Sunday, September 27, 2009

4 stops north of here

Yesterday, A & I took a day trip up to Coptic Cairo. It's just off the Metro's Mar Girgis stop--literally. I have taken the Metro north to Sadat station dozens of times, and each time I have seen the domed Church of St. George looming over the stop. First things first, though: here is a video of the Metro ride. Careful, my camera buzzes for no reason while taking videos in things that are moving.

Coptic Cairo is its own little district, made clean just for tourists. It shows me that Egyptians can keep things Western-style clean when they feel like it, although it is also a protected district and spared the ravages of incessant foot traffic. I take some comfort in the familiar parts of the Coptic iconography and architecture around here. It reminds me of home a little bit, even though Coptic Christianity is different from most versions of the religion practiced stateside. But I can't deny that it is more familiar and I take a measure of comfort in that, strangely enough. That said, the eeriness of Coptic images is compelling and unlike anything I see at home. In the Church of St. George, for example, there is a scene of a man who resembles the Joker spearing a dragon from atop a horse. I saw this scene countless times--in reprinted paintings, mostly, but also embodied in a kitschy statue wrapped in silver tinsel. It's a little bit cartoonish, true enough, but all the same it is serious business to visiting Copts, who show their devotion by touching the glass panes protecting reprinted images of their saints. I'm also unnerved by the commonness of these faces--of the saints, the virgin, the apostles, Jesus himself. Christianity is a religion of faces. Islam has no images of its prophet, and I have not seen many (if any) images inside mosques, where the space is devoted primarily to prayer (and sleep). All the faces of Christianty are eerie, especially when you are looking at 6th or 7th century artwork where the faces are strikingly similar from one image to the next--the round, expressionless faces and eyes, the full, puckered lips, the squared shoulders. No perspective, little variation, just these unblinking chestnut eyes staring out at you, one church after another, one room after another.

Also, along eerie lines, there was this:

Otherwise, I enjoyed the subterranean passages that took you to various churches and a well-preserved synagogue, which was a bizarro mix of Jewish gear with Islamic architecture. Apparently one of the most ancient Torahs was found at that synagogue, printed on gazelle hide. Gazelle hide! I'd have taken pictures but they weren't permitted in the synagogue. At least I could get inside. There is a synagogue nearby us in Maadi that is under police watch at all times. One day, I approached and roused the police into action, which meant they waved their hands and said no, then bade me good day with sleepy smiles. I saw enough of the synagogue to realize that the grounds were being kept (behind a thick iron fence, natuarlly), so I wondered if it was active. Perhaps this is where the Israeli ambassador goes to do his religious duties.

Then there was the hot, dark Coptic Museum. Truly, sometimes I couldn't really make out the artwork, and the still air made me sleepy. There were also 3 or 4 fire extinguishers per room, and yet no staff anywhere in the museum--except for the entrance, where a gaggle of men enjoyed tea and were having a boisterous conversation that followed us all over the museum. I guess it would have been left to us to save the art if a sudden fire broke out. We were impressed by the woodwork of the mashrabiya and the ceiling and would gladly have snapped photographs...but our cameras were barred from the museum. At least we didn't have to tip the staff to get them back when we were finished.


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