Friday, November 30, 2007

Last weekend, we finally made our first foray out of Cairo since arriving back in the city in August. And not a moment too soon: as busily as we have been marching toward the end of our 3rd semester here, I have still had time to notice the persistent fog of haze clinging over the city. Is it me, or does it seem worse this fall than it did last year? It didn’t help that hot temperatures lingered into November, packing in the particles. Also not helping: leaded gasoline, the burning of rice fields and garbage, living in a valley.

And yet, what plagues me about life in Cairo implies one of the tremendous benefits of leaving the city. In Egypt, where everything is out of proportion, where most people live on a thin strip of land, leaving the city means leaving behind the stink and the hazy air. Things seem unspoiled. The air is crisp and clear, the sky deep bottomless blue, the sun golden on the craggy, sea-side mountain face. Did I mention the clean air?

Our trip took us a couple of hours out of Cairo, along the Gulf of Suez with its persistent ships approaching or departing the Suez Canal. We visited two very old Christian monasteries, the Monastery of St. Anthony (now with adjoining cave) and the Monastery of St. Paul, the pimped-out Vegas strip of monasteries. These monasteries are still active, populated by many devout and stylish monks who wear black habits and skull caps, and long beards—who also use their BlackBerries to communicate with the outside world and wear fashionable, coordinating sunglasses.

The saints after whom these monasteries are named escaped religious persecution in Cairo and Thebes back in the day, settling in the rugged mountains of the Eastern Desert, a few kilometers from the Red Sea. Following their deaths (of old age), the monasteries were built in their names and have continued to thrive, despite many assaults from Bedouins over the centuries. These monasteries, in fact, have the look of an ancient fortress. Both are protected by high walls, and each has at its center an ancient “keep,” surrounded a moat, where the monks would retreat if their outer walls had been breached.

Today, these active monasteries are protected by the Egyptian government—which I admire, given that the country is now overwhelmingly Islamic. There is one road in to each of these monasteries, and our bus had to stop at a checkpoint, manned as usual by some of Egypt’s finest. The roads extended for miles into the desert, to the foot of mountains where the St. Anthony and St. Paul kept safe in their lifetimes. Inside their walls is a thriving and largely self-sufficient community of Christian monks, giving tours, driving construction equipment, tending gardens, baking bread, splashing unsuspecting agnostics with holy water from the springs that sustained these monasteries for so long.

I have visited some historically significant Christian churches and cathedrals in Europe and America, but I found my sense all things Christian heightened at these places. It was like entering another world, one half-familiar to me. Gone were the minarets, the rounded structures, the open air prayer rooms, of Islamic architecture, which (of course) dominate the landscape throughout Egypt. Instead I saw icons of the saints after whom the monasteries are named, of Jesus himself. I saw it next to Arabic script, as I heard Arabic spoken around me, in the soft, compliant voices of the monks whose homes we were visiting. I sensed, as these monks must have, that these monasteries were safe havens now, protected, their place in Egypt secure. I found myself admiring the monastic life I saw around me, so different from the bustling city just two hours away. Even though the monks buy olive oil from the grocery rather than press their own olives, even though they drive moving equipment and depend upon generators to provide one fundamental of modern life—electricity—their lives are not significantly different than those of monks who have lived at these monasteries for generations dozens of generations. I admire people who live the lives of their convictions, even if I don’t share those convictions myself.

With one caveat—the Monastery of St. Paul. The place itself is ancient, but it is fairly bursting with pilgrims and tourists, much more so than St. Anthony’s. When we pulled up to St. Paul’s, we were confronted with a large but poorly-conceived parking lot built on a hill, which was already half-full with tour buses. As we approached the entrance to the monastery, we passed a roiling gift shop that sold such things as toy machine guns (one little boy had the gall to point and shoot at me, but couldn’t keep firing long enough for me to snap a photograph) and loud religious-esque music blaring from speakers. Inside, we had to squeeze among other tour groups as we visited St. Paul’s relics, gathered into a child-sized coffin covered with a sheet of clear plastic—and the ancient spring, the presence of which our monk guide claimed cannot be explained.

The parking lot at St. Anthony’s, on the other hand, was virtually empty. When we climbed the modern stairwell up the mountainside, ascending to the cave where St. Anthony retreated from persecution, I had to stop a few times, calves burning, lungs belching forth the sediment of three uninterrupted months in Cairo. After reaching the top and squeezing into the narrow cave where the man had lived, after collapsing on the rocks and breathing in the fresh, thin air, I looked over the precipice where we all sat and, for the life of me, I couldn’t see another living soul:



Bryan said...

Awesome photos.

Knowing that desert monks are toting around Blackberries, I don't feel nearly as bad about wasting money on modern gadgets. That does it: I'm getting myself an HD television. Thanks, monks!

Anonymous said...

Nice pics--

even with the cell phone and stylish sunglasses, they both appear to be sincerely listening. kf