Journal: Sunday 4 April 1999 (AM)
It is Sunday and the last day of this trip. I don’t know where the time has gone, it seems like only a few days ago I arrived in Luxor, excited at the prospect of two weeks here. I have achieved one of my dreams – to spend a few days at Abydos and I feel particularly fortunate to have been there at the very special time of the Muslim Feast of Eid el-Adha, the ‘Feast of the Sacrifice’. Well, that was a week ago and today is the Christian holy day of Palm Sunday. Robin and I decided to balance our festive Abydos experience by today visiting the Coptic Monastery of St Tawdros, which lies in the shadow of the Theban Mountain, out in the desert near Malqata. We took an arabeya to the taftish and walked out over the desert track as the sun was rising and the hot air balloons were hovering overhead, a riot of colour against the pale pink glow of the dawn sky. The Palm Sunday service began at 7.00am. It was a long walk and we didn’t want to miss it.
St Tawdros Monastery is also known locally as El-Mohareb and is part of the Luxor Coptic Orthodox Bishopric. It is a very old set of buildings surrounded by a high wall, which houses a small community of nuns and the church is obviously the main place of worship for Coptic Christians on the West Bank. When we arrived at the large wooden doors, painted with a picture of a saint on horseback, the place was packed with people and I didn’t know what to expect as I had never visited a Coptic Church in Egypt before. Perhaps I had imagined something like the pictures I had seen from St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, but this was not a church full of richly decorated icons or gleamig with gold. It was very much a place used by the local community and families with young children were milling about everywhere in the grounds and inside the entrance to the church. We were welcomed by a nun and shown into a room with the women and children who were sitting on rugs on the floor. Around the walls were pictures and a few statues and I noticed a row of small stone Coptic crosses set into a wall. The large room was divided into two; the women were all on our side and the men were sitting on the other side of a screen. The Priests (there seemed to be several of them) were up in front at an altar beneath a large brass cross. During the service, children were playing and running about, mothers were feeding their babies and many people were talking, while the words of the priest came over a distorted speaker system. It was incredibly noisy. The language of the service seemed (to my ears) to be a mixture of colloquial Arabic and High Arabic with ‘hymns’ chanted sonorously every now and then. Robin and I followed the actions of the other ladies, getting up on our feet then sitting down on the floor again every few minutes but we really didn’t have a clue what was going on. Towards the end of the long service a priest came around with a censor and wafted incense over the crowd, which smelt wonderful.
Feast days in the Coptic calendar traditionally follow the ancient Egyptian agricultural calendar of inundation, planting and harvest and this was also the calendar used by the Egyptian government until the Nineteenth Century. The modern use of the word ‘Coptic’ describes Egyptian Christians, whose religion is based on the teachings of Saint Mark who brought Christianity to Egypt during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero in the first century AD. Since then the Coptic Church has produced thousands of texts, biblical and theological studies and the language they were written in is believed to be the last stage of ancient Egyptian. Today they are important resources for archaeology.
On our way out of the church after the service had ended, we met Nasra, a lady who works at the el-Gezira Hotel and suddenly I didn’t feel so out of place. Nasra was so happy that we had come to her church today and so was I.