Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Misr al-Qadima, Cairo, Egypt/Wadi Natrun, Egypt

Christianity's roots in Egypt run very deep. I've mentioned before how according to tradition the religion was brought here by St. Mark during the 1st century, and how many Christians here proudly claim credit for being the nation to which the Holy Family fled during King Herod's persecution. Lots of early Christian theologians studied other at least passed through here. One could also mention that most of the oldest Christian documents we have, such as the Gospel of Thomas, have been found in the dry sands of the Egyptian deserts. In the Egyptian Museum you can see Roman-era papyrus copies of an Egyptian hymn in Bohairic, as well as a copy of an epistle of St. Shenouda to a local notable arguing against sun-worship.

A place to begin exploring Egyptian Christianity is Misr al-Qadima in Cairo. Literally meaning "the old city," this was the site of the Roman city of Babylon-in-Egypt, which Lonely Planet suggests is a corruption of the Egyptian name "Per-hapi-en-on." Much of this area is today under restoration, but behind some scaffolding the great Roman towers in the year 98 still loom over the entrance to the Mar Girgis Metro station, with a chasm drop from street level to their bottom revealing just how much the ground has rised in the past 1900 years. Just to the north is the Eastern Orthodox Monastery and Church of St. George, dedicated to one of Egypt's most famous saints, as well as the Convent of St. George where, I am told, you can be wrapped in chains by nuns in memory of St. George's sufferings. Entrance to the monastery is forbidden, but a monk is usually on hand to bless people who come seeking benediction. There is also an extremely large and peaceful Eastern Orthodox cemetery with large graves dating back centuries spreading around both north and south within the walls.

As stated before, however, most of Egypt's Christians are Copts, and for that reason this part of Misr al-Qadima is commonly called "Coptic Cairo." Nestled near its center is actually a Jewish site, the Ben Erza Synagogue, restored in the 12th century by the rabbi for whom it is named. Originally a church built in the 4th century, tradition claims it is the spot where Jeremiah gathered the Jews after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, where pharaoh's daughter found the basket with Moses, and where the infant Jesus once had a bath. More reliably, however, it was the place where they discovered the Geniza, a collection of 250,000 medieval documents buried here because they had the name of God somewhere on them and so could not be destroyed, and which together give us the best picture we have of daily life anywhere in the Middle Ages. (S.D. Goitein used them for his five-volume study A Mediterranean Society.) Security there was pretty tight - you have to go through a metal detector to enter. We went with an Egyptian Muslim friend whom they stopped and questioned aggressively, though after ascertaining his innocence they welcomed him profusely.

The various Coptic churches in Misr al-Qadima are each interesting in their own way. One is the Church of St. Barbara, which houses the relics of St. Barbara in a small side chapel. Coptic saints' relics are generally kept in cylinders wrapped in red fabric stored being glass below an icon of the saint in question, usually with a place for prayer candles in front or to the side. Copts who come to the churches will touch the icon and/or reliquaries and then kiss their hand - before entering, they will also usually cross themselves very deeply, with their hand almost touching the floor. When I was in St. Barbara's, a janitor was cleaning the candle place, and offered me a candle. I sort of saved it away, but he said in English, "Pray." Again, I indicated my "No, thank you," but he kept insisting, "Pray! It is good to pray!" So I took the candle, lit it with another, made a cross with it in the air before me facing the icon, and then set it with the others.

Nearby is Coptic Cairo's oldest church, the Church of St. Sergius, with pillars dating from the 3rd century. The most famous church here, however, is probably the Hanging Church, which you reach through a Islamic-style courtyard and small entrance shop filled with souvenirs and religious paraphenalia. Built over the old Roman water gate (not really viewable through a plastic panel in the floor), this was the residence of many medieval Coptic popes after the Fatimids made them move to Cairo from Alexandria for political reasons. The barrel-vaulted ceiling has wooden crossbars which, as I learned when researching my master's thesis, some people were hung from during a wave of anti-Christian prejudice by those who suspected the Copts might secretly be a fifth column for the Crusaders. As in the other Coptic churches, there are narrow wooden benches and lots of red velvet carpeting. The Hanging Church also had a special ivory pulpit which, again according to Lonely Planet, is used only on Palm Sunday.

Coptic Cairo may have many important Coptic places, but it is not really central to the modern Coptic religion. The central church these days is the Cathedral of St. Mark in Cairo's Abbasiyya neighborhood, built in the 1950's, which I'm pretty sure I've seen from the street while whizzing by in a taxi. To find a more interesting place, however, you'll have to go two hours northwest of Cairo to the valley of Wadi Natrun, home to the most important Coptic monasteries. Monasticism is an ancient Christian tradition which began right here in Egypt during the 3rd century with St. Anthony the Great. His monastery, Deir Mar Antonios, lies in the Red Sea Mountains. After deciding not to do Sinai on this trip I decided to go there instead, but it's so out of the way from everything it wasn't going to be economically feasible without other people, and they didn't materialize.

Desert monasteries are a major reason why Christianity has such a continuous tradition in Egypt, as they made great refuges, especially during the Roman period when thousands of people would flee here. During the Middle Ages Muslim governments (or at least the Ayyubids, but I'm guess it was true of most dynasties) granted the monks tax exemptions, and the monasteries were fortified to protect against Bedouin raids. Although only four of several dozen monasteries remain today, the number of monks is increasing as part of the general Egyptian religious revival. Wadi Natrun is also significant as the Coptic popse is traditionally chosen from its monks - an odd sense while I was there was looking around thinking of these guys could be pope someday.

The monastery I chose to visit was the Monastery of the Syrians, so called because for several centuries it was actually controlled by Syrian Christians. It was right next to the Monastery of St. Bishoi, and I wound up spending about 20 minutes there, too. To get to the monasteries, you take a bus to the village of Wadi Natrun, a bus you will most likely share with lots of Coptic pilgrims. I was a little unsure how I would get from the village to a monastery, but there turned out to be trucks at the bus station waiting to take people, and I rode out on a blue and orange flatbed with two Copts one of whom spent most of the short ride singing, though he stopped to inquire where I was from and inform me he thought President Bush was pretty much the same as Osama Bin Laden.

My visit to the monastery was probably somewhat atypical. Based on my advance information, a standard visit involves showing up and going to the reception, where you will be assigned a monk to show you around. Little did I realize I was showing up on the weekend of the Feast of St. Bishoi - technically July 17, but since most Egyptian Christians go to church on Friday (when I was there), it was busy then, too. St. Bishoi died in the early 5th century, and his cult seems to involve themes of respect for the weak - he himself was physically weak, and there are a couple of stories in which he stopped to help frail old men who turned out to be Jesus in disguise. An icon sold in the monastery gift shops shows the saint washing the feet of Jesus, reflecting one of the stories. His body rests in the usual red wrapping in the Monastery of St. Bishoi, protected by a special sealed container. The Monastery of the Syrians has next to their church a small cave where he stayed as a hermit.

The parking lot outside was filled with lots of tour busses containing Egyptians rather than westerners, as well as busses from various church groups that had organized trips out here for the day. There was also a large group of Sudanese women wearing dressy white garb, several of whom had sashes that said "Archdiocese of Khartoum." The monks, ranging from middle-aged to old, all had beards, black robes, and black hoods embroidered with small Coptic crosses, though the color scheme of the crosses varied. They were stretched pretty thin. I entered the church, where they had lots of excellent icons, and which was packed with people doing the usual Coptic devotional things, as well as napping in the shade until a monk came through to snap his fingers at them and get them to stop. People were also packing the cave - the contrast between their religious devotion and my intellectual curiosity felt really awkward.

Outside there was a small garden where people had gathered to eat food they had brought while the monks went around visiting earnestly with as many people as possible. One of them spied me while he was talking to someone, and after a couple of false starts due to his walkie-talkie going off, came over to greet me and ask if I wanted tea. I said sure, and was drug over by the monastery, where another monk appeared over the railing. The two conversed briefly, and I was led upstairs to an indoor hosting room where more monks were making sure everyone was properly filled with tea, as is Egyptian custom.

I was shown to a table where a younger monk was talking to a middle-aged professional-looking couple with three children clustered around age 10 or so, and so far this has been the point where I most regretted my occasional problems with Arabic because while the couple seemed to understand me, the monk couldn't make head or tail of what I was saying, nor could another monk who came over later. (My Arabic this trip has been unusual. First of all, I haven't spoken nearly as much as I did in Morocco, just because everyone I can talk to in MSA is pretty much fluent in English and prefers that. I don't think I had a single noteworthy Arabic conversation between Farafra and Wadi Natrun. When I have spoken Arabic, either the other person can't understand a word of it, or they come to the conclusion I have wonderful Arabic and keep praising me. Sometimes I blame this in colloquial/formal issues, but since I assume Coptic monks know MSA, I don't know what the deal was here.)

Anyway, I'd been told a benefit to going on a Friday would be seeing how Copts interact with the monasteries. I somehow pictured this as being intense devotional stuff, but it wasn't. Everyone just sits around and relaxes. When the younger monk at the table asked where I was from and I told him I was from the U.S. (you always wind up saying "America" in Egypt), the woman cut in obviously telling the monk something that connected London and the Cairo airport - I've since deduced this must have been about the capture of the alleged bombing masterming there - the conversation went on to weave through Zarqawi and violence in Iraq (the massacre of the children last week really upset a lot of people), a something about their family computer rules, and other stuff. One of the kids had bought a new toy - I think it was an airplane - which he eagerly showed the monks. Dutifully impressed - the monks seemed to really love the kids - they managed to include me in that, inquiring about whether didn't I think it was neat, as well, and I joined their enthusiaism.

As the afternoon wound down, I took my leave, and wandered back to the parking lot wondering how one left these places, since there were not trucks taking people back to the village as I had expected. After inquiries I found out that you just told them at the information desk you wanted to leave and where you were heading and they would find a ride for you. I would have settled for the village and taking a bus back to Cairo, but they figured they could just get me to Cairo, and began canvassing the remaining church groups for one headed that direction.

Unfortunately for me, most of those left were from Alexandria. I wound up waiting outside by the entrance with a young man of perhaps 16 who also needed a ride somewhere. We were able to talk for about 20 minutes - as I noted above, my Arabic feels hit and miss, and fortunately this was a major hit episode. I asked him what the monasteries meant to Copts, and he said something that seemed to speak directly toward the mood I'd been picking up from the place, telling me that just as America was my home, so Wadi Natrun was theirs. That is something that makes a great deal of sense. Copts are a minority in Egypt, and when you are a minority, you often derive comfort from being with others like you in your own cultural space away from the majority culture in which you spend your days. Wadi Natrun is a thoroughly Coptic Christian space, their spiritual heartland within an easy drive of Egypt's two largest cities, and most of them seem to make some connection with it at some point in their lives. In fact, I've noticed Copts treat their papacy with a much more personal relationship than do American Catholics (not sure about Rome or Italy as a whole), and it occurred to me some of that might come from the bonds they form with the monks when they are still kids.

The guy I was talking to also spoke to the issue of Coptic-Muslim relations in Egypt, which is of course something everyone wants to know about. When he found out I was American, he claimed to love George Bush and Ariel Sharon because Muslims are always fighting against Christians, and now they are joining together to fight a war against Islam. This is not, I think, a line which Karen Hughes should employ in her public diplomacy efforts in the region - I quote it mainly to contrast with the people on the truck to show how there is never just a single opinion from any group in the Middle East.

But on the main point, I think the position of Copts in Egypt sort of resembles that of African-Americans in the United States. During the 1970's, there was a lot of scattered violence and open discrimination against Copts. Pope Shenouda III protested, and Anwar Sadat confined him to the Monastery of St. Bishoi for his trouble, though Mubarak let him out. Although there has been little or no anti-Coptic violence lately, I have to think that all the people who had anti-Coptic opinions didn't just reform, they've just faded into the woodwork. Muslims I've talked to all deny that there is any discrimination against Copts, and a woman who works with Copts told me she thought most of what got reported as sectarian tension were really arguments over other things in which the participants and their friends happened to be from different religions. At the same time, the inclusion of Copts in everything seems just a little too deliberate. You see this even with the Kefaya protests - they do one at a mosque, so they have to go find a church, too. This is a manner of inclusion which suggests people are not as comfortable with the truth of the "Copts are not discriminated against" line as they might claim, and emphasizing the point remains necessary.

But at root, both Islam and Christianity are "just religions." The monk working on my transportation found me a car headed to Cairo, which I shared with a man and his young son who judging by their clothes and the fact they were basically hitch-hiking there and back were from the working classes. Despite this lack of wealth, they still carried a sack of icons and other religious paraphenalia as something vital in their lives, and the people in whose car we rode were more than happy to have us with them. And to be honest, you get the same sort of thing when you visit most mosques - there was a bit of a financial shakedown at Ibn Tulun, but people at al-Azhar were very welcoming, as were those at a few of the smaller Mamluk-era mosques I went to. Furthermore, Egypt today is the site of a lot of dialogue between Islam and Christianity. Yesterday I learned that All Saints Cathedral in Zamalek, the main British religious presence in Egypt, had on Saturday hosted a joint Christian-Muslim service to denounce terrorism, one which was later broadcast on TV and discussed on an Egyptian morning show. In the end, people of all religions have far more in common with each other than they do differences, and in today's world, we need that to shine through as much as ever.

(NOTE: By the way, I don't wander around Egypt interrogating people about their opinions of President Bush, lots of people just tell me when they find out I'm an American.)


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