After we left Saint Macarius on Saturday, we went to Anafora, a Christian retreat center out in the desert. Unfortunately I don't have anywhere near enough pictures of Anafora. The camera's battery was running out, and the place was just so serene and relaxing that neither Jeff nor I could see disturbing the peace by snapping pictures every couple of minutes. So we took very few pictures, but if you'd like to see the 16 that we did get, you can click here.
As we drove along the highway, I saw a beautiful building enclosed in a wall. The white stone building had multiple domes. I commented to Jeff that it would be nice if we could go there. Jeff's reply: "Who knows, that may be where we're going." He was right, in a way.
We pulled up to the gates in the stone wall around the beautiful building. The driver honked the horn, waited a couple of minutes, and honked it again. No one came to open the gates. Ibrahim got out of the bus to read a sign, written in Arabic on a plain sheet of paper, that was attached to the gates. Then he pulled out his mobile phone and made a call. He got back onto the bus and announced that he had both bad news and good news. "The bad news is that Anafora is closed. The good news is that we can visit." With that, the bus began backing up and manuevering into a ponderous three-point turn. We drove up the road to the end of the wall, then turned down a narrow lane. We followed the wall until we arrived at the gate to another compound, behind the original one. We were admitted through this gate.
We continued down the lane past fields, with a few workers diligently going about their duties. Then we arrived at a clearing that had several small stone buildings. Most were connected to each other, but one stood alone. The stand-alone building faced away from us, and Ibrahim led us around the side to the entrance. Almost everyone paused to look around and take photographs of the pictures on the building's wall, so then we scurried to catch up to Ibrahim. I was so busy watching my footing that I didn't even glance at the building's front. We entered the building through some huge wooden doors. The building was almost entirely one room, with windows along each side, providing a cooling breeze when opened. The floor was covered in multi-colored rugs. There were benches and chairs along the edges. The center was covered with small stools and large pillows made out of the same material as the rugs. Near the front, there was a white cross laid out on the floor, and a tree-stump lecturn in the middle. Ibrahim later told us that the tree represents the Tree of Life. We all had a seat, and Ibrahim told us about how one becomes a Coptic monk and how the Coptic Pope is chosen. He also told us a bit more about the differences between Coptic and Catholic theology and church organization. He told us about recent events that have affected Anafora and mentioned a couple of interesting laws that exist not only in Egypt, but in other Muslim countries as well: No church can be built without the approval of the president himself, and even repairs to existing churches--as small as patching a hole or fixing a broken toilet--must be approved by the government. It used to be that Mubarak himself had to approve it; then he changed the law so that now, the regional government can approve repairs instead. Only Mubarak himself, however, can allow the construction of a new church. For that reason, Anafora doesn't have a church. Instead, it has only this meeting house. Government officials almost tore down the meeting house, saying that it was a church, but Anafora's leaders showed them that the meeting house is not a church, simply a large meeting room.
After the lecture, we exited the the meeting house and were given some time to look around and take pictures. That's when I first saw the front of the meeting house. It was breathtakingly beautiful. I can't describe it with words: look at the picture.
After everyone had walked around and taken pictures, we went back to the bus. We drove a short distance, by some more fields, to a large building where we were to each lunch. Ibrahim informed us that the lunch was free; it was a gift from the volunteers and workers of Anafora, and none of our ticket price had gone toward it. (There was a donation box that many of us used to show our appreciation for this hospitality, but there was no pressure to do so.) Lunch was a serve-yourself buffet of chicken, green beans, a potato dish, raw vegetables, flatbread, and a dip/spread that looked like hummus but wasn't. There were dates for dessert. Everything was delicious . . . except that I think dates must be an acquired taste. Everyone there was very friendly. Those who didn't speak English smiled shyly and nodded. Those who did speak English welcomed us warmly.
After lunch, we were free to roam the grounds at will. No one implied in any way that there was anywhere we weren't welcome to go. Jeff and I followed a path away from the building into the fields. We roamed along an irrigation ditch and back up to and around a swimming pool, where some men were relaxing in the water. One of them was a friend from church, who was spending the weekend there with some friends. We chatted for a few moments and then left him to his friends while we continued our wandering. Everywhere we went, there were seating areas set up. Some obviously were set up for those who wanted to sit alone, either in front of a beautiful view or in a grass-roofed cabana with a table available to hold tea or study material. Other areas were for groups of varying sizes: two or three chairs clustered around a small table on a veranda, eight or ten chairs on a breezy balcony, twenty or thirty chairs in a semi-circle under a grass roof. Everything was quiet and peaceful.
We went up to the roof of the main building and took a couple of pictures. We saw Ibrahim and a few members of our group chatting on the third-floor balcony. We discovered that the second floor was a library, and we stopped to look at the books. Before long, Jeff and I both were lounging on cushions reading. We overheard bits of conversation from outside, maybe from the second- or third-floor balcony, maybe from the veranda on the first floor. Our interest was piqued when we heard enough snippets to know that American politics was the topic of conversation, but it was so peaceful there that I didn't want to ruin it by getting involved in a discussion in which I was sure to disagree passionately with someone, and Jeff seemed to feel the same.
After a while, some conversation drifted in through the open balcony door that did pique my interest enough for me to forsake my book and head downstairs. People were talking about the delicious tea that they were drinking and about items that were available for purchase downstairs. So I went down to check it out. I drank some hot chocolate and purchased some hibiscus jam. I ended up out on the veranda sitting around a table with a constantly shifting group of people engaged in pleasant conversation. At first, it was Ibrahim and Lauren's family. Then Ibrahim and the male members of Lauren's family disappeared and were replaced by two women. At some point Lauren went in search of Zack. Then Jeff showed up; in response to my question, he said that he had come downstairs so no one would have to wait for him. I looked at my watch and realized that it really was almost 5 o'clock, the designated time for us to rendezvous at the bus. We had been at Anafora since 1 and had been left to our own devices since lunch ended around 2:30. The time had passed very quickly.
So we got on the bus and returned to Maadi. The whole way back, the sense of absolute peace never left me--even though I listened to Rush Limbaugh's podcast, which never fails to absorb all my interest and energy. Even today, thinking about and remembering Anafora, I can feel the tension leave my shoulders and my whole body relax. I guess that's what makes it such a great retreat center.