December 21, 2004

From Cairo to Mount Sinai, Part Four: The Desert Stark and Virginal

Read Part Three.

As the bus jostled up the coast of the Gulf of Suez, I awoke now and then to see the high barren mountains of Sinai smouldering in the setting sun. The entire eastern horizon was one jagged summit cast in chiaroscuro as shadow poured down its deep, craggy gullies. They looked as though they had been carved, like giant bits of masonry. In fact, the intricate geometric patterns of those massive fissures reminded me of the stalactite moldings of Islamic architecture used to decorate squinches and pendentives underneath domes, as well as half-domed niches such as mihrabs and monumental Mamluk doorways. I had often looked up at them in admiration, and also wonder. Where had Muslim architects dreamed up such an unusual decorative style? The far-off mountains seemed to provide an answer, and with it an insight into what is perhaps the essence of the Muslim genius, and indeed the Islamic miracle.

When Arab horsemen burst from their peninsular home all those centuries ago, they brought the desert to a world bloated on civilization. The desert, stark and virginal, had first nurtured the seed of monotheistic revelation, and if that seed was to be resown in the decadent imperial worlds beyond the desert, then those worlds had to embrace the desert’s unsullied spirit. The mountain range looked like a mosque turned inside-out. Mosques, like the desert, emphasize breadth, not height. For the Muslim at prayer within them, those stalactite moldings are perhaps reminders of an arid homeland that still echoes in his soul – and in the soul of every prayerful man – and make him sigh for the torrential waters of God’s grace, even as his forebears sighed at the mountain gullies, carved deep from sudden providential downpours.

If Islam brought the desert to the city, then Christianity, as has been said before, brought the city to the desert. The beginnings of Christian monasticism are clouded in obscurity, but have been traditionally dated to the late third century when Antony made the influential decision to take the Gospel at its word. But the monks themselves believe – and there is much evidence to back it up – that they are heirs to an eremitic tradition that began before the Christian era, the tradition of the prophets of Israel who withdrew from the world, or as Saint Paul put it, ‘of whom the world was not worthy: they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.’

About two-thirds of the way up Mount Sinai is a long Alpine valley, and clambering over its slippery sandstone brings those obscure beginnings very much to life. All around are the remains of what must have been a vast monastic commonwealth high above the mother monastery of St Catherine, situated lower down at the foot of the mountain. Caves, isolated cells, larger clusters and chapels, all now in ruins, are everywhere. In the region called Elijah’s Hollow, where the prophet fled from Jezebel’s henchmen, the cave where he lived can still be visited – or at least the one that untold generations of pilgrims have venerated. There, we are told, as he had done at Mount Carmel after slaying the priests of Baal, Elijah ‘put his face between his knees’ and prayed. This strange prayer technique is still practiced by the monks, and is part of the spiritual tradition called hesychasm, the way of quiet stillness. The witness of Sinai is powerful, but it still boggles the mind that so many thousands of men and women lived out their lives in such an inhospitable place, separated from their fellows, their sole aim the cultivation of inner stillness and union with their Lord.

Down in the valley, where St Catherine’s stands to attention like the Byzantine fortress it is, daily busloads of tourists make it hard to believe anyone there is able to achieve stillness of any sort. In the summer, numbers can swell into the thousands. They come from everywhere under the sun, and in the four visiting hours set aside each morning they are shepherded through the monastery at an incredible rate. They get their photo of the Burning Bush, whiz past the Transfiguration mosaic in the central church, and brush through the museum where is displayed the famous sixth-century icon of Christ, before being squeezed out of the door. Others will have queued to take their place in the meantime.

Part Six: A Question of Degree, not of Kind...

Posted by djsmall at December 21, 2004 10:13 AM