Rosalind Hackett: Egypt, November 2006
On Friday, November 3 I left Knoxville for Alexandria, Egypt to attend a meeting of the International Council on Philosophy and Human Sciences (CIPSH), a division of UNESCO (United Nations Educational and Cultural Organization). I was invited by virtue of being President of the International Association for the History of Religions (IAHR), as my organization is a member organization and receives funding from CIPSH.
After a pretty awful flight on United from Chicago to Frankfurt (where I had an altercation with a male flight attendant over the pathetic vegetarian meal I was served), then a much better flight on Lufthansa to Alexandria, I finally arrived at my hotel at about 3:30 a.m. on Sunday. I could hardly take in the beauty of the historic, French-style hotel (Hotel Metropole, dating back to 1905) before collapsing into bed in search of lost sleep.
The noise of the street below in the morning failed to raise me from my deep slumber and I awoke about 2 pm in the afternoon. I then got my room changed to a higher floor and a sea view. It was well worth it. Now I could look out on the historic port of Alexandria and imagine all the famous people who had arrived there, as conquerors, as missionaries, as traders, as scholars, and as tourists, since the city was founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BCE. It is now Egypt's second largest city (a mere 7 million compared to Greater Cairo's 25 million), and known as the Pearl of the Mediterranean.
My eye followed the curve of the bay, now the area known as the Turkish Quarter, before espying the famous Fort Qaitbay. I knew from my guidebook that this was an historic monument in itself, but more importantly it stood on the site of where one of the seven wonders of the ancient world once shone, the Pharos Lighthouse. This prototype lighthouse, built in the 3rd century BCE, and possibly destroyed in the 15th century by a series of earthquakes, is now known to many the world over (especially Discovery Channel viewers) because of the phenomenal underwater archeological finds of recent years by French and Egyptian archeologists. But more on that later.
Our hotel was well situated on a major shopping street. So it was easy to wander out and take in the shopping crowds in the evenings. It seemed to be a family activity for all ages to stroll down the streets, and enjoy the bright lights and human interactivity. The shops stayed open late—some until midnight. As one might imagine, the children were ogling at toys, the women at clothes, their husbands at shoes, and the youth at cell phones. Occasionally, they would stop at a fruit bar for juices or ice cream (my favorites were mango and white guava) or a café or coffee house. This was clearly a popular place for older men to while away the hours, either smoking the hookah pipe or watching a soccer game. For the courting couples, it seemed more conducive to be away from the madding crowd, and instead, many of them sat or walked in the public gardens or clustered around the obelisk (near the hotel) which dates back to 1500 B.C.E.
Note the famous Hotel Cecil in the left-hand corner. Winston Churchill once stayed there and it was used by the British Secret Service for their operations at one time.
Weather was cool when I first arrived as it can be by the seaside, and the waves were lashing over the promenade wall. I realized that I had wrongly imagined a Mediterranean dip this time around. After some gulps of ozone which I felt sure would help drive away my jet lag, I headed to an old coffee house recommended by the hotel staff. It looked and felt like a combination of old Europe and turn-of-the-century Egypt. The food was good and the fresh mango juice even better. On the way back to the hotel, I took in the atmosphere of the streets crowded with shoppers, stopping to listen to captivating Muslim music wafting out from various shops. Then I followed the sound of a church bell and ended up in a Coptic church, enjoying both the chants and the incense filling the air. It was by now time for tea, and I stopped at a street café hoping to consume some real mint tea but all I was offered was a Lipton tea bag and some sprigs of mint to flavor it by.
On the following day it was time for business. By now, many scholars had flown in from around the globe for meetings of the CIPSH and the International Social Sciences Council. We were bussed to the famous Bibliotheca Alexandrina, situated just slightly down the coast.
It is a stunning building (http://www.bibalex.org/English/index.aspx ), located not far from where the old library stood. That was built in the third century B.C.E. and was a major center for learning, tolerance, dialogue and understanding. It likely continued until the 3rd century C.E. Today, school children flock to visit the new library, to admire the world's largest library atrium, and the impressive architecture.
You can see the Planetarium further back in the pictures.
I won't go into the details of our conference or business meetings, but suffice it to say that they were truly international and multi-lingual. I found myself going between French and English constantly. It was sometimes challenging to remember who to speak to in which language. At a reception held for us in an old colonial club, the Syrian Club, participants were asked to stand up and offer a few words in their own language. About 25 people regaled us with greetings ranging from Slovak to Yoruba. It is a humbling experience to hear someone speaking and you cannot make out a single word!
At one point during our meetings we were taken on a tour of the new library. It was wonderful to see all the young people making use of the library. They have to pay a very small entrance fee, incidentally.
Myself and a colleague from Slovakia in front of a magnificent sculpture in the library entrance hall
Entrance to Library showing letters from many of the world's alphabets.
We were also given a tour of the Archeological Museum in the lower levels of the library. Several of the objects were discovered in building the new library.
I was excited to find two panels that once hung on the Kaaba in Mecca in 1937 (made of velvet and gold).
Also some precious versions of the Qur'an:
An example of contemporary Islamic art using Arabic script.
Even among the library and conference staff one could see varying attitudes in regard to veiling. It was interesting to note how traditional, modest forms of dress have been made fashionable:
I was able to extricate myself from meetings to hire a car and driver and go with two colleagues to Giza (near Cairo) to see the Pyramids.
They did not disappoint….
Lots of schoolchildren and families are visiting in addition to the many tourists
One has to stop and marvel too at the Royal Bark of Khufu (Pharaoh known to ancient Greeks as Cheops). The boat was actually used by the Pharaoh before becoming funerary equipment to symbolize the journey of the Pharaoh to join his divine father, the sun god Re. It was found intact after 4500 years (in 1954).
What could be more magical than the Great Sphinx, guarding the royal necropolis at Giza since 2500 BCE?
It was also exciting to go to neighboring Saqqara, the most important necropolis of Memphis and see the first pyramid in Egyptian history, Djoser's Step Pyramid (built around 2600 BCE at the beginning of the 3rd Dynasty). The architect conceived of the steps as a way for his pharaoh to ascend to heaven.
There was just time to pay a quick courtesy call on Ramesses II, whose colossal statue lies in what remains in the ancient city of Memphis
The gardens were full of statues too
On the way back to Alexandria, we stopped to photograph a local mosque
and a fancy property
On our final day we had the privilege of being guided around Fort Qaitbey in Alexandria by the renowned French archeologist, Jean Yves Empereur, who has been engaged in underwater excavations in that area since the 1990s. His major discoveries include the doorway of the Pharos Lighthouse.
Here he is explaining how they match the parts together
This picture gives you an idea of the exciting work they are doing. It has been featured in many TV documentaries, eg http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/sunken/empereur.html
Alexandria was the center of learning in the ancient world, and although many buildings and artefacts have been lost, Empereur was keen to show us the Roman amphitheater in the center of the city, where many a philosopher gave a lecture or two. Alexander the Great's burial site is believed to be nearby, but has never been located.
A parting glance, in the hope that I shall return for more intensive study of the wonders of ancient Egypt, as well as the fascinating complexity of the modern nation-state that is Egypt today.