Asyut and the Convent of the Virgin Mary

Having waved a very relieved and happy farewell to Cairo, we followed the Nile south, or at least we followed one of the many canals which have presumably been created from it. We really only got within sight of the actual river a few times; and when we did it was quite inspiring. Not that we had much opportunity for admiring the view, as the road cuts through village after village, where you are accosted by everything from dodgy speed humps and potholes to washer women and donkey carts. About midday, we stopped at a The lady with the lovely smile at a little roadside stalllittle roadside shop where, within minutes, the locals had erected a makeshift ‘cafe’ in our honour, complete with chairs, a table, bowls, glasses and a knife – and we only stopped for a cold Coke and some bread! It was a very heartening experience, full of genuine welcome and desire to make us feel comfortable, rather than much of the hassle and touting one experiences in more touristy places. The woman whose shop it was had such a lovely smile that I asked if we could take a photo, and I did, but it wasn’t great ‘cos she kept laughing and moving about. When I showed it to her, though, you couldn’t have asked for a more delighted reaction. It’s an encounter that was a real breath of fresh air – something there’s not a lot of around here, with the smog and dust creating a general haze which produces glorious sunsets but isn’t conducive to taking very good landscape pictures!

Another feature of this leg of the journey was the interminable police convoy. We picked this up part way through our ride to Asyut. Its function appears to be to keep us safe, although if that were the case you’d think they’d invest in some rear brake lights and some advanced (or even basic) driver training sessions! ‘So much for slipping quietly into town!’ Glyn shouted above the screech of their blaring sirens as we entered yet another wild west town, where no-one takes a blind bit of notice except possibly to greet one of their policeman friends.View from the Convent of the Virgin Mary, Asyut

As the afternoon wore on, we found ourselves in something of a predicament. We knew that the only place we had heard of to stay in Asyut would close at 6pm. It’s a convent, set into the hills overlooking the valley, and we could imagine that it got pretty well shut up after that time, so we were desperate to get there. But every town we went through has its own police jurisdiction, resulting in a need for change overs between policemen. Some of these happened like clockwork, but as we got closer, they seemed to take longer and longer to organise, and at the final one (where you’d imagine they might have heard of the convent), they simply did not know where we wanted to go! We eventually rocked up at the intimidating gates with 15 minutes to spare. At first we were told that they were closed, but with some persuasion and lots of gesturing about sleep, we managed to get inside. With great pride, we were shown the cave where the ‘holy family’ apparently stayed when on the run from Herod. From the surroundings, you do kind of feel like you might have stepped back into biblical times, so it makes this claim all the more believable. I thought it was a nice touch, therefore, that the following morning, as we were leaving, the gatekeeper was the first person we’ve come across who blatantly asked for ‘baksheesh’. ‘You give me five pound’ he said. When I asked what for, he repeated the demand and then said ‘yes or no?’. My ‘no!’ must have been emphatic enough, because he stopped stalling us, with the ruse that he was calling the police, and let us go. Not that it lasted long – we were picked up an hour later and summarily escorted south, much to our chagrin and the local constabulary’s delight!

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