From Bedouin 'houses' to King Tut's tackle

Father Bigoul could only be the lean figure in front of the Coca-Cola dispenser

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"Come and stay," said a friend (Penelope, a potter specialising in lopsided plates for Knightsbridge boutiques) who instead of a weekend cottage in the Cotswolds, has just bought a Bedouin house (do they call them houses? - this one has courtyards and domes) near Sharm el-Sheikh. Any other week and we probably would, but Peace Summit security put pay to that idea.

"Come and stay," said a friend (Penelope, a potter specialising in lopsided plates for Knightsbridge boutiques) who instead of a weekend cottage in the Cotswolds, has just bought a Bedouin house (do they call them houses? - this one has courtyards and domes) near Sharm el-Sheikh. Any other week and we probably would, but Peace Summit security put pay to that idea.

So we're staying in Cairo, a city I have hankered to live in ever since I read the Blue Nile and in particular Moorhead's description of Al-Qahir as it used to be called when Napoleon first set eyes on it before the Battle of the Nile. Modern Cairo has 14 million inhabitants and a 15-mile concrete fly-over crossing the city from east to west. Eighteenth-century Cairo was slightly more manageable with roughly the same population as Basingstoke and genteel beggars who said things like "Oh, consoler of the embarrassed, my supper must be thy gift", to which the correct reply as you hurried past was "Allah will sustain".

The real purpose of the trip was to visit Coptic monasteries in the desert area of Wadi Natrun where certain ancient manuscripts are being repaired by a team of international restorers which just happens to include another friend who thought a little publicity might not come amiss in terms of fundraising. My immediate problem is that I don't know much - correction anything - about Coptic manuscripts. But heaven knows I have never let a little thing like ignorance deter me. One of the monks from the Deir Al-Surian monastery was in London recently and my picture restorer friend kindly arranged for me to meet Father Bigoul for lunch in the National Library. There was no need to ask if I'd recognise him. He could only be the lean figure in front of the soft drinks machine gazing earnestly at the Coca-Cola dispenser.

Everything about him was lean and spare: face, nose, grey beard reaching to his waist, black cassock - everything in fact but his bonnet. And what a bonnet. It was black, tight-fitting and covered with an intricate lattice of gold embroidery. I can see an entire window display of Harvey Nichols given over to Coptic bonnets for evening wear.

There are Coptic manuscripts from the Deir Al-Surian monastery in St Petersburg, Paris, Rome and our own National Library, so why, I asked Father Bigoul, were his so important. Because, he said, they were the original homilies of the desert fathers dating back to the 5th century which when restored would be available on a computerised data base for the benefit of scholars world-wide.

Speaking as one who, as I mentioned, knows little of the subject, one desert homily sounds very much like another to me, but my art restorer friend assures me there are significant differences.

I wondered if the discovery of Father Bigoul's manuscript was as important, say, as the discovery outside London recently of the skeleton of the first ever female gladiator, but he didn't know. Either that or he didn't know what a female gladiator was, but either way, he was pretty negative about it. This afternoon, I shall visit Father Bigoul's monastery, shower him with questions and learn a lot more.

One question I should like answered (I'm not sure Father Bigoul is the right person to ask about this) is who is the fat lady with no clothes on in the small gallery off Room 45 - the Tutankhamun room - in the Egyptian museum in Cairo?

I'm not referring to the hundreds of fat ladies with hardly any clothes on pouring off tour buses into the museum, but specifically to one small ivory statue of a naked Mae West lookalike with pendulous breasts, a huge belly and her arms uplifted by one of those singing telegram girls who has just jumped out of a cake.

Who is she and how did this distinguishably undecorous floozie manage to sneak in among King Tut's tackle? Answers on a postcard please.

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