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June 13, 2009

trip to rural egypt

Thursday was my first field assignment on the job, which meant going down 100km of industrial cement factories, then the farming villages of the Nile fluvial plain until making it to the two villages of Atfih and Deir al-Maymun in order to interview the local priests about their respective church construction projects. Technically speaking, all church construction and repair in Egypt (no matter how small and local) need to be approved through a central agency. Needless to say, this highly centralized system often leads to hurt feelings. My job for Thursday then was to follow my boss around, ask questions, and write a forthcoming report (including local history and sacred history), which I will post a link to here as well once it is completed.

1) Atfih: The Deir al-Rasul church in Atfih was heavily damaged in the 1992 earthquake, rendering the building structurally unsound. The renovation permit was quickly given by the government; however, as it is a building well over a thousand years old, the necessary renovations were well outside of the means of the small Christian community in Atfih. This is often the case in Egypt with historic churches; their costly renovations cannot be afforded by the local community. For Atfih, this meant that the community appealed to the Egyptian government, claiming the building as an antique site of national interest (primarily based in its association with Saint Paul, a 3rd century ascetic who inhabited the structure). While the government agreed to this claim (as is also often the case), the work order was not forthcoming. By 1997, the community was still without a place of worship, leading the local community to quickly erect a new church before the state could interfere with the construction as it was done without a permit. Adjacent to the original church, a new building was erected in two days which housed the congregation. As of the Arab West Report's last visit, the old church was still in a state of disrepair, and in constant threat of collapse.
This visit then was a pleasant surprise. The state has picked up the ball, just a little too slowly according to most people's opinions (again, as it often the case), and has begun to restore the building. It is scheduled to open next year, and is currently braced and no longer in danger of collapse. Indeed, it is structurally-sound enough that we were allowed access to the haikal (in Coptic churches, similar to Greek and Russian Orthodox churches, the altar is screened by an iconostasis. The area behind is known as the haikal, or sanctuary, which is sacred ground) in order to access the room where St. Paul lived.

2) Deir al-Maymun: An anomaly of Egyptian villages, Deir al-Maymun is overwhelmingly Christian (there are less than a handful of truly Christian villages in Egypt) village 100 km south of Cairo. The city's population works mostly in agriculture (mostly family plots, with a shortage of available useable land due to the narrowing of the fluvial plain of the Nile in this area, which is not only the sole irrigation source, but also without which the land is infertile sandy desert) and a local quarry (for those without access to land, this makes up most of their work, although the stones mined are primarily used in local village construction, so that it too is not a lucrative field). Some younger men from the village have begun taking factory jobs as far as Helwan, a Cairene suburb about two hours away. In this context, the local priest has begun a project to turn the two local churches of Saint Antony and Saint Stifin into pilgrimage and tourist sites. We will see where this plan leads, but it has seen local movement since the Report last visited. The priest has asked us to offer his name and contact information in case any foreigners are interested in assisting the village with this program. I will provide the contact information in a future post to honor that request.

For those interested, photos are available of these two villages here:
http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2128072&id=1013451&l=649710dd73

Posted by Alexander Steven Wamboldt at June 13, 2009 07:02 PM

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