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Diary: Fergus Butler-Gallie

06 May 2022


Terra incognita

“TAKE my camel, dear,” I said, climbing down from that animal. Abdullah, who owned the camel, looked at me as if I had spent the journey across from Giza sniffing glue. Clearly he had not read Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond, in which Aunt Dot says the same on her return from high mass. In truth, I haven’t read it, either; and indeed was in Egypt, not Turkey, in part to escape from the world of high masses.

When clergy (even those of us who are unbeneficed) go on holiday, it is assumed that we must go to holy places for the explicit purpose of doing holy things. In fact, I was in Egypt because I had never been there — which seems as good a reason to go to a place as any.

Empty tomb

ABDULLAH sucked his teeth ominously. “I would not do that if I were you, my friends.” Just before our expedition into the desert, we had tentatively introduced the idea that we might actually go inside the Great Pyramid, the funerary monument of the Pharaoh Cheops.

Possible reasons for Abdullah’s reluctance flashed across my mind: booby traps, curses, accusations of grave robbery. All proved to be wrong. He looked me squarely in the eye and said, “I will tell you the truth, my friend: in fact it is very boring.” Of course, that something was boring wasn’t going to stop me — boredom holds no fear for anyone who has sat through an APCM and lived.

“Woe to the rebellious children”, Isaiah cries in chapter 30, “that walk to go down into Egypt.” Well, to go down into the Great Pyramid requires not so much a walk as a sustained hop, made in a squatting position, along a low and narrow passage. Woe undoubtedly awaits as well — not because Abdullah was right, and the burial chamber of the great Pharaoh is an undecorated space stripped of all its glory, but because of the days of leg pain which the manoeuvre causes.

Still, to be inside something so indisputably old (it almost certainly predates the Exodus) was worth it. In some ways, the plain, faintly odd-smelling room with an opened sarcophagus was a more powerful image than a glistening burial chamber. After all, what saith the preacher?

Sound of his Triumph

TWO days later, and I was in a desert again. This time, though, I had plumped for a different desert, and a different mode of transport. I decided to follow in the footsteps of Moses and make my journey into Sinai by quad bike.

Simply being there moved me in ways that I hadn’t expected. I suppose it’s a fact of geography rather than theology, but — although I was very well acquainted with the idea, and the reality, of spiritual or emotional wilderness — to be in the centre of not just any physical wilderness but the wilderness was something new.

I recalled that regular refrain from the book of Numbers: “The LORD spake unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai.” So we drew up the quad bikes by the shade of a tiny tree at the foot of a mountain, and I stopped and listened.

Global player

WE RETURNED to the bikes, and, after a couple of hours of dusty progress, made our way to a small Bedouin camp. We unwrapped our dusty head-coverings and were sat down and treated to a small glass of tea. A shisha pipe was produced. Hamad, the pater familias, asked where we were from and, on hearing England, immediately beamed and shouted “Mo Salah!”

I thought of the now rarely sung hymn about global missionary efforts, “From Greenland’s icy mountains”: what would its author, Bishop Reginald Heber, have given to have had half the reach of the English Premier League?

Seeking common ground, I recounted that, when I was a curate in Liverpool, I had once bumped into the Egyptian football hero. A funeral at the crem near by had coincided with either his arrival or his departure at Anfield’s side gate. I didn’t have anything on me for him to sign other than the order of service, and the deceased had been an Everton fan; so, as a mark of respect, I walked on.

Hostile witness

THE journey back involved hair-raising jumps and turns. At moments of excitement during their quests for the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail, Indiana Jones’s Egyptian companion Sallah was prone to breaking into verses from Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore. As I careered along the dunes, I decided to try something similar, and so bellowed Patience instead. It was, after all, initially written about two curates competing to be more “High Church” than one another.

In truth, W. S. Gilbert loathed the clergy — because, it is said, a fiancée jilted him for a vicar. He wrote a piece called A Christian Frame of Mind about a cleric who goes out to an African desert. At the end, each of the tribesmen whom the cleric had set out to convert strongly and violently identifies himself as a member of his own particular sect. “Let us hope,” Gilbert wrote, “he was as successful in converting them to Christianity as he was in bringing them to a Christian frame of mind.”

His venom lingered in person, too: when he entered a room full of clergy, he famously growled, “I feel like a lion in a den full of Daniels.”

The Revd Fergus Butler-Gallie is a priest and a writer.

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