Monday, September 29, 2008

Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr

In about one hour I leave for a Cairo bus stop to head over to Jordan during the break for Eid al-Fitr. I thought that before I head out, I might write a little bit about Ramadan and Eid (what most people refer to Eid al-Fitr as).

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and it commemorates the month during which Muslims believe the Koran was revealed to Muhammad. Ramadan is most famous for the practice of fasting. Muslims of able-age (not infants or elderly) fast from dawn until sunset, refraining from drinking water or eating food. While this may seem to be an arbitrarily difficult and inconvenient form of reverence, almost all the Muslims I have spoken with were very excited about the beginning of Ramadan. During this month, Muslims hope to purify themselves of sins by reorienting their lives to God. It is a time when one can truly focus on God, while also learning patience and sacrifice.

Laylat al-Qadr, the holiest night in the Muslim calendar, is supposed to have occurred during the last ten days of Ramadan. Muslims believe this is the night when the first verses of the Koran were revealed to Muhammad.

Everyday during Ramadan, the fast is broken at sunset with the Iftar meal. Since Ramadan is a time of charity and giving, many wealthy families host iftar meals for the less fortunate. Also, buildings and homes hang up fanoos, lamps that are unique for the month of Ramadan.

Large Iftar meal
At the end of Ramadan, Muslims celebrate the holiday Eid al-Fitr, literally the holiday of fast breaking. The common greeting during this time is Eid Mubarak (Blessed Holiday). Muslims will wear new clothes and children usually receive gifts. Because it is a school break as well, many Muslims will go to the beach or visit relatives. For me, I'm going to Jordan. I'll fill you in on that upon my return.

Ma'a salaama,


Monday, September 22, 2008

Musings from afar

Today I noticed on the news that some European tourists were kidnapped in southern Egypt. I was very surprised at hearing this unfortunate news for a variety of reasons. For one, the largest component of the Egyptian police is the Tourism and Antiquities force. Nearly everywhere I go in Cairo, I am sure to find a white-uniformed police officer with a large black patch on his shoulder which prominently reads "Tourism and Antiquities Police." This has contributed to what I consider to be a generally safe atmosphere. With the exception of the persistent cat calls that the girls garner on a daily basis, I feel very comfortable walking around Cairo. In fact, I would claim to feel safer walking around her than I do at Georgetown. Maybe DPS could learn from the police officers here in Egypt, and crime would not be such a huge problem in Georgetown. But, the case of the European tourists is different because they were kidnapped in the western desert, where you would be hard pressed to find a police officer amongst the towering dunes. Still, I want to stress that I feel very safe here.

On another note, a mutiny is brewing amongst the international study abroad student body. Many have signed a petition asking for AUC to partially reimburse their tuition because of the myriad of problems we have experienced due to the new campus transition. Some of their grievances are well-founded; in Heliopolis, where many international students are living, the rooms are small and inadequate, girls have experienced sexual harassment, and a general air of disgust pervades because of its location (it is a taxi ride from any sort of entertainment or social life).  I don't really know how I stand just yet because I have been lucky enough to live in an excellcent area of Cairo, and despite the disorganization inherent in a third world country, I've been able to make out okay thus far. I'm sure I will have a more definitive stance come November or December.

We have a break coming up in about a week which lasts for a little more than a week. A couple of my friends and I are planning a trip to the Sinai and Jordan. Hopefully I'll be able to visit the elusive Coptic Cairo this weekend.

Sorry for no pictures. More to come soon.

Ma'a salaama,


Friday, September 19, 2008

Egyptian Museum Field Trip

This morning my Egyptology class met at the famous Egyptian Museum in Cairo to get a closer look at some its treasures. Rather than just look at some of these priceless artifacts via a powerpoint presentation, we actually got to see them in person. This way, we can see the intricacies of each object, and I'll give some examples later on in my post.

The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities was first established in 1835 by the Egyptian government, but because of its number of artifacts and some flooding, it was eventually moved to its current site in 1902 at Tahrir Square. It holds over 120,000 artifacts, although much of that resides in the storerooms.

The center piece of the front area of the Museum is a pond. Without our professor, most of us would have passed by it without realizing its symbolism. The reed-like plants in the center of the pond are supposed to be papyrus (they are actually a different of plant but they nonetheless strongly resemble papyrus), thereby symbolizing Lower Egypt (northern Egypt, including the Nile Delta). The lilies on the water symbolize Upper Egypt. Our professor had us get down on our stomachs and smell the lily flower because it apparently has hallucigenic qualities. I guess it makes the visit that much more colorful.

Unfortunately, you're not allowed to bring your cameras inside with you, so I remembered one of the things our professor showed us and found its picture on the internet. The above picture is of the Narmer Palette, and it is one of the first things you see upon entering the inside of the Museum. This picture shows both sides of the Palette. To give you an idea of its size, it's about 2 feet tall. Dating back to the 31st century BC, it's one of the oldest artifacts with hieroglyphics. It is thought to depict the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt because King Narmer wears the Lower Egyptian crown, the Deshret on one side, and the Upper Egyptian crown, the Hedjet, on the reverse. This was definitely one of the most interesting pieces I saw at the Museum today. There is no way one person could see everything in one day, and I'll be sure to go back soon. I was surprised though that even after just two weeks of my Egyptology course, I could notice some of the special characteristics that make each piece unique. Also, I was able to determine some of the symbolic meaning as well. Hopefully, by the end of the semester, I'll be able to unearth even more of the underlying meanings of these objects. They are sort of like a mystery puzzle, and it's really fun to solve them. Side note: It helps when you have an expert in the field explaining them to you.

This is one of the many artifacts littering the front outside area of the Museum. It made me think of my buddies at home and abroad.

Ma'a salaama,


Friday, September 12, 2008

First Week of Classes

So I successfully completed my first week's worth of classes yesterday, but that's not to say there weren't (and still aren't) some bumps on the road. For one, we (the students) weren't entirely sure if classes were starting on Sunday or if they were being pushed back a week in order to allow more time for the completion of the campus. Unfinished buildings, classrooms, and offices aside, my classes started for the first time Sunday morning at 10 am. During the month of Ramadan, classes start earlier and are actually a slight bit shorter as well. I have to get up pretty early because I need to make the 8:30 shuttle so I can get to class on time. The ride in the morning is about 45 minutes, but the ride back can be as long as 2 hours (yesterday, my ride was 2 hours long because Thursday afternoon traffic here is the equivalent of Friday afternoon traffic in the states). My Modern Standard Arabic class meets 4 times a week for 2 or 3 hours depending on the day. I really like my teacher and her style of instruction, we little to no English in class, and she explains grammatical concepts in Arabic. We are starting a couple of chapters before where I ended last spring, but finishing at the point I need to be at. My other Arabic class is called Media Arabic, and we will learn the necessary vocabulary to read a newspaper, watch the news, or listen to the radio and actually understand what is being said. My other classes are a history class called "Gunpowder Empires," which will focus on the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals. For the first two classes I couldn't tell whether my professor was a man or woman. It was an awkwardly androgynous situation. It turns out that the professor is in fact a woman. My fourth class is the one I'm most excited about taking. It's entitled Art and Architecture in Ancient Egypt. It's sort of an inter-disciplinary course because it combines ancient Egyptian history, art history, archaeology, and anthropology. The professor is a big name in her field, a specialist in animal mummification, and even designed the animal mummification portion of the famous Egyptian Museum in Cairo. She's also taking us on field trips to the museum, which should be quite the experience. That way, I won't be walking around aimlessly when I go there. I also am looking forward to this class because it's the one class I'm taking that has a lot of Egyptians in it. I came here for a unique academic experience, and right now, I'm thinking this Egyptology course will lead the way in this regard.

AUC's new campus is beautiful, or I should say, the parts of campus that are completed are beautiful. I sort of wish that I was studying abroad here five years from now because I feel as though the campus would have developed a character of some kind by that point. Also, it'd be nice to have some signs to show me where certain classrooms or offices are. I have all my classes in the same building, and honestly, without any signs in it, it's like trying to navigate a maze. Hopefully, I'll get the hang of it before the end of Ramadan.

The students at AUC are clearly the wealthiest bunch in Egypt. I have never seen so many people wearing so many designer clothes. The students here make Georgetown students look like slobs (sorry Hoyas). However, a lot of the shirts the guys wear are ridiculous in that they usually have some overt sexual innuendo depicted on it; for instance, I saw a guy wearing a shirt that said "I make good babies" on it. I definitely wasn't expecting that sort of thing in a predominantly Muslim culture. Also, the girls wear very form fitting clothing. Before leaving, I remember our orientation advisor telling the girls to wear loose fitting clothes, and most of them followed that direction. The Egyptians, on the other hand, didn't quite get the memo. Thus far, the native students seem very clique-y in the sense that they mind their own business. I guess I'll have to take some initiative to really get to know my Egyptian classmates.

Tomorrow I'm planning going on a day trip to Coptic (or Old) Cairo. In shah Allah, I can resume my traveling type of posts. Here are some pictures of the new campus.

This is the library. It's nice and cool on the inside and has an excellent selection of Middle Eastern related books (not surprising). Brett, there's no lower level.
This is the main walkway leading to the academic area of campus. It's also become the spot where all the Egyptian students hang out. I'm sure the nice shade played a part in that decision.
This is what I deal with coming home everyday- absolute chaos. By the end of the week, they started putting signs out to guide us to the right bus.

Well, I had a great week on the whole. I still have to get some things squared away (student visa, bus pass, and gym card), but I'm looking forward to the academic experience that lay ahead.

Ma'a salaama,


Sunday, September 7, 2008

Trip to Alexandria

Last weekend I took a three day trip to Alexandria. Alexandria, famed for its ancient Library of Alexandria and Pharos Lighthouse, is located north of Cairo directly on the Mediterranean. Because of it's proximity to Greece and the rest of the western world, Alexandria has a much more European and Mediterranean feel than Cairo. Alexandria was established by its namesake, Alexander the Great, in 332 BC. It was intended to link the Egyptian world (namely Cairo) with the Hellenistic world (Greece).

Our first stop on our trip was the Roman Amphitheatre. This is one of the best preserved amphitheatres in the world, and interestingly enough, this one is still used on occasion. It dates back to the 2nd century AD. In the picture below, you can see a stage set up at the bottom of the amphitheatre where the columns are. One of the things I noticed at this pseudo-Roman Forum was the columns. Most of the columns were composed of noticeably different kinds of marble. Some were of a reddish tint, perhaps because of iron deposits in the rock? Some were black, and others were more of a grayish color. I couldn't find out any information about the columns, but it peaked my interest nonetheless.

After leaving the amphitheatre, we arrived at our hotel. In Alexandria, there is one main street, Al Corniche, that runs along the coast of the Mediterranean. Not surprisingly, this street is packed with hotels, restaurants, cafes and the like. Our hotel was towards the eastern end of Al Corniche, and luckily, my room was on the second highest floor. As you can see, the view was fantastic. Within minutes of getting into my room, I was down on the beach basking in the pleasantly warm water.

The next morning we woke up bright and early to start a day of sight-seeing. Our first stop was the Qaitbey Citadel. Located at the eastern end of Al Corniche, this castle of sorts was built by the Mamluk Sultan Qaitbey in 1480 on the remains of the Pharos lighthouse (one of the seven wonders of the world). Some of the remains of the ruined lighthouse were used in the construction of the fort. This was my favorite stop on the trip. The white stone formed a perfect contrast with the blue sea silhouetted behind it. The area between the outer walls and central area was in great condition, as evidenced by its green grass and healthy palms. Walking inside the fort was quite the experience as well. I could have only imagined what it was like when the British were making their invasion of Egypt. In that case, the fort didn't quite live up to its intended use.

After the visiting the Citadel, we took a short ride over to the Catacombs of Kom Ash-Shuqqafa. This vast underground graveyard was only discovered after a donkey mysteriously fell into the ground in 1900. These catacombs were pretty amazing in terms of its engineering. To think that men had to carve through so much rock (35 meters) to form this underground maze is astounding. Then again, the Romans did a lot of that sort of thing. The best part of the Catacombs was the Principal Tomb. Obviously the resting place of one of Alexandria's most elite, this inner chamber is cornered by iconography reflecting a fusion of influences- Roman, Greek, and ancient Egyptian. Because these tombs were pre-Christian, I found the iconography particularly interesting. For instance, the actual art itself, looked like something from a text book on Mycenaean or Greek art, but the figures depicted were undoubtedly inspired by the Egyptians (the Egyptian god Anubis, the jackal-headed one, is in the paintings). Unfortunately, we couldn't bring cameras down to where the tombs were.

The next day, we went to the new Library of Alexandria. Finished in 2002, the Bibliotheca Alexandria is intended to put Alexandria back on the map as a center of converging cultures. The architecture of the building itself is very unique, and unlike most instances of disgusting modern art (cough....Lauinger Library....cough), this actually appealed to me. The main portion of the library resembles a sundial sunken into the sea. On the outside ring of the sundial, is concrete with more than 120 types of written languages shown. As it was so hard to get a picture of the whole complex, I thought a picture of a portion of the outer ring might suffice. The library is fairly bare of the inside, but definitely the type of place where I would want to study. Much of the main reading room is lit naturally. However, while the library has space for about 8 million books, it only contains 500,000. It has a long ways to go.

On the whole, I really enjoyed my Alexandria trip. A lot of the things that frustrated me about Cairo were left behind in Cairo. The traffic wasn't as congested, the air was clean and crisp, and most importantly, the temperature was much cooler. Nevertheless, I was excited to get back to my new home and start class the next day (today). I'll be sure to devote my next post to my classes and the new campus (the maze that it is). Hope you enjoyed this one. Pardon the absence of brevity.

Ma'a salaama,


Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Al Azhar and the Muhammad Ali Pasha Mosques

Today, I went with a small group of other study abroad students to the Al Azhar Mosque and Citadel. The Al Azhar Mosque is considered a center of Islamic learning and one of the oldest mosques in the world. It is the second oldest degree granting university in the world, and now, it offers degrees in secular disciplines such as medicine and engineering. The courtyard in the main portion of the mosque is composed of beautiful white marble, surrounded by a covered walkway, which leads to the sajadah or musalla, the prayer room which is typically covered with soft carpeting. Within the prayer room, you find a myriad of columns supporting the ceiling above the floor. At Al Azhar, we were able to pay a small fee (the equivalent of $3) to go up a minaret, the tall spires from which the call to prayer is made, and had a fantastic view of the entire mosque. Al Azhar is less than a minute walk away from Khan al-Khalili. After visiting Al Azhar, we decided to venture up to the Citadel, or Al Aqla'a.

The area where the Citadel is located was used in the 9th century as a pavilion appropriately dubbed "the Dome of the Wind" because of its cool breezes. In the 12th century, the famed Muslim warrior Salah ad-Din fortified the area to ward off the Christian crusaders. The walls he constructed around the Citadel are 30 ft high and 10 ft thick. However, much of what we see at the Citadel was built by the Ottomans, who ruled Egypt (with a brief interruption by our friend Mr. Bonaparte) from the 15th until the early 20th century. The mosque I visited at the Citadel is the Muhammad Ali Pasha Mosque. Muhammad Ali Pasha is oftentimes considered chief architect of modern Egypt, having implemented a wide range of reforms aimed at bringing Egypt back to its seat of prominence in the region and the world. His mosque was built in the Ottoman baroque style, which is seen in the use of smaller domes surrounding a large central dome. This mosque is very similar in appearance to the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the quintessential Ottoman mosque. Inside, it is absolutely beautiful. Hanging in the center of the complex is a dominating chandelier. Around this center piece are rings of lights. Unlike Al-Azhar, there were only four large columns supporting the ceiling. This made me feel much less constricted and free to move. The designs covering the the domes above were also beautifully and meticulously done as well.

These were the first mosques I have ever visited, and I couldn't have been more satisfied. Not only was I able to see two distinct types, but I was also able to see two of the most famous mosques in the world. Not too bad for a couple of hours on a Wednesday afternoon.

Ma'a salaama,


Monday, September 1, 2008

The Only Wonder of the World Left Standing.....

In my title, of course, I'm referring to the Pyramids at Giza, the single remaining wonder of the world. When we say wonder, we usually use it as a substitute for the word "think" or an obscure reference to something we don't know. We say, "Oh, I wonder what time it is" with a quizzical look on our face. We may say, "I wonder where all my money has gone on this trip to Egypt," only full well knowing where it did go (Mom and Dad, I bought a house here). Essentially, we use the word "wonder" in a context of ambiguity, not truly grasping the gravity of such a term. When you think of the wonders of the ancient world, you can only imagine them. Take the Hanging Gardens of Babylon for instance. They sound nice....but I can't really smell the flowers. The Colossus of Rhodes acted like an ancient Statue of Liberty, ushering and welcoming travelers to the Isle of Rhodes, but I can only see mere sketches of what once was. The Pyramids at Giza, on the other hand, are not a mere imaginary wonder that once existed. They are not bound by the historic ambiguity of wonder as the other sites, but only by the reality of the present. They are truly a sight to behold. The sheer magnitude of these behemoths beckons you to ask, "How were these built?" In this case you can only gasp, and say to yourself, "I can only wonder."

Here are some of the pictures I took. The Great Pyramid of Khufu is the oldest and largest pyramid in Egypt, and after its completion 2600 BC, stood 146.5 meters high. The middle pyramid, the Pyramid of Khafre, has some of the original limestone on its peak. The Pyramid of Menakure is the smallest of the three pyramids, standing at 62 meters (originally 66.5m).  This pyramid has incurred significant damage as a result of a 16th century caliph who wanted to destroy the Pyramids. According to my Lonely Planet guide, "Abu al-Hol (Father of Terror), the Sphinx is carved from one huge piece of limestone left over from the carving of the stone for the Great Pyramid of Khufu. It is not known when it was carved, but one theory is that it was Khafre who thought of shaping the rock into a lion's body with a god's face, wearing the royal headdress of Egypt."

Mom and Dad, I was joking about the house.

It was a mansion.

Ma'a salaama,