Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Park on the Ayubbid Wall

Copyright © Egypt, Cradle of Civilization

Al Azhar Park (also Al-Azhar Park), is located in Islamic Cairo, a part of central Cairo famous for the historically important mosques and Islamic monuments. It is overlooked by the Cairo Citadel. The park is a green space in the middle of the jam-packed dusty city. 

Typical Islamic house, source: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia 

The view from the park, overlooking this outstanding historic district, is spectacular panoramic that takes you back to the captivating past. 

Cairo Citadel

Azhar Park is built in one of the poorest districts of Cairo, Darb el Ahmar. The district is rich with its Islamic art and architecture and its many monuments of domes and minarets.

Al-Azhar Park was a gift from His Highness Prince Shah Karim Al Hussaini, Aga Khan IV,
to the Cairene in 1984. Aga Khan Trust for Culture established the park over 30 hectare (74 acre) following a decision at the “The Expanding Metropolis: Coping with Cairo’s Urban Growth” Conference. The 500-year-old mound of rubble that was designated to be the park was a municipal rubbish dump that took 80,000 truckloads to excavate. The challenge was not only to transform the landscape but was also to implement urban rehabilitation projects including the socioeconomic rehabilitation of the neighbouring Historic City, which required launching of numerous restoration and community-initiated development projects. Al-Azhar Park project was intended to be a case study for a number of challenges such as environmental rehabilitation and cultural restoration.

On the western side of the park are the old Fatimid city and its out-growth Darb el Ahmar (also El-Darb El-Ahmar), with their wealth of mosques, madrasas and mausolea (plural of mausoleum), characterised by a long line of minarets. To the south is Sultan Hassan Mosque (Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan) as well as the 826 year-old Ayyubid Citadel of Salah el-Din. On the eastern side is the "City of the Dead" with its many social welfare complexes that was supported by the Mamluk Sultans which became an area that developed into a densely populated neighbourhood of its own.

Sultan Hassan Mosque 

Uncovered during the excavation was a 1.5-kilometre section of the 12th century Ayyubid city wall of Cairo that was built during the reign of Salah el-Din, with several towers and battlements almost intact and in fairly good shape. Also found were valuable stones with hieroglyphic texts some measuring as much as one meter long that were used in the building of the wall.

The Park's buildings and spaces were designed and constructed in Islamic context, using a variety of styles from different periods and regions. This is echoed in the bustan-like orchard gardens, its takhtaboush areas (shaded sitting spaces), Fatimid archways used in the buildings and the Persian and Timurid water pools and fountains. The streams and channels all lead to a lake in the south meadow which is all directly fed by raw Nile water from a nearby municipal line.

Beside the orchids, water features, kids play area, amphitheatre, there are only three actual buildings, the entrance, Citadel View Restaurant and the Lakeside Café. There is also an out-door café on a vintage point with a spectacular view where you can witness a stunning sunset. While the Citadel View Restaurant serves an Egyptian truly delicious buffet, the Lakeside café with its wooden screens and citrus groves has a Lebanese cuisine.

A walk through Azhar Park

With the magnificent 360˚ panoramic view of surrounding Cairo in the distance you can actually catch a glimpse of the Pyramids' silhouette. But besides the spectacular landscaping and endless view of the Cairo townscape, a daytime stroll on the Royal Palm Promenade is a refreshing experience as water streams run along the middle of your path. There are 325 varieties of plants where most of them have been natively grown in the Park's nursery. More of the interesting trees are the Sycamore, Zyziphus and four types of Acacia. The variety of plants also includes medicinal and culinary herbs such as laurel, chamomile, mint, lemon grass, coriander and thyme. There is also a beautiful array of roses, climbers and succulents, where most of these plants have labeled signs with both the official and Latin name to identify them.

Although in summer its best to visit the park in the afternoons to escape the heat, on a winter day a morning promenade will revamp your soul! The entrance fee maybe modest but it provides to fund for the maintenance of the park, along with the revenue from the restaurants, special events and shows, car parking fees and the sale of plants from the nursery. The entrance fee may not be much for a large number of Cairo's residence from the middle and upper class but it may be too much for many of the poor who live just a few kilometres away from the park, and who in my opinion need the park more than anyone. So it is not advisable to visit the park on a public holiday and especially not in Eid (Arabic for "day of festivities"), whether it be a Muslim or Coptic Eid. The park maybe more colourful with children donned in new multicoloured Eid cloths but will be impossible to appreciate with all the noise and commotion.

Once you get through with all the obvious sites like the Pyramids, the museums and major mosques I strongly recommend a laid back visit to this intriguing place.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Alexander the Great, the First Macedonian Pharaoh

Copyright © Egypt, Cradle of Civilization

Born in the northern Greek kingdom of Macedonia in July 356 BC, and during the short span of his life, Alexander III of Macedon (356-323 BC) was able to link three continents in a vast international network of trade and commerce. This vast empire was united by a common Greek language and culture, whereas its emperor himself borrowed different foreign customs for him to be able to rule the millions of ethnically diverse subjects.
Alexander III of Macedon, known as Alexander the Great
Alexander III of Macedon

He was the son of Philip II of Macedon, and his wife Olympias. King Philip was assassinated in 336 BC and at the age of 20, Alexander inherited a powerful yet turbulent kingdom from him father. He was educated by the philosopher Aristotle (Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.): Greek philosopher who established scientific classification methods and the school known as the Lyseum) and was trusting his mother, Olympias with is secrets he often consulted her for advice. On assuming power, he quickly avenged his father, dealing with his enemies at home, and then turning to affirm Macedonian power within Greece, having done so he set out to expand the Greek Empire by conquering the massive Persian Empire.
Philip II reigned over Macedonia from 359 to 336 B.C.
Philip II

Olympias, birth name; Myrtle, was the daughter of Neoptolemus
Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great

Aristotle is a towering figure in ancient Greek philosophy
Aristotle, a prolific writer and polymath

In the time span of eight years as Emperor, Commander and Explorer, Alexander the Great managed to found over 70 cities and secure an area covering around two million square miles, across three continents. This empire stretched from Greece in the west, north to the Danube, south into Egypt and as far to the east as the Indian Punjab.
This map shows Alexander the Great's massive empire and the route he took to conquer it.
This map shows Alexander the Great's massive empire and the route he took to conquer it.
source: www.ushistory.org

Besides being a powerful king and skilled warrior, he was also a strong politician and philosopher. The Greeks believed that philosophy originated in Egypt, and keen on learning Alexander attended lectures given by the Egyptian philosopher Psammon. Believing in his teachings that "all men are ruled by god, because in every case that element which imposes itself and achieves mastery is divine", Alexander further expanding on this from his own life experience that whilst god is indeed the father of all mankind, "it is the noblest and best whom he makes his own" (Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus)

Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus (c. 46-120) was a Greek historian, biographer, and essayist
(Λούκιος Μέστριος Πλούταρχος)

entered Egypt in 332 BC, and was warmly welcomed by its people, who had been living under the oppressive rule of the Persians. The Egyptians immediately handed the crown of Egypt to Alexander the Great, proclaiming him a god. He submitted to the Egyptian ceremonies, even going so far as to wear Egyptian dress.

Alexander Chorus
Alexander Chorus

While in Egypt, Alexander made another legendary journey, crossing the perilous sands of the western desert to the temple of the Oracle of Amun, at the oasis of Siwa, were he was declared the son of Amun-Ra, Egyptian god of the sun, whom the Greeks identified with Zeus. This detour confirmed him to be the first pharaoh ever to complete the dangerous journey.

Zeus was the god of the sky and ruler of the Olympian gods.

Alexander ordered a city to be built at the mouth of the river Nile, Alexandria would become one of the major cultural centers in the Mediterranean world in the following centuries. With only some six month sojourn, Alexander left Egypt in the spring (mid-April) of 331 BC a changed man. Although he never returned to see the city he founded, it would eventually be his final resting place when his embalmed body was returned there for burial only 10 years later.

Alexander the Great on a fragment of Roman mosaic from Pompeii
Alexander the Great on a fragment of Roman mosaic from Pompeii

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Egyptian Astronomy

Astronomy of Egypt
is probably the oldest one in the world; with records dating back as early as the 5th century B.C from the Pre-dynastic Period. By the 3rd century B.C., during the Dynastic Period, the 365-day calendar already started to be in use. In fact, the classification of each day into 24 hours was also a product of ancient Egyptian astronomical studies.

Cosmic Resonance

Ancient Egyptian Astronomy

However, the Egyptians back then did not know about the extra one quarter of a day the earth takes to rotate around the Sun. Thus, the calendar fell back by one day after every four years. Nevertheless, it remains an important invention which is relevant even in today’s world.

Astronomical observations of the stars determined the annual flooding of the river Nile. The Egyptian pyramids were all made to align with the pole star, using astronomical knowledge. In fact, most of the buildings during the period of Egypt were made to align with some important star or the other. Thus orientations of the structures varied from place to place, depending on the primary celestial object of that place.

Astronomy was literally worshipped by the ancient Egyptians. Some of the gods and the goddesses they worshipped where borne out the observations of various constellations or planetary bodies. The sun alone had several forms in their faith, depending on its various positions during a day. A discussion on Egyptian astronomy is incomplete without the mention of Ptolemy, one of the most famous astrologers of the Roman Egypt period, whose book, “Almagest” is considered as one of the most influential of its kind in the astrological history of the West.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Archaeological Discoveries in the Mortuary Temple of King Amenhotep III

The Egyptian-European expedition discovered a huge statue of King Amenhotep III (1390-1352 BC), who was the father of the first monotheist king, Akhenaton, and grandfather of the Golden King Tutankhamun. These discoveries have been made in the middle of archaeological excavations in the mortuary temple of King Amenhotep III in Kom al Haytan in Luxor’s West Bank. The statue is carved with alabaster and shows the king sitting, wearing a royal headdress, the “nams”, and with the beard properly decorated.

King Amenhotep III (1390-1352 BC)

It is believed that this statue is one of two statues that were located at the entrance of the third edifice of the Amenhotep’s temple, which is located 200 meters away from the Colossi of Memnon. These two statues were thought to have been crushed during the massive earthquake that hit the country in the Roman era, and which ruined all the temples and structures with the exception of the Colossus of Memnon.

Colossi of Memnon (Luxor Sightseeing)

The expedition also found the head of an idol 28.5 cm in length; this head depicts an idol wearing a wig which is part of the beard which has been found and that is in good condition. A text of 25 lines written in hieroglyphic letters that lists the name and the number of temples built by Amenhotep III has also been discovered. The plate is 7.40 m x 9 m.

Abu Simbel Temple

Copyright © Egypt, Cradle of Civilization

Abu Simbel is a massive monument standing proudly since the 13th century B.C. in Upper Egypt, 250 kilometers (or 155.343 miles) southeast of Aswan. The second most popular tourist attraction in Egypt after the pyramids is Abu Simbel. The Abu Simbel Temples are a UNESCO recognized site and part of the larger Nubian Monuments. The Temples are two separate temples next to each other carved in red stone.

Abu Simbel Temples built by Ramesses II in Nubia

These gigantic Abu Simbel Temples had to be relocated during the construction of the Aswan High Dam, otherwise they would be buried under the waters of Lake Nasser. The temples now overlook the lake on the western banks and are a must see when visiting Aswan city.

City of Aswan

It was built by Rameses II between 1279 and 1213 B.C. to celebrate his domination of Nubia, and his piety to the gods, principally Amun-Ra, Ra-Horakhty and Ptah, as well as his own deification Abu Simbel, much has been said about the purpose of building, like that they were built for Pharaoh Ramesses II and his beloved wife Nefertari.

It was also known as the "Temple of Ramesses, beloved by Amun", one of six rock temples erected in Nubia during the long reign of Rameses. What has been confirmed by most historians is that it is not debatable that a major reason for its building was to impress Egypt's southern neighbors, and to reinforce the status of Egyptian religion in the region.

 Ramesses II of Egypt (c. 1270 BCE)

The interior of the temple is inside the sandstone cliff in the form of a man-made cave cut out of the rock. It consists of a series of halls and rooms extending back a total of 185 feet from the entrance.

Abu Simbel Temple, Gods' statues

As you walk to the rear of the temple you come to the Holy of Holies located at the back wall, where you will find four statues of: Ra-Harakhte, Ptah, Amun-Ra and King Ramses II.

Holiest of the Holies from inside Abu Simbel temple

The Abu Simbel Festival

The Abu Simbel Temple is second only to the Pyramids in Giza necropolis, and the Abu Simbel Festival is second to none. At sunrise on both days February 21, the king's birthday, and October 22, the date of his coronation, the light creeps into the inner sanctum and shines upon all the statues essentially marking them as god-like. The statue of the god of darkness, Ptah, is appropriately left in the shadows. How this was managed have remained a wonder and a mystery up to now, people in Egypt still celebrate on those dates.

Touring Egypt at this time of the year can make your vacation more special having the privilege of witnessing such a mystical historic biannual event.

The Virgin Mary Tree

Copyright © Egypt, Cradle of Civilization

In the incoherent district of El-Mataria, in Cairo, there stands an old sycamore tree that has been attracting thousands of pilgrims each Christmas, it's called the "Virgin's Tree". There are many sacred trees in Egypt, trees that have offered shelter for the Holy Family during their stay here, but the one in Mataria holds the highest regard of all.

The Virgin's Tree at Al Matariyah
Mataria is now a heavily populated suburb in Cairo accessed by a modern fly-over, but 2000 years ago it was a fertile, simple village where many of these balsamic trees were grown and many date palms too. The village of Mataria was popular among pilgrims from the Holy Land and at the time it was considered one of the holy sites and a blessed place like paradise. Of all the sites visited by pilgrims after Christianity was declared the religion of the Roman Empire at the beginning of the fourth century, this tree was regarded as the most holy.

The Holy Family On Their Journey Into Egypt
The journey of the Holy Family took them from Palestine to Egypt, a journey that lasted for about three and a half years, taking them through many towns in Upper and Lower Egypt. The accounts of this journey are chronicled in a Mimar (manuscript) by Pope Theophilus, 23rd Patriarch of Alexandria (384-412 A.D.) He wrote down what the Virgin Mary told him when she appeared to him in a vision. Other sources of information include accounts by 2nd and 3rd century Greek and Jewish writers, philosophers and historians.

The Holy Family journeyed south from Palestine across the wilderness, avoiding the main road for fear of capture. They entered Egypt at modern-day Rafah, where a lone sycamore tree is said to have survived since their visit there too. The only other country where Jesus Christ is said to have lived besides his homeland Palestine, is Egypt. The reason apart from it being a land of plenty with no shortage of natural resources, Egypt was traditionally seen to have a high level of cultural integration and religious tolerance.

The holy journey of the holy family in Egypt
Today the balsam shrubs have long since disappeared and the sycamore that stands now grew from a shoot planted in place of the original tree but the tradition of the tree continues to live on. The sycamore was sacred in Pharaonic times and it was called "Nehet". The sycamore tree lives long and bears sun exposure and humidity. Ancient Egyptians used them in making wooden monuments. Sycamores exist all over the Delta, Upper Egypt and also in the oases. It is considered a popular fruit in villages. These trees are beautiful and shady, so they are cultivated on wide road sides.

It is told that as Mary, Joseph the carpenter and the child Jesus tried to escape from two brigands who were in their pursuit; the trunk of the sycamore tree miraculously opened its bark where they hid inside, escaping detection. The tree is said to have medicinal properties, which is the reason why its branches are depleted, pilgrims have even stripped its bark. In the 15th century Felix Fabri, a Dominican monk, visited Mataria and noted that a gate had been built around the tree for protection and that the number of pilgrims that could enter at any one time was restricted to four. Nearby it is believed that a spring of water gushed out of the ground forming a pool where the Virgin Mary bathed Jesus is also said to be part of the miracles of the place because of its healing water.

Mary the Mother of Jesus
According to the Old Testament, the prophecy foretold that idols shall crumble wherever Jesus went, but this was not the only blessing to be granted to Egypt, as being chosen a safe haven for the Holy Family, but also for its people to have been the first to experience the miracles of Jesus the son of Mary.