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"It is the journey which makes up your life."

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Sneak Peak Egypt, Part 1

So what's the use of being a student of Egyptology in Egypt, you might think, if you don't get any geography-related perks? Not much use, really, so of course I went for the perks when they presented themselves. One such perk was one of Dr. Ikram's annual "Middle Egypt Trips," for which the itinerary is never the same, as she seems to use these student trips as an excuse to visit sites that even she has never been to before--which are by and large sites which are not (and may never be) open to the general public. This is not to say that in Egypt's baksheesh-based economy that if you are particularly interested in any of these sites you couldn't get there yourself; nonetheless...

Woohoo! No tourists!

This year the trip was a three-day extravaganza during which Dr. Ikram personally sanctioned nearly the entire Egyptology department skipping a full day of class. We piled into our bus and took off southward, ending up in the quaint city of Minya. We went first to our hotel, where we checked in before a quick tameyya and foul lunch and immediately rushing off to the occasionally-touristed site of beni hasan, the site of a number of Middle Kingdom nobles' tombs, all in rock-cut, courtyard style. The tombs here are known particularly for the richness and unusual content of the paintings they contain.

Some of this content includes extensive representations of the animals and habitat that existed at the time--extremely useful to archaeologists because they are detailed enough to reveal exactly what species were present. Other unusual content includes scenes of wrestling and "Egyptian Yoga", as well as one of the exceedingly few depictions of sexual intimacy present in ancient Egyptian art, as Lucy enthusiastically pointed out.

Our next site was the also occasionally-touristed Fraser Tombs, a site known for its highly unusual style of "rock-cut mastabas", a type of tomb architecture combining the more popular cave-like rock cut style with the more old school freestanding brick mastaba style. The tombs at this site were considerably less well-preserved as those at Beni Hasan, and frankly quite a lot less interesting, but they did contain some nice examples of mortuary chapel portrait statues and false

False doors, for those of you not in the know, are (often elaborate) carved representations of doors that are meant to act as a portal of sorts for the ba* of a person to emerge from the tomb and take refreshment from the offerings left before it. A few examples (which I only know from slide lectures and textbooks) even have a carved image of the tomb occupant halfway out of the door, which is actually a pretty creepy and zombified concept, but nonetheless nifty.

The site we visited immediately afterwards is called Tihna el-Gebel. An astoundingly beautiful site, Tihna el-Gebel is centered around a giant freestanding stone outcropping, out of which a small temple of Hathor was carved. There are very exactingly shaped alcoves in the outer sanctuary carved into the walls to house the mummies of two enormous crocodiles done up as offerings for the goddess, and the site is untouched enough that these mummies are today housed along with many other artifacts in a side chamber gated off from the public not only by metal bars, but also by the presence of a huge, open burial shaft which leaves mere inches as the platform to stand on and reach the gated chamber. This explains the photo of me as acting Chief Photo Slave of Dr. Ikram--she's got her feet up to keep me from falling backwards into the shaft while I balance and take pictures for her. I actually have good enough balance that I don't think this was necessary, but it does make for a funny picture.

Off to the side (and actually, pretty high up on the side of the cliff) of the main temple is also a fertility chapel prominently featuring the god Min, an "ithyphallic" fertility god, who is usually portrayed as having only one arm. I use quotes on "ithyphallic" because no authentic depiction of him has ever struck me as particularly tasteless or obscene.

In any case, the chapel is high up on the cliff, so the rocks leading up to the chapel have been worn completely slick and dangerous by millenia of women climbing up to the chapel to perform a pregnancy rite of sorts: legend has it that if a woman enters the chapel from one side, exits from the other side, then climbs to another ledge where (I believe...I didn't climb to that part) an anointing basin of sorts was carved, she is guaranteed immediate fertility.

The temple is also surrounded by a vast complex of mud brick ruins, which have not been thoroughly studied, so it isn't entirely known what sorts of buildings were there, but it is clear that the site was used as late as the Ptolemaic period, as there is a very clear Greco-Roman influence on some of the art that is there. The site even contains the remains of the largest ancient Greek inscription ever found. There was not enough of it remaining for our two resident Greeks to translate anything of substance, but it is an impressive site nonetheless.

*A person's ba was only one portion of the "tri-soul" that ancient Egyptians believed each person to have. The most commonly known soul-part is the ka, the essential being of the person in question. Kas are generally portrayed as the image of the person who is dead, but wearing a "hat" in the shape of two upraised arms. The next part, the ba, was a more physical manifestation of the soul, which could interact with the world of the living. Most commonly represented as a bird with the face of the dead person, the ba was thought (even in Amarna times) to be the soul-part which would leave the tomb in search of eternal sustenance for the soul, which would ideally be found in the offerings left to honor the funerary cult of the individual dead. The third part, which may not have even been a part of Egyptian belief until the New Kingdom, was called the akh. The akh was the portion of the person's soul which would transcend death and the tomb, and reside with the gods in heaven, trailing forever the solar barque on its journey through the sky and underworld. In the New Kingdom, commoners often practiced a form of ancestor worship in which they would create household shrines dedicated to the akh iker ("wise soul"), the collective spirits of their household dead. The theory behind this was that if Grandma was up in heaven hanging out with the gods every day, then maybe if you prayed to her instead of the gods themselves, who were obviously too busy to hear everyone's prayers, then maybe Grandma would be able to put in a little good word for you and get your prayers answered faster.

To be continued...

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Oh no! I got the Rabies!

In light of my recent rabiesification, I thought I'd do a little post in honor of the feral kitties that we here at AUC know and love. (FYI, none of the cats that appear here were the one that forced me to become extremely familiar with the Vacsera medical facilites).

Cats are everywhere in Egypt, and so far as I can tell, few to none of them are actually "owned," and even fewer are "owned" in the sense that pet cats are owned in most of the Western world. Most of them dig through garbage or beg for scraps, though a few are habitually fed by kindhearted people. None of them are fixed, so there are kittens everywhere; how long any of them survive, however, is not terribly certain.

The cats on campus have very distinct personalities, and most of them are named... though the ones that people don't like tend to get named earlier and more often. Several of just such cats don't appear here (they tend to be a bit lower in the campus territory cat ranking and get driven off more often... hence, harder to take photos), but with names like "Yucky" and "Stupid," you can guess how beloved they are.

One particular favorite (and I'm serious) on campus is named "Fatso," or, alternately, "Nimmer". Fatso is the queen of her little corner of AUC. She's one of the least damaged, one of the more well-fed, and amazingly, one of the most affectionate. I have my suspicions that this particular cat may have once been actually owned, but it does seem to be the case that cats living in a situation such as that at AUC tend to be far more affectionate than domestic cats because they've learned that mewing cutely and allowing themselves to be petted tends to get them more food.

Another well-known cat on campus is named "Vampire." From the photo you might be able to tell exactly how such a name was acquired. True to his name, Vampire keeps to himself, hides in the shadows, and doesn't like people much.

The third most distinct cat-personality on campus is called "Ogre". Ogre is about the saddest kitty ever, and shows very plainly the drawbacks of a feral life. She's tiny and malnourished, and at some point during the semester was hit by a car, leaving her with a broken jaw and badly injured mouth. After this she became even smaller and more malnourished because she couldn't eat properly, and extremely filthy because with an immobile tongue, she couldn't clean herself. Sadly, she's also one of the sweeter kitties on campus, and had to learn that after her accident most people just didn't feel her affections were terribly welcome anymore.

Other popular kitties live in the dorm, located in faraway Zamalek. One (I couldn't get a photo of her because she was very pregnant and off in hiding) was named "Mango" by several dorm residents. She is the prettiest (probably purebred) Mau I'd ever seen, and was tolerant if not openly affectionate. She'd had another litter of kittens earlier in the semester, one of whom she allowed to live in the dorm lobby with her even after he'd grown large enough to fend for himself.

Her son's name was "Custer," or, according to others, "Mr. Skitters." Custer is also an extremely attractive cat, gray and white instead of Mau brown, but with his mother's distinct spot pattern still visible--particularly on his face. Custer is fickle, but likes to play with anyone who's willing, and is extremely jealous of the attention given to the latest addition to the dorm cat family, a litter of black and white kittens, mothered by an affectionate black and white cat who lives in the planter near the dorm's front entrance.

They're all very cute cats, all of whom would be comsidered very adoptable in a place where it was culturally normal to own cats.

I've considered sneaking a few of them home in my luggage with me, but somehow I didn't think they'd do too well given my further travel plans. If any of you out there would like to help out some of Cairo's kitties, I would refer you to here. Like I said: just about the sweetest cats in existance, and meh, if I can take a few jabs, you can too.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Zany Education.

Bones smell icky.

I've spent the last few days working with the famed Dr. Salima Ikram to learn the tricks of the zooarchaeological trade.

This means that I've been elbow deep in plastic bags full of dirt, dirt, dirt, and random chips of bone that may or may not be from one animal, that may or may not be from the same species, may or may not be from the same millenium, and may or may not actually be yet more dirt.

My job consists basically of figuring out which amorphous blobs are dirt, and which are bone, then sorting them into piles based on... well, the way Dr. Ikram describes it is "It's just like Sesame Street: which of these things is like the others, or not?"

Furthermore, the bones may or may not be from Sais, a delta village that served as the (non-Nubian) capital of Egypt in the 26th dynasty. And the bones' presence in Cairo may or may not be with the approval of the SCA (Supreme Council of Antiquities). Ahem. Surely a mere minion such as I am not privy to such details.

I'm supposed to be working my way up to actually identifying what animals each bone is from (in the cases that such an identification is possible), and which particular bone each fragment is from. The only thing I've had much success with so far is teeth--of course, as anyone who dinks with dead bits can tell you, those are the only particularly readily identifiable...anything.

It's been really interesting working with Dr. Ikram. She's--an intimidating lady, to say the least, but as one might not know from watching her on Nova or the Discovery Channel she has a very intense personality... she swears a lot, and has a real flair for the dramatic.

Some typical quotes:
"*muttered under breath* Oh, holy fuck. That's disgusting. ew. ew. ew. ew." (in reference to the really tiny, hideously unidentifiable bone bits)

"First, we need to let this girl [me] into my office. She's going to play with corpses." (addressing the guest speaker for our class)

"Don't touch that. Stop stroking it. ...Sex fiend!"(addressing a wayward tourist at the Egyptian Museum who couldn't keep his hands off a sarcophagus)

Anyway, so far we mostly have bits of cow. Bos taurus. I'm seriously evaluating my desire to be a zooarchaeologist. Such a thing was never particularly high on my list of life goals, and now, hm.

Uf, the smell. x(

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Spanabic, the new Spanglish.

Learning to be trilingual is a pretty perplexing affair. Language number two always has a nasty habit of resurfacing at exactly the wrong time.

Today in Arabic class:
Sarah: " ﻓﺼﻞ (fasl) means 'easy,' right?"
Me: "uh, fácil means 'easy' in.... Spanish."
Sarah: "oh. ....oops."
*For the curious, fasl means "season," as in Summer, Winter, Spring. And... also "classroom."