Our time in the Middle East has already been a whirl wind of new places, faces, and food. As one member said, if we went home today we would think back on the week and a half in Egypt as a really great and transforming cross-cultural. It is incredible to realize we still have three more months of discoveries to make and friendships to build!
It has been two full days of Egyptology! Pyramids, the Sphinx, Tahrir Square, street markets, Museum of Cairo, a carpet factory, and a scenic drive out of the city to the Coptic Christian retreat of Anaphora. We’ve seen artifacts from before 4500 BC, trekked inside (and then sang in!) one of the pyramids of Giza, battled jet lag, and tried to absorb as much information as possible.
I spent the day thinking about empires. The world has always been divided into two groups – citizens of the Empire and those left on the outside. The Empire changes over the years – Egypt, Persia, Rome, the Ottomans, the British, and now America. I find myself a citizen of the Empire trying desperately to understand what life is like on the outside. American citizens regularly fail to understand and appreciate the power and privilege and opportunity they have simply by belonging to the Empire.
I wonder if today’s Egyptian citizens dwell on the past a lot. I wonder if they long for the days when the world belonged to Egypt. It saddens me that everyone is so poor in a country with the richest history of them all. I couldn’t miss the irony of a street salesman stuck in a dead-end job pushing their wares onto tourists, the wares themselves depicting their very ancestors ruling the world in great glory. Egyptians today find themselves outside the Empire looking in, while Americans today usually miss the bigger picture of the human condition – the privilege of the Empire allows this impossibility. I wonder of the Egyptian citizens of the Old Kingdom at the height of its power were similarly absorbed in their own lives, while roaming bands in outlying provinces yearned only to be Egyptian and to belong to the Empire.
I look forward to developing this theme on the trip. In Christianity, God intentionally chose the world over the Empire. Jesus went to the conflicted and dangerous place, not the place of power and stability. Jesus chose the outside, not the center. If Jesus returned to Earth today, there’s no doubt he’d go to Syria or Congo or Honduras or a hundred other places before America – we are the Empire.
Christianity was never intended for the Empire. Constantine adopted it after a war and it became the official religion of the Roman Empire – the greatest one of them all at that point. The religion was changed beyond recognition and groups wouldn’t be able to attempt to reclaim the original message of Christianity for over a thousand years. This project is clearly ongoing. As citizens of the Empire, we are particularly ill-equipped to try and access Christianity in its original form. Our idols are security and materialism, our sins are fear, racism, sexism, and xenophobia. I wonder if the citizens of Egypt and Rome were equally prone to the same missteps in the face of the message of a God who proclaimed peace and goodwill toward all men – not just within the Empire.
Empire is a thread that runs start to finish on our trip. Like the Bible, we start in Egypt and end in Rome, with a lot of the real world in between. I hope we find human moments of peace and goodwill in the middle, hindered though we are by our citizenship in the Empire.
We had the opportunity to spend a few days at a Coptic Orthodox
retreat center an hour out of Cairo called Anafora. The Coptic church traces their roots back to the apostle Mark and a visit he made to Egypt. So this experience was a chance to worship with one of the earliest church traditions.
The leadership at Anafora are working to create a place where people can come to seek retreat and new life. They have started to build biblical structures, the Amanmesia, which means remembering, to help explain some of their beliefs. So far they
have built a replica of the tabernacle, the Sea of Galilee, the Mount
of Olives, a small version of the ark of Noah, and a model of
Jerusalem. They are currently working on painting the walls of a
church building showing different Bible stories and of the 12
apostles. Overall, Anafora is doing well at creating a relaxing
environment where all feel welcome despite the differences in color,
culture, and religious practices.
We got to take part in the Epiphany service which was in a mix of
Coptic and Arabic. The Coptic and Greek Orthodox churches celebrate the baptism of Jesus as part of Epiphany. The service starts with two hours of prayers, then an hour and a half mass, and finishing with a ceremony of placing a cross into water. The mass was a new experience for many of us who come from the Mennonite tradition, which doesn’t feature as much liturgy and sacraments. The mass had us using all of our senses. When entering the chapel, we were overwhelmed by the smoke and smell of incense. We listened to the sound of songs, spoken liturgies, and cymbals. We saw the different icons of crosses and apostles, took part in passing the peace by touching hands, and observed the taking of communion.
After the mass we received candles and processed to an
amphitheater which included an island surrounded by a pool of water. Following some singing and liturgy, Bishop Thomas placed three baskets on fire, an anc (an Egyptian cymbal used to represent the cross), and a cross into the pool. Upon the completion of the service, everyone enjoyed a meal together as the Coptic Christians had been fasting for Epiphany.
It’s fascinating to witness how Christians in all different traditions
and cultures used different practices and traditions to listen to God.
In the Mennonite tradition we use four part hymns and in the Coptic
tradition they use incense and liturgy. After processing this, it made
me realize that the way Christians pull in parts of their culture to
encounter God is an example of how God can not be bound by
traditions. He moves and speaks in all places and through many ways.
A section of the liturgy used in the Epiphany service:
O King of peace, grand us Your peace, establish for us Your peace, and forgive us our sins.
Disperse the enemies of the church, and strengthen her so it will never shake.
Emmanuel, our God, in His Father’s Glory with the Holy Spirit, is now in our midst.
That He blesses us all, purifies our hearts, and heals the sickness of
our souls and bodies.
We worship You, O Christ, with Your good Father and the Holy Spirit for You were baptized and saved us.
-Janaya Sachs and Rachel Holderman
18 January 2016
So, we are finally in Cairo and I am jet lagged, but am so excited to
see the Pyramids and the Sphinx. Cairo has a distinct smell to it, a
mixture of smoke and incense. The streets are chaotic and bustling
with life and everyone is trying to get you to buy something. The
streets get busier in the evening when the shops open up and there’s
traffic and cars everywhere. The people don’t follow typical traffic
laws and walk in between cars when and where they like. The drivers themselves aren’t law abiding citizens either. The constant honking is something that you learn to ignore.
When we came to the pyramids, we were all excited to see one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Was I really here? I felt adrenaline rush through me as we walked around and listened to the tour guide tell us the history of these amazing architectures. I honestly was expecting the pyramids to be further out into the desert, but they weren’t. They were right outside the city, and you could actually see part of the pyramid while driving up. When we came up to the third biggest pyramid, we all got tickets to get to go inside. It was a great
experience. It wasn’t anything out of this world, but just being able
to say “I was inside the pyramid”, is just the best feeling. Kind of
like bragging 😉 After we saw the pyramids, we went down to see the
Sphinx. There were so many tourists there and like everywhere else, the locals tried to sell us souvenirs. Later we went to a papyrus shop and saw how papyrus was made. We could also purchase some papyrus paintings there, and mostly everyone decided to get at least one. I am looking forward to seeing and experiencing new things.