Monday, April 02, 2007

Talking To God

Dad has finally returned home because home improvements wait for no man. This has allowed me to revert to my harsher ways of travelling. The past few days have been spent taking in some of Egypt's Christian heritage. Although no longer a majority, at 7 million individuals the Copts form the largest and most influential minority. The Coptic church was amongst the foremost in antiquity and some of its traditions spread far beyond its boundaries, most notably the practice of monasticism.

In the third century there lived in Egypt a Christian man called Paul was having a hard time under the Roman regime and decided to retire to the desert close to the Red Sea to live the life of a hermit. Legend has it that he survived only on dates and half a loaf of bread brought to him every morning by a raven, and clothed himself only in palm leaves. Saint Paul is considered to be the first Christian hermit and monk. A few years later another man, called Anthony, who was dissatisfied with the materialism of modern life, decided to try hermitting himself. Initially he didn't stray too far from civilisation but soon he became somewhat of a celebrity and people came to seek him out for advice and blessings. Anthony began tiring of the adulation and decamped to a cave some 40km distant from Paul thinking that he would finally have some peace there. Unfortunately (at least for Anthony), like so many blind followers of fashion, Anthony's fans thought this was a fantastic idea and followed him out there, thereby failing to grasp the central tenet of hermitting - being alone (much like these hermits). Instead they congregated around Anthony's cave and monasticism was born, with Anthony, unwittingly, becoming the first abbot. Soon the monkish craze spread through the Graeco-Roman empire and then throughout all of Christendom.

The two monasteries that sprouted around the saintly caves are still functioning, each with a sizable community of monks, and local Copts regularly visit on the weekends for family outings and morning mass. Foreign visitors are also welcome and are shown around the ancient church buildings by friendly, bearded monks in their black cassocks and comical caps. Food and board are provided and one can even attend mass - an interesting experience with copious amounts of incense and chanting, but at 3 hours in length not something that needs repeating. I was rather unlucky when visiting St Anthony's monastery because they were beginning their Palm Sunday preparations and so I couldn't stay the night. Instead I had to hike the 15km back to the main road that evening. It ended up being a tad too far and I decided to camp out in the desert instead, but was unfortunate because at that moment my tent decided to die on me and so I was forced to just cocoon myself in my sleeping bag until the morning. At least it ended up being a cheap night.

There are many other venerable monasteries in Egypt, but perhaps the most important, and certainly the most famous, is the Greek Orthodox monastery of Saint Katherine in Sinai. It was founded by order of the emperor Justinian I in 527 next to the Burning Bush through which God is supposed to have talked to Moses. There is still a bush there to this day but it is a cutting of the original (much like the Bodhi tree) and Orthodox Christians come from all over the world (especially Russia it seems) to leave small prayers written on scraps of paper wedged into the cracks of the wall surrounding the holy herb. There isn't particularly much to see in the monastery as most of it is closed off and some of it is being restored, but there is a small museum of icons and manuscripts that contains a copy of possibly the most important text on inter-faith relations and was written by Muhammad himself and that seems to have been forgotten by many radical Muslims today (I thought it was such an important piece of writing that I have added an English translation of it below):

"This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them. Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them.

No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries.No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims' houses. Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God's covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate.

No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight. The Muslims are to fight for them. If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray.

Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants. No one of the nation [Muslims] is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day [end of the world]."

Above the monastery sits Mount Sinai where God gave his commandments to Moses. Hundreds of people hike up there during the night to see the sunrise from the summit. That wasn't for me, however, because despite being in Egypt, at 2285m it can still get mighty cold at the top at night, and I like to get my beauty sleep (and boy, do I need it with my ugly mug!), and I don't like being surrounded by huge throngs of tourists. Instead I went up during the day so that I could see some wildlife (I was lucky enough to see a mountain goat only 50m away which really made my day) and not be bothered by other people. I stayed until sunset (I prefer sunsets to sunrises anyway) with only a couple of other people up there before stumbling back to town. Old Mo must have been feeling a bit lazy that day though, because just across the valley you can see the significantly taller Mount Katherine (which also happens to be the tallest mountain in Egypt). I suppose I'll let him off seeing as he was 80 years old at the time.

1 comment:

Inihtar said...

Wow! That was an informative post! It's fun to uncover the stories behind places and traditions, isn't it?