It’s not too often that in the span of 12 hours one is blessed with the opportunity to watch the sunrise and sunset on top of the roofs at Anafora Retreat Center in Egypt! Meals lit by candle light, learning sessions lead by a Bishop of the Coptic Church, evening prayer illuminated by candle light, and the voices of those from across the globe are all memories that will remind me of the peace that is Anafora.
Aside from the free time that was spent playing cards, dancing across the roofs of our bedroom, shopping, and of course, the many times eating fantastic food, the group was able to have three separate sessions with Bishop Thomas. One session focused on humbling oneself before the Lord, the next on shedding the mask(s) that incorrectly defines oneself, and thirdly, he talked about the foundational teachings of the three Abrahamic faiths and how they relate to the conflict over Jerusalem today. Although this conversation was informative, what remained most shocking was the way in which he defined Christianity. As Christians many of us excel to model Jesus. What is often forgotten within my own faith and those from other faiths is that above all physical possessions (land, money, food, water) is the sacredness of human beings.
With this said, many of us on the trip have already begun to question our role as Christians in the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Should we take sides? How are we to help resolve this conflict? Is simply listening enough? What Bishop Thomas helped me realize is that if we share with others the value of the human soul that Christ teaches we can open the door for the Holy Spirit to take control. My prayer for this conflict is that those on the battlefield and those in the board room will recognize the humanity they are fighting against. Control over one of the Holiest (if not THE Holiest) piece of land is not worth destroying the sacredness of human lives.
I’m richer from Bishop Thomas’ wisdom and faith. As we go from this peaceful place may we be peacemakers to those we meet along this journey. May the whole world be reminded that many conflicts are being fought over the claim to land, yet Jesus taught us that love and peace have no borders! (Read 1 John 3: 11-24 or 23-24)
Well, today we head back to Cairo by train. On a lighter note, now seems like an appropriate time to discuss crossing the streets in Cairo. As David said at orientation ‘crossing the streets in Cairo is an adventure in itself and our first class assignment’. Although I passed, it did not come without fear of losing my life. There are no crosswalks or lighted signs informing you that it’s safe to cross. Rather, before one steps out they have to be determined and firm about reaching their destination safely! Making eye-contact and keeping an even keel pace is important, and when necessary RUN! In a matter of five to ten seconds one is safely walking on the other side of the street…and if you are anything like me you’re heading towards the nearest coffee shop!
I find Egypt like many other countries to be like the body of a…. of its parts that couldn’t function with only a small part. Egypt needs all its people, the rich and the poor, the Egyptians and the tourist. It needs the Nile and the Sahara, the cities and the countryside, Muslims and Coptics. All of these things make up a strong Egyptian culture unlike any place I have ever experienced.
As we traveled around the Egyptian cities of Cairo and Luxor, and the countryside of Anafora and the Sinai, we experienced the different area based on their religions. Cairo and Luxor are filled with the Muslim religion and culture; every morning, five times a day, we could hear the Call to Prayer wailing in the echoes across the city and in the streets. Women with their colorful hejab and men do not interact with each other. As a large group of white Americans we found ourselves under constant scrutiny no matter how much we tried to conceal ourselves. But as we came to the Coptic (Egyptian Christian) monasteries and communities of Anafora and the Sinai, we still stood out and yet were treated the same as any other visitor.
The Egyptians greatly value their history as it relates to the development of the current culture and religion. Because Biblical studies are a large part of our time here we went through the earliest Egyptian archeology and historical events in relation to the early Biblical stories. We went to Coptic Cairo where Joseph would have come to Egypt and where the Holy Family stayed for three years after leaving Bethlehem. We then followed the Israelites’ travels with Moses in the Sinai and crossing the Red Sea. I was able to see the Israelites’ position differently after spending a great deal of time in the desert. Their complaining in the wilderness seems much more justified when you’re experiencing the dryness, heat, and emptiness first hand. As unpleasant as the desert is at times, I looked out at the sunset from the summit of Mt. Sinai and saw the awesomeness of God in the beautiful rugged mountains. I truly appreciate everything about the desert, even seeing it from the perspective of a traveler.
Two of the highlights for me since leaving Egypt have been visiting Mount Sinai and Petra. We can’t say with certainty that it is the exact same Mount Sinai that Moses climbed for the Ten Commandments, but it is at least close. After a lunch of pita and cheese, we started out behind our 64 year old guide along a wide gently sloped dirt path. On almost every side large, rocky mountains loomed over us. The sun was starting to set and the climb was estimated to take about 1.5 to 2 hours. A group of about six to ten of us set the pace. It didn’t take long for the trail to narrow, become more rocky and steep. Once it started to have switchbacks, Bedouin huts became a more common occurrence. For the first half hour or so there were camels along the path with owners that were quick to offer rides up the mountain. Other than that, we had the trail mostly to ourselves. On the first part of the trail we would stop frequently for the group to rejoin, but after a while we were given the go ahead to charge up the mountain at our own pace. About two thirds of the way up, the dirt path disappeared and steep, uneven steps made of rocks wound around the mountain. As a person that processes best on my feet, it felt simply wonderful to be active in the barren yet beautiful landscape. The path was deceiving as it fooled me into thinking that the end was in sight or just around the corner. The urgency to reach the top only increased as the sun quickly dropped in the sky. Upon gazing out on the surrounding mountains of rock, everything touched by the dying sun appeared golden. My muscles burned from scrambling up the treacherous rocky stairs, but I held the promise of the experience at the top. A small church came into view and before long about seven of us shared congratulations with each other on the summit. Words fall short when attempting to express the beauty of the panoramic view of the mountains and wilderness under the brilliant colors that proceeded to develop from the setting sun.
Slowly the rest of the group appeared in groups of two or more, cheered on by everyone else. Cameras were everywhere as we tried to capture the awesomeness of the moment. A song arose from the expert singers in the group and all joined in to produce beautiful music that expressed the feelings better than words. Linford gathered everyone and shared a reflection on the Ten Commandments before everyone escaped from the group picture pose. Darkness crept in rapidly so it became important to hurry down. I choose to head down a little bit ahead of the group so that I could reflect and process all that has been on my mind. Even if it wasn’t the Mount Sinai of the Bible, the mountain top experience and the struggles that come between the valley and mountain gave new insights into the Bible and how God has interacted with me in my life.
Like its shadow, memories of Mount Sinai followed us as we left Egypt and traveled into Jordan. While I have seen many pictures of the famous treasury at Petra, the sheer grandeur of the ancient Nabatian city was unbelievable. Our tour guide never ceased to have some tidbit of information or a joke to share as we found our way through the most well known area. The rocks that surrounded us came in all colors including red, green, white, and black. Much of the stone displayed Nabatian or Roman influence in the form of carvings or design. After singing in a church from 447 AD that had been carved in the rock and seeing a few other sites, we were turned loose to explore on our own or in small groups. My favorite part came after a forty minute hike up another mountain to a monastery with other group members. After recovering from the shock of finding the grand building carved in rock we spotted a lookout up another peak and set out. It was a perfect place to rest and gain an appreciation for the vast wilderness that so many different people groups have traveled through and lived on. Once we realized the limited time that was left until we were supposed to be back on the bus, we eagerly returned to the monastery to explore. After about ten of us crawled over the five foot high stone entrance and recognized the incredible acoustics, Ben lead us in a few songs that caused the music to vibrate through my body. These times of group singing have quickly become one of my favorite parts of the experiences and often express what words and pictures alone can not accomplish. Even though much of the land is barren and rocky upon first appearance; beauty, identity and strength have a way of developing from these unexpected places. The mountain experiences of each location has been a good reminder of the superiority of God’s wisdom and power in challenging times and places throughout the course of history.