The Alabaster Sphinx of Memphis

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The Sphinx of Memphis, carved curing Egypt’s 18th Dynasty, is the largest known statue made of calcite. It is tiny when compared to the great sphinx of Giza, but impressive, unique and beautiful. It is also called the Alabaster Sphinx because calcite and the softer mineral, gypsum, are the two “rocks” known as alabaster. It’s tail was noticed in 1910 protruding from a pile of sand. It was excavated the following year. Only in a rainless environment would it have survived so long.

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I shot this during a trip to Egypt in 2009. It is just lying down (sphinxes tend to pose like that)  in a courtyard of the Memphis Museum near Cairo, which houses (inside) a colossus of the 19th Dynasty pharaoh, Rameses II.  I was being harassed by a fellow traveler named Mike from New York, who came up behind me calling “Meester… Meester.” Didn’t fool me. I knew right away it wasn’t a vendor trying to sell me something. Good try, Mike, good try… You’d have more luck “doing” Rodney Dangerfield impressions.

Bullying in Ancient Egypt

The Temple of Rameses II at Abu Simbel
The Temple of Rameses II at Abu Simbel

Ramses II had a good ride as Pharaoh from 1279 BC until 1213 BC. He lorded it over Egypt during the early 19th Dynasty round about the middle of the New Kingdom, centred in Thebes (now Luxor). Evidence proliferates: huge colossi built in his honour and the magnificent temples to him and his favourite queen, Nefertare, at Abu Simbel. Building monuments to Himself was doubtless his greatest achievement.

Colossus of Rameses II near Memphis
Colossus of Rameses II near Memphis

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Ramses thought so much of himself that he had his masons obliterate the cartouches of his predecessors at Karnak by engraving his exaggeratedly bold cartouche on top.

Percy Bysse Shelley’s poem, Ozymamdias, was inspired by a large bust of Ramses II in the British Museum.

Leg of Rameses II at Abu Simbel close up, the 19th century graffiti betraying the lack of European respect for ancient sculpture
Leg of Rameses II at Abu Simbel close up, the 19th century graffiti betraying the lack of European respect for ancient sculpture
Temple of Nefertare shows the Queen almost as large as Rameses II
Temple of Nefertare shows the Queen almost as large as Rameses II

Compare the relative size of the female to the male in the last two photos. The fact that Queen Nefertare was shown in the same scale as the Pharaoh was a very rare occurrence, showing the enormous love and respect Rameses had for her.

By the way, the intense blue sky in these photos was created by using a good polarizing filter on my old Konica-Minolta Maxxum 5D.

Coptic Cairo

The Hanging Church in Coptic Cairo - 9th C. A.D.
The Hanging Church in Coptic Cairo – 9th Cent. A.D.

I took a taxi from Al-Azhar Mosque to Coptic Cairo, which is older than Islamic Cairo by about seven centuries. It is built around (and sometimes on top of) Roman structures. The famous Hanging Church, the Church of Saint Mary, was my prime destination. It hangs over two Roman towers and, though certainly not the oldest, is arguably the most beautiful of the churches in Cairo.

The cab driver on the way there was playing some interesting electronic Arabic music. Rather, his radio was playing. The driver’s hands were steering the vehicle. I got out of the cab near a bookstore. Most newer signs were in English and Arabic. Older inscriptions were in French or Greek. I wandered for a while, unsure of the way to the Church of St. Mary. There were lots of places that caught my lens. Continue reading “Coptic Cairo”

Al-Azhar Mosque

Al-Azhar Mosque shot from the "Khan" showing Aqbaghawiyya and Qaytbay minarets
Al-Azhar Mosque shot from the “Khan” showing Aqbaghawiyya and Qaytbay minarets and the double-doored Gate of the Barbers.

On Thursday, February 19, 2009 I wanted to go to the Al-Azhar mosque and the Coptic Church of St. Mary – The Hanging Church. The hotel concierge discouraged me from going; she didn’t think I could get in. I asked her about taking the subway back to Tahrir Square from Coptic Cairo and was advised not to attempt it. As these were the two places I most wanted to visit in Cairo, I decided to try anyway. I got a taxi to Khan al-Khalili from the Hotel Cairo Marriott, arriving at about 3 PM – 30 minutes before Asr prayers. I was immediately invited to tour the mosque by a local, so off came my shoes in the passageway and in we went.

Al-Azhar close up, showing the beautiful carving
Al-Azhar close up, showing beauty in the details

My guide took me in and showed me inside the Aqbaghawiyya madrassa. Al-Azhar, founded in 972 AD, is one of the world’s most important centres of Islamic theology and boards students from all over the world. It has two madrassas.

Inner view of a minaret
Inner view of Qaytbay minaret
Mihrab in Madrassa 1
Mihrab in Madrassa 1
Mihrab in Madrassa 2
Mihrab in Madrassa 2
Madrassa Ceiling 1
Madrassa Ceiling 1
Madrassa Lamp
Madrassa Lamp

 

Guide in Courtyard
Guide in Courtyard
Prayer Hall - Old Section
Prayer Hall – Old Section – 1000 years old

 

Framed script hanging from a pillar
Framed script hanging from a pillar

Arabic script comes in many different styles. Perhaps one of you readers can explain what these panels, in a large wooden frame on a pillar in the prayer hall, mean. Arabic is read from right to left.

Minbar (pulpit) next to the main mihrab (prayer niche) in the moaque's main hall. with unphotogenic backpack and sandals. The mihrab
Minbar (pulpit) next to the main mihrab (prayer niche) in the mosque’s prayer hall.

The presence of someone’s backpack and sandals didn’t add to the aesthetics of this photo. The entire, huge prayer hall, the centre of Egypt’s devotion for over a millennium, is carpeted like this.

Kufic script adorns this arched window
Kufic script adorns this arched window

Many of the archways in Al-Azhar are framed in a form of script developed by priests in Kufah, an Iraqi city formed in the second decade of the Islamic era. Our guide pointed out this window with great respect. Low light necessitated using my low resolution camcorder to take this still. We walked out into a beautiful courtyard. He then asked me if I wanted to climb one of the minarets, so we entered through a locked courtyard door, and when we came out on a roof the Asr prayers started. My guide sang as we walked.

Al-Azhar from roof. The Katkhuda Minaret is seen here.
Al-Azhar from roof. The Katkhuda Minaret is seen here.

We didn’t climb to the top of the minaret, but I was able to see the courtyard below this wall and out across the street to the Khan al-Khalili bazaar, much quieter during the day. I was told that on Friday, the following day, there would be thousands of worshipers here. Hearing the beautiful singing of the prayers made the visit much more vivid.

Courtyard From Roof
Courtyard From Roof
Khan al-Khalili from roof
Khan al-Khalili from roof

 

To give you an idea of how meditative the music can be when sung well, here is the singing of the Opening of the Quran, from Chapter One.

Having visited one of Cairo’s most holy places, I was ready to visit, hopefully, another in a more ancient place: Coptic Cairo. The Church of Saint Mary, called the Hanging Church because it is built on top of the twin towers of a Roman fortress built in 98 AD by Emperor Trajan. The centuries caused the original fortress to be buried in thirty feet of soil. I took a taxi from Islamic Cairo to Coptic Cairo. Coptic Cairo is the subject of a future post.

Cairo – Khan al-Khalili At Night

Khan al-Khalili market Islamic Cairo
Khan al-Khalili souk in Islamic Cairo

February 10, 2009: The first place we went on our first night in Cairo was to the “Khan,” a famous bazaar or souk. It was a terrific start to our holiday, full of the traditional with a touch of the modern in some of the clientele. We had some shopping to do.

Khan al-Khalili Clothing Shop
Khan al-Khalili Clothing Shop

In a place like this we bought our traditional Egyptian galabeyas for a good price. Very comfortable Egyptian cotton. They were recommended by our tour company for a gala dinner that would occur five days later on our Nile cruise.

Khan al-Khalili Restaurant and Naguib Mahfouz Coffee Shop
Khan al-Khalili Restaurant and Naguib Mahfouz Coffee Shop

We ate a very enjoyable dinner here. The coffee shop is named after a famous Egyptian writer who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988. His well known work, the Children of Gebelawi, published in 1959, managed to simultaneously tick off the clergy of all three Abrahamic “faiths.” It was banned in Egypt until 2006. Lest you laugh, I remember the Vatican banning sexy saxophone music in the same period when Mahfouz wrote this book. Sexy tenor saxophonist Sam “The Man” Taylor benefited immensely from the interdict. I and many other teenagers bought the offending album, Blue Mist. It sold like hotcakes. I enjoyed reading Children of Gebelawi almost as much as I enjoyed close dancing to Blue Mist.

Khan al-Khalili Restaurant Bill
Khan al-Khalili Restaurant Bill

Don’t be alarmed. This bill was in Egyptian Pounds.

El Fishawy Bar
El Fishawy Bar

We had a coffee here. I was tempted to try the sheisha, or waterpipe, with some flavoured tobacco. Chickened out. Fantastic atmosphere, decor and attractive, modern clientele.

Khan al-Khalili market lamps
Khan al-Khalili market lamps

We took taxis to and from the Khan back to our opulent Cairo Hotel Marriott on Gezira Island, Cairo’s “Manhattan.” The core of this hotel was once a palace built to accommodate Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III. Eugénie was in town to grace the opening of the Suez Canal in 1879.

Nile River Scenes – Part Two – Feb. 2009

Nile Town
Nile city, possibly Naqada

We boarded the Giselle in Luxor for the beginning of our 7-night Nile cruise on Feb. 12 in the afternoon,  after visiting  the fabulous Temple of Karnak. This city was on the west bank as we sailed north to Dendera that afternoon. My guess is it is Naqada, the site of over 2000 pre-dynastic graves and two major historical archeological sites. Red Sea gold was found in those times not far to the east near the Red Sea. We disembarked just after sunrise and visited the Temple of Dendera.

Southern Egypt from Luxor to the Sudan border
Southern Egypt from Luxor to the Sudan border

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The above map came from the National Geographic Traveller Egypt, 2nd Ed. The huge Lake Nasser is the flooded product of the Aswan High Dam. Monuments like Abu Simbel and the Temple of Isis, due to their magnificence, were rescued from their original locations by slicing them up carefully into pieces and removing them to higher ground (Abu Simbel) or another island (Temple of Isis). Apologies for Dendera not being on the map. It is just north of Luxor.

Sailing toward Dendera on Feb. 12
Sailing toward Dendera on Feb. 12

I know this was featured on its own page. I put it in because it’s one of my all-time favorites.

Birds on the Nile
Birds on the Nile – 300mm zoom

Birds taken Feb. 13 from our boat on our way back from Dendera towards Luxor (Thebes). During the sail to Dendera and back to Luxor we were protected by two soldiers manning a machine gun mounted on the upper deck at the stern. The soldiers were with us only for the brief sail to and from Dendera as there were probably fewer boats on the river in this area.

Donkey
Donkey

A donkey finds dessicated sustenance in the dry grass.

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Birds flying south at sunset
Birds flying south at sunset Feb. 14
Looking at the West bank of the Upper Nile from our boat, the Giselle, on Feb. 14 some large birds flying South caught my lens.
Edfu Vendors
Edfu Vendor flings a garment to tourists on the Giselle. “Lady, just your size…”
Passing southbound through the lock at Esna  after visiting the Valley of the Kings near Luxor, vendors on shore and in boats sold garments to our passengers. They tossed up the item in a plastic bag. The customer examined it and either tossed back the item or payment in the bag. We learned that some of these vendors knew how to curse when one garment returned by a tourist with a poor aim ended up in the water.
Nile cruise boats at Kom Ombo dock
Nile cruise boats at Kom Ombo dock

On Feb. 15 we visited the Temple to Horus and Sobek (the Hawk and the Croc) at Kom Ombo. Two riverboats like ours are shown docking in this photo. We saw mummified crocodiles here and a fascinating ancient calendar. The Egyptian calendar had three seasons based on the cycle of the River Nile. After sunset we sailed for Aswan. In Aswan on Feb. 16 we visited a huge, ancient, granite obelisk left in the ground because it had cracked during the process of cutting it from the rock. We then visited Aswan High Dam, the Temple of Isis at “Philae,” went on a felucca sail around Elephantine Island – all of these with the tour. There was still time in the afternoon for Anita and me to visit the Nubian village of Koti on Elephantine Island. A really packed day.

View from the Temple of Isis
View from the Temple of Isis

On Feb. 17 we took a short flight from Aswan to the amazing temples to Rameses II and his favorite wife, the beautiful Nefertari, at Abu Simbel, not far from the Sudan. Read the fascinating story of how these two huge temples were cut up and moved to higher ground to avoid them being flooded when the Aswan High Dam was opened. More on a later post about that. We were rushed there because our flight was delayed and it’s a very busy schedule. After flying back to Aswan, we boarded the Giselle for the last time for the sail back to Luxor, from where we would fly back to Cairo for two more nights. Our trip began and ended with two nights in Cairo.

Nile cruise boat passes through the lock at Edfu
Nile cruise boat passes through the lock at Edfu

On Feb. 18 we followed this boat north through the locks at Esna, where we had met the vendors on the night of Feb. 14. Esna is the place where Set, the god, Osiris’ evil uncle, after killing and cutting up Osiris’ body into 14 pieces, threw his phallic member into the Nile. Osiris’ wife and sister, the formidable goddess, Isis, collected all of Osiris’ parts except this one, because it had been eaten by a fish. She then miraculously fashioned a phallus, attached it to Osiris and thereby conceived a son, Horus. Horus, like Moses, was protected in the reeds on a bank of the Nile and lived to avenge his father’s death and dismemberment by killing the evil Set. This is the Osiris Myth.

Horus is considered by many scholars to be the early mythical figure on whom much of the symbolism associated with Jesus of Nazareth is based. Isis was a hugely popular goddess for the later Romans. But all of that is another story.

Horus spears Set while Isis looks on.
Horus spears Set while Isis looks on.

OK, this is not a river scene. I snuck it in. In this scene captured with my SONY camcorder from the Temple of Horus, Horus spears his evil uncle Set. Note the defacement of the faces of Horus and his mom, Isis. This, we were told by our guide, was done by early converts to Christianity who considered these carvings to be pagan. Wikipedia tells the same story. Defacement is very common in many of the ancient temples.

Nile River Scenes – Part One – Feb. 2009

An Egyptian toreador?
An Egyptian toreador?

We toured the Upper Nile for seven nights on our cruise boat, the Giselle. The Upper Nile supports agriculture in two narrow, green strips on its East and West banks. It is farmed by the poorest of the poor – the fellahin – Egyptian converts to Islam who cannot trace their ancestry back to Arab, or better yet, Mohammedan roots.

Men in boat
Men in boat

Life is difficult for the fellahin. They used to own their land and now (my research was done in 2009) they rent it or, if they cannot afford to rent, they are paid about a dollar a day as labourers. Now, with land commanding high prices that are driven largely by the tourism industry, the fellahin are frequently driven off the land they once owned or rented by the owner when he/she (most probably he) sells. Actually, life for the fellahin is worse than this. If you are interested, here’s a link to their story from the Egypt Independent, written by Maria Golla.

Old houseboat becomes a waterfront property
Old houseboat becomes a waterfront property

This old houseboat apparently serves as a dwelling for a large extended family or group of people. Perhaps they are the families of workers allowed to live there by a landlord.

Boy hails our boat, the Giselle
Boy hails our boat, the Giselle

These boys were playing on the East bank of the river as we passed. One enthusiastically called out to our boat.

Women collect water
Women collect water

These women were collecting water from the river. The Nile is very clean near Aswan. We saw a tourist woman swimming in the middle of river there.

Elephantine Island Ferry cost us 50 cents. Woman in back.
Elephantine Island Ferry cost us 50 cents. Woman in back.
Near Aswan, Anita and I took an pleasant optional cruise with our tour group around Elephantine Island in a felucca. To save time, when the cruise was finished we had our group’s felucca drop us off on Elephantine Island – for an inflated price. There we visited the Nubian village of Koti on our own for about 2 hours. The chief’s son took us around. More on that in a future post.
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We then took this ferry back across the narrow channel to Aswan for about 50 cents and walked back to the Giselle. Note the woman sits in the back of the boat. This is a common custom in Egypt. I encountered more of the same on the Cairo subway, where women sit in cars that are further back. Considering how crushed we men were in a forward car, I get it. More on that in a later post. I took this photo after we had disembarked the ferry. No one, by the way, objected to Anita sitting with me in the middle of the craft. We felt very safe and welcome wherever we went.

Egypt’s Treasures

Egypt’s ancient memes developed from even more ancient African roots. Virtually all of our forms of worship owe their genesis to prehistoric Africa – via Egypt.

Gerald Massey was a minor British poet and a major expert on Egyptology. He believed that the model for the Christian Jesus was the Egyptian god, Horus. Continue reading “Egypt’s Treasures”