Friday, January 7, 2011

Alexandria Egypt

Dear Friends,
Perhaps because one's culture always seems in more in focus I am finding that the African and Arabic cultures are very complex and multi-layered.

I have been to the Middle East and I understood there what an Arab culture meant. Then I went to Northern Sudan and I came to understand what an Arab culture meant in an African country, I thought. Because when I came to Egypt everything underwent redefinition. Now I am in an Arab country on the African continent because in no uncertain terms Egypt is not an African country.

Ethiopia to me has become the land of the shawls. Khartoum and Egypt are the land of the head scarves. Khartoum has many tobes, the cloth that married women wrap around themselves, the traditional wear of Sudan. I have not seen many of those here in Egypt.

I know that Christianity was in Egypt in the first century and I believe it was in other parts of the African continent in the first century as well. Christianity is not an import to Africa. Now that I have come to realize that Egypt is ethnically and culturally part of the Middle East and not Africa I am trying to discern the threads of the African church in early Christianity. I know that the church moved up from Africa into the Middle East and eventually into Ireland, having an influence on the monastic communities in that country before moving back into Europe and now back down into Africa.

Augustine, a well-known church Father, was African. What does this mean? Were his thoughts formed by the African tribes or by the Arabic tribes and nomadic people of the Middle East?

Ignorance is not bliss. It is shock. I learned things when I came here to Alexandria that I probably should have known before I came, but I didn't. There have been two earthquakes in Alexandria, the last was in the 12th century A.D. The two earthquakes destroyed two ancient cities and both of them lay under the sea. The city that Alexander the Great founded and began to build was the first.

The current Alexandria, one could call it modern, dates back to the 18th century. There are very limited Roman ruins dating to the 2nd and 3rd century A.D. The catacombs date to the 2nd and 3rd century A.D.

I asked my tour guide what happened between the 12th and 18th centuries...why are none of the buildings older than the 1700's? He told me that there were no laws protecting the ancient buildings. People would tear down and build up. Tear down and build up. My consolation was that even though in terms of time the city is relatively recent, the culture is deep and very, very old.

Now, the area where I believe my ignorance was the most vast was this: I thought that there would be the ruins of the Alexandria Library that burned in the first century B.C. Julius Ceasar accidently burned it, so it is rumored. But no. There is a brand new, and I admit beautiful, library built on the ruins. The only thing old is a bust that was found under water that is either of or from the time of Ptolemy the 2nd. This sits in front of the library.

The library is designed to look as if it rises from the sea. It is breathtaking. I got quite a few pictures of it and will post them either here or on Facebook when I am able to figure out how to do so.

There is in current Alexandria a wealthy class of people, the street where the church and Fairhaven, the school for mentally challenged students where I have stayed this week, is located in the wealthy part of the city. I know in Japan when I was there the guest house was located in a wealthy part of Tokyo because the guest house was originally built in a poor area and the wealth was created around it. That may be the case here as well. There is also a middle class and impoverished areas of town. In many countries it is a rarity these days to have a middle class so I was surprised to learn this.

The architecture here in Alexandria is Baroque Rococo and it is Italian. It is quite beautiful. Last night while walking to the Julian Calendar Christmas Eve Service I was struck by the beauty of the area we were walking in. The buildings were at least 100 years old and the moonlight lit things up in a manner that highlighted the trees, the palm trees and the Italian features of the buildings.

Christians are about 10% of the population in Egypt. In Alexandria itself of course there was a vibrant community of Jews beginning with the founding of the city in the 4th century B.C. When Israel declared herself a state in 1948 the vast majority of Jews made the decision to leave the city and immigrate to Israel. It is believed that they felt there might be a better life, aka as higher wages, in Israel than in Egypt. Egypt does have an employment rate of about 35% which may make the case for a better life in Israel a strong one.

There is a large Sudanese community here in Alexandria. Some of the Sudanese have official refugee status and thus have financial support and other services. The ones who could not gain that status and chose to come to Egypt anyhow are here struggling. With a 35% unemployment rate no one from outside of Egypt is allowed to work here.

Thanks to Alexander the Great coming from Greece, Greek was the language spoken in Egypt until the Islamic invasion in the 600's. It is now Arabic. Greek spread out from Alexandria to become the lingua franca in the Middle East during New Testament times and contributed mightily to the spread of Christianity in the Roman Empire.

Whenever a church is built a mosque is built facing it. It is said that this way the two religions are hugging each other.

The last thing I will address here is what someone told me about the culture. There was a mix up with the tour agency and tour guide who showed me the city this week. I mentioned to someone that it would have been courteous for the company to let me know that things have changed. He said that in this culture that would not have been considered. My response was that while I understand the need to adapt to new cultures, if a company is working with foreigners it is important to understand the culture of the foreigner and respect it. For me it was anxiety producing to get into a car with two strange men to whom I had had no introduction in order to go on a guided tour. If someone had let me know that circumstances had changed before the men arrived at the compound I am staying at I would have felt more assured in going with them.

In some ways this is a similar issue to wrestling over, what is mine to point out in another culture that in harmful? Or, how do I lead others to see the harm in what they are doing to another person?

Sunday, January 2, 2011


Dear Friends,
Greetings! Blogging is not blocked in Egypt so I am back, at least temporarily.

I am here in Egypt for a two week stay and I am just over half way through that time. There have been many thoughts and emotions that I have experienced this past week. When I think geographically about going from Ethiopia to Sudan to Egypt I realize the incredible diversity in people groups and climates on this African Continent.

Ethiopians, while African, are not the very black Africans of Southern Sudan. And neither the Sudanese or the Ethiopians are the Arabs or North Sudan or Egypt. Ethiopia and Sudan both have many African tribes such as the Anuak in Ethiopia and the Nuer in Sudan. In Egypt I find only the Arabs.

It is very clear to me having been here in Egypt for only a week so far that the Egyptians totally identify with the Middle East. Egyptians are Arab and not African by ethnicity. At the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo the seminary was very much geared to cooperative work with the Middle East, with other Arab countries. While there was at least one Sudanese student there is was clear that the seminary does not feel connected to Africa in the same way as the Middle East. I am coming to see the cultural bridges more clearly. Egypt is a bridge between Africa and the Middle East much the same way that Turkey (and to a lesser extent Russia) is a bridge between Europe and Asia; Saudi Arabia is a bridge between the Middle East and Asia.

I am now comprehending that while the Arabian Penninsula is not a continent in its own right it is certainly the Middle East and Arabic and is considered to be a part of Asia. On the other hand when I examine early Christianity I am aware that the strip of land which fronts the Mediteranian Sea (including Israel/Palestine and Syria and Lebanon) as well as Greece (Athens) and Italy (Rome) in Europe and Northern Africa (Egypt and Ethiopia) are all a part of the Biblical witness for Christians.

Part of my desire to come to Alexandria in Egypt, where I currently am sitting and typing in this blog, stems from the class I taught at the Nile Theological College in Khartoum, Sudan, just about a year ago. The class was on New Testament Background. I realized then that Alexander the Great had swept down from Greece in 400 B.C. and, among other accomplishments, had built this ancient city of Alexandria. In Alexandria was born a great hub of Jewish culture, language and literature. From Alexandria the spread of Koine Greek created the lingua franca of New Testament Times. Between the culture and language of Greece and the military might and the roads of the later Roman Empire, God had put in place over a number of centuries the means to spread the Good News, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I have desired to see this place and walk in its streets since I renewed my learning about this period of time which led up to the spread of Christianity in Europe, Asia and Africa.

In seminary I learned about Alexandria and at the same time my thoughts were distracted by a multitude of other things which I was learning. The Greek culture that Alexander the Great brought with him from Greece was modified by the existing Semantic culture of Palestine and the surrounding cultures such as Persian. This modification came to be known as Hellenistic. Hellenistic then was what happened when Greek culture came into the ancient cultures between Greece and Egypt. In Alexandria the Jewish community came to read and speak Greek to the point that Hebrew was no longer in use for reading the Bible. Thus the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek and became the Bible for the first Christians as well as for the Jews. As the Christian Scriptures were written in Greek they were added on to the First Testament to make the Christian Bible which consists of the First and Second Testaments. Because of the Roman system of roads the early Christian missionaries were able to take the Gospel to Europe and Africa as well as to every part of Asia Minor. The Christian faith became the religion of the Roman Empire by the 4th Century A.D., under the Emperor Constantine. Alexandria had much to do with the reasons for the spread and the acceptance of Christianity in the ancient world.

While I was in Cairo I saw the Pyramids of Giza. I was able to take a leisurely boat road on the Nile River. Despite the fact that in Khartoum I live near the Nile River and cross it nearly every week I have never been on a boat road in it. I was able to see the first mosque that was built in Cairo in the 7th century by the Muslim who founded Cairo. Then I was able to see the Coptic churches in the Old City of Cairo. This included the church which is built on the sight where it is believed that the Holy Family stayed in Egypt after the birth of Jesus.

Europe is old and has great history. In Rome and Athens I saw ruins which stretched far beyond the first century A.D. Here in Egypt there is history dating back millenium before the birth of Jesus. I have a heightened awareness of the work of the Triune God of Christianity in human history long before Jesus was born in Bethlehem. There are such roots and there is such tradition. These things are capable of imprisoning the Gospel in such a way that it can no longer reach out to people. These things are also capable of keeping the Gospel alive and growing when people do not try to capture it for themselves.