Francis Beckett

Just back from Egypt, after ten days touring the monuments left by the ancient Egyptians, stunned by the engineering marvels that these people who lived 3,000 years before Christ could build. Vast underground tombs, with several huge rooms, carved into granite mountains, every inch of their walls decorated with careful, intricate, technically perfect pictures carved into the granite walls; the graves packed with marvellous furniture and ornaments made from precious metals; bodies preserved forever by processes which required detailed knowledge of biology.

And none of it designed to benefit a single human being. They made their tombs, they hid them skilfully, and they buried their kings and priests in them. No one was ever supposed to see them. All these wonders were designed only for the Gods and the dead. It was a religion for the dead, not the living.


In fact, all this scientific ingenuity and the extraordinary amount of human endeavour brought nothing but misery to the people. Thousands of men let short, miserable, brutalised lives of backbreaking labour and regular whippings so that these marvels could be created for the Gods alone.

If all that work and scientific ingenuity had gone into something useful, what might they not have achieved? A way of feeding all their people, instead of regularly enduring famine? Penicillin? The wheel and the internal combustion engine?

Come out of the graves and the temples into the smoke and bustle of modern Egypt and you find something rather similar is going on. The streets are ugly, dirty and dusty. Rubbish is strewn everywhere, and no one bothers to pick it up. Streets which are unattractive enough anyway are finished off with piles of empty drink cans, and littered with casual dangers. On one street in Cairo I nearly skinned my ankle on the sharp edge of a steel pipe sticking up a few inches from the pavement; on another in Luxor I narrowly avoided a pile of long shards of broken glass. Look over the top of Cairo from a hill above, and you see one of the ugliest cityscapes in the world.

Everywhere, new buildings spring up, ugly windowless blocks of flats, and families live behind the holes where windows should be, sleeping in the dust on the concrete floors. Men earn their family’s living by begging and hustling. Their bring their sons onto the streets to teach them how to do it, while their daughters stay at home with their mothers, hooded beneath headscarves lest a man might glimpse their hair. Go to a toilet anywhere, and there will be a man hanging about inside, trying to extract a coin from you in exchange for a square of lavatory paper. There is no pride in earning your living like that.

So is there not some beauty somewhere, no place they are proud of? There is. Some of the mosques are lovely. Not all – not the places where most people go to pray each day, which are dingy and grubby, but a few special ones. So are some of the Christian churches. I heard my first Latin mass for forty years in a charming little Franciscan church in Luxor. Care, love and pride are lavished on the building and maintaining of these places, which are havens of peace and cleanliness.

Religion, as in ancient Egypt, is used to control the people. The call to prayer is heard regularly in every corner of every town and village. There is no pressure to answer it if you don’t want to, I was told solemnly by a woman tourist guide, every lock of her hair carefully covered by a headscarf, and if you believe that, you probably believe in the tooth fairy.

Then as now, the hatred people feel for the conditions in which they live is channelled into hatred of other religions. When the Christians came to Egypt, they went to those old Egyptian temples and graves they could find, and defaced them. At the temple of Karnack, they found a fifteen foot high statue of an Egyptian god, and thought it clever to destroy and deface it by cutting it about until it was a statue of Christ on the cross instead. A week before we arrived, Muslims had again bombed a Christian church in Alexandria.

If religion were to leave just a little of that care and pride and sense of the aesthetic for the improvement of the lives of the people, how much better those lives might be.

The Christians achieved their objective – they destroyed the ancient Egyptian gods. But the Abrahamic god – the God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam – rose to replace it. Can we hope that when this god falls, it will be replaced by something that benefits humanity, instead of sucking the life from humanity?