Sharing St Catherine’s hidden texts

On a recent visit to St Catherine we had the privilege of being taken into the library by Father Justin to observe the ambitious renovation project. When completed, the library will be fully equipped with state-of-the-art technology for conservation and access. This is part of ongoing work to share the treasures of the monastery and make them more accessible to scholars, as well as tourists and pilgrims.

St Catherine’s Monastery has a rich collection of icons and other religious objects, but it is most famous for its library. With more than 3,300 manuscripts, it is second only to Vatican in terms of the number of ancient texts it contains. While the Vatican library was assembled carefully over the centuries, St. Catherine’s collection is different, more eclectic.

“The Sinai library differs from most libraries in that it grew organically to provide the monks with copies of the scriptures and books that would inspire and guide them in their dedication,” says Father Justin. Many of the monks and pilgrims who came to the monastery over the centuries left manuscripts as gifts, resulting in an especially idiosyncratic collection. In addition to important Christian texts, the library contains, for instance, one of the world’s earliest known copies of the Iliad.

Father Justin began a programme of digitising the monastery’s collection in the late 1990s. He knew, however, that he was unable to make a record of some of the most intriguing texts in the collection. Since the late nineteenth century, scholars had been aware that many of the works in the collection are palimpsests that conceal older texts. Over the years, scholars were able to read three of the palimpsests that were legible, but the vast majority remained invisible to the naked eye and went unstudied.

He then learned of the use of multispectral imaging technologies and in 2011 an ambitious scientific collaboration began imaging some of the 130 manuscripts that had been identified as palimpsests.

Read more about the remarkable Sinai Palimpsest Project

Uneasy holiness in the Sinai Desert

St Catherine portraitOur guest speaker Sara Maitland has written about the enduring search for peace and serenity in the Sinai desert and how the Orthodox monks of St Catherine’s Monastery have prevailed; it is the oldest continuously inhabited Christian monastery in the world and over the centuries this remote sanctuary has witnessed religious persecution, political turmoil and war.

“The desert monks have been there since at least … the late fourth century. At that point most of them lived as hermits in dispersed cells. Their situation became so dangerous and unpeaceful that the Byzantine emperor Justinian built them a fortress monastery in the mid-sixth century. Until the 20th century, the only way to get in or out was to be winched up the wall in a basket.

Inside the monastery walls is a mosque, its minaret visible from outside, and the monks treasure the Achtiname, a letter of protection from the Prophet himself.”

Read Sara’s full article The force of Silence, published by The Christian Century.

Being in the wilderness

camp fire croppedRev Dr Emma Loveridge, who founded Wind Sand & Stars, takes us to her own private wilderness which she has created in Devon to reflect on Jesus’ forty days and forty nights in the wilderness, drawing upon her experiences in the South Sinai Desert.

We are grateful for her permission to share this transcript below from her recent programme on BBC Radio 4’s Lent Talks.

You can listen to the full broadcast, made on 21st February 2016, by following this link:

It’s twilight and I’ve just walked along the old Roman Road near where I grew up on the Devon / Dorset border.  It’s a small road, up high following a ridgeway, still straight as an arrow centuries later. Generations of farmers, smugglers, plough horses, dogs, children and now tractors, have journeyed along here from dawn to dusk.  The sun has just died but the silky fire streaks still run through the sky. And here I am clambering over an old style five-bar gate.  This may not be your idea of a wilderness and it’s certainly very different from the desert wilderness where Jesus spent 40 days and 40 nights.  But here, in a small coppice, I’ve created my own version of wilderness – a place of retreat – a traditional shepherd’s hut. 

I know the track ahead really well, yet every time I take a step further between the trees I wonder with anticipation what I will see, hear, think and feel as I turn the corner and arrive at my dusky red hut with its corrugated tin roof.  The experience is different every time and that is both the wonderful and terrible thing about a wilderness place; it never treats you the same way twice.  It depends in part on the environment and in part on the way you are feeling.

Twilight and pre-dawn are the times of day I most love and most fear in any wilderness place.  They’re the edges of the day; when I am in London working and in the midst of a busy life, sadly they often just pass me by – but in a wilderness place with all the human distraction gone, they can provoke hopefulness and despair or anything in between without warning.

Wilderness; it’s something I am drawn to again and again.  Wilderness has always been part of the Christian narrative, the imagery deeply woven into our theology. The story which has given us Lent, the ritual period of 40 days leading up to Easter, tells us that Jesus was “driven” to seek out a desert, a place apart, away from the familiarity, the comfort of his then everyday life. A place where he would be tested and struggle to explore his human limitations.    

It can be a difficult story to engage with unless we too have stepped out of our well-trodden routines.

The recent heavy rains here have half flooded this area, but I am standing on a dry tuft of grass that has survived the winter rivulets and I am looking up at the last of the white, winter light shimmering across the land, low on the horizon.  It flattens the trees into indistinct forms.  Although I am in the heart of Wessex, with deep green hedges waiting to bud, the way the light deceives my eyes reminds me of another wilderness – one I lived in on and off for many years – the Sinai desert in Egypt – rugged, red, desiccating and with the crunch of sand not the squish of wet soil beneath my feet.

For 20 years I took people from the west to travel and work with the nomadic tribes of the Sinai desert, away from the comfort of their usual lives.  My role was to bridge the gulf between settled westerner and roaming Bedu.  Sinai is part of that same rift valley desert where Jesus lived in spiritual turmoil before the beginning of his public ministry.  Growing up between the gentle rolling hills of the West Country, I had no concept of what it was like to be in a desert.  The unpredictability of the terrain; the burnishing heat, pulsing through the valley, every trickle of sweat reminding you that without water you are frighteningly mortal. And there were more surprises to come on my first Lenten February there, when the frosted ground glistened as the moon set; it was cold right through to the bone.  I would walk up to a high pinnacle, similar to the parapets described in the Gospel of Mathew where Jesus was tempted, just to catch the first hint of warmth from the sun’s rays and I have always suspected he did the same.  And then I would wish my mind hadn’t been so impaired by that cold, as in the dawn light the way down looked impossible.  Then I would breathe sense into myself and look out and remember the lack of anything manmade in sight.  To my mind it was stunningly beautiful, but it was empty.  An emptiness that sends a wash of fear through your very being as you realise you’re standing on a ledge, a physical and emotional edge, where no one would break your fall should you stumble.

The reality was I was never as brave or as foolish as Jesus, I never went too far alone; but I did again and again experience the incredible unpredictability of a wilderness place and the differing states of mind which happen in parallel.  Exposing yourself to that experience and the sense of that dread that can come with it, is what entering a wilderness is about.

When I came back to England and went in search of a way to create for my family a tiny wilderness experience of our own, a place away from the daily hurly burly, I settled on this beautifully made Shepherd’s hut, and if we step inside now and shake off our muddy boots, the log-burner in the corner sends out its glowing, crackling welcome. 

People have all sorts of romantic ideas about wilderness. We can idealise Jesus’ time in the desert all too easily, as he returns having triumphed over Satan’s temptations. We can too quickly dismiss his terror at having no bread, the symbol of home and hearth, but only stone all around or underestimate his exhaustion as he slid and slipped on the shaly sandstone hills with the giant pointed rocks beneath.

It’s a land where transformation of mind and soul can be a reality, a way of life even, especially in that space between darkness and light when the desert offers a time for stillness which no city ever considers.  And then twilight and dawn bring an added dimension; a strange light which deforms the world. One morning in the desert, I watched the light strike a sandstone ridge at such an angle that it looked as if it swallowed the world. Every colour was submerged into an optical illusion of shining nothingness.  It was as if nothing existed out there.   “It’s the time of day in my land” my old Bedu friend, Sabah, almost whispered “you have to decide to live or to die”.  I understood what he was saying, the purity of the light, was mesmerising, it felt like you had to choose to breathe again.  But it was also distorting and shifting.  You could easily get lost in this place, in so many ways, in mind, body and spirit. It was the story of Christ’s struggle in the wilderness; the valley of the shadow of death and the hope of resurrection all rolled into his single sentence.

Sabah poked the buried ashes of the acacia wood into life, ashes still warm from the previous night.  If buried deeply at the end of the day, they will still be smouldering enough at dawn for the fire to catch the dried broom needles and give some much needed warmth. Sabah boiled the small pot for tea.  He had decided to live.  I wondered if Jesus had done the same.

The desert can be a place of salvation for those who pass through it – and make it to the other side.

One of the first Arabic words I ever learnt out in the desert was a colloquial Bedu word for salvation.  It has a three-dimensional quality which needs explaining.  In trying to help me understand what he meant, a young Bedu acted it out.  “It is”, he said, “what we all crave.”  He stood up suddenly and stood tall facing a distant horizon.  “It is to stand tall”, he said “and to look to the furthest point without needing to look behind, without wondering what is either side, without hunching your back with the weight of your own fear, and it comes from within.  It is not to be burdened with fear but to be filled with freedom.”

Journeys through a wilderness, whether long and far, or near and short, are often a search for such a moment.  I have spent much of my life journeying through such places, seeking them out.  When I worked in the desert, however, I learned that it was as important to be able to find your way out of the wilderness as into it.  We always created the fire, the safe place to return to in case we might get lost.

Every wilderness experience, also needs a home-coming. Every Lenten journey needs a resurrection.    

And actually just thinking about that now, rather than just staying here in the shepherd’s hut, we should go for a walk into this little wilderness.

Any place where we feel on the edge can be magnificent but it can also be terrible.  Coming here I climbed the gate feeling elated, a little time out from the world. I think of the people past and present who have made it possible for me to have this space, I’m filled with affection for those who’ve guided me through the deserts I have travelled and love for my family with whom I share this place.

But there is more to this wilderness as well, so now I am going to turn away from the light seductively hanging in the window and take you deeper inside.

The dark is just settling over us and I am walking towards the ancient hedge line.  An hour ago it beckoned to be peered over, the view beyond expansive, but in the dark it’s creepy and to be honest, a slight panic comes over me.  All of a sudden I’m alone and afraid, as if the straggly old hedge, without the light of sun or moon on it, now represents all that is dark within me as well as outside.

I feel a tiny inkling again of what it is like to live on the edge, paralysed with fear.  My mind and intellect stop protecting me, I tell myself I am safe, grown up, in a place I love – but a wilderness has its dark side and in a way that is the very point, to know it’s there but even more so you need to know you can return. The hope of a way out of the wilderness is as important as the way we got in.  And surely that is the point of the story of Jesus’ time in the wilderness, that he has to find his way through it, not hide there, but find a way back out to the pathway he chooses to follow.

Enough of the fearful dark side of the wilderness. It’s freezing and the ground is already starting to harden under my feet.  Time to find the fire.  So I am going to head back now – I am walking faster through the shadows – and finally, though still outside, I am near enough to the shepherd’s hut to see the glow of the fire, and know that in a minute I can step inside.

And that’s what time in the wilderness does for me, it gives me moments when I realise how terrifying it is to live on the edge; the edge of resources, the edge of a family, at the edge of Europe as a refugee, on the edge of health or under the edge of a sword across your land stealing the future.  And it reminds me how privileged it is to be filled with a hope, a knowledge even, that I can return from the edge and find the welcoming fire.

I now run a psychotherapeutic clinic in Central London.  I work with individuals and families on their internal journey into their own wilderness, the desert that lies within themselves.

I like to think of my consulting room as the fireside in the desert.   While you visit your own inner wilderness, a place you wouldn’t normally go for fear of getting lost, and find emotions you wouldn’t dare to feel in case they overwhelm, someone is waiting for you by the warmth and the light of the fireside.

As I sit here in my shepherd’s hut warm, relieved and safe, I know that getting into a wilderness is all too easy, some of us are forced there physically, some of us are neglected in a wilderness without love, some of us just tumble into an emotional hole with not enough help to find a way out and some of us are enticed by a beauty, a deceptive simplicity, and the search for God.

And for those of us who believe in salvation, then the symbolic Lenten wilderness of these next few weeks, can be a time to struggle in the way Christ struggled in the desert and to strive for our own freedom and then for the freedom of others who have lost hope along the way.  In all my lifelong experience and love of wilderness, I am deeply aware that the freedom I find there is greater than the fear because of those who have lit, and kept alight, the fire beyond.

P1030161Our intrepid Ethiopia group returned enriched and inspired by guest speaker John Binns, who led them through its fascinating Orthodox Church and traditions, introducing them to local festivals, food and friends along the way:

“It was a privilege to spend time with John Binns and learn so much about Ethiopia, both ancient and modern day.”

“Huge thanks to all at Wind, Sand & Stars for an amazing trip. John’s passion for Ethiopia fires his erudition and he gave us more insights into the country, past and present, than we could ever have gained from local guides.”

“John’s knowledge and insight into the Ethiopian Orthodox Church made it an unforgettable experience and opened the doors for so many thoughts and experiences we would not have had otherwise. His general knowledge and love of the country helped to make sense of the many idiosyncrasies of Ethiopian Christianity.”

Thanks also to Christine Dunmow for her A – Z:

Axum and the Ark
Broccoli for breakfast
Coffee and camels

Drought and devotion
Empires and ethnic groups
Firfir and fiyel
Grandeur that was Gondar
Hyenas in Harar
Injesting injera
Kebra negast
Legendary Lalibela
Mountains, monasteries and manuscripts
Nearly non-smoking 🙂 
Oromo -oo- -aa-
Poverty and palaces
Queen of Sheba 🙂  and qat 🙁 
Ruins and Rift Valley

Saints by the squadron
Timqat and tavots
Ubiquitous umbrellas
Victories and victims
Walking for water
Xtinct volcanoes and Xasperating plumbing
Ziway – where the Rift Valley wine comes from!



Surrendering to Sinai

Oct 13 12We are grateful to Elaine Gisbourne & Jo Love for this article,
recently published in the Coracle, the quarterly magazine of the Iona Community.

When Jo Love fulfilled a longing for the desert, Elaine Gisbourne caught the spark from Jo’s recollections and set off on a similar trip a year later. (Curiosity has now rubbed off on Elaine’s husband Michael, and he’ll set off this coming October – so beware, friends, of reading further!).

This is the shared story of the surprises and wonders Jo and Elaine discovered on their first encounters with South Sinai.

Jo’s memory…“I always had a thing about deserts. I’ve no idea why. Until October 2013, the nearest I got was the coach ride across the Arizona Desert to visit Grand Canyon in 1986. The tour guide warned of a boring journey, and soon everyone just fell asleep. Everyone, that is, except me. I sat staring out of the window, captivated by a beauty I defied anyone to call boring! Twenty seven years of yearning later, another desert, true to all my expectations and more, welcomed me ‘home’ with open arms.”

Elaine’s memory… “People said, ‘So you’re going out into a desert, in the middle of nowhere, to do nothing for a week, with people you don’t know?’ And I said, ‘Yes! And I can’t wait.’”

The week’s “Adventure into Silence” with leader and facilitator Sara Maitland, was organised by tour operator Wind Sand & Stars, who go far beyond their reputation and impeccable record as leading specialists in high quality historical and spiritual journeys.

So for us, what was it like? What was our experience of the desert? We both read in advance the book Sara wrote and would draw from her sharing from A Book of Silence with the group each morning, with its appetite-whetting, history-spanning overview of humanity’s relationship with silence in different times and contexts, and its enticing tales of Sara’s own chosen and unchosen experiences of silence, both in solitude and in community. She wrote of having found in the desert “the deepest silence I have ever known.” Would we echo that sentiment?

Our mosaic of memories which follows, is of a shared joy, yet experienced a year apart; memories which cannot, will not, fit into coherent descriptions and neat anecdotes; but may give some sense of what we remember, treasure, and will never forget…

It was a week of nothing but me and God. I remember how exciting it felt in the expectation. “I will lead you into the desert…” I was utterly blown away – yes, this is possible! Oh the luxury of being in that space, under that sky, sitting there all day in that silence. Away from the distractions of home. Time to get deep into prayer. The sheer wonder of sleeping under the stars – with nothing between me and space, the universe… with my skin on the sand and my skin under the stars. I didn’t want to sleep! The sky was like velvet, a deep blackness, a blanket, yet lit up with these thousands of winking eyes! And the daytime was a blue and gold world. How different from our familiar green and grey. Blue, searing blue, and the earth was gold.

It came home to me how our ancient faith stories inhabited this landscape… Moses, Abraham, they were there. Meeting God of Mount Sinai, of the wilderness. This is where they wandered. Not that I read these stories though!

There was a stripping away of all of everyday life, a breaking of barriers. It was the quality of the silence, the silence and God; the silence was the voice of God, the presence of God. For me, it was as if God entrusted the desert to be all I needed. The desert brought me its love on God’s behalf.  I didn’t want to fill the silence with words. I wanted it to be as pure and deep as it was.

The desert felt ancient… as the Ancient of Days. This place could hold me. I felt welcomed, cared for. It was such a safe place, kind and beautiful, and it held me. I belonged. I sat and I knew, it’s enough to be here. It’s God’s gift. What freedom and joy – deep, deep joy. I did not expect to feel so happy! There was a strange reassurance – to know that when it’s just me and God I’m at my happiest. It made me see much of life as superficial – but deep, deeper is the Ancient of Days where I’m happy.

I expected to be laid bare, so there were trepidations. But I was up for that – if work needed done I would do it – “sort myself out”. I thought I might find when I went deeper there’d be repressed stuff to find – psychological work to do. Instead, the realisation was – “Underneath all this I’m… sinful? No! Beautiful!” This was not how I’d imagined it would be – I needed to get out of my head, but gently, gently. Once there, I didn’t want to put words into it – it felt so inadequate to try put in words. There was such a quality of “there-ness” – just be here and do what comes.

We walked each day too, the geology changing with every new direction from camp. Volcanic remains. Yellow and purple ores and sulphites.  Raspberry ripple sandstone! Running like children down the dunes at the Dragon’s Eye. Fingering smooth silica pebbles. Back to base as the sun set and the moon rose.

Ah the joy and not a conditional joy. We had raucous nights around the campfire! As my joy increased it seemed so did others’. I remember the Bedouin singing to us – and us singing, “You canny shove yer granny aff a bus!” I remember their stories of their way of life. How the camels are their greatest treasures, and how they know where every person and animal and vehicle has been by the tracks and footprints in the sand. Listening and smiling and hugging another tin cupful of hibiscus tea from that huge, blackened kettle! Watching the fire die down to charcoal and ash, and everyone peeling away contentedly to keep silence till breakfast.

We were spiritually and physically safe and what a gift that was. It was the gift of the place itself, of the Bedu, of Wind Sand & Stars. There was no palpable sigh of relief, it was a given that could be trusted.

I know now that the deeper silence is there, always there. The noise of life is so superficial. I didn’t feel I left the silence behind. I can be present to the silence. I heard the silence there, so I can listen for it now anywhere.

We don’t have to earn or strive for our sense of being. I’d heard about ‘breaking down ego boundaries’ and now I’ve felt it – a total acceptance – who I am in God’s presence – that’s not about solitude. It’s not an exclusive presence but frees me to be more real with others. I came back to work with all its stress and that is real but I don’t feel it penetrates the silence.

It was a moving from head to heart, from knowing to feeling, made possible by the level of surrender to the landscape. Surrender was a huge part of it all. Falling in love like it should be. I never would have believed I could sit still for so long, just sit and gaze, and be so happy.

Next Spring, Jo will return to South Sinai to lead a retreat for the Iona Community. The next Adventure into Silence with Sara Maitland will take place in October 2016. Please contact Wind Sand & Stars for further details of both of these journeys. 

Welcome to our desert home

suleiman cropped 2One of the great pleasures of returning to South Sinai is the warm welcome we receive from our trusted guides of the Muzeina Bedouin tribe, who have been looking after Wind Sand & Stars groups for nearly 25 years.

These Bedu families are an integral part of our desert journeys. Suleiman (pictured) was our host during our latest desert retreat; with his gentle laughter and infectious smile, nothing was too much trouble. The desert is his home and he cares passionately about sharing this beautiful part of South Sinai with all those who travel with us. From romantic tales around the camp fire of how he came to meet his wife Aida and teaching us the art of making bread, to safely guiding us through a myriad of canyons and sand dunes, he knows every square inch of this land and, most importantly, the best outcrops to sit at and enjoy Bedouin tea!

It was Suleiman’s late father, Sheikh Hamid of Wadi Gazella, who first worked with Wind Sand & Stars during the early 1990s. Widely respected for his honesty and reliability, as well as his great humour and charm, he brought steady business to the desert over many years, providing vital income to over 100 local families. He understood the idiosyncrasies of these curious non-desert dwellers and offered us true friendship, yet never losing his inner identity and pride as a Bedu, or his loyalty to his desert environment.

“I am hugely impressed with Wind Sand & Stars and their relationship with the Bedouin family who looked after us. These local contacts made the experience especially rich.” South Sinai journey, 2014

I will bring the noble soul into the desert and I will speak to her heart

DSC_0158Thank you to Mary Cook for sharing her article on the experience of meditation and silence in South Sinai:

“I practise Christian meditation and currently lead a meditation group in Christchurch Highbury. John Main describes meditation as ‘a way of coming to your own centre, coming to the foundation of your own being and remaining there – still, silent and attentive’.

It is in following this quest that led me to a silent retreat in the South Sinai desert led by Sara Maitland, author of A Book of Silence. En route a companion asked me why I was embarking on this challenging journey. I confessed that I wasn’t exactly sure. I then settled down to read a passage from Meister Eckert and the following passage leapt out of the page:

‘I, says our Lord in the book of the prophet Hosea, will bring the noble soul into the desert, and I will speak to her heart, one with One, one from One, and one in One eternally’.

Thus an extraordinary journey began into the beautiful sandstone desert of South Sinai in the company of a diverse, mainly spiritual group of adventurers. We were led in our enquiry by Sara Maitland, expertly and confidently guided by professional guides from a specialist travel company called Wind Sand & Stars. I was astounded at their knowledge, detail and consistent loving care. It was clear from my first tentative enquiry that there was a special quality at the foundation of Wind Sand & Stars. Curiously, in spite of the possible risky environment (political, spiritual, health-wise, etc), one was allowed to feel safe. The structure of support was utterly sound, there was a constant and completely necessary daily reminder of boundaries in all senses of the word, which gave one a freedom in which to truly experience exploration beyond one’s normal limits.

Having arrived into the remote valley that was to be our home for six days we settled into desert life. We slept on mats upon the sand under an exquisite canopy of stars. We woke at dawn to glimpse the sun rising above the pink sandstone rocks and dunes and to sounds of our Bedouin hosts crouched over fires preparing delicious breakfasts of fresh breads, eggs, goat’s cheese and hot sweet tea from a blackened kettle.

After listening to readings from the Desert Fathers we each retreated to our individual hermitages amongst the rocks. These were literally very shady clefts which we had each chosen on arrival where we might feel sheltered from the burning sun and able to pursue our own discovery into desert silence through prayer, meditation, poetry, or whatever we chose. The remainder of the day included lunch, rest, and optional guided walks on foot or camel to sacred sites. Evenings were spent sitting around a wonderful fire under the stars eating and sharing our experiences.

It was discovered that the desert is a very special place which does speak to the heart somehow through the stripping away of image, activity, and because there really is a most profound depth of silence.

The final day was spent at St Catherine’s Monastery where I was able to spend time gazing at the remarkable 6th century icons that have been miraculously preserved in that sacred place.”

‘I, says our Lord in the book of the prophet Hosea, will bring the noble soul into the desert, and I will speak to her heart.’

The oldest Bible in the world

CS_36_4r_detail_fullRadio 4 have just repeated an excellent programme which tells the incredible story of the Codex Sinaiticus. Hidden for hundreds of years and preserved by the ideal desert conditions, it was discovered by a German scholar in 1844 at St Catherine’s Monastery. Its history is contentious and its contents controversial ….

Listen here to Roger Bolton’s programme on BBC Radio 4 extra.

The beautiful Greek script on parchment was handwritten some 1600 years ago and is the earliest known copy of the New Testament. It was stored in the basement of St Catherine’s Monastery, which lies at the foot of Mount Sinai in the remote South Sinai mountains. Built in the sixth century by the Roman Emperor Jusinian, the Monastery escaped the destruction faced by so many other churches and monasteries throughout the Middle East because of its unique protection by the prophet Mohammed. As a result, the Monastery today holds the greatest library of early Christian manuscripts outside the Vatican – an astonishing 33,000 items – plus an unrivalled collection of rare and beautiful icons.

The best way to discover the full story of the Codex Sinaiticus is to visit the Monastery itself. It is just one of the Monastery’s many treasures, looked after by the small community of Greek Orthodox monks. Join a forthcoming journey to South Sinai and stay at the Monastery Guesthouse, with an optional ascent of Mount Sinai.

The British Library also holds part of the manuscript and a recent collaborative research project means that the the Codex can now be viewed online:

Our friends the Bedu

ThesigerThe legendary desert explorer Wilfred Thesiger describes his            experience of Bedouin culture in this wonderful quote from his book Arabian Sands. This is still the case today in South Sinai, where our Bedouin friends remain true to their tribal lore and continue to       welcome us with their incredible hospitality:

“I pondered on this desert hospitality and, compared it with our own. I remembered other encampments where I had slept, small tents on which I had happened in the Syrian desert and where I had spent the night. Gaunt men in rags and hungry-looking children had greeted me, and bade me welcome with the sonorous phrases of the desert. Later they had set a great dish before me, rice heaped round a sheep which they had slaughtered, over which my host poured liquid golden butter until it flowed down on to the sand; and when I protested, saying ‘Enough! Enough!’, had answered that I was a hundred times welcome. Their lavish hospitality had always made me uncomfortable, for I had known that as a result of it they would go hungry for days. Yet when I left them they had almost convinced me that I had done them a kindness by staying with them”

Beware of careless talk

sara maitland croppedThank you to Sara Maitland, our guest speaker on the  Adventure into Silence, for sharing her recent column in The Tablet, published in November 2014:

C.S.Lewis comments that cowardice is one sin that offers no pleasure, no compensation – unlike, for instance, gluttony. Being afraid and letting that fear control you is generally pretty horrid.  This is possibly why making other people fearful or anxious has a certain nasty delight to it.

I am recently back from a two week visit to Egypt. The first week I spent, as I do each year, in the numinously beautiful South Sinai desert exploring silence with a wonderfully assorted group of like-minded campers, sleeping on the white sand under the red-gold water-carved cliffs and waking to watch the stars wheel silently across the black skies. The second week I crossed the (brilliantly blue) Red Sea to visit the cradle of monasticism and follow St. Anthony’s legendary walk through the savage limestone mountain desert from his monastery to what has become St. Paul’s monastery. Coptic monasticism is flourishing; the monks were gentle and welcoming and patently holy; I wept in St. Anthony’s cave and felt re-committed to his “joyful determination” to make a life of silence.  It was all very beautiful.

But there was, for me, an undercurrent of sadness and concern about the growing poverty and unemployment in Egypt, because tourism has collapsed since the political upheavals of 2011. Much of Egypt, including South Sinai and the Red Sea coast, is heavily dependent on the tourist industry and overall revenue has fallen by over 50% in the last three years. An Egyptian friend, a graduate and skilled desert guide with a young family, has been made redundant, his colleague is leaving Egypt to find work; the Bedouin are suffering.

Tourism has collapsed because the region is supposed to be “too dangerous.” Every person in the group I was with had been told – often in dire terms – that they should not travel there.  There was something almost gleeful in the admonitions of my acquaintances, as though undermining someone else’s confidence was rather good fun. They were also shockingly ill-informed. One friend insisted that El-Arish, where a bomb did indeed kill 30 soldiers last month, is in South Sinai: it is a port on the Mediterranean so could hardly be further north if it tried. One of my fellow travellers had been terrified by a grim insistence that hostage taking was “rife”: in March 2013 five foreign nationals were kidnapped in two separate incidents by local Bedouin; all of them were released unharmed. Rife? In February this year three South Korean tourists and their driver were killed in an attack on a bus in Taba. Taba is indeed in South Sinai and it was a horrible and vicious attack, but Taba is on the Israeli border; we were not planning to go anywhere near the Israeli border. No one urges their friends not to run in the London Marathon because the Boston Marathon was bombed in 2013.

People will tell you that the Foreign Office advises against all but “essential travel.” This is true, but I do not believe that most of the doom-merchants have read the Foreign Office advice, because it specifically exempts the seaside resorts – at Sharm el Sheikh for example – but there too the hotels were empty and staff laid off.  The Foreign Office has a particular job to do and I have no argument with that, but we need to remind ourselves that during the English riots in August 2011 the US version of our Foreign Office advised only “essential travel” for the whole of the UK. Does that feel realistic to anyone?

Look. I do not believe I am reckless; I am not recommending Kobane as a honey-moon destination this month, nor northern Liberia as a health spa. If you feel South Sinai or the Red Sea Mountains or anywhere else for that matter is too dangerous, go somewhere else or stay at home: it will be your loss. But please think; the spreading of disinformation for amusement or to impress (or why ever people do it) is distressing to the hearers, but more seriously may condemn someone whose life may already be marginal to serious deprivation, to increased poverty and to precisely that despairing rage that makes them more likely to be “radicalised”.

Careless talk costs lives – or at the very least livelihoods. And, since poverty and unemployment are well known to be a major driving force of political and social un-rest there is a danger that this sort of uninformed chitter-chatter becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.  It is a work of neither peace nor justice.