Friday, March 19, 2010
Maybe the most helpful personal learning for me on this trip is how vulnerable I allow myself to be when things, even little things, don't work out like I want them to. Nearly every day, usually every morning, something happens that doesn't work in this hotel. My biggest frustration has been my difficulty being able to get on the internet. No wi-fi in the room. My ideal needs – five minutes to post my blog and email, a couple of minutes to check I-pod for phone calls, maybe five minutes to download email. Later, a couple of minutes to send replies. Those needs have proved impossible to fulfill.
Here I am, on the trip of a lifetime, seeing wonders that will fill my imagination and enhance for life my experience of scripture; I'm enjoying a very convivial group of traveling companions, being served by exemplary tour hosts who have organized our trip and catered to our every desire – and each morning in Cairo I find my mood darkened and clouded by some little annoyance because the hotel is rude and broken. In my imagination I compose and re-compose my emails of complaint. As we get on the bus to start each day, I'm frustrated and angry instead of excited and expectant. It takes me some time, maybe an hour, to come back to the present and to be where I am.
I've got more than souvenirs to take home from this trip. I've got some spiritual business to attend to – acceptance of reality, release of control, embrace of humility. That may be the most constructive gift of this trip – a memory for a lifetime – work on my own stuff.
One note about these notes. Because most of the info I am passing along is from oral sources and about what I am seeing, the spelling of places and names is certain to be spotty.
Today is Friday, the Muslim holy day. The streets are less crowded, a bit like Sunday in the U.S. People here sleep in on Fridays. At noon those who go to the mosque will attend services, highlighted by a 20-30 speech by the Sheik. In Egypt it is illegal for Muslim clerics to mix very much politics into their Friday speech. Their purpose is supposed to be for spiritual, moral, and practical enlightenment. Clerics who cross some line of political speech are subject to arrest.
We visited two mosques today. We went first to the Mohammed Ali Mosque, built largely of alabaster in 1830, adjacent to the 1347 Fortress of Saladin. It is built along the same architectural plans and scale as the famous Blue Mosque in Istanbul. (It does not have the same beauty or spiritual energy however, in my opinion.) It was built by a ruler who seized power in 1805, and its construction was so expensive it threatened his financial security. Mohammed Ali is called the Father of Modern Egypt. He imported the cotton plant (from India?) and established a thriving business that continues to this day. Egyptian cotton has a reputation for excellence. He founded schools that made education much more widely available. He solidified his reign when he invited many of those who were in the former ruling family to a grand celebration in the Saladin Fortress, and locked the doors to massacre forty of them in 1811.
As we left the mosque, once again we crossed paths with busloads of children who were coming into the city to see the sites of their heritage. Many of the girls were dressed in colorful, sparkling headdresses and robes. The boys and girls waved, smiled, shouted "Hello" and "Welcome." At one point, Sharon stopped on the sidewalk to wave and say "Hello," and several of the young girls ran to her to embrace her in a spontaneous group hug. It was a beautiful moment of joyful connection.
We continued our trek through "Old Cairo" going to the 1356 mosque of Sultan Hasan, the former royal mosque. On some of the marble pieces we could see where masons carved the date of the stone's installation. I took a picture of one dated 1323. This is the mosque that Barak Obama visited on his recent trip to Egypt. This mosque feels like a place of prayer. The floor is covered with a carpet design of niches, all pointing toward Mecca, each the size for one worshiper to be able stand, and to kneel in the five-point bow to the ground that is a characteristic of Muslim prayer.
Our guide arranged for the Sheik who sings the call to prayer to come into a room in the mosque and to sing several of the chants that are part of the five times daily prayer of devout Muslims. In this large room, with its marble and stone walls and ceilings, the acoustics and echo are perfect for chanting. The sound is ethereal, soulful, deeply holy. He sings with focus and deep intention.
I am again struck by the power of music to communicate our deepest expression of the divine. When we sing, and when we hear the holy songs of other faith traditions, we can feel closer to God as well as closer to one another.
When President Obama was here, the Sheik sang for him in this place. He had us laughing as he mimicked the posture of the President, who crossed his arms across his chest, as he does so often, and looked up at the patterns of the ceiling and walls during the chanting. It would have been politically unacceptable for him to appear to be praying in a Moslem Mosque. Too many Americans still think he is Muslim. As a Christian priest, I was honored and moved by the opportunity to join my praise of God in my own silent prayer as our guest offered his exquisite praise of God singing from his ancient tradition. It was a holy moment that could only exalt the divine and unite our humanity.
The sound of the chant is haunting. Charlie remarked how this cantor did not sing with as many "quarter-tones" as many of the others we have heard. Charlie told me that the musical scale is largely based on the songs of birds, which are in whole tones, matching the musical scale we are familiar with in the West. Birds don't sing in quarter tones. Tenors do, when they sing flat. In India, some instruments are tuned intentionally with quarter tones. Part of the exotic sound that characterizes the public call to worship from the minarets of the 1000 mosques in Cairo is the common sound of the quarter tones, melodically absent from this very professional singer in a prestigious mosque.
After the Sheik had finished his offering, and we were offering our thanks, someone asked him about his family. Immediately he smiled warmly, spoke the names of his three children, and brought out his wallet pictures of them, measuring with his hand how much each had grown since their photo. He told of another son who had died, and of daughter who had died in childbirth, when the child and the mother could not both survive the birth. He said, they will be reunited and know her in heaven. On our way out, Tim Klinger remarked how universal it is when we begin to share about our families, we are all so much the same in our love and affection.
Several times we drove past the City of the Dead, the largest cemetery in Cairo. It is Muslim tradition to bury their dead in a shroud in the ground. Above the ground some construct markers, other build enclosures, not unlike a mausoleum. A symbiotic relationship has evolved in the graveyards. The homeless make their homes there, while the dead lie buried beneath them. The homeless keep away any possible desecrations, by grave robbers or animals; they clean the area and protect it from crime or drugs. In exchange, they are allowed to live there in the cemetery. There is a nearby school for the homeless children, as well as a clinic (health care is universal in Egypt). There is some access to electricity, and even a few satellite dishes scattered among the graves.
We next visited some funeral chambers that date from 2300 BCE, the colors still visible after so many years. Much of the content of the hieroglyphics in these funeral chambers consists of representations of food, drink, necessities and luxuries that the deceased would need in a future life. At one time it was the custom to place real food and drink into the burial chambers. Sometime later the Egyptians came up with a more pleasing development. Instead of putting real food in the chambers, listings of the quantity and kinds of foods and liquids would be carved into the walls in hieroglyphics, food on one side and liquids on the other, then they would be connected by a prayer formula which would render the substances as real and potable in the next life. (Our guide speculated that the famous "Curse of the Pharaohs" to punish with death anyone who violates the sanctity of the tomb was actually the toxic fumes of the ancient decayed foods being breathed in by the grave robbers as they first broke the seals.)
Our modern sensibilities may be bothered by the amount of labor and wealth that was spent in creating these burial monuments, presumably so that the luxurious comforts of the powerful might continue in the afterlife. Yet these great public works provided jobs, income, economic security, and some sense of national pride for those who did the work. They also created something that does partake of immortality in its way. More than four thousand years later we are awed and humbled by the beauty and majesty of these works. We also have a deeper understanding of an ancient culture which informs our own sense of aesthetic and knowledge.
We spent much of our afternoon in the incredible world-renowned Museum of Antiquities. There is no way I can blog any description that is adequate to the experience. I think I'll only mention a few things that caught my eye or my imagination.
Maybe you've seen a symbol which looks like a tear-drop circle on top of a cross. It is an Egyptian symbol for the Key of Life, an Anch or Ankh. Some Egyptian Christians adopted this ancient symbol as a form of a Christian cross.
The Northern and Southern Kingdoms of Egypt have separate regional symbols – North: the color red, a flat crown, and the papyrus plant. South: the color white, a conical crown, and the lotus flower. Pharaohs who claimed regency over both kingdoms wore both sets of symbols in their royal adornments.
Egyptian nobles were clean shaven. The rectangular beard that is so prominent in representations of pharaohs was actually a fake beard of animal hair, attached with a head strap. The beard is straight in statues of a living pharaohs; curled for those representing a dead pharaohs. A living pharaoh will be standing with arms to the side and the left leg striding forward, a dead pharaoh will be represented with arms crossed and legs together.
Some of the most captivating statues are of Egypt's 1400 BCE Queen Hatchepsint, who ruled like a male Pharaoh. She was the sister and wife of Tutmoses II who died when their eldest son was only 2 years old. She was co-regent for two years, and then declared herself ruler, claiming to be the daughter of a god. She was a strong ruler, who opened up trade with Somalia and began one of the significant Luxor Temples. The architect of Luxor was her lover, and they had at least one child together, though they could not be married. When she died she made a shrine for him so he could be near her in the afterlife; her act provoked some jealousy and intrigue among her survivors. She was buried in the Valley of the Kings, the only female allowed there, I believe. Her statues look just like the statues of the other pharaohs, complete with attached beard, but the smile is beguilingly feminine.
The bird-god Horus is the god of faith and religion, often represented as hovering behind the ruler. The scarab beetle is a familiar figure in the funeral and tomb symbols. The scarab is a sign of resurrection. It is often shown pushing the sun up from the ground each day.
Found among the sands of the desert was a wooden statue from 2200 BCE, made of sycamore, preserved in amazing clarity. The eyes are of precious stones (alabaster for the whites), and they gleam with remarkable reality from a face that looks eerily like Marlon Brando.
One of the most controversial of the pharaohs was Akhenaten and his beautiful wife Nefertiti. Akhenaten introduced a form of monotheism, worshiping the Sun God alone. He also preferred his statues to be more realistic than stylized, showing his long face, wide hips and round belly. Some scholars believe that King Tut was his son and that Tut was married to one of his six daughters, the couple being born from different mothers.
That brings us to King Tutankhamun, 1361-52 BCE, who came to the throne at age nine, was married at age 12, and died at 19. The only reason he is famous is that his tomb alone escaped the centuries of grave robbers and is left for us to see, having been found in 1922. Recent imaging and DNA tests show that Tut had a weak left leg from birth, a knee injury, possibly from a chariot fall, that left him with a terrible infection, and that he had malaria when he died.
The tomb had four gold plated cedar wood box coverings, each box inside another, much like Russian dolls. The jewels and gold which were placed into the tomb are simply stunning and beyond my ability to describe. So much. So artistic and beautiful. So much!!! Go to Wikipedia or some reference and browse a while. It is mind-boggling that so much priceless treasure was buried with this minor king. What must have been in the tomb of someone like Rameses II?
Later in the day we visited a while longer in Old Cairo. We visited a ancient synagogue there that is now a museum. At one time there were more than 100,000 Jews in Cairo; now there are about 40 families. Their expulsion is a tragic story.
Next to the synagogue is the Coptic Cathedral of St. Sergius. It is a small building filled with wonderful icons. St. Sergius is always pictured with a companion saint (variously spelled) Wacchus. I believe they were both Roman soldiers. I forget their story, but I recall that a researcher (Boswell) found a marriage rite in the vast library in the Vatican that invoked the blessing of Sergius and Wacchus, which Boswell speculated might have been an early Christian blessing or marriage service for gay couples. You can look that one up too.
Saturday, March 20, 2010
We went sailing on the Nile in a fascinating one sail boat operated by a skillful pilot. The trip was relaxing and enjoyable. A great way to finish a busy and intense trip.
A few final memories and images.
When a Muslim says prayers five times a day, part of the practice is to kneel on the floor, touching both knees, both hands (or elbows?), and the forehead to the ground, bowing to the ground on several occasions. Many of the people here have a calloused spot on their forehead from touching the ground over and over. I visited with a man in the Bazaar for a while, making his acquaintance, and later asking his permission to take his photo, showing very clearly a significant spot on his forehead, a sign of his faithfulness and piety.
It is not unusual to see someone walking down the street, sometimes with lips moving, fingering the beads for the Muslim prayer to the 99 names of Allah. While we were in the Bazaar, a number of men were chanting in a back room, saying the evening prayers. Several of us moved near enough to hear. Charlie got into a conversation with a man, complementing the beauty of the chants. He brought out his Koran, telling us that everything we need to know is found it the Book. Before we could leave, he had given Charlie a pamphlet for Christians, telling us about Islam, and a DVD. We turned down his offer of an English Koran.
As we sailed along the Nile, the afternoon call for prayer came from both sides of the bank. I find the sound to be contemplatively beautiful. It sounds so much better to me than the recorded chimes of Christian hymns that some churches have. But it makes me wish for bells like those that are common in English churches, which ring various "changes," patterns of bell tones that invite a community to recollection as they play.
We pack this afternoon, leave for the airport at about 10:00 tonight for a 1:30 a.m. flight. Ugh. We'll have stops in Paris and Atlanta before arriving at XNA, where we hear there has been snow in Fayetteville. From the mild, 70 degree sunshine river cruise today, to snow at home tomorrow. Regardless of the weather, it will be good to be home.
I look forward to sharing the images and insights from this trip in various ways in the coming months. It will be great to see everybody, especially next Sunday.