January 10, 2008, perhaps 11am

We are driving along the Red Sea coast just past Porto Sukhna and a new hotel (or at least the skeleton construction of it) has prompted a spate of fury from both Dr. Gabra and Youss ef.  Someone has pulled down the natural mountains and attempted to replace them with mountains of concrete.  Someone with a lot of money and no taste, but much influence, who thinks he is harmonizing with the natural landscape but is, in fact, spoiling the view.

A luxurious shower this morning and delicious breakfast have restored my equilibrium and Youss ef’s music on the overhead speakers is making me want to dance.

I am pleased to see both the water conservation sign in the hotel and the wind farm here.  Unexpectedly, environmentalist efforts move along.

All that’s left, then, are the Stop (tabboganing) signs and the smooth but life-threatening passing habits of vehicles along this one-lane, 90km per hour highway.

continued, 2:39pm

The desert here looks like the sea, flat and vast.  The clouds mask hills with shadow and contribute to the impression of a place outside of time.  Inside St. Anthony’s, the wind is brisk and sweeps the sky open enough to illuminate the vines, roses, and palm and pine trees.  Apparently the monks sell their wine, and I almost want to buy some – just for the sake of comparison, of course!

The church is beautiful and uniquely complete, although for once my favorite parts are not the older scenes, but the Archangels who guard the soffit (archway) of the khorus, and the variant circled crosses scattered below the murals.

I had thought I liked the library at the monastary of the Syrians the best, but this one, with its domed ceiling and careful lighting enchants me even more.  The monks have texts for the history of art, business and accounting mangement, and pamphlets laid about the table of the rare books room.  Near the entrance, music is playing and 2 monks are sitting together, comparing notes.

As we exit, we see on the left monks’ cells, looking unavoidably picturesque, falling gently to ruin.

continued 3:30(ish) pm

The light approaching St. Paul’s is blinding, and the wind even harsher, the eucalyptus bending almost in half in demonstration.  We go up between two heights of crumbling rockface which glow a peachy gold, and see ahead the new church – which sticks out like a sore thumb.

continued 4:50ish pm

The church we came to see, the cave church, is clearly still functional as a shrine and we seem to interrupt a devout group (the children of which will later cluster around Wendy, who has the the best skills among us at drawing children to her and eliciting information from them).

The Rough Guide describes the art inside as “primitive” – a gross misrepresentation on their part, as actually it represents the 18th Century revival of Coptic art. The murals depicting female saints and martyrs are deeply unusual (and almost hidden in one corner is a unique 13th or 14th century depiction of an angel rescuing John the Baptist from the massacre of the innocents).  As we exit the monastary we stop at a bookshop that is actually a masterpiece of kitsch – white plastic crosses with blinking red lights, holy photos in 3D, with interposed “serene” backgrounds and often a rough sketch of Christ, and glow in the dark crucifixes.  In this, I am sorry most that Nancy missed today.

The image of the sea appearing between mountain walls as we leave is one I’ll not soon forget – the water seems almost to pour towards us, opening the ground.  The rock and soil are rosy, and the water is fantastically striped from light turquoise to robin’s egg, to a sort of midnight version of cornflower.  Finally I realize that the major source of my disorientation is the sun setting behind the mountains, instead of behind the sea.

We’ve been in a land where military checkpoints are sponsored by Coca Cola, and the sunsets go beyond a mere dramatic glow, and actually seem to set the horizon on a quite neon fire.  Here is the place where people learned how to retreat from the world, yet remain part of the community, and where respectable hotels have nightclubs in the basement.  The ordinary police are for tourists (whether in protection or prosecution I leave to your judgment), yet you’ve shopped poorly if you’ve paid the price asked.  Here, yes, we are foreigners, but not strangers – we are welcomed, and befriended, and assisted – even as we are swindled.  Or are we? We shop here and come back with beautiful scarves and jars, and fantastically tacky blowup Anubis dogs – and then we calculate the price and worry that nine dollars (45 pounds Egyptian) was too much to pay for something that was originally offered at fifteen dollars or 75 pounds Egyptian, and for which we would have happily paid one hundred dollars (550 pounds Egyptain) at home.  Who is swindling whom?

We marvel at driving styles which combine panache and bravery, relying as they do on common courtsey and judicious use of the horn.  It terrifies us because we cannot really comprehend trusting our neighbors that well or widely.

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~ by heycarahe on January 15, 2008.

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