(This is a slightly modified version of an article which first appeared in Egypt Today.)
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.
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…)
(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…)
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…)
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…)
As I remember it now, the first day I landed in Egypt to take up the role of Director of AUC Press, I was whisked off in the evening to celebrate the launch of a new book. Heavily jet lagged, much of that event is lost to me, but I do remember my impressions of walking into a curious little café on the corner of two very busy streets.
The dark wood of the furniture and walls contrasted harshly with the light and color outside, but, even though the walls on two sides were framed only in glass, somehow the noise coming from the streets was deadened, providing a little sanctuary from the assault on my weary senses. (more…)
All images are from The Mosques of Egypt (AUC Press)
Some months ago, I wrote an article for my Egypt Today column that concentrated on what many consider to be one of the most serene and spiritual spaces in the whole of Egypt—the Mosque of Ibn Tulun (see: http://egypttoday.com/blog/2016/02/02/the-lost-city-of-ibn-tulun/).
This month, I have been reading more about Ibn Tulun, and more than eighty other mosques around Egypt, in a new publication: The Mosques of Egypt by Bernard O’Kane. The book is sumptuous—a true publishing tour de force combining the unrivaled subject expertise and photographic talent of the author, and the best in editorial and production values. (more…)
One of the most beloved objects on display in the British Museum is a bronze figure representing the goddess Bastet. It stands 14cm high and takes the form of a seated cat with incised details, an inlaid silver sun-disc, a wedjat-eye pectoral ornament, and gold earrings and a nose ring. (more…)
There are few sights as spectacular as sunrise in the White Desert of Egypt. The early light catches the wind-carved chalk formations and begins to play tricks on the mind. Indeed, some of the shapes are so reminiscent of figures from ancient Egyptian mythology, such as the sphinx, that it lends credence to the theory that these shapes left an indelible print on those nomadic peoples who passed through the emerging Western Desert on their way to found a brilliant civilization along the banks of the Nile. (more…)
Driving west along the coast road toward Marsa Matruh is a bizarre experience. For kilometers, after leaving Alexandria, sight of the sea is blocked by modern ‘international’ housing developments.
The seeming folly of building on this vast scale along the arid coastline somehow prepares the visitor for an equally surreal sight—a light tank in the middle of the road. However, this is a sure sign that we have reached a point just over 100km from Alexandria and a mere 240km northwest of Cairo named El Alamein. (more…)
At this time of year, much of my attention—as a publisher of books about Egypt—centers on trying to understand what is happening in the re-emerging tourist market.
My weather vanes are not, for the most part, the resorts on the Sinai Peninsula or the Red Sea, but Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor, and Aswan, which attract those who are most interested in pharaonic, Ptolemaic, Coptic and Islamic monuments and history.
The good news is that, this season, things do seem to have been looking up for book sales. I have no doubts now, if I ever really had any, that we will survive the post-2011 slump, and will rise again, alongside the Egyptian tourist trade. This also seems to me to be inevitable given the universal interest in this most fascinating of countries.
So, the book trade will survive, in one form or another, but it is possible that others may not. (more…)