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Cairo Update

Date Written:
  16 October 2000
  I've seen the light
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Greetings from Cairo,

I've recently returned from a visit to upper Egypt. I was there for three days and four nights, I took a number of meetings in a village and major city called Assuit. I was actually fulfilling two long-standing invitations to take meetings in the area. The area itself is called Si'eed and is often the butt of Egyptian jokes. The Si'eedies are often portrayed as being big, friendly and stupid; rather like lovable Labrador dogs but once angered they turn into ruthless Rottweilers . . . I took extra care not to cause offence!

The village which I went to was quite small and typical. The people are very hospitable and hardly seem to leave me alone, always checking if I need anything. Although they wouldn't consider themselves to be poor the standard of living was very low . . . from a western point of view that is, but in general they seem to be content with life. As usual my biggest problem was trying to cope with the food which was offered. Bearing in mind the potential consequences of causing offence I was careful to eat everything placed in front of me. My automatic "gag" mechanism had to be suppressed many times, and I learnt not to ask what is in the food.

I took three meetings in the village, the Sunday school, youth and evening adult meeting. I was surprised by the level of attendance- there are about 4000 people living in the village, and about half of those are Muslim. The adult service had 500 people packed in- I heard that word got around that a foreigner had come and was painting Bible stories so a few came out of interest, but most were regular attendees. Since almost everyone's occupation was linked to farming I gave a message about the sower- and according to their background I think that they understood the lesson better than me. In Egyptian tradition I shook hands with every man leaving the Church (and their hands were a lot more rough than mine!). I was overwhelmed by the level of hospitality and joy they had that I had visited their village. They took it as a great honour for me to be their and I have to say that I was quite humbled by their response.

After spending two nights at the village I took a two hour ride in an overcrowded half-working bus to a large city in Si'eed call Assuit. Now I had heard of this city a few weeks ago on the BBC world service- a correspondent had been sent to report on mysterious lights that had been appearing around Coptic equivalent of a cathedral in the city. Apparently the story behind the lights is that they first started to appear on August 17th after a sighting of the virgin Mary above the cathedral. The lights have been appearing almost every night since then usually between 1am and 5am. People have travelled from all over Egypt and even different parts of the world to see them.

The BBC correspondent was a self-confessed sceptic- she said that she couldn't explain what caused the lights to appear but it wasn't enough to make her believe it was a miracle. Hmmm, OK, well many people saw Jesus' miracles and still didn't believe so I became curious to see it for myself.

Since I was only staying for a night my host took me after we ate an evening meal. He had wanted to see it himself anyway and was looking for an excuse to go, actually his friends all said the same thing so in the end three car loads of us went. On the way they explained to me that there is a news black-out about the lights on the state-controlled television. Basically the government don't want news of this to get out and even after two months they are still refusing to acknowledge what is happening. They went on the explain that a few days after the lights started to appear crowds formed at night around the cathedral. The police decided to seal off the area and search to see where the source of the lights was coming from- they didn't like the fact that Christians were claiming this was a miracle. Despite a through search they could not see where the lights were coming from and they had to allow the crowds in around the cathedral area again. A load of extra police were drafted in from Cairo to take control of the situation and to find the "culprits" . . . last week they made several arrests and announced that they believed the lights would now cease. Of course the following night their the lights were again- nothing changed. Apparently the police desperate to make progress arrested individuals in Assuit who owned for hired out lighting or laser equipment and confiscated their hardware. Doh!

We went to a near-by building and watched the cathedral from a rooftop. So what did I think of it?? Well, at first it just appeared to be flashing lights reflecting off the cathedral, which has two prominent towers and a dome. The flashing is similar to a fluorescent light starting up, but a lot more powerful and it stops after a couple of seconds. The interval between flashes was between a few seconds to a few minutes and seemed to be happening randomly. The light appeared to come from several angles and was centred around the cathedral but not exclusively on it- several surrounding buildings were being lit-up too.

When I looked closely I realised that there was no apparent source of the light. The effect of the cathedral could easily be man-made given the right equipment BUT the point in question was WHERE was it coming from? Sometimes the light was reflected from the tops of the towers indicating that the light was coming from above . . . but the cathedral is the most prominent building in the area with no other building able to project light at that angle.

While I was pondering lots of people started to shout and point to the sky above. A solitary white dove was flying overhead and it hovered over the cathedral area before disappearing from sight. I was told that flocks of these white doves have been seen flying at night (which is apparently very unusual) around the cathedral area. Later I saw two separate flocks of doves, flying effortlessly and without a sound. Man, this seemed weird!

It was quite a noisy place to be. Whenever lights flashed around the cathedral a cheer went up from the crowd- I asked to go to the crowd myself. At first my hosts were a bit reluctant saying it was very dangerous and they didn't like the thought of a foreigner going there, but they allowed me to go on condition I only spoke Arabic, acted like an Egyptian and allowed myself to be surrounded by them!

As we approached I saw that the area immediately surrounding the cathedral was heaving with men (and only men! Too rough for women to be there . . . ) and it looked and sounded more like a crowd of rowdy football supporters than a group of pilgrims. The atmosphere there was amazing- loads of excitement and anticipation. They were singing, chanting and there was a lot of pushing and shoving to get the best viewing places. I was glad to get back to the rooftop afterwards.

So was it all a trick? Not impossible, but very difficult, with the police everywhere looking for light sources for two months now without success it makes me think not. Mind you, if I was in charge of the police operation I would wait for the lights to start to appear, then cut the electricity supply to that part of the city and see if the lights continue. If they don't then we can suspect trickery! Of course the problem I have with the whole issue is what does it prove? I remember a time in the UK when people were flocking to Hindu temples because statues of cows were apparently drinking milk- I was asking the same question then.

Well, with the subject of lights, I know that the faith of many people has increased as a result, and there have been many reports of healings within the crowds. My faith is based on the Word of God and doesn't need miracles to uphold it. For those who don't have faith then no amount of miracles will be enough to convince them- but for the ones who have a weak faith then this kind of event seems to strengthen it. Many people from the other religion are actually asking a lot of questions as a result too . . .

I think that my lasting memory of the trip would be the hospitality and generosity of the hosts in both the village and the city. Throughout my stay in Si'eed I wasn't allowed to buy anything, and there was always someone at hand to see to my needs. My meetings in Assuit were a teacher training conference and a prize giving celebration with a few hundred children, both of which were quite successful. I left on the 1am train and there was a crowd of well-wishers there to say goodbye- this makes English hospitality look pathetic in comparison eh?

Well, that's all for this time,

Toodle Pip,


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It's a Fact!

Facts about Egypt:

  • Egypt's population is 66 Million

  • Egypt is four times the size of the UK

  • Only 3% of the land can be used for arable crops

  • Cairo has 18 million people and is growing by 1 millon each year.

  • Cairo is the Largest city in Africa and the Middle East

  • Official literacy rate is only 45%

  • A total of 11 languages are spoken in Egypt

  • Public Debt per person is $790

  • Average annual income is $630

  • Unemployment is estimated to be 17%

  • Religion: Approx. 85% Muslim and 15% Christian

  • Most Christians are affiliated to the Orthodox Church, less than 1% of the population are Protestant

  • There are an estimated 100,000 street children in Egypt


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