Cairo 2009

Cairo is a modern city built on the ruins of older settlements. It’s links with what’s termed ‘ancient Egypt’ are different than cities like Luxor and Aswan, which exist almost solely because of ancient ruins. Yet Cairo is indispensable on a journey to Egypt. It is not merely the capital, but dominates the country because of its huge population, cultural influence, and government jobs. For those interested in ancient Egypt, the museum and the pyramids of Giza are the main attractions, followed by its close proximity to Saqqara, Memphis and Dashur. My wife and I recently visited Cairo to see my parents, and, naturally, take some time to see many of its sites.

The core of Cairo has been continuously inhabited since at least Roman times. Memphis, the ancient capital, lies about 30km south, where the Nile used to branch off into the Delta (now located north of Cairo). Cairo has grown into a massive city and now covers the area including the ancient city of On (Heliopolis), Giza, the Roman fortress of Babylon (not to be confused with Mesopotamia’s Babylon), and the Arab army barracks that grew into the city of Fustat. It relatively recently gobbled up the islands of Zamalek and Rhoda, and sprawled outward into the desert. Medieval Islamic Cairo was located north of Fustat and 19th century central Cairo was built closer to the current course of the Nile, where Khedive Ismail made a city of wider promenades, European style buildings and large squares. This ‘downtown’ now forms the core of the city and is where tourists go to visit the Egyptian museum.

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Mastabas were tombs built of mud-bricks. Early pharaohs and pre-dynastic rulers were buried beneath mastabas and later nobles built them for their own use in the Middle and New Kingdom periods.

Mastabas were rectangular and several meters high. Below them were a series of rooms, one of which contained a sarcophagus holding the deceased. Other rooms stored goods deemed necessary for the afterlife, such as food, wine, and tools.

Though mostly looking like rubble now, mastabas when completed would have looked quite majestic, yet simple in form. Time has not been kind to them, probably all of them were looted (and damaged) through the years, and some have even had bricks taken from them for other projects.

Today you can still see mastabas alongside the Great Pyramids of Giza. Unfortunately, they are not taken care of and many tourists climb on them, damaging the 4,600 year-old mud-bricks. Its one thing to climb on stone (I’d love to someday climb the Great Pyramids), but mud-brick is different.

Unlike the massive pyramid projects, mastabas could have been built relatively quickly and cheaply. Still, they were grand monuments to be sure. They were also the pre-cursors of the pyramids. The Step Pyramid of Saqqara was simply a progression of several mastabas built on top of each other. That later nobles could have built such funerary dwellings for themselves says much about the later strength of the nobles classes (and that pharaohs had moved on to other types of tombs for the afterlife).


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Beautiful Aswan

The most beautiful city I’ve been to in Egypt is Aswan.

Without a doubt.

Aswan is cleaner, less noisy and, despite the heat, a comfortable small city. It has fantastic ancient Egyptian sites to go visit, such as Philae, The Unfinished Obelisk, The Tombs of the Nobles, and is also the launching pad for the convoys that go to Abu Simbel. Aswan also has the wonderful Nubian Museum, the Mausoleum of Aga Khan and beautiful new coptic church.

Aswan has several major hotels, but both times I’ve been there I stayed in a relatively cheap hostel, which you can easily find. The trip into town from the airport will cost you about 50 L.E., and is one of the few things you really can’t bargain on. Once there, spend some time in the city itself. There are really only 2 streets in Aswan, El Corniche (the street along the Nile that has the same name in just about every city in Egypt) and a street one block West whose name I can’t remember, but is one long market street that the local authorities have been cleaning and sprucing up. The market is full of stores with exotic spices (like indigo so blue it looks otherworldly, cinnamon, anise and others), galabeas (full length gown worn by many Egyptian men and women), blankets with beautiful designs, scarves, miniature ancient Egyptian statues, and dozens of other goods. Walk up and down the street a few times or stop off at one of the corner shops to smoke a sheesha and watch the colorful people and goods pass by.

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Abu Simbel

Abu Simbel

Get yourself to Abu Simbel!

If you find your tour doesn’t go there, switch. If you’re doing Egypt on your own, get to Aswan and check at any of the hostels or hotels for tours there. You don’t really want any of the other extras (Aswan High Dam, The Unfinished Obelisk and others) since it’s a long trip already. Once you book you’ll find out it’s an early trip: you get picked up in a bus or mini-van at about 4:30 in the morning, drive to the outskirts of Aswan and wait until the convoy is ready.

Yes, I wrote convoy. Police escort included – we’re going through territory that has a few rough spots. You’ll be glad you left early when you’re there. Towards the end of the 2 hours or so they give you to wander around it starts to get pretty hot… it’s pretty darn close to the border with Sudan. I’ve been there twice, once in July when a fellow traveler’s thermometer on his watch read 48 degrees Centigrade, and once in January, when it still got pretty warm, even if in the rest of Egypt we needed light jackets – maybe 25-30 degrees.

About two hours after the convoy starts you arrive at the site and then have to deal with a ridiculously unprepared ticket selling system (I say ridiculous since the convoys go there everyday and they should have worked out a better way to do it, you’ll see what I mean), but then…

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Pharaoh Djoser


Djoser, (sometimes referred to as Zoser or Netjerikhet Djoser) was the king responsible for the huge funerary complex that included the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, built around 2660 BC (that’s 4667 years ago!)

Djoser reined in the 3rd Dynasty, and either founded it or was its second pharaoh (Egypt’s lists of kings often conflict with each other and archaeological evidence). Regardless, not much is known about Djoser, except that the Step Pyramid was built during his reign. Since this was the first such monumental building in Egypt, it must have been either a time of great prosperity or a time of massive unemployment and the building project was undertaken in a ‘New Deal’ type arrangement. Likely it was a time of wealth and stability, for the skilled architects, surveyors, craftsmen and quarrymen needed to construct such a feat must have been considerable. Previously, pharaohs had mastaba tombs built of mud-brick, much simpler structures that were smaller and easier to build.

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In Egyptian mythology, Geb was the son of Shu and Tefnut, and the brother and husband of Nut. Geb’s importance springs from being the father of four of Egypt’s key gods: Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys.

Geb was God of the Earth, and his wife, Nut, the God of the Sky. They were often depicted with Geb lying on his side, Nut arching over him and their father, Shu, holding Nut up. It was said that barley grew out of Geb’s ribs (possibly the symbolism is that as rows were made for planting in Egypt’s black soil, they looked like the ribs of Geb as he lay on his side). Geb’s pose, with a knee pointed in the air and resting on one elbow, was meant to symbolize the hills and valleys of the land. He was depicted with green or dark skin and even sometimes with leaves growing from his body, representing vegetation and the fertility of the earth. Geb was Egypt’s ‘Father Earth’.

At Heliopolis (his cult center), Geb and Nut created a great egg, from which the sun god came. Geb played an important role in the creation of the cosmos and the world. Geb also participated in the afterlife, often appearing as a witness to the judgment of the deceased. He served as an escort to those who were deemed able to go to heaven, and gave them meat and fruit.

Geb’s nickname, “the great cackler”, arose from his association with geese. In fact, his cackles were so great they caused earthquakes. Odd to think that when something as destructive as an earthquake was said to come from laughter.

Geb is usually seen wearing an atef crown or with a goose on his head. He was associated with kingship; when he died, Osiris took the throne of Egypt, and later pharaohs claimed to be his descendant.


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The Nubian Museum

Though I’m sure few people bother to see it, the Nubian Museum in Aswan is a must not miss.

Most people who travel to Egypt learn that there is a group of people called Nubians who lived in what is now northern Sudan southern Egypt, and parts of Ethiopia – the upper parts of the Nile. Much of the area where they lived was flooded by lake Nasser, after the building of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s. But aside from those facts, not many people come away from Egypt with any sense of who they were and how Nubians actually contributed substantially to ancient Egypt.

Fortunately, since 1997 there is now a first-class state of the art museum dedicated to Nubians, their history, way of life, relationship with ancient Egyptians, and documenting how the dam changed their lives.

When I say state of the art, I mean it. After suffering through several days at the Egyptian museum in Cairo, the Nubian Museum – while not on par with the Louvre or British Museum – is surprisingly good. Displays of artifacts thousands of years old are temperature and humidity controlled (and you can actually believe it, unlike at some facilities in Cairo) and well labeled and explained in English and Arabic. (I’m not sure but I’d wager French would be soon to follow as French, historically, is important in Egyptology).

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First Impressions

What’s your first memory involving Egypt? When did you first hear about it and what did you think?

I can’t remember my first thoughts of Egypt as clearly as I would wish, but they certainly involved ancient Egypt and the pyramids, as they’re the most renown imagine (with the sphinx in front of course). Though Sadat was making peace with Israel and then was assassinated when I was just a toddler, those events didn’t register until years after. Later on, my mother went to Israel on an archaeological dig and managed to get 3 days away to go to Cairo. She brought me back some money (25 piastres) and pictures, but that was when I was already 10 or 11. I did read a story about a young boy in Egypt when i was about 8, probably the first book I read outside of class, but I can’t remember its name. I know that it talked about this boy’s place in a country of pharaohs and builders. It contained pictures of green reeds, dust-colored pyramids and people with gold bracelets.

Around the same time our family started to order National Geographic magazines, so we would have started to receive pictures and descriptions of royal tombs, worker villages and all the amazing discoveries still being found and excavated. I’ve always loved pouring over maps and did so with the pull-outs National Geographic provided, learning the names of Memphis, Thebes, Abu Simbel, Tanis and Menya far before I ever would have encountered them otherwise.

By the time i was in grade 8 I had a fantasy of climbing the Great Pyramid of Cheops/Khufu, and sitting up there for a night. I don’t know why, it just seemed like a good thing to do, to accomplish, and a hell of a place to meditate.

Those are my earlier memories, long before I had the chance to travel there. What were your first memories?


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The Death of Osiris

Few tales have been told and re-told as many times as the death of Osiris at the hands of his brother, Seth, and eventual revenge taken by his son, Horus. The names may change, but how many times has this saga been reenacted throughout the history of monarchies of all the countries of the world: the regecide, the usurper, the rightful claimant. Let’s look at the legend of Osiris’ death.

Part I: Osiris Betrayed


Osiris was the leader of the Gods on Earth, and, by some accounts, an actual king of Egypt at one time, who taught the Egyptians the skills of civilization. His brother Seth was jealous of him and lured him into a trap, shutting him in a tamarisk tree trunk and throwing it into the Nile. Seth claimed Osiris’ throne and ruled with an iron fist, upsetting the balance of the world as measured by Ma’at, Goddess of Truth, Balance and Order. Seth was evil and cruel and Egypt suffered under his rule.

Having killed Osiris, no other god dared challenge Seth, except Isis, Osiris’ wife. Isis searched high and low for Osiris’ body and finally found him still in the coffin either perched in a tree beside the Nile, or having floated all the way to Byblos (in modern Lebanon), where the king had used it as a pillar of his palace. Isis took the body back to Egypt and desperately sought a way to restore Osiris’ spirit to his body.

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Welcome. Despite not knowing much about theme editing, plug-ins and the like, I’m going to start putting out content… I can’t wait to get going on this blog about ancient Egypt.

Why ancient Egypt? Well, for one, there’s not a lot of websites out there with useful information, news and debate about one of the most interesting civilizations to have ever flourished. As I write posts, I will learn more and more about something that’s fascinated me since I was a child. I’ve been to Egypt twice and my parents now live in Cairo, so there’s a lot of reasons, personally, to publish this blog.

So what are we going to discuss? Everything possible about the ancient Egyptians, their lives, surroundings, achievements, beliefs, their rise and ultimate demise. I’m certainly not going to go chronologically, but the tags will allow us to search through topics and dynasties. Most of the posts will naturally focus on the periods from the Old Kingdom until the end of the New Kingdom, but with three exceptions.

The period before the start of the Old Kingdom, from 6000BC to the unification of the Upper and Lower Kingdoms is of crucial importance and is almost without exception never mentioned or treated to all of a paragraph in books about ancient Egypt. Yet this was the period of foundation, cultural awakening and immense technical innovation, without which there never would have been the great dynasties of Egypt we know more about.

The second exception will be posts about the Persian, Greek and Roman empires that included Egypt within their realms, particularly since the former two adopted Egyptian customs and beliefs so thoroughly.

The third exception will be the Arab caliphates and current Egyptian society where they display echoes of ancient Egypt. Visiting Egypt now is far different than it was in Herodotus’ day and I’ll post ideas about how to best see Egypt, where to go and what to experience whether you’re interested in ancient Egypt or not.

I think that’s all that needs to be written now. We’ll move on to posts about Anubis, Karnak, Ramses II, Memphis, Imhotep and Giza.

Once again, welcome. Your comments and suggestions are always encouraged.


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