Saturday, December 25, 2010


It seems that if I time-traveled back to an ancient Egypt, if I was part of a society on this very same piece of earth, but thousands of years ago, I would be preparing for the afterlife.  Or thinking about it, or making appropriate offerings - hoping that the god, along his procession way, would notice my efforts.  There is a procession way out here in the desert sands, sort of. At least, the archaeological evidence speaks to a great deal of activity with another plane in mind. Shrines, graves, subterranean tombs, and funerary structures of all kinds, constructed over centuries, were built as portals connecting the present to the eternal. The living were involved in relationships with those who had crossed into another realm. I cannot, in good conscience, call this other realm the place of the dead because it seems so lively and populated - at least it was viewed as such. No wonder some folks today ponder the likelihood that ancient Egyptians were in cahoots with alien beings. They were in communion, in their hearts and minds, with their ancestors and gods.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

cairo and carcinogens

A fine layer of particulate settles on everything, the first strata toward an archaeological record. It rests on leaves and vertical walls, a patina of the tailpipe era. Zamalek, Cairo’s diplomatic quarter and an island in the Nile, is architecturally rooted in the early 20th century. Its packed-in structures (both colonial and boxy modern) are graying. I followed my colleague and friend – he remembers the winding path much better than I - to the art supply store, a coffee shop, and a fair trade store.  We passed fruit vendors and souvenir shops. I bought a pomegranate stirring those neurons, with any memory of Arabic, to life. We walked until an unfamiliar weariness filled us. Jet lag? Less oxygenated air?

The night before I pushed 100 lbs of luggage through customs and bargained for a taxi. Rush hour traffic gave us close to two hours (and it can take 30 minutes) for the sensory barrage. Cairo is absolutely packed. Somehow everything ancient and contemporary, coexist. It feels dilapidated, shabby, and sheik, and it’s never still or quiet. Even the call to prayer, five times a day, echoing from hundreds of mosques, seems to slow the city half a beat. It feels voracious – devouring, dividing, – a metastasized city world.   Traffic made five and six lanes where four were printed on pavement. Horn honking continues almost unabated into the earliest hours. But how else could you survive this migration? The sidewalks are broken and always ending, leaving people to wade through traffic. The man, navigating this driving tetris, bringing me to the Golden Tulip Hotel Flamenco in Zamalek, does this job night and day - but says he likes Cairo best at night.
Cairo is one of the most polluted cities in the world – surely one of the most polluted I’ve been to. There’s much to explore and enjoy in this outrageous city world. Cairo is often the place that comes to mind when one utters “Egypt.”  Maybe Egypt conjures a resting sphinx or rising pyramids. Those places are here too; the city grows under the gaze of these monuments, and a wall stops them from growing right up over top.

Friday, December 17, 2010

american research center in abydos

I’m writing from the blessedly quiet American Research Center in Abydos, set down in a swale between dunes, a low spot formed by a water flow (though no water flows now). It’s 7 am December 17th - nine hours ahead of my old New Mexico time zone. Most of the team is sleeping, apart from my British friend Tim – a doctoral student at Brown University. He’s reading here in the sufra (living room) – something about Napoleon’s Egypt. It is incredibly good to be here; getting here was full of those gyrations typical to Egypt travel. We couldn’t take the train – it’s off limits for Western travelers. We rented a van, waited for a police escort (for hours!), and cruised the rough desert highway south arriving at 8pm – nearly 12 hours after our planned departure.  This still, cool morning is refreshing after Cairo – and a calm before the commotion of the dig, which we’ll begin tomorrow.