Wadi Natrun. Was Curzon right?
We are in Egypt, just for a couple of days, to visit the son who is taking an Arabic course in Cairo. Our big day out was to Alexandria and -- en route -- to the Coptic monastery "of the Syrians" at Wadi Natrun, an hour and a half's drive from Cairo.
It was here that Lord (Robert) Curzon came in the 1830s and bought up a load of valuables manuscripts. Part of his excuse for doing so was the slovenly condition of the place. Manuscripts were lying around the floor, and were being used a jar covers, terribly "begrimed". The husband (who knows much more about this that i do) has always been suspicious of this account. For is sounds like a much too convenient alibi for walking off with the monks' prize possessions.
Anyway, on Saturday we went to see the place for ourselves.
Let me say straightway, it was a great -- and instructive -- day. There were plenty of Coptic Egyptian pilgrims there (the main religious attraction being the cell of St Bishoi). And as always such places make you rethink any simple approach to religious devotion. Here it was nice to see the paraphernalia of modern life conscripted to religious purpose: I watched many people come along, kiss the icons, leave a prayer and then take a quick photo on their mobile phones. Meanwhile (as you can see in the pictures) the fun the kids were having in the church helped you understand the fine line between holiday, a trip out to the countryside and the piety of pilgrimage.
This much have been true for all sorts of religious experience in the ancient world too. I bet consulting the Delphic oracle was just as mixed an experience.
But another striking feature of the place was that it was filthy.
You got a hint of this outside in the carpark. It was full of old drink cans (and a vast population of flies). Didn't the monks clear up the trash, I wondered out loud.
When we got inside, it was all too clear that this was NOT a place where cleanliness was next to godliness. The loos were the smelliest I have ever experienced in Egypt (and that is saying something) -- and the passing monks were pretty whiffy too. The stairs of the bell tower were piled with rubbish. There was a horrible, dirty little cooking area from which you would have risked consuming nothing.
Nor did they seem to have much interest in their remaining literary and theological treasures. We asked to see the library, but got nothing but a nod in the direction of the bookshop. Ok -- to be fair, 'bookshop' and 'library' are, as I have discovered, the same word in Arabic. But 'library in every language we thought we might possibly share with the monks produced just blank stares.
I found myself reflected that perhaps Curzon really had done a rescue operation.
Any smugness was however quickly dispelled. As we drove on to Alexandria, I was reading the guide book. It explained that the battlefield of El Alamein was still littered with 17.2 million unexploded landmines that the British, Germans and Italians had refused to pay to have cleared -- ostensibly because Egypt has not signed up to the Ottawa treaty.
That suddenly seemed like leaving your litter around on a hugely more culpable scale -- in fact, an appalling humanitarian scandal. And I found myself forgiving the whiffy monks, and feeling embarrassed about the British responsibility for this.