Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Holy Land Pilgrimage, March 17

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Today we head to Egypt.  Cairo is a city of 22 million people.  Last October Kathy and I visited Shanghai and Beijing – both are smaller than Cairo.  We're expecting some apocalyptic traffic jams. 

Last week the temperature in Cairo was 110 degrees with 75 percent humidity.  Happily, the heat has broken; we're expected temperatures in the 70's. 

On the way we traveled through the Sinai peninsula to go to St. Katherine's Monastery, first built by St. Helena (Constantine's mother) around 330 when she was shown this location as the traditional place where Moses encountered the burning bush.  Justinian expanded the church in the 7th century.  The altar was placed at the location of the bush, and a cutting was transplanted to a place directly behind the church.  It is a robust plant to this day, and pilgrims touch it, break off pieces, and place strips of paper with prayers into the wall and supports surrounding the bush.

St. Katherine was born into an aristocratic family and converted to Christianity. Because of the scandal, her father spoke with officials who sent fifty wise men to change her mind.  Instead, Katherine convinced the fifty wise men and they converted to Christianity.  The officials decided to torture and execute her, but the instrument of execution failed initially.  She was killed in a subsequent execution.  Years later a monk dreamed that her body was at Mount Musa (Moses Mountain / Mt. Sinai).  When he found and unearthed her body, it had a wonderful perfume.  The monastery that previously was dedicated to St Mary was rededicated to St. Katherine, and relics of her skull and left hand enshrined there. 

The Church of the Transfiguration is a stunning Greek Orthodox Church with an amazing collection of icons and lamps as well as a famous representation of the Transfiguration.  The library here is one of the most remarkable ancient libraries on earth, housing some of the earliest biblical manuscripts.  The famous Codex Sinaticus was taken from this library in 1860 when a German scholar was given permission to study it and didn't return it.  We walked through doorways from the 6th century to enter into this timeless space.  Because we were the last group go through, we got lucky and were able to hear some of the noonday prayers. 

Just outside the Church is "Moses' Well," the traditional location of the well where Moses met his wife Zipporah. We walked outside to see the monastery high on the mountainside where the monks live.  All of this sits at the base of what is called Musa Mountain / Mount Sinai, and there are steps around to the other side of the mountain where it is said that Moses was given the Ten Commandments.  Next to that peak is another mountain named Mount Horeb, which has a prominent chapel on its peak that is said to be the burial place of St. Peter.  As we left, we stopped at the place where it was said the Israelites built the Golden Calf.  There is a Cow-like figure in the stone which is said to have been created at the place of the incident. 

The landscape here is stunning.  Veins of granite and colored rock run through the rugged mountains, and beautiful stones of several hues litter the groung – blue, rose, turquoise, green, black.  As we drove through the Sinai, (the word means "Moon," and sometimes it looks other-worldly) the scenes changed from sand to rock and back again, some areas with sandstone figures in front of colorful rock mountains.  For many miles we drove past the Gulf of Suez with ghost-town resorts dotting the shores.

As we neared the tunnel under the Suez Canal, we encountered a massive traffic jam.  Four lanes tried to merge into one and traffic got terribly snarled and stalled.

We learned today that "lunch" in this part of the world happens between 2:00 and 5:00 p.m.  We've found ourselves incredibly hungry from time to time, thinking that the schedule was all messed up.  Now we know, it was just our expectations that were messed up. 

We've seen a lot of Bedouins, many of them watching small flocks of goats or sheep.  There are seven tribes of Bedouins, and they live under their own law, each tribe administered by an elder Sheik.  Wealth is measured in ownership of camels, and we've seen plenty of camels.  The animals tend to live 25-30 years and be worth $800-$1000 each.  They produce a rich milk and can go without drink or food for 14 days.  Camels have two eyelids to protect them from blowing sand, and they have wide, padded food pads that can travel well in the sand. 

Modern Bedouins are not the same kind of tent dwelling nomads as their ancestors.  They tend to follow the rains, but they more typically live in communities of simple structures.

We are entering a Muslim culture, but before we do, I want to mention a conversation one of our party had with a young Jewish woman who helped us with some of our arrangements.  She, like about 90% of the Jews living in Israel, is a secular Jew.  She goes to synagogue about once a year, she said, and she usually works on the Sabbath.  From what we have heard, when we are in Muslim countries we will experience cultures who actually practice their religion.  We've already seen people pause for prayer in the middle of the work day.  Yesterday in Petra I noticed a group of men leave their vending places, enter a cave, spread their prayer rugs and face the wall (toward Mecca) for their afternoon prayers.

There is some irony in the fact that only a small percentage of Israel's Jews are actually practicing Jews, but among them, the Hasidim seem to exercise a disproportionate power in the decisions of the nation.  On the other hand, in this part of the world it seems that most Muslims pause for prayer five times a day, observe the monthly fast of Ramadan, and otherwise follow the five pillars of Islam. 

Tomorrow we'll go to the Pyramids, Sphinx and other highlights in Egypt.



At 5:06 PM, Blogger LYNN said...

I'm looking forward to your posts on the pyramids, sphinx and valley of the kings. How does it feel to be on a new continent?


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