Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Ben Ezra Synagogue

Copyright © Egypt, Cradle of Civilization

Maybe the oldest existing synagogue in Cairo, the Ben Ezra Synagogue or El-Geniza Synagogue was originally a church in the 8th century called El-Shamieen Church. It is located behind the Hanging Church in Coptic Cairo. In 882 AD it had to be sold in order for the Copts to pay the annual taxes imposed on them by the Muslim rulers during the reign of Ahmed Ibn Tulun. The synagogue was purchased by Rabbie Abraham Ben Ezra of Jerusalem for 20,000 dinars.

The Synagogue is said to have been built over the location where the prophet Moses had been found as a baby. It also once had a copy of the Old Testament, which is said to have been hand written by the Prophet Ezra (Al-Azir) written on gazelle skin. But the Synagogue is most famous for the discovery of its Geniza (a hidden store room for sacred books and Torah scrolls).

This discovery came about during the reconstruction of the Synagogue during the 19th century, revealing thousands of original documents from the middle Ages, over 250,000 manuscripts. The documents were written mostly in Hebrew Arabic, which is Arabic written in Hebrew alphabet, and tells of life for Jews during those medieval times. Besides recounting of sectarian organizations and the relations between different Jewish sects, these scrolls also reconstruct the political, economic and social conditions of Jews in Egypt and the way they dealt with the Arab Muslim authorities during that period of history. These rare documents contain interpretations from the Old Testament and excerpts of linguistic research on Hebrew.

The original building has long collapsed, but with the renovations it was accurately and ardently reconstructed mirroring the original, the present day temple dates back from 1892. The Ben Ezra Synagogue was built in basilica-style with two floors one for men and the upper one for women. The main floor is divided into three parts by steel bars, and in the center is an octagonal marble bima (platform for Torah reading). The walls, ceiling and columns are decorated with geometric and floral patterns in the Turkish style.

The Jewish heritage library in the Synagogue was inaugurated on November 25, 1997. The Jewish community is almost extinct dwindling from a strong 80,000 in 1922 to just 250 people, who are all very old. Functions and services are still held in Synagogues but are protected by government police. The Ben Ezra Synagogue is open daily for touristic visits, but be prepared to pass through security to get in.

About the Author:
Gawhara Hanem

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Bride of the Nile

Copyright © Egypt, Cradle of Civilization

A long long time ago, some three or four thousand years before our epoch, around the same time every year, the rise in the water on earth was herald by a sign in the heavens. The brightest of all the fixed stars appears at dawn in the east just before sunrise about the time of the summer solstice, indicating the beginning of the sacred Egyptian year. The brilliant star of Sirius or as the Egyptians called it Sothis, marked the time of the inundation of the Nile. Sothis was deemed by the Egyptians as the star of Isis, the goddess of life and love. They called it so because it was believed that as Isis came to mourn her departed husband, Osiris, to wake him up from the dead; her tears caused the rise in the levels of the Nile water.

The flooding of the Nile was the most important event in the lives of the Egyptians. It was a matter of their very existence and welfare. For a year with little or no flood meant famine in the Kingdom, but too large a flood would mean a disaster for it would over flow into the villages destroying them. A flood had to be just right to determine a good season. The Egyptian flood cycle starts during the second week of August and is divided into 3 stages. The time of the Nile flood, Akhet (the inundation) was the first season of the year. The sowing time Peret marked the time when crops grew in the fields and was considered the Egyptian Autumn from October to mid-February. The last and third season, the time of harvest Shemu, ran from mid-February until the end of May and was the spring season of the Egyptian calendar. This cycle was so predictable that the ancient Egyptians based their calendar on it.

As the Nile flow from the south to the north, the flood brought the silt-laden waters into Egypt, and as the water receded later the silt would stay behind, fertilizing the land. The flood was seen as the yearly coming of the god Hapi, bringing fertility to the land. . He was worshipped even above Ra as he brought the fertile inundation; he was a very important deity to any one living in the Nile valley. He was depicted as a blue or green bearded man with female breasts, indicating his powers of nourishment. At the time of the inundation the Egyptians would throw offerings, amulets and other sacrifices into the Nile at certain places, sacred to Hapi.

Today's celebration takes on a different meaning and form. Yes it is still celebrated at the same time of the year but there is no longer flooding of the Nile, which stopped when the Aswan High Dam was built to regulate the flow of water year round. Now this time of the year is called "Wafaa el-neel Festival" or literally "Fidelity of the Nile". It was said that the Pharaohs sacrificed a beautiful virgin girl to the river in return for a good harvest. The ancient legend has survived into an ongoing tradition where a wooden doll dressed as a bride is thrown into the Nile instead.

The modern-day celebration is now more contemporary with art competitions for children, poetry reading, concerts and scientific discussions. This year there festival will include flower parades and a Pharaonic procession portraying the ancient legend of the Nile Festival. The events included aqua sports like rowing, water skiing, windsurfing and swimming. The celebrations well accommodate floating hotels, restaurants and other places over looking the Nile. This year's concept is to promote the awareness to protect this vital source of life and a main attraction to Egypt's ecotourism.

About the Author:
Gawhara Hanem

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Giza Necropolis

Copyright © Egypt, Cradle of Civilization

"With each new dawn I see the sun god rise from the far bank of the Nile. His first ray is for my face which is turned towards him and for 5,000 years I have seen all the suns man can remember come up in the sky..."

The Sphinx' first words as it stand guarding the Pyramids of Giza. The Giza Necropolis stands on the Giza Plateau, located only a few kilometers south of Cairo, Egypt. The ancient Egyptians called this place imentet, "The West" or kher neter, "The Necropolis". The Great Pyramid of Giza, the relics of a vanished culture, is the only remaining monument of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

The Pyramids of Giza are generally thought of by foreigners as lying in a remote, desert location, even though they are located in what is now part of the most populous city not only in Egypt but in Africa. In fact, urban development reaches right up to the perimeter of the antiquities site. The ancient sites in the Memphis area, including those at Giza, together with those at Saqqara, Dahshur, Abu Ruwaysh, and Abusir, were collectively declared a World Heritage Site in 1979.

The opening lines to the Sound and Light Show instantly capture the audience, and why shouldn't they? With the backdrop being the Sphinx and the Pyramids beautifully lite, in the pitch dark, easily make one feel that they have actually been transported back into time.

"You have come tonight to the most fabulous and celebrated place in the world. Here on the plateau of Giza stands forever the mightiest of human achievements. No traveler, emperor, merchant or poet has trodden on these sands and not gasped in awe. The curtain of night is about to rise and disclose the stage on which the drama of a civilization took place. Those involved have been present since the dawn of history, pitched stubbornly against sand and wind, and the voice of the desert has crossed the centuries."

The Pyramids of Giza were built over the span of three generations - by the Fourth Dynasty Pharaoh Khufu (Cheops), his second reigning son Khafre (Chephren, Kephren), and Menkaure. But it was Khufu who placed Giza forever at the heart of funerary devotion, a city of the dead that dwarfed the cities of the living nearby. Dominating the sandy plateau his pyramid built around 2530 B.C, is the largest of all the pyramids in Egypt.

On its southwest diagonal is the pyramid of his son Khafre. Although it is smaller, they appear from afar to be of the same size, this illusion is due to its steeper angle, and as it is built on higher ground it infact appears taller. The notion that this was done on purpose to out-do his father's pyramid is obvious!

Further along the southwest diagonal is the smallest of the three great pyramids, that of Khafre's son, Menkaure. It is also the most unusual. As it is not entirely limestone the uppermost portions are made of brick. It is also not along the diagonal line that runs through the Great Pyramid and the Second Pyramid, but instead is nearly a hundred meters to the southeast. This error, if an error at all, is of a magnitude not in keeping with the mathematical skill known to have been possessed by the ancient Egyptians.

In the last few years there has been a theory that the three large Pyramids of Giza are actually meant to be in an alignment representing the three "belt" stars in the Orion constellation: Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka. This theory is rejected by the majority of Egyptologists, but none the less a point to consider. And while the center of the pyramid does not line up with its larger counterparts, the southeast sides of all three pyramids are in alignment. The sides of all three of the Giza Pyramids were astronomically oriented to be north-south and east-west within a small fraction of a degree.
But who really built the Pyramids? The worker's cemeteries were discovered in 1990 by archaeologists Zahi Hawass and Mark Lehner. Contrary to some popular belief, the pyramid builders were not slaves or foreigners. Skeletons excavated from the site show that they were Egyptians who lived in villages developed and overseen by the pharaoh's supervisors. The most possible assumption the Pyramids were built by tens of thousands of skilled and unskilled laborers who camped near the pyramids and worked for a salary or as a form of paying taxes until the construction was completed.

But graffiti from inside the Giza monuments themselves have long suggested something very different. They were not the Jews as been said, nor were they people from a lost civilization. And they were certainly not from out of space. They were Egyptian and their skeletons were buried on the plateau, and were examined by scholars, doctors and the race of all the people found completely supports that they were Egyptian.

An estimated 20,000 to 30,000 workers built the Pyramids at Giza over 80 years. Much of the work probably happened while the River Nile was flooded. The workmen who were involved in building the Great Pyramid were divided into gangs, groups, four groups, and each group had a name, and each group had an overseer. Undeniable evidence to this is graffiti found in places that were not meant to show such as the inscription above Khufu's burial chamber. The workmen who were involved in building the Great Pyramid wrote the names of the gangs, names like "Friends of Khufu". Plus there was solid evidence from the facilities that the workers were well fed, with a lot of bakeries found and left over bones of fish and cattle. Building the pyramid was a national project of Egypt because everyone had to participate in building it.

After 5000 years this place of ancient worship still stands with all its glory and awe. Defying the elements of nature and time, to this day they still keep from us many secrets. And as the saying goes, "Man fears Time, but Time fears the Pyramids."

About the Author:
Gawhara Hanem

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

So Which Was it That Came First?!

Copyright © Egypt, Cradle of Civilization

Searching for an answer to this enigmatic question, I realized that getting a clear response was not going to be possible so I did my reading looking into all the theories no matter how much they made me laugh! The notion that someone can actually believe, publicly announce and expect to be taken seriously something bizarre and unsupported was beyond me. But then again I could be the one in the dark to one of the most unanswered questions in history. So which came first the Pyramids or the Sphinx?!

As a child, I remember always getting excited over the idea of going to the Pyramids. I still feel dwarfed standing at the base of Khufu and looking up. The stone block I'm standing in front of is much taller than I am! So how did they ever build such a thing? How long would it take to get to the top? You could probably see the world from up there!

Although there are records as to how and who built the Pyramids there is little to tell about the Sphinx, the largest surviving statue from the ancient world. It is sculpted out of a large limestone bedrock, a stone soft enough to yield to copper chisels and stone hammers, common Egyptian tools. The actual mystery of the Sphinx at Giza pertains to its very identity. The Sphinx has a head of a man, wearing the Egyptian headdress and a spiraling beard, and having the body of a lion, with two paws resting beneath the head and chest. It rises up 66 ft (20 m) high and the resting leonine body stretching 241 ft (73.5 m) behind. The Sphinx has been most often associated with the Pharaoh Khafre (2558–2532 B.C.), who is represented by and is presumably buried in the second largest of the three Pyramids at Giza. At least two statues of Khafre have been found that bear a striking resemblance to the face of the Sphinx.

The Sphinx at Giza faces due east with a small temple between its paws and is referred to in some Egyptian hieroglyphics as Hamachis, the god of the rising Sun. Later, Hamachis evolved into the name Hor-em-Akhet and until 1925 it was still buried up to the neck in sand.

Believed to be built during the Fourth Dynasty at the same time as the Pyramids, the date of the Sphinx still remains a controversy and even in ancient times, some sources dated it as preceding the Pyramids. It has under gone several restorations even during ancient times. After being abandoned from around 2650 B.C to 1500 B.C King Thutmose IV of the 18th Dynasty, ordered the rescue of the Sphinx from being buried by the desert sands. Ramesses II may have also performed restoration work on the Great Sphinx. But the first modern excavation project was in 1817, lead by Captain Caviglia uncovering the chest, but the Sphinx was finally dug out completely in 1925. The last of the restoration project took place as recently as 2006.

Trying to dig up information about the Sphinx unearthed a lot. Going through all of the theories, suppositions, rumors or even psychics made me realize that common logic was dry and uninteresting compared to the fascinating controversies of more ancient unknown civilizations or even aliens being responsible. Even the most recent claim by the geologists that the Sphinx dates as far back as 9000 years ago probably at the end of the Ice age was based solely on the geological evidence, rather than information from hieroglyphics or other histories. The suppositions are based around the weathering and the water erosion that the limestone has witnessed, not of the making of the actual statue.

Then there are claims of an advanced civilization that once thrived on the continent of Antarctica before it was frozen over during a global catastrophe at the end of the last Ice Age. Or of extraterrestrials coming down to earth to build this monument because mere humans where unable to accomplish such a enormous achievement. To me this seems more of an insult to all of humanity than to the ancient Egyptians that actually toiled to have there names remembered over the passing of time.

But really the most interesting of all concepts was that of a psychic Edgar Cayce! He prophesied a secret passageway leads from one of the Sphinx's paws to its right shoulder where there exists a "Hall of Records" that contains the wisdom of a lost civilization and the history of the world. During a trance he received reading that the legendary civilization of Atlantis was responsible for many of the accomplishments of ancient Egypt, claiming that the Great Pyramid and Sphinx were built by Atlanteans refugees.

The ancient Egyptians lived, and died building the Sphinx and the Pyramids, leaving behind their documentations, tools, graves and bones. Trying to find another unknown civilization to give credits to is illogical lacking common sense and denigrating to its people. The pyramids are human achievements and one of the Nova projects called "This Old Pyramid" demonstrated that it was actually attempted to construct a scaled down version of the Great Pyramid using techniques which are inscribed in ancient Egyptian temples.

About the Author:
Gawhara Hanem

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Hanging Church of Cairo

Copyright © Egypt, Cradle of Civilization

Built during the 3rd and 4th century the Hanging Church translated in Arabic to El-Mu'allaqa or "the Suspended" has also been known as Sitt Mariam and St Mary, and during the 14th and 15th centuries travelers called it the "Staircase Church" because of the twenty-nine steps that led to the entrance.

One of Cairo's most beautiful churches, its impressive location is due to the fact that it was built on top of the southern tower gate of the old Babylon fortress with its nave suspended over the road beneath. The land surface has risen by some 6 metres since the Roman period so that the Roman tower is mostly buried below ground; this has reduced the visual impact of the church's elevated position. The entrance to the Hanging Church is via a beautifully decorated gate on Shar'a Mari Girgis Street in Coptic Cairo (Old Cairo). Coptic Cairo is the oldest part of modern-day Cairo, a tightly walled enclave, with narrow alley-ways that lead to Churches dating back to the origins of Christianity in Egypt.

The Hanging Church is a World Heritage Site, and is still used to this day for Coptic Mass on Friday and Sunday. In Egypt this church has played an important role in the Coptic Church History, as it had been the seat of the patriarchs after it was transferred from Alexandria to Al- Fustat (Old Cairo). The 66th patriarch Pope Ana Christodolos (1039- 1079) chanted the liturgy in the church. The Church holds several important festivals and celebrations like the enthronement of the patriarchs.

Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the church contains an eleventh-century pulpit, a thirteenth-century ebony and ivory screen and also has been a place where antiquities have been preserved especially in the Coptic Museum, with some 110 medieval icons and murals, the oldest among them belonging to the 8th century. But the oldest artifact unearthed is a lintel showing Christ's entry into Jerusalem that dates from the 5th or 6th century. The church was badly damaged in the 1992 earthquake, which affected many of Cairo's medieval buildings, but has since been renovated.

The Hanging Church in Egypt was possibly the first built in Basilican style with three aisles, a narthex and tripartite sanctuary. Later another chapel known as the "little church" was constructed over the eastern tower of the Babylon Fortress' south gateway and now is the oldest part of the remaining church. In the 19th century a fourth aisle was added. The church is 23.5 meters long, 18.5 meters wide and 9.5 meters high.

Although the original church was founded during the third and fourth century; the current building may date from as early as the seventh century, but it was rebuilt in 977AD and heavily restored in the nineteenth century. However, the earliest mention of the church was a statement in the biography of the patriarch Joseph I (831-849 AD), when the governor of Egypt visited the establishment.

The entrance to the church leads into an open courtyard, flanked by mosaics, from which the 29 steps take you up to the church. At the top of the stairs are three wooden doors decorated with geometric patterns, framed with decorative carvings in the stone wall. The inside is impressive and is truly a work of art, lending the atmosphere an air saturated with medieval history, even the ancient timber wood of the magnificent ceiling is reminiscent of Noah's Ark.

About the Author:
Gawhara Hanem

Saturday, November 15, 2008

How Did King Tut Really Go?!

Copyright © Egypt, Cradle of Civilization

He died 3,300 years ago and we know that he was 19 years of age when he did. We know that he came to the throne at the age of 9 and was too young to have made his own decisions, and that they were made for him by Aye, his vizier and Horemheb, the commander-in-chief of his army. We think he was Akhenaton's son not from the famous Nefertiti but from Kiya a minor wife. He may have had a brother Smenkhkare, or as some think he could have been is father after all. He did have six half-sisters from Akhenaton and Nefertiti (if Akhenaton was his father really!). He was married to his probably half-sister Ankhesenamun and had twin girls who were stillborn and buried with him in the tomb. But even Ankhesenamun's fate is unknown, as she was made to marry Aye after her husband's death then just disappeared out of existence.

We know that Tutankhamun was the King that brought back the old religion after the revolution of Akhenaton, who banned the worship of Amun in favor of the one god Aten (Atenism), which was represented by "the disk of the Sun". This gained him instant popularity with the priests and the people, so he was a loved king! Contrary to what was concluded that he was buried in haste, clues have shown that the mummification process and burial took their due course.

For some reason when Horemheb came to power he deleted all evidence of existence of his predecessors Akhenaten, Neferneferuaten, Smenkhkare, Tutankhamun, and Aye who were erased from the official lists of Pharaohs which instead reported that Amenhotep III was immediately succeeded by Horemheb. This may have been a way for Horemheb to delete all trace of Atenism and of any pharaoh associated with it from historical record. Akhenaten's name never appeared on any of the king lists compiled by later Pharaohs and it was not until the late 19th century that his identity was re-discovered and the surviving traces of his reign were unearthed by archaeologists.

Before Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamun's intact tomb in 1922 the world had never heard of King Tutankhamun and the discovery led to a renewed public interest in ancient Egypt. Since then his burial mask has become synonymous with all of Egyptian history. But at the time of discovery Carter and his team basically dismantled the corpse while looking for amulets and other jewelry. The mummy's head was removed and nearly every major joint severed, furthermore, many of its parts present at the original examination are now missing. But then if Carter hadn't cut the mummy free from the hardened resin that cemented it fast in the wooden coffin, thieves would certainly ripped it apart to remove the gold.

Archaeology has significantly changed over the years, back then it was more important to discover and collect treasures, not paying enough or any attention to details of life and the intriguing mysteries of death, even if that meant leaving the antiquities badly damaged or in a critical state.

Since 1926, the mummy has been X-rayed three times: first in 1968 by a group from the University of Liverpool led by Dr. R. G. Harrison, then in 1978 by a group from the University of Michigan, and finally in 2005 a team of Egyptian scientists led by Secretary General of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, Dr. Zahi Hawass, who conducted a CT scan on the mummy, acquiring 1,700 three dimensional images during the 15 minute scan.

The early X-rays raised alarms that the deceased was murdered. But did the young pharaoh die from a blow to the head? Well …..apparently not!! After the detailed CT scans taken recently King Tut died of natural causes. Although some Egyptologists and amateur sleuths have long speculated that a stealthy foe murdered Tut by attacking him from behind, the evidence is all circumstantial, with very little reason to believe that murder was the primary scenario.

So lets look at evidence just a tad-bit closer. Among claims that King Tut may have died of the Black Plague (which had appeared at the time), of lung disease, poison or even a brain tumor, the major allegation of a fatal blow to the back of the head have all proved futile.

The damage to the skull that raised cahoots has proven to be due to damage by the embalmers during the mummification process or carelessness of the Carter team. What was actually determined, though speculation, but the most agreed on, is the fact that there was a fracture found on the left leg of the mummy, which did not show evidence of healing, meaning that it was received just before death.

And again from what we learnt of his life painted on the walls of his burial chamber, like all Pharaohs, King Tutankhamun studied reading, writing, mathematics, geology, astronomy, a foreign language and for fun and relaxation he learnt, archery, wrestling and how to drive a chariot. But as it seems he had a deep infatuation with hunting, which may have been the root cause of his demise. Whatever caused the fractured thigh bone is likely to have also caused an open wound that was serious enough to cause an infection, fever and death. Although the break itself would not have been life-threatening, but gangrene caused by a badly broken leg was the most likely culprit. So was it a hunting accident that brought the end to a Dynasty of Kings? We may never know.

Many questions have yet to be answered about the life and death of the Boy-King, and may even remain a mystery buried under the sands of time like many still unsolved mysteries of the Valley of the Kings.

About the Author:
Gawhara Hanem

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Mysterious Boy-King

Copyright © Egypt, Cradle of Civilization

Was it a natural death or was he murdered? After almost 3,000 years and with very little evidence and so many conspiracy theories it's hard to determine exactly how the boy-king died! 28 years ago after X-rays were taken of his mummy by the anatomy department of the University of Liverpool everyone was convinced that Tutankhamun died of unnatural causes, presumably a blow to the back of the head.

The main suspect was Aye, his vizier in conspiracy with Horemheb, the commander-in-chief of the army. Seeming to gain from the king's death, Aye succeeded, ruling Egypt for 4 years before he died and was then succeeded by Horemheb. Both were powerful men who were present during the reign of King Tut. But they both would have had no reason to murder him since he was young and did not hold much authority and they were probably making the decisions any way. And as it happened, Tutankhamun had no enemies; he was loved by the priests and the population because he was the one to re-establish the religion of Amun-Re after the death of his heretic father Akhenaten, who outlawed it, replacing it with the monotheistic worship of Aten.

Tutankhamun belonged to the Eighteenth dynasty and ruled Egypt at a time of turbulence. Originally Tutankhaten, meaning the "Living Image of Aten", was changed when he came to power to Tutankhamun, meaning the "Living Image of Amun". Tutankhamun was the son of Akhenaten also known as Amenhotep ΙV, and his minor wife Queen Kiya. He came to reign at the age of 9 and at the age of 13 married Ankhesenamun, who was probably his half-sister, as it is recorded that Ankhesenamun as one of the six daughters of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. At the age of 19 the king died suddenly and was buried in a crammed tomb in the "Valley of the Kings", now known as Al-Amarna. The Valley of the Kings was declared a World Heritage Site in 1927, it lies on the west bank just across the Nile from Thebes (modern Luxor), and is the valley where, for 500 years, tombs for kings of the New Kingdom were constructed.

KV62 (the tomb of Tutankhamun) was first discovered, by the British archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922, who came upon it by chance. The tomb remains the only royal Egyptian tomb discovered in modern times virtually intact. The rubble that concealed the tomb and its occupant protected it for over 30 centuries, preserving its treasures from grave robbers of antiquity who looted so many other tombs. His tomb was robbed at least twice in antiquity, but from the items taken (including perishable oils and perfumes) and the evidence of restoration of the tomb after the intrusions, it is clear that these robberies took place within several months at most of the initial burial.

The tomb of Tutankhamun consists of 3 chambers within which is crammed thousands of masterpieces of jewelry, furniture, and art objects. Over 5000 artifacts, the treasures included four nested boxes, or shrines, of gilded wood, then three mummy-shaped coffins (two gilded and one of solid gold) all inside a red quartzite sarcophagus. But the most significant finding was the mummy of King Tut himself, with a stunning mask of gold covering his head and shoulders. More so this was a first in modern history, the discovery of the mummy of an Egyptian king, lying intact in his original burial furniture.

To remove the jewelry and amulets from the body, Carter and his team had to cut up the mummy into various pieces: the arms and legs were detached, the torso cut in half and the head was severed. Hot knives were used to remove it from the golden mask to which it was cemented by hardened embalming resin. This had taken its toll on the mummy's condition and is one of the reasons why it is difficult to conclude how Tutankhamun died exactly.

King Tutankhamun still rests in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings, in a temperature-controlled glass case. But his world tour "Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" back from London this August, is currently touring the U.S.A, starting this 15th of November it will be at the Atlanta Civic Center through to May of 2009. The exhibition is organized by National Geographic, Arts and Exhibitions International and AEG Exhibitions, with cooperation from the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities. The tour's proceeds will help raise money to preserve Egypt’s treasures, including the construction of the new Cairo museum (the GEM) which is expected to house 100,000 exhibits making it larger than the British Museum.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

In a Whirl of Color!

Copyright © Egypt, Cradle of Civilization

The Tanoura Dance Troupe performed this week as they do every week, at the picturesque Al-Ghouri Mousoleum near Khan el Kalili bazaar. They perform twice a week on Wednesday and Saturday at 8:30 p.m. and the admission is free! So it's hard to be disappointed since the experience is bewitchingly amazing.

The practice of Tanoura or Sufi whirling is a type of meditation that originated among Sufis over 700 years ago. The word "Tanoura" may refer to the dance, dancer, or the large skirt used in the performance.

Sufism is the spiritual tradition known to many Westerners through the mystical poetry of Rumi and Hafiz. Sufism is a mystical tradition dating back two millennia. It is generally understood to be the mystical dimension of Islam, and the practitioner of this tradition is known as Sufi or "Dervish." The word is Persian in origin and literally means "the sill of the door", but it is used by the Arabic and Turkish language to describe the Sufi, who is the one who is at the door to enlightenment.

Sufi Masters have developed a variety of practices to induce mystical states of consciousness. Jalaluddin Rumi, a thirteenth-century Persian Sufi and founder of the Mevlana Order, developed the ritual dance which consisted mostly of turning in place or spinning around a central point or pillar.

Mevlâna Jalâluddîn Rumi says, "All loves are a bridge to Divine love. Yet, those who have not had a taste of it do not know!"

The Egyptian Sufi dancing is different to the Mevlana Dervishes in Turkey. It is more colourful and with more people involved in the performance. The concept is built around the idea that the universe stems from the same point of rotation. Starting and ending at the same point, represented by the senior dancer, "Lafife" and symbolizes the Sun, while the junior dancers "Hanatia" are the constellation revolving around him. The whirling motion itself reflects the importance of circles in Sufi philosophy and cosmology, within which revolution is the fundamental state of all beings. The aim during this ritual is to desert "the nafs" or ego (or personal desires) and listening to their master and Sufi music, thinking about God and whirling on a spiritual journey to reach the "Kemal" (the perfect).

"For a dervish, there must be a purpose, a cause for existence, and inside the cause, a True Human Being." Jelaluddin Rumi

The musical instruments used include rebaba (folk fiddle), ney (flute), mizmar (shawm), frame drums, sagat (cymbals), and tabla (doumbek drum). In the Sufi tradition the ney holds great significance as air has to be breathed in and out rather than blown into it, and that the wind passing through the flute is not just the breath of the player but the breath of God. So once the breath enters the journeyer (the dancer), he seeks union with God through the whirling movements. There is also the chanting of "thikr", which is the repletion of "la illaha illa'llah" (there is no god but God). However, some Dervish may only repeat "Allah" because they believe man can die at any moment, and they want only the name of God on their lips and in their hearts.

The changes in music, body language, and facial expressions are intended to communicate. The tannoura contained a cohesive message, communicated sequentially over the course of the show. The dancers whirl continuously sometimes for up to 45 minutes straight, varying their pace to match the music, then stop and be completely fine. As they turn, they manipulate long skirts in a colorful display and executing skilled moves, such as throwing the skirts in the air, spinning the skirts at different levels and angles, even spinning the skirt over head and while lying down. When the dancer tilts at an angle where the right hand is raised up and the left almost touches the ground, it signifies a union of the heaven and earth.

It is a rare occurrence of religious ceremony transcending into performing art. But it is obviously more entertainment than religious ceremony. It is also claimed that the trance-like state that the Dervish goes into extends to the observing audience, so don't feel surprised if you find yourself transfixed watching these well trained performers on their spiritual journey!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Happy Birthday Ramses!!

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Abu Simbel was unheard of in the Egyptological world until J. L. Burckhardt in 1813 stumbled on the upper part of a temple façade almost covered by sand. The entrance leading into the temple was discovered four years later by Giovanni Battista Belzoni and since then it has attracted many who have been awe-struck by the colossal façade of the temple.

Although the temple attracts tourists all year round its worth everything to visit this 3000 year old inspiring rock mountain on the 22nd of February and the 22nd of October, when the Sun illuminates the sanctuary statues.

The temple was actually built further down the Nile, in the same relative position, but due to the rising waters of Lake Nasser that grew behind the Aswan Dam, the temple had to be moved on the desert plateau 200 feet above and 600 feet west of their original location. In a massive archeological rescue plan by the UNESCO in the 1960s the complex of temples was moved to its site today from the original locations that are presently underwater.

Abu Simbel lies 280 km south of Aswan and only 40 km north of the Sudanese border. Archaeologists have concluded that the immense sizes of the statues in the Great Temple were intended to scare potential enemies approaching Egypt's southern region, as they traveled down the Nile from out of Africa.

The massive façade of the main temple is dominated by four seated colossal statues of Ramses II himself. Each statue 67 feet high is seated on a throne and wears the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt and all are sculpted directly from the rock face. The thrones are decorated on their sides with Nile gods symbolically uniting Egypt. Between the legs and on each of their sides stand smaller statues of members of the royal family. The smaller statues of relatives were of his wife Queen Nefertari, his mother Tuya the great wife of Seti Ι, and of many of his children.

There are two main temples, that of Ramses II dedicated to sun gods Amun Ra and Ra-Harakhte and the smaller was built in honor of Nefertari, his wife and dedicated to the goddess Hathor. The temples are as impressive in the day as they are by night, since each night there are three Sound and Light Shows in seven different languages.

The Abu Simbel Sun Festival is one of the world's most unique events to date. This week the Solstice occurrence can be witnessed again by crowds that pack into the temple before sunrise. The two dates, February and October the 22nd commemorate King Ramses' ΙΙ ascension to the throne and his birthday respectively.

The Sun Festival starts at dawn as the visitors watch the shafts of light slowly creep into the temple lighting up this sanctuary. Curiously enough the sun illuminates the status of Amun-Ra, Ra-Harakhte and Ramses the god; whilst the statue of Ptah, the god of darkness remains in the shadows.

So on the 22nd of this month unlike any of us, Ramses will not be having candles lite up on his birthday, but the first rays of the Sun will light up his face before it lights up his architectural phenomena and the rest of Egypt!

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