People were out in the streets selling fruit at 4am on New Year’s Day.
It took me by surprise.
As did how Christian families wore red and gave each other gifts in their celebration of the New Year, rather than waiting a few days for Christmas on the 7th. Despite the Christian population of Egypt being just 10%, Santa was everywhere.
People were selling Santa hats on the streets
It was Christmas eve that was the big deal. With everyone bustling into church for a late night mass.
I spent Christmas day in Cairo’s antiquities museum, wandering quietly amongst the mummies. These were people who had believed themselves gods – kings in life and death. They were people who had worshipped the sun and the river. Their anamorphic gods enjoyed simple every day pleasures like measuring fields and writing (Seshat and Thoth respectively).
And these kings and their devoted subjects wrote love poetry that was simple and sweet.
The Flower Song (Excerpt)
To hear your voice is pomegranate wine to me:
I draw life from hearing it.
Could I see you with every glance,
It would be better for me
Than to eat or to drink.
Translated by M.V. Fox
The ancient gods blended together over time
They amalgamated from ‘Amun’ and ‘Re’ to ‘Amun-Re’ as time passed and needs changed.
It was a religion that both stood still through time – with Cleopatra performing rituals and using imagery of the Pyramid builders who had lived thousands of years before – and changed as the society integrated with its neighbours.
Every society has rules to guide you towards a good life
The book of life (or the book of death as it’s more accurately translated) told you what you shouldn’t do. It was a guide to leading your life in harmony with others. Don’t sleep with someone else’s wife. Don’t kill. Leave your neighbour’s donkey well alone.
In the Catholic church, I was told off for crossing my legs
I cross my legs out of habit. But in today’s Egyptian culture, it’s seen as insubordinate. And being defiant in front of Jesus and God, is not seen as good manners. To not cross my legs, in front of everyone who was higher up in the hierarchy by age or status, was a constant challenge.
I know the rules of my own culture, but in Egypt I was often taken by surprise.
In Cairo, they’d built one Orthodox church on top of another Orthodox church
They were separate but for a shared foyer and simultaneous services. A young woman ushered me into the women’s part of the upper church, she had been given my hand mere moments before by a mutual, male friend. The rest of the family I was with had disappeared into the lower church.
“You have a phone?”
“Be careful nobody steals it.”
They welcomed me in, and put me to use…
And when it came to communion I helped to clear the aisle of the extra chairs that had been brought out. We needed the chairs moved, because it was body against body in the great movement to be blessed. There might have been two churches, but the congregation could have filled four. Amid it all, I held tight to my phone and tried to take chairs from beneath the bottoms of elderly ladies.
Persuading someone who has difficulty standing, to stand is difficult at the best of times. And I don’t speak Arabic.
All these memories flooded back to me today
Little things, like the way people knelt in the street when the song for prayer started echoing around the city. The generosity of almost everyone I met. The kindness of Christian and Muslim alike – the sharing of tea and chocolate.
It made me, who has no religion, open my eyes. And when individuals commit atrocities, it’s important to remember that fear is not all that lives in these ancient lands.