At the Umayyad (or Great) Mosque in Aleppo.
I’ve been doing this cute thing lately where I forget to charge my camera battery for the most picturesque legs of our trip. So far, two castles, an Aramaic hamlet and Aleppo’s ancient network of markets have evaded my lens. Bummer.
But there’s a bright side to every situation. In this case, I stumbled upon Loufi, a Flickr user with some striking photographic evidence of his world travels. Loufi approaches landscapes and buildings with an eye for the simple and bold: power lines draped across a Portugese sky or shadows swallowing a mosaic wall in Andalucia. It’s like he strives to capture instances of abstract contemporary art that occur in real life.
Thankfully, Loufi also uses Creative Commons to license his work. That’s how I found him, via this photo, while searching Flickr:
I love everything about this image, from its perspective to composition and, of course, its contextual content – in particular, the crucifix dangling from the cabbie’s rearview mirror as he schleps a family to the Syrian town of Ma’loula, where locals still speak the language of Jesus.
After five straight days of Cairo’s hyperbolic hustle, our group took a weekend trip to Luxor to gawk at gigantic temples and climb inside ancient tombs – including Tut’s! – in the Valley of the Kings. Our guide, Nermeen, gave us one crash-course after another on Ancient Egyptian culture, which I got pretty obsessed with pretty quickly.
Ancient Egyptians were miraculously innovative and resourceful, but devoted all their resources (and time, it seems: Their correspondent tomb and temple complexes are ridiculously vast.) to worship of kings and men. (I realize the “but” there is like, “but this was a strange/illogical/wrong thing to do.” It does seem bizarre to me – in 2009, with access to generations of accessible dialog about our origins, spirituality and purpose. But for a civilization in 3,100 B.C., it makes a lot of sense to devote a mysterious life to the endless possibilities of a more mysterious afterlife. Or at least to interpret every natural, life-giving phenomenon, from sun to water, as divine symbols to insert into your daily routine.)
Every single decision, from the geographical locations of their tombs to the visual manifestations of their gods, was curiously logical: you lived on the East Bank, where the sun rose, and were buried on the West Bank, where it set.
When jackals repeatedly rifled through tombs to devour mummies, the Egyptians concocted Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification, because they believed they should glorify what they feared or could not control. They also recognized that gods were mere symbols, representing transcendent forces of nature. And they ruled at building stuff so big, it’s still extraordinary millenia later.
It’s impossible to articulate the size and beauty – physically, and in terms of meaning – of the monuments we saw this weekend. So, pictures:
This afternoon, we got the unbelievable chance to interview Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. I mentioned him in one of my first posts.
From that interview, we’re hoping to write a handful of stories. I’ll keep you posted!
Last week, we made back-to-back visits to Coptic and Islamic Cairo, which provided for a whirlwind tour of the city’s history of religious traditions and turnovers. In that respect, the city’s history is a microcosm of the country’s history, which has shifted hands since 18th century B.C. from the Ancient Egyptians, who harbored belief in symbolic gods and a reverence for natural resources; Greeks; Coptic Christians; Roman Catholics; and Muslims.
So, parts of Egypt, and even individual buildings, are spiritual collages. It’s a complicated emotional issue – seeing, like we did in Luxor today, a mosque physically stacked on top of a Coptic church stacked on the grounds of an ancient temple – and my current obsession. Like the issue of free culture and recycled art and information, I’m fascinated by this age-old adaptation of public, sacred space by subsequent civilizations. Like this:
In 1st Century A.D., Coptic Christians sought refuge from Roman aggressors by hiding in Ancient Egyptian temples and, to practice their faith despite circumstances, transformed symbols of Ancient Egyptian worship into symbols they could use. To create this “crucifix,” Coptics disembodied old monuments from Luxor’s Karnak Temple – hence the legs and fractured torsos.
We also saw these icons painted over hieroglyphics on the walls of Luxor Temple:
And this construct:
From bottom to top: ancient ruins, church, mosque.
Incidentally, in an effort to restore Luxor’s wealth of artifacts and turn the city into an “open museum,” according to our lovely tour guide, Nermeen Makram, the United Nations allegedly funded an excavation of the Avenue of the Sphinx. This divine stretch of road used to connect Luxor Temple and Karnak Temple. Like its name suggests, it’s lined with handcarved miniature Sphinx statues: the head of a king on the body of a lion, to symbolize wisdom and strength. But to unearth the avenue, the Department of Antiquities will have to move a number of other establishments along the way, Makram said – including homes, businesses and her own Coptic church.
This post is mostly for Mom.
As I’ve mentioned in two posts already, our hotel sits on a swanky, Nile-flanked island called Zamalek. Tonight, I took some photographs of the route between El Gezira El Wosta – where we live – and Professor Sullivan’s house, where we met an Associated Press reporter and editor from the agency’s Middle Eastern bureau in Cairo.
Just some snapshots of the way buildings look around here.
Expect more in-depth discussion of our immediate surroundings to come.
After too few hours of sleep, we gorged ourselves on breakfast (yoguuuuuuuurt) then rode in muggy vans from Zamalek to Giza. That 20-minute trip did more to jolt me into reality than 20 hours of marathon flight. Both areas attract tons of tourists, but for reasons as diametrically opposed as the places themselves: Zamalek is filthy and smoggy, but the combination of AUC, trendy retail outlets and Internet-equipped cafes make it a hot-spot for foreigners and young Egyptians. Meanwhile, Giza is the physically and financially decrepit home of Egypt’s tallest pyramids and iconic Sphinx.
Even last night, after Professor Sullivan led our group on a walking tour of the neighborhood, Egypt didn’t feel too foreign. Mostly because Zamalek is a dirtier, louder composite of a bunch of familiar urban landscapes. Today, zipping down the highway with the city to my right, everything changed. Scores of windowless concrete apartment buildings lined our route, then mounds of trash on streets made of sand and dirt, then impoverished grade school kids peddling souvenirs. In Giza, everyone had his or her hand out. I don’t write this as a judgment of their character or lifestyle, but a testament to the state of the nation that has somehow left them out. At least our camel rides (well-documented) stimulated the local economy. But the government is even threatening that trade, so tourists will opt for state-issued tours of the desert and pyramids.
In a larger effort to rescue the business of Giza-based tour guides, our group is drafting a letter to the Egyptian government to herald our experience. Which was, for the record, one of the most unreal and beautiful and physically strenuous and glee-inducing things, ever.
For tons of photos of that INCREDIBLE CAMEL-BACK JOURNEY!, visit all my classmates’ blogs. There’s a list here. Not only did I totally blow it charging my camera battery before the most picturesque leg of our trip, but, had I taken more than like, five pictures before we even mounted our (lovable, smirking, championship) camels, they would have only documented stuff I chose to look at, anyway.
That said, here are the photos I managed to snap: