Returning now to the main building through the open screen that marks off the corridor, one may notice that the haikal proper, and the two aisle-chapels are under lofty semidomes. But the eastern wall of the haikal has the unusual form of a seven-sided apse below changing roofwards to a semicircle. The haikal-screen is ancient and good, though somewhat battered: and in each spandrel of the doorway inlaid with ivory is a remarkable design of a rude winged figure climbing among and holding a creeping plant. These figures can scarcely be meant for angels, or for mere grotesques: for that strange love of mingling the solemn and the ludicrous, the sublime and the grotesque, which seems a permanent trait in the English character, has no counterpart among the Copts; though early Byzantine churches abound in quaint ridiculous carvings and impossible figures. There is nothing in Coptic churches like our ape-headed corbels, gurgoyles, frescoes of devils, and the monstrous beasts common in mediaeval churches, where a sacred subject is treated in a jesting manner: as for instance in the church of Stanley St. Leonards, Gloucestershire, where the fall of man is represented by a splay-footed, fish-mouthed, frog-eyed, melancholy quadruped, holding in one hand an apple, and with the other pulling the tail of a heavily-moustached ape or cat, whose pursed lips and fixed averted eyes convey most amusingly the idea of shocked virtue.
In the haikal I saw three fine processional crosses of silver, each cross hung with six small bells, and on the staff a banner. The two candlesticks on the altar are fine pieces of brass-work: there is also a small oval wooden incense-box now used as a crewet (5 in. high and 4 in. across) beautifully carved with foliated scrollwork and Arabic letters in high relief. The lid unfortunately is missing.
The screen before the south aisle-chapel is new: the chapel is square, but in the east wall is a wide niche, in the north wall a large aumbry 3 ft. across and 2 ft. deep. A score of small pictures lie rotting under the orthodox quantity of dust.
Against the screen of the north aisle-chapel hangs a picture of St. Barbara and her daughter Juliana. With a palm branch in her left hand, the saint is pointing to a model of a church which she holds in her right. The church is a six-domed Byzantine-looking building with a turret and cross-capped spire–probably a purely conventional symbol, as there is no trace of tower or spire in any Coptic church near Cairo at present. A silver plate, like a crescent, nailed round St. Barbara’s head represents a nimbus. Before the picture is a stand for a bolster of relics, and a curious three-branched pricket candlestick of iron, somewhat resembling that at Abu-‘s-Sifain. The interior of the chapel is wainscoted, and over the altar is a plain baldakyn. A curious little portable tower-shaped shrine (2 ft. 3 in. high and 9 in. square) shows in front a very fine deep-shadowed painting of John the Baptist, who carries a scroll with the legend ‘Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Before the picture is a little beam or bracket for tapers. The altar is littered all over with more or less ancient books of ritual that have been flung and tumbled together. Scattered among them or tossed in heaps on the ground at random lie candles, altar-caskets, old pictures, candlesticks, incense, ostrich-eggs, and silver censers in even unusual profusion and disorder, under layers of dust immemorial.
— Description of principal sanctuaries, screens, and accoutrements of St. Barbara’s Church from Butler, Alfred Joshua, The Ancient Coptic Churches of Egypt, Oxford, 1884, pp. 238-241.
Ibrahim El-Gohary (died 31 May 1795), known by Christians as “Sultan of the Copts,” was chief scribe (prime minister) during the reign of Muhammad Bey Abu al-Dhahab, Mamluk emir and regent of Ottoman Egypt. Favoured by the Mohammedan rulers, El-Gohary was able to issue fatwas permitting Copts to rebuild churches and monasteries ruined by the Moslems. He was the first to build Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in the Azbakeya neighbourhood of Cairo. Having shown generosity to an Ottoman princess passing through Egypt on pilgrimage to Mecca, through her intercession with the Sultan, El-Gohary was issued a permit to construct the church. He died before its completion, and the building was finished by his brother Girgis El-Gohary, being consecrated by Pope John XVIII of Alexandria in 1800.
Abu Sargah is paved with hard siliceous grey limestone. The choir floor is two steps higher than the nave floor: a broad stone bench, probably answering to the solea, runs across the nave and north aisle at the foot of the choir-screen, which is of modern lattice-work. In a panel over the central choir door there is written, or rather wrought, in square Cufic-like letters of wood a short text, ‘Ya Allah al Khalas,’ i.e. ‘O God, Salvation.’ There is also a rude Coptic inscription upon the lintel of the doorway, which closes by double doors. Over the screen is a row of fifteen small paintings, and higher still nine large ones all, except the central Redeemer, nearly identical in treatment with those in the corresponding position at Abu-‘s-Sifain; and here, as there, the larger series lies between two bands adorned with golden texts in Arabic and Coptic.
— Description of the choir screen in St. Sergius Church, from Butler, Alfred Joshua, The Ancient Coptic Churches of Egypt, Oxford, 1884, p. 189.
Between this point and the angle formed by the abutment of the haikal screen are some very curious early carvings in relief (F)–panels that were once no doubt framed in the leaves of a door like that of Al Mu’allakah. There are eight panels in all, each 10 1/4 in. high by 6 1/2 broad: of these, five represent sacred subjects and are probably of the eighth century, contemporary with the foundation of the church; the other three–one containing carvings of gazelles, two merely conventional scroll-work are rather later. Taking the subjects in order as they stand from left to right, we find–
(1) The Nativity. The Child lies swathed in a manger with rays of glory falling from a bow or circle above, in which are carved two faces, perhaps meant for the other persons of the Trinity. In the top background an ox on one side of the manger and an ass on the other stand gazing upon it, and behind each animal stands an angel with outspread wings. Below them, and partly concealing them, Mary is seen lying on a couch and Joseph kneeling on one knee. The lower half of the panel is occupied partly by two shepherds, indicated by their crooks and by a lamb, and partly by the magi bringing gifts. Every panel is surrounded by a very beautifully carved border, generally of scrollwork, but all different. In this case crosses are carved at the angles and in the centre of the sides. The Holy Family and the angels all wear plain nimbs.
(2) Perhaps St. Demetrius. A bearded equestrian figure clad in richly embroidered raiment: in his right hand he carries a long spear ending upwards in a cross, while the lower end is grasped by a prostrate foe whom he seems to be slaying. In the upper dexter corner an eagle is carved with folded wings. The horseman is turned full face to the spectator: a row of small circles round the brow represents curling hair or possibly a diadem. He wears a fine full glory. The horse has oriental trappings, which might be of any age.
(3) Mâri Girgis. This is another equestrian, very similar in treatment to the last: the spear-shaft, however, ends in a loop instead of a point at the bottom: there is no figure, not even a dragon, on the ground: and the eagle, here placed in the sinister top corner, is bending its head very low. The horseman’s lace is quite beardless, and the hair vaguely indicated.
(4) Abu-‘s-Sifain, or St. Mercurius. This title, like the last two, is very doubtful. The horseman is in almost precisely the same attitude as the others, the right hand carrying a long spear, the left reining the steed. But under the horse’s feet a man is seen sitting on the ground and apparently pierced with the spear. The victim, however, seems unconscious of his wound, and in his right hand is grasping a short rod which rests on a very perplexing little object in the background. I can only conjecture that it may be an oven, that the figure on the ground is heating a bar of iron, and that he represents some persecutor and torturer of the Christians being slain by their champion. The horseman is under a sort of trefoil arch: in both spandrels there are indications of curtains: in the sinister spandrel a hand is appearing, as from the clouds, holding out a crown.
(5) The Last Supper. This is an extremely interesting carving. It represents our Lord and the apostles seated round a long table which occupies the centre of the panel. The shape of the table is remarkable, the near end having square corners, the far end being rounded. On it are laid twelve small loaves, and in the centre is a large fish on a platter: there is no cup or drinking vessel. Christ in the lower dexter corner of the panel is grasping the fish. All the figures seem seated on the ground, wear nimbs, and face the spectator. The whole scene is grouped under an altar-canopy supported on two slender columns with early Arab capitals. A pair of altar curtains are seen running on rods above, but each is caught up and looped round a pillar, so as to leave a clear view of the scene below. The canopy is in the form of a circle between two triangles, all with elaborate borders. The circle encloses a fine cross, and a smaller cross stands on the apex of each triangle.
The ritual significance of this carving, which is obvious enough, has been commented upon in another part of this work. It is, I think, the only artistic monument definitely recording the early altar curtains of the Coptic ceremonial; although, as I have pointed out, there is abundance of other evidence to establish their existence. Possibly even the form of the table may have its own meaning.
— Description of carvings in St. Sergius Church, from Butler, Alfred Joshua, The Ancient Coptic Churches of Egypt, Oxford, 1884, pp. 190-194.