Saturday, August 26, 2006

Churches, Synagogues, and Mosques: My Trip to Coptic Cairo

Sorry it’s been so long since the last post. The Mother came to visit about ten days ago and she ran me ragged from dawn till dusk doing everything Cairo has to offer. But she’s left now, and I will have a post coming sometime soon on her visit. But for now, enjoy this one.

“Copt or Coptic?” This is what I woke up saying to myself one morning. I had decided to spend the day in Coptic Cairo but was annoyed that I had neglected to do my research in advance. Feeling weekend-lazy, the only way I could get moving was to excuse myself from doing some advance fact-finding. I decided I’d go in cold and figure out this mysterious district of southern Cairo on the fly. But I just had to know: are they called Copts or Coptics? Surely, I figured, this was the least I could do. But when I began considering going back to bed, I gave up on even this minor piece of information, took a shower, and headed out.

After a brief stop in Islamic Cairo to take some photos, I caught a taxi to Coptic Cairo. I wasn’t sure how to tell the driver where I wanted to go, but my knowledge of the city was good enough that I could get him headed in the right direction while I tried everything from repeating “Kanisa! Kanisa!” (Church! Church!) to genuflecting, to asking him to pull over so I could try to ask an English speaker for help. When all these failed, I was at a loss until I finally saw a church spire, which I pointed to while enthusiastically exclaiming in Arabic, “I want the place with lots of those!” That seemed to get to him, and with a big smile we made the next left and headed off.

Ten minutes later we pulled up to a police road block and I was made to understand that this was the end of the road. I paid my driver, hopped out, and started walking the rest of the way. It was a strange scene. Because no cars were allowed on the road, there was an unnatural calm and civility that was compounded by the fact that all the building were sparkly white. Although all the store fronts were filled with people, there was a tangible calm on this three block corridor to the world of Coptic Cairo.

Entering this strange place, I could not help but realize how defensive the layout of the area is. All of the churches are contained within a twenty foot tall white wall. Moreover, they are all huddled together in a way that reminded me of how the pioneers used to make camp by circling up all of their covered wagons in a defensive posture. Taking it further, the pioneers needed to create for themselves a small circle of harmony that could at least provide the illusion of safety because the outside world was vast and alien and almost always adversarial. This, too, is Coptic Cairo.

The geography of the place is confusing. You might think that once you enter the gates the Coptic world would open up to you. But you’d be wrong. Sometimes a church would be right through a gate along the wall. Other times you’d find churches down a number of turns through tiny alleyways.

I’ve tried throughout my time here to establish some independence from my guide book. I say this mostly tongue in cheek, but I do have to be careful sometimes to try to think a bit independently so that I can have a unique experience, all my own. As soon as I arrived to the first church, however, I decided to take a quick look in the book. At the beginning of the section is a little information box titled “The Copts.” First mystery solved. The bottom line is that the book proved so reliable in helping navigate the twists and turns of the neighborhood, that I used it all the way through. From here on, any history comes from The Rough Guide to Egypt, but the observations are all mine.

The first church was the Hanging Church. Ok, I’d bet that the church was not named that by early Copts but rather by those hoping to bring in generous tourists. Now, if I were a tourist minded fellow, I would be careful not to over-sell on the title if the location itself cannot live up. Entering the gates of the Hanging Church, I had visions of an architectural mystery explained away as divine intervention by centuries of graying monks.

Instead, I saw a perfectly nice church, its perfect white front wall attesting to the care with which it’s been up kept. Ascending the dozen stairs to the church itself, I realized how picturesque and humble it all was. Upon entering the church, I took a look around and got my introduction to the plain style with which the Copts build their houses of worship. The walls were very plain, probably brick or plaster and there were some paintings of holy figures on the walls with candles lit in their honor. The ceiling of the church was wooden with intricate beams criss-crossing and leaving little room for the few stained-glass windows nestled within the maze of beams. The pews were all plain wood. In spite of the physical modesty, there was something grand about the place. Our church in Bangall, New York, for example, is bigger than this one, but the majesty of the two is incomparable. I suppose that what gives it this stature its lasting nature, the idea that it has been around for so many centuries and will be around for many more.

After I had checked it all out, I asked the souvenir saleswoman at the front while they called it the Hanging Church. While her answer was a letdown with regard to the word hanging, something else she said was fascinating. The church was built on two stanchions (that I later saw through a window on the floor of the church), which hold the church fifteen or twenty feet above the ground. The reason that this church was built so high is because the Nile used to flood up to it back in the seventh century when it was built. It was built, therefore, on the two towers of the “Water Gate.” I should point out how dramatic the flooding must have been since the church is several blocks away from the river.

After leaving the church, I followed the outside of the guard wall to the twin pillars of Trajan’s fortress build in 130AD. Because one of the turrets is falling apart, the bowels of thing are exposed and the sophistication of the architecture can be understood.

I also took a quick look into the grounds of the church and monastery of St. George where I saw the grandest and most regal church that Coptic Cairo has to offer. The only round church in Cairo, the Church of St. George defines the skyline of this neighborhood, and its ornate insides are a testament to the importance that Copts bestow on it.

All of these buildings that I’ve mentioned thus far were accessible from the main road outside the gates, but past the cemetery of St. George was a set of stairs, leading to a dark underground tunnel, which in turn led to the heart of the neighborhood. The end of the short tunnel opened up into another strange alleyway which was as narrow as some of those in Islamic Cairo but different in that it was much cleaner and light on commerce. There were some shops and vendors, but there was also a misplaced peace about it.

I took only a quick peek into the Convent of St. George, noticing he sheep and doves in the front lawn, and deciding against following my guidebook’s advice of begging the nuns to wrap me in St. George’s chains for a photo-op.

From here I would meander my way down many an alleyway to look in this or that church. Because many of the churches looked similar in their cimplicity, I’ll spare you the play-by-play, but I’ll note a few memorable moments.

After leaving the convent, I took a couple turns down the alley before ducking under a five foot tall opening in the wall and making my way down yet another road to the Church of St. Sergius, founded in the fifth century. When I walked into the church, there was a rather large tourist family standing near the entrance. I had been in the church for about a minute when I suddenly heard a commotion from where the family was. I looked over to see a Coptic priest, black robes, gold chains, gray beard and all, yelling (and I mean yelling) at a boy in the group who looked about my age. The priest’s Arabic was too fast and furious for me to follow, but at the end of the tirade, the priest reached way back and laid a hard slap on the face of the frightened young man. The priest then chased the family out, and they kept running until they were halfway down the block. The only thing faster than they were… was me. As a confirmed, God-fearing Catholic, I knew to put as much distance as possible in as little time as possible between me and an angry priest.

I checked into a few more churches before trying to find the Church of St. Barbara, which was marked as particularly remote on my map. Wandering around for a while, I finally asked one of the many, many policemen for directions. He sent me off on my way with a few quick instructions, and I made my way to the church, took a quick look around inside, and headed back. The return, however, was not as simple as I had imagined. When I got back to the little gateway, guarded by the policeman who’d given me directions, he appeared from the other side of the entrance and planted himself firmly in my way. My first instinct, that he wanted to try out some English on me, turned out to be wrong. All he said to me was, “Money.” When I didn’t reply, he repeated, “Money,” adding, “I give you help before.” Having faced cops like this one before (I may have even blogged about them already), I was not about to back down. I’ve learned that while policemen feel emboldened to ask for money, their uniform constrains them from pushing too much. Not about to give this guy even the pleasure of a conversation, I said, “No.” With that, he gave me one of this looks as though he was expecting me to finish the sentence with a “Pleeeeaaase. I don’t have a lot of money.” If he wasn’t going to get money from me, he at least wanted a little pleading. “No,” I repeated. This guy clearly didn’t want to push his luck because he backed down and let me pass with a forced smile.

One quick word. I’ve found that everyone in Cairo understands the word “No.” I’ve also found that “No” has a much more confident and effective ring to it that its Arabic equivalent, “La.” Try walking down the street someday when you’re being solicited and just say to everyone, “La, la, la, la.” It doesn’t radiate confidence.

After the incident with the policeman, I realized that I had seen all the churches, so I headed to the only place left in Coptic Cairo: The Ben Ezra Synagogue. According to my guidebook, there are fewer than two hundred Jews left in Egypt. If this is true, then by entering that synagogue, I was witnessing some strange bookends of history. Let me explain. According to tradition, this ornate structure was build on the site that Moses the infant was plucked from the bulrushes on the banks of the flooded Nile by the Pharoah’s daughter. Moses, of course, led the Jews out of Egypt in an escape from their oppressors. With only two hundred Jews left in Egypt, I couldn’t help but feel the symbolism in standing on the site that witnessed the beginnings of the man who would lead the great exodus, and in living in the time, thousands of years later, when that exodus was nearly reaching completion.

When I left the synagogue, I followed the maze back out to the main road and set off on a small walk to find a taxi. Before I could find one, I saw the hulking structure of a monolithic mosque. Flipping through my guidebook, I found that this was the Amr Mosque, a direct descendant of Egypt’s first mosque. Captivated by the obvious symbolism in visiting a church, a synagogue, and a mosque all in one day, I took off my shoes at the threshold and walked in. All I could hear was the whir of hundreds of ceiling fans. Spread out across the vast colonnade were a couple dozen men lying on the floor, enjoying the shade and the cool breeze. While mosques I would visit on other days would be magnificent in their architecture, this one was plain, build functionally fourteen-hundred years ago to hold the entire Muslim army. I strolled for a while, enjoying the tranquility and the silence. Soon I put my shoes back on and headed out.

As I had my hand raised waiting for a taxi, my mind wandered, as it often does, to this blog. I thought with a good deal of excitement about the post I could write about the day. Visiting a church, a synagogue, and a mosque all in one day is certainly good material given what’s going on in the world today. But I’ve resisted rambling on about that point and will instead leave it to you, the reader, to consider the importance of that, to understand the magnitude of being able to do that in, of all places, Cairo, which is a place not all that far from countries where the privilege of visiting houses of worship of these three religions would be next to impossible.


emily peterson said...

Hey there Theo!
What a great visit to Coptic Cairo, in addition to such a detailed follow-up post. It's exciting to see how your time in Egypt has influenced your thoughts and worldviews. There is something that's both exhilirating and terrifying about traveling (mostly on one's own) in a foreign country. It looks like your adventures in Egypt thus far have definitely led to many fruitful self-discoveries, and I'm thrilled you have this opportunity.

Your visit to Cairo is a most interesting comparison to my recent time in Thailand. Since 97% of the country is Buddhist, religion is completely homogenous over there. There's no question about pursuing Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Catholicism; people are simply weaved into the Buddhist lifestyle and practice. Of course one can question the freedom of religious choice in such a system, but it was actually quite a refreshing and welcomed change to live in a society organized this way. Unlike the U.S. or Coptic Cairo, where religion is hetergenous and divided, the Thai people are all on the same page with regards to religious devotion. We could chat about this in a more meaningful time and place than a blog comment space, so I'll end it with that and look forward to catching up with you back at Midd at some point down the road.

I'm in the middle of selling my '74 Volkswagen and then I'm off to Paris for study abroad. Check your inbox soon for a link to my blog!

take it easy,

p.s.--someone passed your blog URL onto me, which is how i found it. we should look into posting the contacts for all middkids abroad with blogs....

Anonymous said...

thanks for this lovely piece.
can't wait for the "mother" of all blogs.
i hear she got sand in her choos.

Anonymous said...

inquiring minds want to know when you're going to publish your next blog?
or has sheesha gotten the better of you?

Peggy said...


Looking forward to learning more. Please post soon!


Anonymous said...


I caught up a little on your blogging, mainly the last one, and it was really interesting! Great photos and great observatins :) It sounds like you're doing some amazing exploring and it inspires me to do some more independant journeys here in Paris. I've been thinking about you recently and want to hear more about your trip and classes and apartment and everything! write me an email dude! I hope all is well as I can't fully tell since that blog is from a little bit ago - but I hope you read this soon and I want to hear more from you!!!

miss you!

PS - really hoping I see you j-term or sometime before senior year!!!! keep in touch!