Christian Egypt

Chapel, Monastery of St. Paul, on the Red Sea (the animal depictions of the four Evangelists are said by some to resemble the Egyptian funerary gods depicted on canopic jars)

Egypt is a predominantly Muslim country, yes, but like many Muslim countries (see posts of 4.16, 5.17 and 8.16) it has an important and numerous Christian minority. As in the Levant, the Christians of Egypt go back to Biblical times and well predate the advent of Islam, and are the remnants of what used to be the dominant religious group, in this case the local Orthodox sect known as the Coptic Orthodox Church. The Copts still form around 10% of the Egyptian population, are economically quite powerful and take a great deal of pride in their cultural identity. Among other things, the Copts believe themselves to represent the continuation of the Egyptian line from Pharaonic Egypt through Greco-Roman Egypt to the present, holding the Muslim Egyptians as relatively newcomers who came with the seventh century Arab conquest (southern Egypt or Nubia remained largely Christian until as late as the 14th century).

The Copts have suffered more persecution in Egypt than other Christian groups have in other Muslim countries, but the Copts have responded to their recent persecution and the rise of Islamic conservatives in Egypt by banding together strongly and making significant investments in their community, including the ancient Christian establishments of Egypt that are some of the highlights of a visit to the country.

The greatest assemblage of Christian buildings in Egypt is Old Cairo, or Coptic Cairo. Old Cairo is called Old Cairo because it was there before there even was a Cairo, itself a relatively modern city that was founded by the Arabs and then the Fatimids in the seventh and tenth centuries, respectively. Old Cairo is the modern name for the Roman fortification of Babylon, which in Byzantine times grew into an important Christian religious center with a high concentration of churches. Even today the holiest churches of Cairo are in Old Cairo, representing not only the Coptic Orthodox Church but also the Greek Orthodox Church. There’s even a Jewish synagogue.


More important to me than Coptic Cairo, however, was a visit to the monasteries of the Red Sea. These were the first Christian monasteries in the world–yes, the Egyptian desert is the birthplace of the Christian monastic movement–and so are arguably some of the most important Christian sites in the world for their impact on the development of the faith. Christian monasticism began with a desert hermit named St. Paul, who lived out his life alone in a cave in the desert, and was followed by St. Anthony, who in trying to follow the solitary life of a hermit actually ended up founding the world’s first monastery (and quite a large one at that, with up to 2,000 monks) not too far from St. Paul’s cave. St. Anthony’s hagiography was later written by Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, whose influence helped establish St. Anthony’s fame and the rise of the monastic movement throughout Christendom.

St. Paul and St. Anthony

Seeing the monasteries of St. Paul and St. Anthony was very meaningful to me, because I wrote my college senior paper on the Life of St. Anthony by Athanasius (one of my majors was Ancient Studies). I’ve also always thought that I would have made a good monk in another life. The desert monasteries, however, gave me a slightly different impression of the lives of St. Paul and St. Anthony than I had imagined. When I read about Anthony’s experiences in the desert, I imagined a very harsh existence full of heat and sun and thirst. I pictured a world of blinding light, where sheer deprivation and exposure led to visions of demons and God.

But of course such harsh conditions–total exposure in the desert–are not endurable; people cannot survive. The reality is that the monasteries are quite close to the Red Sea, which even if not the highway of international commerce that it is today would still have provided a transportation route to the hermits, as did the tracks to the Nile. And, even in the Egyptian desert, temperatures are quite bearable in the shade, whether that of a cave or of a thick-walled monastery or church. Both monasteries also benefit from springs (of course essential to the maintenance of life), and the water from the springs have been channelled to create little oases in the monastic grounds. In the case of St. Paul’s the spring is a very small one indeed–a drip–but the spring of St. Anthony sustains a small population, and the water properly used supports a beautiful garden with food plants and palm trees. The hermits lived in the desert wilderness, yes, but created for themselves areas of surprising beauty, life and tranquility, protected from the raw elements.

Monastery of St. Paul, on the Red Sea, founded after the death of St. Paul

Monastery of St. Anthony, on the Red Sea

Finally, the most famous Christian site in Egypt: the Monastery of St. Catherine’s in the Sinai. This site is important not only because it’s been the site of a Christian monastery (in this case Greek Orthodox, and not Coptic) since the fourth century, but because the location is believed to be of Biblical importance: where Moses spoke to the burning bush and received the Ten Commandments from God. The bush was silent during our visit.

Exodus Chapter 3: Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.” When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.” “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. . . .”

Terrorism and Tourism

We are in south Sinai, the locus of some of the deadliest terrorist attacks on tourists in the last few years, and we were told by a co-guest at our hotel that locals had told them that a major attack of some sort was expected at or shortly after end of Ramadan, which is today. The end of Ramadan, or the Eid al-Fitr, is not especially known for being a time for terrorist activity, but I suppose any holiday may pose a tempting/meaningful date for an attacker. Are we afraid? Not really–but certain senses, honed in 2001, seem to be kicking back in, second thoughts about the kinds of luggage loaded onto our bus, a lowered bar for what constitutes “strange behavior” in others and what is the safest mode of transport. As I previously discussed in my post of 4.29, traveling does bring about somewhat greater risks of all kinds, and with it more paranoia about what might happen. All in all, a good time for some thoughts on terrorism and tourism.

From a traveler’s perspective, I think that there are three categories of terrorism, each of which carries different risks. The first is “domestic” terrorism, the best example of which is probably the many recent attacks in India, or the recent Damascus bombing. As a Korean traveler told me in northern Pakistan, Korean tourists aren’t worried about bombs in Pakistan because they’re aimed at other Pakistanis (say, ones of a different religious sect, or ones affiliated with a certain political movement) and not at tourists. While of course a traveler can still be caught in the crossfire (believe it or not, we ran into two separate tourists who said that they were very close to blasts in Lahore), at least some of these bombs are likely to go off in places where a foreign traveler is not particularly likely to venture. We are not the intended target.

The second category is terrorism directed at outside interests. The most prominent target in this category is perhaps an embassy, or a foreign military installation. This type of terrorism is perhaps most akin to a sort of informal war–the attackers mean not only to terrorize but to make a statement and inflict damage. Examples of this are of course many, including U.S. embassy bombings in any number of countries, the attack on the USS Cole, the bombing in Beirut.

The third category is, for travelers, the scariest: terrorism directed specifically at tourists, most likely in an effort to hurt tourism and decrease foreign influence in the country. The deadliest recent example of this is probably the Bali bomb of 2002, which killed 202 people from 21 (!) different countries. More recently, four people were targeted and killed in Yemen at a major tourist attraction. Hotel bombings fall somewhere between categories two and three, perhaps depending on the kind of hotel that is chosen (some hotels may be chosen for their international “brand,” sort of like an embassy, rather than the explicit desire to discourage foreign travelers).

The “prize” for this third, scariest category of terrorism goes to Egypt, not only for the number of incidents but the heinousness of the targets and methods. In 1997, in an incident known as the Luxor Massacre, a group of six attackers armed with guns and knives trapped and slaughtered 63 people, mostly tourists, in one of the main tourist attractions of Luxor, the Temple of Hatshepsut. In 2004, 2005 and 2006, terrorists killed 34, 88 and 23 people, respectively, in bombings in three different resort areas in the Sinai: Taba, Sharm el Sheikh and Dahab. Also in 2005, there were bombings or shootings near three of the most popular tourist sites in Cairo, the Khan al Khalili market, the Egyptian Museum and Saladdin’s Citadel.

Temple of Hatshepsut, Luxor, site of one of the grisliest terror attacks in recent history

Due to the layout of the ruin, tourists were “trapped” for slaughter.

Three separate suicide bombs were set off in Dahab on April 24, 2006.

A truck with explosives drove into the lobby of the Taba Hilton on October 7, 2004, one of three bombings that evening.

Egyptian Museum, Cairo

Yes, the odds of me or you happening to be in the wrong place at the wrong time are still fairly slim, but the probability increases dramatically when the attackers are choosing their targets specifically to target groups of tourists, places where tourists spend their time. We are their target. Maybe we shouldn’t “let the terrorists win” by avoiding places such as Egypt altogether, but as the lesson of September 11 taught, terrorists do like to hit the same targets over and over again (perhaps because they are simply the best targets), and Egypt as a country has a uniquely dangerous history in this respect, something visitors should be aware of. While there are countless police and military stationed all across Egypt, one wonders whether armed men begging for tips or sleeping in the backs of vehicles can really stop an attack, or whether such a presence would deter terrorists who are willing to die for their cause.

Fellow Tourists

When you pick a travel destination, you may think of how far it is, how easy it is to get there, what there is to see, what there is to eat, where there is to stay, how much things cost, and how safe it is. It may not occur to you to gauge who will be there with you–what kinds of people your fellow tourists will be. But the more you think about it, the more you realize that who else will be there should be a key consideration in choosing a travel destination.

Perhaps the “best” fellow travelers, for us, are independent budget travelers. Most typical is the late 20s/early 30s backpacker, usually from Western Europe or East Asia, traveling after graduating college or post-graduate education, or between jobs. As a whole, Central Asia attracts a well-educated, well-traveled lot, with ample linguistic abilities, travel skills, cultural sensitivity, and so forth. Almost without a doubt, a fellow traveler in Central Asia will have something interesting to show for themselves, a good story or two from the region or elsewhere on their travels. The types of fellow travelers, I find, broadens the “easier” the destination is, but broader does not necessarily mean worse. For example, in Southeast Asia, you may find a younger or less-worldy crowd, but for the most part you are still dealing with independent travelers, people with some sense of adventure and desire to immerse themselves in local cultures.

This issue occurred to me because Egypt is perhaps the worst place in the world that we’ve experienced, in terms of fellow travelers. Egypt is overrun with package tourists. Now, there’s nothing wrong, fundamentally, with going on a package tour. Travel planning can be a daunting and demanding effort (however much I love it), and going on a tour does maximize the amount of things you can see and learn in a limited amount of time. A knowledgeable guide could even afford you cultural insight that would be hard to access for an independent traveler. And, of course, tours can be quite cost-efficient.

But far more often, tours have serious deficiencies. Traveling in a guided group insulates you from interactions with locals (however appealing that sometimes sounds in Egypt). Traveling in a group means that you never have sights to yourself, paced according to your own interests. Explanations are dumbed down to the lowest common denominator. Many tour groups stay at mediocre hotels and eat mediocre food. That is why many (though by no means all) tours attract people who are intimidated by traveling by themselves, people who are less interested in cultural immersion, people who are satisfied with a quick and superficial understanding of history and people with relatively low standards for food and hotels (at least as far as value, authenticity and atmosphere are concerned–no doubt almost all tours stay and eat at fancier and more hygenic places than we do). (One might even go so far as to suggest that tour group tourists don’t really enjoy travel for travel itself. Let’s face it, spending long periods of time immersed in places where people speak little or no English and may have little else in common with you can be lonely, no matter how close you are to your travel companion(s). It should come as no surprise then that people turn to groups and in the end derive as much or more pleasure from internal group interactions as from external stimulus–that’s certainly been the case in the groups we’ve had the pleasure of joining.)

Egypt is full of such mediocre tours. Perhaps people are intimidated by traveling in an Islamic country, or maybe they have very little travel experience and are fulfilling some childhood dream of seeing the Pyramids. But this lack of standards, on the part of the tourists, results in a country whose travel infrastructure is, considering the volume of tourism, largely unspectacular. Package tourists, for the most part, stay in mediocre three-star type hotels that are absurdly overpriced when not booked on a tour, and so Egypt does not have the wonderful range of budget accommodations that one finds in, say, Southeast Asia. Food is similarly uninspiring, with many restaurants offering bland adaptations of local food (I suppose we can thank the abundant British tourists for that). Worst of all, having undiscriminating, relatively free-spending package tourists with apparently little interest in learning about local culture or spending time with locals constantly breezing in and out of cities promotes the worst kind of behavior in local merchants: aggressive salesmanship, overcharging, poor service.

Heaven forbid you have to walk a little to see the Pyramids!

There are other fellow tourist considerations in addition to the prevalence of tour groups at a given destination. In some places, there are large numbers of domestic tourists. The most extreme example of this, I believe, is China, where foreign tourists are almost always dramatically outnumbered by domestic tourists. This can be good or bad, depending on your perspective. Hawaii and Tahiti attract a lot of honeymooning couples, and so a single traveler may feel awkward and lonely. There are cultural issues, too. If you speak French, and only French, you would have more opportunities to meet fellow French speakers in a destination that attracts relatively more French, such as Cambodia or Madagascar.

One small story, showing that hotels understand that travelers care who their co-travelers are: Somewhat shockingly, the Hyatt in Sharm El Sheikh enforces a dress code banning Islamic dress (euphemistically called “ethnic dress”) at the pool and on the beach, even while allowing topless bathing on the beach–no doubt their research showed that their “international” clientele felt more comfortable without a burqa in sight.

Suez Canal

Like my posts of 5.3, 9.2 and 9.24, a picture from a place you’ve heard so much about, but perhaps never seen a picture of, or tried to imagine.

The Suez Canal, like the Straits of Malacca (see post of 9.2), is a great “bottleneck” of global trade, and through it passes approximately 7.5% of the world’s shipped cargo and much of Europe’s oil requirements. The Suez Canal is bigger (in depth and width) than the Panama Canal, and so the latter acts more to set the maximum size for ships–“Panamax.”

Egypt made some $4.1 billion from the Suez Canal tolls in 2007, its third largest source of hard currency after tourism and remittances. Geography matters!

Cataracts of the Nile

One reads about the “cataracts of the Nile” in history books (always with ordinals, like “the first cataract,” “the second cataract” and so forth), but until I saw the first cataract just south of Aswan it was hard for me to picture them–I thought of something like a series of little Niagaras, walls of water blocking passage north. Now, the first cataract currently lies just on the other side of dams (the old Aswan Dam and the High Dam), and so the sort of rapids or rush of water is no longer there, but seeing the rocks in the water at least helped me visualized what these cataracts are–places that, due to topography, are unnavigable.

One of the wonders, to me, of Egyptian civilization is now much it stayed put along the Nile. There were of course times when Egypt controlled south toward Nubia, west toward Libya and east toward the Levant, but despite its incredible wealth and advancement it was never an expansive empire, instead being controlled by the Persians, the Greeks (or Macedonians), the Romans, the Arabs and the Ottomans. One basic reason for this, I suppose, is that Egyptian civilization was centered on the Nile, and perhaps they saw no reason to stray far from what they saw as the source of all life. In periods of ascendancy Egypt did control regions further south, into Nubia, but the cataracts–areas where the Nile was not navigable–presented a barrier. Were it not for the cataracts, perhaps Egyptian civilization would have traveled all the way to Lakes Tana and Victoria, deep into sub-Saharan Africa.