Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Rome, Italy

It’s been a month now since Teri and I went on a vacation to Rome and Florence, Italy and I am just now getting around to writing about it. We had such a fantastic time. Florence has always been at the top of my list of places to travel since the days of my art history classes when I was in art school. Renaissance art has always had a special place in my heart. At first the trip seemed to be a fantastic walk through my textbook, but in the end was much more.

We arrived in Rome on a Saturday so we went to St. Peter’s Square the following morning to hear the Pope deliver his Sunday address. We arrived at the sprawling, cobblestone square and stood dumbfounded looking the beautiful arcing colonnades and the enormous basilica. The church is designed with such incredible proportions that it looks smaller than it really is which created an unusual effect as I walked closer. As I approached the church I began to realize just how big it is and was filled with more and more awe with each step.

Teri and I milled about the square looking at the statues that are spaced at even intervals across the tops of “Bernini’s Arms,” the beautiful double colonnade of gigantic columns that surround St. Peter’s Square. In the center of the square is an obelisk that came from the Egyptian town of Heliopolis, which is about a fifteen-minute drive from where I live in Ghamra.

In short order, despite the cold weather, the square began to fill with people from all over the world. People came as far away as South America to hear the Pope speak that day. A commotion of drums and horns began from behind the walls of Vatican City, and a few moments later the Swiss Guard came streaming out into the center of the square. They were dressed in baggy, colorfully striped uniforms that instantly made me think of a jester’s costume. Their uniforms were topped off with a conquistador-style helmet. Each member of the guard held either a pike or a sword in his hand. They paraded in and stood in a block formation.

Then high above the square, from the Pope’s office, a carpet rolled out of a window and hung on the ledge. A podium appeared and a few moments later the Pope arrived. People cheered and chanted sayings as if they were at a football game. The Pope began to speak in Italian and then later repeated his message in English, his native German, French, Polish, and Spanish. I honestly can’t even remember what he said. Perhaps I was simply caught up in the experience of being in St. Peter’s Square with all those people with St. Peter’s Basilica as a backdrop. It was an amazing time.

Teri and I spent our afternoon touring what felt like the Italian countryside as we walked down the Appian Way, which at one time was the longest straight road in the world. The Appian Way is shut down to auto traffic on Sundays so we could walk along in peace to see the ancient buildings and catacombs of the early Christians in Italy. A guide took us deep into a subterranean maze with human-sized nooks in the walls. Our guide told us in that one catacomb there are over 500,000 tombs. Many of them were children because of the high mortality rate of infants at that time. She also said that Christians used the catacombs as worship spaces when Christianity was forbidden by the Roman Empire and there was evidence of altars in some of the family crypts. Christians adopted a lot of Roman symbolism and then attached their own meaning to the symbols. That way Romans were less likely to identify Christians and persecute them. Some of these symbols are still used in Christian churches to this day.

The next morning Teri and I returned to St. Peter’s and entered Vatican City because we had an appointment to go on the SCAVI tour, which was perhaps my favorite part of our trip. Long before we left Egypt for Rome, Teri visited a web site about the SCAVI tour, which takes you deep below St. Peter’s Basilica into the Necropolis, to the actual tomb of St. Peter. It’s very hard to get permission to go on the SCAVI tour because they only take about 130 people into the Necropolis per day. The Vatican maintains strict measures to preserve the ancient artifacts under the church. The only way to apply to go on the tour is to email the Vatican and inform them of your interest, the language you speak, and what days you are available. Well, Teri and I were both ecstatic about the possibility of going on the tour so Teri applied. Perhaps it was just because January is “down season” in Rome, but Teri and I were accepted to go on the tour for Monday.

So we showed up at the Vatican early on Monday morning, got our reserved tickets at the SCAVI office, and then we met our guide. She introduced herself and then led us through the grottoes, where all of the previous popes were buried to a glass door. Her following actions made me certain I was about to see something truly special. Our guide punched in some numbers on a keypad and the airtight glass door slowly slid to the side and we entered a sort of airlock. Our group of ten shuffled down some steps into the small stone room, which was just large enough to hold us all, before the glass door slowly slid back into place. Then our guide punched numbers in on another keypad and a second glass door moved to the side. We stooped through the small opening and as I entered the next room I could instantly feel the warm damp air on my face. I never asked but I suppose the purpose of the airlock is to keep a certain level of humidity in the Necropolis.

We entered the first crypt, which was protected by thick glass and was lit by dim spotlights. Our guide began talking about the room but I instantly recognized ancient Egyptian symbols, which included the image of Horus. Our guide explained to us that the Necropolis was a burial place for “pagans” of ancient times, so many of the tombs we would see were for people from distant lands. Who would have thought I would be looking at a grave of an ancient Egyptian in Rome? Necropolis means “City of the Dead” and was an accurate description according to the beliefs of the “pagan” religions. This was a place of dead people.

I thought back to our trip to the early Christian catacombs where our guide there told us that Christians called their burial chambers cemeteries which comes from a Greek word that means “sleeping place.” Since Christians believe that they will rise from the dead on Judgment Day, they just considered their dead to be in a state of rest. Hence the phrase, “rest in peace.”

Now, back to the Necropolis. Our guide led us from one room to another showing us ancient Roman tombs through thick panes of glass. There were faint paintings on the walls that were reminiscent of Roman gods and goddesses.

Then we came to a section of the Necropolis that was cavernous and seemed like it was densely packed with small, brick houses. Small, dim spotlights shone through the darkness on the doorways of the small houses where we could look inside so see the tombs of entire Roman families.

Our guide called our attention to the ground where she told us that the narrow, paved street we were standing on was from the first century. We were standing at the level of Vatican Hill (from which the Vatican took its name) at the time the Romans were burying their dead. The little town of crypts once stood in the open air with the sky above. But above our heads was a dark cave-like ceiling, which was the floor of the grottoes above. Our guide explained that in order to build St. Peter’s Basilica, the architects had to backfill Vatican Hill to make it level enough to build on, so they simply buried the ancient Roman crypts to level out the land. In some cases the crypts stuck up out of the leveled area, so the architects just “chopped” off the top of the crypts. Our guide pointed out several cases where the crypts had no roofs because of this.

We continued along the first century road, which began to incline towards the top of what was Vatican Hill, in the direction where St. Peter was buried. We went through another glass airlock door to a small stone room. The guide told us to look through a hole in the wall to a small chamber where we would see a roughly built rock wall about six feet wide and three feet tall.

Our guide explained to us that when excavations began under St. Peter’s Basilica it was rumored that St. Peter was buried directly under the altar. So the excavators began digging straight down, just to the side of the altar. They dug straight down for some time before cutting under the altar. Their thought was they would come up under St. Peter’s tomb. What they eventually found were two rock walls. From the “oral history” the excavators knew that shortly after St. Peter was buried in an unmarked grave, his followers (who knew where the grave was) built subterranean rock walls on either side of Peter’s grave. Our guide told us that the rock wall we were looking at was the left wall of Peter’s grave. We were in the area the excavators had dug out. We were below the first century ground level, just even with the subterranean tomb of St. Peter. Unfortunately the excavators didn’t find any remains between the two rock walls.

From that chamber we climbed a tightly winding staircase to another stone chamber directly above where we had been standing. We were then on the same level as the grottoes where the popes are buried. Again there was a hole in the wall that revealed an excavated shrine that was built directly on top of Peter’s grave. We were looking at the left side of the shrine. The shrine was built in the first century by some of Peter’s followers who knew where his grave was located. In the fourth century, when Constantine came to power and declared Christianity legal, he built an altar over the shrine and a large basilica over the altar. (Side note: the basilica Constantine built was later razed and rebuilt because it was falling apart. The current basilica was begun in 1509.) Our guide took us through a series of doors, showing us the different sides of the altar. We came to the right side of the altar and our guide told us about the graffiti written on the side that translates to “Peter is here.” It turned out there was a secret alcove just behind the graffiti that contained the bones of Saint Peter. Somewhere along the way, someone had moved the bones from the actual tomb to the secret alcove in order to protect them.

Our tour guide presented us with a great deal of evidence that the Roman Catholic Church claims as proof that the bones are those of Saint Peter. The bones were studied extensively and were found to be the bones of a male in his seventies, which wasn’t an age many people reached during those times. It is believed that Peter was in his seventies when Emperor Nero had him crucified. The skeleton is also missing its feet. The RCC claims that this is because Peter was crucified upside down and the Roman guards just chopped his feet off to remove him from the cross instead of going to the trouble of untying him. I was rather convinced.

As it turns out, there is yet another opening to peer through. This time it is in the right wall of the altar. I looked closely and saw a clear Plexiglas container designed by NASA sitting in the alcove. It contains the actual bones of Peter. What just astounds me is that in one month I went from Peter’s house on the shore of the Sea of Galilee in Capernaum to St. Peter’s Basilica where I saw the bones of Peter himself. What an incredible journey this has been!

There’s much more to our trip to Rome and Florence. Tune in again later and there will be more to read.


Friday, February 24, 2006

Trip to the doctor

Yesterday my site coordinator took me for medical treatment for the second time in two weeks. I just haven't been able to shake this sinus infection so she took me to an actual doctor this time, not just a clinic. I told the doctor the medication name and he pretty much immediately knew what was going on. He knew that I had made some progress I but just couldn't seem to shake the infection. He said this happened because the bacteria were resistant to the antibiotic I had gotten at the clinic, so he prescribed a new one and said I should feel better within 48 hours. Whew! I sure hope so. Since then I have been spending most of my time resting.

I did go to the seminary on Wednesday to see what the plan is for me there. I have been working at the Synod of the Nile every day of the week up until now, but I will be working at Evangelical Theological Seminary two days out of every week from now on.

I met with Brice. He's a really nice guy that I've hung out with on occasion. The gist was he wants me to help transfer the seminary's current web site from Front Page (bleech!) to Dreaweaver (sweet!). It seems Front Page is rather limiting in it's abilities, and they are looking for a little more flexibility. I will probably also be helping to update the content of the web site from time to time. Unfortunately after Brice and I met I began to feel woozy and I had to leave after only three hours of being there. I hope I will be a little more effective next week. It wasn't a very good first day at a new place.

Since I was spending a lot of time resting in my bed I pulled out my X-Files DVD's to keep me entertained. I was watching an episode called "Blood" that originally aired in 1994. At one point Fox Mulder said something about the government that I think holds true today as much as it did 12 years ago, if not more. He said, "If you're distracted by fear of those around you, it keeps you from seeing the actions of those above." Interesting.


Wednesday, February 22, 2006

New format to the website

Hi everyone. It's been a long time since I've written, I know. Thank you for your patience. I have changed the format of my web site because, as much as I like creating my web site by hand, it had become somewhat of a chore. While I had great control over the graphics and could have a lot of fun, it took nearly a day to publish a single journal entry.

I have decided to change the format of my web site to a "blog." Just in case you are wondering what a blog is, the term comes from the mashing together of two words... web log. A web log, or "blog" is easy to use and easily updateable. I have been shying away from the monumental task of describing my trip to Italy because of the work that would have been involved, but now it will be much easier. Also, there is a lot that has happened in the intervening time and I want to share those things too. There was just too much going on and not enough time to write about it all. Hopefully you will adjust to the changes right away. Perhaps it will even be easier for you to read my journals. We shall see.

I haven’t quite finished setting up my blog, so there are links that won’t work and features yet to be filled out, so those will be changing. I just wanted to let you all know that I am still here and more is coming soon.

I have been rather sick recently with a sinus infection. Ever since I returned from the States a week and a half ago I've pretty much been in my bed. I attempted to go back to work today, but had to leave after about three hours. I got so dizzy! AHHHHHHHH! Please pray for a rapid recovery. It's been long ENOUGH and I'm ready to be well again.

Well, I will write more in the coming days. Take care everyone.


Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Nile Cruise

Since my last few entries were brutally long, I have decided for your sake and my sake to keep this entry short. For the purposes of this entry, the photos speak louder than words ever could anyway, so be sure to check them out. I would like to apologize also for how long it has taken me to write since my last entry. I have been traveling quite extensively over the last month and have accumulated a lot of memories to sort out, stuff I really want to write about here. It’s just taking a long time to get around to it. But I will start now with the Nile cruise that Teri and I took in early January.

The cruise ran from Aswan, a town far up the Nile in southern Egypt, to Luxor. We left Cairo by train and rode overnight (about 12 hours total) to Aswan. The small town was quite a contrast to Cairo. The train station was just a few hundred feet from the Nile, which was not surrounded by buildings as it is in Cairo. It was a much more natural setting. We looked across the river to a large sandy hill, which we later learned had graves from Pharonic times carved into the side.

We found our boat, the M/S Nile Plaza, docked not far away. We deposited our bags for the porter to take, checked in, and then decided to take a walk along the Nile since the boat didn’t leave the dock for several hours. Also, it was a beautiful day. Unfortunately a young guy riding a bicycle physically accosted Teri as we walked. As he rode by he grabbed her rear end and she just flipped out. She chased the guy and screamed at him. He started peddling furiously as she got closer. His eyes bulged out in surprise as he certainly did not expect that reaction from her. All of this happened so quickly I didn’t know what was going on. It was not a great way to start a vacation, but Teri seemed to take it in stride and didn’t let it ruin her vacation.

Our boat was nice. It had a pool on the deck, but it was too cold to swim. The crewmembers were all Egyptian, but apparently are around tourists all the time because they didn’t hit on the women or stare unnecessarily. That was a nice change. In fact they were very nice and were most hospitable. I think my favorite part of our time on the boat was all of the fantastic food. For breakfast, lunch, and dinner we went to the dining room and ate sumptuous meals. The experience was oddly reminiscent of the dining scene in the movie Titanic. The waiters were all dressed in tuxedoes and provided great service. The waiter we had made sure Teri had vegetarian meals each time we ate. He genuinely seemed to care about providing a great dining experience. We sat at a table with a family that was a lot of fun to be around. The father was German and the mother was Chinese. They met while working for Nestlé in Switzerland. Currently they are working in Cairo, managing quality control of the bottled water Nestlé produces in the Nile delta. They had two precious little children who spoke German and Chinese, and a little English and Arabic. The father offered to take us on a tour of the Nestlé plant, so hopefully we can make connections to do that.

Now for the tourist destinations! We visited several ancient Egyptian temples beginning with the Philae (pronounced Fee-Lay) temple on Elephantine Island near Aswan. Oftentimes photographers emphasize ancient Egyptian imagery, the hieroglyphics and relief sculptures of long-dead pharaohs. These are the images you see when you crack any book on ancient Egypt. But there is a history to the monuments that is often glossed over, a Christian history between the ancient pharaohs and present day. In the early days of Christianity in Egypt, Christians were often persecuted and they fled to regions in Upper Egypt. They found out-of-the-way places to worship where it would be difficult to be discovered. Often times they used ancient Egyptian temples as sanctuaries, and the evidence of this can be seen even today. Crosses were carved next to entryways, arches were formed out of squared-off doorways, and nooks emblazoned with crosses were carved out of walls to hold the bread and wine, the Eucharist.

One downside of the Christians adopting these places is they defaced the ancient Egyptian carvings. They destroyed the faces, hands, and feet, and sometimes the entire sculptures of Egyptian gods. Part of me hates it that such ancient artwork was destroyed, but at the same time I was awed that Christians had worshipped at these locations 1,300 years ago. Today’s Coptic Christians are the descendents of these early Christians, who were descendents of the ancient Egyptians themselves. In fact the Coptic liturgical language that Coptic Orthodox Christians use even today is based on the hieroglyphic language. Invading Muslims around the year 800 cut out the tongues of anybody who spoke the Coptic language thus solidifying Arabic as the primary language in Egypt. Apparently somebody kept speaking it, otherwise it wouldn’t be around today. (In an earlier journal entry I reported that Arabic was connected to the hieroglyphic language. That was incorrect.)

The Philae temple was one of several temples built during Ptolemaic rule. When the Greeks invaded and captured Egypt, they left most of the religious and governmental structure intact. They went so far as to construct new temples in the ancient Egyptian style and dedicated them to Egyptian gods. This helped to appease the local Egyptian population they had just conquered.

Since we were in Aswan our guide decided to take us to the Aswan High Dam, the source of hydroelectric power in Egypt. It is also the dam that regulates the water level so that the Nile no longer floods annually like it used to before the 1960’s. However, a really unfortunate side effect of damming up so much water in one place is the underground water tables begin to rise. This is indeed a problem in Egypt as many monuments that have been preserved for thousands of years due to the dry land and air are beginning to deteriorate because the land and air are now very moist. This problem has been felt even as far away as Cairo.

That evening we set sail and arrived at Kom Ombo, another Ptolemaic temple. This temple was interesting because it still had some patches of colorful paint. All of the temples used to be covered in vibrant colors. It’s hard to imagine ancient Egyptian temples as anything other than that famous sandy yellow color, but there is still evidence of the colorful paint that used to coat the surfaces.

The next day we visited the Edfu temple. It was a temple similar in appearance to the Philae temple, but it was much larger. It had some of the best examples of hieroglyphics I had seen yet. Later in the day the boat stopped at Esna where Teri stayed on the boat while I went to the nearby ancient Egyptian temple of Khnum. It was dedicated to the Egyptian ram god of the same name. In order to get to it I had to pass by the obligatory gauntlet of vendors that marks the path to any tourist destination. In this case the temple was in the middle of a small town. It had been excavated, but it was below ground level, so I had to descend a long staircase to get to it. The only part of the temple that had been excavated was the hypostyle hall while the rest of the temple still lays buried under the town. The temple was only minimally defaced, probably because it was buried in sand for so long, and provided some of the best examples of Egyptian relief sculpture. However, it was already showing signs of decay because of the rising water tables. In fact some areas of the temple were so damp the stones looked like wet clay.

On the way back to our boat a vendor convinced me to enter his shop. I figured I would at least be nice and humor him, but he poured on the pressure for me to buy something, anything. I wasn’t really interested in anything he was selling so I told him I would only buy a carpet for a one hundred Egyptian Pounds, an amount well below the actual value of the carpet. Much to my surprise he kept lowering the price until he reached my offer, desperate to make a sale. I told him that was great, but I had to get more money from my boat because I didn’t have enough with me. But he knew that trick because he told me his assistant would go with me. So, I took the rug I didn’t really want and headed back to the boat with his assistant in tow. Along the way I told the assistant in broken Arabic that my boat was leaving in five minutes so I would hurry ahead and get the money if he would meet me at the boat. I forced the rug into his hands and began to walk away. The assistant shouted, “Run, run!” He was worried I would not make it to the boat in time to collect the money and pay him, so I waved and started to run. Halfway to the boat I thought, “This is stupid.” I slowed down and began to walk again. Right then a motorcycle zoomed by with my friend “the assistant” smiling and waving at me, so I started running again in an attempt to beat him to the boat. Luckily I did. I felt bad because all I wanted to do was make the vendor feel good that he had a customer in his shop, but unfortunately I probably made him mad because I didn’t buy the carpet as I promised. I just wish they didn’t use so much pressure to make a sale. What I learned out of all of this is that I just have to continue to be rude and ignore the vendors, which I hate doing.

During the night, our boat moved down the Nile to our final destination, Luxor. Luxor had the most sites to see, and on top of that, they were some of the most famous ones. We woke in the morning and boarded a bus to the West Bank, to the Colossi of Memnon. We stopped briefly there to view two large statues that are all that is left of a gigantic funerary temple.

Next we moved on to the Valley of the Kings where we were permitted to enter three tombs. Each tomb was a long descending shaft that had sculptures on the walls and ceilings. At the very bottom was a large vault where a mummy of a pharaoh had once laid. The Valley of the Kings is also where King Tutankhamun’s (King Tut’s) tomb was found by Howard Carter in 1922, though I did not enter it. I figured I would leave that for April when my family is going to visit (plus it cost extra).

Our tour guide then took us to an alabaster shop that charged waaaaaaaaaaay too much for their handiwork. I was more interested in the bloody handprints that were over the doorway to a house next to the shop. The handprints were the only evidence I saw of the Muslim feast that was going on during that time. The feast comes on a certain number of days after Ramadan. Muslims slaughter sheep and give a portion of the meat to the needy. They traditionally soak their hands in the blood of the sheep and then put bloody handprints over their doors to ward off evil. Teri was happy we took the cruise when we did. Apparently the slaughter is a pretty gruesome sight in the streets of Cairo. Since Teri is a vegetarian, she wasn’t too interested in all of the blood spilling.

Next we went to Queen Hatshepsut’s Temple. This is a funerary temple that I studied in art history in college and loved! It is an Egyptian structure, so I loved it immediately, but it is such a distinctive piece of Egyptian architecture. In fact it is a complete departure from the typical Egyptian style of round columns with flowery capitals. From a distance the boxy, post and lintel design seems featureless, but up close it is a different story. Every surface of the temple is covered with hieroglyphics and relief sculptures. Hatshepsut was a pharaoh, and even though she was a woman she was still depicted with the false beard that the male pharaohs wore. I found one interesting relief sculpture of a pregnant Hatshepsut still wearing the false beard.

Then we moved to the East Bank of the Nile where the enormous Karnak Temple stands. Karnak was composed of sprawling sections added on by various pharaohs through the ages including Hatshepsut, Ramses II, and Akhenaten, among others. It was such an enormous temple I had difficulty photographing it. In a section called the Great Hypostyle Hall I was dwarfed by hundreds of columns that formed a great chamber.

Then our last stop was the Luxor temple, which was unique not only because Coptic Christians had used it as a worship space, but Romans had painted paintings on the walls and Muslims had built a mosque just inside the front door. The mosque is still functional to this day. It’s interesting to think that worshipers from four different religions used the building to worship their respective gods.

Well, I think that’s it for this entry. Take a look at the pictures from some more in depth information. In my next entry I will be writing about my recent trip to Rome and Florence, Italy. I have many, many more interesting stories to tell you about my time there. Take care. I hope all is well with you wherever you are.

Yours in Christ,