- CMS Ireland
Sunday 23rd February
On my study at home, buried under piles of books and assorted family memorabilia, is a tattered black and white postcard. It is dated 1911. On the reverse is a message from a young soldier to a girl by the name of Kitty. He signs himself Billy. The young soldier was my grandfather and the girl, who was later to become his wife, was my grandmother. The card is from Egypt and on the front is a photo of Alexandria. It was in this maratime city on the Mediterranean coast of Egypt that, yesterday morning, I climbed off a train and followed in my grandfather's footsteps.
With a population of 5.5 million, Alexandria is the second largest city in Egypt and the largest city - European, Asian, or African - in the entire Mediterranean region. Founded in 331 BC by Alexander the Great, it grew to become the largest city in the world in its day. It was renowned as a centre for culture and learning. This in no small part was due to its famous library.
Founded by Ptolmy the Second, the Alexandria Library was reputed to have housed 400,000 scrolls. It was here also that the books of the Old Testament were first translated into Greek: The Septuagint.
The old library is long since gone but in recent times a new one has taken its place, with shelves for eight million books and comprising every technical and online medium imaginable for the retrieval of information and knowledge. It is a hub for all modern cultural activity in the city and attracts scholars and visitors from all over the world.
In St Mark's Pro Cathedral, where Bishop Samy Fawzy has his office, there are a variety of programmes reaching out to the entire community in Alexandria. When I arrived yesterday morning, a busy programme was in full swing addressing the needs of those with addiction problems. Later in the day I had a lengthy and illuminating chat with Nader Wanis who heads up the Arkan Cultural Centre based in St Mark's.
Nader, a huge bear of a man, told me enthusiastically about how a programme organised around fine art, craft and music brings together the Muslim and Christian parts of Alex's. community. At present, around 1000 people per year participate in this initiative, staging regular exhibitions within the Cathedral complex. Nader and I had a fascinating conversation around the concept of a creator God who has made us in His image to be creative individuals who have the ability to express ourselves through the arts.
The fortunes of Alexandria have waxed and wained and waxed again over the years. In the 1930s and 40s it was a centre for art and fashion. Since the 1950s however the focus for these has moved away to other places. Once heavily populated by 'ex pats', foreign residents are now few and far between, and consulates, particularly those of the European nations, have closed their doors one after another. Egyptians on the other hand remain, and there are many refugees, particularly from Sudan and South Sudan. The Anglican Communion in particular takes a special interest in these people. Bishop Samy, with whom I have spent the past two days, willingly makes All Saints Church Alexandria available for congregations from these countries to meet and worship.
As well as at one time being the largest city in the world Alexandria had the largest Jewish population of any city in the world at around 80,000. They were involved in commerce, business, the professions and played a major role in this predominantly Muslim city. Relationships were good but sadly when Egypt and Israel came into conflict in the 1960s and 70s the overwhelming majority of the Jewish population in Egypt left the country. Today, less than 20 remain. Of these, eight live in Alexandria. There are 5 men and 3 women. A tiny number, and yet just a couple of weeks ago a remarkable event took place in Alexandria. After four years work refurbishment, funded by the Egyptian government, the old Synagogue in Alexandria reopened its doors. 250 members of the Jewish community from around the world attended for the ceremony.
Sadly, access to this wonderful historically significant place of worship is severely restricted. Such is the perceived security threat, no Egyptian is allowed access, and the entire area around the Synagogue is cordoned off and heavily guarded by armed government security officers. It was only through the persuasive powers of Bishop Samy that I was allowed to enter, and to do so, I had to temporarily surrender my passport. Bishop Samy had to remain outside the entrance gate! Some of what I experienced during this very moving visit is shown below.
As well the synagogue there are of course many places of worship in Alexandria both Christian and Muslim. Sadly, one Christian place of worship came to prominence a little while ago, for reasons which no reasonable person would ever have wished for. Close to St Mark's Anglican Pro Cathedral and somewhere Bishop Samy attends every Christmas to bring greetings is St. Marks Coptic Cathedral.
Tragically it became known throughout the world on 9th April 2017, which was Palm Sunday, when a bomb exploded close to its gates killing 17 people and injuring 48 more. The Coptic Pope, Tawdros ll, had just left the building to find out information following another bombing of a coptic church in the city of Tanta. In that attack 30 were killed and 78 injured. Muslims and Christians alike raised their voices in condemnation of these brutal attacks.
Sadly there have been more, and St Marks is now the subject of a tight security cordon and armed guard 24 hours per day. Indeed every Christian Church I have ever visited in Egypt, or referred to in my current series of blogs, including the Cathedral complex in Cairo, are subject to the same measures. This is particularly sad in a country such as Egypt, which is after all one of the Bible Lands.
There is hope however, as described in my blog last Saturday following my visit to Menouf where children both Muslim and Christian celebrated the planting of "A Tree of Hope".
We in turn can only hope and also pray that the tree planted flourishes and bears the fruit of grace and reconciliation which in turn will bring harmony and lasting peace to Egypt and the broader and often troubled region of the Middle East.