Coptic Christmas: Day Three

Today we visited two “Holy Family Sites” near Maghagha.    For those who know the Bible story, you may remember that due to the threat of Herod’s soldiers coming to kill the babies under age 2 in Bethlehem, Joseph took his small family down to Egypt before returning to Nazareth.  From what I know and remember, the Bible doesn’t say much more than, “They went down to Egypt,” but here in Egypt, there is a whole route mapped out where Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, i.e. The Holy Family, went.  I am not sure where all the information comes from, but just about a month ago, I learned that Maadi, the town where we live in Egypt, was one of the Holy Family stops.  There is now a church built on the spot, right along the banks of the Nile.  In some ways, this reminds me of our visit to Jerusalem a few years ago where we walked along the Via Delarosa … the path Jesus took to the cross.  There is a lot of history and archeology that could map a basic route he walked, but there are also places along the way that seem impossible to believe, like the place where Jesus stumbled and fell and his hand print is embedded in the wall.  But, the Holy Family tour is one of the important Coptic things in Egypt, and since Maghagha is near two of these sites, we took the opportunity to visit.

Our gracious host, a priest in a village near Maghagha, was unable to go with us this morning, but he did provide a driver, and another priest, to accompany us.  Not only that, but we rode in the Bishop’s private van … complete with air conditioning and curtains on the windows.  We felt a little like secret service or something since no one could see in.  It was very clean and comfortable … at least before we started the trip.

Traveling to the first site, Dair al-Garnous, took about 40 minutes.  I had been prepared for Emma to get car sick because she sometimes does, and I warned her that if she started to feel sick, she should close her eyes and lay her head back.  After about 30 minutes, she said she wasn’t feeling good, so she actually laid down in the empty back seat.  Hannah laid on my lap most of the time, not sleeping exactly, but resting.   I should have taken that as a clue that she wasn’t feeling well, but I didn’t think of it.  With about ten minutes left in the trip, although we didn’t really know how much longer it would be, Hannah wanted to join Emma in the back.  I didn’t mention yet that the road we traveled on was sometimes just dirt, very bumpy, and required lots of stopping to let the donkey carts, people, or other animals pass by, so it wasn’t a very smooth ride.  I took Hannah back myself because I didn’t want her to fall over.  A couple minutes after getting to the back, Hannah lost her breakfast all over herself and me.  I quickly called for Jayson’s assistance and he got me the bag I had prepared for Emma.  It didn’t do too much good since Hannah didn’t give us the warning that Emma usually does, and my clothes and hers were pretty much a mess.  I sent Emma toward the front because I didn’t want her to get sick from the smell, and I would have liked to get out of there at that point too since my stomach wasn’t doing too well either from all the bumping around.  Jayson offered me his undershirt to wear under my sweater; fortunately I had taken off my sweater since it was warm in the van, so I could wear his undershirt under my still-clean sweater.  I had a change of clothes for Hannah since she is still being potty trained, so I took off her dirty clothes and let Jayson hold her in her dressed-down state while I changed and cleaned up.  All in all, we didn’t get too much in the van itself.

When we were about one minute away, Hannah and I were changed and Jayson was holding Emma when she said “bag.”  We quickly grabbed the bag Hannah had used and caught Emma’s breakfast.  Poor kids!  She managed to stay quite clean thanks to her forewarning, and Jayson did too.  Good thing as we didn’t have any more clothes to spare!  And with that, we arrived at the site, all four of us feeling a bit queasy, and glad to get out, walk around a bit in the fresh air.

This first site was actually the second of the two in order of Jesus’ visits.  Since it was Friday morning, the day of worship for most Egyptians, the church at the site was filled with children having Sunday school.

This place was interesting because it was in an entirely Christian village of about 12,000 people.  No Muslims live in this town.  The well where Jesus’ family drank from was locked up, but we saw it, and by the end of our time there, they found a key so Jayson could drink from it. 

We all drank some Sprite to settle our stomachs, and I visited the bathroom while Jayson and Emma climbed the steps to the top of the under-construction new church

so they could see the whole village.  Since this post has been graphic enough, I won’t share too many details of the bathroom.  It wasn’t the most pleasant experience, and they didn’t have anything but a hole in the ground, and I did think to myself while I was in there, “Oh boy, what a trip this has been,” but we made the best of it, and Hannah and I soon joined the other two at the top of the building.  I remember being glad that both girls lost their breakfast in the van, as I thought they might have trouble using the facilities if they needed them. 

The view was very interesting with lots of unique things on people’s roofs like pigeons, chickens and ducks, which people raise to sell.   The roofs here are flat so that allows for people to store things, or raise things on them until they may decide to add another floor to their existing building. 

The steeple of the evangelical church in town was not too far from this site. 

The one unique thing about what we saw from our view was that there were no mosques … a rare thing in Egypt.

But, as I said, this was an entirely Christian village, and we later found out that when a Muslim family wanted to move in, they were refused.

After looking around for a bit and taking some pictures, we climbed back into the van … somewhat hesitantly.  We knew the ride to the next place would also be bumpy, but we hoped for the best.  We all sat as close to the front as we could, and each held a daughter on our lap.  The girls took a short nap and Jayson and I kept our eyes closed as we rode to the next place.  Fortunately it didn’t take too long to get to Shineen al-Nasara, which means ‘garden of the Christians’ in the Coptic language, where the Holy Family had come directly from Maadi (our current town) and spent seven days before traveling on.  This was an interesting place for us to visit because this is where our host had been priest for about 20 years. They had a life-size manger scene set up and the girls enjoyed getting close to baby Jesus and the animals, cardboard, though they were. 

Then we entered the church where Jayson took pictures and the girls played “church,” and I just sat and rested.  The church was decorated with streamers and balloons for the holiday celebrations of New Years and Christmas.

It was an interesting look considering Coptic churches are filled with icons of Jesus, Mary, the apostles and other saints; the streamers and balloons didn’t quite fit in.  The church also houses a 500-year old baptismal, a small one, since it is for infants.

We couldn’t stay in the church too long since a funeral was about to take place.  Just 30 seconds after we exited, the wailing women came into the church followed by a group of men carrying a coffin high above their heads.  We went to a different building in the complex where they had two smaller churches, a guesthouse and a large reception room. 

We climbed to the roof to get a better view of the surrounding area and we could see the thirteen domes on top of the church—representing the twelve apostles, with a larger one representing Jesus. 

We climbed back down the steps and saw another well which the Holy Family drank from, and also the plaque on the wall with the names of the people who helped to build the building, our priest being one of them.

Then it was time to climb back in the van for our return trip to the priest’s house for lunch.  We had planned to visit a third site after lunch, but seeing what the long car rides did to the girls, and knowing they really needed afternoon naps, especially as we planned to go to someone else’s house for a 9:30pm dinner, we decided to split responsibilities and let Jayson visit the site while I stayed home and napped with the girls.  So Jayson may write about his visit in a later post.

The rest of the day was somewhat restful—after too big of a lunch, the girls and I, along with the priest’s wife, all took naps, while Jayson and the priest went to visit the site of a modern day saint, whose lowly dwelling place has now been transformed into a massive church as a place for local pilgrimage. It was a late nap for Emma and Hannah, but we figured a late night was coming up, and we were right.

Around 8:15pm, the priest and Jayson finally returned home to pick us up to take us a few blocks to one of his daughter’s houses.  She had visited us the night before and really wanted to meet the girls, but they were already in bed.  It worked out for our schedules to visit and have dinner with her and her husband on this night so we climbed 8 floors to their new apartment as they are still waiting for their elevator to be installed.  Everyone was quite concerned for me, being pregnant, but the steps didn’t bother me at all.  Even Emma and Hannah walked the whole way up.  The apartment was very nice, and we enjoyed some nice conversation as Emma proceeded into a separate living room where she eventually put all of the pillows from the couches, maybe 6 or 7 large pillows and 3 or 4 smaller ones in all, on the floor and created a pillow train to jump on. 

She was having a blast, and Hannah joined her. 

Even though I am sure the furniture was brand new, our hosts didn’t mind and in fact, enjoyed the entertainment the girls provided.  At around 9:15, they asked if we wanted to eat dinner yet, or just feed the girls, and I said that we were ready to eat dinner, but I guess it was still early for them.  They kind of agreed as 10pm is more normal for them, so we compromised and said between 9:30-9:45 we could aim to eat.  Good thing the girls got late naps! 

Dinner was delicious, but once again, way too big!  We had a plate full of rice, large pieces of chicken, kefta, another meat dish, cut up raw vegetables and okra.  At just about every meal, we had to eat some of everything, and I felt like I ate quite a bit, yet at each meal they asked me, “Why haven’t you eaten anything yet?  Why does your plate look the same as when you started?”  We really had to insist that we had enough, everything was delicious, and thank you, thank you, thank you!  We sat and talked and drank Pepsi and ate fruit for another hour or so after dinner was over, as the priest fell asleep on the couch after his very busy few days. 

Finally, after 11pm, we were able to take a group picture

and then leave their house, descending the 8 flights of stairs and returning to our hosts’ house.  Fortunately, our next day wasn’t starting too early, and we could sleep in.  But for now, the Christmas celebrations were over and therefore Day 3 ends this series of posts!

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.

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