Aswan, 25th January 2009
The final approach to the monastery of St Simeon, down a perfect dune of golden sand, is sublime, and accompanied in my earphones by the crescendo in the soundtrack to The English Patient, the part where Almasy carries his stricken lover to the cave that will be her final resting place. Emotionally, this is the high point of this trip and a moment I know will live with me forever. I seem so far removed from everyday existence yet at the same time I am in a place that feels familiar, my presence here somehow inevitable. There seems to be no incongruity in sitting at a desk in Sheffield one day and walking to a monastery on the edge of the Egyptian desert the next.
To the final strains of the soundtrack I pick my route into this spiritual fortress. I decide against scrambling straight up one of the rocky paths ahead in favour of a perambulation of the walls to the right, reached by a final sandy track. On the approach I feel the contradictory emotions of a pilgrim and an assailant. As I get closer the golden colour of the stone and mud brick from which the buildings are fashioned makes them appear much more in harmony with their landscape rather than at war with it. At the entrance I am met by two men – a younger, slightly rotund one who takes my money and a thin, wizened, older one who leads me inside, as if offering himself as my guide.
Inside the main courtyard I meet a couple a little older than myself, the tone of whose educated English suggests they are Dutch. The man politely asks if he can join in with my guide and instead I offer the old man to them, telling them I am happier to explore alone. Apart from the two doorkeepers it becomes apparent that there is no-one else in the vast complex of buildings except this couple and I meet them only once more in the course of my exploration. The woman is full of questions about how the monks got their water and other technicalities which makes me aware that such matters have hardly crossed my mind during my tour of the ruins. My reaction to places such as this is always much more about an emotional connection between myself, the landscape and the people who walked these courtyards and corridors in the past. And some of whom walk with me now.
Almost everything about this place is more like a fortress than a place of religion – arched stone doorways, stone staircases, a massive stone keep – I am soon in a world evoked by my childhood visits to Welsh castles and the model foreign legion fort that was one of my favourite presents one Christmas. At one end of the dormitory, sunlight streams through three round-topped windows arranged in what to my mind is a ‘shamrock’ pattern, a symbol of the trinity. Off the main hall of the dormitory a number of small cells with stone beds immediately evoke the presence of former inmates.
Once outside again, all is still and quiet, and as I look out of a small arched window cut into the curtain wall, out across the dunes to the low hills beyond, I become aware of the slight whisper of the desert breeze. The feeling is absolutely magical, the very breath of eternity, those suspiria de profundis ‘sighs from the depths’ to which De Quincey refers in one of my favourite of his works. To be in such a place and yet away from any sign of modern tourism is wonderful, the very essence of “getting away from it all” the epitome of restorative solo travel. We are this breeze.