Monday, September 14, 2009

Updates and guavas

Friday was the Coptic New Year. Happy Coptic New Year! The year is now 1726, but honestly, it still feels like 1725. In Egypt, the weekend is Friday and Saturday, so I went to church in the morning at St Mary’s and Archangel Michael’s which is in Al Khalefawy, my district within Shoubra. When I got home, I ate. Traditionally, you’re supposed to eat dates and guava on New Year’s Day. The dates are red on the outside representing the blood of the Coptic martyrs and white on the inside representing their purity. I don’t know the significance of guavas. I only ate guava since I don't like dates (insert joke) though I pretended it was a mango because that is by far the most delicious thing I’ve had in Egypt.

A little later, I met up with two friends and we walked around their neighborhood. They took me to an interesting place—a long, dimly lit room filled with about twenty TVs. I’m not even sure if there were any sources of light in the room aside from the TVs. A Playstation 2 was hooked up to each TV. And in each PS2, was FIFA ‘09. You wouldn’t even notice this place if you didn’t know where it was. It has dark tinted windows, no signs, and when my friends slid the door open, I thought they were opening a window. Super sketchy but I won one of the games.

During Saturday, I took a walk around Tahrir which is a central location of Cairo that includes the American University of Cairo campus, the Egyptian Museum, and the Mogamma, a massive building that houses thousands of government employees.

Saturday night, I went to my first concert in Egypt. It was in Al-Azhar Park, which is a gigantic park that was built over a mountain of garbage, so I saw an excellent view of the city. Al-Azhar is a large, beautiful mosque that I’ve passed by in the car but haven’t visited yet so I’ll tell you more about that another time. Since it was night, I didn’t get to see much of the park itself. Within the garden is a theater called El Geneina which means The Garden. The Rangers play there when vacationing after losing the playoffs. But tonight, Luthomania was taking the stage. I read about them on Cairo Live Events Guide and decided to go.

The band was compromised of 3 lute players from around the world: Belgium, China, and Morocco. They each played a different type of lute. I don’t know if 3 lutes played together constitute mania but I enjoyed listening to them.


The benefits of working part-time means extended weekends. On Sunday, I woke up at 5:30 am. It was the start of what is sure to be many visits to Coptic monasteries. My aunt and I went on a trip organized by the local church to the Red Sea Monasteries which are also known as the Monasteries of St. Paul and St. Antony. From Cairo, the monasteries are about 3 to 4 hours depending on how many times your bus breaks down (more on that in a bit). The monasteries themselves are not far apart geographically but there’s a giant mountain in between them. To go between them, you have to drive around the mountain which takes about 45 minutes.

We went to St. Paul’s first which is further south. St. Paul (different from the letter-writer one) is regarded as the first hermit. The monastery there is quiet and serene. Unless you go with a tour bus. And there are other tour buses already there. And there are more tour buses coming. I enjoyed it but I think the pictures do a better job of explaining its beauty:

Icon of St. Paul the Hermit

A church slightly off from the main monastery. It's still under construction.

The main church is in that complex next to the buses.

Dome of the entrance to the church

One of the many icons painted on the walls. St. Paul is on the right.

On our way out

As we left for St. Antony’s, the bus broke down. I’m not exactly sure why but no one seemed to mind until a half hour had passed and it was still stalling. I heard the busdriver at the back of the bus banging something with a wrench for a while. Whatever he did, it worked and we headed toward the other monastery.

St. Antony is known as the Father of Monasticism. He and St. Paul were of the same time and they were close, aside from the mountain that separated them. St. Antony spent a great deal of his time in isolation in a cave in the mountain. People can go into the cave. You just have to get up there.

The monastery installed stairs that go up the mountain. 1158 stairs. I took pictures along the way:

Two 10 year old boys on the trip ran ahead, starting off the trek up. They weren't in the lead for long. Not that it was a competition.

The start.

Inspirational verses along the way though I did not have the patience to translate them.

[Quick technical note: I just realized how to resize pictures so they don't take so long to upload on 56k . Now larger (but smaller!) pictures for your viewing pleasure]

A small church about midway up the mountain so that you can pray you'll make it to the top.

These last three pictures are views from the entrance of the cave. The monastery looks oh so small from up here.

Once you finally make it to the top, you have to squeeze into the cave, entering with your side and ducking to avoid the rocks. Only a few people can fit inside and it’s definitely not for the claustrophobic. I heard stories of people making it all the way up without being able to go inside the cave because it’s too crowded. Luckily, I was the first one of my group to make it to the top and no one else was there from before.

The entrance to the cave where St. Antony stayed. That's one of the 10 year old boys. He didn't have to duck.

The path into the cave. The flash of the camera lights up the path but going in, it was very dark and we used light from our cell phones to kinda see ahead of us.

Inside there’s a small altar with a few icons. Behind the altar is a small stone which St. Antony would use as a pillow. The cave is very bare, but then again, it's a cave of a monk from the third century in the middle of the desert.

Inside the cave

The trip down was easier and very entertaining. I got see people walking up, exhausted. Each one would stop me, incredulous that I was already coming down and they hadn’t made it yet. They all asked how much farther. The answer was always a lot. Except for a group of three who asked how many stairs were left. I could see the first steps from where we were. They hadn’t even gone 100 steps yet. I told them a thousand. And then I laughed. They didn’t.

Zoom in on his face. A typical expression after my response of "a lot."

Below are pictures of parts of the monastery itself. Also very beautiful. I might come back to spend more time here later in the year.

A church in the mountain. There's a gate (not pictured) that was locked so I couldn't go inside.

Carving of St. Antony into the mountain

Outside the altar of the Church of the Apostles

Altar of the Church of St. Antony. His relics are buried underneath the altar.

Just some of the Coptic art painted on the walls of the church.

On the way back to Cairo, the busdriver started driving in the wrong direction past a divider. As he was backing up to get on the right side of the divider, we heard a crunching noise and people in the back of the bus started screaming stop. I’m still not clear on how this happened but somehow the back door of the bus fell off. The driver sighed, took his wrench, and went to work. After a few minutes of banging, the bus was on its way and we eventually made it back to Cairo around 10:30 pm. A very long but relatively peaceful day capping off a nice weekend.


  1. I did not appreciate the snotty comment but the rest is cool. I agree with George.

  2. I agree with George. They almost make me want to visit Egypt, almost.

  3. I take back my nice comment from the previous blog. And if it wasn't for the nice pictures I would ban this blog for the Rangers comment (but they at least made the playoffs, unlike the Avs)...