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Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies

Cathedrals, Mosques and the Mountain of the Lord

Br. Augustine DeArmond, OP

CAIRO, Egypt -- As I sit in a small tea house, an elderly man approaches. He does not speak English, but signals for me to remove my shoes. Knowing it is the custom in the region to do so in many buildings, I take them off and place them next to my table...The man walks off with my shoes. Much to my relief, he returns with them a few minutes later, a fresh black finish and the smell of polish greet my senses. After bartering over the price of an unwanted shine, I have my shoes back at the price of five Egyptian pounds. Within minutes of walking down the street, my shoes again are covered in dust. So begins my second full day in Cairo.
From July 1st through the 15th, Br. John Paul Phillips and I joined 16 other friars from around the world as guests of the Institut Dominicain d'études Orientales   (IDEO). Our goal during this visit was to learn about the mission of IDEO, review some of their academic research, and encounter Islam in a predominately Islamic country. While we reviewed some basic history of the Islamic movement, we also dug deeper into their traditions and culture, including the charismatic nature of Sufism, the mystical school of Islam.
The Egyptian mornings are cooler than one might expect, ranging between 24 and 30 degrees Celsius. Thus, we took advantage of that break in the heat. While we spent several hours in conferences, learning about the institute and its work, we also had the opportunity to experience Egyptian culture and tour places that typically are not on tourists' maps. Everywhere we went, we were welcomed with open arms and great hospitality.
IDEO logoWe were treated to personalized tours of many prominent places, from the Ibn Tulun Mosque, one of Egypt's oldest (built in A.D. 850), to the state-of-the-art Al Azhar University, one of the world's most respected Islamic schools. Of course, no trip to Egypt would be complete without a visit to the Pyramids of Giza. Over the first few days, we met prominent writers and professors from Cairo, had conversations with many local Muslims, and visited street vendors, bazaars, parks, and even the tomb of St. Mark the Evangelist.
Although the heart of Cairo was opened for our benefit, and we were treated as honored guests, the visit should not be viewed entirely through rose-colored glasses. We had several encounters with local Coptic Christians, many of whom also greeted us with great generosity and warmth. However, their daily lives differ in many ways from their Muslim-Egyptian counterparts. No one hid the fact that certain jobs, like judgeships, high-ranking military offices, and many teaching positions are off limits to non-Muslims. A few Copts, speaking softly and with great attentiveness to their words, criticized government actions, such as increased taxes for non-Muslims and other domestic affairs that made life for them tougher than for the average citizen.
We did not spend the entire two weeks in Cairo. Towards the end of our stay, we made our way through the Sinai Desert to Dahab, a small resort town on the Red Sea. Both figuratively and literally, the summit of our experience in Egypt occurred atop Mount Sinai. All but one brother walked two and a half miles up a long, winding, and steep path. I, on the other hand, paid for a camel ride. Once my four-legged friend reached the limit of his abilities, I joined the other brothers in climbing several hundred steps (actually large stones) to the peak. Once we reached the top of the mountain, we watched the sun set and celebrated Mass with a large stone as our altar.
Having stuffed our pockets with bottles of water and candy bars, we rented thin sleeping pads and blankets, smelling not unlike the camel, and settled down for the night. The atmosphere was so clear that thousands of stars could be seen across the sky. A gentle wind was the only sound.
Around 2AM, those of us who were able to sleep were awakened by Muslim pilgrims who ascend the mountain each night and chant in Arabic – a beautiful sound. Shortly thereafter, other visitors came to the top of the mountain in expectation of sunrise. At approximately 5:30AM, fifty tourists from around the world watched the first sun of the day come up over the desert. To end our excursion, we took the steps to St. Catherine's Monastery, a 4,500 step descent from the top of the mountain to the valley below.
The opportunity to visit Cairo and learn about the mission of IDEO is one that I will not forget. The greatest benefit to my education was living and studying at the institute, and eighty-year-old endeavor to learn more about the Islamic faith. While predominately a project of the French Province, IDEO earnestly seeks friars from around the world who have an interest in advanced Arabic studies and in adding to the corpus of work produced by the institute these last eighty years. Even though the focus of IDEO centers on the Islamic faith, anyone interested in Arabic history, language or culture should contact them. The friars in Cairo have many contacts and useful resources in the Arab world.
If any communities or individual sisters or friars have an interest in learning more about IDEO or the program John Paul and I attended this summer, I would be pleased to present some of the information we received as well as share some of our experiences in greater detail. I wish to offer my sincere thanks to fr. Carlos Aspiroz-Costa and fr. Jean Jacques Pérennès, who made this program possible through grants and many hours of work. I also want to thank the Province and our benefactors for making this trip a possibility. My vocation has only been enriched by this opportunity to meet so many brothers from around the world and experience Dominican life in such a unique environment as Egypt.

Br. Augustine DeArmond, OP is a member of the
St. Martin De Porres Province





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