A Short and Hasty Guide on the Suez Canal Saga

I know I’m quite a bit late to the party (though I definitely indulged in all the glorious memes), but I think any time is a good time to learn about the otherwise overlooked bit of our global infrastructure that suddenly became a global phenomenon.

The Eternal Treaty

The Egyptian–Hittite peace treaty, also known as the Eternal Treaty or the Silver Treaty, is the oldest known peace treaty signed between two sovereign nations, dating back to the 13th century B.C.E. (Left photo: Hittite version; Right photo: Egyptian version.)

The treaty followed over 200 years of fighting between the two empires, which culminated in the Battle of Kadesh, a massive engagement that involved anywhere from 40,000 to 70,000 men. (It is also the most well-documented ancient battle.) Both sides sustained heavy casualties with no decisive strategic gain, and the conflict grinded on for another fifteen years without avail. Continue reading

We Will Soon Get a Window Into Two Ancient Civilizations

The passage of time and ravages of war have together destroyed literally thousands of years worth of culture and knowledge from ancient civilizations across the world. We are often left with little more than fragments or the unverified and often biased accounts of outsiders and conquerors, depriving us of a fully fleshed out understanding of how ancient people lived, loved, thought, or struggled with day to day.

Now, two different archaeological breakthroughs have gleaned previously inaccessible information on two of humanity’s most enduring and influential civilizations: the Aztecs and the Egyptians. In the case of the former, they also reveal the horrific ease with which almost an entire culture can be eradicated in just a few years.

According to The Guardianan international team from the U.K. and the Netherlands, utilizing advanced imaging technology usually applied to geological research, discovered an extremely rare pre-Columbian manuscript hidden within another rare colonial era book. Continue reading

The Pearl of the Mediterranean

THOUGH IT WAS NEVER THE MILITARY AND POLITICAL CAPITAL OF THE ANCIENT WORLD, Alexandria was for a time its intellectual and cultural center. The city was founded by Alexander the Great in the aftermath of his conquest of Egypt in 331 B.C., and was developed by Ptolemy I, the general he left behind as the new pharaoh. Flush with the wealth both of Egypt and of the larger world—whose ships thronged the city’s bustling Mediterranean port—Ptolemy built both a great library and a Mouseion, or museum, which functioned as an academy of scholarship. At its height, the Library of Alexandria held around 700,000 scrolls, including the now-vanished complete works of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides.

Many of the greatest scholars of the ancient world lived in Alexandria and frequented the Mouseion. So, too, did Jews, Syrians, and Greeks—for Alexandria was the center of the Hellenistic civilization in which Greek culture mingled with that of North Africa and the East. Ptolemy had conceived the city as a civilizational project: The library, he decreed, would accept volumes from “all nations so far as they were worthy of serious attention.” The library held a collection of Sanskritic texts from India. And it was in Alexandria that Jewish scholars translated the Bible into Greek, the work now known as the Septuagint.

Ancient Alexandria, in short, was the cosmopolis par excellence—but it was not to last. The city was sacked by Romans and then by Christians. The library collapsed, and the scrolls crumbled into dust. The Pharos, the great lighthouse that was counted one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, fell into the sea. By the time of the Arab invasion in 642 A.D., there was little left to plunder.

In the centuries that followed, the city was eclipsed by Cairo, Damascus, and Aleppo. It came back to life only in the middle of the 19th century, when Egypt’s rulers, seeking to modernize the country, turned toward Europe. First Greeks, then French, Italians, English, Armenians, and others began to settle in this city, which looked across the Mediterranean to Europe. The Alexandria synagogue was built in 1836; the Opera House, which unlike the synagogue remains in use, in 1918.

By the early 20th century, Alexandria had become a home, not for mathematicians and astronomers, but for novelists and poets. E. M. Forster wrote a guide to city in 1922. Constantine Cavafy, the greatest of modern Greek poets, served as a kind of muse and presiding spirit of Belle Époque Alexandria.

Alexandria is still, in its own way, a cosmopolitan city. There’s an underground music scene—though I was told that at one pop-up concert, outraged Salafis destroyed the stage. Amira Hegazy, a language teacher who also works with local researchers, made the peculiar observation that the city has the largest proportion of both gay men and Salafis in Egypt. “That’s Alexandrian cosmopolitanism,” she said. “Everyone can coexist.”

— James Traub, The Lighthouse Dims

How The Ancient Egyptians Spoke

If you have ever wondered how the Ancient Egyptian language sounded, listen to the liturgical hymns of the Coptic Church, the only place it is still widely spoken.

First recorded in 3400 BCE, Egyptian is the earliest known language in history, rivaled only by Sumerian. Like all languages, it evolved over its long lifespan, becoming Demotic by 600 BCE and Coptic by 200 CE. It began to decline thereafter, going extinct by the 17th century and surviving only as a religious language, with very few fluent speakers outside of some clergy (my research suggests that only one family is known to speak it as a first language).

There have been sporadic but unsuccessful efforts to revive Coptic for mainstream use. Below is one of the few videos I have found of Coptic being spoken outside of a liturgical context. Superficially, it sounds a lot like Arabic, which isn’t too surprising since it falls under the same large language family of Afro-Asiatic and evolved during centuries of Arab rule (some things do sound familiar to me, such as the term for “and”). 

The Lives of Average Ancient Egyptians

Nearly all historical studies tend to focus on major figures — monarchs, chiefs, military leaders, and revolutionaries — the folks who most stood out in terms of their pivotal roles, monuments, or outsized characters. But clearly, these individuals are an exceedingly small minority in the societies they lived in, and hardly representative of the typical person’s lifestyle, beliefs, routines, etc. We can only glean so much from the exceptional and often disconnected upper-classes that are often disproportionately represented.

Moreover, even the greatest and most exemplary leaders could only accomplish so much without the thousands (if not millions) of faceless and nameless people that helped make it happen. From the peasants and laborers that helped build empires, to the grunts that executed successful conquests and campaigns, these are the neglected masses that deserve some attention, if only to know: how did average joes and janes like us get by day-to-day?

With respect to Ancient Egypt at least — one of the world’s most spectacular and captivating civilizations — there is thankfully a great two-part series that sheds some light on how members of this advanced society got by. It is of course courtesy of the esteemed BBC.   Check out the videos below, as they are well worth your time.

Who knew that Egyptian courtship was relatively so liberal? Or that Egyptian homes were advanced enough to feature proto-fridges and ovens? Or that the Egyptians used moldy bread to successfully treat infection, unknowingly realizing the benefits of penicillin before we even knew such microorganisms existed. The familiarity and humanity of these thousands-year old people is absolutely awe-inspiring…to me at least.

Feel free to share your own thoughts and reactions.

Anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution

A year ago today, the people of Egypt engaged in an unprecedented mass demonstration, which only 18 days later toppled their despot after three decades of rule. It’s hard to believe that it has been a year already. It doesn’t seem that long ago that the world was captivated by the courage and perseverance of the Egyptian people as they stood against certain death in the name of freedom and opportunity.

Even I became swept up in the hope and excitement, in spite of the intuitive caution that was tempered by my studies in political science and international relations. Enthusiastic as I was, I was well-aware of the mixed track record of many revolutions throughout history, especially in the long term. I knew bringing down an oppressive regime, difficult as it is, was still the easiest part of any sort of sociopolitical change. I knew enough about the political, social, and religious dynamics of Egypt to know that many obstacles would remain to meaningful democratic reform. However romantic and admirable the efforts of Egypt’s brave people, I knew – and still know – that they have a tough road ahead of them.
Of course, few people thought that Egypt would make significant progress within a year, or even several years. You don’t have to be steeped in politics and history to know that it takes a long time to go from stifling oppression, to a thriving and free society. It takes a while for any community to change, much less one of nearly 90 million people. No matter how ingenious and sincere your leaders, or how enduring and enterprising your people, it’ll take a lot of work to build a positive future for your nation.
The gains will be tenuous for some time, as the old guard and its former beneficiaries remain (we have a tendency to think that the people we overthrow, and their backers, simply dissipate upon losing power). Old ways of thinking, hardened by generations of stagnation and the suppression of free speech, will need to be overcome. Trust and cooperation, weakened through the decades of state surveillance by a network of informants, will need to be built up. The public, which has never had any sort of real voice in how they’re governed, will need to develop a sense of political identity. I haven’t even gotten to how you bring everyone together to hammer out a collective vision in the first place. 
Everything I’m saying could just as well apply to the other participants of the Arab Spring, as well as other revolutions past and present. Forging a consensus among a diverse body politic, making a better political system, and addressing a myriad of social ills – these are also the functions of a free and democratic society. It takes the same sort of mentality and dedication to make such a system as it is to run it. Any kind of change, incremental or revolutionary, is a constant process. American society is still trying to improve and rectify its various political and legal problems despite its established democratic traditions (which from the start were mired with imperfections that took some time to rectify, such as slavery). Even the most prosperous and stable of nations has to be ever-vigilant in maintaining and refining its people’s wellbeing, be it civilly, legally, politically, or economically. Egypt may be farther behind then most of the developed world in this regard, but it’s very similar as far as having to endure the same kind of constant challenges and reforms, albeit to varying degrees.
Revolutions never really end, and progress is always an incomplete enterprise.
Despite my cautious optimism, I’m confident that Egypt will get through the considerable obstacles before it. All I can do from my position is hope. Many Egyptians have understandably expressed ambivalence about their nation’s circumstances since the revolution: the military is still in control, and the hated state of emergency laws that underpinned decades of oppression still remain in place (albeit to a lesser extent then they once were). There are mounting concerns over the deteriorating economy, persistent corruption, sectarian clashes between Christians and Muslims, and a political struggle between secularists and Islamists; the latter have recently won parliamentary majority, to the consternation of many Western and Egyptian liberals who worry about their democratic credentials. The last several months have seen repeated clashes between young protestors and the state, invoking an unsettling déjà vu. And women remain marginal within the political process and feel forgotten in their role in the revolution.
Still, tangible changes have transpired despite this grim picture. A greater sense of accomplishment and possibility is still palpable among even pessimistic Egyptians. A glass-half-full outlook would suggest that such high standards for change are evidence of the people’s sense of democratic entitlement – they’re no longer the dispirited and broken people that the former regime tried to keep down. They’re going against a 7,000-year history devoid of representative government but rich in culture and spirit, and against all odds they led a historically unprecedented popular uprising within two-and-a-half weeks just one year ago. They just need more time. And hope.

Ancient Lives

There is so much I’ve been meaning to write about lately. My mind is swirling with all sorts of reflections, current events,  philosophical musings, and ideas. I really wish I had the time and concentration to share them all, but rather than let my blog lay fallow until I can gather my thoughts, I figure that I might as well stick to brief topics to fill the void.

Foremost on my mind today concerned an old but little-known discovery made  in Egypt that was brought to my attention by Public Radio International’s The World. It’s a great series by the way, and I highly recommend it for those of you who – like myslf – have a great interest in world events and culture (you can play the audio version of his report in the hyperlink I’ve provided).

The finding was made back in the 1920s in the 1,000 year-old town of El-Bahnasa – also known by it’s Greek name, Oxyrhynchus – which has never been a stranger to these sorts of discoveries. Located in the south of the country, El-Bahnasa has long been a treasure trove of archaeological material, yielding a considerable amount of archival material from throughout Egypt’s long history. Among past discoveries are the works of Menander, a prominent Greek dramatist; what few poems have survived from Sappho, an enigmatic Greek poet; and even fragments of the Gospel of Thomas, considered by some scholars to be one of the most crucial texts in Christianity.

The reason for it’s rich collection is its location. Unlike most Egyptian cities built throughout the millennia, El-Bahnasa was not built alongside the Nile River, but rather a canal several miles away. Thus, it was not prone to the frequent flooding that tended to wash out a lot or damage other records from the area. Furthermore, it’s distance from the Nile made it a very dry place, creating the perfect environment for preserving all manner of things that were left out in the desert. For much of history, rivers were pretty much garbage dumps, and lacking such a disposal system, residents would for centuries just dump out their garbage in the middle of the desert, allowing the sand to cover it up and create an almost chronological layer of texts from throughout the centuries.

But what makes this set – known collectively as the Oxyrhynchus Papyri most fascinating to me are the unremarkable elements, which include business accounts, census material, tax returns, ancient “invoices”, receipts, licenses, certificates of qualifications, and various correspondences on administrative, military, religious, economic, and political matters. There is even a manuscript dealing with the ancient game of chariot racing, including details about rules, different styles of play, regional teams, and championships. Most of these date from between the 1st to the 6th century CE, giving a remarkable insight to Egypt’s Greek and Roman-ruled eras. Another interesting tidbit: since papyrus material was rare, people tended to reuse them as much as possible, so that a receipt on side includes a student’s notes about the Greek writer Homer on the other!

I find it captivating to see how little we’ve changed over the centuries in some respects. The practices and systems we see as modern and advanced have been around for centuries. The idea that ancient people from a more “primitive” time could keep account of their finances or maintain a complex bureaucratic system of licences and regulations seems anachronistic. Such things are the markings of a more developed world rather than one we associate with barbarism, blight, and moral decadence.

Indeed, many of us view most of our historical heritage as being technologically and intellectual inferior in comparison to the present day. While there is also a tendency for nostalgia and pinning for the “good old days” – especially during periods of social anxiety and uncertainty – I find this superiority complex to be just as prevalent. In my opinion, it’s just another example of how we humans sell ourselves short. Obviously, the sophistication of ancient civilizations doesn’t mean there weren’t periods or civilizations wracked with moral depravity and conflict. But I think it’s a reminder of just how innate our potential for innovation and reason really is (as I reflected in an old post).

Anyway, these manuscripts are still being looked over to this very day, and there is in fact a web project – linked here – that allows anyone on the web a chance to help. It’s a pretty neat exercise, and an interesting example of so-called “crowd-sourcing.”


Egypt’s Cultural Revolution (Plus An Update)

If anyone recalls my post from a few weeks ago concerning Pakistan’s reinvention of jazz music, I stated my intention to create a semi-regular miniseries dealing with the cultural and creative scene of countries generally known only for their negative qualities: war, instability, rampant poverty, and so on. To reiterate, my goal is to ensure that we view such nations as more than just miserable and degraded societies, and look past the negative headlines and stereotypes to recognize the beauty, humanity, and normality that persists amid the many problems.

For this week, as the title shows, I’d like to focus on Egypt, not necessarily doing too badly by global standards but still a country long bedeviled by poverty, oppression, corruption, and stagnation. As certainly all of you know, Egypt was recently in the midst of an historic revolution that may hopefully bring real progress and better living for it’s courageous people. If anyone is curious about how things are going there and in the rest of the region, given that attention has largely receded since Mubarak’s ouster, the Economist has an excellent and analytical article on the subject (though it’s a bit dated, much of it remains topical).

I’ve always been interested in “revolutionary” art. It’s fascinating how the political and social upheaval of a society could be so organically preserved through a burst of creative energy. Art is ultimately, of course, about one’s personal expression – of ideas, thoughts, experiences, and perceptions of the time period – and periods of great change and revolution naturally catalyze a burst of creative expression (especially if they’re leading to – presumably – better times).

Thus, there was more to Egypt’s revolution than political change. As in any successful paradigm shift in society, changes permeate throughout every aspect of a civilization:  despite the daunting challenges that remain, Egypt is a freer and more optimistic place, and this is being reflected in the blossoming of it’s artistic scene, in everything from revolutionary graffiti to poetry, cinema, and literature (unsurprisingly, political satire, which largely unthinkable, has particularly boomed in popularity).

First, Foreign Policy presents an interesting dispatch concerning the country’s more open and creativity-inducing atmosphere. It includes quite a few hyperlinks to some of the projects it references, so I encourage you all to take a look at those.

Second, there is a brief but interesting slideshow (also from FP) of some of Egypt’s performance and contemporary art. Admittedly, it could’ve been a bit longer and included more profound artistic pieces, but it too includes some links for those that wish to explore some more.

Finally, the Guardian and NPR presents their own reporting of Egypt’s art scene (here and here, respectively). Among my favorites is the one I’ve shared below:

In any case, it’s great to see Egyptians making the most of their new-found and well-earned freedom. It’s pretty much the first time in the country’s 7000 year history that there is almost unbridled freedom of expression, assembly, and speech, and the people will no doubt be making the most of it. As my emphasis in italics notes (and the Economist article I linked to earlier argues) Egypt’s gains are still rather precarious, and it’s future looks ambiguous. With it’s infamously repressive and bureaucratic state apparatus still in place, and the long-dominant military still holding the reigns of power, it remains to be seen how far Egypt will go in spite of almost no history of true democracy.

Given the sheer amount of spirit and energy still emanating from it’s vibrant populace, I remain optimistic that positive change will come, albeit gradually.

One more bit of “art” I’ll share:

Okay, it's not really art, but the self-expression is there - and poignant.