Like any city, Cairo is crammed with contradictions. And when you sprawl outward not just across space, but time and tradition, the effect can be terrifically messy, sublime and beautiful.
Fresh from being humble-awed by the lone, level sands and silent temples of Luxor and Aswan, I had one more day in Cairo before the end of my trip. Whereas my previous entanglement with this crazy city had taken me to its Giza outskirts (desperately signing “TRIANGLES” to represent the Pyramids), this time I wanted to explore its Coptic Christian quarter, a curious facet of this majority-Islamic city stretching back centuries.
This was Old Cairo, home of Cairo’s Coptic Christian community.
It is unlike any other Christian place of worship I have been to. The only time I would see architectural and artistic echoes of this form of Christianity would be later in Zagreb, Croatia and then Athens, Greece. Solemn bearded men stare down at you from tapestries. The floors of every chapel are lushly carpeted.
I lit a candle to an ikon of St. Michael. It was the very same picture that had been used in my primary school diary more than 15 years ago, in faraway Singapore. It was like seeing a long-lost friend from my childhood.
More than anything else, however, I loved the quiet peace of this Old Quarter, where families sat around sharing a meal and having a drink. Locals stared curiously and amiably at KoreanJapanChina man (me). The kids kept asking to take pictures with me on their iPads and iPods.
Have you ever been a celebrity? It was a surreal experience, being mobbed for my slanty eyes by excitedly effusive kids, who promptly returned to their soccer after their puzzlement was satisfied shaking my fingers.
I sat and watched for a while in the golden late afternoon light, soaking in the moment. The only sounds here were the excited and outraged yells of children at soccer; the occasional polite inquiry ventured by braver teenagers (“whereyoofrumm?”) eager to practice their English.
It dawned on me then that God isn’t found only in the mountains, or the sands, or the Cathedrals, or the basilicas. There is a quiet peace too, in sitting awhile outside the walls of Churches, watching children at play. There is a serenity in watching the sun set eggyolk-golden over the hallowed walls of an ancient city.