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.


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