Magazine article The Spectator

The Riddle of the Sands

Magazine article The Spectator

The Riddle of the Sands

Article excerpt

'T he monks are fasting, ' said the gatekeeper, with an expression like a locked door. 'How appropriate, ' we replied. 'That's the sort of thing monks should do. What's the problem?' This quickly emerged. While the monks were on starvation rations, visitors were not allowed into the monastery.

Perhaps well-fed physiques would lead the monastics to abandon their austerities; perhaps it was feared that visitors might take pity and smuggle in food. Whatever the reason, we could not cross the threshold.

This was a bore. St Paul's Monastery, near the Red Sea, is one of the most ancient monastic foundations. Monks were praying there two centuries before St Benedict. In London, we had made arrangements for our visit. A Coptic bishop had given approval.

Faxes had been sent, with dates. All should have been well, but the gatekeeper was obdurate.

This was Egypt. Naturally, we employed the artifice of frustrated travellers down the ages. A cowled monk approached. Could this be Brother Baksheesh? The offer was subtly made, but the refusal was reaffirmed.

That was serious. In Egypt, a difficulty which cannot be solved by bribery really is a difficulty.

Our trip had been planned by my friend Robbie Lyle. Earlier in the year, recently remarried, he and his wife Lysanne had decided to seek a blessing in St Antony's Monastery. St Antony, a prosperous man inspired by the verse in St Matthew -- 'If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven' -- left Cairo to live in a cave high up a desert mountainside.

Devotees gathered at the foot of his mountain, and founded the monastery: the oldest of all (St Paul's is a mere daughter-house).

Robbie organised events in a grand manner, with Robin Hanbury-Tenison as his adjutant. Robin is the doyen of British explorers. Three undiscovered cannibal tribes and two unclimbed mountain ranges have been named after him -- or is it vice versa? He is one of those Englishmen who can often be found discussing voyages in a St James's club, but who is never really at ease until there is a thousand miles of trackless waste between him and the nearest creature comfort.

In that spirit, the original plan for Egypt involved arriving at the monasteries by camel. But the camel leg was abandoned.

There were rumours that the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Camels had launched a pre-emptive complaint. Although gratitude is not a sentiment one associates with camels, there is at least one beast, plodding its surly way somewhere between Cairo and the Red Sea, which has reason to be thankful.

Apropos of stubborn creatures, the gatekeeper was not our only problem. On the approach road to the monastery, our bus's engine had been spluttering and grunting like a camel with colic. During our pointless vigil, the driver had turned himself into a mechanic. He had taken up a chunk of flooring and was hard at work with an antique spanner.

There was a smell of petrol. Oil was dripping -- and the driver had a fag in his mouth.

'Don't worry, ' said the guide. 'It isn't lit.' At that moment flames appeared at the fag-end, and smoke from the driver's mouth. We retreated towards the horizon, but our baggage was still on board. With a balletic movement, the guide leapt forward, seized the cigarette, and threw it into some vegetation a long way from any petroleum product. The driver shrugged and smiled. We pretended to see the joke, and then, almost miraculously, the floor was reassembled and the engine decided to work. …

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