On the 28th of June 2008, I arrived in Cairo airport, to meet with Dr. Hawass, the Supreme head of the antiquities in Egypt. Having read many of his books, and followed his career through lectures at the Los Angeles County museum, his many guest appearances, on Discovery and The History Channel, I felt, I had a good grasp of this man. He made a huge difference in bringing to light the many discoveries of Ancient Egypt onto the world stage.
I arrived in his office, punctually at 2 PM, an office filled with female assistants, surprisingly, not a piece of Egyptian art in sight. Walking in, I politely asked, “Are you ready, Dr. Hawass?” Abruptly he answered, “Ready for what?” ‘Hmmm, where had all the charm gone? Gone for television everyone.’ Not looking up and looking terribly busy, I thought. ‘Oh, please don’t stand’.
I decided to keep my ‘one pointedness’, as Zen taught me, not to flinch. I began yhrowing questions at him about Bahariya (golden mummies), Seti the First (Pharoah), grandfather of Rameses 11, anything-new found in KV5, (The tomb of Rameses’ sons). All his answers were an abrupt ‘no’ or dismissive. I couldn’t seem to reach him. I decided to try another tactic. I remember reading about his friendship with Omar Shariff, whom I had worked with in Europe ten years prior. He curtly responded, “He lives in Paris. What else?” I quickly showed him photos and stories of documentaries I was developing for Discovery Channel. Immediately he went into discussing the fees to shoot in these places and when to contact him. I felt the need to finish this game he was playing, and like an actor knowing his cues, I stood up and quickly finished the meeting with a handshake. Alas, a shift took place, he stood up. I think he was surprised that I had ended this meeting before he had. I was not about to experience his dismissal. And as he gave me his card, he said, “You know that only thirty percent of Egyptian artifacts have been uncovered. We have a lot of work ahead of us”. Great, I thought, and as I looked into his eyes, I knew I had broken through and my mission was accomplished, the right to explore my journeys in his country and have his approval. I congratulated him for the great work that he was doing in Egypt. I thought to myself, he may not be the most likeable person, with his arrogant manner, but I respected him immensely for the great passion and love he has demonstrated towards his country, and making sure nothing, not even a grain of sand left Egypt without his approval. Too many European cultures of the nineteenth century, especially, England, France and Germany, who had no classical age, looted thousands of artifacts from Egypt and claimed them as their own.
My next journey, was to drive to St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai, a seven-hour trek through a desolate environment. This ancient church fortified by enormous walls, protecting over two thousand icons, and over three thousand Manuscripts, second only to the Vatican Library.
The entire Sinai was inhabited by Bedouins (Nomads), since ancient times. It was here that Moses experienced the manifestation of the Divine. Here, where God, said. “I am that I Am,” and charged Moses to free the Israelites from Egypt’s bond.
Getting there was difficult. So many security stops. Of course I had mistakenly not taken my passport with me, which showed that I had arrived in Egypt legally. My driver had to convince them that I was an actor having come to meet Dr. Hawass, and to be allowed to continue on. I wondered why there were so many Military and secret police. It was only 125 degrees in this hostile environment. The answer would come to me after I had left the country. Through landscapes so desolate and uninviting, I wondered ‘how had Moses survived crossing this desert alone and thrown into the wilderness by Pharaoh. After 8 military stops with the same procedure being stared at in the back seat by suspicious authority, I just played the role of an innocent in the wild while they tried to scare me down.
Finally, at 11AM, we arrived, a huge number of military police, a hundred yards beneath St. Catherine’s stood firm. It was an interrogation scene out of “Midnight Express”. The white uniform with the black epaulets, the dark sun glasses and the stance only found in fascist’s countries, where no democracy exists only fear imposed on the masses. This time my Driver’s License ID did not suffice. The head of the police strutted around like an animal, and said to my driver, in Arabic, “ He will have to go back to Cairo and get his passport. He is not invited here”. My driver translated. Then I said. To my driver, “This is a Greek Monastery ruled over by the Orthodox Church. He is a Muslim and cannot deny me my rights to connect to my God’. Standing there threateningly he quickly responded in English, “You are Persona non-grata. Leave”. My driver came up with a brilliant idea, to go to the nearest hotel and have the face of my passport faxed from Cairo. “You wait here’. I found a shady spot in all that heat and while waiting for my driver to return I decided to try a different tactic and began charming the police. I found one that spoke Greek, exchanging stories about dreams and women, of course. Always a way to get to a man’s heart. My driver returned with the evidence. The veil was dropped by the authorities and I was allowed through. Halleluiah! Another way through was found.
I trekked the rest of the way on a camel. As ugly and uncomfortable as they are, there is something in their motion that connects you to the ancient past, where things took time, unlike our modern age. I came across the great wall, where Emperor Constantine, in 313AD, issued the famous edict that brought an end to the persecution of Christians. He built this Monastery around the legendary ‘Burning Bush’. And it is that tree that still lives after three thousand years that continues to give life and purpose to this sanctuary. In all its years of existence, it has never been abandoned.
Arriving at the gates of St. Catherine, I met with Father Porfidios, a journalist who landed here at the age of fifty, and found a place of solitude, became a monk and never looked back. He took me to the well, where Moses had met his wife. I sat at this spot, spiritually moved and imagined what Moses, having come out of the hostile desert, overcame the Pharaohs death sentence. He settled here and became the great myth that still affects the Christian and Muslim faith today.
As I walked further into the Monastery, I came across ‘the Burning Bush’, Thick in It’s intensity I instantly jumped up to grab a piece only to find it covered with fine thorns, that seemed to be telling me. ‘hands off’. I could imagine, after all these hundreds of years, this living sacred tree had been cut and gnawed at by the millions of pilgrims over the centuries feeling it would bring them closer to God. Including myself. I left with bleeding fingers. Ouch!
As we sat outside the café the father began to tell me how the Monastery had been named. In 292 AD, an eighteen year old woman by the name of Catherine, of royal lineage, challenged Emperor Maxentius, who was a worshiper of Pagan Gods. By questioning his pagan beliefs she was sentenced to death. Put on a water wheel to slowly drown, to their astonishment the whole thing collapsed. She was finally put to death by decapitation. It is believed, milk, not blood flowed from her body and so she was martyred and became the patron saint. In the 9th century, angels guided the monks to her remains in Sinai and buried her within the walls of the great church. The singular sound of a monk began to echo through the monastery, announcing that four o’clock mass had begun. I entered the ancient church and the first thing that struck me was the smell of the thousands of candles that had been lit through the ages, and I picked up one for myself and put a flame to it. My God, I felt the ancient icons that surrounded me, enter my very being. My seemingly difficult journey in arriving here all of a sudden disappeared and I can still hear the haunting sound of their religious mantra echoing in my mind. The next day on my way to Damascus, I opened the Herald Tribune, and there it was on the front page, what all those obstacles getting to Sinai was about. The Egyptian Security Forces had arrested more than a hundred people throughout the country, suspected of plotting terror attacks on its country’s treasures.
They said that three cells, lead by operatives outside of Egypt, had allegedly planned bombings in three large cities, espousing an ideology of Takfir, accusing others of Apostasy. Large quantities of explosives and weapons were found as well as maps of official institutions in the country. Egypt’s aim was to stop the smuggling of weapons and terrorists through tunnels from Sinai to Gaza strip. It cannot afford another threat of terrorism on its soil.
Leaving Egypt behind me I realized that these places hold in their memory that which has come before and that the mysteries of what exists and where we go to uncover them keeps these places alive. And my greatest desire by passing through here is to be part of those memories.