About 15 years ago I went on a two-week holiday to Egypt. During the trip we visited St Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai desert. It's pretty much on the tourist trail. Or used to be.
If, like we were, you're staying at the Benidorm-like resort of Sharm el-Sheikh and you've had your fill of falafel and snorkelling at Ras Muhammad (it is pretty amazing to see the fish there though), you can hire one of those taxis that stay with you all day and drive for about three hours into the desert to visit the monastery. St Catherine's - full name Sacred Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai - is a sort of religious fortress, carved out of a formidably rugged terrain. I remember staring up at its walls and thinking it was almost unbelievable they'd built it where they had. It dates from the sixth century, was constructed on the orders of the Roman Emporer Justinian I, and is one of the world's oldest functioning monasteries.
Well, you probably knew all this or didn't want me to tell you even if you didn't! Except - if you'll bear with me - it's interesting to reflect on the key fact that St Catherine's has survived more or less intact for one and half millennia, an Orthodox Christian place of pilgrimage in a predominantly Muslim land. It's survived partly because its location (supposedly the site of the burning bush where God is said to have appeared to Moses) has been considered sacred by Muslims, Jews and Christians alike.
Considered sacred by Muslim and Christians alike. An interesting non-sectarian idea this - one that often seems to be in far too short supply around the world.
First and foremost it's in short supply in Egypt itself. A new Amnesty report paints a bleak picture of Muslim mobs smashing their way into Coptic Christian churches in Upper Egypt this August. The attackers, sometimes hundreds strong, beat up worshippers and church staff, stripped out all the valuables (right down to air conditioning units and electric cables) and then burnt buildings to the ground.
This was raw, politicised, religious hate. The attackers blamed Copt Christians for the army's ousting of Mohamed Morsi in July and then went on the rampage after the army had unleashed its own bloodbath against the pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo on 14 August (Copts perceived as supporting the army authorities). Chanting slogans like "Christian dogs have no place in Egypt", the gangs - who'd often been mobilised by local mosques - pulled down crosses and went after Copts in their own homes. Amongst a number of killings, one 60-year-old man was shot dead in his home in the village of Delga in Minya province in central Egypt, before being dragged through the streets by a tractor. Even after his body was buried, it was twice dug up out of its grave.
You might think Egypt's in a bad enough state without this extra dimension, but it's there and needs to be confronted. Back in '97, on my holiday in a far more peaceful Egypt, me and my girlfriend were kindly hosted by two of my girlfriend's friends, both junior diplomats. As it happens, one was a (fairly) devout Muslim, the other a Coptic Christian. They were good friends and themselves had a mix of friends from both religious communities. I'm also told the Coptic guy encountered no prejudice in the diplomatic job he had. This latest splurge of sectarian violence is a terrible denial of that open-mindedness.
Final thought. As I was saying in a post a few weeks ago, Egypt's tourist trade has nosedived since the revolution and its unendingly-violent aftermath. These days I doubt you'll see so many posts on sites like Virtualtourist.com about making the day trip to St Catherine's. One thing I forgot to mention earlier was that our taxi to St Catherine's actually broke down and we had to abandon it and phone for another to come and get us (the first driver imploring us to stay with him despite his conked-out engine). Egypt's revolution is pretty much like that battered Peugeot taxi. Stranded in the desert.
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