Sunday, October 09, 2005

Coptic Cairo

Nearly two weeks ago now, our group took a visit to Coptic Cairo with one of the long-term missionaries (and scholars) leading our tour. We visited really old things--like the original Roman turrets that marked the entrance to the city--and lots of churches. It was all fantastic!

"Copt" is a derivation of a misprounciation of Egypt, and "Coptic" is the word used for people who would trace their lineage back to pharaonic times (the original egyptians, if you will), not to Arabs. Coptic is also a language similar to Greek, and the word used to describe things that are really old. Most people who identify themselves as Copts now are Christians of the Coptic Orthodox persuasion, and there's actually a small push underway to bring the coptic language back to the church (as a way to separate from Arabic-speaking Muslim culture or something). Anyway, Coptic Cairo is located in the heart of Old Cairo, the site of the original city--which is now south of downtown and a tiny bit north of the neighborhood where most westerners live (Maadi). We rode the Metro down there and, upon exiting the station we were immediately face-to-brick-wall with the old Roman turrets. It turns out that in Roman times Cairo was known as Babylon, (I can't remember why at the moment) and these turrets were the gates of Babylon--strategically located very near the Nile (where it used to be). Anyway, they're neat. We went down the steps into Old Cairo and found ourselves in narrow streets paved with stones--very Roman, perfectly cut rectangular stones--and we walked along to Ben Ezra synagogue. There used to be a substantial Jewish community in Egypt, until Nasser, I think. Anyway, ben Ezra was at one point a church but was given to the Jewish community because of Moses and Jeremiah being there, or near there. Supposedly Moses was found in the river near this place, and also Jeremiah (much later) was taken to exile in Egypt. Very cool. Ben Ezra has the Geniza (big room where papers were stored when they shouldn't be destroyed), and also has a substantial library of Jewish literature in Arabic and Hebrew, much of it dating back a couple of hundred years.

We also visited St. Barbara's church, at one time the largest Coptic Orthodox church in the area. There was a service going on (lots of incense and chanting, women separated from men, women with their heads covered, the whole thing) so I couldn't take pictures. Check the link for a few pics. After St. Barbara's we visited the church of the Holy Family, also called Abu Serga church (named for a saint). Unfortunately, the crypt where it is believed the Holy Family stayed when they fled from Bethlehem to Egypt is closed. Often it is under water due to the rising groundwater--a rise caused by the construction of the Aswan High Dam. It seems no one did the research on what would happen environmentally if there was a dam there. Not only does the Nile no longer flood (which means farmers now must use fertilizer, which is expensive, bad for the ground and the food, and is also depleting the soil) but also the groundwater downriver from the dam has been rising, threatening building foundations and putting some of the oldest parts of the city underwater occasionally. Ancient buildings that have stood for thousands of years are beginning to crumble because the water table is rising. Hmm...environmental impact study, anyone?

Anyways...we also visited the Hanging Church, which is very famous I guess. It's beautiful and, I think, is the oldest church here? Lots of amazing architectural detail, and great icons showing the move into the common language (Arabic). Also lots of saints relics--fingers, etc. Our last visit was to St. George's Greek Orthodox church, which was large and full of metal-plated icons. There's also a chapel where the very chains said to have imprisoned George are kept, and faithful people will often come to have the chains put on them as a blessing. It's a little strange, but cool. The chains are really heavy and make horrendous noise in the small stone space, but people come nonetheless. Amazing.

You'll see in my photo albums a picture I've titled "ecumenical crosses." You can see in it the large Coptic-style cross, some smaller Orthodox-style crosses (with equal arms), and two protestant-style crosses. Very neat.

Speaking of photos, make sure to check some of the alread-posted albums because I occasionally add new photos to an existing album. Cairo 3 is most of my September photos. Cairo 4 will be most of my October photos. etc etc etc. enjoy!

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