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Egypt: Ever Old, Ever New

A seat of civilization, Egypt continues to thrive while the Nile River flows.

The land of Egypt evokes the memory of ancient and spectacular achievements. The pyramids at Giza and Saqqara, the Sphinx, the temples and monuments all bear witness to the greatness of a civilization that was already 5,000 years old when America was discovered.

Located in the northeast corner of Africa, Egypt is bounded on the north by the Mediterranean Sea, on the east by the Red Sea, the Holy Land and Asia, on the south by the Sudan, and on the west by Libya. Its central position between East and West has vitally influenced Egypt’s history and culture.

At the heart of Egypt’s life is the River Nile, whose banks have been cultivated for thousands of years. Since most of Egypt is rainless, the ancient inhabitants waited in June of every year for the Nile flood, which would inundate their dry land. They believed that a yearly tear drop from the goddess Isis caused the Nile to rise, and they worshipped the river which was their source of life, commerce, communication and unity between Upper and Lower Egypt.

During the first 3500 years of its existence, the pharaohs ruled Egypt. It was an age of striking accomplishments: the building and decoration of the pyramids and temples; the development of the hieroglyphic system of writing; the advancement of science and medicine. The Egyptians also had a detailed system of religious belief and practice which found expression in their daily life.

Ancient Egyptians believed that the soul was immortal, and that when a person died his body as well as his spirit entered into another life. Therefore they took great care in preserving the body after death. Objects which the dead person might need in his second life were placed in his tomb. Though their view of life after death included fearful aspects, such as the trials and judgments one must face before attaining the celestial fields, the Egyptians believed that eternal life was the culmination of all the happy moments on earth. Thus their artists portrayed many aspects of daily life on the walls of the tombs; popular belief held that the gods, people, animals and objects that were depicted would later come alive. The drawings are peopled by characters from all walks of life: farmers and bricklayers march along the walls with kings, queens and other members of the nobility, old and young.

Like most ancient peoples, the Egyptians worshipped many gods. One of the pharaohs, Akhnaton, made religious history by proclaiming that there was but one god, Aton, who was the source of all life. Aton was represented by the sun disc, a common sacred symbol of antiquity, whose rays brought life to the world and all its creatures. Although the concept of a single deity was present in Egyptian belief long before the time of Akhnaton, he was the first ruler to establish one god at the center of a religious doctrine.

Though Akhnaton tried to persuade his people to accept Aton as their only god, he was not successful. He was an ineffective leader, and his desire to unite Egyptians in their worship and belief was prompted by political as well as religious ambitions. The religion he promulgated cannot be compared to the monotheism of Judaism and Christianity. Nevertheless, Akhnaton’s teaching became part of his country’s mystical tradition. Perhaps its memory stirred in the hearts of Egyptians when, centuries later, they at last learned of the one true God.

The age of the pharaohs came to an end with the conquest of Alexander the Great in 332 B.C. For the next nine centuries, the influence of Greece and then Rome would spread out from the banks of the Nile. Within the span of fifty years, both Caesar and the Infant Christ came to Egypt.

Popular tradition has long held that St. Mark brought the Faith to Alexandria. The writings of the historian Eusebius indicate that Christian communities were well established by the end of the second century. The Nile again influenced Egyptian history as Christianity spread to the towns and cities along its banks. In Alexandria, schools of theology flourished under such distinguished theologians as Origen and St. Clement.

During the third century, St. Anthony of Egypt forsook comfort and security for a life of prayer and solitude in the desert. Men who sought to follow his example settled near him, to be guided by his instruction. Anthony organized these early communities of monks, and today he is considered by many to be the “Father of Monastic Life.”

Most of Egypt was converted to Christianity, and the Church continued to grow until the Muslim conquests of the seventh century established Islam as the dominant religion. Its influence remains; even today, more than 90% of Egypt’s population is Muslim, and Islam still governs many areas of family and social life. But significant numbers of the population retained their Christian faith even in the face of opposition, and their descendants bear witness to their tenacity. The Orthodox Copts are the largest Christian body in modern Egypt, with approximately 4,000,000 members. About 100,000 other Christians include Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic, as well as Catholics of the Melkite, Maronite, Coptic and Armenian rites. Without worldwide interest and support, however, it is difficult to say how long they will be able to endure; many westernized Christians left Egypt during the 1950’s and 60’s because of political unrest, so the already small Christian communities dwindled still further.

Cairo, the cosmopolitan capital of the nation, is home for nine million people, many of whom have left the provinces to seek a better life in the city. It is a study in contrasts. Colorful bazaars overflow the narrow lanes, where the air is scented with spices and filled with the cries of merchants and shoppers. Skillful artisans work at their crafts, lending a medieval atmosphere. Meanwhile, the main roads are glutted with vehicles of every description: trucks, cars, buses, bicycles, horse-drawn wagons and donkey carts.

The housing shortage in Cairo is acute. Some Cairenes who cannot find or afford to buy homes seek shelter in the mosques. Others live in mud huts on the banks of the Nile, using the river for bathing and washing. Thousands are squatters on the flat roofs of Cairo’s apartment buildings, sharing the sadly inadequate sanitary facilities. The poorest live in or near the garbage dumps at the foot of the Mokattam hills, on the pennies they earn by recycling garbage.

For the poor, both young and old, survival may depend on using one’s wits. In the center of Cairo, a small boy kneels every night in the light of a lamppost to do his homework. At his side are the paper cones filled with watermelon seeds which he will have sold by 10:00 P.M. He and many other children and adults earn their daily meal this way.

The Catholic Near East Welfare Association is helping to fight the poverty that afflicts modern Egypt. It sends funds to orphanages to support homeless children, and finances the training of priests, sisters and brothers in the country’s seminaries and novitiates. Many of these religious will help to provide the education and medical care that will enable the poor to improve their standard of living.

The Egyptian government is also facing the problem of poverty and finding solutions for it. New industrial projects are designed to bolster the country’s economy; they include the modernization of agricultural methods and communications, and the development of such industries as fishing, textiles and cement. The expansion of the Suez Canal will also increase opportunities for international trade.

The Egyptians are an optimistic and joyful people with a deep sense of faith. How could it be otherwise? They are the keepers of what may be the world’s most ancient civilization. They have witnessed the rise and fall of numerous dynasties, withstood invasion and conquest, and preserved a glorious heritage while drawing upon the wisdom of neighboring cultures. With the ebb and flow of history, one thing has not changed: the Nile is still the lifeblood of the land. For centuries it has watered the crops, borne the vessels, and carried the merchants, scholars and holy men who fashioned Egypt’s destiny. While the Nile lives, so does Egypt.

Leila Badran was born in Egypt. She now lives in New York, where she is a research analyst and freelance writer.

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