The Coptic Cathedral in Aswan, Upper Egypt
Someone in Aswan had decided to paint the famous old Cataract hotel brown. It surprised me: the colour was like a roast chestnut that was ready to eat on bonfire night. And the fountain in the hotel courtyard was just like a sparkler. It seemed that fire had settled on my mind.
Just past the Cataract hotel I found the Coptic cathedral. I wondered if it would survive all the religious strife that was going on in Egypt or whether it would end up getting burnt to the ground.
I decided to visit the cathedral (just in case).
It was light and airy. A woman approached me and volunteered to give me a tour. I said that I would be pleased to be shown around. Except we didn’t have anything like a tour. Instead, we sat on one of the pews near to the altar. She told me about the basics of the Coptic doctrines and she pointed out the saints and she looked very very sad. Perhaps, though, she may have felt a moment of happiness when she told me about the pews in the cathedral; the pews were made of oak imported from America. Only American oak would do. She caressed the oak of the pews. She invited me to do the same. I did. They felt like satin.
She told me how much comfort she got from prayer. She told me that she prayed a great deal every day. Then she gestured towards the tall plain transparent windows. ‘One day they will be made of stained glass,’ she said. ‘But only when there is enough money.’
‘Will there be enough money?’ I asked.
‘Who knows,’ she replied. ‘Who knows what is going to happen.’
Then she said something unexpected:
‘I don’t mind if they come and murder me. I don’t mind if they kill me. I have no fear of dying.’
‘No,’ I replied: ‘Because you are going to heaven.’
‘Yes. I think I will go to heaven. The world is so bad, there’s so much that is bad, there is so much suffering – there is so much evil; I will be pleased to leave it behind. They can do what they like to me.’
I didn’t say anything. I had some vague incoherent thoughts about Joan of Arc – and I listened to the faraway sound of the flames as they consumed her wedding dress. High above the altar an inscrutable Jesus looked away into the distance.
We sat together in silence.
After a while a man came over and whispered something to her. He whispered directly into her ear. She nodded to him. She leant towards me:
‘Please, excuse me,’ she said. Then she left.