Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Cave Churches in Cairo

Greetings! We are coming to the celebration of Holy Week in Egypt (using the Eastern Christian calendar), and you will soon be remembering the Ascension of our Lord in your churches. With a visiting professor in Hebrew, I journeyed last week to an outlying area of Cairo where mostly Christians live. As we inched our ways through narrow streets, lined with large bags of garbage and trash, pungeant aromas filled the air. (Christians have performed the job of collecting garbage for a long time, and here the garbage and trash is sorted and recycling work takes place.) But then we came to a hillside beyond the village, and to an area where the Coptic Church was permiited to develop a worship center (about 20 years ago), and this is what we saw. Because of the mostly dry climate in Egypt and the high cost of erecting buildings, the Coptic church has constructed an outdoor, ampitheatre church facility, where the entrance to a cave has been transformed into the chancel and altar area. (You can see a little of the celebrating bishop in the white robe with his back to us at the entrance to the inner cave).

The entire area seves as a gathering place for Coptic people. Here, visible signs tell the Good News of Jesus, where in the public spaces of Cairo this would not be possible. Reliefs have been carved into the hillsides and there are chapels devoted to St. Anthony (the father of Egyptian monasticism) and other holy men. The picture to the left shows a small chapel dedicated to the Ascension depicted in a mosaic on the dome. On the hillside behind is the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem which has the inscription underneath: "Blessed is he who comes....Jesus, command your disciples to be silent....if so, then the stones themselves would cry out!" There is an irony here - in this place where Christians can "display" their message openly - that the stones are called upon to help proclaim the Lord's coming.

This Sunday was set aside for baptisms and about 100 families had come to have their children become part of Christ's Church. One mother proudly held up her son (and hid behind him?) asking me to take a picture. Two things are interesting in this. You would normally not see women in public dressed in bright colors and without veils. But here in this worship center this is possible. Second, you would not normally see a display of the cross in public, but again since this is an area set aside for Christians to gather it is possible. One sign of the vitality of the Coptic Christian Church in Egypt. More on the practice of infant baptism and the impact of the "evangelicals" from the United States in a later blog. Peace and Justice, Roger

(I have formally signed on for another year at the seminary. Will be in the Los Angeles area late June through late July if you would like me to speak at your church. Contact me at

1 comment:

ErinOrtlund said...

Fun to find your blog! It's great to hear about your experiences in Egypt. We were with the Kennedys in Edinburgh, and now my husband is teaching in Canada. We are very interested in the seminary in Cairo and are always eager to learn more about it.

Erin Ortlund