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From the pyramids to Tahrir Square

The Hindu
6 April, 2013

Like travellers since Alexander, we started at the pyramids. After a spell in Cairo’s medieval quarter, followed by a visit to the New Kingdom tombs and temples in Luxor, we ended in Tahrir Square, where we joined thousands in a demonstration against President Morsi and his government.

On the eve of the Revolution of 2011, tourism employed some 12% of Egypt’s workforce and brought in $11 billion a year, a critical contribution to foreign currency reserves. Since then, tourist numbers have plummeted. A flicker of recovery came to an end in November, with global reportage of violence between government and demonstrators, and visitors will be further deterred by the latest round of street conflict, which unfolded during our two week visit.

Tourism in Egypt is an industry built up over many years to meet a demand that has now collapsed. The effects are starkly visible at once-popular tourist sites, where taxi drivers, tour guides and trinket sellers under-cut and elbow each other out of the way as they vie for limited custom.

It’s a painful spectacle, but for us the absence of other tourists was a boon. We were able to enjoy uncrowded tombs and temples, mosques and mausoleums, spared the distracting hubbub of tour parties rushing from one site to another. Sometimes we were lucky enough to be completely on our own, which is when you can hear the dead speak.

In Cairo, we stayed in the centre of the “Islamic quarter”, the medieval walled city built by the Fatimids, extended by Salahuddin and lavishly ornamented under the Mamlukes. From our balcony we looked down on its busy central thoroughfare, running from the gates of Bab Zuwayla in the south to Bab El Futuh in the north. This is Bayn al Qasrayn, the “palace walk” where novelist Naguib Mahfouz set his epic trilogy.

The area’s cache of monumental architecture is extraordinary: an array of mosques, madrassas, mausoleums, gates, walls, caravansaerai and elegantly decorated sabil-kuttab (privately-endowed public cisterns topped by a room for a Quranic school), largely built between 1100 and 1520, when Cairo was the centre of the Muslim world. Expansive stone facades, many striped with alternating bands of pink and white marble, soaring entrance-ways collared by interlacing green-and-black ablaq decoration, domes patterned like carpets, minarets spinning a filigree of golden stone into a blue sky. The view from street level is one revelation after another.

Running horizontally across and around all the various volumes and shapes are ribbons of elegantly carved Quranic text, making the whole neighbourhood an open-air museum of calligraphy. It’s also a treasure chest of the decorative arts: carved and inlaid wood, polychrome mosaics, stained glass, crisp stucco, brass lanterns, bronze doors.

If it were restored and cleaned up, the walled city would rival Pisa, Sienna or Rome as a monumental urban attraction. But since it’s not been restored or cleaned up, daily life, with its sounds, smells and rhythms, swirls around the monuments and gives them a human context. This is still a neighbourhood of the poor and lower middle class, with its street vendors, small shops, cafes of sheesha-puffing men, artisans and service-workers, all crushed together amid decrepit buildings and inadequate infrastructure.

Everywhere in Cairo, we heard the voice of Oum Kalthoum, the country girl from a Delta village who became “the voice of Egypt”, “Kawkab al-Sharq” (Star of the East) and the premier Arab singer of the 20th century. In taxi cabs and cafes, or just drifting out of open windows, it sometimes seemed ‘All Oum All The Time’. Glamorous and dignified, meticulous in preparation and committed in performance, Kalthoum dominated Egyptian popular culture for decades. Her style was neo-classical, founded on the traditional maqams and instruments, but with lyrics commissioned from contemporary poets and a wide orchestral scope inspired by western music. She was a symbol of both tradition and modernity, and as a close associate of Nasser was associated with his populist policies. At her funeral in 1975 millions lined the streets of Cairo, more even than had turned out for Nasser’s funeral five years earlier.

That 40 years after her death, Oum Kalthoum’s voice and image remain ubiquitous in Cairo must say something about the resilience of a particular kind of modern Egyptian identity, which has persisted despite three decades of dictatorship and the rise of Islamism.

We found no one anywhere prepared to say a good word about Morsi, including many who’d voted for him and had expected much better. Among them was a muezzin at a Cairo mosque, a devout Muslim who had joined the Tahrir protests that toppled Mubarak but was appalled at the idea of an Islamist monopoly of power. Egypt’s state, he insisted, had to represent Copts and “liberals” as well as Muslims. Others who had voted for Morsi now viewed the Muslim Brotherhood as a gang of self-serving opportunists. Before the revolution, one young man told us, “the Brotherhood man had only one mobile; now he has four.”

Inevitably, current events shadowed us wherever we went, even to the pyramids. Sheer scale and antiquity make them imposing, but they left me cold, or rather, slightly chilled. These rigidly geometric condensations of human labour are the outcroppings of the world’s first state, its first state religion, its first institutionalised monopoly of wealth and power. A huge effort has gone into deciphering their meaning, but the message seems pretty blunt to me: it’s a statement, brutally abstract, of domination. (Is there significance in the fact that large-scale unadorned pyramidical constructions have been revived only in our own time?)

In Luxor, however, we discovered a different face of ancient Egyptian art, which I had known previously only from fragments in museums. Like all art, it gains from being experienced in situ, with its function, relative scale and visual context restored.

Much of what remains is funerary art, tombs and mortuary temples, shaped by the Egyptian cult of the afterlife. One peculiar feature is the consignment of vast amounts of treasure to magnificently decorated tombs which were then sealed and hidden from the public. This was a form of consumption meant to be conspicuous only to the gods. It therefore did not serve, at least directly, the usual ideological functions of art in antiquity. Here the dead are truly the centre and the living peripheral.

Yet what the living expected in the afterlife was mainly a better version of this life, filled with the good things of this world. Food and drink, song and dance, love and friendship, the beauties of nature, flora and fauna – especially birdlife, depicted in wondrous variety, fluttering, swooping, nesting. In the tombs and temples we discovered an art of vitality, technical refinement, conceptual boldness and minute delicacy.

It is a famously formulaic art, reproducing the same types and canons with little change for some three thousand years. The repetition of motifs is itself a key aesthetic feature, exploited imaginatively by the creators. At its best, it’s a free and flowing series of variations. Intertwined in the larger pattern is a strand of subtle naturalistic observation, either in bas reliefs or painted details whose colours remain warm and fresh, 3000 years after they were applied. How they achieved that remains, to me, something of a mystery, as does the insistence on rendering the human form in profile. It’s not as if the Egyptians didn’t appreciate the power of the full frontal pose: it’s the basis of their free standing sculpture, including the colossal pharaonic figures with their streamlined bodies and blunt, ageless gaze.

The most revealing of all Luxor’s sites may be the least spectacular. Known as Deir el Medinah, these are the hum-drum remains of the modest settlement that housed the workers who fashioned the great tombs and temples. Their small, sturdy domestic units are laid out on a grid pattern. Here lived a stonemason and family; there a tomb painter; there a ropemaker or carpenter. Scattered amongst the ruins are mini-pyramids and the entrances to underground burial vaults, small in scale but decorated with as much care, as much wealth of colour and detail, as the royal tombs in the nearby Valley of the Kings. These workers had their own visions of an after life, a better life. And they had a sense of their own value.

This is the site of history’s first recorded strike. The workers were paid in grain, from which they made bread and beer, the twin pillars of the Nile Valley diet for millennia. But in about 1150 BC, the state treasury, drained by Ramesses III’s imperial wars, failed to pay up. The workers downed tools and staged a sit-in at the construction site of the Pharaoh’s mortuary temple. Interestingly, the chroniclers do not treat this as an unprecedented or calamitous event, from which we must infer that the strike weapon was already a familiar one. Even more remarkably, the workers appear to have won the dispute. Their leverage was their masters’ fear of dying without the proper funerary arrangements, entering the afterlife under-equipped, treasureless, exposed. The cult of the dead, for once, benefited the living.

Deir El Medinah was a reminder that the struggle for social justice, for relief from poverty and oppression, has ancient roots and can rear its head even in societies as ossified as ancient Egypt. Two years ago in Tahrir Square it swept away the seemingly un-shiftable Mubarak regime. Here we ended our journey, paying homage at the hand-made, provisional memorials to the young people killed in the 2011 revolution, while thousands protested against the betrayal of that revolution by the current government.

The demonstrators want Morsi out and the Islamist constitution replaced. A sharp point is the unchecked police violence against protesters, a continuation of a notorious Mubarak-era practise. Morsi has also adopted the central tenets of the Mubarak regime: alliance with the USA and Israel coupled with IMF-friendly economic policies. For the forty per cent of Egyptians who live on less than two dollars a day, the revolution has yet to make a difference. Unemployment and inflation are eating away at living standards across the country.

At Tahrir Square, Obama was denounced for “handing money and power” to the Muslim Brotherhood, and not without reason. Last year, the US gave Egypt $1.3 billion, mostly in military aid, effectively underwriting the deal between the army and the Brotherhood. The new constitution guarantees unscrutinised autonomy to the armed forces, which was not what people gave their lives for in 2011. During our visit, the Defence Minister and former chief of military intelligence, General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, warned that Egypt was “on the verge of collapse” – a statement that said more about the lingering political ambitions of the military than the actual state of affairs on the ground in Egypt.

After decades of stagnation, life in Egypt has become unpredictable, and many find the new uncertainty disorientating. Some forces, including old regime supporters in the military, are clearly seeking to take advantage of that.

The revolution that began two years ago is still unfolding; it’s a living process whose outcome is as yet undetermined. As one Egyptian reminded us, referring to the classic examples of France and Russia, revolutions are drawn-out processes.

At Tahrir Square large numbers of women had turned out in a defiant response to recent attempts to use sexual harassment to drive women away from the protests. Many wore hijab, many were bare-headed, but all made clear their determination to resist the threat to women’s freedom stemming from both the Mubarak-era legacy of widespread sexual harassment and the anti-women policies of the religious right. Their vocal presence, alongside the banners bearing Nasser’s image, the cartoons lampooning judges and generals, the memorials to the fallen youth of 2011, testified to an Egyptian identity with deep roots and yet also still in formation: secular, democratic, anti-imperialist and culturally diverse.