Duke Students Visit Cairo

Trip sponsored by the Duke University Middle East Studies Center (DUMESC)

-By Charles Givens

April 24, 2023

Four Duke students recently returned from a DUMESC-sponsored trip to Egypt where they experienced the country’s culture, interacted with its people and explored its history.

Organized by Professor Mbaye Lo, the program (which took place over spring break) allowed students enrolled in Lo’s course Africa and Arabia: Cultures, Communities, and Connection to gain a deeper, hands-on understanding of Egypt, its centrality to the region and its rich history and dynamic social networks. 

Here are some of the students’ impressions of the trip, in their own words.

Anna Rogacki’s (T’24) experience in Egypt was moving and spiritual. Immersed in a new culture and language, she had the opportunity to visit one of the seven wonders of the ancient world in the Pyramids of Giza. Yet her visit to the Cave Church of Zabbaleen had the most profound impact on her.

The Cave Church of Zabbaleen is a Christian church in the middle of a slum settlement known as Garbage City. The Zabbaleen are a group of Coptic Christians who make their living by collecting and recycling this garbage. The church was built into the side of a mountain, and it is decorated with scenes from the Bible.

Rogacki was struck by the beauty and simplicity of the church. “I haven’t put thought to religion or my spiritual beliefs in a long time,” said Rogacki. “In that moment, I had never felt more connected to whatever that divine may be.”

Students from the DUMESC-sponsored trip stop to take a photo outside of The Hanging Church in Cairo, Egypt (photo courtesy of Layla Arty)
Students from the DUMESC-sponsored trip stop for a photo outside of The Hanging Church in Cairo, Egypt (photo courtesy of Layla Arty)

Iyesha Belgrave’s (T’25) experience in Egypt was also eye-opening. She visited a refugee school in Maadi, a suburb of Cairo. There she learned about the challenges refugee children face in Egypt. “I hope that I am able to make use of this education to ensure that other people are able to have the same opportunities [as me],” said Belgrave.

Eleanor Ross (T’24) had the opportunity to visit some of Egypt’s most famous landmarks, including the Pyramids of Giza and the Khan el-Khalili bazaar located in Cairo’s historic center. She enjoyed the bazaar so much she went back a second time. “As an avid history aficionado, I felt excitement run through my veins as I walked on pavements and navigated streets that people had [traversed] hundreds of years before me,” said Ross.

Layla Arty (T’24) also visited places of religious and cultural significance. She walked along  Moez Street,  which the UN sites as having the greatest concentration of medieval architectural treasures in the Islamic world).  

Arty noted that the Great Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha, also known as the “Alabaster Mosque,” was designed to “send a message that all religions were welcome there.” 

In addition to seeing the sites and learning more about Egypt’s rich history, the students visited the American University of Cairo (AUC), and at the end of their trip participated in the University’s Annual Conference for Excellence in Undergraduate Research, Entrepreneurship and Creative Achievement (EURECA). 

Each of the students reported that the trip brought new sights and experiences, but more importantly, also exposed them to various social, economic and political realities faced by different groups, whether refugees, garbage collectors or college students. 

“DUMESC was delighted to support this opportunity,” said Eve Duffy, Interim Director of DUMESC. “Things that students learn in class can come to life when experienced embedded in another society.”