Saturday, April 15, 2006

Still Here, But It's Been A Tough Spring

The sandstorm that I wrote about last in March took a toll on me. We had three days of serious dust with the one storm, followed by a week or so with the odd very dusty day. Guess who lives in the middle of the Sahara despite the fact that she's allergic to dust...naturally. I probably shouldn't have been out taking pictures, but they were pretty cool, so it was worth it, or was it? I spent the second half of March and the beginning of April seeing more of doctors than friends or even my horses. My old buddy, allergic bronchitis, came to visit again and laid me low for almost a month. After thorough check-ups including CT scans and chest xrays, I'm on my asthma medication for a while but I feel like a human being again. For a while there, I would take some clients riding for a couple of hours and then come home to sleep for three hours totally exhausted. Running your own enterprise in which you must take a physically active role does have its drawbacks.

I didn't turn into a total turnip during my downtime, however. There were some memorable events during March and early April. One of these was a chance to be a tourist again one Saturday morning when the International Women's Association hosted a tour of the Abu Sir pyramid complex. These pyramids which are essentially in my back yard have been closed to the public for some time during a period when archaeologists have been actively excavating and studying parts of the complex. There were about 20 visitors that day listening to a Czech archaeologist explain not only what they had learned about the people who had built these structures, but also the relevance of some of the information. I had never really thought much about the fact that these enormous religious structures were populated by civil servants and had to be supported by the population of Egypt until it was noted in the lecture that this entire process had a life of its own that impacted the stability of the state over time. While initially the projects that were mainly carried out during the months of the inundation, the flooding of the Nile, when the farmers could do nothing on their land because it was all under water, had the function of strengthening the central government by bringing workers together to build temples and pyramids, later supporting the many priests needed to maintain the temples became such a burden at times that the state itself collapsed. As the archaeologist pointed out, their studies shed light on the life cycles of entire civilisations that faced many of the pressures and problems that our modern societies are now facing, and they can provide clues that might help those trying to solve modern problems.

At one point in the lectures, a very thought provoking question was raised. One of the women present asked in what language the inscriptions in the temples were written. The archaeologist answered that the language was ancient Egyptian, which is probably most closely related to the Coptic language used in the Coptic church. Virtually all Egyptians now speak Arabic, and because of their strong film industry, Egyptian Arabic is a dialect that is understood by almost any other country, much as Los Angeles English is easy for most people to understand. When the lecturer mentioned the relationship between Coptic and ancient Egyptian, the woman said, "So the Copts would be the 'real' Egyptians, then"... a statement that absolutely stunned me. While on the surface it might make some sense, Egypt has existed for almost 10 thousand years, a period of time that has seen invaders of many, many different ethnic and language groups come, rule, and either leave or be absorbed. By the time the Coptic church was established early in the Christian era, Egypt had seen the Hittites, the Hyksos, the Sea Peoples, the Persians, the Nubians, the Bedouins, the Greeks, and the Romans, to name just a few. Ruling families of neighbouring lands had sent children to marry into the Egyptian royalty, slaves to serve them, and conquered armies had been absorbed into the general population. What, then, would be a "real" Egyptian? The entire idea of humans as anything but a wonderful conglomeration of backgrounds really doesn't make any sense at all. The Coptic church may have preserved some of the old language, but the people of Egypt themselves are a most remarkable mix of every possible background from Europe, Asia and Africa. This is part of the charm of the country.

The melting of populations continues today with intermarriage and what may surprise some people, an active interest among many people from North America and Europe in coming to live and work here. While many of the foreigners living in Egypt are employed by companies from abroad, I'm often surprised to find there are quite a lot of people, especially young people who are looking for a different sort of working experience, who come here and find jobs in all sectors of society. The mother of a friend of mine arrived mid-March to spend some time with her daughter, a native Manhattanite who is working in publishing here. Friends of the mother also arrived from Europe, North America and Jordan to have a small reunion. While some of the older generation went off to visit pyramids by car, we kidnapped a teenage daughter who is completing her high school education with her friends in Jordan. A horse nut, Jess was more interested in galloping past pyramids than in trudging around them.

I have also been involved in some work that I feel is rather important. I've been riding my horses in the desert in this area for about 13 years now. When I first moved from Alexandria, I brought my two mares to Sakkara Country Club at the edge of the desert and I was delighted to have the desert to explore. The sand rises to a plateau just behind the Club and on very hot days the plateau was a lovely place to ride since you could be sure of the prevailing winds from the sea. Over the past 13 years, however, the Governorate of Giza has taken part of the plateau for the municipal dump. Gradually the dump has grown in size until recently I found to my surprise and horror that it was beginning to encroach on the wadi that stretches west from the Sakkara Step Pyramid. Talking to a friend of mine about it, she passed word to Dr. Zahi Hawass of the Antiquities Authority, who has expressed a strong interest in the situation. We spent a day on horseback and another morning with the jeep taking photos of the dump's expansion and taking GPS readings so that the exact locations are verified. We will be taking a cd with the photos to his office sometime soon because the situation is really out of control. The desert is a resource for people in Cairo, and it needs to be protected not abused.