Sunday, November 27, 2005

Thanksgiving and Pyramids

Thursday, as you know, was Thanksgiving. This is not the first time I have been away from home for Thanksgiving so I knew what it would be like to be away from family. But knowing what it will be like does not make it any easier or lessen the desire to be with them. However, having a good Christian community to share Thanksgiving with was the next best thing.

Thursday I started off my day by going to work. I didn’t have much to do, but the day was not a holiday here. While at work I learned that Anisse, the man from my work that was hit by a car (see previous entry), was not doing as well as I had been led to believe. I found out from Emil that Anisse had been unconscious since the time of the accident and that the cause may be hemorrhaging of blood around the brain. This news sounds rather dismal, but hopefully it is an injury that can heal. At times it is hard to truly understand what is going on when there is a language barrier, especially in the midst of an emergency. You want to get accurate information, but when language doesn’t quite jive, sometimes all you get are vague bits of information.

I returned to Dawson Hall in the early evening to find the preparations for the Thanksgiving feast underway. Over the last several years it has become a tradition for many Christian missionaries to gather at Dawson Hall for a traditional American Thanksgiving meal. This year nearly fifty people attend. There were all the usual Thanksgiving dishes including green bean casserole, sweet potatoes, turkey (of course), and even canned cranberry sauce (one of my Thanksgiving favorites!) We all had a good time chatting, sharing past Thanksgiving experiences and gorging ourselves on tons and tons of food. Afterwards, as our stomachs settled, we broke out the old red hymnbooks and sang several hymns. It was a good time had by all.

Friday night we had dinner with Samia’s family. Samia is a wonderful Egyptian lady who works for the Synod of the Nile Schools’ administrative office, which is in the same building as Dawson Hall. She is the person who takes care of all of our maintenance needs. She invited us over to her home where we met her son and two daughters, the husbands of the daughters, and her grandchild. It was almost like we were having Thanksgiving all over again, Egyptian style. The table was overflowing with food that looked and smelled wonderful. I didn’t know what most of the food was called, but that didn’t stop me from eating it. My favorite was a meatball and potato dish. After finishing the meal we sat around and talked for a while. Samia’s son passed around some photos from his time in New York State while he was attending school. We listened to some popular Egyptian music with Arabic lyrics as we chatted. Samia asked us all to gather around because she had some special words to say about our site coordinator Carole. Carole is leaving at the end of December and Samia shared with us how much she would miss her, almost to the point of tears. I could hear a little quiver in her voice as she spoke. Samia presented Carole with a very nice jewelry set that had earrings, a necklace, a bracelet and a ring. Carole has been so influential in the lives of so many Egyptians and it is evident now that she is about to leave. Everywhere we go we hear stories about how Carole has helped someone. She will be sorely missed, and not just by the Egyptians. The Young Adult Volunteers have been spoiled by her wisdom and knowledge that she garnered during 13 years of mission work in Egypt.

Yesterday, on Saturday, all of the Young Adult Volunteers (YAV’s) got together for our first trip to the pyramids. And I’m not talking about just the three famous ones at Giza. We started the day by going to Memphis to see the remnants of that once glorious city. All that’s left now is a handful of ruined statues, and slabs of stone with hieroglyphics carved in their surfaces. There are several gigantic statues of Ramses there. One of them has a somewhat unusual story behind it. Our Egyptian guide Adl told us that it was shipped in pieces to Memphis, Tennessee to be restored. It toured the U.S. for a year or two and then returned to Memphis, Egypt. Adl told us that he was on site the day they crated the pieces. He found it humorous that the crate bore the words “From: Memphis, To: Memphis” in large letters.

From Memphis we traveled to Sakara and saw the famous step pyramid of Zozer. It was the first pyramid built with cut stones. This is evident from the other pyramids in the area that are now just a bunch of hills. They were built using rocks that were not fitted together. Adl told us that the chamber beneath the pyramid of Zozer was once excavated, but was very unstable, so the excavators filled the chamber once more with sand. Many of the places we have been to have similar problems with underground structures. Adl explained to us that the water tables are rising because of the damming of the Nile. It’s amazing to think that even after 30 years the Aswan High Dam project is still causing environmental changes. The dam was officially completed in 1970. Adl said that just in the last few years the humidity level during the summer consistently reaches 80%. This is a vast change from the last several thousand years. For millennia the dry air of Egypt has helped to preserve the treasures of the ancient Egyptians. Now many structures and statues are rapidly deteriorating because of the increased humidity.

On the way to Giza, Adl had the driver stop at The Valley of the Kings Carpet School where we got to see large carpets being made… in some cases by children. The proprietor assured us that the children work no more than three hours a day, but one look around the factory at the multitude of carpets, and you get the impression that the children are working many more than three hours a day. I think the idea was that we would buy some carpets, but I think showing us the children working backfired on them. Not to mention that a small carpet was 2,200 Egyptian Pounds. Yikes! That’s more than one month’s stipend.

We arrived at Giza where the others in our group got their first close encounter with the three famous pyramids. As you may recall, I got to visit them briefly back in September. This time I got a chance to visit the Solar Boat Museum. In a chamber just south of The Great Pyramid, archaeologists discovered a complete boat broken down into over a thousand pieces. They managed to figure out how to assemble the boat and it now sits in a museum next to the hole where it was discovered. No nails were used in its construction. Only rope holds the boat together. The boat is not watertight, as it was never meant to float on water. It was more of a symbol of the pharaoh passing into the afterlife. Supposedly the pharaoh would use the boat to travel to the sun after his death. What I thought was amazing was the rope that was intended to hold the boat together, rope that was 5000 years old, looks like it was coiled up yesterday. Modern rope was used to assemble the boat, but the original rope is kept in climate-controlled chambers.

Well, that’s it for this week. I hope you are all well back home. Take care.

Yours in Christ,

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

St. Paul’s and Saint Anthony’s Monasteries

Saturday we got up very early and arrived at Dar Comboni, our Arabic school from September, at about 6:30am. Dar Comboni was taking a group of people to two monasteries near the Red Sea several people in our group decided to go. I think Dar Comboni managed to get about fifty people to go.

I had been feeling a little under the weather in recent days but had gradually been getting better. However, when I woke up my throat had gotten worse. I figured if I didn’t go on the trip, my throat would be fine in a few hours and I would regret not going. So I packed some of the antibiotics I had brought from The States, some Advil for pain and a bottle of water to stay hydrated.

I fell asleep almost immediately once we boarded the bus. I had been sleeping a lot since I was sick. My body was just trying to heal itself. Poor Jay sat with me. I felt bad because I wasn’t much company. I woke a few hours later to see the Red Sea on our left and barren desert mountains on our right. Within a few more minutes we had arrived at our first destination for the day: St. Paul’s monastery. Away from Cairo the air is very clean and thin which makes for beautiful blue skies. This day was no exception. The sand-yellow rock walls of the monastery stood in front of us as we piled off of the bus.

We gathered outside the entrance and met with a Coptic Orthodox monk who told us he was the only monk at the monastery that particular day that spoke English. He also told us this was his first time giving a tour of the monastery. He started off by showing us the mill that the monks used to grind grain for hundreds of years. The monks had to manually push a log in a circular motion to grind the grain. He did say sometimes the monks used a donkey to do the work.

Next he showed us a room with relics from long ago. Some of them had to be at least a thousand years old. We later found out that St. Paul was born in 228AD, so the monastery has been around for quite a long time. The monk demonstrated how some of the old instruments worked. Some were tools that were used around the monastery, and some were vessels or jars.

Next he led us through a wooden door and down into a crypt where St. Paul himself was buried. We had to remove our shoes so as to be respectful. There were many paintings on the walls. Though I never heard any specific time period, I expect the paintings were several hundred, perhaps even a thousand years old. St. Paul’s casket was covered in a velvety cloth with the visage of St. Paul embroidered on it. I was surprised when several Coptic Orthodox people entered the room and kissed the cloth covering the casket. There were several scraps of paper with prayers written on them laying on top of the casket. The monk told us how a raven used to bring bread to St. Paul and that when St. Anthony visited, the raven would bring bread enough for the two of them. has this to say about St. Paul and his monastery:

“St. Paul of Thebes, while born to wealthy parents, was a contemporary of St. Anthony and also abandoned civilization to live in the desert for 85 years. It was St. Anthony who pointed out his sainthood. It is said that he was fed by a raven which would bring him half-loaf each day. The monastery (Deir Mar Boulos) has three churches. It was plundered several times during the 15th and 16th centuries, but was later repopulated by the monks of nearby St. Anthony's Monastery. The Church of St. Paul, built underground, was originally dug into the cave where the saint lived and where his remains are kept. The monastery has had few alterations, thus keeping its ancient heritage. This monastery has many illustrated manuscripts, including the Coptic version of the Divine Liturgy and the Commentary of the Epistle of Saint Paul the Apostle to Titus by Saint John Chrysostom.”

Our guide led us up a cramped flight of steps that opened into a worship space filled with all kinds of paintings. I was in heaven. Images of St. Paul, Mary and Jesus, and St. George adorned the walls. Who knows how old these paintings were. Take a look at my photos page to see some of them.

We spent the rest of our time strolling around the grounds of the monastery, enjoying the peace and quiet. I got a little picture-happy and took pictures all over the place. I found a monk just sitting and petting the cat that was lying on his lap. I asked him if I could take a picture of him and he didn’t mind. It’s one of my favorite pictures thus far. Check it out!

Later we all piled onto the bus and headed for St. Anthony’s monastery. On the way my throat started burning like it was on fire. Swallowing became a very unpleasant experience. Also, the sun was on my face and the bus was rocking just enough that the combination of all these things made me nauseas. By the time we arrived at St. Anthony’s I was in no shape to move around. I found a bench and slept on it for forty-five minutes before I felt well enough to get up and take some pictures. I didn’t go on the tour, but I managed to take some pictures of the outside of the fortress-like monastery. I even went in the entrance just enough that I could get some good pictures of the lush plants trees, and flowers. We got back on the bus where I began to feel very bad again. I tried to sleep but was too uncomfortable most of the time. I could barely swallow the whole way back to Cairo.

I spent most of Sunday in my apartment sleeping and trying to feel better. Carole scheduled a doctor’s appointment on Monday. It’s a clinic under the medical branch of the Synod of the Nile, the place where I work. In fact it’s next door to where I work. Carole and I arrived Monday afternoon and waited for about half an hour before we were greeted by one of the “big dog” doctors and the hospital administrator. They introduced us to the doctor that would be examining me. This is one of those instances where being an American can be embarrassing. When Carole and I arrived there were probably ten or so Sudanese refugees waiting to be seen. We skipped ahead of them because of the hospital administrator’s intervention. I felt really awful about that. I feel like I am supposed to be apart of the community, not a leach upon it. How do you explain that to someone who is trying to get you good medical care though? While I appreciate being seen swiftly, I couldn’t help but feel guilty.

Perhaps the doctor that examined me thought the same thing because my appointment was short. The doctor listened to my chest, looked at my throat and then prescribed me an antibiotic and something to gargle. That was it. The appointment didn’t last more than ten minutes. The doctor was professional and courteous. He was friendly but brief. Carole and I thanked him and picked up the prescriptions at the pharmacy downstairs. After taking the antibiotics I am feeling much better. I still have a cough, but my throat is no longer sore.

Today I went into work and found the office dark with all of the doors locked. I asked the one guard at the entrance “Egahza Enaharda?” [Holiday today?] He replied by telling me that Anisse when to get some tea. I thought, “Okay… so why isn’t anyone else here.” Then he pantomimed a car screeching with an impact. After several minutes of listening to the guard I finally understood that Anisse had gone to get some more tea for the office, but when he stepped off the curb just in front of the Synod office, a car struck him. To make his point completely clear, the guard found Anisse’s broken glasses on the ground and showed them to me. Sure enough, they were Anisse’s. There was no mistaking them. I felt awful. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. To make things worse, the guard made a motion to indicate head trauma. I asked if he was at a hospital and he said yes. All I can figure is the entire office shut down and took him to the hospital.

Anisse has been amazingly nice to me. He seems to get more than anyone my elementary level of Arabic. He speaks little English but has always communicated with me in broken Arabic so I could understand. He also has been patient with me and taught me many words in Arabic. He always makes sure that I have a drink if I need it and generally takes care of any need that I may have. This news of his injury has been very disturbing to me.

I did manage to find out later that he had some x-rays at the hospital that showed he has no broken bones. He does have cuts and scrapes on his face, but is generally okay. The hospital is going to keep him for 48 hours for observation and then they are going to release him. I hope to see him back at work very soon.


Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Strange Pizza Toppings

Thursday I ordered a pizza from Pizza Hut and asked for pepperoni and sausage. I was thinking the sausage would be like the sausage at home, but I was wrong. There was even a red flag that I ignored. When I ordered the pizza the Egyptian lady on the other end of the line told me that sausage was “hotdog.” I just figured she was getting her English mixed up and she wasn’t saying the correct word. Twenty minutes later the pizza arrived, and sure enough, the pizza had little cut up circles of hotdog on the top. Yech! Whose idea was it to put hotdog on a pizza? I’ve heard of some strange stuff, but that was just weird. What are you thinking Pizza Hut? I ate it anyway, but I learned never to ask for sausage on my pizza in Egypt.

Friday night I babysat for the Graftons. David Grafton is a professor at Evangelical Theological Seminary and is in charge of the graduate program. I don’t know yet what his wife Carla does, but she is very busy, so she does something important! They have three children, two girls and a boy. They were the best kids I have EVER met. We began watching The Incredibles at about 7:30pm, and when the girl’s bedtime came around an hour later, they didn’t even complain that they hadn’t finished the movie. They just got up, brushed their teeth, said goodnight, and went to bed. At about 9:20 I told the boy that it was his turn. He didn’t look up from his game boy, but said, “Okay.” I went to the kitchen to put a glass in the sink, and when I returned, he had gone to bed.

This week has been a slow week for various reasons. First, the 150th Anniversary Celebrations are over, so my work at the Synod has dropped off significantly. I have started on a website design to update their current one. You can view the current one, if you like, at I am basically going to give the site a facelift and finish some of the incomplete pages from last year. I haven’t really told the folks at the Synod that I am doing this, but in the mean time, I don’t think it will hurt anything to generate my own work.

Another reason this week has been slow is I got terribly sick. I think the cleaning ladies here at Dawson Hall stirred up some strange dust and it irritated my throat. After a few days, that irritation had turned into an infection and I was congested, coughing, and had a sore throat. On Saturday, I went to sleep around 5:00pm. This particular Saturday I had scheduled to talk to my parents on the phone at 10pm, so I got up and called them, but told them I was in no shape to talk. I had to cough every few words, so it wouldn’t have been a very good conversation anyway. I could tell I had a fever and I went immediately back to bed… and slept till about noon on Sunday. Unfortunately I missed out on hearing Marian McClure speak to the Presbyterians on Saturday night. Marian is the Director of the Worldwide Ministries Division of the Presbyterian Church, and had spoken recently at the 150th Anniversary Celebration. She came to Dawson Hall to speak to the Presbys, but I was completely out of it by the time they were meeting. I ended up staying in my room the rest of Sunday and just took it easy. My fever ended up breaking Sunday evening. On Monday I felt like a new person. I would hope so after all that sleep! I still have a bit of a cough and some nasal congestion, but I am doing much better.

This weekend we will be visiting St. Anthony’s Monastery near the Red Sea. It is the very first Christian monastery EVER, and it is still operating. I’ll report on that more when we get back.

Take care. Rabbina My-ak [God be with you]


Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Sadness Amidst Celebrations

If you have visited my website in the last few days you will already know that my girlfriend Teri’s mother passed away recently. She had been fighting cancer for about a year now and had been fighting a good fight. Shortly after Teri and I left for Cairo she took a turn for the worst. As Teri tells it, her mother Beverly went to the hospital because she was in a tremendous amount of pain. The doctors said there was no reason to stay at the hospital but Beverly insisted. The doctors told Teri’s dad David, that there was no immediate danger, but at about 7AM on October 31st Beverly died. Teri returned home two days later.

I think the hardest thing for me out of all of this is not being able to be with Teri to support her. We discussed the possibility that Beverly might die while we were here and that I would not be able to return with Teri. Now that it has actually happened, I very desperately want to be with her. This is more difficult than I thought it would be.

Teri’s family went to the Pacific Ocean to spread Beverly’s ashes, so I haven’t had much contact with her since she left. I hope in the next few days I will be able to get more word from her. Please keep her and her family in your prayers.

Meanwhile I have stayed rather busy in Egypt. On November 4th, all of our Young Adult Volunteer’s (YAV’s) gathered (with the exception of Teri, which left a noticeable hole in our group) for the first time since we parted ways to our respective cities. Jen and Jennifer have been living Alexandria, Stephen and Eric went to Minya, while the rest of us stayed in Cairo. We met up in Alexandria (commonly referred to as Alex by the locals) and headed to a conference center called Beit El Salem (House of Peace) for the 50th anniversary celebration of it’s founding.

The organizers managed to bring in some of the original volunteers who helped build the center back in 1955, many of which were Americans. They were not called YAV’s back then, but they were the 1950’s equivalent, so the organizers wanted us there to show the old volunteers with the current volunteers. The celebration was joyous but long. We sang hymns, there was a gigantic cake (a photo is on my photos page) and there was a lot of talk about fundraising. But as it turned out, we didn’t play into the celebrations at all. We were pretty much there as witnesses. I don’t look at it as a waste of time though because it afforded us some good rest and relaxation away from the hectic streets of Cairo.

At work I had been putting together a book for the 150th Anniversary of the Synod of the Nile, which had given me several nights of diminished sleep, so I was happy to take a break. We strolled around the grounds of the conference center, and played on the beach. It was too cold to go swimming, but breathing the dense salt air helped to clear the lungs. All of us guys slept in a dormitory just inside the fence from the Mediterranean. There were twenty or thirty men sleeping on bunk beds. I slept up top, something I haven’t done since I was probably ten years old. The sound of the sea cashing nearby and the wind howling outside made it very easy to go to sleep when I settled down for the night.

We woke the next morning and waited for our bus to arrive and take us to Alexandria. It ended up being some four hours late, but it didn’t matter because when we finally got to the library, it was closed for the holiday called Eid. Strike TWO! The same thing happened to me last month when I visited Alex with some American tourists, except it was closed for Ramadan then. The only thing we did after that was visit a mall so the Jen and Jennifer could see it and know where it is. The mall was just like a mall in America. It even had a food court. I got some photos of some western restaurants with Arabic marquees. I don’t know why, but this just amuses me. I’m a dork.

We boarded the train and headed back to Cairo. This wasn’t the usual Metro subway train I’ve been riding to work. This is a commuter train with seats. All in all it was an enjoyable ride through the countryside, but I had a rather nasty experience in the bathroom. It was disgusting. Six words: No toilette paper… at all… anywhere. Luckily I brought my own. I’ve learned to be prepared where that’s concerned.

On Monday, November 7th I returned to the Synod of the Nile to help with the final preparations for the 150th anniversary celebrations. I sifted through nearly a years’ worth of emails to collect information on who was and was not going to attend. I helped with some last-minute PowerPoint glitches and still managed to have an Arabic lesson with the secretary. I showed her pictures of my family (many thanks to my Dad who gave me a stack of them before I left the U.S.) and learned the words for aunt, uncle, grandfather, grandmother, and so on. Something I found interesting is there are different words for a maternal aunt and a paternal aunt. Same thing for uncles.

Tuesday, the 8th was the big day. We wrapped up last minute stuff and then, in the evening, we had the 150th Celebration of the Synod of the Nile at Kasr Al Doubara Evangelical Church, which is just about half a mile from the Nile. I don’t think I’ve given any history of the Synod on my website so I’ll give you a little now as best I understand it.

In the 1850’s, the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America sent missionaries to Egypt and evangelized up and down the Nile on a houseboat. An Indian prince had come to Egypt to select a bride, and when he married an Egyptian woman, they had their honeymoon on a houseboat. After the honeymoon, the prince donated the boat to the Presbyterian Church. It was christened “The Ibis,” and the church used it for years, up and down the Nile.

Eventually they set up permanent missions in cities such as Alexandria, Assuit, and Minya, and built a seminary in Cairo. Their main focus was on education, so they built schools for children all over Egypt. That tradition is still alive today. In fact, I live at one of the schools: The Ramses College for Girls. Currently there are around 30 schools in Egypt run by The Synod of the Nile.

In 1891 the first batch of Egyptian ministers graduated from the seminary. Evangelical Theological Seminary (Evangelical means Presbyterian in Egypt) still exists today, and is only a 20-minute walk from where I live. Last year they graduated 35 students and the enrollment is on the rise.

You have probably heard about the civil war in Sudan in the news. Well, Sudan is Egypt’s southern neighbor, so there are a lot of Sudanese refugees that have fled to Cairo. Most of them are Christian because Sudanese Muslims are oppressing and killing Christians. The issue is much more complicated than that, but that’s it in a nutshell. If you want to know more on the subject, visit Sarah Sevcik’s blog at She is a YAV like me, but she works directly with Sudanese refugees and has a better perspective on the situation.

Anyway, several Sudanese refugees are going to the seminary now. Sudanese Christians have been coming to the seminary for years, but enrollment is on the rise because many more now live in Cairo.

In the 1920’s Egyptians gained independence from the Americans and have been running the Egyptian Evangelical Presbyterian Church since then. The actual name of the church varies depending on who you are talking to or what time period you are reading about, but for all intents and purposes, it is the same as the PC(USA), it’s just in Egypt, run by Egyptians.

For those of you not in the Presbyterian Church, a synod is simply a governmental body. In the U.S., the structure of the Presbyterian government goes like this: Local Church Session à Presbytery à Synod à General Assembly. Each level encompasses a larger geographical area than the last, with the General Assembly covering the entire country. The church in Egypt has the same structure but the Synod is the largest level. There are eight presbyteries and 312 churches in the Synod of the Nile.

So when we talk about the History of the Synod of the Nile, we are really talking about the history of the Presbyterian Church in Egypt, beginning with the first missionaries from the U.S. Whoa! That was a mouthful.

Now back to the present day. Last night at Kasr El Doubara Church we celebrated the 150th Anniversary of the Synod. The large church was packed with Egyptians from all over the country, forty some odd foreigners including Americans, Scots, Dutch, Germans, and Canadians, and representatives from each major religion/denomination in Egypt, including Islam. In fact the most prominent Muslim from Al Azhar Mosque, the center of Islamic thinking, attended and gave a very inclusive speech. His name in the program is Grand Imam Dr. Mohamed Said Tantawy. Marian McClure, Director of the Worldwide Ministries Division of the Presbyterian Church (effectively my boss) gave the keynote address. There were representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and The Coptic Catholic Church, and the Mayor of Cairo delivered a speech. This whole celebration was a BIG DEAL, attracting all kinds of “powerful people.” Martha Roy, the 92 year-old musicologist who plays the organ at St. Andrews was given special recognition. Victor Makari (a native Egyptian who now lives in the U.S. and works for the PC(USA)) spoke about Martha said she had known five generations of his family starting with his grandfather, down to his grandson. Amazing!

I hope all is well with you. Be sure to drop me an email sometime. I always enjoy hearing from home. Take care!

Yours in Christ,