We are on our bellies now, crawling through silky-fine sand, watching the shadows for vipers and scorpions. Inches above our heads is a huge rock, the roof of a collapsed chamber, supported by walls cut from soft, rather crumbly sandstone.
Ahead of me, my companion switches on his head torch and lights up the chamber, revealing the object of our search. Around the walls, just below the ceiling is a layer of plaster, and on it some painted images, the heads of religious figures, saints or apostles perhaps. One bears a striking resemblance to traditional images of Jesus.
We take photographs until the sand causes my camera to seize up, and then return to the fresh air above.
My companion is Amir Milad, a desert guide of many years experience, and he has brought me to Deir Abu Lifa, an abandoned Coptic monastery in the Western Desert north of Fayoum. Dating back to the early days of Coptic Christianity, the monastery is cut into an outcrop of the Qatrani mountain; a remote place in which monks could lead the contemplative life safe from persecution by the Byzantine Eastern Roman ulers. The name points to the saint assumed to have founded it, Abu Lifa, also known as Abu Banukhm or St. Panoukhius.
See the above page for the full story.