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Traveling in an area of political unrest

Don’t go!” That parental injunction rang in my ears as I left a bed-ridden, 89-year-old man on my list of visitees for a suburban Denver Lutheran Church I serve as visitation pastor. I confidently told him of my upcoming trip to Egypt as I prepared to administer communion to him in late September.
His strong words of advice would not be an uncommon utterance throughout most of 2011, as Americans recall the Egyptian Revolution that began January 25. How could Tahrir Square possibly be a place of hospitality? Why would anyone even consider travel in the historically rich country of Egypt at this time? Yet, not only did my wife and I host a group to Egypt in November, we spent much of a bright, sunny day in the middle of the iconic Tahrir Square near downtown Cairo.

Tahrir Square in Cairo was centerstage in the efforts to democratize Egypt in 2011. Since then, it has received some bad press, undeserved according to Phyllis and Paul Gilbertson. Photo provided by Janet Tollund

In 2008 we hosted a trip to Israel, Palestine, and Egypt under the promotional title of “On Holy Ground.” With the assistance of Group Travel Directors (GTD) in Bloomington, Minnesota, and its Middle East staffperson Janet Tollund, this group toured the sacred land and sites filled with rich New Testament history. The trip ended in Egypt, where the travelers’ appetites for an earlier look at our faith-history began to develop.

The ruins of an ancient temple had been found on Elephantine Island, suggesting the Ark had come from Jerusalem, up the Nile, and resided for a time in Egypt.

“On Holy Ground II — Ethiopia & Egypt” was its early 2011 followup. In Ethiopia the group traced the saga of the Ark of the Covenant and enjoyed the rich expression of Christian faith of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church — proud and fierce protectors of the Ark that they believe rests in a chapel in Axum, Ethiopia.
The planned itinerary included sailing the Nile in Egypt and a stop on Elephantine Island. The ruins of an ancient temple had been found there, suggesting the Ark had come from Jerusalem, up the Nile, and resided for a time in Egypt.
But this part of the trip was not to be. Reports of riots in Cairo began to fill the news. The group made the only decision that seemed wise — to delay the Egypt portion of the trip and return to the U.S.
The extended delay came to an end on November 7, 2011, when most of the original travelers who had visited Ethiopia returned to Cairo for 11 days of marvelous sailing on the Nile under the expert direction of Egyptologist Mahmoud Khodeir. The ancient temple of Abu Simbel became the point of departure for a trip that included many temples that had been moved to higher ground in the 1960s when the High Aswan Dam resulted in the rising of the Nile River. Luxor, the Temple of Karnak, the Valley of the Kings, and Cairo all seemed eager to show American travelers a good time.
My wife Phyllis and I have developed a friendship over the past years with Khodeir and his family and were invited to stay beyond the departure of our group. It was during that time when our host took us to Tahrir Square. We were a standout couple among the 700,000 Egyptians — young adults and families with young children. The issue that day was the need for the army to set the date for the transfer of power following the removal of the Hosni Mubarak regime.
Even as we wondered about our safety, scores of Egyptian people gave us the “thumbs up” sign, gently touched us with a word of welcome, and asked to take pictures of us (often with their children standing alongside). We were part of history, Khodeir kept reminding us, and we felt a strange and wonderful solidarity.
Without question there are days of violence and out-of-control demonstrating. Yet, we couldn’t escape the feeling the news media are largely responsible for creating the news, for determining our impression of what the Egyptian people are about in their continuing struggle toward democracy.
This was an important re-learning as we left Egypt and returned to our home in Colorado. Whenever traveling, we must weigh the value of the experience against the risk as interpreted by those we trust. Our Egyptian friend and guide, as well as our partners at GTD, felt we were protected and safe. The result was a story worth telling.
Paul R. Gilbertson is a semi-retired ELCA pastor near Denver, Colorado. He presently serves as visitation pastor at Bethany Lutheran Church in Englewood, Colorado. He has led three tours to the Middle Eastern region with Group Travel Directors.

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