Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Giza, Egypt/Saqqara, Egypt/Memphis, Egypt/Bulaq, Cairo, Egypt

So, the Pyramids.

The hardest thing to realize about ancient Egyptian ruins is how truly old they are. The city of Memphis, first capital of a united Egypt, was founded about 3100 BC, while the three pyramids of Giza were built in the 25th century BC. If all time were laid out as a single road and you wanted to travel it to witness Memphis's founding, then you would have to go past the industrial period, past the age of colonialism and the early modern period, past the Reformation and Renaissance and the long centuries of the Middle Ages, see the fall of Rome and its transformation from republic to empire, watch the conquests of Alexander the Great and the golden age of the Greek city-states until you reach a point just before the rise of Athens, when the legendary emperor Jimmu is said to have ruled Japan and Buddhism was being founded in India, you could stop to rest because you were at the halfway point. The Exodus is traditionall dated to Egypt's 19th dynasty; when they looked back on the builders of the Pyramids at Giza, it would have been at the same remove as we look back at the early years of Islam and the Tang dynasty in China. This stuff is old.

What to say about Memphis today? As Praktike noted on the bus, it is interesting to think that in 5000 years it has been the world's largest city, capital of an empire, major religious center, and tourist attraction, and yet they still have not gotten around to paving their main street. Memphis today is basically a small Arab town with an open-air museum where you see a few statues of the 19th-dynasty pharaoh Ramses II and an "alabaster" sphinx made of limestone, but little to indicate its august origins. To find true ruins of that period, you must go about three kilometers west to Saqqara, part of what amounts to a continuous 35 km-long ancient Egyptian cemetery originating in the First Dynasty and continuing until near the end of "ancient Egypt," though in later periods such as the New Kingdom most pyramids would be built elsewhere, such as the Valley of the Kings in the south.

The main site at Saqqara is tomb of the 3rd dynasty pharaoh Zoser. Before him, Egypt's rulers were buried in simple rectangular mastaba tombs; however, according to what has reached us from that time, his vizier, architect, and physician Imhotep, who was later deified and identified with the Greek Asclepius, thought up the scheme of stacking successively smaller mastabas on top of each other to make a gradually narrowing tower pointing toward the sun. (Imhotep, incidentally, is also the alleged author of a papyrus which contains the first known instance of the saying, "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we shall die.")

The resulting "Step Pyramid," located today next to Zoser's funeral temple, which has been rebuilt using the original rubble, was only a bridge to what would become the most enduring of the Seven Wonders of the World. Around the year 2600 BC, Sneferu came to the throne as the founder of Egypt's 4th dynasty, and thought it might be cool if the towers had smooth sides. He first built a pyramid at Meidum, near Fayyum, but it collapsed - we don't know when. His engineers, however, improved on the design in building a new pyramid at Dahshur, but they got th angle wrong, and because they changed the angle about halfway through, it is called the "Bent Pyramid." To their credit, its still there, but Sneferu had them build a new one anyway, and this, the first true, stable Egyptian pyramid, is the Red Pyramid.

Both the Bent and Red pyramids are visible from near the Step pyramid at Saqqara, as are a number of other Old Kingdom pyramids, most of which have collapsed into piles of rubble - building these things wasn't that easy. The art reached its height, however, with Sneferu's immediate descendants, whose monuments stand today at Giza immediately outside the Cairo neighborhood of the same name. Getting there is easy - the combined subway or bus trip and price of admission from downtown Cairo is about $4, and the heavy presence of the tourist police mean that hustling is under control - the only people who can really become a hassle are the guys trying to interest you in horse or camel rides and/or pictures near the south of the pyramids with the open desert beyond.

The basics of Giza, with the Great Pyramid of Khufu, the slightly smaller but more elevated one of Khafre, and the relatively small one of Menkaure, as well as the Great Sphinx with its missing nose poised in front of Khafre's pyramid looking out at one of the two entrances, near a cafe and restaurant frequented by tour groups, a Kentucky Fried Chicken, and a Pizza Hut. Originally, all the pyramids were encased in limestone, so that they shone white in the sunlight. In addition to these are lots of smaller pyramids called "Queens' Pyramids" and funerary temples. When you go inside a pyramid, you find yourself in a passage so narrow you have to bend over significantly as you descend deep inside to the burial chamber, where you can, at least in the one I was in, then stand up and enjoy the cooler air while looking at actual, live, original hieroglyphics, early versions of the Pyramid Texts that may be the world's oldest known collection of writings.

This is just a small sampling of the ancient monuments still around in Egypt - one could do a whole trip here just focusing on antiquities, taking in not only those around Cairo, but the newer stuff at places like Luxor and Abu Simbel far to the south. Alas, I have decided it's going to be too hot down there for me to truly enjoy it, and figure that if I succeed in my evil plot to spend 2006-07 in Israel, I can just swing through then on the tourist track. For this trip, I occupy myself with Lower Egypt, the northern region to which the Nile descends before reaching the Mediterranean, most of which is easily accessible from Cairo itself.

Time to spend on such things may finally be freed up, as my research in the Dar al-Kutub has reached a point where I would be content to leave even if I got nothing else done. (A friend here commented that graduate student trips to the region could be called the "legitimacy tour," and that I think is a good way to understand what I'm up to here.) The Dar al-Kutub, literally "House of Books" and Egypts National Library, is along the Nile River in a district called Bulaq which in the Middle Ages was a port of Cairo before being swallowed by the city itself. A large, oblong white building, a little ways to its north is a shopping mall I've been to mostly for its food court, while a little ways to the south is the market for used car parts, where you find sellers of mufflers, front numbers, and all manner of other pieces of automotive equipment hanging in peoples shops just like they would shoes or something.

About the Dar al-Kutub, I can say only that it is not one of the world's great research facilities. On the 5th floor, where you find actual books, there is a card catalog with about 300 drawers which are, alas, not arranged sequentially, making finding the drawer you want extremely difficulty. I work on the 4th floor, home to the manuscript archive, where after a fairly redundant number of signings-in you can search for your manuscript on either an incomplete computerized catalog or in a old-fashioned card catalog which thankfully is better organized than that for the books. Unfortunately, this does not mean that the archive itself is well-organized - the first manuscript I requested they couldn't find - but it is something.

Initially communicating with the staff was a problem, due both to my ignorance of library terminology and difficulty with colloquial Egyptian speech, but this has steadily improved. I have discovered I can usually talk to other researchers about periods of history and the basics of academic interests, so the problem, as always with me, is mostly vocabulary. (This morning I finally figured out the Arabic for "positive" and "negative" when dealing with microfilm - it turned out they just use the English.) Manuscripts are available to researchers on microfilm, which you can view on microfilm readers of very low quality; the fact they don't rewind means you usually have to move around in the text by hand, which can't be good for preservation.

The key text I wanted here was al-Awtabi's Ansab al-Arab, which I found, though the nature of my finding it led to confusion about positive and negative images and what was what that I won't bore you with. The situation was also complicated by the lack of any secondary sources which could help orient me in what I was looking at, or even the unreliable edited version. None of this was available in ARCE or AUC, and the things I bothered to check the Dar al-Kutub for weren't there either. Nonetheless I requested a copy of the complete manuscript - my fear was that it was too short, and I wondered if there should be more - which I obtained today on a CD of all things labelled with the title and my name and nationality, "Brian Ulrich the American." Now all I need is a place to look at it and see what exactly I have.

(Like all my travel posts, this was originally a message to friends and family. In this case, I cut off some stuff at the end that I didn't want to post but that contributed to the optimism expressed above. It's not just that I got a CD with unknown contents =))


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