Old Cairo. This part of the city goes back almost 2,ooo years and is a very holy area. Here my group saw a synagogue, a few churches, and a mosque. All of them played a significant role in their religion’s history and they were all very beautiful.
Here are some examples:
~Ben Ezra, a synagogue, was built where baby Moses was supposedly found.
~The Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus (Abu Serga) is claimed to be the location where the Holy Family had lived during their flight to Egypt.
~The Mosque of Amr ibn al-As was the first Mosque in Egypt and point from which Islam was spread all throughout Africa began.
It’s so hard to imagine the layers of history and humanity that lived and worshiped in buildings that I just walked into with little knowledge of their significance. We would pile in, look around, take pictures if it was allowed (often it wasn’t), sit down, and then complain of the heat. This is one reason why I do not like being a tourist. It is deeply unsatisfying and seems shallow. I can marvel at carvings, ask questions, and touch things that have been around for ages, but never really experience the place for what it is. But of course, if given the chance, I will be that tourist, gleaning whatever snippets of a place that means/meant so much to people that I may never meet.
Fortunately, in the Mosque of Amr ibn al-As I was able to have a conversation about the mosque and Islam with a fellow AUC student who was a Muslim from Yemen. Our conversation started when I picked up a copy of the Qur’an in an attempt to read it. He walked over to me and told me what it was (though I already knew). “Okay, thanks!”, I said, then continued looking through the pages. When I was done, I looked towards the ceiling and noticed that there was something written in cursive Arabic on the lamps. I walked over to him and asked him what it said. He didn’t know, explaining that it was too small and in an old Arabic script. After that I began talking with him about other features of the mosque and its history. The Mosque of Amr ibn al-As once had a university and was also a place where the military was kept. Indeed, this was a not just a religious center, but also a military and political center set up by Amr ibn al-As (the founder of the mosque) as he set forth to spread Islam throughout Africa. I was told that he would conquer cities and give the residents the option to convert to Islam. If they didn’t then the only penalty they faced was a tax. They were treated respectfully regardless of their religion. When I asked if many people converted, he replied that they did since they could see the benefits and solidity of Islam and the benefits of its government. Since I have not studied Islamic history, I cannot attest to the validity of his statements. Conquerors write history, but people that feel threatened by an opposing ideology also spread their own rumors (e.g. some Christians). If anyone knows more about the spread of Islam, please feel free to share it with me.
To continue, I also asked him why women have to enter through a different door than the men. He replied that it is a matter of organization. The men pray in the front, the children file in behind the men, and the women are behind the children. By having the women enter the other door, it makes this process easier. (The segregation of the sexes is not limited to Islam. For example, in Ben Ezra, the women used to have to sit on the upper level. I would have liked to go up there, but it was not allowed.) When I asked him why men did not have to cover up as much as the women, he just shrugged apologetically and said that he didn’t know. He was apologetic because at this time I was wearing a green hooded robe and it was obvious that all of us girls were roasting. However it wasn’t too bad, I was just excited to be in a mosque and see what it was like. Plus, I really did not have much to complain about; he was fasting for Ramadan and had not been able to drink anything all day despite the terrible heat. We kept talking until it was time to leave the mosque and head back to the dorms. The rest of the day was pretty relaxed and I got to wander the neighborhoods more.
There is so much more I could write and want to write, but alas, that will have to wait for another time.
P.S. I’d like to give a shout out now to all the Muslims reading this who are fasting right now, I admire your devotion and I hope your experience is spiritually fulfilling.