In 1980, Thomas and Judith Parker, of Salt Lake City, were called to serve in Egypt as representatives of the Church’s International Mission. Brother Parker, an attorney, was appointed agent for the Church to pursue a petition with the Egyptian government to grant legal recognition of the Church. Sister Parker, a Ph.D. in Cultural Foundations of Educational Administration, was invited to join the faculty of the American University in Cairo. The Parkers recount their experience in the following article.
“Ahlan wah Sahlan.”
These were the words of welcome we heard again and again during the eighteen months we lived in Egypt. We heard them from many people—from lowly street cleaners and bohabs (doorkeepers), to Ministers of State—all cordial and friendly. Hospitality was their hallmark. In this arid land, pottery jars of water grace the front of many humble homes so travelers may enjoy a cool drink.
As Mormons, we had a special interest in Egypt. Because we sought to learn and appreciate their values, the people readily accepted us. We became friends with Egyptian judges, lawyers, educators, administrators, generals, and ministers of government. Through our conversations and visits at their homes and ours, we learned much about Egypt and developed a great love for its people. We also gained a great deal of respect for their values and beliefs.
We learned that the moral codes of both Moslems and Coptic Christians in Egypt are strict, with the patriarch of the family responsible to mete out punishment to the wrongdoer. The people take great pride in their families and love and cherish their children. Many times we saw fathers hold up their babies, even on a crowded street, for all to admire. They revere parents and grandparents, and honor the wisdom of age and experience.
When we showed Egyptian friends a photograph of our family with our six children and twenty-two grandchildren, they were pleased to learn that there were Americans who—like themselves—held family life in high esteem. Unfortunately, their image of Americans has generally come from U.S. television programs which often depict Americans as ruthless, rich, and immoral.
We found that in spite of the difficult realities of life, Egyptians are generally a cheerful, happy people. They have a great sense of worth and dignity, regardless of their station in life. An eminent Egyptian jurist told us, “The people are happy because they trust in God (Allah) for all eventualities, and believe that their personal responsibility ends with their best effort.”
This trait is evident even on congested streets of downtown Cairo. Twelve million people meet the daily challenges of overcrowding, pollution, and horrendous traffic with considerable good humor. We called it “compassionate accommodation.” City people as well as the fellah (farmers) express their emotions by laughing heartily, arguing noisily, and often ending disputes with affectionate camaraderie.
The Egyptians we became acquainted with love their country. In spite of centuries of foreign impositions, they have proved remarkably resilient and have retained their own unique identity. The modern Egyptian, golden-skinned and fine-featured, is the clear product of five thousand years of civilization and is proud of his heritage.
Indeed, Egypt has a remarkable heritage involving the ancient pyramids, temples, tombs, and mastabas dating back 4,500 years and earlier. Scholars from all over the world come to admire and study their ancient and sophisticated culture. Many evidences from wall reliefs, papyri, artifacts, statuary, and hieroglyphic inscriptions demonstrate that medicine, law, music, and philosophy were well established at an early period of time. Herodotus, the Greek historian who is referred to as the “father of history,” visited Egypt in the fifth century B.C. and wrote: “Concerning Egypt itself, I shall extend my remarks to a great length because no country possesses so many wonders.” We felt similar feelings of awe, wonder, respect, and admiration.
The majestic Nile River, known in ancient times as “The Keeper of the Country,” has generated highly productive farm lands for centuries and has fostered Egypt’s reputation as the breadbasket of the Middle East. For this reason Egypt has been coveted by many foreign powers. Today the Aswan Dam, which created the largest man-made lake in history, has controlled annual flooding, and sends electricity to many cities and villages. Piped water is available to most of the outlying villages, and has helped to double and triple crop production. We were told that over a million acres of desert land have been reclaimed.
Modern Egyptians are also very much concerned about education. The national government provides free university education to students who pass qualifying examinations, enabling about 500,000 students to attend six major universities in Egypt. Cairo University has approximately 115,000 students in such fields as commerce, engineering, medicine, law, dentistry, linguistics, and agriculture. These students constitute a growing educated middle class. The Egyptian government guarantees each graduate a government job—or land which has been reclaimed from the desert for homesteading. Also, many thousands of students on a university level go to other Middle Eastern countries to teach or pursue their professions.
Sayyed Darwich, a famous Egyptian composer, reflected this land’s proud heritage in its national anthem: “Egypt, mother of countries … Egypt, mother of happiness … Egypt, your children have dignity.”
Some of Egypt’s remarkable history intermingles with our own scriptural history—and, for this reason, is of special interest to Latter-day Saints. For example, we learn from Abraham’s record in the Pearl of Great Price that the first government of Egypt was patriarchal and that the first Pharoah, “being a righteous man, established his kingdom and judged his people wisely and justly all his days.” (Abr. 1:21–26.)
Having learned about the sun, the moon, and the stars through inspiration from God, Abraham taught astronomy to the Egyptians while he sojourned there. (See Abr. 3:1–15.) Hagar, Sarah’s handmaid and mother of Abraham’s son Ishmael, was Egyptian. (See Gen. 16:1.) And Ishmael married an Egyptian woman. (See Gen. 21:21.)
Years later, Abraham’s great-grandson, Joseph, was carried into Egypt as a slave. But he rose to a position of prominence and leadership and married an Egyptian girl, Asenath, daughter of the priest of On. She bore him two sons—Ephraim and Manasseh, who lived out their lives in Egypt. (See Gen. 41:45, 50–52.) Most Latter-day Saints, through their patriarchal blessings, claim Ephraim and Manasseh as direct ancestors; their parentage is thus linked to Egypt.
The Book of Mormon is also allied with Egypt, having been written in “the language of the Egyptians.” (1 Ne. 1:2.) Moroni, writing a thousand years later, still acknowledged the Nephites’ use of Egyptian writing: “We have written this record according to our knowledge, in the characters which are called among us the reformed Egyptian.” (Morm. 9:32.)
Another important element of Latter-day Saints’ scriptural ties with Egypt is Egypt’s history as a land of refuge. One prominent judge told us he felt that the practice of granting asylum has its roots in Egypt. As recipients ourselves of Egypt’s kindness, we were reminded many times of the biblical references to Egypt as a sanctuary.
Both Abraham and Jacob took their families to Egypt to escape grievous famines. There they were given “the good of all the land of Egypt.” (See Gen. 12:10; Gen. 45:17–20.) When Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem, destroying the temple and carrying most of Judah into Babylon, a remnant of the Jews fled to Egypt for asylum. (See 2 Kgs. 25:26.)
Perhaps the most famous example of refuge was the flight of Joseph, Mary, and the infant Jesus into Egypt to escape Herod’s death decree. Their return to Nazareth fulfilled prophecy: “Out of Egypt have I called my son.” (Matt. 2:15; see also Hosea 11:1.)
In more recent times, Egypt has been a refuge for many others. The Armenians have come in sizable groups to escape persecution, and have been permitted to build cathedrals in Cairo and Alexandria. Many Ethiopians have also found sanctuary in Egypt.
During World War II, Japanese people established a community and Buddhist shrine in Helwan, an industrial city south of Cairo. Recently, the late Shah of Iran and his family were invited to Egypt for protection and hospitalization. One of the large mosques houses his temporary crypt.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not yet legally recognized in Egypt. However, members of the Church are permitted to meet together in homes. Latter-day Saints in Egypt, most of whom are foreigners working in business or government, enjoy each other’s company and help each other when needed. They enjoy outings together, such as felucca rides on the Nile and field trips to places of historic and religious significance. Some of the members are very knowledgeable about the antiquity, history, culture, and arts of Egypt—and they share their interests with other members.
Egyptian law prohibits proselyting or missionary activity. We respected this law and urged branch members and LDS visitors to do likewise. LDS ideals and standards of behavior and service speak for our beliefs, however, and our Egyptian friends soon became aware that we were Latter-day Saints.
For example, in Egypt it is customary to offer tea or coffee to visitors and guests. We merely had to say that we didn’t drink certain beverages for religious reasons; this was compatible with their religious commitment not to drink alcohol. Often they would inquire in a very friendly way about our religion.
To the extent that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is known in Egypt, it is known as a service church. We learned that many Latter-day Saints have served in Egypt in recent decades, some in extremely significant ways. In fact, nearly all of the non-Egyptian Latter-day Saints who live in Egypt work on various projects of service in cooperation with the Egyptian government. Some of them represent their governments in diplomatic service. Others are employed as engineers, lawyers, professors, educators, financial advisors, registered nurses, and maintenance specialists.
We learned that Egyptian friends and colleagues respect our Church members for their high standards of behavior, love of family, friendliness, industry, and willingness to share their expertise to help others. The Egyptian Minister of Agriculture said that he was aware of the improvement to his country’s agriculture made by Latter-day Saint professionals and specialists. Members of the Church are directors and specialists on various projects. Among their number is a member who worked as a project director in developing mechanization for small farms. He and his Egyptian counterpart had the responsibility of designing one-man and one-animal machines to simplify maintenance and increase production on farms of less than five acres. Another member worked on the development of large farming equipment to be used in reclamation projects. Others contribute expertise in water use and management and train Egyptians in modern irrigation methods employed successfully in the western United States. Sterling Davis, who, with his wife, Joyce, served as special representatives of the Church, was a specialist in drip irrigation and made a substantial contribution. Two Church members worked on improving the water and sewer systems in Alexandria.
Dr. James Layton, sociologist and a member of the Church, has the responsibility of working with the Egyptian farmer or fellah, encouraging him to make the dramatic shift from primitive methods of plowing and farming to more effective, modern methods. One large project involving several members, Major Cereals Unit, is increasing production of basic grains vital to the Egyptian economy. Other members are involved in a poultry and hatchery project.
Latter-day Saints are also involved in educational programs in Egypt, teaching on university, secondary, and elementary levels. Egyptian universities have used our professors in administration, law, history, fine arts, curriculum development, and English. Research on ancient Egyptian music is being conducted in conjunction with the Ministry of Culture.
Dentistry and medicine in Egypt have also been influenced by Latter-day Saints. In the spring of 1982, forty LDS dentists from California went to Egypt as volunteers and held workshops with Egyptian dentists. We were told that the skill, dedication, and demeanor of the visiting dentists was an excellent model to medical personnel and students.
Dr. Norma Hansen, a nursing administrator, developed a curriculum to improve nursing care in Egyptian hospitals. She also initiated an exchange program of Egyptian and American nurses. Two other Church members worked in hospitals and medical centers. Some of our Relief Society sisters were volunteers in infant- and mother-care units. Louise Weidner Read researched a project to improve village water sanitation. Medical services of all specializations are greatly appreciated in Egypt.
Harold Monson, a medical photographer, trained Egyptian technicians in this specialized science at the University of Alexandria. His wife, Dora, taught English at the American Culture Center.
Latter-day Saint archaeologists are also making an important contribution in Egypt. The Brigham Young University Ancient Studies Department, under the direction of Dr. C. Wilfred Griggs, has contractual permission and approval of the Egyptian government for an unlimited excavation of four hundred square miles in eastern Fayum. In the estimation of scholars, this could be one of the most important “digs” in Egypt. For two seasons BYU archaelogical teams have excavated at the Old Kingdom (2800 B.C.) Seila step pyramid, and at two Hellenistic cemeteries, which have yielded excellent examples of Coptic Christian textiles, jewelry, and pottery shards. Beautifully preserved mummies have also been found in layers of sand. Two large Roman cities have yet to be excavated.
Permission to excavate at these sites has never been granted before by the Egyptian government. We were told that the sites, untouched except for minor plundering, are among the finest to become available for excavation in the past century. The potential for significant historical and religious discovery, as well as artifact recovery, is great.
During our stay, the Young Ambassadors of BYU gave five performances in Egypt and on a prime-time television program. We heard many favorable comments about their performances from our Egyptian friends and students. One Egyptian public relations specialist who worked with the students said to us enthusiastically, “For over fifteen years I have never worked with a better organized group. Each one knew his job and part and performed it beautifully. They are a top-level model of American youth!”
It is easy to see why we were proud to be Latter-day Saints, to be associated with people who are making an important contribution in Egypt. Before we left, some of our friends, a professor at Ain Champs University (86,000 students) and his wife, gave us a prayer rug with an Arabic inscription: “Allah’s hands bless those hands who serve.”
Our eighteen months in Egypt introduced us to a wonderful land, an impressive culture, and many new friends. We love and appreciate the people for their past greatness, for their present stature favoring peace, and for their optimistic and happy lives. We respect them for their values that we as Latter-day Saints also espouse, such as a strict moral code, care for the poor, fasting, concern for the elderly, love for children, and obedience to parents. We recognize our close ties of brotherhood.
The prophet Isaiah foresaw the Lord’s latter-day healing and blessing of Egypt. In that day, prophesied Isaiah, “the Lord of hosts shall bless, saying, Blessed be Egypt my people.” (Isa. 19:25.)