Thursday, April 26, 2007

Known as the Bride of Upper Egypt based on its Nile Valley location, Minya (though technically in Middle Egypt) has been a difficult place to get to since Islamic militants launched terrorist attacks in the 1990s and were then systematically obliterated by the Egyptian government. Minya is located near the tombs of Beni Hassan, Deir al-Adhra (the Church of the Virgin, founded in 328 AD by Constantine’s mother), the ruins of Hermopolis, Tuna al-Gabel, the Frazer tombs, and Tell el-Amarna. We saw these sites, but there are many others.

Remember the Pharaoh Akenhaten and Queen Nefertiti? Tell el-Amarna was their realm. Akenhaten enforced the idea that there was one god instead of many, and, on the surface anyway, people pretty much went along with that until he died, after which the people returned to multiple gods and set about defacing every image they could find of Akenhaten and Nefertiti, including those in the tombs we visited, where you could see depictions of his body, but his head and any written form of his name had been completely rubbed out. The belief was that if you rubbed out every image and word about someone, you would erase that person from history forever. Worked out well, didn’t it? You should really research this and find out more, OK?

We (a bunch of AUC faculty) set out from Cairo in a huge charter bus. What should have been a 3-4 hour trip turned into 6 hours because the original plan to take the Western Desert Road was foiled by police who forbid the bus to go any further after dark. This police protection would become a pattern. The bus and the group were not allowed to go anywhere without a smiling police escort in a Nissan truck or a blue Peugeot leading the way. We had to stop every once in a while as they radioed ahead for replacement shifts and drank tea. Hello, tourists! Anyway, we were diverted through Fayoum, an oasis, and our route was much more interesting than the other (which is, as its name suggests, simply desert) since we went through many villages. Conspicuously, as it were. Everywhere we went in that ludicrous bus, people stared, emphatically waved, nodded, shouted, jokingly offered drags from sheesha pipes, narrowed their eyes. Hundreds of children waved wildly and chased the bus. Only a couple threw rocks.

In Minya, we stayed at the Aton Hotel, a series of bungalows on the Nile. It was beautiful. There were soap and towels in the bathroom, and I didn’t have to throw toilet paper in the trash basket, and someone came in and made the beds while we were gone! Oh, how standards have changed. Actually, it was quite nice – clean and beautiful and quiet. Right on the Nile, where I finally dipped my hands. Across the way was an island with a small hut, cows and goats wandering nearby. On the terrace that looked out over the river, we had Sakkara beer, served with a plate of chickpeas and fresh lime juice. Recommended!

To get to our first set of tombs on the first day, we had to take a ferry from a small village. As the unwieldy bus was maneuvered into a parking position, children gravitated toward us, holding baskets and necklaces woven from fresh palm fronds. The necklaces were a gift unless you got one with a small lime creatively woven in, in which case they were a pound. Both kinds of necklaces smelled great. Of course a pound makes the kids smile, and they were relentless about asking us our names and trying to sell us things. We had to wait a few minutes before the ferry came across the Nile to retrieve our group, and every time I looked over, J was surrounded by children and goats. Par for the course.

Ferry Crossing, Nile River

As the ferry floated away from the shore, two pick-up trucks pulled up, full of villagers who were singing and playing instruments and waving. Along with two boys in gallabeyas handling a donkey cart, and the ever-present police truck, we were crammed on the ferry with some of the kids who had snuck on to continue their sales pitches, ducking the swipes of scolding adults. (Honestly, the only time I have seen a kid dragged out of somewhere by the ear that wasn’t in a film has been in Egypt.)

When we crossed on the way back, we had the added pleasure of standing next to flimsy crates with an assortment of sickly, overheated ducks, rabbits, hens, roosters, and one fairly staid turkey who seemed all right lounging in the same crate with rabbits who had clearly lost the will to live. Anyway, as hay and feathers flew, yet another little boy sidled next to J and regarded the birds and then us, and I swear it seemed as if he were trying to imagine what it was we thought we were seeing. There was one particularly gorged crate of hens from which a small brown egg suddenly emerged, pressed against the side of the crate. I pointed at it, and J marveled. “Yes,” he said. “Those chickens have been in there so long that one of them has laid an egg.” That sweet boy took J’s interest to mean that J wanted the egg, so he set to work. Eventually, he broke one of the wooden bars (and I, watching him, imagined a great but ultimately futile escape), retrieved the egg, and immediately brought it over to J, who found a graceful way to deny it and give the boy “filoos” (money) anyway. I’m pretty sure that J’s rejection was bird flu-based, since he had said, “Hey, bird flu!” the moment we found ourselves staring into the wounded eyes of the poultry.

The View from Deir al-Adhra

Later: Tuna el-Gabel. We stopped at a resthouse for lunch before heading to another couple of tombs, an ancient waterwheel, and the mummy of Isadora, a young woman drowned in the Nile. This was one of the only mummies around, it seems, most having been carted to museums. I’ve found I’m not a big fan of mummies. In general, I think it’s gross to stare at somebody’s corpse. And then to dig it up and put it on display? Hm. But let me tell you, the mummy of Isadora was pretty gross compared to all others I’ve seen. Of course, the mummies in Egypt have been in very un-British Museum-like conditions. (No, we haven’t been to the Antiquities Museum yet!). We saw the “Golden Mummies” in Bawiti, in a dank room with cracked glass cases, and I’ll never forget the head of one of them, cracked open and spilling dust from the back, and the feet covered over with thick new cotton “because of the smell,” according to our fairly uninformed guide. And Isadora, whose condition I won’t describe. I had to leave almost as soon as I saw poor Isadora – I was totally creeped out and people were making weird uncomfortable jokes. Things got better, though. We entered the catacombs where baboons and ibises, considered sacred, were mummified. Mummified animals? Fascinating! There weren’t really any left, though. A slippery stairway led us to a room with a shrine of a baboon skeleton that may as well have leapt off a Grateful Dead T-shirt. The rest of the place was a series of corridors that for some reason we were left to wander with no guidance and almost no lights. There were all these dark alcoves. In one we saw a pile of discarded ibis mummies thrown in with sand and pottery. Would Arnold Vosloo show up? Sadly, no.

Near the Tombs of Beni Hassan
Sugar factory pollution

Regarding Minya, the tombs and all that were nice, but for me the real pleasure was in the lush farmland, the people at work, the multitude of goats, cows, camels. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t have stupidly quaint visions of squatting in a field all day in the blazing heat, pulling onions, or scolding my donkey, or grinding my own corn. Don’t forget that I grew up on a farm, even though I was spared the hard work and there was machinery. I can be sentimental, but not in that way. As you can see from some of the pictures, though, the only things really spoiling the beauty were the haze created from a single sugar factory and our enormous charter bus.



Sari said...

Ah, lovely.

If you have a chance, you should read "The Egyptian" by Mika Waltari (a Finnish writer). It's about Pharaoh Akhnaton and takes place in the area you just visited.
Waltari is, according to my jacket cover, "considered the greatest Finnish writer of the 20th century." I don't know about that--I'm partial to Vaino Linna--but I enjoyed "The Egyptian."

Anonymous said...

As Henry Gibson once said,"Very interesting". If you learned about clutches, there is still time for that farm machinery.

Meika said...

Mmmm, stunning; I'm envious. I just stumbled across your blog from no idea where, following link after link on a lazy Saturday. I spent a semester in Egypt ten years ago now and fell in love with the place, difficult as it could be... thanks for the trip down memory lane.

Stephanie said...

I think I want to hear your growing-up-on-a-farm stories sometime.

By the way, we took one of those little hikes a couple weeks ago, all three dogs in tow. We humans and the normally proportioned dogs fared all right of course, but for poor Chance, with her aging Corgi legs carrying her bulky Lab body, it was doggie Mt. Sinai hell. She gave up and refused to go any further multiple times, and I may never forgive myself. She feels your pain.

area said...

My question: why were you spared the farm work?

My internal monologue: damn! I always wanted to scold a donkey.