Egypt and Jordan 2011-12

John O’Gorman


5 May 2012

1 The Tour

They told us “Don’t go!” but we went! Leaving NZ in mid-December 2011, we flew via Dubai to Cairo. Laura and Eila were veterans of Egypt and knew exactly what we should look for, while for Nigel and me it was another item on our bucket-list. The recent demonstrations and killings in Tahrir Square had reduced visitor figures to one tenth of normal with the effect that we encountered none of the usual hassles of queues and crowds. Nigel even survived a visit to the square where he video-recorded the crowds demonstrating.
Laura and Nigel had designed a superb private guided tour itinerary for us which maximised the efficiency of our touring effort while still providing them with enough holiday leisure for swimming, snorkeling, and sun-bathing. Laura’s preparations had included putting herself on an Arabic language course at University and learning the most common Egyptian hieroglyphs. Her prowess in Arabic impressed the crew of our Nile boat. Winter is the right time of the year to visit Egypt as the weather is comfortable - about the same as November in Auckland but without the rain.
For Eila, the highlight of the trip was not Egypt but Petra in Jordan. 50 years ago Eila had been prevented by snow from entering Petra at the same time of the year. We were thankful that 2012 did not produce the same snowy conditions in Jordan. Egypt held some surprises for Eila in that quite a lot has been unearthed since her last visit.
Nigel did a superb job as team photographer and also achieved his ambition of the swimming double trifecta: Nile, Mediterranean, Red Sea, Gulf of Aqaba, Dead Sea, and Persian Gulf.
For me the highlight was the superb artistry and and craftmanship of the carving and painting of Egypt’s hieroglyphs and images on and in tombs and monuments especially in Memphis (modern Sakkara). Such a pity that we are not allowed to photograph these splendours - for very good reasons of course, so much has been lost or spoiled by careless use of torches and flashlights. I had prepared myself by becoming familiar with hieroglyphs and challenged myself to decipher at least the cartouches which encapsulate the names of the pharaohs.
I had also learned the Arabic alphabet which is quite a challenge as there are so many similar characters distinguished only by the presence of dots. For example the what looks like the letter i is one of m, b, t, or th distinguished by, in order, 1 dot above, 1 dot below, or 2 dots above, or 3 dots above. Each character has different forms depending on position in the word (beginning, middle, end, or stand-alone). I can attest that it is difficult to read street signs from a moving vehicle! Arabic, like other Semitic languages such as Hebrew is written right to left and does not have upper/lower case distinctions or printed versus cursive versions.

1.None.1 The Team

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From left to right:
Nigel Official Photographer, Tipper of Lackeys, Stuntman on Mules and Camels, IC Purchase and Supply of Alcohol (in a Muslim country), Official Swimming Representative
Eila Materfamilias, Purser of Small Change for Tips
John Paterfamilias, Advisor and Counselor, Official Secrets Guardian
Laura Team Manager, Official Polyglot, Technical Manager of SIMS and GPS
The team photo was taken in front of the so-called treasury at Petra in Jordan. The treasury was really a tomb and there is another storey below ground level yet to be excavated. Petra was rediscovered in 1812 described as the “rose red city half as old as time” by Victorian Poet John William Burgon. But, as you can see, it is Greco-Roman in style and dates back only to the 1st century AD. What you see is not a building but a sculpture carved into a sheer cliff face. The photo above was taken at about 4:00 PM after we had spent an exhausting 7 hours on foot, then donkey, then a further 3 Km by camel back to the treasury. After we dismounted from the camels we had a further 3 Km to walk back to the hotel.
We found both the donkeys and camels were lovable creatures despite their reputations for stubbornness, biting, and spitting. The only misbehaviour we encountered was from John’s donkey which kept trying to pass Eila’s donkey on single narrow defiles, and from John’s camel Ahab who departed from the straight path to munch on some attractive green foliage growing near a food stand. Camels have been defined as a horse designed by a committee but really they are superbly adapted to their environment. Their thick wooly coats retain water. They store food in their humps. They have corny pads on their knees for kneeling on burning sands, and their feet are soft and splayed so that they move silently and effectively over soft sand. They can survive in barren desert without food of water for many days. Note that the camels bearing Eila and Laura look rather snooty and supercilious, while the others look dejected and brow-beaten!

2 Egypt

Our Egypt schedule was to visit the Pyramids at Giza, then bus to Alexandria, El Alamein, back to Cairo, Sakkara (ancient Memphis), then fly to Aswan, fly on a day trip to and from Abu Simbel, midnight mass in Aswan on Christmas Eve then a dahabiya boat cruise drifting down the Nile stopping at Philae, Komombo, Edfu, Esna, and finally Luxor from which we took day trips to Karnak, the Valley of the Kings, and the Valley of the Queens. Then fly to Sharm el Sheik for R and R on the Red Sea.

2.1 Cairo

Cairo is not an ancient city. Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, and the Ptolemies did not know it. It has grown on the Nile after the river changed course. In the past the river went past Giza, some distance to the West of Cairo, and that is where the pyramids and the sphinx were built - the river providing transport for the building materials needed. On arrival in Cairo we went to our hotel in Giza where we could see the pyramids from our rooms!
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2.2 St Pishoy

On our way to Alexandria, we visited several monasteries.
Egypt is of course important in the story of Christianity. St Joseph took the holy family there to evade Herod and several monasteries have been established at their stopping points in Egypt. The oldest Christian monasteries are all in Egypt - the oldest being St Katherine’s in Sinai which is also the site of Moses’ burning bush.
The descendants of the ancient Egyptians are called Copts.
The word Coptic is derived from the Greek word Egyptikos meaning Egyptian. The Egyptian language was spoken by the Egyptians right up to the 18th century after which time it survived only in church liturgy and has now died out altogether. The Copts now all speak Arabic and use it for their prayers, church liturgy, as well as in everday private and public life.
The Egyptians embraced Christianity in the 1st century AD with the arrival of the St Mark the evangelist and played a central role in the Christian world. The patriarch of Alexandria who claims apostolic succession from St Mark was 2nd in honour only to the Bishop of Rome and presided over the first 3 ecumenical councils of the church at Nicaea in 325, Constantinople 381, Ephesus 431. But fatefully in 451 at the council of Chalcedon, they broke off (or were cast off) from the rest of Christian community over some obscure technicality in the definition of the nature of Christ’s humanity and divinity (there were wholly-wholly v partly-partly factions). A Coptic priest in the monastery of St Pishoy near Alexandria explained to me that the split was based on a misunderstanding of what the Copts believed. The result is that the Copts have been out of communion with Rome and the Orthodox churches ever since. This was 600 years before the Great Schism of 1054 when the Orthodox churches split from the Catholic church.
The Coptic Church is extremely conservative. Women and men sit on different sides in the congregation. The saints are depicted as shown with Greek labels (with the addition of 5 extra letters for Semitic language sounds not used in Greek). Coptic churches have 3 sanctuaries, no music in their liturgy, no stations of the cross, and no ornamentation. As with Orthodox churches, priests may be married but may not marry if they are single. Bishops must be celibate. The design of their churches is simple and dignified and has not changed since the 4th century. They are sand coloured or white-washed and look like smooth iced wedding cakes. Their architecture is derived from Byzantine churches and Greco-Roman basilicas.
This is St Pishoy Monastery
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2.2.1 Apostles as the Copts see them

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The above images date from the 4th Century AD (the 300s) in the monastery of St Pishoy. They have become the traditional Coptic standard for depiction of the Apostles and is how you see them even in modern Coptic churches (such as the cathredal of Aswan).
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We found the above much later in Luxor where recent excavations have now revealed these 1st Century images painted during Domitian’s reign. Christians had gone into hiding in this abandoned Egyptian temple and plastered over a section of the original hieroglyphs in order to depict Christ and the apostles. They were contempories of the apostles so these paintings give us a much better idea of what the apostles may have looked like. Note the differences from the later 4th century Coptic portraits - younger, clean shaven, short cut hair.

2.2.2 Domitian

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The Roman emperor Domitian (Titus Flavius Caesar Domitianus Augustus) who reigned 81-96 AD persecuted Christians and Jews whose beliefs conflicted with his desire to be called “dominus et deus” (lord and god). He exiled St John from Ephesus to the Aegean island Patmos where John dictated in a cave the last book of the new testament the Apocalypse to his disciple and scribe Prochoros. In Egypt, Domitian forced Egyptian Christians underground.

2.3 Alexandria

In the past, Alexandria was the jewel in the crown of Egypt and was the finest city in the world. Alexandria today is a shabby remnant of its past glories. Is has a lovely coastline called the Corniche and some fine palaces built by King Farouk, but in the main it has dirty, dusty, unpainted, tatty buildings with a general air of neglect.

2.3.1 The Library

The big exception is a new, modern library on or near the site of the famous historical library. The new library is reminiscent of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and is a large open plan space for work and study with a clever intricate roof which affords plenty of light but no direct sunlight onto the books and students reading them. It was designed by a Norwegian called Snohetta and built in 1990
Nigel and I made an astounding discovery in the library’s antiquities section. Look at the picture below. Unfortunately we were not permitted to photograph it ourselves so I can only show you the view from the back as appears on the library’s website.
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The above is a 1st century AD sculpture of a leg-spin bowler in the Library of Alexandria. That is more obvious from the front where the bowler’s ring finger is held beneath the ball. You can see the tension in his forearm ready to release the ball with anti-clockwise wrist spin.
The Greeks and Romans were fond of ball games. They played Rugby (known in Greek as Harpaston and in Latin as Harpastum) using an inflated bladder (follis). They also played ball games with a hard ball (pila). But we had not known that they or the Egyptians played cricket. Later we found lots of evidence in hieroglyphs and images in ancient sites showing cricket scenes. But this will be the subject of a another paper.
There is also some biblical evidence that the apostles also played cricket. “Peter stood with the eleven and was bowled”. Some scholars however dispute this and substitute bold for bowled.
The ancient library of Alexandria is arguably the most famous library of all time. Founded by the Ptolemies it aimed at holding a copy of every book ever written.
On or near the location of the ancient library a magnificent new building has been built.
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2.4 El Alemain

In 1942, El Alemain was the scene of a 2nd World War battle which marked the turning point in the war against Rommel’s Afrika Corps.
My uncles Bill (in the tank corps) and Father Ted Forsman (Catholic chaplain) were with the 2nd NZ Expeditionary Force and took part in the battle. After our return, on the 20th of October, the 70th anniversary of the battle, the NZ Herald printed the following photo of Fr Ted conducting the burial service of a soldier.
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We visited the war cemetary in El Alemain. It is beautifully maintained by the War Cemetaries Commission (as are all the war cemetaries we have seen: e.g.: in Arromanche, Normandy.

The pictures below show it as it was in wartime and now:
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And today.
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2.4.1 Museum

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El Alamein has a war museum with mockups of scenes of all the participating armies: British, New Zealand, Australian, Arab, etc with their uniforms and equipment. Outside they have tanks, guns, personnel carriers, and other war machines. Of particular interest to us were the tanks - a truly horrible weapon cum prison cum sauna cum crematorium for the unlucky.
Note the official spelling of El Alamein as Al Alamain. Standard or Literary Arabic admits to only 3 vowels: a, i, and u. I have retained our usual spelling.
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2.5 Cairo Again

Back in Cairo proper, in a hotel on an island on the Nile. We visited the famed Cairo Museum. As you can see there are almost no tourists or queues.
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2.6 Aswan

Aswan was the capital of the former nation of Nubia, conquered by the Phaeraohs. The Soviet Union financed and built a massive dam on the Nile in the 1960s which has controlled the annual flooding of the river since then and provided electric power to Egypt and to other countries to which they export power. Fortunately the British intervened before the completion of the dam and obviated their flooding by relocating the huge monuments at Abu Simbel and reassembling them on higher ground. Eila had seen them in their original positions in the 1960s and was able to revisit them again this time in their new positions.

2.7 Cataract Hotel

Here is the view from our hotel in Aswan. The island in the Nile holds the tomb of Aga Khan.
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2.7.1 Coptic Cathedral

The Copts have built a beautiful modern cathedral of St Michael Archangel in Aswan. The architect was an Englishman working on the Aswan dam who contributed his expertise to the project. He kept faith with traditional Coptic style except for the slightly pointed arches. The new cathedral was consecrated in 2006.
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At a little tourist kiosk, an old lady took a fancy to me, and having given me a private guided tour of the cathedral showed me a set of Coptic icons which were on sale. I couldn’t resist the following which shows the holy family during their flight into Egypt but, instead of the usual depiction of St Joseph leading a donkey bearing Mary and the infant Jesus, we have them in a boat on the Nile complete with donkey on board.
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2.7.2 Midnight Mass

The Catholics have a church in Aswan - vaguely Renaissance in style, discreetly tucked away down a back street. It comes complete with a detachment of army guards, apparently there to deter muslim attackers.
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Chiesa Cattolica is Italian for Catholic Church. Midnight mass turned out to be just like mass at St Josephs Orakei except that the sermon was delivered by 5 different concelebrating priests in Arabic, French, Italian, English, and Spanish. The version that I could understand perfectly was Italian, the least intelligible (after Arabic) was English delivered by a Nubian priest! The Kyrie Eleison was in Greek, the Agnus Dei and Sanctus were in Latin, the rest in English just as in NZ.

2.8 Jordan

To reach Jordan we had to pass via Israel to Aqaba. Then we minibussed via Wadi Rum (the film location of Lawrence of Arabia) where we jeeped over sand dunes and enjoyed Bedouin hospitality in a tent where they served us tea. Thence to the Dead Sea Resort where Laura and Nigel sampled the buoyancy of the salt sea. Next we visited Jerash, one of the largest and best preserved Roman cities, before finishing in the capital Amman.

2.8.1 Sinai

The Sinai desert has over the centuries been a battlefield. It is hard to see what they have been fighting over. You could hardly imagine a more God-forsaken place.
Sinai does host the oldest Christian monastery dedicated to St Katherine (the saint martyred by being broken on a wheel). Here is her monastery. It is a fortress/oasis in the middle of very hostile terrain.
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St Catherine’s monastery is also the site of Moses burning bush - quid vide!
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As you can see, the fire has now gone out!
Of course I couldn’t resist buying an icon of St Cath complete with wheel.
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On the icon itself (in contrast to the English label beneath it), she is designated in Greek: Hagia Aikaterina pronounced ah ya eh-katerina.

2.8.2 Wadi Rum

The site of the movie Lawrence of Arabia is a rather forlorn place too.
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The plants you see are props left over from the movie. As is the locomotive.
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3 History

3.1 Past

3.1.1 Pharaonic

Egypt is a country with the most magnificent past of all nations. We saw buildings, monuments, and tombs dating back to 3159 BC with work of the highest technical and artistic merit. Books do not do justice to the quality and finesse of the hieroglyphs and images inside and outside the buildings. The Pharaohs met and overcame many mighty nations - Assyrians, Persians, Hittites, etc before succumbing to Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC. Alexander was a teenage Macedonian who by education in Athens became “more Greek than the Greeks”.

3.1.2 Greek

Alexander conquered Egypt in 332 BC. When he died in 323 BC, Alexander’s empire was divided up among his generals. Ptolemy got Egypt. The Ptolemies who ruled until Cleopatra was defeated by Augustus at the battle of Actium in 31 BC had become as Egyptian as the Egyptians and endeared themselves to the local scribes and priests by embracing things Egyptian and having their images presented in traditional Egyptian garb and hieroglyphs on public monuments proclaiming their glory with no Greek language. Even their names were carved into cartouches using hieroglyphs. The Ptolemies however insisted on speaking Greek until Cleopatra who was a polyglot like Julius Caesar and spoke fluent Egyptian (or Coptic as it had became known) as well as Greek and Latin.
During the Ptolemaic period, Alexandria was the most magnificent city of the known world. Its crowning glory being the famous library which aimed at holding copies of all the books of world scholarship.

3.1.3 Roman

Julius Caesar visited Egypt in the course of winning his civil war against Pompey and had an affair with Cleopatra in 48 BC defeating her enemies (her siblings with counter-claims to the throne). In the battle in Alexandria, the warehouses at the port were destroyed (causing the loss of books awaiting cataloguing and placement in the library). The pyramids and temples of Egypt were already ancient (3000 years old) when the Romans visited them.
With the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra in 31BC, they both committed suicide then Augustus killed Cleopatra’s son (by Julius Caesar) Caesarion but spared her twin children sired by Marc Antony and reduced Egypt’s status to a Roman province. The country became the main food supplier to Rome. Here are the main characters:
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Julius Caesar Cleopatra Marc Antony Augustus
Cleopatra was an extraordinary woman. Despite being no great beauty as you can see above, she successfully captivated Julius Caesar then after his assassination she followed on with his successor Marc Antony. Here she made her first mistake and picked the wrong candidate. That cost her, and she was the last Pharaoh and Egypt entered its dark ages which continue to this day.

3.1.4 Arab

The Arabs invaded Egypt in 639 AD after the fall of the Roman empire when Egypt was at a low ebb. They imposed Islamic law, destroyed the Alexandria library and all its contents, and are the dominant people in Egypt to this day. The Sunni Caliph Umar in Constantinople decreed that books which were in accord with the Koran were unnecessary and those which were not should be destroyed. With the library’s destruction a vast body of knowledge was lost forever - works by inventors, mathematicians, doctors, engineers, philosophers, dramatists, historians, poets, et aliis. Caliph Umar was the 2nd Caliph and succeeded Abu Bakr. Umar and his successors were like Roman emperors in that most were assassinated by close associates. The Arabs allowed the Christians to continue to practise their religion but forbade them under pain of death to proselytise. Also if a muslim converted to Christianity, he or she was executed.

3.1.5 Ottoman

The Turks annexed Egypt in 1517 AD and maintained a loose control until Napoleon occupied the country between 1798-1801. Napoleon had a great interest in Egyptian antiquity and set a young university scholar Champoleon to work decifering the Rosetta stone which contained a proclamation is 3 languages: Greek, Egyptian hieroglyphs and demotic. Rosetta is the Latin version of the Arabic name Rashid where the stone was uncovered. Fortunately the Egyptians of the time still spoke Coptic and, because he had learnt Coptic, Champoleon recognised the correspondence between the hieroglyphs and Coptic words and so succeeded in reading and interpreting them. Had Napolean not come along when he did, we would have lost forever the ability to read the messages on the tombs and monuments of ancient Egypt. Coptic has now disappeared from use.
The defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, brought Egypt under control of the British Empire until the Suez crisis when Egypt cast off the shackles of empire and gained independence.

4 Modern Egypt

4.1 Demographics

Egypt has a population of about 8 million Egyptians nearly all Christian and 73 million Arabs nearly all of whom are at least nominally Sunni Muslim with a small minority of Sufi and Shia. Nubians, a brown African race who live in former Nubia in the upper Nile from Aswan upstream, number a few hundred thousand. 99% of the people of Egypt live in the Nile valley and its delta. The Nile makes a narrow strip of only a hundred metres or so on either bank fertile. The rest of the country is very stark desert with dunes up to 30 metres high. Previous minorities such as Jews and Greeks have disappeared. The country is controlled by the army which has 450,000 active personnel. Every young male is conscripted into the army unless he is an only son. No business activity can occur without at least the passive permission of the army and most businesses are controlled by the army.
According to UN surveys Egypt ranks 156th in the world for literacy. A staggering 30 million people cannot read or write.
The non-muslim people are allowed very limited participation in politics, are excluded from the legal profession, and normally denied permission to build churches. Egypt is one of the 12 worst countries in the world for religious oppression. The army recognises 3 religions: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. To get an official ID, you have to profess one of these.
According to UN figures, 40% of the people earn less that $3 per day. About 3% are extremely wealthy.
The recent troubles, instigated by the middle classes chaffing under the restrictions imposed by the army, have triggered the unexpected consequence of opening the door to the Muslim Brotherhood who have exploited the fact that the 30 million illiterate Muslims who are not influenced by news media (you cannot buy TV sets or iPads on $3 a day) have suddenly become a significant political force under the influence of their imams. They are all within earshot of the minarets where the loudspeakers convey the Brotherhood’s message to all towns and villages.
If the Brotherhood gains democratic control of Egypt, they will further destroy the ambitions of the middle class by destroying the graven images in the ancient tourist attractions as did their Taleban counterparts in Afghanistan. During the recent troubles, there have been attacks on Christian churches and many of the faithful have been killed. In a celebrated case, several Muslims were charged with the murders. Only one was convicted because he had accidentally shot a Muslim policeman. The others were discharged because all their victims were Christian.

5 Dubai

Our chosen airline was Emirates, so it was obvious to stop over in their headquarters on the way home. Vast sums of money have been spent recently to create a city of vast shopping malls, the highest building in the world, and huge boulevards many paved with marble - truly a city beyond the normal scale of human grandeur.