Saturday, January 31, 2004

Since this is our first access to Internet in a while, I'm adding Allen's summary of impressions of Egypt. He does a much better job, I think, of capturing the art and culture of Egypt -- here's his post to Rachel:

Our visit to Egypt has been a real eye opener. The major focus of our travels has been the pharonic monuments - pyramids, temples, and tombs (also called mastabas). Without a background in egyptology, I've found myself comparing what I've seen here to the achievements of the Mayans and the Aztecs.

To my surprise, ancient Egypt is far more impressive. The extraordinary Aztec city of Teotihuacan has pyramids that rival Giza and roads that are more impressive in some ways. The same is true for the Mayan cities of Chichen Itza, Tikal, and Copan. But what sets ancient Egypt apart is its temples and tombs, the extraordinary artistry, observation and color in the omnipresent low and high reliefs. The quality of the sculpture rivals anything I've ever seen, new or old. It's not just the consistent quality of the artistry but also the scale of it that astounds me. Compared to the Karnak temples at Luxor (formerly Thebes) even the pyramids at Giza are as child's play. Imagine a 2 mile road lined on both sides with a total of 850 sphinxes. This is the road that led between Luxor and Karnak temples. Karnak temples, just imagine a complex of temples that was built and added to over the course of 2,000 years. The temple complex is a mile by a half mile. For comparison, it would house 30 farms the size of Pam and Bill's.

Many parts of the complex soar to the height of a ten story building and everywhere there are heiroglyphs and beautiful reliefs depicting the triumphs of the pharoahs and their close relationships with their gods, a relationship that appears to be far more sophisticated than our popular culture indicates. The gods are loving and protecting and caring. Also, much of the life of the ordinary people is visible to those who care to take the time to look closely. And the artists themselves looked closely. For example, you see a man in a boat with a rope around a calf, helping it ford a river. The panicky calf is looking backward for its mother who is swimming so hard to keep close to her calf that her tongue is sticking out. That scene has been on that wall for 4,000 years and it still looks fresh, and plastic, and real.

We also wanted to study medieval Cairo. We visited some mosques, a fabulous 16th century home, some monuments, the souq (the ancient, still thriving bazaar) and the medieval neighborhood. For me, the visit was interesting but left more questions than answers. For one thing, we went into only one mosque because mom was intimidated by the culture. Also, the crowded souq required an openness, a willingness to debate and push and argue and laugh that was a little beyond your mom - so much of my focus was on protecting her. Nevertheless, I liked it a lot. Just imagine, every third alley has a thousand year old building. The gates were built by Saladin. The Mamluks were slaughtered to a man on one of the streets. And, on top of it all, the market is a rainbow of exotic color, excitement, yelling, argument, and selling.

Modern Egypt is another issue. The drivers are the best I've ever seen. They ignore lanes and traffic lights and tailgate within inches of each other even at high speed. They play chicken with pedestrians who are compelled to dodge between cars to cross busy streets. Nevertheless, accidents are few even though drivers honk constantly, cut each other off, and dive across 3 lanes to make a turn.

Unfortunately, there's much that is sad about Egypt. The country is filthy and desperately poor. Many people with university degrees can't get jobs and even those with goverment jobs are so underpaid that they moonlight as taxi drivers. There is an air of desperation about the economy and culture. You hear people constantly yelling at each other, a kind of pathology of passive aggression. Little snippets of dishonesty and self-mockery seem to be required just for the people to get by. The 5 time daily call to prayer is broadcast from the minarets that are everywhere and they seem to give comfort and meaning and organization to the lives of the people. Everywhere we go there is great bitterness toward Israel. Its treatment of the Palestinians is viewed as a great humiliation for all arabs.

We are now resting up in Luxor and revisiting the best places we've already seen to double check our impressions.


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