Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Caecilius woz 'ere

Basant recently returned from a month-long work trip to Washington DC feeling restless and dissatisfied with the state of Egypt today. As she put it "A lot of people are depressed at the moment. We think the country is fading and falling from corruption and problems and we don't know how to stop it". But what made her really sad, she said, was visiting war memorials in the US: "Here is a young country, and most of their history is built on wars. The Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Civil War...I respect people who give their lives for their country, or to protect the people they love, but I watched all these tourists walking around there and I thought of how empty the airport had been when I left Cairo. I imagined the pyramids without tourists and wondered how it had all come to this."

It's been an obvious side-effect of the Revolution, this loss of tourists. Figures indicate that there was a 28% drop in people visiting for more than 24 hours (definition of a tourist, apparently) in July 2011 from July 2010. For a country where tourism is one of the main sources of revenue, this is no joke. Its impact is felt in the economy, as more and more people feel their livelihoods squeezed, but also I think in national morale. I go on about Egyptian hospitality but there's a reason for it. People here love to show you the best of what their country has to offer. And if there is one thing that Egyptians and Americans have in common, it is a very proud and direct patriotism (so different from British self-deprecation or French nonchalance; we too may think our countries are the best in the world, but you'd never, ever hear us just say it). Despite all other differences, I have never met an Egyptian who wasn't bursting with pride at being Egyptian. And I mean this in a good way.

One of the extraordinary things about being here is the way that you have layer upon layer of history just resting on top of one another and sometimes a layer is peeled away unexpectedly to show you a glimpse of all that came before. In a place so vibrant and teeming with life, reminded that you're just a spark in the roaring fire of its history, it's a strange feeling. A bit like looking at one of those cross sections of a giant sequoia tree where they label how big the tree would have been at the time of major historical events: the Spanish armada, ok- the tree was two-thirds of its current size; here you see how big it was when the Battle of Hastings took place; and here, its size when the Prophet Mohammad was alive, or when Jesus was born. It messes with your head, believe me.

Anyway, the truth is that most of the time in Cairo I'm too busy living my life/complaining about the traffic/dancing salsa to get all dreamy about the amazing history we're surrounded by. But that definitely wasn't the case when I went with my parents on a cruise from Aswan to Luxor last year. I probably spent the entire five days we were there marvelling at the roots of this place and how deep they are (when I wasn't being entertained by the sight of Dad in a galabeya). As if the colossal, beautiful temples you see when you visit Upper Egypt weren't impressive enough on their own, you then have to think about the fact that they were built without any heavy machinery, in suffocating heat. And that's before you even start to contemplate their design, the intricate calculations that went into constructing buildings that have endured for thousands of years, according to precise estimations of light and space, or the meaning and beauty of the hieroglyphics you see on them.

And here is something amazing and funny and just plain odd. We were in the Temple of Karnak, within which there is a smaller temple dedicated to Amon Ra, the God of Fertility. This, our guide Selwa explained, was said to be the reason for... ...the picture of a man, god or Pharoah with a giant erection. See how the area around the erection is much darker than the rest of the temple structure? This is apparently because so many people come and touch it in the hope that it will bring them fertility, and children. What remains a mystery, even to renowned Egyptologists today is what you see when you look closely at the giant erection:

There it is, clear and unmistakable - a sperm. The question is, how? How could a civilisation without microscopes possibly know what a sperm looks like?? It's mysterious, intriguing and really funny.

Similarly, visit one of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, pass through a long corridor filled with hieroglyphics telling a partially understood story - some faded, others still stunningly vivid - in the centre of which is housed the sarcophagus that once contained the mummified version of the Pharoah for whom the tomb was built. Then, it's pointed out to you. Scratched onto the wall with the same mixture of painstaking care and surreptitious haste that any graffiti carries. Latin letters conveying the desire of a forgotten Roman soldier to partake in history, that same desire that we all feel when confronted with the immensity of the past. It was not "Caecilius woz 'ere" engraved on the wall (that just would have been too good to be true) but it might as well have been.

There's more of course, so much more. I think again it was Karnak temple that was buried under sand for so many hundreds of years that a community settled on top of it and there remains a mosque resting next to the very highest point of the temple complex - the only building allowed to remain in place after the temple was discovered and excavated. And on one of the entrances to the temple's main chamber, signs of its later appropriation by Roman soldiers - the remains of a Roman fresco, covering the temple's original engravings. Layers of history.

The Greek legacy still felt in Alexandria; the great Islamic civilisations of the early Middle Ages and onwards; the heritage of Egypt's Coptic community; the Nasser era, beginning in the 1950s and running until his death in 1970.


Layers of human history - bizarre, beautiful, often inexplicable. Swirling, living history.

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