Sunday, April 29, 2007

15 Minutes Of Fame

I've returned to Jerusalem for a few more days to finish off the area before heading north. The main thing I wanted to do was to see the al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock from the inside. A tricky task as there are two layers of guards (one Israeli and the other Palestinian) to ensure that non-Muslims don't manage to step inside the buildings, heaven forbid! Now theoretically I can be a Muslim due to my parents, but the guards weren't buying that. It seems that the criterion for getting in is that you either look like you're an Arab (or Pakistani or Indonesian, although I didn't see any of either) or that you speak Arabic or at least have an Arabic name. Now this struck me as being rather ridiculous as there are many groups of people who would consider themselves Muslim and yet would not fulfil those criteria, such as the less devout Turks and their various Turkic cousins (Uzbeks, Uighurs and Azeris), or even the Hui Chinese. They wouldn't even stop to listen to my arguments (Iranian brought up in secular Europe), which doesn't seem to be a very enlightened or welcoming way to behave, although I guess that's what religious disputes can do to people.

There was more of the same on my various day-trips into the West Bank. It's strange, but I was talking to an Israeli who told me that, until recently, he had been baffled by CNN news reports about happenings in Palestine because of the names that are used for the different towns. Nablus is the Arab rendering of the Latin name Neapolis, but Jews know the town by its older name of Shechem. And then there is Hebron, which the Palestinians call al Khalil. Confusing to say the least. Hebron is second only to Jerusalem for religious divisiveness as the town contains the tombs of Abraham and his family and therefore constitute the second holiest site in Judaism and a pretty holy place for Muslims and Christians as well. As with the Temple Mount/al Aqsa comlex half of the site belongs to the Muslims and is a mosque, whereas the other half is a synagogue run by the Israelis, with associated guards, walls and barbed wire running down the middle. Since after the Crusades Hebron had been a predominantly Muslim town with a sizable Jewish minority, that is until 1929 when there was a pogrom against the local Jewish population forcing the remaining families to be evacuated by the British to prevent further bloodshed. The town, along with the rest of the West Bank, fell to the Israelis in 1967 and Jewish settlers began to move back into the centre of the town a few years later. This small group of orthodox settlers numbers only about 100 families, but their presence has caused Hebron to become something of a tinderbox and continual sore-point amongst Palestinians. The settlers are guarded by about 100 IDF soldiers and their enclave is heavily fortified and surrounded by razor wire. The unlucky Palestinians whose homes bordered on the enclave have had to move out to create a buffer and the area around it is slowly seeing an exodus of the remaining Palestinians due to the restrictions imposed upon them (e.g. curfews when the settlers want to walk through their part of town). I saw this myself as I was visiting towards the end of the sabbath and the Palestinian in the area were already beginning to close their shops (those that are still operational, as most of them are permanently out of business) for the Jewish procession despite the main bazaar still being as lively as ever. A pity, as the old centre of town is truly pretty and deserves some TLC to spruce it up a bit. Walking through the cobbled streets a tourist will inevitably be approached by a local. There is nothing ominous about this, the Palestinians are just desperate to show outsiders a different aspect to Hebron rather than the shocking media headlines. The main two grievances seem to be the occupation (understandable) and the lack of money. Since Hamas got elected last year a Western boycott has meant that most people who work in public services have not received their salaries for six months or more, personally I'm surprised they still bother going to work at all. The Palestinians see the boycott as horribly hypocritical, proving that they only want a democracy if it suits their interests. The argument for withholding funding, that Hamas wants the destruction of Israel, is particularly stupid because Fatah's charter says almost exactly the same and yet the West has no qualms about supporting them. That said, the standard of living of the West Bank Palestinians certainly isn't the worst I've seen in the Arab world and there is a certain degree of order and cleanliness that I had not expected. I even got to air my views on the subject to the people of Hebron and become a minor celebrity when, in the minibus to Hebron the guy sitting next to me started a conversation. It turned out that he was a journalist at the local radio station and he invited me for an interview to be broadcast the next day on Radio Khalil.

It is therefore no wonder that the town is a hotbed of Hamas and Fatah support and, although the locals are generally friendly and happy to see tourists because they bring an air of normalcy and some much needed money to the troubled town, it is impossible to have a rational discussion about the situation because eventually every political debate veers into religion (for many Muslims they are the same thing) and ends up getting clogged up with dogma and unbending faith. In this respect the two peoples are very different: because the occupation looms so large in the lives of the Palestinians it hijacks every conversation; for the Israelis, on the other hand, the Palestine situation is often purposefully avoided because it brings up difficult and divisive issues which cannot easily be solved and make the day depressing, and they would much rather be getting on with life.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Yin And Yang

Israel is a country of contradictions. On the one hand it is at the forefront of technological innovation, and on the other it is tethered to ancient rites and traditions dating back to the bronze age. It is a melting pot of people from all over the world who are welcomed into society with open arms, and yet there are mountains of mistrust and misunderstanding with its closest neighbours. And despite being one of only two countries to have been founded on the basis of religion (the other is Pakistan), the founding fathers were intellectual secularists. And nowhere is this dichotomy more apparent than when comparing Jerusalem to Tel Aviv.

Jerusalem may be the larger of the two and the (disputed) capital, but Tel Aviv is the commercial and cultural powerhouse of the country. The atmosphere of the two cities is also palpably different. Jerusalem is rather cold and drab, and the religiousness of the place permeates the air. Hasidic Jews, with their austere hats and suits (and ankle-length skirts and headscarves for the women) form a large part of the community. The buildings are usually grey or dull yellow and there isn't much greenery in the centre of town. Tel Aviv, however, is colourful and airy, with wide, tree-lined boulevards, bright houses and nary a yarmulke in sight. For people in Tel Aviv Jerusalem is far too serious and they would rather concentrate on enjoying life: sipping a coffee in a streetside cafe, lazing on the beach, relaxing in the parks, taking the dog for a walk, and, the old favourite, shopping, are all favourite pastimes of Avivians. The burdens of history and convention do not weigh on the city as it is less than 100 years old, and yet in spite of that it has plenty of character, being dubbed the "White City" for its Bauhaus architecture. Although I'm not necessarily a fan of the style, often finding it rather boxy and utilitarian, the eclectic houses (no two are alike), with their vertical lines and simple curves, combine well together giving the downtown area a homely feel.

I've been staying here with Alex, a friendly guy I met whilst in Dahab and he has been kind enough to not only give me a place to stay but has shown me around a bit as well. A couple of days ago we even went rock-climbing and I realised two things: firstly I have no muscles in my arms, and secondly I have a lot of room for improvement as far as climbing goes, something I will have to work on when I finally return home. Anyway, last night was the start of Independence Day here in Israel (traditionally Jewish days start and end at sunset), marking Independence from British rule, and it was celebrated with fireworks, plenty of flag-waving, spraying people with foam, hitting them on the head with hammers (of the inflatable variety) and general merry-making in the streets. The eve of Independence Day in Israel is followed by "National Barbecue Day". OK, that's not the official name, but that's what Alex and his housemates call the day after when Israelis all over the country gather together at their homes, in parks, or on the beach and have a barbie. So I was roped into staying with Alex an co. for a relaxing afternoon of eating and chatting on their roof, watching the pretty Judean hills spread out below us. I must say goodbye to Alex tomorrow before I start overstaying my welcome and putting down roots thanks to his overwhelming hospitality

Friday, April 20, 2007

Forts And Falcons

It was time for me to leave Jerusalem and the West Bank for a while so that I wouldn't get accustomed to the comforts of staying at Leali's. My initial foray away from indolence was south to the Dead Sea coast and the Negev. The area is home to many ancient ruins, most notably those left behind by the Nabataeans. Although they are best known for their rock-cut tombs at Petra, just across the border, there are several Nabataean waypoints in Israel that mark the culmination of the Incense Trail which started some 1500km away in Yemen. Much closer to the Israeli's hearts, however, are the vestiges of Masada castle built by Herod the Great (he of baby-killing fame). It was here, on an (almost) impregnable, isolated cliff-top that the Jews made their last stand against the Romans during their ill-fated revolt. After a year of siegeing the Romans built a giant, earthen ramp up to the battlements so that they could bring their battering ram to bear. On the evening the walls were breached, the Romans retired to get a good night's sleep for the next morning's raping and pillaging. When they got there the next day there was none to be had (at least no raping, though there was still plenty to be pillaged, but, as everyone knows, you can't have a proper pillage without at least a bit of rape) as the defenders were all dead. They had drawn lots as each man killed his family and then his neighbour until only one man was left who had the unenviable task of falling on his own sword (as suicide was taboo for the Jews). Understandably this episode has become iconic for Israelis, not only as a symbol of defying the odds, but also because the event ushered in the diaspora.

But for me the main attraction of the south was the hiking. Not only are there some beautiful trails through gorgeous scenery, but the Israeli National Parks Authority does a fantastic job at signposting the trails and providing detailed information so that you can set out on your own fully prepared and with all the necessary details (such as maps, location of campsites and drinking water) to make the experience safe and enjoyable. In all my travels I haven't seen such consistently well-marked trails (sounds unimpressive, but it is very important). Among the many lovely places I hiked was Makhtesh Ramon (Ramon Crater, though not really a crater at all) where I walked for hours without seeing another human being, just me, the limitless landscape of the desert, the birds, the flowers ... and the F-16s roaring less than 100m overhead and then dropping their bombs off in the distance (there is an air force firing range just outside the crater). At least the thrushes, pipits and other sundry little birds are happy as it keep the real falcons out of the skies. Unfortunately I didn't come completely prepared and couldn't go for more than two days at a stretch. Plus I don't want to put too much strain on my shoes which have got less than 5mm of sole in some places and which I don't want to replace in the middle of my trip. Still, it was nice to be out in the middle of nature again after a long stint of cultural sightseeing, and I know I can always come back at a later date.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Praying Over Spilt Milk

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day. It goes without saying that this is an important day here in Israel. It is a day for introspection and remembrance, the radios play particularly depressing music all day long, and at 10am sirens all across the country begin to wail for two minutes' silence during which the entire country grinds to a halt. What better day than this to visit Yad Vashem, the country's Holocaust museum and repository for Holocaust documents and the many survivors' accounts. The thorough exhibition is full of information, objects from the war and interviews of survivors. It's undeniably moving and the volume of evidence on display makes deniers sound as stupid as creationists and intelligent designers.

Over the past few days I've been visiting a few sights in the Occupied Territories. Again, there are innumerable places with links to the Bible and Jesus' life. The most obvious of these is the site of the Nativity in Bethlehem where there is a sizable church and a host of various other churches and monasteries around (though funnily enough, I've been reading that archaeologists believe that Jesus was born in a different Bethlehem to the north of Israel, though the churches are not keen on promoting the idea as not only will they look really stupid, but there will be no basis for the numerous miracles ascribed to the area). One of the odder sites related to the Holy Family is the so-called Milk Grotto which is visited by hundreds of pilgrims every day. When the family were fleeing to Egypt after the birth of Jesus to escape Herod's slaughter it is said that they spent a night in this cave and that whilst nursing her newborn a drop of milk spilt from Mary's mammaries thereby making the site holy. Aside from the silliness of the milk story the legend seems rather unbelievable to me as the cave is only about 100m away from the alleged site of the Nativity, so Mary and Joseph really hadn't managed to flee very far before having to get a rest. There is also the cave in which Jesus supposedly spent 40 days in the desert being tempted by the devil. It sounds very ascetic and esoteric in the Bible, but when you get there you realise that he was less than an hour's walk away from Jericho (and in plain sight) where he could easily pop down to buy some fags and have a drink whenever he wanted. It seems that the legends in the Bible are better not investigated too closely lest they lose their sheen.

It is impossible to visit he Palestinian Territories without being aware of the political situation. Every town has at least one refugee camp, although at first glance they are indistinguishable from the rest of the town because they have become permanent settlements in their own right (not a state of affairs the Palestinians want though). Generally though the place seems relatively ordered and clean when compared with surrounding Arab countries (with the exception of Lebanon). But the one aspect you can't ignore when travelling in Palestine is the security situation, embodied by the giant, looming separation wall. The Israelis may call it a fence but a fence it certainly isn't. The Palestinians call it the Apartheid Wall (much closer to the truth as the wall keeps the communities apart) and cover their side with protest posters and graffiti (see picture). Apart from being a huge eyesore, the wall makes transport within the Palestinian Territories very difficult, requiring travellers to change buses at least once or even twice if wanting to travel anywhere from Jerusalem (the eastern half of which is Arab), and crossing it can take upwards of an hour. In places the course of the wall is nothing but a blatant land-grab. The tomb of Rachel is within the municipal boundary of Bethlehem, just off the main road to Jerusalem, but the Israelis built a narrow spur on their wall - just wide enough for a car - jutting over 500m into Palestinian territory to surround the tomb which is holy for them. It didn't remind of anything so much as the game Hungry Hippos, with holy land instead of marbles. The Israeli police also conduct frequent mobile checks and checkpoints within the West Bank and generally make life a little less easy for the Palestinians. (I was hitching a ride with some locals into Jericho when made a minor traffic infringement - turning before the designated markings on the highway - and were pulled over and detained for an hour and fined over $200 when a simple telling-off would have been far more appropriate.)

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Sanctum Sanctorum

Jerusalem. The Big One. During my travels I have managed to visit the holiest sites of Hinduism, Sikkhism, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism (Varanasi, Amritsar, Bodhgaya and Chak Chak respectively), but there is no place on earth as holy as Jerusalem. In this single city are the holiest sites of Judaism and Christianity and the third holiest site in Islam - a recipe for disaster if ever there was one. For the ancient Jews and medieval Christians the city was quite literally the centre of the world (even the universe), a fact attested by the maps of the time showing Jerusalem in the middle with the rest of the known world surrounding it. Our topographical knowledge has progressed since then but religious dogma doesn't change as rapidly and the city has been the cause of numerous conflicts throughout the ages, most famously the Crusades which were launched to "liberate" the church of the Holy Sepulchre from the Arabs, and recently as the basis for the intractable dispute between the Palestinians and the Israelis over the partition of the country. The hardest thing about the Muslim-Jewish tiff is the fact that they're both fighting over the same piece of real estate, the Temple Mount, which was originally the main Jewish temple (first built some 3000 years ago by Solomon) until it got razed by the Romans. With the advent of Islam it is said that Muhammad ascended to heaven from that very spot.

And the disputes aren't only between different religions, the Christian denominations are often at daggers drawn trying to bag as many important Biblical sites associated with Jesus as possible. Every branch of Christianity worth its salt has at least one church in the city. The most represented are the Greek Orthodox, Catholics, Russian Orthodox and the plucky Armenians who despite their small numbers own a large chunk of holy real-estate. But along with these one can find Ethiopian Orthodox, Coptic (both Orthodox and Catholic), Protestant, Anglican, Romanian, Scottish, Syriac (again, both Orthodox and Catholic) and even Mormon churches jostling for space. Even the smallest episode mentioned in the Bible has a lavish church above the spot where the fateful events occurred. This is most blatant at the aforementioned church of the Holy Sepulchre, built atop the small hill of Golgotha where Jesus was first crucified and then buried. Initially Jerusalem belonged to the Greeks who built their own cathedral on the holy spot. The coming of Islam didn't initially change things much and the Greek churches were left more-or-less unmolested. When the European Crusades rolled into town the Catholics took over. Then when the Ottoman Turks arrived on the scene the Armenians, Syriacs and Copts tried to get a slice of the action as well. The Turks, being Muslims, weren't particularly bothered and so they imposed a compromise by decree parcelling out the bulk of the church between the Armenians, Greeks and Catholics with some minor roles for the Ethiopians, Syriacs and Copts and even assigned a couple of Muslim families to act as custodians of the keys to the gates. Since then there have been several attempts to find better solutions but the different sects have proved to be intractable, unwilling to cede any of their privileges. To show how volatile the situation is bellow the apparently calm exteriors of the priests here's a funny story. The Copts and the Ethiopians each have a man on the roof who are there to ensure that the other side doesn't try a quick land grab. Some 5 years ago, in Summer, the Coptic priest was feeling a bit hot and so decided to move his chair into the shade. The ensuing bust up sent 11 priests to hospital. Essential work is also often held up. For example, at the moment, the sewage outflow pipe from the latrines is blocked, but so far they haven't been unblocked due to intransigence from the Armenians (who are trying to use the situation as leverage to get a favourable response from the Greeks concerning an unrelated dispute). Perhaps the oddest manifestation of this stalemate can be seen on the facade of the cathedral. Some time before the final status quo was signed in 1852 someone had left a ladder out on a ledge above the main entrance. And since this is common ground then no one group is allowed to change anything, and so the ladder remains in the same place to this very day (see if you can spot it in the picture below).

Despite so much history and significance the old town is disappointingly devoid of old, historical buildings with many of the current structures dating from only the 19th century. However the one saving grace of Jerusalem's status as the holiest place on earth is the fact that it's a very cosmopolitan city. If you take an amble through the cobbled alleyways of the old city you are likely to come across Russian, English, Greek, French, Armenian and Italian as well as Hebrew and Arab. Though many of these are religious nutters: from the Hasidic Jews, with their black hats and curly sidelocks; bearded Orthodox monks (also dressed in black) gliding past; or just groups of European Christian pilgrims following in Jesus' footsteps spontaneously breaking out their hymnbooks and bursting into rapturous song in the middle of the road. Let's just hope that the latter are here only because last week was Easter, because they're beginning to get on my nerves.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Bordering On The Paranoid

"Good morning. Could I see your passport please, sir," said the guard at the entrance to the Israeli border post. I handed it over and she started flicking through it. "I see you've been to Iran," flick, flick, flick, "...and Pakistan," flick, flick, "...and Syria," flick, flick, "...and Lebanon," flick, "...and Yemen?” She lifted her eyes from the passport and looked at me as if I was slightly demented. “And what were you doing in Iran?"
"OK Mr. Erik, if you could step this way please..."

And so started my longest border crossing to date. A team of six security guards went through my belongings with a fine tooth comb, entirely emptying out my bags and passing each item through the X-ray machine – twice – and everything was meticulously swabbed for explosives residues. (Although one benefit to come of this was that I re-discovered my camping cutlery set which thought I had lost somewhere en route.) I myself was given a thorough manual inspection (though luckily not that thorough). Another security officer, who never took off her shades, asked me to give a detailed account of the places I had visited along the way during the course of my trip, although by the time I had reached India (working backwards) the lady interviewing me decided I didn’t need to be so detailed any more.

But the whole process, at just under three hours, was surprisingly shorter than I had expected, especially the interrogation (which I was secretly looking forward to), probably because they realized that no potential terrorist would be as stupid as to visit these hostile countries and not change their passport. And I must say that during the whole process, although the guards weren't joking around with me or anything, they were always perfectly courteous and polite, which is far from being the norm and is something I appreciated greatly.

When I was finally clearing the last hurdle and getting my passport stamped I asked the inspector to stamp an already-used page so as not to use up my last, precious remaining blank pages. So I picked out a spot for her. Upon seeing it she raised her eyebrows. "You mean here?" pointing, "next to the Lebanese stamp?"
"Yes please," I replied.
"OK," she said, "but it'll sure look strange."

Friday, April 06, 2007

Anti Semitic?

I am have now reached Nuweiba, a dusty little Red Sea resort in Sinai, just across from Aqaba where I was almost 4 months ago (I seem to keep doing loops in my travels). The main thing to do here is to go diving or snorkelling amongst the corals. The variety of fish is impressive but the corals have been sadly affected by mass tourism and there is considerable bleaching. Plus, due to the considerable depth of the sea, the water is really quite cold and without a wetsuit I can't last in the water for much more than 30 minutes at a time. So after my little beach holiday I will be moving on.

When I was planning the Middle Eastern leg of my trip almost a year ago there was one country that remained firmly out of the picture: Israel. There were several reasons for this - financial, practical and political. From a purely pecuniary point of view Israel is far more expensive than any other country in the region. The country also isn't very good at making friends with its neighbours and the much-dreaded Israeli entry stamp in your passport reduces your travel options considerably (there are about half a dozen countries that refuse entry to people with Israeli visas or entry stamps and even more that refuse entry to Israeli nationals, and it seems that I've been to most of them). And finally I make no secret of the fact that I found, and still do find, Israel's policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians and the region in general reprehensible, criminal and arrogant. At home I would make a conscious effort not to buy Israeli products, although I didn't go as far as some travellers I have met who refer to it as The-Country-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named. But here I am, preparing to cross the border tomorrow. So what has happened to make me change my mind? Well, when I was in Georgia I met a couple of Israeli girls who were friendly, fun and open-minded who helped break the image of the Israeli traveller as being cliquish, miserly, bigoted and insensitive to local mores (a familiar stereotype amongst backpackers and one that I, sadly, found to be true on quite a few occasions*). I have kept in touch with one of them (Leali) who has taken the bold (possibly foolish) step of allowing me to crash on her floor in her home close to Jerusalem. As for the passport I only have three blank pages left in mine and so will be needing to get a new one sooner rather than later. My political views, however, have not changed, but I would have truly learnt nothing on this trip, where more often than not the reality on the ground has proved to be far removed from the stories I had been fed by the media. So I have decided I must go and visit the place so that I can see for myself what the situation is really like before passing judgement and I will try and approach the country and its people with an objective mindset, ready to have my opinions proved wrong. God knows I've been to enough countries with dodgy, autocratic regimes on my trip so boycotting Israel would be hypocritical on my part. Now I just need the notoriously paranoid Israeli border guards to let me into the country, something that may not be so straightforward considering the countries I've recently been to.

But enough of that, seeing as my time in Arab countries is coming to a close this is a good time to give a round up of my experiences here. The Arabs are quite a diverse lot, from the urbane, cosmopolitan Syrians and Lebanese to the tribal Yemenis. Generally though they are a hospitable bunch, always ready to ply you with tea and biccies and have a little chat (and qat, if you happen to be in Yemen). But stick to talking about the weather because they can get rather touchy about religion and politics which are often inextricably intertwined for them. Sometimes it can't be helped when they bring up the subject (which they often do, as "what's your religion?" tends to be the third question everyone seems to ask you) but it's handy to have a few exit lines handy as people often don't understand that there's an option other than Islam or Christianity; and proselytism is rife - in Yemen I even got Islamic literature with my breakfast ful. So I've had enough of Islam for the moment, though mainly because of the calls to prayer that start at 4 o'clock in the morning. When the wailing is blaring from the mosque next door somehow that doesn't make conversion an attractive option. But that aside I've had a good time in Arab countries and feel they get an undeservedly rough time in the media. The one exception has been Egypt where I haven't felt as welcome as I have in most countries I've visited. I've gone over most of the aspects in earlier posts but I'll just say that I've been scammed or blatantly overcharged here more times than on all the rest of my trip (except India) combined and I've gotten the overall impression that Egyptians in general see taking advantage of tourists as being perfectly OK and that my sole purpose here is for them to be able to make a quick buck. (Of course there are exceptions and there are many kind and helpful Egyptians, it's just that they make up a small minority of the people I've met here.)

*I suppose that comment might earn me the epithet of being an anti-Semite, though it's a term I truly detest. Not because I like insulting Jews, but because I'm a pedant and the term, in the way that it is most commonly employed, is so inaccurate. Semitic refers to an ethnic group that comprises the Arabs, Syrians and Amhara (Ethiopians) as well as the Hebrews. Jews on the other hand are people who believe in a particular religion and can be of any ethnic background. So I find it ironic that Arabs are sometimes branded anti-Semitic when in fact they themselves are Semitic.

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.