Thursday, April 28, 2011

We'll start our journey in Cairo...

Sat. 4/16 - Arrive mid-day - afternoon in museums
Sun. 4/17 - Pyramids in Giza and Saqqara
Mon. 4/18 - Tour Coptic Christian and Jewish Cairo
Tues. 4/19 - Tour Medieval Cairo + visit charitable organization
Wed. 4/20 - Visit an Egyptian school
Thurs. 4/21 - Meetings on domestic and foreign policy
Fri. 4/22 - Visit Alexandria
Sat. 4/23 - Museums and meeting on Egyptian society

What would you like to know about Egypt? I invite you to be part of the journey by asking questions or sharing comments. To comment on a post, click on the "comments" link below. Please choose the option Name/URL and include your first name when leaving a comment.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

We've arrived!

Good flight and arrived to 98 degrees at the Cairo airport. Now that's a shock to the system after seeing snow in our yard on the day of departure!

I enjoyed the 45 minute drive in from the airport. Although traffic became much more congested (3 cars wide in every 2-lane section of road), it was interesting to observe Cairo out of the window of our van. After a quick stop at our hotel to unload, we spent the afternoon at the Egyptian Museum.

There are so many artifacts in the Egyptian Museum that objects in some parts of the museum are  placed or stacked without much of any identification. It must be challenging to catalog and display antiquities in a country with so many. Two new museums are planned; one archaeologist with whom I spoke estimated that only 30% of Egypt's ancient sites have been located, excavated, and cataloged.

One of the most interesting rooms I went in was the pet mummy room. There was an eclectic mix of animals displayed there - from an 18' alligator to cats to this pet young baboon below. We couldn't take a camera into the museum, so this image is from the web, but I wanted to share it on the blog.

We paid an extra fee to go into the human mummy rooms - these were much more carefully preserved in high-tech, climate controlled rooms compared to the rest of the museum. The room containing King Tut's death mask, sarcophagus, and jewelry was simply stunning. I could have spent hours looking at the detailed metal work, design, and brilliant colors. Again, web photos included below to give an idea of what we experienced.

We drove through Tahrir Square on our way to dinner. Traffic was moving normally and I didn't see anyone congregating in the Square. The evident signs of the momentous events of the last several weeks were few, but included some posters or billboards to the martyrs of the revolution, the nearby burned-out NDP building - including several destroyed cars, and some spools of razor wire on a side street. I hope we will have an opportunity to return to that area when we are here.

Lastly, we enjoyed a dinner of typical Egyptian food and called it a day. A wonderful day. I feel so fortunate to be here.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Sunday, April 17

Today was a day to explore Pharaonic Egypt. We first visited Giza, the site of three major pyramids and a short drive from downtown Cairo. We had a wonderful guide, Ashraf Mohie El Din, who illuminated this period of history with his extensive knowledge base and great story telling. He has been prominent in several National Geographic and History Channel programs, and it was fun talking with a rock star of Egyptology.

We went inside the pyramid of the Pharaoh Khufu. This pyramid took 20,000 workers 20 years to build.  Ashraf and Paul debunked my understanding that slaves built the pyramid, indicating that farmers were employed to work during their off-season. Tombs for doctors and dentists were found nearby to care for workers - there was even evidence of brain surgery done on one patient.

We were able to go inside Khufu's pyramid, walking up a narrow set of ladder-like stairs to one of the three major chambers inside.
 Image source:

We then drove a short distance to a promontory to view all three pyramids in the distance.

Then on to see the Sphinx at a lower elevation from the pyramids.

We then drove to the step pyramid in Saqqara, which was constructed earlier than the pyramids in Giza (about a 20 minute drive from Giza). We could see other pyramids in the distance. Ashraf said that there were 138 (!) identified pyramids in Egypt. He said many times today.... "If you can build a pyramid, you can do anything!" I'm learning so much about the many accomplishments of this ancient civilization, and today blew me away in terms of what I saw and experienced.

This afternoon, we took a walk and saw some very interesting street art commemorating the January 25 revolution (see other images in the pictures on the political art slide show on the blog).

Tonight we went to a gallery opening for Farid Fadel. His art - a mixture of oil paintings, watercolors, and pencil drawings - conveyed a variety of Egyptian scenes - from quiet street scenes to sketches of mosques to art depicting the tragedies and hopes of the revolution. It was interesting to see many of the scenes we've seen in Cairo reflected in his art, and a wonderful opportunity to experience a flavor of Cairo's rich culture.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Visit to Old Cairo

Another amazing day with many highlights. We visited the oldest part of modern-day Cairo, home to Jews and Coptic Christians. With a little help from my guidebook - since this is not a time period I have studied previously - archaeologists have found evidence that there was a settlement on the east bank of the Nile as far back as the 6th century BCE. Later, Romans established a fortress there in the 2nd century CE. Predating the arrival of Islam in Egypt, this was a stronghold of Christianity with many churches clustered closely together. After the diaspora from Jerusalem in 70 CE, many Jews found refuge in Egypt and we visited the oldest existing synagogue in this part of the city.

We had a delightful guide for our morning in this part of the city. We started our day in the Coptic Museum.
Coptic Museum

I will admit that my attention sometimes wandered because I was completely enamored with the ceiling panels. (OK, I know this sounds really geeky, and I have to back up this story a little bit.... One of the reasons - among many - for wanting to come on this trip was to have an opportunity to see in person some of the Islamic art (the geometric patterns that are duplicated, interlaced, and arranged in intricate combinations) I have been teaching about for several years. I was completely blown away by what I saw. The craftsmanship and designs were amazing, and I learned that early Coptic art forms influenced Islamic art. The work I saw was simply beautiful, and I wanted to sit on the floor and gaze up. Each of the many rooms in the museum had stunning ceilings. Again, no cameras allowed in the museum, so I have to rely on an internet photo. This doesn't do justice to the artwork, but gives an idea of what I saw.

After we left the museum, we visited several churches - including one built over the area that many Christians believe is the location where Joseph, Mary, and Jesus rested after fleeing from King Herod.

From there, we visited Ben Ezra Synagogue, Egypt's oldest synagogue. There are several legends connected to this synagogue, including that this is the place where the Pharaoh's daughter found Moses in the reeds. One had a definite sense of walking on ancient ground, and it was a haven of peace and quiet.

We grabbed a quick lunch of pita bread, hummous, tahina, and taameya. We spent the afternoon with an Arabic teacher in a lovely apartment in Cairo. She was a  delightful woman who kept us all engaged during a very helpful Arabic lesson. Our afternoon with her flew by and I was sorry to go. We met a friend of Paul's for dinner, and had a lively and fun discussion about recent events in Egypt. We will look forward to another chance to meet with her later this week.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Medieval Cairo

Someone in our group said that today felt like three days packed into one - in a good way. I agree.

We started the day meeting Dina Bakhoum, a dynamic woman who guided us through Al-Azhar park. This area, which used to be a dump since medieval times, has been transformed into an oasis of beautiful plants and fountains thanks to funding and work by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

She has led some of the restoration work, including excavation and reconstruction of a 1.5 km, 800-yr. old Ayyubid medieval city wall.

We also went into two mosques that have either been recently restored or are in the process of being restored.

Incredible work, and inspiring to see the dedication to preserving Cairo's rich heritage. While on our walk, we had the opportunity to hear the call the prayer at one of the mosques and walk down alleyways to experience this old part of the city.

We enjoyed a lovely lunch together at a cafe within the park before heading out on our next adventure.

In the afternoon, we visited a charitable organization that put new meaning into the word organization. In one building, we had a chance to see teen volunteers sorting donated clothes that will be given or sold at minimal cost to some of Cairo's poor. From there, we went on to see tutoring programs for children, programs for deaf and blind children, women's literacy groups, a performance by special needs children and teens, a meals program, an orphanage for kids ages 2-7, classes for computer skills, and a program to help with household goods and appliances. All under one roof! Amazing!
A deaf boy working on lessons using sign language.

 One of the boys in the orphanage - megawatt smile and personality.

Then back into our van for a trip across town to Khan el-Khalili, a bazaar near where we were this morning. It was interesting to walk narrow streets, watch this busy part of Cairo pass us by, and engage with market sellers. Although there were creative ways to entice us into their shops, on the whole I found people to have a good sense of humor.

Pictures below from some of the mosques in this part of the city...

Saturday, April 23, 2011

School Visit

Today we visited a school north of Cairo. We were greeted by the principal before going to meet with grade 10 students (age 15) and later grade 9 (age 14) students who are in a special language program. Many of their core subjects are taught in English rather than Arabic, and I was impressed with their language skills.

The kids talked about their experiences during the revolution. A few described themselves as revolutionaries who joined the protests in Tahrir Square; others were eager to share their experiences at home. We had wide-ranging and dynamic discussions about what lies ahead for Egypt, the bumpy path toward democracy, whether there is gender equality in Egypt, how strict their parents are, and what they like to do in their leisure time. The kids were engaging, thoughtful, bright, aware, and funny.

I shared the video of Yarmouth kids asking questions and commenting on the revolution; I think it helped to serve as an ice breaker of sorts to help the Egyptian kids realize that American students have questions about their peers thousands of miles away, are paying attention and following what's happening here, and share many of their hopes and dreams.

The conversation was moving, inspiring, lively, fun. There was great energy in the room, and the conversations continued after our time officially ended. I was able to video tape many of the Egyptian students' responses to my students' questions - as well as some of their testimonials about what they witnessed during the revolution - and will look forward to bringing this back with me to share with others. We continued our conversations with faculty during lunch, and felt warmly welcomed by our hosts. I hope the opportunity to dialog with the Egyptian kids is just beginning, and that students in our schools will be able to continue to share and learn from one another, whether through video conferencing, blogs, email exchanges, etc.

The day captured the great energy, hopes, aspirations, and talents of the Egyptian people. I have a great deal of confidence in these young people who will help to shape the future. This day was remarkable, and one I will treasure always.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Visit to Alexandria

Today we cruised north via the Desert Road to Alexandria to explore a new city. It was a lovely day there, with a nice breeze and sunshine.

On the way, we made a quick stop and I took a little walk. Here is a picture of some banana trees growing in the desert sand. How can crops grow in sand? Inquiring minds want to know...

On to Alexandria, where we drove the Corniche - the road running alongside the Mediterranean. Toward one end of the city, we visited Fort Qaitbey (pictured below).

View of families enjoying the beach:

We enjoyed a delicious lunch of grilled fresh fish before walking along the Corniche to Saad Zaghloul Square, where we enjoyed (neon-green) fresh lemon juice drinks, coffees, and desserts.

Boat with name in Arabic...