Chris­tians of the Nile

On the trail of Cop­tic churches and char­ac­ters in Egypt

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - ROBERT BE­VAN

BE­HIND its high walls, the court­yard of the nun­nery of elMo­hareb in the scruffy desert near the Val­ley of the Kings is empty but for old pews, bar­rels and dis­carded junk. The nuns are hid­ing from an un­kind sun in their bee­hive-domed cells. They are pray­ing for mankind among the snakes and the scor­pi­ons. Only the flies are lively.

Then Sis­ter Sabla ar­rives from around the cor­ner in a grubby habit, still chew­ing her lunch, to let us into the 11th-cen­tury church. ‘‘There are no flies in­side,’’ she says. ‘‘They know it is a holy place.’’ And in­deed there are not. Egypt ap­pears to have ob­ser­vant flies.

The Copts are the Chris­tians of the Nile, about 10 per cent of Egypt’s es­ti­mated pop­u­la­tion of 80 mil­lion. Their his­tory dates back to the very be­gin­nings of Chris­tian­ity, emerg­ing from un­der the last of the pharaohs in a tan­gle of pa­gan­ism and the new faith brought to Alexan­dria by the apos­tle Mark.

It is usu­ally Egypt’s pyra­mids that at­tract at­ten­tion, but this an­cient Chris­tian cul­ture boasts a legacy of his­toric churches and fortress monas­ter­ies in cities and deserts, of as­cetic her­mits and rich icons, that has few equals. The Cop­tic lan­guage, still used in the four-hour li­turgy, de­rives from that used in Cleopa­tra’s day.

There have been times of ter­ri­ble strife down the years but mul­ti­cul­tural Egypt’s Chris­tians, Jews and Mus­lims have also rubbed along for cen­turies, as side-by­side churches, mosques and syn­a­gogues in Cairo tes­tify. Is­lamic ex­trem­ism and the de­posed Mubarak regime’s di­vide-an­drule tac­tics have, though, taken their toll in re­cent decades, with more than one Cop­tic church at­tacked and burned.

How long the Copts have been here can be gauged by vis­it­ing the Hang­ing Church in Old Cairo. The cap­i­tal’s Cop­tic en­clave pre­dates the Is­lamic city. The church, just op­po­site the St Ge­orge metro sta­tion, is sus­pended 10m above the old street level on top of a Ro­man fort. This giddy con­struc­tion is vis­i­ble through slots in the floor of the church.

En­ter via a court­yard lined with im­ages of Cop­tic popes (Yousab II sports natty El­ton John-style sun­nies) and en­ter a nave heavy with in­cense where Cop­tic fam­i­lies, and some Mus­lim women, come to pray in front of the saints’ icons and relics. One of the 15 mar­ble col­umns (Je­sus, apos­tles and dis­ci­ples) of the me­dieval pul­pit is black, to mark Ju­das’s be­trayal. Le­banese-cedar screens in­laid with pat­terns of Su­danese ebony and ivory Cop­tic crosses sep­a­rate the sanc­tu­ar­ies.

Nearby, through a 12th-cen­tury iron-stud­ded gate, is a sunken walled lane lead­ing to more of the 14 churches that hud­dle to­gether in the area. Glimpsed through an­other gate is the Con­vent of St Ge­orge; if vis­i­tors are lucky the nuns will agree to open their chapel, with its chains that were used to bind the saint at his mar­tyr­dom.

Cop­tic tra­di­tion em­pha­sises the Holy Fam­ily’s flight from Herod into Egypt. At least 42 re­li­gious sites mark their stay. Around the cor­ner is the 5th­cen­tury Church of St Sergius, with its Is­lamic-in­flu­enced dec­o­ra­tion and col­umns re­cy­cled from a Ro­man tem­ple. The crypt un­der­neath is be­lieved to be among the places where the fam­ily once shel­tered. Next door is the Ben Ezra Syn­a­gogue, a former church bought by the Jewish com­mu­nity from the Copts and re­stored in the 12th cen­tury, and tra­di­tion­ally con­sid­ered the site where Moses was found in the bul­rushes.

Re­li­gious art can be seen in the re­fur­bished Cop­tic Mu­seum be­hind the Hang­ing Church. It is here that the emer­gence of Chris­tian­ity from pa­gan­ism is lu­cidly il­lus­trated. Early Cop­tic sculp­tures, fine tex­tiles and paint­ings are full of ref­er­ences to the old gods — Aphrodite emerg­ing from her shell, a drunken Diony­sus clutch­ing a glass of wine — while an im­age of Mary breast­feed­ing Je­sus is de­rived from de­pic­tions of Isis suck­ling Horus.

The airy mu­seum has ex­panses of this fas­ci­nat­ing syn­cretism that makes you pon­der the com­mon roots of many of the world’s re­li­gions. Even the Cop­tic cross may be de­rived from the an­cient Egyp­tian ankh.

Copts date their cal­en­dar from the Era of the Mar­tyrs, when thou­sands of Chris­tians were mur­dered by the Ro­mans, and it wasn’t un­til Con­stan­tine lib­er­ated them and closed the pa­gan tem­ples in 313 that Cop­tic sa­cred art fully flow­ered. The iconog­ra­phy is in­stantly recog­nis­able by its wideeyed fig­ures with dark cir­cles around each orb. The church broke away from East­ern Or­tho­doxy af­ter some heavy­duty nit­pick­ing over the divine or hu­man na­ture of Je­sus, and it was Egypt’s re­li­gion un­til the Arab con­quest ush­ered in Is­lam.

The Copts have sur­vived, their for­tunes wan­ing, wax­ing and wan­ing again un­til, in the late 20th cen­tury, a spirit of re­newal pre- vailed. One of the strangest man­i­fes­ta­tions, if you are will­ing to take a par­tic­u­larly smelly jour­ney, is found in the Muqat­tam Hills on the edge of cen­tral Cairo. Though the Copts may be best known for their pres­ence in the pro­fes­sional classes, they are the Egyp­tian cap­i­tal’s rub­bish col­lec­tors and live in Garbage City, an in­de­scrib­ably filthy slum where the city’s refuse is re­cy­cled. Whole fam­i­lies are at work, sep­a­rat­ing wiring, pa­per and bot­tles into huge piles. In the cliffs above is the Monastery of St Si­mon the Tan­ner, a com­plex of mas­sive cave churches, the largest of which holds thou­sands of wor­ship­pers.

To ap­pre­ci­ate the full panoply of Cop­tic life, how­ever, you have to head out to the deserts. Fortress monas­ter­ies across Egypt were the model for Chris­tian monas­tic life world­wide. The monks no longer talk to lions or sur­vive only on dates and morn­ing dew like the her­mits of old, but they still wear the black robes, with Cop­tic crosses em­broi­dered on the hood and tat­tooed on their hands.

The eas­i­est to reach are just off the high­way to Alexan­dria, clus­tered to­gether at Wadi Na­trun oa­sis. Be­hind high walls peep chapels and forts where in cen­turies past the un­armed or­ders could pull up the draw­bridge to with­stand long sieges by fear­some Ber­ber ma­raud­ers from the west.

Each is fas­ci­nat­ing but the Syr­ian Monastery has the best art. Dutch re­stor­ers are still un­cov­er­ing the most ex­quis­ite 7th-cen­tury wall paint­ings. There is also a tiny rock chapel with a hook in the ceil­ing to which a monk would at­tach his pig­tail to pre­vent him­self from nod­ding off dur­ing devo­tions. The flies are more ag­nos­tic here, buzzing in and out of the churches with­out so much as gen­u­flect­ing.

Nearby at St Bishoi Monastery, a wise­crack­ing priest leads a light­ning tour of its trea­sures, prac­ti­cally high-fiv­ing pil­grims whostep for­ward to kiss his hand.

At St Macar­ius, mean­while, are techno-monks, ex­perts in agri­cul­ture and en­gi­neer­ing who make the desert bloom. All this while fast­ing for al­most six months each year (on and off) and guard­ing the head of John the Bap­tist.

The fur­ther you reach into the wilder­nesses of mid­dle Egypt, where monas­ter­ies are hid­den in val­leys or perched on cliffs, the more the sense of an­cient iso­la­tion en­folds you.

You can visit the most splen­did of these but some­how Sis­ter Sabla, sell­ing el-Mo­hareb honey from her de­crepit nun­nery, feels more humbly real. Although the church was founded in the 4th cen­tury by em­press He­lena, there are no tow­ers, fa­mous body parts or icons to at­tract tourist buses — just plas­tic chairs, an­cient arches and si­lence. You need only fol­low a line of elec­tric­ity py­lons down a dirt track off the road to Tu­tankhamen’s tomb to find her. Robert Be­van was a guest of Aber­crom­bie & Kent.

PHO­TOLI­BRARY

Cairo’s 5th-cen­tury Church of St Sergius, with its un­der­ground crypt be­lieved to be one of the places where the Holy Fam­ily shel­tered af­ter flee­ing Herod

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