My last day in Cairo wasn’t as rushed as I feared it might be. With a 5:00 p.m. flight, I had the entire morning to spend in the Coptic area. Gamer, my favored driver, arrived on time to pick me up. I placed my carry-on and satchel in his trunk and off we went to Old Cairo.
Gamer dropped me off at the entrance to the Coptic area. Several Christian churches are crammed into a this small area. There is also a Jewish synagogue. Across the street is the first mosque ever built in Cairo. I was impressed that three of the most influential religions in the world (and also the three that seem to have the most problems with each other) were existing peacefully together, side-by-side.
No protests. No riots. No firebombs. No suicide bombers. Hmmm.
I visited the Hanging Church, a church built between 690-92 AD. The history of a church on this site dates to the 3rd Century AD. With a nave built over a passage, it is among the most famous of the Coptic churches.
This Coptic area is believed to be the site where the Holy Family stayed when they fled to Egypt from Israel to prevent Herod from murdering the Christ Child. Another church nearby is the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus. The site of this church is believed to be where the Holy Family actually rested when they first arrived from Israel. It is also possible that they settled in this area when they arrived. The church dates to the 4th Century AD.
In addition to these churches I visited the Greek Orthodox Church, which was gorgeous, along with the Church of Saint Barbara. What impressed me most about these churches was how they truly looked old and ancient inside. I felt I was being taken back to Biblical times.
It was St. Mark, one of the Apostles, who traveled to Egypt to spread the Gospel and the Coptic Church came out of his ministry. The term “Copt” describes Egyptian Christians along with the last stage of the ancient Egyptian language script. The Copts suffered persecution even after the Edict of Milan out of the Roman Empire that declared religious toleration. The Copts later split from the Church of Rome (Catholic Church).
At the Greek Orthodox Church a young man came up to me to ask a question. We ended up spending the next couple of hours together. His name was Chan and he had taken a year off his from his job in New York to travel the world. When he heard I was from Portland, he was very interested.
I extolled to him the virtues of Portland with its reputation for tolerance and its quality of life. I described the craft beer, wine and coffee scene along with the strong economy and wonderful, walkable neighborhoods. I think I might have sold him on moving.
Chan and I had a wonderful time talking about Cairo and our respective experiences–me living as an expatriate in Italy and he, traveling the world. As he had only just arrived that morning, I had some good advice for him on Cairo, Luxor and Egypt.
We walked through several of the Coptic churches together. In Saint Barbara’s Church, we sat in one of the pews and chatted. I had told him earlier about how I always seemed to attract attention as an obvious American. I shared how children would come up and welcome me and how teenagers and young men would request a photo with me.
As we sat in Saint Barbara’s Church, a young man approached me in the pew and pointed to his camera. I was accustomed to this by now so I motioned for him to sit beside me. A young girl, possibly his sister, sat on my lap. Another young man snapped a photo. The young guy requesting the photo shook my hand and thanked me profusely. It couldn’t have been more perfect.
“See what I mean?” I said to Chan. He nodded.
Leaving the Coptic area, we searched for a place to eat. I was certain we would find someone grilling meat somewhere along the busy main street. We walked quite a way and found nothing. Eventually, we found one man offering an Egyptian-type pasta and other carbs, but we wanted some protein, too. Another block further we found a hole-in-the-wall restaurant and bought two falafels apiece. It was a further walk to find Pepsis to drink.
With lunch in our hands, we turned our attention to finding a place to sit. Nothing. No chairs, no benches. We began walking back toward the Coptic area when we saw a bench in what appeared to be an abandoned building. Indeed, the bench seemed to be in better shape than the building itself. I dragged over a small round table nearby and we had our little picnic in this unlikely environment. We found it to be wonderfully indicative of Cairo and a grand experience. Almost a trendy way of indulging in the life of the natives.
The time for me to contact Gamer, my driver, was arriving. The journey to the airport would take an hour which required leaving at 2:00 p.m. in order to get to the airport by 3:00 p.m. for the 5:00 p.m. flight to Rome. Chan was hoping to get to the Muhammed Ali Mosque before it closed and wondered how much a cab would cost. I suggested he ask Gamer for a ride.
We walked to the cafe where I was to meet Gamer. I was surprised to see Gamer already there, nursing a Pepsi and smoking a cigarette. Apparently, his job is to just wait for me until I’m ready for him to pick me up so we can continue onward.
Chan and I joined Gamer for a Pepsi and chatted for awhile. Before Chan could ask for a lift to the mosque, Gamer offered to take him. After a few photos together, we left. Gamer dropped Chan off first. Chan and I made sure we were Facebook friends before we parted.
After we left Chan at the mosque, I prepared my bladder for Gamer’s driving to the airport. I opted to look out the side window at the view rather than watch the brake lights of cars hurtling towards me in the windshield.
At the airport, I felt a surge of melancholy. I was not only leaving Egypt, but I was saying goodbye to Gamer. He had become my companion, my guide, a friend even. I took off my sunglasses and handed them to him. He had expressed an admiration for them. They were el cheapo glasses from a sidewalk vendor so it meant nothing for me. But it meant a lot to him. I gave him a very generous tip and he placed his hand over his heart. He gave me his personal phone number and exhorted me to call him so he could again be my personal driver for the next time I visit Cairo. I promised to do so.
Should I hug him goodbye? I wasn’t sure. He had been so good to me, watching out for me, demanding refunds when he thought someone took advantage of me, always showing up on time. He had shared photos of his family and stayed with me on the Nile cruise so I would have someone to talk to. He felt like a friend.
I should have, but didn’t. He said he hoped God would be with me and take care of me. I told him the same. I shook his hand and walked toward the terminal. When I turned, his car had disappeared into traffic.
I want to come back to Egypt. I WILL come back to Egypt. And I hope Gamer is around so I can hire him as my driver. He was a good man and he epitomized for me the beautiful nature of the Egyptian people.