Saturday, October 08, 2005

Coptic Cairo and the Cathedral

Whoo boy! It’s been some time since I posted a journal entry and plenty has happened in the mean time. In fact so much has happened that I am going to write two different journal entries. One posting today, one tomorrow.

Reaching waaaaaaaaay back in my memory I am going to recall the last few days of my Arabic classes. I was still lost with every passing hour and I was sure that I would fail the upcoming final exam. As it turned out, the exam was more about simple conversation. Introducing yourself, telling where you are from, what you are doing in Egypt and how long you will be here… that sort of thing. I had a little trouble, but for the most part I did well.

After the exam, we decided to go to the Chili’s restaurant on the edge of the Nile. Yes, that’s the same Chili’s restaurant any of you can find within five miles of your homes. We all decided after our intensive Arabic course we needed a treat… something that we could find comfort in, something from home. We were not disappointed. We walked through the door and found ourselves transported 5,000 miles away to the United States. On the walls hung the same doodads and photographs of chili cook offs from Anywhere, U.S.A. that you would find at any Chili’s. The subtle differences were the large amount of women wearing veils, the Egyptian accent our waiter had, and the surprisingly upscale atmosphere. The food was expensive, but good. Well worth it!

The next day we returned to Dar Camboni, our Arabic school, for a few more lessons and then had a celebration. Egyptians love sweets, so our instructors had provided many, many deserts including a large chocolate, chocolate, chocolate cake. The feeling I had was a little bittersweet because I enjoyed getting to know our instructors and was sad that we would not be seeing them on a regular basis. And at the same time I was very glad to have Arabic lessons behind me.

One day (they all blend together now) we took a tour of Coptic Cairo, which is the home to many early Christian churches. We met up with Dr. David Grafton, a professor at Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo who kindly took time to show us around the area. I believe the earliest Coptic church we visited was built in the fifth century. It was so old the pillars that lined the sides of the sanctuary were columns from Greek ruins. Icons wallpapered the… well, the walls. A large pulpit carved from marble towered over the sanctuary. Thirteen columns held up the pulpit, one for each of the disciples and Jesus. Dr. Grafton pointed out that two of the columns are made from black marble. These pillars signify Judas and Thomas. I remember seeing a shrine on the periphery of the sanctuary. People had stuffed scraps of papers with prayers written on them into nooks and crannies of the shrine and donated some of their money in a glass chest.

There is also a Greek Orthodox church in Coptic Cairo called St. George’s. It is lavishly decorated with lots of hammered silver and gold. Towering archways loom overhead. Gold leaf covered most of the paintings including the painting of Jesus high overhead in the dome. Downstairs we found the implements used to torture one of the saints and the pillar he was tied to. I don’t get the fascination with saints. Dr. Grafton told us that people look to the saints because they were so devoted to Jesus they died for him. I can understand that, but the morbidity that goes along with that… the fascination with the devices of torture that were used and so on, just creeps me out. Ugh! Anyway, I digress. We left the sanctuary and walked through the cemetery. There were mausoleums that looked like miniature churches or ancient Greek temples.

We also toured a synagogue, if you can believe that! The building once housed a Christian church but had changed hands to a synagogue… Ben Ezra Synagogue. The building was built near the traditional site where the Pharaoh’s daughter drew Moses out of the water. The inside of the synagogue is decorated like most of the Coptic churches, like a mosque. When these churches were built, Muslim architects and craftsmen designed them so there is a very obvious Islamic influence.

We parted ways with Dr. Grafton and returned home via Metro to our apartments. Later that evening we attended one of the weekly services held at the Coptic Cathedral by the Coptic Pope, Pope Shenouda. We arrived late so when we had to walk all the way down the main aisle to our reserved seats all eyes were on us. The place was packed! I got the slight feeling we were being paraded around again. “And if you will look at the center aisle you will see our American visitors arriving.” Nobody actually said it, but that’s what I felt was going on. We found our seats just as the music stopped and moments later the Pope began to speak. First he answered questions from the congregation. People had written questions on slips of paper and turned them in. The Pope selected a few that had to do with marriage, concerns about moving to the U.S. to go to school, and lack of employment. Later he delivered a sermon. All of this was translated into English for us via headphones. The sound quality wasn’t that great so I didn’t keep up with the sermon very well. Just like the old Coptic churches from Coptic Cairo, the cathedral had many icons. I really liked the last supper painting that hung just above the Pope as he spoke. As the Pope left, something happened that I never would have expected. He stepped down from the stage and walked just in front of the first few pews out the side door. As he did so, people in the front rows surged forward and began to scream and wave. I felt like I was in the Ed Sullivan Theater with the Beatles walking by. It was very strange.

I suppose everything I have done, with the exception of Arabic school, has looked like one big vacation. Rest assured, the work has begun. I started working on Monday at the Synod of the Nile. My job description said I would be doing some graphic design, but I wasn’t holding my breath. I have been told numerous times that missionary job descriptions always change and I shouldn’t be too attached to mine. As it turns out, there is a real need for a graphic designer. I started right away on a pamphlet that will give details about all of the Evangelical (Presbyterian) churches in Egypt. There are twenty-four in the country. The twist is the pamphlets will be in English AND Arabic. I don’t know how that’s going to work out yet.

The Metro subway continues to be a source of fear for me. Often times the cars are packed full of people with little room to move about. I went by myself for the first time this week and everything worked out okay, but I could noticeably feel my muscles relax and my blood pressure drop when I got off the train. I am just hoping that with time I will become used to it all.

Tomorrow I will write more on my trip to Giza and Alexandria, and what Ramadan is like in Cairo. I hope you will come back and read it. I will also be posting pictures! Thanks for your continued interest.


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