Last night at 11.30 Robert suddenly realised that he had left our passports at the hotel we had stayed at in Hurghada on the Red Sea Coast the previous evening. What a tempting prospect...... Imagine beautiful white sands and blue skies, imagine bijoux little hotels set amongst gently waving palm trees, imagine cocktails served to you whilst lounging by an eternity pool. Now erase that mental image and visualise a half completed concrete strip mall stretching for 10s of kilometres along a coastline that is strewn with barbed wire warning of landmines, and plastic bags. Tacky hotels that compete with overpriced restaurants and shops for space on the endless roads and roundabouts. It wasn't much fun on first viewing. Today we returned for a second look. (R and I) left Cairo and our lovely warm comfy bed in Rick and Kate Phillips' wonderful home at 5.30am. 4 1/2 hours later we duly collected the passports - which were safe and sound at the hotel. And, lucky things, we got a third look at the horrors of Hurghada and much of the rest of the Red Sea coast (a mixture of oil tankers, building sites, gas fields, ceramics factories spewing dirty smoke, military radar stations, enormous wind farms... you get the picture) as we headed back to Cairo after a quick restorative coffee (a round trip of nearly 1000 km).
But silver linings and all that.. it meant that we had the time to visit St Paul's monastery, one of the earliest monasteries in the world dating back to the 4th century. It is a Coptic monastery: the Coptic church split from the rest of the Eastern Orthodox church because the Copts believe that Christ was purely divine and not also human. We fortuitously gave a lift to an architect who was bringing some blueprints to the monastery and he arranged for a wonderful English speaking monk, Father Matthew, to guide us around the original cave where St Paul lived for 90 years in the 3rd to 4th century AD. He (St P) lived on dates and a half loaf of bread that a raven brought each day. When he died St Anthony instructed the two lions present to dig a grave and sent St Paul's palm frond garment to the patriarch at Alexandria; reputedly many miracles were performed in its presence. The chapels, including St Paul's cave, are adorned with beautiful icons and frescoes of saints and martyrs: all the paintings are at least 200 years old and many nearer 600 years old. Superficially they resemble the iconography of Ethiopian orthodox churches but a lighter less stylised technique is used
We saw the grinding mills (some of the mechanisms dating from the 14th century) where the monks ground their flour until recently and we ate freshly baked bread rolls cooked by novice monks. We drank from the original well spring which provides only 4 cubic metres per day - insufficient for 85 resident monks and many 100s of day visitors, and now supplemented by piped water from the Nile, 100km away. They make wine too, from grapes grown in the Nile Valley. We didnt get to sample that but had a cup of tea instead. The original refectory dates from 6th century and judging by the layer of dust over it, possibly hasn't been used since.
The newly constructed monk cells and cathedral, and restorations have been done traditionally and sympathetically, using the local stone and blending into their surroundings. Sad that the same principles have not guided the coastal developments. We got back to Cairo in time for a delicious supper and an exciting if ultimately unsatisfactory England-Wales rugby match.