By: Brandon Dirks
Day 13/14 (Saturday/Sunday): Pyramids, Sphinx, Egypt Museum, Muhammad Ali Mosque
Traveling from Cairo to Louisville is quite an expedition. Three legs, three continents. But it gives me time to reflect. I spent Valentine’s Day half a world away from my Valentine, and I am finding I miss her terribly. Although I have had an Experience and experiences that will forever mature within me, I realize now that I would never be here (‘here’ in Israel and Egypt, as well as ‘here’ in my faith) without her. She has taught me what humility, forgiveness, trust, sacrificial love, and obedient faith really looks like on an everyday basis. I thank God for her every day. For none of what I’ve learned and how I’ve grown could have been possible without her. Thank you, Katie. I love you!
The last couple of days has been a whir of Egyptian history, but also a religious education that I really could not have gotten any other way. (click here for my Egypt photos in a previous post)
The Pyramids are no joke! Those things are everything I ever imagined they would be and better! Did you know there are 108 pyramids? There are no words to explain the feeling I got when I touched the oldest stone structure in human history – Pyramid Zoser was built 4,800 HUNDRED years ago! Then, I stood on the largest one! The Great Pyramid of Khufu stands over 500 feet tall and has over 3 million stones, weighing on average 2.5 tons EACH! I climbed down into a tomb and felt the ‘weight’ of the pyramid above me! I watched handmade rugs being made the same way for centuries. I observed how papyrus paper was made, and why it is still around. I learned how the ancient Egyptians developed a concept of the afterlife, and how that may have influenced Judaism (and eventually Christianity). I worshiped in a “cavern church” below St. Sergius Coptic Church, a place they believe the Holy Family stayed while they were on the run from King Herod just after Jesus’ birth. I saw the treasures of King Tut, the ONLY pyramid EVER to be found with its treasures intact (we were not allowed to take pictures…but trust me…mind-blowing!) I stood before the Sphinx and imagined what 4600 years of rulers and dignitaries must have thought when they saw it – people from Abraham, Joseph, Moses, baby Jesus, and even Napoleon! They all probably had the same feeling I had! AWE-SOME!
Coming from the Mountain of God a few days ago (Mt. Sinai) to the mountains of Man (pyramids) was quite a shock to me. I learned that we are all linked together, more than most of us would like to admit. What it all means will slowly become clear to me over the coming weeks and months, but one seemingly small, tiny moment opened my eyes to how it might come together.
Visiting the Citadel built by Saladin in the 12th century gave me the opportunity to visit my very first mosque – the Muhammad Ali Mosque built in 1831. This gigantic mosque is also known as the Alabaster mosque due to alabaster being a principle stone used in its construction. Upon entering, I realized I was in a holy place. There are no pews, only carpets everywhere, and it was not hard to imagine hundreds (maybe thousands) of devout Muslims on their knees praying.
Osama, our guide who studied Egyptology at university, began to explain what goes on in a typical service: men and women are separate so as not to distract one another. Koran reading. Preaching. Prayers. No music. Then I realized something astounding – there is a group of 40 Christians gathered in a Muslim mosque, in a country filled with 90% Muslims in a part of the world where seemingly great tensions exists between two great religions! The weight of it hit me hard.
Osama explained the five pillars of Islam; the sources of Islam (Koran, and the Sayings of Muhammad); background on the prophet Muhammad from 6th century; how early Muslims were persecuted by other Arabs, and how it eventually spread throughout the world where today there are 1.2 billion Muslims. All these facts I already knew, but somehow they took on a deeper meaning, and new life hearing it from Osama, in this place, in this country.
His voice changed a little as he began to talk about how the Virgin Mary is revered in Islam and in the Koran, and how Jesus is deeply respected as a prophet. He explained the Muslims’ hope of an afterlife that reminds me of many conversations I’ve had with Christians with some similar hopes.
Then, he got personal, as he began to answer the question that is on everyone’s mind: How does he see the tension in the world between Muslims and Christians? His voiced cracked just a little when he said, “I am a Muslim.”
We had no idea he was a Muslim! For several days he was relating what we were seeing back to the Bible, to Abraham, Joseph, even Jesus. He was so knowledgeable about the Christian faith, I assumed Educational Opportunities Tour company hired a Christian guide to lead this group of Christians. Thank God they did not!
My mouth dropped open as I heard him talk about his faith. His faith. He was sharing HIS faith with US! He did not try to convert us, only to help us understand his faith and why he shares it – he simply wants people to know his deep love for Egypt, for God, and Islam.
Still in the mosque, he passionately explains that the terror acts going on around the world have NOTHING to do with religion! Shocked, I listened closely as he showed us that the Koran does not teach violence. In fact, he says that the Koran teaches that one ONLY defends oneself as a LAST resort. He explained Jihad simply means, “Holy War” and the Christians coined that phrase during the Crusades. But to Muslims, Jihad is really an inner “spiritual war” against one’s own internal, selfish desires (This is a concept that EVERY faithful Christian should completely understand!).
Then the clincher: with a bit more emotion, he said that these groups who are doing these terror acts are doing it for different reasons other than religion. He says most Muslims think they are crazy and weird. And he is deeply saddened because “cousins” are being hurt by a few selfish people and groups. He compared these groups to the mafia in the 1970’s. The members of the mafia were deeply religious Christians, attended mass regularly, and even gave alms to the poor. But the violence they did was NOT because their religion was telling them to do it. They were doing it for other reasons – power, politics, money, respect. Makes sense to me.
Reflecting on his story for the rest of the day, I began to look at Muslims not only as deeply religious and faithful people….but simply, people. The hospitality I received here, the deep need to connect with Christians and the rest of world, the genuine mutual respect for human life are all values that we share. But, I am committed to learning more. I will read the Koran. I will relate with the Muslim community. I will stand side by side with brave Muslims like Osama, and REFUSE to allow the media to tell me what our relationship should look like. I will pray for peace in Israel AND Egypt. I pray that God helps me to build my new Egyptian Muslim friends into new friendships in Louisville. After all, we are cousins, and call Abraham our forefather, and God our Father. We are not all that different.
What an education! From Israel to Egypt, from the birthplace of Judaism to the birthplace of Islam to the birthplace of Christianity. From Abraham journey’s, to Joseph’s journey, to Jesus’ journey, to Muhammad’s journey. This is the Holy Land because Jews, Muslims, and Christians all claim it as Holy, and yet I have only scratched the surface. I just have to wonder…is there a reason that God has brought these three religions to the same space? Maybe the conversation should not be so much about who is ‘right,’ but who is ‘God.’ On that…maybe there is more that we agree on, than what we disagree on.
Happy Valentine’s Day Katie. I am coming home to you today.