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Posts Tagged ‘Visits’

Friday I played tour guide to Katie’s parents, who hired a car to take them to the battlefield of El-Alamein for the day. Although the battlefield proper is closed (due to some 17.2 million landmines and unexploded ordinance just laying about), the war memorials are interesting enough and the drive pleasant enough to make a nice long day of the whole thing. Besides, it’s an article opportunity: in addition to the camel market article I’m working on, I might as well tack on an El-Alamein one.

We left around 10:45 from Sporting, with a driver that took us through the Agami road to the monastery of Mari Mina. There, the bodies of the Coptic hierarchy are interred —  and I figured that the Friday atmosphere would allow all to see Copts at their most Coptic (“High” Mass is sang on Fridays as well as on Sunday). After a fire that destroyed much of the monastery, the glittering white edifice that is the modern complex was built in 1959, including the present cathedral church, which is a splendid building of red and gray Aswani granite, covered on the inside with tasteful mosaics and iconography — not as common as you might think in Coptic Churches (if you ask me). Most Coptic icons tend to verge on the cartoonish, some even looking like anime depictions of the Holy Family.

After getting our whiff of incense of incense from the ongoing Mass, we ducked downstairs to the crypt, which was thronging with shoeless believers (Copts remove their shoes at holy places: the sanctuary, tombs of saints). There was a display of the finest order: something between a museum and a memorial wall. The last pope (Cyril) and one bishop (whose name I’ve forgotten) are encased in miraculously fragrant tombs: believers approach the sarcophaguses and place their foreheads on them, whispering their prayers down and coming away with the musk from the tomb on them. The walls are lined with glass casings displaying the two holy men’s clothes, favorite slippers, and glasses, as well as vestments for holy offices, and festooned with flashing Christmas lights, paintings and flowers and wreaths left by the faithful. It’s quite a sight, though a little disconcerting with its mix of crazy popular religious feeling and intense traditional solemnity.

Unless you’re a Coptic pilgrim (note: Nov 11 is Mar Menas’ Day, which is the moulid), there’s no real reason to see the modern monastery. What you want to see (if you’re a tourist, that is) is the ancient monastery.

You walk out the big battered iron gate that separates the dirty variety of desert from the monastery. You walk for thirty minutes over hills and midden piles of Roman pottery that goats graze over. Occasional puddles of muddy water. And just as the dust makes you sneeze and you begin to doubt that there’s anything actually out there, you stumble on it: a whole city of limestone, brick Roman baths, occasional slabs of glittering marble: it’s a complete city that looks like someone took a hacksaw to the foundation.

This is the site of the third-century monastery, the springs that rose up when the ashes of the Coptic martyr Menas were laid to rest here. Because of it’s location on the coastal road from Alexandria to Marsa (which was also a prominent port in the Roman period), it became a central trading point– and the miraculous healing waters, a pilgrimage site. But the wells dried up, and in the eleventh century, the place was reduced to an Ozymandias-like shadow in the desert, the local amirs and caliphs stripping the ruins of its marble columns to make their own mosques, leaving what was once called “The City of Jasper” to more humble monks in the desert once more.

After dusting off our boots and climbing back in to our car, we followed the road past the Abu Sir lighthouse (the last Greek lighthouse in Egypt, a tenth-scale, ancient prototype of the famous Pharos), and settled in for the drive to El-Alamein, which always takes longer than you expect.

Last time I visited the El-Alamein War Museum (which is a gem of a museum, by the way), Norman, Charlie, Kate, and I had about ten minutes to zip through the thing– because the place was closing at 3. It’s quite a wonderful collection of rooms that is pretty well-informed, if awkwardly written sometimes, which all of its paraphernalia taken from the battlefield. Outside, a collection of tanks and various vehicles from the battlefield are ready to pose with.

Unfortunately, the guards were insistent that they close the museum at 2:30 — for what reasons, I cannot imagine why. I’ve never seen someone so insistent about lunch, and no amount of pleading about Katie’s parents coming all the way from England (and no amount of lying about their grandfather being in the battle) could convince them. The officer in charge kept saying, “This is the army and this is how we do things.” My only thought (and this is the old First Sergeant in me coming out): Your shoes are so scuffed that they’re white at the tips, your brass has no polish, and your patches are fastened with safety pins = You have no authority, you funny man.

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Inside the cloister of the British War Memorial at El-Alamein

The cemeteries, gracefully, are open at all times to any that visit them, and for me, this was a chance to wander through the British and German ones again, and finally see the Italian one. In my mind, all of the monuments seem to reflect something of the national character of the nation to which they belong: the British one is almost understated, about order, and is extremely bright and clean.

You go down a causeway to to a cloister that overlooks the markers. Each headstone has the crest of the soldier’s unit, his name, rank, serial number, birth and death dates, and a personal inscription that the family as written. Most are pretty standard quotes from Scripture, or sentiments of loss but they really tear you apart sometimes in their simplicity — and the effect of the place.

Some of the most poignant, I thought:

“Thy will be done.”
“No greater love hath man.”
“In all the silent moments, we remember him.”
“I have fought the good fight.”
“Not good-bye, but good-night.”

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War graves at El-Alamein. Graves belonging to Polish support forces are actually pointed, as opposed to rounded.

The German memorial, on the other hand, is extremely Teutonic. It’s a giant castle-like edifice, enclosed and imposing, wrought-iron torches and an obelisk in the central courtyard. Big, black, maltese-falcon type eagles. Kind of scary, really. Instead of individual markers, the names of German provinces have tombs, and the names of all the soldiers are listed en masse on massive green-tarnished copper plates. The only thing I can say is that it feels very…German.

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Outside the German mausoleum

These I’ve already seen. What was the most shocking was the Italian memorial. It’s positively enormous: huge marble front with a long causeway that you have to walk up towards. At least fifteen stories high. Slick, polished marble everywhere with a giant reception hall that echoes everything, a huge cross soaring above you. There are two rooms that list the Italian dead in mausoleum-like boxes, whole rooms labeled “Ignoto,” for unknowns.

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Corridors of "Ignoto": haunting, really.

When I say that the memorial was shocking I think I mean that it was the most callous: the British one was about identity, I think (with each headstone meticulously detailed). The German one was about dignity, tradition (it seemed like a temple in which one could grieve over war). But the Italian one seemed less about Italians than it did about Italy. It seemed to be the most fascist of the monuments, and anyone that’s seen a photograph of Victor Emmanuel square can probably back me up.

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Most of these posts are a long time in coming: internet still hasn’t been installed in the flat yet, so the posts will be a bit erratic until I have a steady access source. I’ll try to keep them brief and my apologies sparse.

A group from Cairo arrived Friday– friends of Melissa’s, Autumn and others– and the dime tour was activated. Best thing for me, really; we made our way from the obligatory tombs at Kom al-Sho5afa (where a group of students from TAFL were– a number of Norewegiis) through the streets of Karmouz and Muharrem Bek. Managed to reset my bearings and am slowly remembering my way though the more sha3bi districts like the end of the last trip (which was about a year ago). NB: discovered that Pastroudi’s is no more– it’s been torn down for a ghastly gourmet Egyptian cuisine place that plays Arabpop and stripped down the mirrored bar. I wonder if Durrell’s house on Rue Maamun is still standing.

Guards at Kom al-Sho5afa were arguing the entire time Autumn and I were waiting outside the tombs for Caroline. One of them had said something I didn’t quite catch about an American Christian that spoke Arabic (ref. me) and one of the Egyptian women (presumably a Copt) jumped up in defense and pounced on his sarcasm. An older guard apologized to me, while the group split up between the warring parties and “moderators” were send to either side. It seems that this is the Egyptian way to argue– I’ve most definitely seen it before.

Dinner at Abou Ashraf (at least something is consistent) in Anfushi, and a magnificent sunset, followed by a much needed Stella with Hasan and Usama at the Spitfire.

Nothing makes you feel settled in like being a host.

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