Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Veni, Vidi, Wadi

OK, so that is NOT what Julius Caesar uttered when he kicked Pharnaces II of Pontus's ass in Turkey, but he might have said it had he left the lovely arms of Cleopatra to venture southwest of Alexandria to visit Wadi Natrun, an area known during the era of the Pharaohs as the place to get natron, a necessary chemical for that very Egyptian process of mummification. A "wadi" is a desert waterway, wet only when it rains, and when the water drys up leaves behind deposits of natron, which, when applied liberally to a dead Pharaoh, dries him up like a prune. I have posted the hieroglyphic of natron here, just in case you need to consult your local funeral parlor.

But, unlike Caesar, I did not go out to the Wadi Natron seeking balms for the afterlife. I went to investigate another aspect of Egyptian life...the monasteries of the Coptic Christians. Slightly after Caesar's time, but still within the era of Roman occupation, thousands of early Christians (some believe them to be the very first followers of Christ) were fleeing to the desert to escape Roman persecution. Some ducked into the nearest cave to wait it out, but others, much more resourceful and seeing the likelihood that the Romans were not going to change their minds any time soon, built monasteries to protect the faithful. Makarios, Bishoi, Antony (not Cleo's man, but a more celebate and holy guy) all earned their sainthood in the Coptic church mostly by fighting off raiding Bedouins who not really having a religious axe to grind, mostly just wanted to pillage and plunder. Of course, it wasn't just raising the drawbridge around the monastery that won them their proverbial wings. Saint Beshoi did a good samaritan routine and picked up a lowly beggar and carried him up a hill, not realizing until they were both suspended well above the ground that the man was actually Jesus. For this, Beshoi was promised that his body would "show no corruption" and every July, the monks carry around a casket that is said to contain the whole, un-deteriorated body of the Saint. Pretty good for a guy who has been dead since the 4th century. And then there are the relics of the 49 Martyrs, a group of monks who had the great misfortune of forgetting to raise the drawbridge when a band of marauding Bedouins came by wanting to practice with their scimitars. After polishing off the 49, these guys rode a few kilometers down the desert and cleaned their swords off in another monastery's well. Cleanliness is next to godliness, I guess.

In any event, whether you are Christian, Coptic or otherwise, the monasteries are lovely and the trip well worth it, especially if you are into Byzantine art. The Coptics get sort of short shrift here in Egypt as they are a small, but visible minority in an otherwise Muslim country. When you are among the Pyramids, ancient Roman ruins and 4th Century monasteries seem sort of well.... modern. Guess my perspective is changing rather quickly. I used to think Colonial Williamsburg was old!

1 comment:

  1. Very Interesting! I have been learning in psychology class about the vital role that the environment has on the formation of our behavior and our output in terms of productivity. We evolve encompassing what we experience and depending on the magnitude of such, which if big enough, pass on to form part of our long term memory and therefore compromise part of our personality. Although this is true, there is always that innate and unique character within our neural activity that finds distinct meaning and interest in certain aspects of the environment. This is what makes each and every one of us exclusive. I love it how Egypt has intrigued your thirst for history and art all at once. The same way that the Egyptians used their chemicals and environment for mummification, or how the Coptic Christians used it to express their faith and build beautiful monasteries, you found historical monuments and your surroundings to build this piece of reflection, of art.