Of Sacred Spaces and Moments

I had a traditional hotel buffet breakfast this morning, of sorts, although the buffet wasn’t nearly as active as I’ve been accustomed to. And I didn’t overeat as much as I often do, usually wanting to try one of every item that looks new. It was fine, but it wasn’t nearly as good as yesterday’s Egyptian breakfast, which shouldn’t surprise anybody.

After breakfast Bassem picked me up at the front of the hotel for a tour of one of the oldest neighborhoods – Coptic Cairo.

Although I have heard innumerable tales of Ancient Egypt, the pharaohs, and their gods this trip, talk of other faiths has been essential, because when Christianity came in, it spread through this country like wildfire. And in the blink of an eye, the ancient religion was swept away, with only its temples remaining.

When the Arabs came to Egypt with Islam, the conversion wasn’t so quick, and there is still a substantial Coptic Christian population here. Bassem states that it may be as high as 12%, but Wikipedia places that number closer to 5%.

There aren’t really neighborhoods defined or delineated by faith, he explains, with Egyptians of all beliefs living together as neighbors. But this area has a cluster of ancient churches.

We walk through the security checkpoint, with the guards giving my camera case only a cursory glance. He guides me down the street passing by a window where water was once dispensed. This was something brought by the Arabs when they came to Egypt: the concept of water as alms for the poor. He explains that water was so scarce in the Arabian Peninsula that the gift of water was an act of charity, and that tradition was brought to Egypt and adopted by the Christians here.

He points out the remnants of a fortification tower that dates to Roman times. The first church we will visit is the “Hanging Church,” so named because the church is constructed so that it is suspended over two such towers.

Inside, our visit becomes a discussion in comparative theology, as we discuss differences between Coptic Christianity, Roman Catholicism, and Orthodox Christianity. I notice that, in addition to the tiny cross tattooed on his left wrist, that he has a “Latin Cross” in his car, with one side longer than the other three. The “Greek Cross” has equal arms, and the Copts seem to use both. Now I wonder again what the Greeks do, and if there is something I am forgetting.

He tells me about the Coptic language, which has roots in the Ancient Egyptian and Ancient Greek languages. Over the years, however usage of this tongue has been disappearing and been replaced by Egyptian Arabic. Its use has dwindled to being almost exclusively limited to the liturgy, and even then the words are repeated in Arabic so that celebrants can understand them.

The alleys here twist around in confounding patterns, but eventually we reach Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church (Abu Serga). As the story goes, this is where the Holy Family took shelter in Egypt.

Supposedly this alcove is where the child Christ slept. Bassem is a man of strong faith who is also a scholar. He will happily question the conventional wisdom wherever we go, and here points out that the niche really was too small for a child of Christ’s age when they sought safety here.

Our conversation is easy as we return to the streets and his car. There is one more stop to make, however, at the oldest mosque in Egypt and in Africa. A vast space dedicated to prayer, it stands quiet today. This is different from the indoor mosques in Turkey, where the weather is wetter and cooler – instead being a large courtyard with a covered, carpeted, prayer space. In usual times, I am told, Muslims would pray shoulder to shoulder here, but because of COVID, there are marks on the floor to encourage social distancing.

With that, Bassem deposits me back at my hotel, where I finally step out to explore the neighborhood and find lunch. The congested streets of downtown Cairo are almost frightening to navigate. Before attempting them, I had reviewed my instructions for crossing the street in Hanoi, because the rules aren’t dissimilar (although there are fewer scooters here).

In the evening Mohamed again collects me from my hotel for one last evening. He has done so much for me, I can’t imagine how to ever return the kindness. We navigate the markets of Khan I Khalili, feeling the energy of the vibrant night. There are plenty of visitors, but it isn’t crowded, and Mohamed observes that this is “wrong.”

The first stop is for hibiscus tea, where we sit at a table and are frequently accosted by wandering salesmen. I don’t want the clay cup or a copy of the Quran. Mohamed wonders who is buying the latter.

Eventually we depart for dinner and Mohamed begins asking for directions. I follow his lead until we find a stall and take a seat at a table. I seat at the outside, where marketgoers pass behind me, while I look into the dimly lit tiled interior. Dinner is an Egyptian delicacy, rice stuffed pigeon. It is stuffed, boiled, and then fried. Mohamed first blots the oil from the outside and then instructs me how to go about eating it.

My turn comes, and I don’t do too badly. Most importantly, it was delicious.

After this we stopped for an Egyptian pancake (for lack of a better word) and then returned to the car. My bags were with us and we had one more stop: Cairo International Airport.

I have spoken in the past of sacred spaces, which I definitely visited today. But something else happened today. Sacred moments. That’s what this trip to Cairo has been. Months ago when I booked this ticket, I didn’t expect this trip to go this way, but I have treasured every minute of it.

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