January has been satisfyingly cold. Not Scottish cold, of course, but cold enough to wear a jacket and even a scarf. The skies have been grey, and there was even a day when it tried to rain. At ETSC we have just completed the short January term, a three week period of intensive courses.
Often international theologians are invited to lecture, and this year we had invited Yohanna Katanacho from the Nazareth Evangelical College who lectured on Palestinian Theology. His lectures certainly hit a chord with our Egyptian students, who reflected on their own situation and the various discriminations they face as Christians. I had met Yohanna during my time in the Galilee, so it was good to see him again.
January also saw the Egyptian launch of the Arabic translation of Calvin’s Institutes. It was a big event, with the auditorium full. It seems Calvin still makes an impact today! The translators were Lebanese, Syrian and Egyptian, and the editor was Dr George Sabra, President of the Near Eastern School of Theology (NEST) in Beirut, who in his speech described how Calvin wrote his work at a time of great persecution. Dr Atef Gendy, President of ETSC, highlighted the cooperation between Egypt and Lebanon in the project and mentioned that a team from ETSC would soon be meeting their counterparts at NEST to plan for future projects of more recent works. Translation is vitally important in the Middle East to allow Christians to access works written in other languages.
While life has been busy at the Seminary, I did manage to get away one Saturday with friends, and we ventured to the Fayoum, a fertile oasis just 90 minutes drive from Cairo. We had lunch at a former royal lodge overlooking the lake (definitely fading grandeur!), had a look round some ancient temples and visited one of the pottery villages for which the Fayoum is famous (I had already bought some pottery from a church-based project in the village of Garagos near Luxor, so resisted the temptation to buy).
However, the highlight of our day was a visit to the St Macarius monastery, which is situated on a mountainside bordering the Western Desert. My guidebook stated that after centuries of neglect, the monastery had been revived and that in the early 2000s there were 14 monks living there. My guidebook was admittedly several years old, but nonetheless we were very surprised to find the monastery a hive of activity and that there are now 150 monks there!
This reinforced what I had heard; that monasticism is once again becoming a popular option in Egypt. We spoke with a number of men who had been engineers and bankers, but had now left everything to become monks in the back of beyond. The area around the monastery was large, and some of the desert has been reclaimed, so that the monks grew olives and dates and various vegetables with a shop selling its produce. The original church had been replaced by a slightly bigger one, but near the gate an even bigger church is currently being constructed. Around the mountain, however, were the little cells where the monks lived and prayed. At certain times each day they would gather for communal worship. It was encouraging to see all the prayerful activity in the desert – and of course it was in the Egyptian desert that monasticism has its roots.
The month ended with the engagement party of one of our students, Ibrahim Nagy, though it was such a big affair with sermons, speeches and vows that it was almost like the wedding itself. We now await the Spring semester, which starts in February.