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My new blog is called Reflections from a Global Nomad, in order to acknowledge that we no longer live in Maadi and that we are, in fact, global nomads, not staying in one place longer than two or three years. Please join me at http://DeborahReflections.blogspot.com

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Monastery of Saint Macarius

On Saturday, Jeff and I participated in a CSA tour to the Monastery of Saint Macarius and to Anafora, a Christian retreat center in the desert. The tour was led by Ibrahim, who amazed us all with his knowledge of Egyptian history, the history of Christians within Egypt, and current events. The tour was phenomenal. I originally was going to tell you about both places in this one post, but I think the monastery is enough for this one. I'll tell you about Anafora in another post. For the 49 best pictures of Saint Macarius, click here.

Saint Macarius is located 92 km (around 57 miles) north of Cairo, on the Alexandria Road. The drive took around an hour and a half, maybe a little longer, so in order to have any time at all at our destinations, we had to leave early. The tour was scheduled to leave from CSA at 7am. We planned on walking to CSA, so we left our apartment at 6:30 to make certain we were there on time. We were running late, as usual, but we had arranged to meet Lauren and her family outside, since they weren't certain exactly how to get to CSA, so I left Jeff eating breakfast and went down to meet them, confident that he would catch up. When I got downstairs, Lauren realized that she had forgotten her receipt, so she went back to get it. The rest of us went on, after I called Jeff to let him know not to leave without Lauren. The walk was pleasant, as it wasn't too hot yet.

Shortly after 7, Ibrahim started going down the list of people who had registered for the tour. As he called our names, we showed him our receipt and boarded the nicely air-conditioned bus. Of course, Ibrahim had told us that there would be no restrooms for at least two hours, but CSA wasn't open yet, so most of us ended up getting back off the bus once it became known that CSA was opening and we could use their restrooms. But eventually, maybe around 7:30, we all were on the bus and ready to go. Ibrahim told us that although lunch was included in the tour, it wouldn't be until 2pm, so he offered to stop at Metro market so we could buy snacks. Everyone declined, as most of us had brought snacks with us. (Jeff and I had three large bottles of water and two boxes of Fiber One bars; we had learned our lesson the day before.)

As we drove, Ibrahim pointed out the sites that we were passing. We drove up the Corniche to the Ring Road, which we used to cross the Nile and head into Giza. When we got off the Ring Road, we turned north. We went through Giza, passing very close to the Great Pyramids, and turned onto the Alexandria Road, reminiscent of a four-lane interstate highway back home, although there were turn-offs and turn-arounds rather than exit ramps.

Once we got out into the desert, where there was little to see outside, Ibrahim began a lecture about the history of Christianity in Egypt. Egyptians first were introduced to Christianity by the apostle Mark sometime before 50A.D. The first convert was Anianus, a shoemaker to whom Mark presented the gospel while Anianus repaired his shoe. Anianus later became the Bishop of Alexandria. There have been Christians in Egypt ever since. At first, there was just one worldwide church. The church leaders met as necessary to discuss doctrine and formally label as heresy teachings that were inconsistent with the founding beliefs of Christianity. I think Ibrahim said that it was around 500 A.D. (if I'm wrong on that date, it's my memory, not Ibrahim's lecture) that the Catholic church and the Coptic church split over differences regarding Mary's sinlessness, Jesus's dual nature, whether priests should marry, and other topics. But in many ways Coptic Christianity is similar to Catholicism, at least when viewed through the eyes of a Protestant like myself. Anyway, Copts have a pope, bishops, priests, monks, and nuns. There was much more to the lecture, lots of interesting information, but I unfortunately didn't take notes and therefore don't remember most of it. But he talked us all the way through ancient Egypt to the coming of the Romans, to Christianity, to the coming of the Arabs and Islam, and even touched on recent history. One interesting point (to me, at least) was that the Coptic language is--or at least is derived directly from--the language spoken by the ancient Egyptians. It was transliterated under Greek rule, so that it now is written mostly in Greek characters (with a few letters added to represent sounds that aren't present in Greek). Anyway, I digress from my own story . . .

We had to make a U-turn to get onto the west side of the Alexandria Road, then turned off to the right. Shortly thereafter, we reached the outer gates of Saint Macarius. After Ibrahim spoke with the guards, we were allowed in. The bus drove down a long road with farmland and decorative trees and flowers on each side. Ibrahim told us that until the 1970s, the monastery was all desert. At that time, it entered a period of reclamation and restoration. Wells were dug, and the monastery's land was turned into a functioning agricultural center. At the same time, the remains of the ancient monastery--there's been one there since 360A.D.--were uncovered and restored, under the supervision of the Egyptian Department of Antiquities. So what we saw was a wonderful combination of ancient and newer structures.

After we passed through the farmland, we came to a second gate, where we again were allowed to pass only after Ibrahim had talked with the guards. We drove up an asphalt driveway to a large parking lot just outside the walls of the main complex. We entered the complex through a low gate. It's deliberately low, because you're supposed to bow your head in reverence as you enter. Once through, I stopped in awe.

Just as soon as I stepped through the gate into the main complex at Saint Macarius, I felt at peace. It was as if a burden that I didn't even realize I was carrying had suddenly disappeared. The scene was utterly tranquil. There was a slight breeze, and it felt cool and comfortable. The sun was shining in a bright blue sky, the kind that we don't get to see in Cairo because of the pollution-induced haze. There was a monk, wearing a long black gallabeya, awaiting us. He introduced himself (I wish I remembered his name!) and welcomed us warmly. He was soft-spoken, but I had no difficulty hearing and understanding his every word. This feeling of tranquility and peace remained with me the whole time that I was at Saint Macarius.

The courtyard was beautiful, with grayish paving stones bordered by grass. There was a seating area with benches in front of planters, complete with something down at the bottom to keep the flies away. The seating area was shaded from the sun by a trellis. After you passed through the seating area, you descended some stone steps to pass underneath a beautiful archway. Our monk guide told us that the stone arch had been uncovered during the restoration work, and then a new concrete arch had been created underneath to support it.

We walked under the arch and into a beautiful courtyard that was shaded by the buildings around it. On one side was the arch, and there were churches on the other three sides, with room to walk between to go further into the complex. We first entered the church on the left (I forget the name), which is the largest church at Saint Macarius. We took our shoes off before entering, although the monk told the mother of a young child that there was no need to remove the child's shoes. We entered the church and proceeded to the front near the altar. There were long platforms on each side of the front with books similar to hymnals. Our guide told us that the monks meet in that church every morning at 4am to chant praises for two hours. He demonstrated some of the chanting for us; it was hauntingly beautiful, more singing than chanting. He allowed us to take pictures and even encouraged us to take pictures of the inner sanctum's ceiling, which was the original brick, although we could stand only in the door of the inner sanctum, not actually go in. He showed us a grave that was uncovered in the front corner of the church during the restoration. The entrance was covered with glass or a heavy plastic. They found graves of John the Baptist and of Elisha the Prophet; I don't remember which this was. Also inside the church was a niche in which there were three hard cylinders, each containing the bones (or relics) of one of the three Saint Macarius-es.

After we left that church, we crossed the courtyard to the Church of the Forty-Nine Monk Martyrs. This church was named after 49 monks who were killed during an attack of the Berbers. The monks are buried there in that church. Inside, we saw original stonework and woodwork. Our guide also told us about two of the symbols that appeared on many of the surfaces. Both are crosses. One has three points on each arm. The 12 points represent the apostles. Each arm represents the Trinity, as the three points converge into one arm. The other cross had two points on each arm. This cross represents the dual nature of Jesus: fully God and fully Man, yet one being.

Then we went back out into the courtyard and around to the side of the third church, to another courtyard. There we saw the entries into some of the ancient cells, which we also were allowed to enter. Each cell contained two small rooms. One was for sleeping and praying; the other was for living and studying. We didn't get pictures of them. The cells that are in use now (which we didn't see) have a sleeping room, a study, a bathroom, and a kitchen. Back in the courtyard, our monk pointed out the keep. The monastery didn't always have a wall, so when the Berbers attacked, the monks ran up some stairs and across a bridge into the keep. They pulled the bridge up behind them. There was a well and food inside the keep. They could stay in there for 2 or 3 weeks, until the Berbers went away. We were not able to go inside the keep.

Then we went into the third and final church (whose name I don't recall). In this church, we saw more original stonework and also some ancient paintings of the Madonna, the Black Madonna, the archangel Gabriel, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. If I recall correctly, the relics of either Saint John or Elisha were located here, again in hard cylinders.

After we finished in the church, we went back up to the entrance. We were led into a building on the left side, which seemed to be a cafeteria. We were served hot tea, which was very good. After a little while, our monk came back to get us and led us to the bookstore. Jeff bought a few books, and I bought a couple of papyrus paintings for our apartment. One depicts the Lord's Supper, and the other depicts the Holy Family in Egypt (a part of history of which the Copts are proud, that the Holy Family sought refuge in their homeland). Then it was time to get back on the bus for the drive to Anafora.

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