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Egypt 2012: From the Pyramids to Tahrir Square

Adapted from the Kindle Mini-Book by Hal Higdon
s we descended toward the CairoAirport, I looked out the plane window for my first view of Egypt. But we were arriving near midnight. It was dark. Nothing to see but the lights of a large city. It could be any large city, even Chicago. As the wheels of our airplane touched down on Egyptian soil, I exalted at finally having arrived in the land of the Pharaohs. Finally, I would be able to see the Great Pyramid and all the other works of art first viewed projected onto a screen in Miss Jean Vincent's Art History class my freshman year at CarletonCollege. Until this moment, my views on Egyptian art had been colored by Miss Vincent. Now, finally, I was about to see in person what previously I saw only as black and white shadows on a screen.
          Our friends back in Long Beach worried about our traveling to what they considered a war zone. Egypt was suffering what politely might be described as “unrest,” aftermath of the Arab Spring. Bravely, we refused to allow such worries distract us.
The nearly two weeks my wife Rose and I spent in Egypt would be almost totally focused on art. We traveled as part of an Alumni Adventure. Like many colleges, Carleton organizes tours for its graduates. Over the years, we have participated in Alumni Adventures to Santa Fe, Spring Green, Chicago, Wyoming and Antarctica. It was hard to imagine that any trip could offer moments more spellbinding than kayaking between ice flows at the bottom of the world, but cruising up the Nile would come close.
Soon after stepping off the plane, we paid $15 for a visa, grabbed our bags and climbed into a van for transport into town on an expressway jammed with cars even after midnight. Cairo has a population of 18 million, Egypt a population of 80 million, and most citizens live in the narrow corridor of green a few miles wide on both sides of the NileRiver.
We stayed at the Cairo Marriott, formerly a palace built in the 19th century, once used for the world premiere of Aida, Giuseppe Verdi's classic opera. But looking back into the 19th century is not looking back far into the history of Egypt. One must look back millenniums rather than centuries, almost to the dawn of history.
The day after arriving, we went for a walk near our hotel, crossing a bridge over the NileRiver. Gazing down into the water, I saw an accumulation of plastic bottles floating in a backwash. Cairo is not the world's cleanest city. Sand, blowing endlessly from the desert, settles on everything horizontal. Many apartment buildings have debris piled on the upper floors and roof, people often living in that debris.
In one respect Cairo is like one millennium's garbage dump built on top of the previous millennium's garbage dump built on a dump before that. Dig down through 4,500 years of sand and debris, and you come to the Sphinx. I wondered if the plastic bottles bobbing in the backwater today would survive 4,500 years. What will future archeologists learn about our era other than citizens drank Coca-Cola?
Leading our tour was Robert A. Oden, Ph.D., a retired president of Carleton, a respected Egyptologist and member of the Board of Trustees for American University Cairo. “There is a lot about Egypt we do not know,” Rob claimed, “and perhaps that is good.”
Rob made the comment while we were at Memphis, one of the old capitols of Egypt. We were staring down at a mammoth statue of Ramsses II: horizontal, the pharaoh lying on his back, every feature well-formed, beautifully sculpted, perfectly preserved. But the only question I wanted to ask was: “Is this the same Ramsses, who starred in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat?” Since there were 14 pharaohs named Ramsses (and seven Cleopatras), remembering which one was which can be daunting. You can become confused dealing with several hundred pharaohs in 31 dynasties, divided into an Old Kingdom, a Middle Kingdom and a New Kingdom, each of those separated by so-called Intermediate Periods, when several pharaohs ruled from separate capitols.
Rob's advice: “Ignore the way Egyptologists organize kingdoms and dynasties. Enjoy what you see with your eyes.”
          What struck my eyes on a day we went from Giza to Memphis to Saqqara was the line separating city and desert. Almost everyone has seen pictures of the Great Pyramids, three of them: huge, overwhelming, but amazingly close to downtown Cairo. Apartment buildings come almost to the edge of the pyramids and Sphinx, and everything beyond is desert—all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, 4,000 miles to the west.
Until the French constructed the Eiffel Tower in 1889, the Great Pyramid of Khufu, the largest of the three, was the world's tallest man-made structure: 450 feet high, constructed of 2,300,000 blocks of stone, averaging two-and-a-half tons in weight. What struck me about the Pyramids was not merely their size, but how 4,500 years ago the ancients figured out how to build them: floating stone blocks downriver from Thebes in the Upper Kingdom, then pushing those blocks up to levels where workers laid them in place, each block fitting precisely atop each other.
After our several days in Cairo, we flew to Luxor and switched to a boat for a week cruise on the Nile. Our boat was the “Misr,” that being the actual name Egyptians use for their country. “Misr” is about the size of New Mexico, 30th largest country in the world in area, but while Egypt is wide, much of its population lives in the narrow Nile valley. The rest is rock and sand. Egypt is a very rich and a very poor nation. The top source of income is tolls from the Suez Canal, textiles and hydrocarbons next. Tourism ranks fourth, but tourism has taken a major hit because of nervousness among travelers following the January 25 revolution.
During a week on the Nile, most of our party would enjoy moments spent on the top deck, doing nothing, just watching mostly farmland pass before our eyes. It amazed me how the captain navigated on a river where there were no red- or green-lit buoys to guide his choice of channel. Sometimes we skimmed so close past low-lying islands with livestock grazing in the grass, that I marveled at our not going aground, especially during nights lit only by the stars. As we cruised southward, we would come to villages, untouched by tourists, probably not that much different in purpose from those you might encounter cruising the Mississippi River.
Tired from the almost non-stop schedule of sightseeing, I went to bed early our first night on the water, but awoke around 12:30 and realized that we were in a lock, being lifted up to a higher level of the river. This was the Esna Lock. I parted the curtain of the glass door leading to the balcony and looked out at vendors stalking the sides of the lock, carrying items—scarves, dresses, blankets—that they hoped to sell to money-rich tourists. But all the tourists on board, perhaps except me, were sleeping.
The next day, we stopped at Endu and boarded donkey-drawn carriages for a ride through that thickly populated town to a Ptolomeic temple, built in the several hundred years BCE (Before the Christian Era). The Endu temple is among the best preserved in Egypt. But the relief sculpture: Oh my! While watching slides in Miss Vincent’s Art History class, I always thought of Egyptian art as being two-dimensional. In actuality, the bas relief sculptures are 3-D without the glasses needed in movie theatres. They reach outwards toward you from the columns and walls, rounded, perfectly modeled to resemble real humans, not comic book humans. I used to think Greek art in its execution was superior to Egyptian art, but you can't wander through many tombs without doubting that assessment. Let's just say that both Egyptian art and Greek art at peak rate what mountain climbers and Tour de France bike riders describe as “Beyond Category.”
wo years ago while on a visit to the Antarctic, my wife Rose and I sailed south almost to the edge of the Antarctic Circle. We could see icy hills far ahead that were just past that imaginary line, but ice flows blocked our passage, and we had to turn back. Now in Egypt, we sailed south on the NileRiver and found our passage blocked by the Aswan Dam and behind it the even more massive High Dam.
But it was different for Egyptians for centuries—actually for millenniums. Beginning in June, the floods came. The rushing waters blocked passage for the square-sailed boats of the ancient Egyptians. After the water flow diminished in October, they could sail south into the land then known as Nubia, what today is more familiarly known as Sudan. Between November and January, the Nile dried into a patchwork of ponds punctuated by rocks. If you wanted to continue south, it was, get out and walk.
“The flood is life,” say the Egyptians. When the waters of the Nile come to the valley, it brings life to that valley. But some years, the flood would not come. And other years, the flood overwhelmed the cultivated land on both sides. In either case, agriculture suffered and people starved.
Then in 1970, Egyptians finished work on the High Dam, and everything changed. (The actual “Aswan Dam,” much lower and several miles downriver, dates from 1902.) Egypt found itself with such a surplus of electrical energy that it now exports about a quarter of it abroad. More important, Egypt had tamed the Nile to eliminate floods and famine. Instead of a single growing season, Egyptian farmers had three growing seasons, effectively tripling food production.
The High Dam is a miracle, but so is everything about this country, its past, the massive temples and monuments, the beauty of its art.
          Beginning around the time of the Great Pyramid of Cheops and ending around the time of Cleopatra when the Romans arrived, Egyptians ruled the art world. Twenty-five hundred years of artisans banging away with chisels on blocks of stone that took Herculean efforts to quarry and move. The sheer mass of art overwhelms the senses.
Consider that in the Renaissance there was only one Leonardo da Vinci, who produced a single Mona Lisa, and one Michelangelo who produced a single David, and one Brunelleschi, who produced a single Duomo, but Egypt has thousands of works of art which, whether or not they all look the same, are equally as good, right up there with the Renaissance, maybe higher than the art of that era. Egyptian art is the le plus ultra of everything I learned when I was a student at CarletonCollege in Miss Vincent's Art History class.
          Much of the greatest of the great art is centered in Luxor. The tombs in the nearby Valley of the Kings are breathtaking, the size of the temples at Karnak so huge as to make one wonder how could they have been built without the cranes of today. And the colors! Particularly in the deep tombs, the drawings and hieroglyphics on the walls are comic book bright. Did an ancestor of Roy Lichtenstein once inhabit Egypt? The art, its colors preserved so deep in the tunnels, makes the colors of the Sistine Chapel seem almost a theocratic afterthought.
I asked our guide how the artists could see to work deep in the tombs in an era before electricity. They could not have used torches, otherwise they would have choked on the smoke and smudged the very art they were creating. Mirrors, our guide said: Mirrors that reflected the light of the Sun deep into the darkest chambers, reflecting even past 90-degree corners. The ancient Egyptians never ceased to amaze me!
Obviously from the quality of the art, the depth of modeling, particularly in the features of the face, Egyptian artists had the skills—in an era before Homer—to create realistic sculpture. But Egyptian artists chose to thumb their creative noses at reality. Those artists, or most likely the masters directing those artists, made the choice that they would chose style over substance, a choice Picasso and many of his Parisian compatriots would make thousands of years later. The work of the French Impressionists seemed revolutionary for its time, but not if you compare it to the art of Egypt. Fine art builds upon fine art.
Our last day cruising the Nile, we sailed north to see the Temple of Dandara. What can I say about Dandara that will differentiate it, both in my mind and yours, from everything else seen during our trip to the Land of the Pharaohs? Huge was the temple, nearly every cubic meter covered with pictures and hieroglyphics. Among the many temples and monuments we visited, Dandara was among those best preserved. That was because it was found only recently, in the last century.
Sadly, Dandara's art had been badly scarred by people who, some centuries after the monuments construction, chiseled away the features of most of the figures on walls and columns to obscure the fact that they were gods or humans, or humans who were gods. People believing in a later religion wanted to obscure the memory of an earlier religion's “false idols.” Who those people might be, our guide did not want to say—if he knew.
There should be a special level in Hades for people who deface the art that came before them.
          Returning to Cairo and on our last day touring, we visited the EgyptianMuseum. The King Tut headpiece in that loaded-with-art museum may be the most exquisite piece of art I have seen, nudging aside the Charioteer of Delphi. We then had lunch at a public park, built on the site of a former garbage heap. Two mosques and an hour hanging around an Egyptian market Rose being chased by a little boy, trying to sell Rose bracelets: “Two dollah! Two dollah!” He even followed her to the bus, but she resisted his advances.
The alleys were crammed with people, many of them from outside Cairo, attracted to the markets during a holiday. I was reminded of the alley in Naguib Mahfouz’s classic novel, Midaq Alley, a book I read to get in the mood for our visit to Egypt. I am sure this alley exists somewhere in Cairo; we just never got to see it. We did pass, however, the café where Mahfouz spent many hours sipping tea and crafting his novels. The café even now has been named after him, but how many Americans have encountered the work of this gifted writer, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. He is Egypt’s Fitzgerald; he is Egypt’s Hemingway. Finally that night, a gala dinner and an early wake-up call.
          Departing from our hotel our last day in Cairo we shared an elevator with several people, one a young man talking into his cell phone. When we reached the ground level, he rushed first off the elevator, leaving Rose to depart second. Had I detected a tiny cultural difference between our two countries? In the United States, an American would probably defer to the woman, politely allowing her first exit.
Egypt is a country where 54 per cent of the college graduates are now female, 80 per cent of them entering the work force with different hopes and aspirations than those held by their mothers and grandmothers. During our last days in Egypt, our group heard a talk by a woman, a Carleton graduate, who had lived and worked in Cairo for two decades. In a meeting room down the hall from the hotel restaurant, she talked openly and lovingly about her adopted country. Toward the end of that talk, one of our fellow tour members asked a pointed and political question. I have forgotten both the question and the woman’s answer, but she looked over her shoulder to the right, then looked over her shoulder to the left, then said cautiously, “I am not free to comment on certain subjects.”
Egypt is changing, but not fast enough for many of its citizens, who participated in the January 25 revolution last year. What will not change, thankfully, is the world’s finest art.
This is an adaptation of the mini-book, Egypt 2012: From the Pyramids to Tahrir Square, available in The Kindle Store. Some of the sketches Hal Higdon made during his visit to Egypt will be part of a July exhibit at the LubeznikCenter for the Arts in Michigan City, Indiana.