which time it immediately ceased.
Significantly, there are a few relics that are usually overlooked. One is that of a monk from the 12th century, who hailed from the St. Macarius the Great monastery in the Nitrian Desert (aka Scetes, Shiheet, etc.). Due to his refusal to deny his faith, he was burned alive, and thereafter what remained of his precious body was buried here, next to relics of Saints Sergius and Bacchus.
May the intercessions of the Holy Family, the prayers of the martyrs St. Bashnouna, St. Sergius, and St. Bacchus, as well as the saint pope Cyril VI be with us. Amen.