Sunday, June 26, 2022

Egypt -- Jim & Donna's Excellent Adventures, Pt. 16, Valley of the Kings


    For our last day of visiting tourist sites we drove out to the Valley of the Kings. Fun fact: all of the ancient burial sites are on the west side of the Nile, to accommodate someone [understood to be the Pharoah or his queen or someone from his court] in his journey to the afterlife. The east side of the Nile was for the living. We know a great deal about ancient Egypt from burial sites because those can be and have been excavated, but we know far less about ordinary Egyptian life because the living used, demolished, and rebuilt in the land of the living. 

That's a fairly rough version, I know, but it is a useful starting point.

Nagy had told us to meet in the hotel restaurant for breakfast at 8, which we did, being compliant folks by nature. The most notable thing about this breakfast was hibiscus juice, which is a deep red color and not sweet. We ate, drank our coffee, compared notes with the others on our team while we waited for Nagy to show up, which he did about 8:45. Tourists were already baking in the sun around the outdoor pool just beyond the glass wall. Temperatures during our days in Cairo were in the low 90s. Here they were in the low 100s.

    In Luxor we had both a new driver and a new tour guide, Jacob. Jacob, an accomplished guitarist on the worship team where his good friend Jimi is pastor, taught himself English and Mandarin Chinese in order to obtain certification as a tour guide. His English is clear and accomplished. Here he is waiting with Danil and the rest of our team for instructions to board the van.

    The Valley of the Kings is about as dry and desolate as Giza, where the Great Pyramids stand, only here one is among mountains consisting entirely of rock and sand. The tombs are located on both sides of a fairly large ravine (the Valley), and there are many of them. Some have not yet been excavated.

    Our tickets allowed us to visit three tombs of our choosing. Jacob suggested which of the tombs we might like the most, so we followed his advice. As is often the case in sites like this, unschooled visitors can only take in just so much, so three tombs was certainly sufficient for a first visit.

    In Giza it was the overwhelming presence of the Pyramids that literally impressed itself on us as we drew close. In the Valley of the Kings it's all about the detail. 

    Everywhere -- floors, ceilings, walls, insets and recesses, the surface of every object -- these tombs are covered with some kind of art work: hieroglyphics, figures in relief, paintings, picture stories. And every detail was designed to carry meaning. As with the pyramids everything suggests enormous labor; but here above and beyond the engineering brilliance and the brute force necessary for digging and hauling stone, labor is of a different sort.

    Excavated entryways to the tombs, now lighted and in some places lined with plexi-glass to keep hands from rubbing the carved surfaces reveal a need to cover all available space with something. 

Any blank areas on the face of walls and ceilings indicate something has crumbled or deteriorated beyond repair in the thousands of years since their creation. Or something had been damaged by tomb robbers. The total absence of ground water due to the total absence of rain, of course, is the biggest factor in preserving these tombs. The restoration process has simply filled in the missing areas with some kind of plaster rather than rebuilding what is missing.

The plexiglass is approximately six feet high, to give you some sense of scale. These are not openings anyone has to crawl through; and for those interested in hieroglyphics the walls are an endless source of astonishment and wonder.

   Additionally, in most areas the colors remain vivid and true. Scarabs, pictured twice here, are quite common in ancient artwork. Commonly known as dung beetles, these scarab beetles are associated with the sun god Ra. We often see them depicted as pushing the sun across the sky in the same way that they push huge balls of dung along the ground in everyday life.

They were thought to bring or to ensure good luck.
 While I tend to be quite squeemish about closed-in spaces, particularly underground spaces, I was fine with these tunnels. Part of it was the size of the hallways themselves. Part, too, was that the tomb tunnels are reasonably cool. Oddly, the only place during our entire visit that I had to stop for a moment to catch my breath was coming up out of one of these tombs in which the ramp was particularly long and steep.

When we got out, the sun was still burning brightly in the sky, and it was still 102 degrees. And it was time to move on.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Egypt -- Jim & Donna's Excellent Adventures, Pt.15

     If the names Cairo and Asyut sound like names with ties to antiquity, Luxor sounds like royalty. Ancient royalty perhaps, but royalty nonetheless. Everywhere one turns there are reminders -- this is not just a very old place with lots of things to see and ponder,  it is a place with one foot in the modern world and one foot firmly in the unimaginable past.


  We had a 4 p.m. lunch at the Swordfish Restaurant, which seemed oddly named even for a "fish restaurant" given that the principle body of water close at hand was the Nile. It was visible from our hotel window, with the barren hills of the Valley of the Kings rising above the green flood plain.

   Memorably for me, the only part of that lunch I recorded was this little fellow in the photo below with the big eyes. The prawn in the soup.   

After lunch we had a meeting with local pastors, many of whom had traveled considerable distance into Luxor to meet us. At the end of our time together we took photographs. Pastor Milad, of the big smile and contagious laugh, has been appointed to be the next pastor of the new Badr City church, which we visited early on. He will be taking on that new work after 18 years at his present location near Luxor. 

  The other pastors gathered for our meeting include Pastor Tata, Pastor Aram, Pastor David, and Pastor Jimi. I have names and details in my notebook but sadly I cannot connect the names with the faces in the photographs. I'll keep working on that.) Except, of course, our tour maestro, Nagy, in the striped shirt. And Pastor Jimi (or Jimmy, without the clerical collar) whose church we would visit later that evening.

    All of these pastors have families who are either young or grown and beginning careers, all have extensive work going on in their communities and towns, and all have ongoing work with their congregations and/or buildings that need creativity and attention.

    After our meeting we were driven to Pastor Jimi's church, which we learned is not officially recognized by the government as a church because it does not have its own  building. Government regulations are complicated. The congregation rents space in the basement of a building situated next door to the National Heritage Museum just off of the newly  excavated and restored Avenue of the Sphinxes. Here one literally finds the ancient culture right outside the door!

    We attended a worship service there that night, which was again an uplifting experience. After the service we met Jacob, the worship team's guitarist, whose day job, it turns out, is as tour guide. He would be leading our sojourn into the Valley of the Kings in the morning. Then, after another late night, we returned to the hotel. The streets of Luxor resemble the streets of Asyut and Cairo but, somehow, without the same chaos of traffic and shop clutter spilling out past the curbs -- as one might expect of a royal city.

[Night view of the Avenue of the Sphinxes]

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Egypt -- Jim & Donna's Excellent Adventures, Pt.14

     We were given a 6:30 a.m. departure time, so after falling into bed at 1 a.m. we rose at 5, packed our bags, and hauled them out to the lobby to wait for Nagy. He arrived soon after with the news that the train would be two hours late, so we might as well have breakfast at our leisure. 

      This exercise bore similarities to the hurry-up-and-wait drills I remember from ROTC when I was in college -- but soon enough we loaded onto the van for our last police-escorted race to the train station nearby.

    I love trains. I know they can be slow, crowded, hot, and uncomfortable; but as an observing and learning opportunity they are hard to beat. They tend to have big windows and they afford opportunity to see parts of towns, cities, and countryside that are otherwise easy to miss.

     Under the right train conditions I can give my curiosities free reign. I am interested in landscape, always, and in the raw edges of human habitation exposed alongside tracks. The question is whether I am quick enough to catch what I see in a clear photograph.


     Most of the others used the travel time to sleep, which I am not usually able to do because there is so much going on outside the windows. Matt spent quite a bit of time writing in his journal, but I just made occasional notes. I found it hard to write on the train due to rocking and bouncing. 

    On the other hand, here and there I was privileged to see glimpses of a way of life outside of the big cities. Railroad crossings, for example, are full of new information for the visitor. The yellow, three-wheeled vehicles are a common form of public conveyance -- taxis, if you will. And, of course, always people on foot. 


    As they do in Asia, farmers made use of pieces of land alongside the tracks that might otherwise remain unused. Even the narrow strips between the tracks and the canal can be cultivated.

    Let me make several observations about these fields. First, they are commonly squared off. If it can be squared off, it is. My first thought was that the squaring was to provide a way to measure, to plan, to control the allotment of ground to crops.

    Further observation allowed me to see that the earthen ridges used for squaring allowed farmers to flood one square while leaving the next one dry, thus providing water at crucial times to the growing crops. This had the added benefit of allowing farmers to rotate fields so that one field or another would always be ready to harvest.

    Canals fed by the Nile provide a steady supply of water for irrigation in a land with no rainfall. 

    While I did see a tractor once or twice and a gas powered pump flooding one field, most of the farming appeared to be done with donkeys and by hand, sometimes by whole families out on the fields.




    Villages, too, would naturally grow up along the water's edge. The boat here is a ferry for crossing where there is no bridge. A line of some sort has been stretched across the canal and the ferry man pulls the boat from one side to the other. Twice I spotted fishermen in their boats but was not quick enough with my camera to get a photo.

As we slowed for town between Asyut and Luxor we saw a great deal of construction, buildings going up between or near completed apartment buildings.


    From time to time, housing for people and housing for farm animals such as donkeys existed side by side in the growing towns. We know these building are still under construction from the bristling rebar rising from nearly every rooftop.

While traditional agriculture appeared to be alive and well, small improvements have made the work easier. Here a donkey pulls a wagon that is outfitted with car tires, which no doubt make both the pulling easier and the ride a bit more comfortable.

    When in mid-afternoon we pulled into Luxor, the great city of antiquities and treasures, the first thing that I saw was this church dome with a cross. As I usually am, I was glad I stayed awake for the sights along the way. What an interesting journey!

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

Egypt -- Jim & Donna's Excellent Adventures, Pt.13

     Like Moses, we came down from the mountain, rode back into Asyut with our police escort, and had lunch across the street from our hotel boat at a place called "Cook Now." I did not realize at the time, but next to Cook Now were government buildings with a very heavy police presence that included a fixed machine gun mounted on the bed of a pick-up parked just outside the gate. A sign of the times, I suppose. And no pictures, of course.


    At Cook Now we had kabob with flat breads and French fries, although I am not sure "French fries" is what french fries are called in Egypt. Then over to the floating hotel for an hour to rest and dress for the evening service. 

    While we were resting in our room, I heard children's voices nearby and discovered a little boy and little girl riding in the back of a row boat right outside our window. A man was rowing past our boat against the current. His oars were large and square, unlike the round oars we are familiar with. After a bit, he reappeared, rowing out in the middle of the river, which was also carrying back the way he came. When he had gone far enough down-river, he turned the boat into the current again and rowed back well upriver before again turning toward shore. By doing this repeatedly, he was making his way across without losing sight of his landing point on the other side.


    At 6 or so we headed for Pastor Kamal's church for a service with the youth at 7. We
arrived a little early, so Pastor Kamal showed us around. The church needs repairs but we were told government regulations required the third floor be roofed over before renovations could begin on other parts of the building.


    There were several rooms on the second floor that would clearly be too small for a growing church and the building itself lacked "facilities."

     We all had opportunity to speak during this "youth" service after a considerable time of singing that followed the pattern we were now familiar with.

    The youth service seemed to have the usual mix of old and young and middle aged folks, so we were not certain what distinguished it as a youth service.

Donna spoke about her mother's faith, which was expressed as a natural part of her being, of the way she thought and acted.

I spoke about "surprises" in my Christian life -- from surprising our pastor by answering an altar call when I was seven to finding myself in Egypt speaking to a church of believers as a old(er) man.

And Danil gave a testimony as well. As a Haitian, he found he loved the heat and the rice that was served frequently at meals.

   One of the things I will carry with me from this and other worship services were women ululating during specific songs. It was both surprising to our unfamiliar ears, but also thrilling.

    After service we went upstairs to Pastor Kamal's house for pizza! We brought out gifts we had brought on the trip, including some calligraphied Bible verses contributed by Donnie Stockin that looked nice on an end table. Pastor Kamal's oldest daughter took a group photo for us to remember the occasion by.

We arrived back on the boat about 1 a.m., with instructions to be ready to go at 6:30 in the morning in order to make the train to Luxor. The night was short, but we did in fact sleep like rocks.


Egypt -- Jim & Donna's Excellent Adventures, Pt.12

    In all the years I spent in Sunday School growing up, paying rapt attention to my hard-working teachers, I never remember the question of what Jesus and his parents actually did in Egypt during their brief exile to escape Herod's angry response to the quiet departure of the Wise Men. Matthew is the only Gospel writer to tell the story, and his account is a mere six verses.

    Tradition, on the other hand, clearly treasured in Egypt, can provide many details and a number of revered sites. One is just outside of Asyut. The Virgin Mary Monastery in Dronka is built into a cave on the side of a mountain outside of Asyut. The cave is the most southern point the Holy Family is believed to have lived during their exile. It is a seriously long hike if one is traveling by foot and donkey.


    How much of this traditional narrative is factual as we think of it is impossible to say, but it is held to be authentic by the Coptic Church. Pilgrims come here as they would to any site regarded as holy. Many will stay for retreats as well as to worship at this place, so new facilities are being constructed to accommodate them.




    The cave itself is huge, not at all the kind of cave one might imagine for spelunking that would require a headlamp and belly crawls. My photographs are not very clear but this one will provide a sense of scale and modern amenities -- electric lights, paved floors, walls to restrain those who would travel into dangerous spaces, pews and an altar for worship services.

    One of the most interesting features for me were the stylized painting of the Holy Family depicting them at various points on their journey. The one below shows Mary and Jesus riding a donkey with Joseph walking with the Nile in the background. There is a sailing craft in the background, which suggests river travel as an alternative to travel by foot and is in fact thought to be their form of travel back home.

There were perhaps a dozen of these semi-circular painting around the room.

    The community below the Monastery at the foot of the mountain features traditional square structures of brick; and beyond that, in the flat valley, farmland. 

    Turning my attention just to the right of the square buildings and clearly a part of the Monastery complex is a domed chapel under construction. I always find construction materials and methods interesting, especially when they differ in significant ways from our own. In China it was the bamboo scaffolding that drew my attention. Here it is the ladder up over the central dome.

    Perhaps the most encouraging element of a visit like this is the presence of crosses atop churches. Christians have been a continuing presence in Egypt longer than they have anywhere else on earth. Certainly longer than the church has been present in North America.

Now when I think about those six verses in Matthew that tell us about our Lord's "flight to Egypt," I will have some more specific idea about what that flight might have entailed.

Egypt -- Jim & Donna's Excellent Adventures, Pt. 11

 [Top photo: view of Nile from our room.]

     Since my first missions trip in 2004 to help the Wesleyan church in Vladimir, Russia, specifically to make contacts with local men through basketball, I have reflected often on the usefulness of my role in these situations. I mean, what would be useful to say for these circumstances.

    Both our Dads Team and our Boys Team had a lot of contact with members of the Russian teams we played, both on the court and over dinner. But as the Russians' handful of English words proved as limiting as my two or three badly pronounced Russian words, verbal communication proved difficult. We were given one opportunity, using a translator, to speak to a youth group. I don't remember what I said, but I was uncomfortable about it. What I do remember were the "tuned-out" looks on the faces of the teens. I felt badly about what seemed a wasted opportunity.

    Now, as the saying goes, I am older and, I hope, just a bit wiser. I listen better. I pay attention. I do not imagine I always have good advice to offer. 

    We met with a group of pastors after breakfast on Tuesday morning, our one day in Asyut. We pulled some chairs into a circle in the large common room on the boat where we had just eaten breakfast. Pastor Kamal asked us to introduce ourselves and perhaps to share a bit while he translated. One by one we explained who we were and why our church we had sent us to Egypt.

     Four pastors in addition to Pastor Kamal introduced themselves and explained both their ministries and their vision for future ministry opportunities.

    I won't attempt to render names or church locations since what I heard and noted in my notebook does not clearly coincide with actual places, except for the desire of one pastor to build a church in New Asyut. "New" Asyut is a bit like Badr City in that it is one of the entirely new cities the Egyptian Government is building. This pastor hopes to build a new church near the new university that is under construction there. That said, when I did a  "google map" search for New Asyut City, all that came up was a rendering of a hi-way and an empty spot in the desert about a half hour to the west of Asyut.

    Other pastors we heard from are facing the same rebuild, remodel, replace issues that prompted the Nekheila Church to tear down and replace their nearly 100 year-old structure. While these are clearly "needs," most of what we heard were also what we might call "good problems" in that the churches are growing and the Christian fellowships are multi-generational. The pastors are looking to the future in terms of the present rather than in some way clinging to the past. 

    When our time together ended with prayer, the pastors, some of whom had traveled several hours to greet us, remained to have their own discussions. Our team left for a visit to the Virgin Mary Monastery in Dronka. We felt good about our interactions -- what we had learned and how our understanding of the Church in Egypt has been enlarged.

 [Below: a view of town from our hotel boat.]

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Egypt -- Jim & Donna's Excellent Adventures, Pt.10














    The Nekheila Church in Asyut is the oldest Wesleyan Standard Church in Egypt. It was established a little over 100 years ago by the Standard Church of Canada, which merged with the Wesleyan Church some time later. It was the Centennial of the establishment of this church in Asyut that we were originally asked to attend as representatives of Houghton Wesleyan Church. The appearance of Covid-19 on the world stage, of course, delayed the celebration, and then the Omicron variant prevented us from traveling when the official celebration went ahead last December.

    Please note from these pictures that the facilities look newer than 100. That is because the original building was torn down and replaced with a modern facility just prior to its Centennial. Government regulations would have prevented this congregation from replacing or extensively renovating the old church building once it reached 100 years, and the old structure was inadequate. 

    The platform area and the floor is constructed of several varieties of domestic stone, quarried just a bit further south in Egypt. Stone is generally a cooler and more durable building material than other, perhaps more traditional, building materials.

    In these photographs, our teammate Chandra is giving a testimony and her husband, Matt, is preaching. Pastor Kamal, Superintendent of the Egyptian District of the Wesleyan Church is translating, as he did in Badr City and at his own church the night following.

    You may also note the keyboard/synthesizer that was expertly used by a worship leader in all services we attended. Fans, like the one pictured near Chandra's head, kept air circulating, and screens on both sides of the platform projected words to the songs we were singing. As the worship leader shifted from one song to another, a young woman at a computer located the song file and kept pace with the verses as needed.


    Usually, too, the worship band included a guitarist and a drummer using a small electronic kit.

    As I have stated elsewhere, I was constantly amazed at how uplifting these times of worship were despite our inability to comprehend Arabic. We experienced the same sense of fellowship and presence of the Holy Spirit we had felt in Korea where the language barrier for us was absolute.

    Here, too, the music was loud, but it did have the benefit of drowning out noise from the outdoor PA system that crackled to life to irritate and compete with the worship service.

    At the conclusion of the service we were led to the door, where we shook hands with nearly everyone in attendance. We were told "welcome" or "thank you for coming" even from the most timid. Several of the children circled back to shake our hands twice.

The man in the tie is Pastor Bashir. Following the service we were taken upstairs to his home for dinner and to meet his family.  His wife, Iness, was "great with child" so we felt badly that she and her daughters had had to host North American visitors who, having eaten at 4:30 that afternoon, were not all that hungry at 9:30.

    Pastor Bashir's oldest son, the worship leader, spoke excellent English. He expressed gratitude that we were able to attend the service, noting especially our participation in the worship songs he was leading.

    As had become our routine we headed back quite late to our rooms. We were escorted around Asyut by a police car, which we had thought would end once we arrived in the city. Driving rapidly through the streets of Asyut reminded me of late night driving in China, shifting from side to side, finding openings, avoiding various small vehicles, families on scooters, farmers on wagons or tractors, VW bus-taxi vans. But for the flashing lights and the siren we might not have noticed the differences.

    Then we found our boat on the Nile, our room, and immediate undisturbed sleep.