Photography of mosques and churches in Cairo

Sent On: 
Sun, 2021-05-09
Newsletter Number: 

            Buildings have been important to human beings for as long as history is known – they provide a sheltered space one can call home, or a space in which strangers and acquaintances gather. Because buildings are a cultural product, they can tell us a lot about the societies that created them in the past or present. To get a better understanding of Egypt, one must thus take a look at its architecture. Tellingly, Cairo is sometimes called ‘the city of a thousand minarets.’ This refers to the city’s many mosques, which suggests that Islam plays a large role within Cairo life. However, it is not just mosques that are scattered across the streets. Since approximately 6 percent of all Egyptians are Coptic Christian, there are also many churches in Egypt, some of them ancient while others are modern. However, most of the Egyptian churches and mosques are not situated side-by-side. When Brill Publishers asked for a photo that resembles what the Arab-West Report represents, we decided that we wanted a photo of a church and a mosque alongside each other – an image that represents an alliance between Muslims and Christians. In our pursuit, the Arab-West Report team went on a quest around Cairo and the new Administrative Capital.


            First, we went to Dokki, a neighbourhood in Cairo next to the Nile. In the middle of the day, our taxi stopped on the turn of the highway. While the cars speeded along, we tried to take a picture of one of the few mosques and churches standing next to each other in Cairo. The current heat wave had not yet arrived, and it was still bearable to get out of the car during the heat of the day. Officially, it is not allowed to take pictures of mosques and churches but after explaining to a policeman that we were students and lived in Cairo, we could quickly take a few photos.


On the photos it looked as if the church had disappeared behind the mosque, instead of the them standing next to each other harmoniously. It was therefore obvious we needed to take the photo from a different angle. Walking around the neighbourhood, we suddenly had the idea to ask somebody if we could use their balcony to get a good picture. A friendly but surprised student from Iraq opened his door and with suspicious eyes he asked what he could do for us. When we told him that we were students and wanted to take picture of a mosque and church together because it resembled national unity of these two religions, he was more than happy to help.




Still not satisfied the results, we travelled to the New Administrative Capital were supposedly a mosque and cathedral were recently built next to each other. This under-construction-city is supposed to become the new capital from 2022 onwards and is built in the desert 50 kilometres outside Cairo. On the internet we had seen beautiful pictures of these two buildings together.



Photo Amr Nabil[1]


A highly symbolic gesture that would be perfect for our photo. Changes to the religious landscape, in this instance, building a church and a mosque together, might improve the religious tolerance and equality between different religions. However, the practice is that churches are rarely seen next to mosques. Many Christians prefer a church that stands alone, because mosques use speakers and megaphones for their call to prayers and Friday sermons. If there is a church standing next to a mosque, the prayers of the mosque will also be heard inside the church, which should be a sacred and silent space for its own prayers.


            The placement of mosques and churches also reflects the relationship and power differences. Buildings have the ability to assemble and reconcile people, but they can also divide. The destruction or conversion of places of worship throughout history is often seen as an act of power and supremacy. When Christians invaded and conquered new places, they deconstructed or converted existing religious buildings into Christian houses of worship. Not only the elimination and alteration of existing buildings resemble a pattern of power, but also the construction of buildings can act as a symbolic form of supremacy and unequal power-relations. For example, if a huge mosque is being built next to a small church, this can be seen as a sign of Islamic dominance, and not as an act of tolerance.


            Judging by the pictures we saw online, the cathedral and mosque in the New Administrative Capital were not put together as an act of supremacy, but as an act of tolerance. Because both religious buildings in the new capital of Egypt were presented as almost equally as high and, in the photo, stood next to each other, it could be considered a stimulation of religious harmony.


            After two hours of driving, we arrived in the New Capital. The cathedral was standing pontifically at the end of a long road of half-finished buildings. A beautiful big building with the emptiness of the desert surrounding it. After driving around the cathedral, we noticed that there was no mosque to be found. Had we imagined the pictures we saw on the internet? We inquired with our taxi driver and showed him the pictures. ‘I know that mosque, it is in a completely different part of the city’, he replied. It turned out that the mosque and cathedral had been photoshopped together on the pictures. Consequently, our two hours’ drive had not resulted in the desired photo but had shown us an insight in Egyptian propaganda.


Luckily, our very helpful and enthusiastic taxi driver, who was more than glad to join this scavenger hunt, knew another ‘spot of tolerance’ on the outskirts of Maadi. This place provided the best image. At the end of a long sand plain with buildings in the background, a huge church and mosque, both equally as high, were standing next to each other. An area that possibly in two years’ time will be full of buildings, was now the place for our perfect photo – a photo that suggests symbolic harmony between different religions in Egypt.





Cairo, May 9, 2021


Emma Pieters, student of Arabic Language & Culture at the University of Amsterdam, interning with the Centre for Arab-West Understanding (April-June).


Oda Algera, student of Arabic Language & Culture at the University of Amsterdam, interning with the Centre for Arab-West Understanding (April-June).