People often ask Cynthia and I if we feel safe living in Egypt. This question is obviously as result of the frequent news reports of ongoing conflicts in the Middle East including isolated incidents (like shootings and bombings) in parts of Egypt. These do occur, but typically in areas of the country like the ‘western desert’ near Libya or the upper Sinai in the eastern part of the country. Of course, good old common sense tells us to stay away from these high-risk areas. The answer to the question is “yes, we do feel safe”. Coming from Canada one might initially feel a little nervous about the number of heavily armed military personnel at strategic points around the city or the tanks that that flank the highway on our way to work. After 6 weeks of going about our daily routines we hardly notice this presence and realize the military is there for the safety and security of the citizens of Cairo (and guests like us). We have to trust that they are good at their jobs! The reality is that the risk level is higher here than in Chilliwack but we have yet to feel uncomfortable or in danger. We have found that, overall, Egyptians are very friendly, welcoming, helpful and a lot of fun, even on occasions when we have very few vocabulary words in common.
As our ‘faith in the context of safety’ in Cairo has become stronger our ‘bubble’ has expanded outward from the comfort of our apartment and Road 233 neighbourhood. Both Cynthia and I now frequently walk and explore all areas of Maadi. As a matter of fact, on days that I am working Cynthia travels by foot to different stores that specialize in specific food products and, in many cases, has developed relationships with the vendors, often calling them by name (just as she would in Chilliwack). She is learning basic Arabic phrases and can now count to 10 in Arabic which is beneficial when doing her shopping ‘transactions’. She is much farther ahead in Arabic language development than I am!
A couple of Fridays ago Cynthia and I decided to be bold and took, which was for us at the time, a big leap of faith. Cynthia and Jenn had previously toured parts of Central Cairo with the help of a reputable guide and driver and one of the areas that they found particularly interesting was Coptic Cairo. At the end of the day the guide told them that if they took the train from Maadi they could reach Coptic Cairo in less than 10 minutes and it would only cost 2LE (just cents) for a return trip. We were looking for somewhere to explore that day and it was Cynthia’s suggestion that we try the train. At the station we easily bought our tickets, figured out how to get through the electron turnstiles, found our way across the tracks to the right platform before reaching what looked to be our first hurdle. The signs indicated that there were separate train cars for men and women. Panic! What if we got separated or got off at different stations by mistake? What if … What if …
After the initial panic we realized that those separate cars were ‘available’, but not mandatory for women. We would be able to travel together after all and, once we arrived at Mar Girgis Station Cynthia became the tour guide, navigating the maze of narrow streets and alleyways and describing and explaining the history of the religious buildings of Coptic Cairo.
Coptic Cairo, as other places in this part of the world, is where the faiths of Christianity, Judaism and Islam have been majorly intertwined throughout history. It is impossible in a blog to outline the complex history of this piece of ancient real estate near the banks of the Nile but the following is my ‘Readers Digest mini summary’ which is basically paraphrases of a couple of websites (for details I suggest that you put you search engines to work).
Coptic Cairo is the oldest settlement in the area going back to the 6th century BC when the Persians built a fort on the Nile and called it Babylon (named after the city of the same name on the Euphrates). Later, the Romans came along and did such a good job at building a fortress at the site that some of the walls still exist today. As time progressed, approximately 20 Christian churches were built on the one square mile site, as was the first mosque to be built in Egypt. It is said that Joseph, Mary and Jesus sought refuge here during the three years that they fled from Judea and King Herod. Next, with the fall of Jerusalem in about 70 AD there was an influx of people of the Jewish faith and consequently the earliest synagogue was built. Even after the Islamic era began in Egypt the Coptics continued to build churches on this site.
Our day in Coptic Cairo was one when the temperatures were edging upward towards 40 degrees so there was a constant flow of perspiration. The discomfort however, was well worth it as we visited such places as the Greek Church of St. George, the Hanging Church, the Church of the Virgin Mary, the church of St. Sergius and St. Bacchus and the Ben Ezra Synagogue.
This will definitely be a ‘do again’ when the mercury is lower and the lighting for photography is earlier in the day.