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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Ras Mohammed


Today, we had a wonderful experience in the natural world of the middle east. We visited Ras Mohammed National Park. Ras means ‘head’ in Arabic, so the park’s name basically means The Head of Mohammed. Apparently, when you look at the area on a map it resembles the head of a man.
There are seven protected areas here in the Sinai, though this 450 square kilometers is exceptional for its size and terrain. Dozens of towering mountains filled with desert sand lead directly to the water’s edge. From the desert to the water! There isn’t even a strip of greenery, we were surprised. In addition to the coral reefs one can see when diving, snorkeling and swimming, there are osprey, storks, foxes, falcons and eagles occupying the land.
Our first stop in the National Park was a Mangrove Canal. The trees literally grow in the water, which is salty. When you look closely at the leaves on the tree, you notice that they have crystallized salt on them! The tree absorbed the water through its roots and basically sweated out the salt content through its leaves. There were dozens of bright blue crabs with an extremely large and bright orange claw.
Next, we visited a Shark Observatory, which is a little piece of land that juts out into the intersection of three bodies of water: the Red Sea, the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Acaba. Many of us agree that this place has one of the best coral reefs we have ever seen. The reef is shallow but drops suddenly into the darkness. “It feels like I am flying!” I heard someone say about the experience afterwards. He was right, as our eyes adjusted to the patterns of light we were suddenly overwhelmed with the plethora of fish and coral followed by darkness.
After enjoying this incredible coral cliff, we ventured over to another more secluded beach, Marsa Breaka Camping Site. There was one Italian group there but they promptly departed. We had the place to ourselves! There was much more of a beach here, which several students used to build various objects with the desert/beach sand. Other students and teachers went out into the water with our snorkeling equipment. We found a completely different type of coral here. It was shaped more like a table than a cliff. It was great though, we were able to swim above the reefs and have a birds-eye view of the life under the sea.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Burning Bush


Today we went to St. Catherine's Monastery, three hours from Sharm El Sheikh. It is easy to see how such a remote and cinematic place was so conducive to scholastic thought and monasticism. Their library has thousands of manuscripts and books. They used to have one of the oldest bibles. However, the Russians were loaned the Codex in 1859 and never returned it.

It is pretty amazing that this monastery has existed for over a thousand years. Perhaps one of the few things Muhammad and Napoleon have in common (unless Muhammad's height matched Napoleon's diminutive stature) is that they both promised, in writing, to protect the Monastery. Muhammad's agreement even has his handprint on it.

Monday, March 8, 2010



We visited just one archeological site today, and that was enough to keep us thinking and reflecting for an entire day. Karnak is the largest religious complex from ancient times, period. It was dedicated to Egypt’s imperial god, Amun, his consort, Mut, and their son Khonsu, the moon god. Located in the capital of the Middle and New Kingdoms, Thebes, the complex had pride of place among all temples in Egypt. Due to this, it was used and expanded over an extraordinarily long period, stretching from about 1900 BC to just before the year 0. During that time, many incredible structures were appended onto what was once a small shrine.
The entrance to the building is flanked by a long succession of sphinxes with the heads of rams, the sacred animal of Amun. The hypostyle hall of Ramses II was a forest of columns, reminiscent of the Mesquita in Cordoba.
In the columns and walls are beautiful carvings, cut very deep so successors could not deface them. Our guide pointed out what he called “the most beautiful carving of a lotus ever,” and I am not sure I would disagree with that label.

The Festival Hall of Thutmose III translated the architecture of a simple tent shrine into elaborate stonework echoing tent poles and awnings. The same Thutmose walled up an obelisk erected by his stepmother, the pharaoh who preceeded him, Queen Hapshepsut. Inadvertently preserved, it can be seen towering over the crumbling wall. Although elsewhere he outright defaced the works of the woman who kept him off the throne for decades, the obelisk was dedicated to Amun and couldn’t be touched; he simply hid it instead.
There were also some traces of what would have once been brilliant coloring on the walls. In other temples we have visited, small fragments still possessing their original paint makes me wish I could have see these places in their full, colorful glory. Then again, we should feel fortunate for what we have; how often does any quantity of paint last 3000+ years? For that matter, how often does any structure last that long? The ancient Egyptians would be proud. Their main aim in architecture, as epitomized by the Pyramids, was permanence. By and large, they’ve succeeded in spectacular fashion…lucky us.

Sunday, March 7, 2010



The Temple of Hetshepsut was built in the 18th dynasty, in the 15th century BC. Hetshepsut is a very well known pharaoh, partially because she was a woman and reigned for 22 years, partially because she was a prolific builder, and partially because she represented herself as a man at court, in temple depictions, and in her statuary. This particular temple was designed by Senemut, Hetshepsut’s favorite architect. Statues of Hetshepsut’s sarcophagus are positioned in front of every column on the second floor, showing her arms crossed in the typical male pharaonic pose.

First thing in the morning, we rolled up to the foot of this magnificent palace, emerging from the surrounding sheer limestone cliffs. Even in the morning, the sun was hot, and the air completely dry. It was staggering to imagine the manpower necessary to assemble such a structure. I found it difficult to imagine that a temple that immense could have been organized in such a brutally hot climate. As we ascended the central stair, we began to make out the colors on the temple walls, faded, but extant, even after some 3000 years. It was interesting to see a great deal of scenes of daily life depicted on the walls of the temple, especially in places like Punt (modern day Somalia), where Hetshepsut had established strong trade routes during her reign. Appearing next to the offering tables were ‘living’ representations of wildlife of the Red Sea--fish, birds. The wartime scenes depicted on so many temples we’ve seen were nearly absent from Hetshepsut’s temple walls.
When her husband, Pharaoh Tuthmoses II died while in power, Hetshepsut proclaimed herself pharaoh, so as not to allow young Tuthmoses III to ascend to the throne. To legitimize this action, Hetshepsut declared herself the daughter of the god Amun, and reiterated this theme throughout many of her construction projects. However, when she died, and vengeful Tuthmoses III took power, he had every representation of his stepmother carved into the temple walls defaced, leaving either blank silhouettes of her figure or his own image superimposed in her place.

After this visit to the temple, we headed to the fabled Valley of the Kings, where Zahi Hawass, the Head of Antiquities in Egypt, told us he had made some fantastic discoveries recently, to plumb the depths of some incredibly ornate (and some surprisingly bare) underground tombs. This was a very interesting exploration; the colorful walls portrayed especially dreamlike scenes in the tomb of Ramses III.

Finally, we visited the Luxor temple, which I found astonishingly beautiful. The entire temple, built around 1280 B.C., exhibited the influence of Egyptian architecture on both plaza and even mosque design so clearly and potently I couldn’t believe it. Especially in the way it was lit, the entire atmosphere was enthralling and lovely even though it was swarming with tourists. It was a graceful, fluid system of structures and portrayed the different column capitals—palm, lotus and papyrus--developed throughout the Middle Kingdom.

Saturday, March 6, 2010



Although I had been awaiting our cruise down the Nile with great expectation, I hadn’t really anticipated what a magical experience it would be. I am not sure if I can really convey in words how spectacular the setting was. Sitting at the bow, flanked on two sides by small farms and great stretches of reeds, I could almost imagine myself in ancient Egypt. Then there was the great river itself—broad, deep, of an almost imperial majesty defying its polluted condition. The timelessness of the landscape deeply moved me.
Though the journey was fantastic, the destinations were also fascinating. We hit the highlights of ancient Egyptian temple architecture, starting with the island of Philae and culminating in the masterpieces of Karnak and Luxor. The sheer massiveness and resilience of these places boggles the mind. More incredible was how the Egyptians managed to use stone blocks, normally a heavy element in buildings, to create places of remarkable lightness and airiness. They are not only impressive, but actually aesthetically stimulating to be in. Like the landscape surrounding them, the temples of Egypt have an aura of eternality.

I woke up in the morning. Through my window I saw the Nile. I looked from the water to the dock. Watching people trying to sell various pamphlets on the gods and goddesses of Egypt. I realized what an economic divide there is in this country where poverty is so predominant and the main source of revenue is tourism. These vendors depend upon tourists for their survival.

The first temple we visited was beautiful. It was the goddess Isis's temple at Philae on an island called Agilka. It was crowded with people, some seeking spiritual guidance, others looking for knowledge. Everyone has something in common; we're all searching for meaning. Its hard to find meaning in the midst of herding tourists.
We returned to pass the people begging for some sort of munificence and returned to our boat which proceeded down the Nile. I laid on the top deck gathering sunlight. he fine line between fertile land and desert became clear; it is the battle between the two brother gods Set of the desert and Osiris of the Nile. It's interesting to see the landscape that gave birth to a culture, a religion, a faith. Inspiration comes from an amalgamation of previous events. History brings us closer to the present and in this way this trip is a sort of journey. It is a journey towards understanding who we are in order to help. "Know thyself in order to serve".
We proceeded to our second temple on the Nile, the Temple of Kom Ombo, dedicated to the crocodile god. We saw a sacred pit where crocodiles were kept in ancient times. I didn't see any on the Nile but had hoped to. Our guide explained that the High Damn and the locks prevent the ones prowling around Lake Nasser from making it further down the Nile. We also came to understand that hieroglyphics and symbols were a sacred language used to communicate with the gods.
Our last temple of the day was the one to the great god Horus at Edfu. It was nighttime and everything was lit up. Seeing the massive structures lit with shadows has a really lasting impact. The ceiling was filled with black residue left from the burning fires of the homeless people who inhabited the temple in its transitory period between being a sacred space and a homage to the new tourism. Inside the temple we saw Alexander the Great depicted as the son of the Egyptian god Amun. In this depiction, we see the Greek and Egyptian cultures next to each other, sharing the same myths and practices. The Macedonian king was directly integrated into the ancient Egyptian pantheon. A new period of Greek scholasticism combined with ancient Egyptian tradition spread a fusion of culture and ideas across the wide stretches of Alexander's empire.


The Nile is truly the thoroughfare and breadbasket of Egypt. Over 90% of Egypt lives along the Nile. Without it, Egypt would be another Libya or Algeria and not home to several advanced civilizations. The banks of the Nile are very inhabited. Of the 120 miles we cruised between Aswan and Luxor, there was not a single patch of land not occupied by homes or farms. Especially farms. The Nile provides nourishment in the middle of the desert. This is why so much of Egyptian mythology revolves around fertility and the Nile.
Unfortunately, the Nile is no longer what it used to be. For millennia, the annual flood dictated the schedule of all Egypt. However, the construction of the Aswan High Dam ended the flood cycle. As a guide put it, Egypt was no longer responsible to the fluctuations of the Nile, but to the world economy. Also, the Nile is dirty. Very dirty.

Friday, March 5, 2010


Today we left Alexandria bright and early to fly to Abu Simbel, just 20 km from the Sudanese border. After leaving the breezy Mediterranean, the heat was a shock. Abu Simbel is known as the location where Ramses II built his greatest monument. The four seated statues that guard the entrance to his temple are enormous. Inside the temple were very detailed carvings. At the end of the temple stood another 4 statues of the gods and Ramses, which are perfectly lit by the sun two times per year, on the 22nd of June and December. It wasn't always that way, however. The alignment used to occur one day earlier because the whole temple was once situated at a different site. In the 1960s, the temple was relocated 600 feet away because of the rising waters of the artificial Lake Nasser. A large concrete dome was erected and covered with sandstone. The temple was then moved piece by piece into the dome. The project cost $30 million and was primarily paid for by UNESCO.

After Abu Simbel, we flew to Aswan. Unfortunately, it was too late in the day to visit the Aswan High Dam. The dam was constructed by Nasser with the aid of the Soviet Union. The dam changed the history of Egypt because it ended the yearly flood. Instead of the dam, we went to the Unfinished Obelisk. It was a granite quarry where workers had begun to dig out what would have been the largest obelisk known to us, at 134 feet tall. The method the workers used involved scraping a small piece of diorite against the granite.

Upon the site's closing, we went to the Aswan Bazaar. We were all fitted for galabiyas (shhh! its supposed to be a surprise). At the bazaar we saw the same kind of things found in Cairo, but at better prices.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Library at Alexandria


I always find it fascinating to see how a country tackles its past. One can reject it, avoid it, be ambivalent to it or, like the Egyptians, embrace it wholeheartedly. The Library at Alexandria, which we visited this Thursday, is a testament to how pride in national heritage can be channeled into productive endeavors rather than narrow-minded nationalism. More than a millennium and a half after the first one faded into history, a great library once again stands vigil over Alexandria’s harbor. Inside its walls is a dizzying array of exhibits and artifacts as well as, naturally, an impressively sizable book collection. It does not now, nor will it likely ever, come close to its predecessor’s goal of collecting all the books in the world. However, the second library has found a niche for itself by attempting to become the foremost repository of the digital, rather than paper, age. A huge bank of super computers in the building houses the only mirror of the Internet Archive, digital records of every webpage ever to exist. In collaboration with other major libraries, it actively supports digitization of books and information, helping to maintain online copies of thousands of manuscripts and disseminating info on Egypt-specific topics to a global audience.

Library of Alexandria from Ross Institute on Vimeo.

It is often lamented by lovers of history that the Great Lighthouse, Alexandria’s other wonder, no longer looms on its shoreline. Though I too wish I could have seen that pinnacle of ancient engineering for myself, it would serve little practical purpose in the modern world. The Great Library, on the other hand, is a beacon that is still needed, even more so now than during the time of the Ptolemies. This land’s temples and tombs are all marvelous places that deserve to be celebrated, but a glorious past alone does not secure a glorious future. Education is the key. The restoration of the library is not the end of the struggle, not even close. It is, however, a promising new beginning.

On the site of the Pharos lighthouse I saw a lot of birds. Looking out into the water, I realized that so much has changed. The landscape, the people, but not the spirit. The birds flew over the water. The wide expanses of open space, so refreshing. Throughout all we have seen there is a sort of mirror present. A reflection of nature into the artificial, the constructed. After seeing all these depictions of nature actually standing on the site of what once inspired so much awe was incredible.

The book binding on a translation of Euclid's Data was a pattern of flowers overlapping. It made me think of the importance of this repetition. Pattern appears both in nature and in the constructed. It emphasizes the small moments where the chaos of the world comes together and thus pattern is born. In this small pattern I see the correlation between math and nature, and therefore, art.

Today we traveled from Caro to Alexandria. We visited the site of the ancient Pharos lighthouse, which now holds a citadel. The citadel looked like a sandcastle; it was white, made of sandstone. Looking out at the Mediterranean from the window, the turquoise water peeked through to contrast with the sandy beige of the walls. This is the first time I've seen the Mediterranean, and I was captivated by the bright colors of Alexandria for the entire day.
The citadel was older than the walls of Constantinople that we walked while in Istanbul, and in much better shape, or at least more thoroughly restored. The climate here is perfect for ancient monuments to survive for thousands of years, especially since there is nearly no rain
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