Tag Archives: Egypt

Learning from mistakes, or today would be a good day to visit Dahshur

I haven’t yet done a Monday travel post on Giza, but I’m sure I will one day, because of course seeing the last remaining wonder of the ancient world is an incredible experience. But it’s some photos from another place near Cairo that I wanted to share today.

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Dahshur is about 40km south of Cairo and is home to a couple of pyramids that are even older than their more famous cousins at Giza. I’d love to revisit them today both because they are incredibly impressive in and of themselves, and because they taught me some important lessons.

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What did I love about Dahshur?

The Red Pyramid. It’s just a beautiful and imposing structure, not to mention the awesome experience of walking inside a four and a half thousand year old building. (And there was no queue because a lot less tourists come to visit here.)

This is probably one of my all time favourite travel photos. The camel in the foreground gives some helpful scale to just how big this really is.

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Not too far away in Saqqara is the step pyramid of Djoser. It is another 100-200 years older again. I’m not sure I can really fathom how many generations of people that means have visited this place.

I love that you can see something of how the pyramid builders were figuring out what they were doing over the intervening years.

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The statue of Djoser himself is the oldest life-size Egyptian statue. It’s on display in the Cairo museum, but you can also see a copy inside his funerary monument.

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What did I learn from Dahshur?

The other pyramid still standing at Dahshur is the Bent Pyramid, so called because of the change in angle of the shape about half way up the structure. Apparently they realised part way through building it that the angle was too steep to sustain the whole thing!

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Which leads me to some important lessons I think these ancient pyramid builders learned, and their work continues to remind us of:

1. You can’t know for sure if something is going to work out unless you give it a go

2. If things aren’t working, there’s no shame in correcting course mid-way

3. Nobody gets everything perfect on the first go

As I continue through my PhD studies, with all its ups and downs, these are pretty good lessons for me to remember today. And I’m sure they apply in plenty of other areas of my life as well. I hope they are an encouragement (or challenge!) in some way to you too.

Because the truth is, without these early attempts, its unlikely the Great Pyramids of Giza we admire so much would ever have been built. You have to crawl before you can walk, and you have to give yourself the freedom to make some mistakes along the way before you can achieve the great things you hope to.

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Today would be a good day to be in Alexandria

I haven’t blogged for a couple of weeks for a number of reasons, one of which is that there seems to be so much going on in the world that it is hard to find the right words to talk about. But I want to keep doing my Monday travel posts, also for a number of reasons. Obviously one reason is that I enjoy reflecting on my travels. But another important one is that I am more and more convinced that thinking about situations and places in the world in light of actual connections with people in them is the best way to respond to them. I believe sometimes we need to stop viewing things as “political” situations and start re-framing them as “people” situations.

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So I have chosen quite deliberately this week to reflect on some amazing experiences of hospitality and history I had in a predominately Muslim country. In light of some of the challenges we face in how we talk about and respond to people of Islamic faith, I think revisiting my time amongst the people of Alexandria for a day could only be a good thing for me, and I only wish others could experience what I did there too.

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 What did I love about Alexandria?

Alexandria was one of my favourite places in Egypt. The country’s second largest city, with a population roughly the same as that of Melbourne, Alexandria is a little off the standard Nile-pyramids tourist track. Many of the city’s buildings line the shore of the Mediterranean Sea.

Citadel View

The white buildings against the azure blue of the Mediterranean Sea make for beautiful views.

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It was wonderfully relaxing just to stroll along the boulevard listening to the waves and watching the sunset.

Med view sunset

I was delighted by the friendliness of the people, most of whom were keen to say hello and welcome the foreigner.

Street at night

Then it was fascinating to watch the city light up and come alive at night with vibrant cafes, shwarma shops, sheesha and karaoke bars. Personally, I appreciated and enjoyed the atmosphere of being in a country (unlike my own) where alcohol is not seen as the only way to enjoy a night out. (And Alexandria remains the only place in the world where I have participated in karaoke!)

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“mocktails”

As someone who loves both reading and history, visiting the Library of Alexandria was a real treat. The ancient library here was for nearly 300 years the most significant in the world.

Library outside

The modern Bibliotheca Alexandria stands nearby the ancient site as both a tribute to bibliophiles of all time and a functional library with a fascinating collection.

Library inside

The 15th century Qaitbey Citadel stands on the site of one of the seven ancient Wonders of the World, the Lighthouse of Alexandria. It is a beautiful medieval fortress with an unrivalled coastal view.

Citadel

What did I learn from Alexandria?

From the museums and historical sites I learned more about Alexander the Great, who founded the city, as well as just some of this city’s significant residents throughout the years. With names like Julius Caesar, Hadrian, Euclid, Philo, Origen and Athanasius … the influence of great leaders and thinkers looms large here.

Alexander

But it was from people living in Alexandria today that I learned the most. The man in the juice bar next door to where we were staying, who wanted to get our opinion of his new flavours and ended up sharing his story of opening his own place in a way that would resonate with anyone who has ever taken a risk to follow their passion. The young couple walking along the shore who wanted a photo taken with me and to hear why I had chosen to visit their country, whose tentative glances and stilted conversation so poignantly expressed the early stages of a budding relationship familiar to us all.

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And the family of my friend who invited a group of eight rowdy Aussies into their tiny apartment for lunch, sharing their home, their food and their stories. The family dynamics were so familiar to many of us – the older uncle who told hilarious and slightly inappropriate jokes that had even those of us who didn’t understand the language in tears of laughter; the earnest young girl who was torn between wanting to finish her homework and wanting to be part of what the grown ups were talking about; the mother who keep bringing out more and more food and sent us away with baskets of fresh fruit to make sure we were keeping healthy as we travelled.

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They could have been my family or yours. They embraced us as if we were their own. It was the welcome they gave us, no questions asked, that stays with me. And it is experiences like that lunch that compel me to challenge the unwelcoming and unhelpful rhetoric I hear too often in my own country today about people just like them. There are many terrible things going in the world at the moment. But Jesus calls me to love my neighbours and my enemies, those near and far, and it is that embrace which I believe can be the start of true transformation.

Love for 100 years

 

 

Today would be a good day to be in Aswan

This week is going to be a scorcher here in Adelaide, with five days in a row above 40C/105F. Last week I was thinking about being somewhere cooler, but today I’m remembering the hottest place I have ever been … and what a great time I had there anyway.

Philae Temples at Aswan
Philae Temples at Aswan

Aswan was the southernmost point of our cruise down the Nile in Egypt and we were moored there for three days. The town was a hive of activity in the mornings and evenings, but quiet in the middle of the day. We discovered why when our group, not wanting to waste a moment, organised a visit to one of the temples from 12-2pm. The temperature hit 50C/122F in the sun and we felt like we were going to melt … but at least we pretty much had the place to ourselves!

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What did I love about Aswan?

The Nile in all its activity …

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… all its serenity …

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… and all its beauty.

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This model/map from the museum gives some sense of what it’s like, passing by ancient temples and monuments almost as if they are just houses on the side of the road.

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I also loved walking through the street market in the alleyways of town, bartering for food and gifts, experiencing new tastes and smells.

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Seeing history come alive with places like the “kiosk” built by the Roman emperor Trajan

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… and the merging of cultures when Greco-Roman architecture meets ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.

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The beautiful Coptic Cathedral, which had only recently been completed. We were given a tour by a lovely lady who shared some of the tensions and struggles the Christian minority face in Egypt. She extended an invitation to visit part of one of their services that weekend if anyone was interested.

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So, what did I learn from Aswan?

I certainly gained knowledge about aspects of history and politics that I wasn’t taught in school, where Egypt is pretty much just the pyramids. The huge Aswan dam is fascinating in its size, its functionality in regulating the Nile’s floodwaters, and the politics surrounding its construction.

The Soviet-Arab Friendship Monument atop the Aswan High Dam
The Soviet-Arab Friendship Monument atop the Aswan High Dam

The Nubian Museum in Aswan was excellent, explaining the history of the region and its people in an interesting and easy to understand way. Well worth a visit.

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But the real privilege was meeting the Nubian people themselves and sharing a meal with a local family in their home.

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It was here I got my first tattoo, inked by a girl who asked questions about my life in a way that emphasised how different our experiences of the world were, and yet how similarly we thought about things.

(Okay, it was henna)
(Okay, it was henna)

I was also reminded of how easy it can be to overlook our shared humanity with those who seem unlike us, particularly in the way I saw some of my fellow tourists treat the locals as they served us. I wonder what they think about us, about me, as every day they observe people like me throwing money around, drinking themselves into oblivion, making ignorant and crass statements about their culture, barely looking them in the eyes as they labour for our comfort?

Our Felucca crew
Our Felucca crew

A nice surprise for me was when one of these men told us the name of this Island we sailed past: Elephantine. It didn’t mean much to anyone else, but I was quite excited because I knew that name – I had taught about it to my students! A collection of papyrus documents were found on this island that record the history of a Jewish community who had fled Israel after its destruction by the Babylonians in the sixth century BC. I love it when my travels and studies come together!!

Elephantine Island
Elephantine Island

And I did return to the church for part of their service on our final day. I didn’t understand a word as I stood and kneeled and sat when everyone else did. They chanted in Greek, sang in Arabic and prayed in Coptic Egyptian (I think). But I knew what they were expressing and why they were worshipping. Because it was Good Friday. Together we looked to the cross, to the symbol of torture that has become the symbol of hope; and we looked to Jesus, the one who reconciles us to God and to one another, the one in whom all things hold together. And it was a very good day to be there with them.

Inside the Coptic Cathedral
Inside the Coptic Cathedral