My timing seemed right again as I returned to Cairo for the third time since the Janauray 25th revolution. On Saturday, March 19th, as I was landing from Luxor, Egyptians were voting on their first referendum in at least 30 years. The turnout was high - almost 80 percent of the population showed up at the polls.
Egyptians seem to be in a hurry for reform. Nobel Prize laureate and pro-democratic supporter, Muhammad ElBaradei had rocks thrown at him outside a Cairo polling center because he called for a “no” vote in the referendum. He thinks the constitution should be completely rewritten and political parties need more time to organize before new elections.
Supporters of the amendments and referendum included the Muslim Brotherhood, and the former National Democratic Party, Mubarak's party. They are the two most organized political parties in Egypt at the moment. Only time will tell how the revolution will serve the common citizen.
As I came back from almost two weeks visiting temples and tombs in Upper Egypt (the south), between Aswan and Luxor, I find myself revisiting my thoughts about power, religion and exploitation. Ramses II comes to mind with his huge statues in Memphis and temples everywhere in the country, including the Great Abu Simbal, near Aswan, which I didn't visit. Prominent head priests like Roy and Shuroy, whose tombs remain intact, are very large and ornamented, another sign of the power religion played during pharaoh times.
At some of the temples, the pagan pantheon of the ancient days, Isis, Orus and Osiris, are often depicted next to a pharaoh and his queen and sometimes their children. I can only guess that by association, the royal family give themselves a special status in the Egyptian society. Monarchy and dictators need to convey the idea of their specialness and their power to the ruled masses, otherwise, there is a risk of dissent.
Western powers play a more subtle game, the propaganda and manipulation is not as direct, but it all means the same in the end – concentration of power, wealth and resources in the hands of an elite. Which brings me to the current news in Saudi Arabia, the Middle East and the role of the imperialist powers of the day, namely, France, Britain and the U.S.
Last week, France, Britain and the United States began a process that will possibly overthrow Moamar Gadaffi, Lybia's dictator and tyrant for 42 years.
In attacking Libya, western nations led by France, have argued that Moamar Gadaffi is massacring “his-own-people.”
A week ago, March 14th, 2011, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, deployed 1,000 troops, 500 security personnel and armored troop carriers to Bahrain to help their fellow monarchy after a month of protests against the Al Khalifa dynasty. The following day the Bahamian government declared a three-month state of emergency and authorized the military "to take necessary steps to restore national security." The government security forces attacked protesters with tanks, armored personnel carriers and helicopters.
The Shia, who have been marginalized for 200 years by the Al-Khalifas and the Sunni ruling elite, make up 70 per cent of the 550,000 population. The Saudis are surely fearful that protests will spread to their own largely Shia Eastern Province.
Saudi military forces entered Bahrain two days after U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visited Bahrain and met with its Commander-in-Chief and the Deputy Supreme Commander of the Defense Force. Gates praised the king's and prince's "willingness to engage with the opposition," citing their efforts as "a model for the entire region" - the Middle East and North Africa.
The United States has long been Saudi Arabia's leading arms supplier. From 1950 through 2006, it amounted to almost US$80 billion, including services. This is almost a fifth of all American arms sales during the period, even more than the arms supply deals with Israel.
The U.S. Fifth Fleet, one of six used by Washington to patrol the world's seas and oceans, is headquartered near Manama, across from the Persian Gulf and Iran, where between 4,000-6,000 American military personnel are stationed. The area is vital to U.S. international military and energy strategy as 50% of the world's oil comes from this region.
In the meantime, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah is trying to appease the masses in his country with more “bread.” As hundreds of the minority Shia Muslims in the eastern part of the kingdom protested peacefully on Friday in support of Shias in Bahrain, the king of Saudi Arabia offered US$93 billion in benefits to the population. This is in addition to the US$35 billion announced a month ago, or over 20 percent of the total GDP of the Kingdom, an indication that the monarchy must be feeling very threatened.
I am not in favor of mass massacres like what Qadaffi is doing in Libya, but the excuse used to impose the no-fly policy and crash the current dictatorship sounds like manipulation, propaganda and hypocrisy.
Western nations have done nothing about the massacre of more than 40 peaceful protesters in Yemen during the same week, by the government of Yemen and it’s paramilitary or militia, because Yemen is a client nation state, eager to serve interests of western nations. The west has also not helped Bahrain citizens who are being massacred for fighting for their rights, but instead, are praising their government for “controlling” the population.
In 1994, almost a million people were massacred in Rwanda, due to ethnic cleansing between Hutu and Tutsi despite the presence of the United Nations troops in the area. Darfur Sudan, is another example, where millions of Darfurians Sudanese died, because of their religion, race and southern origins in the Sudan.
These are only a few examples, where massacres even greater than what is happening in Libya were met with mostly indifference by the west.
Some westerns say that the world cannot intervene every time a “barbaric” nation wants to kill their citizens for no other reason than race and religion. I am not sure which is worse, no action or selective action. On top of selective action, we are sold on the humanitarian zealousness of the West, which is offensive to me as a western.
As I visited hundreds of temples and museums during the last month, the signs of domination and exploitation in Egypt are too great to be ignored. Both in ancient times but also in modern days.
Maybe the pyramids were not built by slaves, but I am not so sure the population of that time enjoyed any more distribution of wealth as they do today.
Monday, March 21, 2011
Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Tuesday, March 15, 2011
|Temple of Horus, Edfu|
We met up at 8am by the ferry crossing in Aswan, as they were staying in the West Bank, and I on the East Bank. The trip was uneventful and in less than two hours we were making our way to the temple.
This was another very interesting temple, where the story of Osiris and Horus is told, and how Isis conceived Horus.
As the legend goes, Osiris was killed by Set, his brother, because he wanted his power. He put him in a wooden box (barque/sarcophagus) and later cut him into 14 pieces (each one representing the 12-14 moons per year), placing them in different places. Later Isis is able to put together 13 of the 14 parts, but was unable to find the 14th, his penis, which was eaten by a fish. So Isis created a phallus for him, and then attempted to revive him. She then took the form of a kite and flew around his body in order to conceive Horus. In other tellings of the story, Isis grows wings and hovers over Osiris. She breathes life into him in order to revive him and conceives Horus. Being simultaneously alive and dead, Osiris became the god and king of the afterlife. And Isis became the Virgin-Mary of present day Christianity. This is also how the mummification practice started in Egypt. Isis was the first one to do it when she put the pieces of Osiris' body together.
As a life-death-rebirth-deity, Horus/Osiris became a reflection of the annual cycle of crop harvesting as well as reflecting people's desires for a successful afterlife. The mummification rituals and funeral practices in Egypt are sort of the process for that. Kings, Queens, nobles, important merchants and priests were thus prepared through mumification and rituals, to have a “successful” afterlife.
At the Horus Temple, the wooden barque/sarcophagus, which is part of the legend on how Osiris died, is at display, and the walls are covered with ritualistic scenes of offerings, as well as numerous depictions of Horus, Isis and Osiris' son.
In this temple, as well as all other temples I visited, the main theme are scenes of the King/Pharaoh depicted worshiping the gods, while standing, kneeling and even crawling. He made offerings and represented Egypt before the gods. Cult rituals were a dialogue between the gods and the king (or a priestly substitute for the king) who acted as a god.
The king's divine status is explained by his two natures. On one hand, he was an offspring of the sun god, Re in the 4th dynasty (later, Amun and Re were one god, the sun god Amun-Re). On the other hand, the dead king was seen as Osiris. This explains the temples and tombs/pyramids of Egyptian ancient times. During the 5th dynasty, the king's built temples (to Re), but had Osirian subterranean structures beneath their pyramids, which show the close association of both Re and Osiris with kingship.
The king was the single link between the divine and the profane, as well as the representative of the gods on Earth. Since the Second Intermediate period, the doctrine of the king as god attempts to explain how a living being can acquire divine status, a concept possibly used earlier in the Pyramid Texts. It may have originated in the union of the dead king with Osiris, or that of the living king with Horus.
Egyptian rituals seem to have been copied by different civilizations. I recognize offerings, and daily functions such as washing and clothing the gods (or at least the statue of the gods). The latter is a very predominant practice in India, the famous elaborate pujas, or the washing and clothing performed to the hundreds of Indian gods.
Other rituals took the form of celebrations when, for example, one god might be taken to visit the cult center of another, and it was during these festivals that common Egyptians probably came closest to their gods as they were prohibited from the sanctuaries that housed the statues. Again, this ritual seems to have been copied by Chistians and Hindus alike, just to mention two religions that I am familiar with.
Another familiarity between current religions and ancient Egyptian practices, was that people were very concerned about the afterlife. In order to avoid being counted among the damned of the afterlife, one had to not only venerate the Egyptian gods, but also live by a code of standards that would be judged after death. The judgment day is depicted in almost all pyramids and tombs I visited. The gods are depicted weighting the heard of the decease and making a decision of where he/she would go next. Usually, the judgment was favored towards kings, queens, priests, royal persons and anyone important enough to have their own tomb/pyramid built for them. In all of them, I saw the deceased making a transition to “heaven” after a long and circuitous judgment process.
Monday, March 14, 2011
|Temple of Philae|
The Philae Temple we visited is not in its original location. Philae Island was submerged by the High Dam and the temple was moved in the 70's, stone by stone to a Aglikia island.
After we bought our ticket, we had to arrange for a boat to take us across to the temple. Martin and I almost gave up visiting the temple when we were stuck at the mercy of the touts at the dock. They were relentless and wanted an exorbitant amount of money for the ten minutes crossing. But I am glad we could finally negotiate a more or less fair deal and get on with our visit.
As it turned out, this was a very important temple for me, as I could recognize symbols and stories I've heard about the Virgin Mary since childhood. The temple walls were covered with scenes resembling the “Madonna and Child” I have seen in museums around the world, specially Europe. This temple is also important, because it was the last pagan temple in ancient Egypt.
With the Roman invasion and later the Theodosian decree calling for all pagan churches to be closed around 380 AD, Philae was the last pagan temple to officially close in the 6th century AD by the Byzantine emperor Justinian (527-565 AD). Then, it was converted into a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary until it was closed by Muslim invaders in the 7th century.
This temple is dedicated to the god Isis, who found the heart of Osiris on Philae Island. Together with Osiris, her husband and brother, and her son Horus, this trinity is associated with a well kneaded story of life after death, resurrection and a virgin mother in ancient Egypt from the early days of paganism. When the winds shifted to Christianity, the new faith borrowed not only the physical temples, but also the images and stories that went along with them. (More on the full story of Osiris, Isis and Horus on the “Horus Temple” post.)
The adoration of Isis seemed to have been restored by the Virgin Mary in Christianity. Her image standing on the crescent moon and scenes feeding infant Horus, seems to have clearly been adopted by the the new faith. The "Black Virgins," reverenced in certain French cathedrals are believed to be basalt figures of Isis.
She is "the woman clothed with the sun" the "Immaculate Lady," "Queen of Heaven," "Illustrious Isis, most powerful, merciful and just." These were titles transferred entirely or with slight changes to the Virgin-Mary.
I must say I was surprised to see scenes of Isis feeding infant Horus and finding so much familiarity in it from my upbringing as a Christian. After visiting other temples, the connection between myths and legends between paganism and Christianity and even Hinduism, was even clearer.
|Felucca on the Nile|
I walked aimlessly down the Corniche tired and hungry, looking for a restaurant, saying my “la sucrans,” no thank you, to taxi and carriage drivers, felluca rides and souvenir vendors. Several large boats were anchored by the Nile, and I decided to go into the Alyssa, a five star ship for several hundreds of people but filled with only a hand full of tourists. The manager and his German assistant were very nice, offered me a cappuccino and showed me around. Everything looked brand new. There was a nice room for massage and jacuzzi, with views to the Nile. Everything was tastefully decorated, unlike many of the large ships I saw – old and tacky. The price was also very reasonable because of the drop in demand, since the January 25th revolution. But they were leaving the next morning at 5am and I had to be at the boat that same evening. Also, after I thought about it, that was not what I was looking for. I knew I had to experience the Nile differently, at least for first time.
I had not checked my travel guide or map and I had no idea where the restaurants were. I thought I would find one on the Corniche, but I didn't as I was walking in the opposite direction to downtown. Along the way, somehow a carriage driver sensed I was brand new in town and got my attention. Before I knew he was calling someone that had a felluca and I found myself negotiating a three day trip down the Nile with two strange Egyptian men: Hamdy, the captain and Hamada, the cook.
Later I found I had grossly overpaid for the trip but in the end I was happy I went. There is nothing like sailing down in this part of the Nile alone (without tourists) eating with local people, feeling the moods of the wind, the breeze, the sunrise and sunset and watching life go by the hundreds of Nubian villages along the way, without having to socialize with travelers.
We started the trip by taking a tour around Elephantine Island, the Botanic Garden and one of King Farrouk's late castles. Then we returned to Aswan, got our permit for the trip, had lunch on the boat and started our sail.
We didn't make much progress the first day as the wind was not very strong, so we moved mostly with the current. The water was so still that it looked like a mirror reflecting the sky. We had long periods of silence. Hamdy was nursing a toothache and was popping a dicloferaz tablet in his mouth every two hours. I was thankful for the silence and being allowed to enjoy nature around me without much distraction, and feel the breeze take away my thoughts. Hamada was always a kind presence, aware of my needs, conscientious in the kitchen, cleaning the boat meticulously and even managing the sails for Hamdy. Around 6pm we set our anchor down and spent the night by the bridge that crosses over Aswan's East and West banks.
The second day it was the opposite. We had very strong winds and we arrived in Kubania, Hamdy and Hamada's Nubian village, in no time. After having a lunch of rice, chicken, salad and bread, we head out to the boat to continue our trip. The wind was still strong. Hamdy controlled the felluca from the rear, making wide zigzags on the river to manage the speed, adjusting the sails ferousciously. The sun changed quickly from side to side with our shifts. At times I thought we were going to capsize, when the felluca turned almost vertical to the water. That is when I saw Hamdy working the hardest during the whole trip.
Hamdy strikes me as the lazy type and I felt he was resenting having to work this hard. He finally said it was too dangerous to continue and that he needed to go to shore. I knew he had the option to set the sails down and just glide with the current but I agreed to it. Hamdy wore me out when he was trying to get his way. He was the dramatic type that overstated his point as if he was playing a part in a theater. He talked much and did little, opposite to Hamada, who didn't say much but did a lot.
At shore, Hamada walked trough date palms and came back with a tray full of them. Freshly picked dates for grazing. Hamdy was happy hanging out but after about an hour I told him the wind was quieter and we should move if we wanted to make to Kom Ombo that evening.
From Aswan to Kom Ombo we passed through many Nubian villages, that reminded me of the backwaters in Kerala, India. I saw people going about their daily lives by the side of the river. Cultivation was made easier after the dam was built, allowing consistent irrigation and also providing electricity for the whole country, but at the same time, it displaced several important temples, such as Philae and Abu Simbal that were later relocated by moving piece by piece. Not to mention the displacement of the majority of the Nubian population who had to move from their ancestral homes.
Many large boats passed us by, altering the waves of the Nile, lulling us even more from side to side. Most of the ships only had a hand full of tourists, making their way from Aswan to Luxor and back. As tourism was affected since late January, the trips from Cairo to Aswan have been temporarily suspended.
We spent the night in an island an hour from Kom Ombo. I felt the energy in this area was somehow very strong and I could not sleep very much. I was also engulfed by emotional turmoil I could not explain where it was coming from, and starting at 4:30 in the morning, hundreds of chants arrived at the boat from all directions, or was that a dream? They were very soothing though, a little different from the call to prayer I am by now so used to hearing since I arrived in Jordan six months ago. I believe it was closer to Sufi, and to me, it felt like Hindu chants. I woke up in a daze, in the middle of confused dreams, not knowing where I was. For all I knew, It could very well be India, instead of Egypt.
By 6am Hamada let the boat loose and we traveled with the current towards Kom Ombo. By 7am we were docked in front of the temple, I offered to to make breakfast that day: onion and tomato omelet with pita bread, jam, cheese and Turkish coffee.
After I visited the temple, (description under a separate post) and returned to the boat, Hamdy and I had another little discussion. We had agreed on a three day sail to Edfu, and he later reneged saying that was depending on the wind, trying to get out of it. He said it was too far away and he definitely was not going, which means, I paid for sailing for three days, got two, and had to find my own way either to Edfu, or to Luxor, or return with him and Hamada to Aswan. I was worn out by Hamdy's drama and since it would be a major hassle and additional expenditure finding my own transport, I decided to go back with them.
On the way back we stopped at a village, Darau, to see an animal fair. Although the village was very interesting, there was hardly any animal at the fair because of a strike/demonstration that day. The community wanted the previous local leader to stay in power while he was being replaced by someone else. When Hamdy and I got back to the boat, Hamada prepared the lunch, cleaned everything, made tea, and we sailed back to Aswan.
Going back against the current was not so bad. In fact, it was easier than sailing down the river, because the wind pushed us faster than the current. Hamdy kept the boat closed off, the way he does when we go to sleep, and that acts as additional sails. So, without having to do anything, we got pushed up the river very rapidly. That suited Hamdy well.
We spent the night by the bridge where we stayed on our first night, and joined a party a a small group of French tourists were having. They were celebrating someones anniversary and passed around cake and all sorts of pastries. That was a good dessert for us. Hamada made his best dinner there. Fatta! Fried pita bread spread on top of rice and vegetables, with a lentil soup on the side that got poured on top of it. It sounds very simple and boring that the dish was absolutely delicious.
The next morning we lifted the anchor, and sailed down to Aswan while Hamada prepared our breakfast of bread dipped in egg and then fried (the Middle Eastern version of French toast), omelet and black tea.
When I reached the Corniche on top of the stairs from where we docked, I looked down to the boat and saw good old Hamada there, looking up. I waved him good bye feeling a soft spot in my heart. I silently thanked him for his delicious meals and caring ways and walked away with Hamdy next to me carrying my luggage.
As I walked back to my hotel, I was not feeling any less dizzy than when I boarded the sail boat three days earlier. In fact, it took me several days to be steady on my feet. I felt lulled even when I stood by the sink to brush my teeth. My emotions were also still jugged in a strange mixture of relaxation, peacefulness and loneliness. It took me a whole day to make the transition from being at the Nile and traveling on my own again. After spending a day resting in my room the next day, I stepped out again, onto the streets of Aswan, in search of food, water, and the local Nubian museum.
Saturday, March 5, 2011
|Sufi Dance, Cairo|
The Al Tannoura Egyptian Heritage Dance Troupe puts out three incredible Sufi dancing shows a week at the Wikala Al-Ghouri in Khan al Khalili in Cairo. We didn't have to arrive one hour before the show started as recommended, because tourists are still not back into full swing in Egypt. But at 6pm Peter and I were there at the door and got our choice seating for the 7pm show.
I was surprised by the quality of the dancers and musicians. The setting,was a large room built with stone, with balconies on the second level where expert musicians played. On the ground floor, dancers swirled to their hearts content unimpeded.
The performance of “El Tanoura” consists of three parts: The introduction, which is a performance by the various musicians. The Tanoura presentation dance, which is a warm-up, introducing the dancers, and the Sufic Tanoura dance (Darawishes) which is static spinning. The dancers seem to be in a trance-like state and the loud but at the same time monotonous music also puts us, the audience in a state of hypnosis. The dancers swirl for several minutes, their long colorful skirts, each color representing a Sufi order, which they peel away from the center of their bodies while swirling, in a circular motion.
The basis for the spinning according to experts is that the world begins at a certain point and end at the same point. When the tanoura dancer moves himself, he is like the sun and the dancers around him are like planets. When the dancer raises his right arm up and points his left arm down, it represents that heaven and earth are together. As above as below...By swirling around, it is said that he enters a trance-like state, trying to become light and go up to heaven.
The dancers remove four different skirts during the finale, symbolizing the the four seasons.
It was my first time seeing a professional Sufi dance and now it is on my list of things to do when I find a place where it is offered again. Maybe by watching all the swirling I too will be in a trance-like state and and go up to heavens.
Friday, March 4, 2011
French Egyptology Jean-Philippe Lauer spent most of his life excavating and restoring the complex that was found crumbled under the sand. In the well displayed museum he tells the story of how it was like a puzzle putting all the pieces of the 40 columns together.
The Step Pyramid is the world's oldest stone monument and the first decent attempt at a pyramid, but it was not safe to go inside. Surrounding it is a complex that includes shrines and a colonnaded entrance with 40 columns, 20 on each side. These columns are supposed to represent the provinces of Upper and Lower Egypt.
Pyramid of Ti is also located in the area and its inner chambers were open to visit. It was one of the first pyramids to have its chambers adorned with texts. Mastaba of Ti (a low, rectangular tomb building with sloping sides and a flat roof) was also open to visitors but no cameras were allowed inside. Both the pyramid and the mastaba has many texts and frescoes with their original colors. The frescoes depict every day life, like people fishing, hunting, and milking cows and there are lots of stars on the roof. There were also many texts in hieroglyphs.
I was amazed at the quality of the original colors. Red seemed to be preferred over other colors, painted on the one dimensional human figures typical of the era.
|Bent Pyramid and Red Pyramid, Dahshur|
The unusual shape of the Bent Pyramid is unique, believed to have been the result of an engineering crisis during its construction. This pyramid was built with walls that were too steep for the construction material, so it collapsed. When the Bent Pyramid started to show signs of weakening, the angle of the walls was changed halfway from the steep 53° to a more moderate 43°. We could only see Bent pyramid from the outside.
Bent and Red Pyramids are the third largest in Egypt, after the two ones in Giza. Bent Pyramid retains most of the outer casing. Only one of the Giza Pyramids has some of the casing left at the top. Originally, the pyramids were a gleaming white, which must have been a very impressive sight.
We were allowed to visit inside the Red Pyramid. It was exhausting to take the long passageway down to the burial chamber. It is a very steep passageway with 125 steps. Inside, there are two 40 feet high antechambers and a 50 feet high main chamber. It was even harder to climb up, although we didn't feel the sore muscles until the next day. We could hardly climb a ten flight of stairs or even go down a curb side without feeling those sore muscles. No wonder. We had to crawl the 200 feet passageway at 27 degrees pitch and three feet high. But after three days we were fully recovered from our pyramid crawling experience.
Although Memphis must must have been a huge city, judging from the size of its necropolises, there is not much left from its ancient times. The Mit Rahina Museum, aka Memphis Museum, displays a couple of colossus of Ramses II and a Sphinx of Memphis, but other than that, it is a collection of headless statutes with very poor signage.
Memphis was founded around 3,100 BC by the legendary Menes, the King who united Upper and Lower Egypt, setting the scene for the greatest civilization of ancient times. Early on, Memphis was more likely a fortress from which Menes controlled the land and water routes between Upper Egypt and the Delta. Menes and his ancestors were attributed to be divine and promoted a highly stratified society. They patronized the arts, the building of temples, pyramids and public works. Only 400 years later, the first pyramid, the Step Pyramid was build, in the 27th century BC. Almost 5,000 years ago.
It is believed that Menes founded the city by creating dikes to protect the area from Nile floods. However, during the Mameluke period of Egypt, the dikes fell into disrepair, and Memphis was slowly covered in silt. During later dynasties, Thebes (modern day Luxor) became the capital of Egypt, diminishing Memphis' influence. Its final blow was when the Greeks arrived and moved the capital to Alexandria.