Toccata and Fugue in a Megacity
Cairo's German Evangelical congregation celebrates its 100th birthday
April 20, 2012
With a soft cloth, Andrea Busse polishes the ornaments of the heavy church door. "It won't take long for the dust to be back again, but, still, it looks nice, right?" The pastor with the blond ponytail nods in satisfaction. The inside of the church is being repainted, and the sound of hammers can be heard in the galleries. The final preparations for the big day. On April 21, the German Evangelical Church in Cairo will be 100 years old, an event the congregation wants to celebrate in style. Former bishop Wolfgang Huber is traveling from Germany to the shores of the Nile in order to deliver the keynote address.
The church is located in one of the loudest and dustiest intersections in Cairo. In the street, minibuses caught in a traffic jam honk their horns. Fish and toy merchants offer their wares and above them, at a height equivalent to that of the church steeple, cars roar past on an overpass.
Nearby, on Tahrir Square, the protest camp of demonstrators is still present. "It is always an exploit to get here through the traffic," says Rev. Busse. "But when one steps into the church, the effort is rewarded."
Indeed, as soon as the door is shut, the noise of the city fades into the distance. The church with its plain, nearly square nave exhales tranquility. "One rarely finds such peacefulness in a megacity like Cairo," says Busse.
Organ music drifts from the gallery. Gerhard Walcker, an organ builder from the Saarland, is at the console. "My great-grandfather originally installed this organ and over the past year I have made it playable again." The organ, like the church, is something very special. "It's a romantic organ. Such soft sounding instruments were only made for a short period of time," he explained as he made the string pipes on the left side of the organ softly sound. For its birthday, the church also plans to inaugurate the newly rebuilt organ with a special concert.
The church in Cairo dates back to a period when Germany still had ambitions of becoming a major power. The altar Bible was personally dedicated by the Empress herself; about the opening day, the logbook states, "The church and forecourt were festively adorned with garlands, flowers and banners."
The Evangelical congregation of Cairo was founded in 1864 and grew very quickly. One hundred years ago, 1,842 Germans lived in Cairo. "They played a major role in the life of the city, since they occupied important functions in the administration and as hotel owners," says Angelika Marks. Together with archaeologist Gisela Fock, she studies the congregation archives and keeps the logbook.
"At the time, the congregation was rich and so could afford this marvelous church," Marks explained. And it isn't just any church: Naturally, a German architect was engaged, because the concern was also to exhibit our Germany identity. In contrast to the neo-Gothic style predominant in Berlin at the time, the result was a neoclassical structure with art nouveau elements. At the time, this and the choice of location sparked heated debates within the congregation.
"The lot purchased was situated in Boulaq, one of the most ill-famed and dirtiest Arab sectors of the city," said a flyer against the construction of the church at the time. It went on to say: "The grounds lie along the Ismailia canal, which is used by natives for washing and bathing. Due to insufficient surveillance, dead cats and other animal corpses float in the canal."
In those days, the church was on the outskirts of the modern city; today it is in the very center. Where the canal once flowed, now runs a street. However, only a few of the 130 congregation members still live in the inner city. Most of them live in quieter sections or in the suburbs, and for them the road to the church is long and arduous.
"It is a quite special congregation," says Axel Matyba, who shares the pastorate with his wife Andrea. Many congregation members are middle-aged and have small children. "They come for a few years to Cairo and then leave again," he explained. There are also women with Egyptian husbands who maintain contact with their native land through the congregation.
"What is also special is that many of our members first became acquainted with the church in Egypt," Busse says. Egypt is a very religious country and it brushes off. "In many cases it begins with children asking questions," she says. "The children see Muslims praying five times a day and want to know how Christians pray."
To make it easier for the congregation, the pastor often goes to them. So worship is celebrated in the church only from time to time - more often in a family's private garden in the suburbs or in a valley in the desert.