My wife and I had the blessing of visiting Paris as well as various parts of Egypt this year. It was our first visit to both places (I was born in Egypt but hadn’t returned since coming to the U.S. when I was about 4 years old; my wife, Egyptian as well, had never been to Egypt). I encountered a number of expected and also unexpected sights that had a notable impact on me from a religious perspective. Both Paris and Egypt have a lot to offer in that regard, and here are my top 15 experiences:
15. Egypt: HANGING CHURCH AND ITS CONNECTION WITH MIRACLE OF THE MOVEMENT OF THE MOKATTAM MOUNTAIN
Recently the world has begun to show more interest in a group of Egyptians known as the “trash people”—Zabaleen“—living in a “trash town” near the foot of a mountain known as Mokattam. As a Coptic Christian, that mountain is quite familiar because our history tells us that about 1,000 years ago, the mountain not only moved, but rose so high the sun could be seen underneath it.
The Coptic Church was confronted with a challenge, under threat of death to many Copts, to prove the well known Bible verse spoken by Christ that if one has sufficient faith, they could move a mountain. It is said that St. Mary appeared to the Coptic Pope at the time, and she informed him that a blessed man known as Simon the Tanner would be of aid, due to his blessedness in God’s eyes (as Scripture teaches, “The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects” [James 5:16]).
When I was visiting the Hanging Church in Egypt, what I did not know and came to find out was that it was at this ancient Church that St. Mary was said to have appeared to the Pope, which was also depicted on the walls leading to the church.
The church is notable for all sorts of other amazing reasons….
14. Egypt: BOOK OF THE DEAD
It was surreal to come face to face with something I so casually mentioned in my book Orthodox Afterlife (to God be the glory), yet there it was staring me in the face. The first chapter in my book opens with these lines:
Ancient Egyptians have always been fascinated with unraveling the mysteries of death and the afterlife. For thousands of years, they collected their varied beliefs in writings and inscriptions which are collectively known as the Book of the Dead. Those beliefs were suddenly discarded about two thousand years ago when a messenger from God known by the name of Mark (the evangelist) taught my ancestors about the true path of salvation, through the Lord Jesus Christ.
It was quite the experience when our tour guide told me what I was beholding, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how much my ancestors were so obsessed with not only knowing what happens after death, but ensuring a happy afterlife.
13. Paris: RELIGIOUS PAINTINGS
I went to Paris for the food and to figure out what people loved so much about the city, but I did not know how many religious sights I would be seeing there. I was taken aback by the number of paintings and icons I saw, both in the museums as well as in the glorious churches and palaces throughout the city. It was quite comforting that I could take a moment in such a big city to pause and ponder on deeply moving events in religious history:
Here are some from the Palace of Versaille:
Here are some from the Sacré Cœur church, one of which interestingly depicts the Father, it seems.
Here are a few from the St. Sulpice Church:
Here are a few I liked at the Louvre museum:
12. Paris: CHURCHES IN PARIS
I did not know what to expect when I went to Paris. I honestly didn’t know what the fuss was all about… “city of love”… didn’t understand. Then I went and was astonished at how beautiful everything was… walking along any street usually affords a picturesque moment nearly anywhere especially because of the ornate architecture of most of the buildings.
But then there were the churches. Yes, I have heard of the Cathedral of Notre Dame (thanks Disney, although the movie wasn’t that great in my opinion; now Frozen, that was a great movie, can’t wait for the sequel!), but I didn’t know there were so many awe-inspiring churches all over the city. Nice to go from busy hustle and bustle to the calm, solemn environment of a place designated to the worship of God. And each church was so beautiful, inside and out.
Notre Dame Cathedral:
St. Antoine, St. Chapelle, St. Sulpice, St. Germaine,
11. Egypt: CONVENT OF ABU SEFEIN AND MOTHER ERENE’S CRYPT
It was such a blessing to see the Crypt of the modern-day saintly Abbess, Mother Erene, and the relics of Abu Sefein at his convent in Old Cairo. I have spent so much time hearing and reading about them, that it was just unbelievable that I was standing in the location where they are honored and venerated, and where so many miracles are said to have happened.
By the way, I truly believe that they both aided me by their prayers so I could have my number 1 experience below.
10. Egypt: MONASTERY OF ST. PAUL, THE FIRST HERMIT
In the history of early Christianity, the Egyptian desert is considered as the founding place of monasticism, and there are two fundamental pillars of monastic life: St. Paul, known as the First Hermit, or Paul of Thebes; and St. Anthony the Great, considered to be the founder of monasticism. When St. Anthony pondered about his place in God’s eyes, the Lord informed of and led him to a blessed man who had been living a stringent, ascetic life alone in the desert for decades as well. That man was St. Paul, the First Hermit.
I was blessed to see the ancient monastery established in his name, at the site where he lived. St. Paul’s body is buried in an unknown location under the monastery. When St. Anthony was informed of St. Paul’s departure, St. Anthony went to bury him, but with no way to dig a hole for St. Paul’s body, the Lord sent two lions to do the digging instead. I was standing at or about that same area where those two saints met, and where miraculous occurrences transpired.
I also had the blessing of drinking from the same water that St. Paul used to drink, from a well that had been there since his time.
It was also a delight to see a very old stone table and seating area for monks to gather to eat and hear a spiritual word read to them as they ate.
9. Egypt: MONASTERY OF ST. ANTHONY THE GREAT
Any time I meet someone, especially who is not Egyptian, who bears the name of Anthony in some form, I often think to myself (and sometimes express it to the individual) about how great a name they carry, because of the greatness of the Egyptian monk who bore it. It is a shame that most Christians, even among the Orthodox, and even among Copts, have not taken the opportunity to read the life of St. Anthony the Great as was written by the 20th Pope of the Coptic Church, the famed and well renowned Church Father, St. Athanasius, who was the pivotal champion of the Council of Nicea and the author of one of the most fundamental writings in the early Church, “On the Incarnation.” St. Anthony the Great’s story is available here for free, and is full of wonder and unbelievable occurrences… like Harry Potter, except real!
He did not live at the monastery, but in a cave adjacent to the monastery, which takes two hours to climb and unfortunately time was not permitting for us to take that blessing.
At that monastery though there is an ancient Church that date as far back as the seventh and eighth centuries, while the newest are from the thirteenth century, many of which were part of recent restoration efforts:
Just before we left, at the more modern church that is now being used at the monastery, I asked to see something I had recalled were discovered when some recent renovations occurred: ancient cells dating to the 4th century, near the time of St. Anthony the Great. They were found underneath the modern church, which they cover with see through flooring and then lay a removable carpet above it…
I couldn’t believe how much ancient history was packed in one place. From St. Anthony, to the cells and the icons, it was just hard to believe all of this was before my eyes.
8. Egypt: COPTIC MUSEUM
Coptic—a word that for some Coptic Christians is shunned as a cultural impediment in the Church, while for others it is a cherished heritage worth keeping due to its richness and storied history. And there I was in Cairo, standing there while the Coptic Museum stared back at me to tell me about my ancestors and why they are worth remembering.
Look at these beautiful 4th-5th century tunics made by the early Egyptians during the era of Christianity—the Copts. One of my ancestors could have been wearing one of these, or more likely, something similar. What was life like for them? I can only imagine…
Here were some priestly garbs/cassocks from the 1800s. It’s relatively close in time yet looks so distant and ancient; truly amazing to see how much different they are from what we see Coptic priests wear today… beautiful. Note the crowns in the front were dedicated by Emperor Menlik the 2nd of Ethiopia to Pope Cyril V of the Coptic Church, bearing Amharic writing.
Here is a knife and fork from the 1700s that belonged to the 107th Coptic Pope:
Interestingly there are these pastoral staffs that look very similar to what I found all the men holding in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church service I recently attended.
Of course I was delighted to see an old Bishop’s serpent staff (an intriguing symbolic staff used across Orthodox Christian jurisdictions), which was used for the Coptic Pope some time ago… wasn’t clear when though:
Continuing with the Pope theme here, I was surprised to come across this purportedly 10th century throne for the Coptic Pope…. This all made me think about how ancient our apostolic succession runs, from the evangelist and gospel writer St. Mark, down to the present Coptic Pope:
I also came across some ancient biblical manuscripts. Many such manuscripts have been found well preserved in Egypt intact due to the arid environment. Here is a psalter (a book of psalms) written in the Coptic language from only a few hundred years after Christ… about the 300s or 400s AD:
One thing I’ve always thought about changing in the Coptic Church is the size of the encased Bible used during liturgical services… usually the one we use today is quite small, about 6-7 inches by maybe 4 inches… Other churches, including the Ethiopian Church I visited recently, use much more elaborate and larger encased bibles… I came across this large, ornate one in the Coptic Museum:
7. Paris: ASSYRIAN ANCIENT WINGED BULLS—LAMASSU (BIBLICAL IDOLS)
One of the most exhilarating experiences of my entire trip came about when I cast my eyes on these ancient idols of ancient Assyria. I was in the Louvre, barely able to logically navigate through the maze of halls and rooms, when I accidentally stumbled upon these massive sculptures of winged bulls… known as Lamassu. (By the way, these are massive.. probably double my heigh if not more)… I couldn’t believe I was looking at something from ancient Biblical times.. how many times do we read about Assyria and their idols in the Old Testament? We read also of Assyrian kings and the Israelites… and here I was, staring in the face that may have been staring back at the ancient peoples of the Old Testament. I love seeing anything that helps me feel more connected with biblical times and people, especially as so much doubt is cast on the Bible these days…
6. Paris: PALACE OF KING DARIUS I (BIBLICAL KING)
As I just mentioned, few things excite me as much as connecting with the Biblical archaeology. When I came across this section of the Louvre, I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. All the descriptions are in French, but it was clear that I read the word “Darius” and then the app I downloaded as an audio tour guide finally started to work and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing… I was standing before large pieces of one of the palaces of King Darius the Persian, who was mentioned in the book of Ezra and whose reign started shortly after the death of King Cyrus who decreed to help restore the temple of Israel (also mentioned in the book of Ezra). In fact, following that decree, King Darius actually helped fund that restoration effort. He was accepting of various cultures and actually build a temple to the Egyptian god Amun. I couldn’t believe I was looking at what others in the Bible may have also beheld… amazing.
5. Egypt: ANCIENT CRYPTS OF THE COPTIC PATRIARCHS, INCLUDING ST. MARK’S RELICS AT THE CATHEDRAL
What can I say…. I owe my Orthodox Church and Christian beliefs to the great apostle St. Mark, who travelled to Egypt to persuade the Egyptians about the risen Lord and Savior of the world, and in return, while he found success in several souls who were convinced, he was eventually killed by a mob of Egyptians angry at the man seeking to overturn their ancient beliefs and traditions.
In this room that I stood, the miracle-working Pope Cyril VI was given relics of St. Mark by the Catholic Church. This day was marked by all the pomp and circumstance one could think could be given on such on occasion, and those relics found their way to this room. I’ve watched the videos of this event in black and white and seen all the joy on everyone’s faces… and then to be in that same room where all of this culminated… We even read of this in the Coptic Synaxarion every year… Amazing experience.
I was also amazed when I saw the ancient resting places of so many Coptic patriarchs at a nearby Crypt:
To think about the beauty of apostolic succession, and its veracity in the Coptic Church, and particularly in the context of its necessity to salvation as attested to by Scripture and particularly by the earliest of Christian leaders and bishops, it is both beautiful and encouraging to witness such remnants of the ancient past.
4. Egypt and Paris: THE DEAD
If you can’t tell by now, death and the afterlife intrigue me, inspire me, and frighten me all at once. Being in Egypt, where I am constantly reminded of how the ancients continually focused on death and preparing for the afterlife, and then actually coming face-to-face with one of those ancient ancestors who thought he was best prepared to continue the journey after death, the experience causes me to pause and contemplate on life. Many monks’ journeys were sparked by seeing dead corpses and meditating on the impermanence of life and the need to adequately prepare for the permanence of the afterlife.
The mummy you see above … I just looked at his face… stared at it.. thought about my ancestors, and my place and purpose in life… and how ill prepared I am for the next.
When I was in Paris I didn’t expect to think about this too much, but in the Louvre I saw some items that were buried with an individual from the ancient city of Susa, Persia (mentioned in the Bible)…. It is believed to date around the 4th or 5th century B.C. …
When I saw this picture… not a photo but rather an illustration of what the tomb looked like when it was discovered in the early 1900s … I paused … then I glanced to my right and saw some of the jewelry that was buried with this person:
As I looked at the jewelry, I thought about the wealth we amass in this life, which we will certainly leave behind. It is rubbish. It is chasing after the wind. All kinds of verses kept rushing to memory, even though I could hardly recite them, the spirit of their meaning flooded my heart and I felt an overwhelming sense of vanity as I thought about life.
“The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain. This also is vanity.”—Ecclesiastes 5:10
“Let not yours be the outward adorning with braiding of hair, decoration of gold, and wearing of fine clothing, but let it be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable jewel of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.”—1 Peter 3:3-4
“For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.”—1 Timothy 6:10
3. Egypt: 4th-5th CENTURY CHURCH OF ABU SERGA AND POPE CYRIL VI MIRACLE
For a while now I’ve known about the ancient church in Old Cairo dedicated to the early Christian martyrs Sergius and Bacchus, referred to in Arabic short-form as “Abu Serga.” It is said to have originally been built in the 4th or 5th century. I was so excited to finally see this old Church which used to have much significance in the early Coptic years, where during the 600s to about AD 1047, when the Coptic Pope at that time moved the official papal residence to the Hanging Church. Abu Serga also is considered the site where the Holy Family is said to have rested.
What I didn’t know was about a particular miraculous occurrence (one of many miracles I’m sure) that transpired at this Church. I do not recall why this happened, but at some point in 1967, during a period of crisis in Egyptian history, at the beginning of Holy Passion Week that year, blood began to flow out of the cross on one of the pillars in the church. (Note: this was about one year before the famed apparitions of St. Mary in Zeitoun, Egypt.) Remnants of that blood still exist on that pillar.
I do not recall exactly why… maybe it was due to the overwhelming number of visitors to the church, but not sure… In any case, the miracle-working saint, Pope Cyril VI, came to that church and placed his finger on the cross, after which the blood ceased from flowing. That pillar is surrounded by a glass partition, and a sign was placed upon the glass to commemorate this miraculous occurrence.
2. Egypt: CHURCH BOMBING SITE—ST. PETER CHURCH NEAR CATHEDRAL IN ABBASSIYA DISTRICT OF CAIRO
This is an experience I will never forget. It’s one thing to hear about a terrorist exploding a bomb that kills 25, but it is a very different thing being in the church where it happened, seeing the blood splattered on the light colored pillars turned dark by the explosion, and the round punctures in the pillars, walls, and icons caused by the shrapnel meant for maximum devastation. (See CNN article or Reuters)
As my wife and I made our way to the church, we saw a collage of photos of the martyrs, and the one that most prominently stuck out to us was the photo of the youngest martyr, 10-year-old Maggie (Fox News wrote about her); I remember rooting for her to survive, but God received her unto Himself sooner than many would have wished. Under the photos there was blood splattered on the wall, preserved for all to see. Their shedding of blood will be remembered each year on February 15th, which the day the Coptic Synod declared (in June 2017) will be the day we commemorate modern age Coptic martyrs.
Upon entering the church I noticed an unusual silence and calm that felt more than just showing reverence to a house of worship; there were a few who were sitting calmly in the new pews placed in the church to replace the ones that were damaged in the blast, yet despite all that had happened, their countenance seemed so serene, almost joyful even. And yet there I was, shaken and forcing away my tears as goosebumps gave way to the sight I was beholding.
There’s a reason the Coptic Church traditionally adorns its floors with red carpets and rugs—it is because martyrdom and bloodshed in the name of Christ has been the common plight of the Copts since the beginning of Christendom to the present age. Instead of just standing on what is meant to symbolize the blood of the martyrs, I was surrounded by their actual blood, looking at it face to face, standing where 25 martyrs left their bodies and were carried by angels to meet their Lord and Savior, the prince of martyrs, Jesus Christ (click here for a video about what happens to souls who pass away, as told by the saintly Mother Erene).
1. Egypt: FATHER LAZARUS–LIVING SAINT, MODERN ST. ANTHONY
On my first trip back to Egypt since I was 3 years old, there were so many things I wanted to see—pyramids and ancient Egyptian history, ancient monasteries and religious sites—but what, or rather who I wanted to see most was not even Egyptian. He is an Australian man who, after a miraculous encounter with St. Mary, forsook atheism and fled to the deserts of Egypt, where he has been living for decades as a hermitic, Coptic monk in a cave near that where the Founder of Monasticism—St. Anthony the Great—once lived during the 3rd century.
Many Copts have heard of him, particularly because of his appearances in the video series, “A Monk’s Life,” produced by the Coptic Satellite and Youtube station CYC (Christian Youth Channel). YOU MUST WATCH THIS IF YOU HAVEN’T!!!
For me, Fr. Lazarus is my modern-day witness to the ancient truths of Christianity, standing as a pillar and a beacon to remind me and all of us that God exists and that Orthodoxy is true.
Meeting Fr. Lazarus
On our way back from Hurghada to Cairo, it was our plan to stop by St. Anthony’s monastery. I knew it would be unlikely if not impossible to meet Fr. Lazarus, as he resides in a cave that takes 2 hours to climb, and our itinerary would not afford us the opportunity to make the 4-hour round-trip journey to see him. While I knew he prays the liturgy every midnight in the cave of St. Anthony the Great, we were not staying that late and so that was not an option either.
During our visit to the St. Anthony monastery, I asked a kind monk about the whereabouts of Fr. Lazarus, hoping by some miraculous occurrence he was out of his cave and down at the monastery where I was. To my surprise the monk answered, “He is not here. He is in Cairo.”
“What?! Where? Can I meet him?”
I came to find out that during the Holy Fifty days, after the feast of the Resurrection of our Lord, Fr. Lazarus is accustomed to going to Cairo where he receives medical treatment and other needs. We were told where he was residing, but when asked if we could call him to situate a time to meet, we were informed there was no way to do so for some reason. The only way to find him was by chance, or better yet, divine providence.
We set out the next day in Cairo to see a few religious sites, including the convent of Abu Sefein. While there, I entreated Abu Sefein to pray on my behalf to the Lord to allow me to greet Fr. Lazarus. When visiting the resting place of the former abbess of the convent, the miracle-working Mother Erene, I asked of her the same thing.
Then we went on our way to visit the old cathedral after which we would go across the street and try to find Fr. Lazarus. After we spent an extended time at the old cathedral, our tour guide started walking towards the car to take us to the new cathedral, having forgotten about our urgent desire to meet Fr. Lazarus. Upon reminding him we immediately began to change course and walk across the street into the residence where Fr. Lazarus might be.
As we entered, I turned to Suzy and said ominously, “I don’t think we’ll see him.”
She responded assuringly, “God loves you.”
Just after the entrance we looked down the hallway to our right and saw no one, and in front of us the hallway was empty. As I was contemplating what I should do, we saw a monk with a white beard and fair skin walking briskly to exit the residence. My mind was so convinced that I would not see Fr. Lazarus that my eyes had trouble recognizing who I was before me.
Suzy recognized him first and shouted in excitement, “Fr. Lazarus!”
And I responded likewise in awe and disbelief, “Fr. Lazarus!”
Now, before I tell you how he responded, you need to know what I later came to find out. Fr. Lazarus is hilarious, and has very quick-witted humor. He immediately responded, “What?!” in a humorously sarcastic tone.
Suzy responded, “We’ve been wanting to see you!”
And again humorously and humbly he loudly exclaimed, “Why?!”
As he approached us, clearly in a hurry to leave, I started to record video on my phone. I took the moment to express how much he has inspired me, and then I asked if he would share with us a spiritual word, as they used to do during the times of the early desert fathers, a custom which continues today. He directed me to the many spiritual words he has given over time on video, and so then I asked that he would pray for us.
After he prayed for us (which he offered to do in either Arabic or English—I chose English), he surprised me when he volunteered a spiritual message before we parted ways.
We had visited during a time where Copts had been murdered by terrorists on several recent occasions, and so his spiritual words arose out of those circumstances. Interestingly, the next place we visited after seeing him was the St. Peter Church (mentioned in #2 above).
He said the following—words I will remember forever:
“You might see all kinds of things happening in the Church, and you might see all kinds of things happening in the world. All of that is passing by; it’s just smoke in the wind. The only thing that lasts is what’s in your heart. So keep your heart right with God. You’re not here to judge anyone… You’re here to make a change in your heart. Okay? So you change your heart to be good.”
And then I watched as he left, walking briskly to wherever it was he was intending to be. And my heart sunk as I knew this would likely be last time I would ever see him.
But I left fulfilled. Many times great men and women of God have impacts on our lives, but we usually never meet them or get a chance to tell them how much they mean to us. I am thankful to God and for the prayers of the saints that this great man, a living saint, was one I actually was blessed to meet.