The one month countdown is rapidly approaching, and it seems that the second of my semester is not only passing faster, but is also more packed with activities and excursions. In addition, the weather is really starting to heat up; I’m realizing that I am just going to have to accept that at the end of the day I will probably be a bit of a sticky mess. I haven’t done anything in the past week that quite compared to the relaxation and beauty of the Nile cruise, but the trips this past week have taken us to some places that were each kinda like a little oasis in the middle of the ever-crowded city.
By happy chance I am posting this entry on Easter, even though that doesn’t mean a whole lot for me here; we still have classes like normal. Last week we headed to Coptic Cairo, one of the older parts of the city that has a several Coptic churches and a Coptic Art Museum. For those of you who aren’t familiar with religious minorities in the Middle East (don’t worry, I won’t tell) the Copts are the largest non-Islamic religious group in the country, about 10 percent of the total population. Most people don’t really think about the fact that there have been Christians in the Middle East for as long as there have been Christians, but the in some respects, the Copts are the descendents of the original Egyptians and we have pieced together some aspects of the language of the pharaohs by comparing it with modern day Coptic. Egypt also has a special significance to Christianity because Jesus’s family hung out for a while avoiding King Herod, a fact that I don’t think is as emphasized in Western churches. I like this mosaic because it has the pyramids in the background as the holy family does their wandering.
One of the churches that we visited was the Hanging Church, one of the oldest churches in Egypt (3rd CE), named because of the way it is constructed on top of an ancient Babylonian fortress, leaving some parts suspended over passages. To be honest, the design and construction of this church seems to have more in common with the mosques in this country than the churches and cathedrals that I have visited in the western world. The pulpit, pictured at the center is cool because it is supported by thirteen pillars, the one at the front center representing Jesus, and the other 12 his disciples. Even more interesting, one of the pillars is black, representing Judas and his betrayal, and one is grey, representing Thomas’s doubt. It’s a little hard to see in this picture, but they are the in the second row from the left. In addition to this, the church is home to a number of shrines that contain the remains of saints, where people submit requests or simply approach to touch or kiss.
On Friday we decided to take advantage of the sunny weather and take the metro to the outskirts of town to visit a Japanese style garden built with funding from… you guessed it, the Japanese. Getting there took about 40 minutes on the train, which included dealing with the interesting sales tactics that people use on a captive audience. One thing that is very common is people walking the length of the car with small packets of things like gum or safety pins, and throwing a bag into everyone’s hands or lap, whether you want it or not. It then becomes your job to either hold out money to pay when he comes back around or give the item back to him, operating pretty much completely on the honor system. Some people in my program say that they have seen people get off the train to chase after a vendor who forgot to take back his merchandise. Anyways, the garden was really neat, with Buddha statues and pagoda style pavilions. It seemed to be a popular place, with families all over the place and some gatherings that we guessed were birthday parties, different from previous parks I have gone to that were populated almost exclusively by couples.
As bad as this sounds, one downside to the park was the children… Or at least the ones that decided to swarm us and follow us all over the park trying to talk to us or maybe even get us to go in the questionable water with them. As an area far removed from the city center, it seemed that the kids in the park didn’t see foreigners as often as those in my neighborhood of Dokki do. While it was kinda neat to feel like a celebrity and have people want to take their picture with me, it was a little bit of a drag when I just wanted to sit and relax. I was also curious as to the fact that these children’s parents didn’t seem to have any problem with their kids walking all over the park following some strange young adults. This trip was also when I really started to notice the Egypt heat, and appreciate the difference that a little bit of shade can make.
On Saturday we took an optional program trip to go have a sunset dinner at Al-Azhar park, which to me seems like the classiest park in the city. We chose to sit outside to eat, so we had this awesome view of the gardens, the sunset, and the Citadel on the hill. Dinner was delicious and I even decided to treat myself a bit with an ice cream sundae, complete with bananas, chocolate syrup, and oddly enough, apple slices.
After dinner we headed into the market area to go see a show of Sufi dancing, apparently one of the big tourist attractions, cause there were tons of foreigners there, especially ones who were not appropriately dressed. Religious lesson number 2 for the day: Sufism is the more mystical way to follow Islam; Sufis are sometimes known to get intoxicated in the high-on-life kinda way in an effort to achieve unity with God. Probably the most famous aspect of Sufism is the dancing, which people sometimes know by the name whirling dervish, in which the dancers spin for an extended period of time as a way to lose themselves in the beating drums, singing, and horns. No monastic chants here, the people are actually dancing and their outfits are wildly colorful.
Each act, if you want to call it that, probably lasted about 20 minutes to half an hour, with the main dancer rotating the entire time, and most impressively, stopping without a single wobble at the end. One of the most interesting aspects of the dance is that the dancers wear several skirts, for lack of a better word, which the take off while spinning and then twirl above their heads, adding an extra show of color and another level of complexity.
Well we are back into the week and are also starting to get to that annoying point in the semester where you actually have to start thinking about final projects and papers. This weekend we are heading to Siwa Oasis for another desert adventure, so some work just might have to wait until after that.