Famous But Forgotten

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(This is a slightly modified version of an article which first appeared in Egypt Today.)

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Karnak Temple from the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut

As dusk settles over modern Luxor, and from the very top of the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahari, it is possible—as it was in antiquity—to make out the outline of the great temple of Karnak across the Nile.

Look down from that vantage point, on a line towards the modern visitors’ center, and you will also see a rather unprepossessing low square of wall—unlabeled and ignored by the passing tourists and local people alike.

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The location of the Bab el-Gasus at Deir El-Bahari

Peering inside this enclosure—known as Bab el-Gasus (‘the gate of the priests’)—is not very enlightening, yet this is the entrance to the last resting place of 153 priests and priestesses who served the god Amun in that temple across the river during the 21st Dynasty (around 1070–945 BC). (more…)

Nilometers Revisited

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(This is an expanded version of a previous post about nilometers. It will appear in the August 2017 edition of Egypt Today)

Nilometers were used in Egypt, particularly during the pharaonic, Roman and medieval periods, to measure the Nile’s water level during the annual summer flood.

Essentially, apart from such ritual functions they may have served in ancient Egypt, nilometers worked on the Goldilocks principle as far as the rulers of Egypt were concerned. If the water level in August–September was too high, the effects on the narrow band of fields either side of the river, and the surrounding infrastructure, would be devastating and there was no point sending out the tax collectors. If the water level was too low, the population would starve, and there was also no point sending out the tax collectors. If the water level was just right, a rich layer of alluvial silt would be deposited as the flood subsided, crops would grow, and off would go the tax collectors, no doubt singing merrily to themselves. (more…)

Resurrection in Alexandria

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All images from Resurrection in Alexandria (AUC Press)

As Europeans rediscovered Alexandria in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, they were often disappointed by what they found. Neither time, nor nature, nor politics had been kind to the city that had been the jewel of the Mediterranean.

By the 4th century, the Alexandrian library had ceased to function. At the end of the 14th century, what little remained of the Pharos had tumbled into the sea.

The sea had taken its toll elsewhere too. The earthquake of 1303 dealt the city a fatal blow, and, through subsidence, important sections of the ancient city now lie under several meters of seawater. (more…)

Roda Island Nilometer

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Nilometers were used in Egypt particularly during the pharaonic, Roman and medieval periods to measure the Nile’s water level during the annual summer flood.
Essentially, apart from any additional ritual function they had in ancient Egypt, nilometers worked on the Goldilocks principle as far as the rulers of Egypt were concerned. If the water level in August-September was too high, the effects on the narrow band of fields either side of the river, and the surrounding infrastructure, would be devastating and there was no point sending out tax collectors. If the water level was too low, the population would starve, and there was also no point sending out tax collectors. If the water level was just right, a rich layer of alluvial silt would be deposited as the flood subsided, crops would grow, and off would go the tax collectors, no doubt singing merrily to themselves.

(more…)

Wadi al-Sebua Antiqued

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Wadi al-Sebua (‘The Valley of the Lions’) lies on the west coast of Lake Nasser—the man-made lake created between 1958 and 1970 by the damming of the Nile at Aswan in Upper Egypt—and about 140 kilometers south of the dam.
There were originally two 18th dynasty, New Kingdom temples associated with the site: One built by Amenhotep III and restored by Rameses II (reigned 1279-1212 B.C.); and another speos (or ‘cave’) temple built by Rameses II.
The temple of Amenhotep—dedicated to a Nubian version of the god Horus, and later to the god Amun—was not saved from the rising waters of the lake, but the temple of Rameses, seen in the distance here, was moved about 4 kilometers west of its original position between 1961 and 1965.

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Dendera Temple Antiqued

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The complex of temples at Dendera (ancient ‘Iunet’ or ’Tantere’) lie close to the Nile about five kilometers south of Qena, and on the opposite bank (though because of the bend in the river the main temple, unusually, faces north).
The site is enclosed by a mud brick wall, covers around 40,000 square meters, and is dominated by the magnificent Greco-Roman Temple of Hathor shown here—the best preserved example of a temple from the era. (more…)

Petra Treasury Revealed

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This first view of the great monuments at the Jordanian site of Petra was made even more famous than it already was among archaeologists by Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

In the real world, but like the movie’s ‘Alexandretta’, after the Crusades, the Nabatean city of Petra was largely forgotten, except by the Bedouin, and only rediscovered by the west as late as 1812, when the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt was first led through the canyon to the site (22 August 1812).

The Nabateans are something of a mystery themselves. It is likely that they were originally a nomadic people from the north-west of the Arabian Peninsula who took advantage of this spectacular geographical position in southern Jordan–astride a number of major trade routes–to found the city of Raqmu (later Hellenized as ‘Petra’ or ‘rock’) after 312 B.C..

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Islamic Treasures Return

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A few weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be invited to the reopening of the Islamic Museum in Cairo.

For the past few years, the external appearance of the building has been a sad reminder of the bomb blast—targeting the police headquarters across the street—which shattered the windows, blew off some of the facade, and reduced some fragile exhibits to little more than powder.

Such was the power of the blast that I remember it rattling my windows in Ma’adi on the morning of January 24th, 2014.

The news reports and photographs in the following days were not encouraging, and it is a great testament to the restoration and conservation staff of the museum, the commitment of the Ministry of Antiquities, and the financial and technical support of the UAE, Italy, Germany, the United States and UNESCO that the museum has been able to reopen so relatively soon afterwards. (more…)

Chamas Villa, Heliopolis

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The modern district of Heliopolis was established in 1905, some 10 kilometers northeast of Cairo, by the Heliopolis Oasis Company led by the Belgian industrialist Baron Empain.
The new suburb developed its own architectural style combining Moorish revival, traditional Arab elements, Persian revival, and European neoclassical. (more…)

Abu Simbel Antiqued

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The story of the salvaging of the temples at Abu Simbel is well-known. To save the site from drowning under Lake Nasser—behind the Aswan Dam—the entire site was cut up into large blocks between 1964 and 1968 and reassembled at a spot 65 meters higher than the lake surface..

The Great Temple at Abu Simbel is a masterpiece of ancient engineering which probably took around 20 years to carve into the rock face, and was completed c. 1265 BC in the 24th regnal year of Rameses II. (more…)