Tag Archives: Egypt

Christmas 2013

Christmas (December) 2013

To suggest that Christmas 2013 was a bit unusual for us would be an understatement.  We have celebrated Christmas in warmer regions of the world before and even came to enjoy the longer, warmer days as an alternative to the cold, short, grey days of coastal British Columbia, so a semi-tropical Christmas is something to which we were actually looking forward.  We looked forward to having our Indonesia family with us.  We were even prepared to have Christmas on January 6th , it being the date of Christmas in the Orthodox calendar.  But when you add those special events to:

  • A three-hour horse-drawn ride through downtown Alexandria
  • A beautifully sung Syrian Orthodox Christmas Eve (Dec.24th) mass
  • A seven-hour marathon ride from Alexandria back to Cairo
  • Camel rides around the Sahara at the Gizeh pyramids
  • Christmas bombings in Egypt
  • Soldiers guarding all church services during these days

Well, I think you get the picture.  It is unlikely that we will quickly forget the images of our Christmas in Egypt.   Egyptian Christians are also very quick to remind us that they were not left out of the nativity story.  As they recount the flight into Egypt, it is possible that the Christ-child and his parents (that would be Mary and Joseph) hunkered down somewhere very close to Cairo until they were told to return to Palestine….a backwater called Galilee, not Bethlehem.

Today, we heard of a massive bombing in Beirut.  What a tortured part of the world we live in….  It is filled with irony, seemingly endless violence and chaos, and yet the people we know and meet are friendly and helpful beyond description.

Enough of idle thinking; let’s deal with the facts.  First of all, we started Christmas off with the arrival of our Indonesian family:  Stephen, Dina and their daughter Bethany.  Ever since coming, they have given their parents days of delight and happiness.  They have embraced Egypt with enthusiasm, curiosity and energy.  Their daughter has been the best two-year-old traveler I have ever seen, while charming everyone she meets.  She lost no time in endearing herself to Grandma and Grandpa and has endured one strange, new setting after another with alacrity.  How truly fortunate!

Given their short visit (only 12 days), we booked an ambitious schedule that included a visit to Alexandria.  The trips to and from Alex were entirely forgettable—only memorable in their duration—long.  Our full day in Alex, however, was delightful.  We rode around downtown Alex in a horse-drawn carriage right there amongst all the traffic on the Corniche.  We stayed in a modest downtown hotel that provided us with access to the Citadel, the library, a national museum and churches that provided us with a good sampling of the strength and vitality  of Christian life in that historic city.  (It was, after all, a Christian centre for the Gospel since the time of Mark, the writer of the Gospel.)  We could have chosen to attend an Orthodox mass at 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve or a Syrian Orthodox service at 8 p.m.  We chose the latter.  While we left before the close of the service, we loved the liturgy that was entirely sung.  We left the church and noted a heavy military presence outside of the church.  Aside from the irony that the image presented, we learned the following morning that there had been a massive bombing in a city not too from Alexandria.

On December 26th, we went to see the pyramids.  The day was beautiful.  Not hot, but clear blue skies.  We learned much about the skill required to build them and the history attached to the main pyramid and Sphinx sites.  We also visited a rug-making and weaving place in Saqqara, south of the pyramid sites.  It was a day to acknowledge the past (like/yaani, thousands of years ago) and to appreciate the present.

I suppose that we are not the first to have the conflicting and confused thoughts and emotions that we have when we think of our experience to date in Egypt.  On one hand, we love interacting and working with good, intelligent, hard-working people who love their country and want only good for it.  On the other, we vex at the impossible road conditions that we all experience just to get around the city.  On one hand, we feel at home with Egyptians who, even as strangers, are kind and open.  On the other, we are deeply saddened by the turmoil and divisions that are so apparent in Egyptian society, much of it in the guise of religious teachings that are intended to nurture peace and harmony.  As MCC, we are grateful that we can play a part, together with our church partners, to do something about peace-making.

On a much more personal note, we are grateful that our children have happy and healthy families.  We give thanks…..IMG_4214 IMG_4219 IMG_4226 IMG_4227 IMG_4229 IMG_4274 IMG_4232 IMG_4233 IMG_4239 IMG_4260 IMG_4302 IMG_4308 IMG_4311 IMG_4336 IMG_4341

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Get Thee to a Monastery

Post #4:  Get Thee to a Monastery

The past two days have furthered our ever-expanding knowledge of Egypt.  Antiquity and Egypt are words that often flow together easily, especially in the context of Pharaohs, pyramids, massive temples,  the ebbs and flows of ancient dynasties and empires.  Less well known is Egypt’s history as a “holy land”, starting, as we all know from Genesis, long before Christ, and even before the exodus story of Israel (Egyptians still refer to Egypt as “Masr” derived from one of the descendants of Ham called Mishraim – check out Genesis 6, I think) , but then both during and after the life of Christ as part of the early Christian church that came out of Jerusalem and found its own local roots, initially together with other early churches in North Africa and the Middle East, Asia Minor, Greece and Rome.  After Chalcedon, the church in Egypt went its own way, partly at least due to a disagreement over the nature of Christ.  For six hundred years after Christ, the Christian church in Egypt thrived (despite persecutions especially from the Romans until 325) and remained the dominant religion of the area until it was overrun by Arab-based Islam after 650.  Cut off from the main body of the Christian church in Europe and Constantinople, Coptic (as Egyptian Christianity became known) Christianity has followed a unique, and often difficult, path of survival until the present day in a land that only reluctantly accepts that there should be any religious alternative to Islam.  Today, Christians of all kinds form about 10-15% of the Egyptian population, the overwhelming majority of who belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church.

Whatever my pre-conceived ideas of Orthodoxy were, they have come under serious scrutiny in the past weeks, and especially in the last couple of days.  As Jane and I visited the monasteries of St. Anthony and St. Paul in the Eastern desert of Egypt, we learned many new things, some of which, dear reader, I hope to convey to you in a way that opens your own mind to new appreciations of Orthodoxy.

Our whole MCC Egypt team packed itself into a 12 passenger van and headed east out of Cairo towards the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Sinai.  We proceeded south along the Gulf road for about 100 kms and then back west away from the Gulf into the desert.  Aside of being rocky and mountainous, the land was completely devoid of vegetation.  I mean completely.  Nada.  Unrelentingly barren.  It is a compelling image.  (For you BCers who think that Osoyoos is desert, I have news for you.)  We came to the monastery of St. Anthony located against a mountainside that miraculously stored and provided water for the monastery during very infrequent rains.  The monastery is built out of a mixture of stone, cement block and sand-based type of plaster or daub (depending on when the addition was built).  It was initially constructed more than 1700 years ago as part of a very significant monastic movement which had its origins in Egypt.  We were accompanied through the churches, caves and other buildings by an elderly, knowledgeable, articulate (and somewhat curmudgeonly) monk (abuna or father).  Far from being uneducated or ignorant about both Eastern and Western ways, this monk seemed (and many others, it seems) to have  had a professional life and then made a conscious, voluntary decision to forsake the ways of the world to follow Christ…away from the hustle and bustle of society.  I also noted that we were far from being the first to develop sophisticated disaster preparedness plans.   We were surprised to find that these monasteries had devised very interesting contingency survival plans to ward off intruders like Bedouins, Romans, and others who might try and take advantage of their peaceful way of life.

By far the most important part of the visits to both monasteries was the reverence that was shown to the founders, the relics and icons that were the repositories of a profound spiritual heritage going back many hundreds of years.  We as Canadian Mennonites know nothing about history by comparison.  I was given the impression that this heritage was both a foundation on which spiritual development was built, and a cross to be borne.  These monks were instructed by their forebears, but also felt the weight and responsibility of carrying the stories, beliefs and practices of their many predecessors.  This was no small responsibility.  While the monastery of St. Anthony was the more traditional in outward appearance, the monastery of St. Paul, located much closer to the Gulf of Sinai seemed to be somewhat more ready to accept modernization.  While it maintained and revered its ancient beginnings, it also included a brand new cathedral (by ANY measure, a cathedral), a cafeteria capable of serving all visitors and an ambitious garden growing all kinds of vegetables.

Despite these differences in appearance, the lasting images of the visit to both monasteries included:

  • Monks that were deeply committed to their faith and to their heritage, were articulate in expressing their beliefs in English, had an experiential knowledge of the world “out there”, not only in Egypt, but beyond, and appeared to be far more willing to engage in conversations of faith and practice beyond their own religious confines than I imagined.  Their appearance and dress was initially misleading…
  • They paid rightful homage and respect to the modest, but moving, beginnings.  The first church structures, going back more than 1500 years still remained.  We were allowed to see and take pictures of wall paintings and other sacred places and things…an openness that, for me, was unexpected.
  • Mystery and miracles form part of the everyday belief of Coptic Christians.  Water flowing out of the mountain was a miracle, St. Mary showing herself recently to people in Cairo is a miracle…Egyptian Christians will enthusiastically talk to you about many miracles.  No need to explain, analyze or debate.  Egyptians readily embrace mystery.
  • There seems to be relatively little division between body/soul/spirit.  They are all there, but as a whole.  This informs the theology—all are ministered to simultaneously.  There is no division (read MCC and mission boards); it forms one package.
  • We, as those who have come down from the radical reformation, know of our own past of persecutions in Europe.  If one were to add an additional millennium of the same, we would  understand better the importance of Orthodoxy and we would also marvel at the commitment of Coptic Christians today and through the ages.
  • It was possible for me to move beyond the simple notion that icons and relics were meaningless objects (or worse), and that they represented a respect for those who had gone before and shown the way.
  • The monasteries we saw were working monasteries and, in the past, aimed at being as self-sufficient as possible, including their own grinding mills for flour and oil.  Today, monks bring with them skills that serve the monastery in a more modern way, including IT.

These are just a few of our very early impressions of the church in Egypt.  Maybe most important for us was the visual and experiential.  We saw and walked on ground that spoke of the life of Christ and his followers for well over 1000 years.  We saw the reverence that Egyptians paid to their Christian forebears.  We even sensed that Christians in Egypt wanted to visit monasteries to remind themselves what others endured for the sake of their beliefs (we saw quite a number of tour buses).   Hmmmm…

Entrance to St. Anthony's
Entrance to St. Anthony’s
Inside St. Anthony's
Inside St. Anthony’s
The "keep" is in the middle back.
The “keep” is in the middle back.
Gardens at St. Anthony's.
Gardens at St. Anthony’s.
Our guide.
Our guide.
The oldest Christian church in the world.
The oldest Christian church in the world.
Close-up of "keep".  Pull up the drawbridge; no windows or doors in first floor.
Close-up of “keep”. Pull up the drawbridge; no windows or doors in first floor.
Part of a curtain hand embroidered by the monks.
Part of a curtain hand embroidered by the monks.
Ceiling frescoes at St. Paul's.
Ceiling frescoes at St. Paul’s.
The newer part of St. Paul's.
The newer part of St. Paul’s.