Ancient Churches, Mosques, And Synagogues, Oh My!

Trip Start Oct 21, 2009
Trip End Jan 12, 2010

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Sunday, November 8, 2009

11.8.09                  Ancient Churches, Mosques, And Synagogues – Oh My!  Cairo, Egypt

Ahh, Cairo.  Every problem that you can imagine associated with an overpopulated city probably exists in Cairo – extreme poverty, trash everywhere, incredible pollution, and unforgettable traffic congestion (and, like Morocco, with little to no rules of the road) – yet we've also found it a bustling, welcoming place!

After a very large and lavish buffet breakfast at our hotel (Safir Hotel Cairo) – we are not used to such schwanky digs – we started our first day in Cairo with a visit to St. Andrews United Church, where we attended Sunday services and heard about the refugee program they run.  The pastor at St. Andrews is from Fargo, ND – which is how, I’m guessing!, we came to be visiting this particular church.  The church service was great, and we all fell a little bit in love with Martha Roy, the 95-year-old church organist who was born in Egypt almost a century ago as the daughter of Lutheran missionaries there!  Following the service, we shared a coffee hour and learned more about the church’s incredible refugee program.  Their work in Africa is so important – and so impressive!

From St. Andrews, we moved on to Old Cairo – and within Old Cairo, we visited Coptic Cairo, the heart of Egypt’s indigenous Christian community.  The area was quite interesting – several mosques and churches within one square kilometer of each other, all linked together by narrow cobbled alleyways running between high stone walls (I have heard this area resembles parts of Jerusalem’s Old City).

Around the 2nd century AD, the Romans established a fortress in this part of Cairo, named Babylon-in-Egypt.  The main towers of this fortress, referred to as the Babylon Towers, mark one entrance to Coptic Cairo.  We stopped first at these Babylon Towers and learned more about their history, and then we viewed St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church and Monastery, which sits on top of the northern tower.

From the Babylon Towers, we walked to the Church of the Virgin Mary, better known as the Hanging Church (or the Suspended Church).  The church, dated around 390 AD, was built on top of the Water Gate of Roman Babylon by the Roman Emperor Constantine.  One center column supports the entire structure, as the church itself has no foundational floor (hence, the Hanging Church)!  Almost 30m of space exists underneath the church.

The inside of the church is split into two knaves, and has a very unique, barrel-vaulted interior.  The beautiful woodwork within the church displays complex geometric and floral designs, each with meaning (e.g., a 10-point star represents the 10 Commandments).  According to Coptic belief, icons are not meant to be beautiful – rather, they are meant to serve only as a window into one’s beliefs.  These icons, however, were beautiful!  I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder, eh?!  The church also has seven alters, and only one service (church service, wedding, baptism, etc.) can be performed at each alter per day.  (The multi-altars thing is designed to reduce the overall number of churches built!)  It was a very interesting church to visit.

Around 1:15pm, we moved through the sunny and gorgeous, clear day on to the 9th century Ben Ezra Synagogue, which occupies the shell of a 4th century Christian church.  At this location in the 6th century, the prophet Jeremiah gathered the Jews after Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Jerusalem temple.  The adjacent spring marks the place where Pharaoh’s daughter found the baby Moses in the reeds of the Nile, and later where Mary drew water to wash Jesus!

The synagogue had interesting balconies, marble floors, more intricate woodwork throughout, and small, high stained-glass windows (cameras were not allowed inside).  The ruins outside of the synagogue marked an old Jewish cemetery.  As you now know, a lot happened at the Ben Ezra site.  It was fascinating to learn some of these stories!

From Ben Ezra, we walked onward to St. Sergius and St. Barbara Church, now known as Abu Serga Church.  This is the oldest church within Coptic Cairo, and the cave underneath the church is said to have sheltered Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus for six months after they fled to Egypt to escape persecution from King Herod during his massacre of all first-born children.  Wow.  What a powerful place to see!

After a lunch buffet at a non-descript place (see funny menu picture!), we got to tour the Mosque of Amr ibn al-As, the first mosque in Egypt, constructed around 642 AD.  This mosque is one of the first mosques we have been able to go inside, as most mosques prohibit entry by non-Muslims.  It also allowed us to take photos inside!  We women had to enter the mosque through a different door than the men, taking our shoes off outside and covering our heads in scarves.  Once inside, we also were asked to don bright green kaftans/robes to cover up our entire bodies.  After robbing, we women made quite a sight as we walked, barefoot and green-robed, through the vast mosque courtyard to meet the men who were already congregated deep within the structure.  As soon as they caught sight of us, their cameras were up and snapping pictures like paparazzi, which made my mom and I get the giggles!  (Random side note: after viewing these pictures later, I think I look very "Queen Nefertiti-ish", as my head scarf in African batik of browns and reds photographs like a royal headdress of some kind!  Don’t you think?!)

After the mosque, it probably would’ve been the time that Murray and I would’ve headed back to our hotel for some R&R.  Being part of a tour group, however, means no more afternoon naps for us!  (I’ll take the trade-off any day – it has been so much fun to be part of this group, and we have seen an incredible amount even in just one day – but the days are long, and already we are tired!!!)  So, off we went to the Egyptian Museum, one of the world’s most important museums of ancient history – and one of its greatest spectacles!  While the museum houses over 100,000 antiquities, dating back over 5,000 years ago, the collections have long outgrown the building and it is fairly busting at the seams.  We were somewhat disappointed by its very poor lighting and lack of informational signs and placards, too.

That said, the antiquities within the museum are truly incredible – the most popular collection coming from King Tut’s tomb!  Everyone knows King Tut, right?  What you might not know is that he ruled Egypt from the age of only 9 years until his death at age 18 (in 1352 BC).  He is so popular worldwide not because of anything he did while king, but because his is the only tomb ever found intact!  The Egyptian Museum houses over 90 percent of this collection (unfortunately, no cameras allowed inside).  It was pretty spectacular to see King Tut’s original mask (made of pounds of gold), up close and personal, as well as the coffins and sarcophagus in which he was buried.  Definitely a trip highlight so far!

By the way, our tour guide for the Egypt portion of this trip is Romani, an Egyptian man who is incredibly knowledgeable, very helpful, and just fun to be around!  He has actually visited Fargo, North Dakota, before (he leads tours for Concordia College in Moorhead, MN, just across the river)!  He calls us “habibi” (or “dearest ones”), and always asks us the Egyptian phrase for “okey-dokey” – “Mashi mashi, everyone???”

After the museum, my Dad (a tour host) and Romani surprised the group with a beautiful evening sail on the Nile River.  After a long, hot day of walking in the sun and touring so many sites, it was wonderful to sit down in the sailboat and enjoy the Nile.  It had a cool quiet to it, even though it’s located in the middle of crazy, busy, 20+ million people/third-largest-city-in-the-world Cairo!  I think the sail refreshed all of us and put us in a great mood for dinner!

Following the sail, we had dinner at a neat restaurant called Andrea Mokattam, sitting outside on a wide terrace under a thatched roof.  Before dinner started, we watched our Egyptian bread being made by a woman on large slabs in a huge brick oven.  She gave us some fresh bread to sample straight from the oven!  Dinner again started with the hot pita bread and some very delicious dips (eggplant, tahini, potato garlic), and our main course was delicious rotisserie-style chicken, slowly-roasted over a hot coal pit.  By the time dessert was served, I was falling asleep with an Egyptian banana (common dessert fare) still in my hand. 

Today – our first day in Cairo, and first day touring together with a group – was a very long day, but a day full of antiquities and interesting places of worship!  I can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings.
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