Manchester University
Oak Leaves

February 15, 2019

Egypt D

Class photo taken from the panoramic view of the three pyramids of Giza overlooking the city of Cairo.

Photo provided by Destinee Boutwell

Lasser, Lahman Travel through Egyptian Religious Sites in January

Tiffany Williams


The 2019 January session included a study-abroad trip to Egypt prepared by Justin Lasser, associate professor of religion, and Mary Lahman, professor of communication studies.

Lasser taught a class called Ancient and Medieval Christianity, instructing his students about the foundations of Christianity in Egypt throughout the first five centuries of the Common Era. The course was designed to follow the two-thousand-year-old Byzantine Christian practice of pilgrimage in Egypt so students would learn how earlier religious traditions were integrated into Coptic Christianity.

When visiting some of the monasteries, the group encountered cultural differences, such as incense burning and having to bow before entering. “It’s like walking through a time machine with a dead language that even Egyptians don’t understand,” Lasser said. “You can’t teach that, you can only experience it.”

Lahman taught a class called Language and Thought that explored the relationship between the two and that prepared students for interacting with tour guides, monks and merchants across Egypt. She noted that students discovered more appropriate language and listening behaviors and strove to engage in civil discourse about contentious topics, such as gender equity and economic disparity in Cairo.

One of the things Lahman talks about with her students is to have minimum expectations for where they are going, so when they get there, they have nothing to compare it to. Therefore, she says, students will find more enjoyment out of the experience rather than disappointment if something they expected does not happen. The saying she originally used was “minimum expectations, maximum motivation,” but since talking to Joshua Friend, Student Success Advisor, she prefers “minimum expectations, maximum surprise.”

Students from both classes were instructed to hold minimum expectations. “Having no bar helped the overall experience as I never knew what to expect and it helped everything seem more incredible,” said Jensen Lassiter, senior double major in English and history.

Morgan Oliver, senior business management major, agrees. “I had minimum expectations because I know they are still a developing country even though they were one of the first countries established,” she said. “Some places we went had a hole in the ground for you to use the restroom and you always had to pay to use the bathroom. However, I was expecting this because Professor Lasser told us kind of what to expect.”

Destinee Boutwell, junior English Education major, remembered how in the seventh grade she was taught a unit on Egypt and the size of the three pyramids of Giza and how she dreamed about seeing them someday. “I had to empty my expectations so that I was ready to take in my experience of the real thing,” Boutwell said. “Through that internal exercise, I was able to stand inside the middle pyramid and look at a small, dark, plain, muggy room and be filled with awe and wonder.”

While Lahman said the students should hold minimum expectations, she confided that having visited Egypt two years ago made it somewhat harder to keep the bar low. The only thing making it easier was that the schedule differed from the trip in 2016.

The itinerary for the January term trip dictated that students would get to scale the Great Pyramids, cruise the Nile River, visit ancient temples and smell the spices in the open-air markets. The trip also included stops at several monasteries and a trip to the Egyptian museum.

The students did not have much free time to themselves since Egyptian traffic is hard to navigate for people who are not from the area. Students remained with a tour guide until class for the day was over and they were back at their hotel.

“I enjoyed the schedule because I was so excited to see everything,” Oliver said. “Not every day was busy, as some days we would only go see two different things, but we would be there for a couple of hours.” Oliver also described how everything they went and saw was, as she says, “breathtaking,” but she experienced a bit of culture shock when they would walk down markets and people would follow the group, asking them to come into their shop to buy something.

Boutwell was eager to share many stories of the trip. Most notably she talked about how all of the people were nice and hospitable, but she realized her worry that people would want money for everything, even for a smile, was due to how their economy revolved around the barter system and the idea of having fixed prices was foreign to them.

Boutwell also shared that one the most unforgettable experiences was her visit to the Nubian village. “It was unforgettable riding a camel along this steep cliff overlooking the Nile River,” Boutwell said. “As we paraded into the Nubian village on our colorful camels, I was amazed at the brilliant color of the buildings.”

“My favorite part was when we decided to go to St. Anthony’s monastery where some of us went up to the cave he lived in for 40 years,” Lassiter said. “At the top all you could hear was silence as you saw only the desert in front of you.”

While Lassiter didn’t experience much of a culture shock, as she travels quite a bit, she said the students were welcomed warmly by all the people they met. However, they struggled a bit with water as they couldn’t trust it and had to use bottled water for things like brushing their teeth.

Boutwell said: “I know January session trips are expensive—the experience, the memories, the exposure to culture, the toilets that were taped together. Everything was worth every single penny.”