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Monuments of ancient civilizations
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It’s Thursday, Oct. 1, in Cairo. Beyond the hotel roof looms the faint indication of Giza’s largest pyramid. Though composed of over 2.3 million massive stones – some of them weighing fifteen tons – and imposing its mountainous presence for over four thousand years, it looks more, in the morning haze, like a ghost.  Breathing history, having vigiled over the construction of Giza’s two other giant pyramids and the rising and falling of entire civilizations, this monument to faith in the afterlife patiently waits.

One day, the mysteries it has concealed for millennia will be more fully revealed.  Until that time, we crawl around its base like ants, scratching away at newfound hieroglyphs, taking our photos and going back home.

But I suppose you could say the same for many of the Middle East’s great monuments.  Just days ago, we scrambled the trails of Petra. This newly declared “wonder of the ancient world” is every bit as compelling as Giza’s great pyramids. Sequestered in a nearly inaccessible gorge in southern Jordan, this awesome testimony to human skill and collaboration remained a jealously guarded secret until 1812, when a Swiss explorer disguised himself as an Arab and, speaking fluently, talked his way in.  Now, the expansive network of canyons and valleys floods daily, no longer with precipitous rains that, from time to time, wiped out the ground-level dwellings, but with the influx of visitors from throughout the world. They marvel at how an ancient people could have carved and chiseled entire temples and giant tombs out of solid rock. The same Nabataeans who labored for centuries to excavate their homes, temples and treasuries, also proved to be fierce warriors.  Only the Romans were able to conquer them.

The three great monotheistic religions have also built their awe-inspiring temples, basilicas, and mosques.  We beheld these monuments (or, in the case of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, their memories) in Israel, in the West Bank, in Jordan, and in Egypt.  The human instinct for what is divine and transcendent, for what goes beyond the here-and-now into the infinite and unknowable Beyond, drove our ancestors to unbelievable feats.  How the ancients could amass the resources, the skills, and the pool of labor needed to raise up such amazing monolithic masterpieces is beyond me.  We joked at the speculation of intervention from outer space.  Theories hold that the Incas, the Mayas, the Aztecs, the Egyptians, and the Orientals could never have mastered the technology necessary to generate such wonders on such a gigantic scale.  We have to acknowledge that the infusion of intelligence and talent necessary could never have come from a simple evolution of knowledge.  And yet, if not aliens, then who instructed these architects?

This question echoes all the more as you observe the modern descendants of those venerable builders of antiquity.  Swarming like flies, they descend mercilessly upon pilgrims, tourists, and seekers of enduring truth.  Any gathering-site will do, no matter how sacred.  Hawkers learn from infancy how to turn any encounter into a sale.  I know that their economic situation, combined with the relative wealth of the millions who themselves swarm in year ‘round, make inevitable the conversion of any monument into a market-place.  Jesus complained about this as he cleansed the Temple - and he wasn’t the first.  Yet this decline of otherwise intelligent beings into parasites troubles me deeply.   Were they not created in the image of God?

Having ascended to the Citadel’s magnificent alabaster mosque in old Cairo, we were soon brought down to earth.  The first incident was funny, as ten teen-age Moslem girls duly wrapped in colorful veils asked me to take a picture with them.  That was inside, at the tomb of Egypt’s famous leader Mohammed Ali.  But once outside, the salesmen accosted us like terrorists.  At one point, I looked a particularly irritating guy in the eyes and said, “Back off!”  He shook off my hand and said, “Don’t touch me.”

“I’ll do a lot more than touch you, if you don’t leave us alone,” I retorted.

His friend stepped in.  Pointing at the first fellow, I said, “He disrespected us.”  In saying that, I was appealing to the Arab sense of hospitality and reverence for sacred places. So the friend apologized.  As we walked off the property, the offender ran up to me and asked for forgiveness.  I took his hand and said, “No problem.  We can be friends.  What’s your name?”

“Mohammed,” he replied.  (Almost all the men here call themselves Mohammed.)   “And, oh… my friend.  You want to buy something…?”   

Things were similar at Petra.  But there, the Bedouin character added color and intrigue.  The contemporary inhabitants of the Nabataean’s valley still exude the sense of wonder and adventure we associate with pirates at sea.  Fr. Joseph and I ascended three ridges near the “Monastery”, another shrine located, by way of contrast, at higher elevations.   There, two young French women were being courted by two locals.  The first Bedouin had already shoved a ring on one girl’s finger.  They were making plans to take the hapless Europeans into the desert.  “We don’t know what’s going on,” one confessed to me.  “They make plans for us and then get upset when we don’t want to go.”  I explained that five of us were soon heading back to the valley.  “We’re coming behind you,” said the other target of a lonely man’s passions.  So, after taking a group shot, Fr. Joe and I bounded down.

Donkeys running
& a flute piping

A full hour later, once we’d explored what’s called the Great Temple, we five began the final trek up a long, winding passageway of towering stone.

From behind us, we heard the sound of donkeys running and a flute piping.

At that point, nearly out of breath, a pair of shadows drew up alongside us in the nearly pitch dark.  “Vous être les jeune filles?” I asked the shadows.

“¡Ayúdanos a escapar de estes hombres!” said one, pleading intervention.

The Bedouins caught up and jumped off their donkeys.  One began a long process of romantic solicitation in which he explained to the young women why spending a day or two with him and his friend would be the highpoint of their travels: “We understand each other. You are so beautiful.  Please!”

The other one grabbed my arm, pulling me aside.  “You Americans always get involved.  You ------ up everything.  The girls were already agreed.  I don’t like a person what says one thing and then another.”  It turns out, this seemingly uncivilized creature had lived and worked in the United States for several years.  Unfortunately, he wasn’t satisfied and returned to Petra.

Understandably, he hadn’t understood our French and Spanish discussion, so had misinterpreted my intentions.  “Don’t worry.  I don’t say one thing and then another.  We don’t want the French girls. We are priests.”  It took a long time to communicate what this meant, but finally Mohammed Ali calmed down.  Meanwhile, his friend Ali Mohammed gave up on wooing the Mademoiselles.  We all exited the gates, each returning to their lodging.

But Ali Mohammed and Mohammed Ali weren’t going to drop the whole affair so easily.  “You come to us tomorrow morning early.  We make you breakfast Bedouin style.  And then we talk.”  “Sure,” I replied.  We settled on six.  They would also give me a tour of the tombs.  “Are you sure they aren’t going to kill you?”  Fr. Joe speculated.  “They can’t,” I replied.  The Arab code of hospitality would forbid them from doing me any harm at all.
Besides, my video camera battery had died, and I hadn’t yet obtained any footage of Petra’s magnificent features.  I’d left the bigger battery by the shores of the Dead Sea, and had been running out of power ever since.

At 5:45 the next morning, I slipped through the steel gates separating the mountainous desert from the architectural oasis of Petra.  Reaching the spectacular “treasury” building by 6:15, I leaned backward in the emerging light to soak in this vision, alone.  The only sounds were the echoing cries of indigenous birds, the occasional howling of dogs, and the distinctively bizarre braying of donkeys.  Not finding Ali at our meeting point, I walked down toward the tombs.  There, I stood silent amidst Petra’s monuments.

“Deeeean!”  I heard a lone voice cry out from far above.  There, high on a bluff, I could barely make out the image of Ali.  “Salaam alecum!  Sabach alher!” I yelled in reply. “Come up!” Ali shouted, waving his arms.  It took a while to climb to their vantage point.  Soon I joined them as they made their best effort to wake up.  They’d slept there to assure we could meet.

While they prepared a breakfast of tea, condensed camel’s milk, extremely sour cow milk yogurt, and bread baked right in the fire, I took off to climb a mountain and to visit the tombs.  Returning, I sat with Ali Mohammed and Mohammed Ali for a never-to-be-forgotten meal, Bedouin-style.  We were joined by two others, who began a boisterous conversation in which they laughed about a fight that had broken out the evening before.  It turns out that Fr. Joseph and I had not been, after all, the culprits.  While it’s true that the French ladies found their escape in our visit and departure, the real cause of their flight was a literal fight that broke out between their suitor Ali and a thoroughly drunk Bedouin who began disrespecting everyone.

Ali showed me his battle scars and we marveled that no one had fallen off the vertical cliff that provided the “backdrop” for our group photo.  Today was a new day, and with it would come new adventures, and new tourists, and surely new young women willing to risk it all with a romantic Bedouin.

I scooped up the last sour bite of bread soaked in yogurt (and kneaded by the calloused hands of my host), gave Ali Mohammed and Mohammed Ali the embrace of friendship, and headed back at a sprint.  There, in the hotel, our group of 35 pilgrims were enjoying a quiet breakfast.  It was luxurious, but nowhere near as splendid as the meal I’d shared on the Bedouin bluffs.

It all comes together in a scene from Wednesday’s expedition through Cairo’s downtown Bazaar.  As we filed through compact row after row of aggressive merchants pushing merchandise of every description, young men were stepping into our path. “Come, look!” “You promised to come back!” “I have something special for you!”  -and a thousand other hooks to catch unsuspecting shoppers, dragging them into little niches to ply their wares.

“And what are you looking for?” a friendly looking fellow asked me.  He, alone, had a beard.  I figured he might be a religious Moslem.  Stopping in the middle of the cackling hawkers, with our group behind and before me, I said, “Peace.  I am looking for peace.”  “Oh!  He laughed.  “You won’t find peace here.  Not in this market, and not in this world!”  I laughed and gave him the high-five.  It was a sacred moment.  Then we went our ways, and I bargained down a fake pair of Ray-Bans from $40 to $10 (still too much), and we got on the bus, and proceeded in crowded streets back to the hotel.  There, among Cairo’s 17 million people, in that insane bazaar, surrounded by people dreaming of heaven but living more like animals, we acknowledged what ancient sages have been trying to tell us for millennia: this world is not our final destination. We were created for better things.

We are, in fact, angels - descended for a while to earth, meant to rise again.

Let me conclude with the high point of our Egyptian experience.  Monday at 1:30am we rose early to join hundreds of pilgrims from around the world in climbing, by foot or by camel, Mount Sinai.  This barren peak served for Moses as his locus of encounter with the living God.  For forty days and nights, he fasted and prayed, speaking with the Lord face to face.  From this mountaintop of revelation, Moses gave the Hebrew people their Law.  From this holy ground, he led them forth from pagan idolatry to a radically new identity.  Though they complained and resisted, their children reached the Promised Land, and ultimately entered into their inheritance from God.

Every persuasion
under the sun

We struggled together up that peak.  As one pilgrim would testify Thursday night, en route to the airport, each one of us made it to the top with the support of the others, and through the gentle assistance of the Bedouins.

Finally, just as dawn was breaking, we stood as one with seekers from every continent.  The Nigerians kept up a rowdy, spirit-filled prayer. And the most beautiful thing about this congregation of angels-in-human-flesh was that we came from every persuasion under the sun.  Jews, Christians, and Moslems all venerate this high and holy place.  But tourists of different religions also feel drawn by the sense that Sinai’s message is for everyone.

It’s now Friday morning in Giza.  The early call to Islamic prayer has long since echoed against the pyramids, which still stand as lonely sentinels of a civilization long past.  Our pilgrim group has been in flight for over nine hours.  Fr. Joseph is flying, too, though to the city of Rome, whose seven hills and multiple monuments remind us of the glory of an empire which once dominated the whole known world, and of a Church who still lives on.

Kenny G.’s eerie saxophone is playing, once again, over the system, like the flutes of our Bedouin romantics.  I’m here alone.  At noon I’ll meet a young American who works for the Embassy.   We’ll return to the museum of Egyptian antiquities, accompanied by a new friend.  Her father is the Ambassador of Palestine to Dubai.  She was born in Nazareth.  I met her at the foot of Sinai.  She looked exhausted.  “I don’t know why I’m here,” she acknowledged.  “I guess I’m confused, and I’m looking for something.”

I hope she finds it.  And may each of us find the secret to our existence on earth, and the way to break the hieroglyphic codes encrypted by God in the DNA of our souls.  Then we will build our own monuments, reaching clear to heaven itself, shining forth for the whole world the glory of our God.

Fr. Dean McFalls, October 2, 2009, from Cairo, Egypt, en route to Kenya.