Jane and I have just returned from our first trip to Upper Egypt. May it not be the last. Insha’allah.
If we could attach one theme to this visit it would be “gifts”. Let’s start with the obvious. As many who have visited Egypt before us have said, Egypt itself receives one gift that many countries to the east and the west of it do not receive. It is the Nile. Without it, Egypt is Libya, or Saudi Arabia, or Yemen, or….. Without it, Egypt does not have the history it has had, and has since gifted many countries, both in the Middle East and the West. Without it, it could not possibly sustain a population that will in the next few years approach 90 million people. The river defies all reasonable logic—it is like it tried to find the longest and most improbable of all watercourses to the sea, including thousands of kilometers through the world’s largest desert. It provides a fertile plain (at one time a flood plain) with incredibly rich alluvium, capable of growing food that would make any farmer in the Fraser (or San Joaquin) Valley envious. Historically, for millennia, it provided a physical base for a single political entity that has called itself Egyptian (unlike a Libya or a Saudi Arabia that remain a disparate and scattered—not to mention fractious– collection of tribes and interests). It allowed for the development of a society that, while feudal, was capable of developing sophisticated, complex and unifying religious beliefs that, we have learned, informed many since, including indirectly, our own. This ribbon of water that winds its way through hostile territory has defined Egypt in all of its domains—political, religious, agricultural, historical and social. As with so many things Egyptian, we are in awe.
We were also given the gift of children. Egypt’s population demographic indicates that there is no lack of people under 18 and our trip validated that fact. Egypt abounds in children and, for these grandparents who have learned that grandchildren are so precious….so innocent, so accepting of all things, so beautiful, their singing the songs of Egypt and recitations of a beloved abuna (priest) and their art that they so proudly presented to us quickly melted our hearts. The taking of pictures of us oldies with children seemed never to end.
We were shown the gift of service. We took this trip not only to see the ancient wonders of Egypt, but to see the work done by the Coptic Orthodox Church serving poor people in Upper Egypt’s villages. The work is profoundly basic: fixing indoor latrines, putting mortar on walls and roofs over people’s homes, providing small loans for starting up a home-based business, all of this done by ‘field workers’ who were unashamedly proud and enthusiastic of their work. I think that they also were motivated by the belief that they were doing this for their church and for the Lord. The Orthodox Church has moved with vigor to see that their theology has “hands and feet” as well as “heart and soul”. These young community workers, mostly women, but some men, compelled us to see all the work that they were doing to help make people’s lives better. We saw older women proudly going up to a whiteboard and writing their names on the board for the first time. The conditions that many villagers lived in were so humble, we were, once again, left with questions of economic justice, but we were also buoyed by the sense of joy that is brought to a person who is involved in helping those less fortunate.
We were also given gifts; material gifts. Gifts that represented a “thank you” that we had merely shown interest in the work that people were doing to help villagers. We received papyrus drawings, beads strung by children into necklaces and bracelets and maps and booklets of their region. The western mind is embarrassed by this type of excess. We should be offering gifts to these dedicated workers for generously hosting us, but it seems not to be that way in Egypt. We returned home to our flat in Cairo having to check our carry-on baggage because we could not get everything that we received into our luggage. We are left with fond memories of singing children, of eager church-based community service workers, and of families whose lives had been made just a bit better materially and economically.
Finally, we were given the gift of Egypt’s incredible history. We have memories of Grade 7 social studies: Amun Ra, Ramses II, Thutmose III, Hatshepsut, Amenhotep, Tutankhamen, Hieroglyphics, temples, tombs, religion, Empire, intrigue and feluccas. There are no words to adequately describe the historical sites of Luxor and Edfu. One is just left to wonder. The stunning visuals aside, we also heard the stories of gods and humans and how they interacted in Egyptian religious stories. It may seem mildly heretical to say so, but one is left to wonder how much the Greeks and Hebrews borrowed from their Egyptian ancestors in the making of their own understandings of how God and humankind interacted. Quite frankly, it seemed a little spooky at times. The stories recounted to us about the Pharaohs’ relationship with the gods and miraculous “immaculate” conceptions, seemed to have more than one connection with the stories of the Old (and even the New) Testament. It makes our own Scriptural hermeneutic just a bit more untidy.
If you, dear reader, haven’t figured out by now that our hearts and minds are full, then I am not a very good writer. Maybe some pictures might help.