Author has arrived at Giza, site of the Great Pyramids, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. Here he is joined in his van by a female guide, for a tour of the monuments (“which have stood for 46 centuries”), built by Cheops and Chephren, by Mycerinus (his said to be “much less impressive”). We will also be visiting the Sphinx, known in Arabic as “Abu al-Hol” (Father of Terror), in their midst. Our guide to this site, who has grown up in Giza, has an Arabic name.
Author: Though you have told me that you are Muslim, you are going to show me today some monuments that were built long before Muslims came to Egypt. When you think about Allah and the gods of ancient Egypt, do you find a contradiction?
Guide: There is a sharp difference between the Ancient Egyptians and the Muslims, but there are also similarities. Just as the Ancient Egyptians believed in judgment, so do the Muslims. Ancient Egyptians did good things in this life, so that they would have Eternal Life thereafter. Likewise, Muslims believe that if you lead a good life in this world, you will have a good life in Paradise.
Author: Some scholars believe that, though there were many ancient Egyptian gods, the general tendency was nonetheless toward monotheism. We see such a tendency in Akhenaten, of course, but also in the whole pantheon presided over by Amun-Re. Do you think that there is a relation between ancient Egyptian religion and Islamic monotheism?
During a recent visit to the United States, I was asked by intellectuals and journalists: Were we misled during the Arab awakening into thinking that Muslims could actually embrace democratic ideals? The short answer is “No.”
Guide: Yes, I think there is a relation between the more modern beliefs of the Jews, Christians and we Muslims and those of the Ancient Egyptians who tried to believe in one god, especially Akhenaten. He believed in the “Aten,” the disk of the sun but did not believe in any other gods (the god of the sky, the god of the earth, and so on). He deserted all these other gods (the god of the moon, the god of the sun, etc.). By “Aten” he meant the power behind the sun, a god who was invisible, though sometimes his hands are shown coming down care for humankind.
Author: As I hear you explain the ancient god, Aten, it sounds as though you almost believe in the religion of Ancient Egypt. Guide: Oh, no-no-no-no-no.
Many Americans were shocked by the recent chaos and bloodshed across many Muslim countries, believing that they had come generously to the aid of the Arab peoples during the uprisings. But Arabs have a much longer memory.
“Me have only one ambition, y’know, I only have one thing I really like to see happen. I like to see mankind live together — black, white, Chinese, everyone — that’s all.” Bob Marley was a hero in the classic mythological sense. He only departed this planet when he felt that his vision of One World, One Love, which was inspired by his belief in Rastafarianism, was beginning in some quarters to be heard and felt.
(Chris Salewicz, Bob Marley [London: Harper, 2010])
Author: These religions are all in a sense monotheistic. So if there is only one God, is it possible that the God of Egypt, of Israel, of the Christians, and the God of the Muslims is the same god?
Guide: Maybe. Yes. I think so. Author: Then, if you believe that all these gods are the same, in a sense there is no difference between your faith, as a modern Egyptian Muslim, and the faith of the ancient Egyptian. What is the difference between your faith and the faith of ancient Egypt?
Guide: When I am talking about Akhenaten, I am talking about a man who is beginning to believe in the one god. He was close, I think, to Muslim faith. But beforehand, it was different.
They believed in many gods, and so it was different.
The United States and its European allies would be well advised to examine why Muslims are seething. Withdrawing from Afghanistan, respecting U.N. resolutions, calling off the killer drones and winding up the “war on terror” would be excellent places to start.
Author: Let us then focus on the relationship between the faith of Akhenaten and of the Muslim. Guide: The difference is that Akhenaten represents his god as solar rays, but in Muslim religion we do not represent Allah. We consider God to be invisible, something that cannot be imagined. Author: But in Ancient Egyptian religion there were two solar gods. There was the god that could be seen and the god that could not be seen. Guide: Yes, that is right. Author: You recall that the Greeks also had two gods for the Sun, one they called Helios, the actual sun, one, Apollo. And in Christianity, Christ is sometimes referred to as “The light of the World.” He is visible, but the Old Testament God, his Father, is not visible.
The time, however, has also come to stop blaming the West for the colonialism and imperialism of the past. Muslim-majority societies must jettison their historic posture as victims, which Arabs demonstrated last year by coming into the streets and changing history.
(Tariq Ramadan, “Waiting for an Arab Spring of ideas,” IHT, October 1, 2012)
Through his friendship with Sir Philip Sidney, an advocate of Castiglione’s ideals, and through his devotion to the queen, to whom he dedicated The Faerie Queene, Spenser re-awoke the mystic hieraticism of power latent in western sexual personae. The mass glorification of Elizabeth I revived the radiant laws of Apollonian beauty. Her portraits are Byzantine icons, stiffly ceremonial, encrusted with jewels.
(Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae [New Haven: Yale U. P. 1990])
“Every Muslim is a brother to every other Muslim,” said the Prophet Mohamed, “and you are now one family. It is not legitimate for any single one of you, therefore, to take anything that belongs to his brother.” This pronouncement meant that the raiding which had formed a basic part of the Arabian economy had to be directed externally. Thus Muslim warriors, who had begun with an epic series of conquests, had to change their way of life.”
(Jason Thompson, A History of Egypt [New York: Random House, 2008])
Author: How about the influence of Christianity more generally upon modern Egyptians? What do you think about the relationship between the Christian faith and the Muslim faith? Guide: Yes, that’s right, because the Coptic faith was the faith of Egypt before 642 AD. Then the Muslims, the Arabs, came to Egypt, and Egypt became a Muslim country. But there are differences between the Coptics and the Muslims. Author: Please tell me about this. Guide: OK, the Coptics and the Muslims believe in one God. All right. But we Muslims believe that Jesus Christ was a prophet, one of the messengers from God. Author: Yes. Guide: But the Christians believe that Christ is the son of Allah, and we do not.
Bob Marley’s story is that of an archetype, which is why it continues to have such a powerful and ever-growing resonance: it embodies among other themes, political repression, metaphysical and artistic insights, gangland warfare, and various periods in a mystical wilderness. It is no surprise that Bob Marley now enjoys an icon-like status more akin to that of the rebel myth of Che Guevara than to that of a pop star.
We know that Spenser was familiar with Botticelli, that he modeled a major sex scene in The Faerie Queene on Venus and Mars. The Faerie Queene has an Apollonian brilliance found nowhere in Spenser’s medieval or Renaissance sources, including Ariosto, who lacks his asperity and iconicism, his concentration and hard edge. Chaucer is a populist; Spenser is a hierarchist; Spenser’s poem is aristocratic.
Author: Tell me more about the Muslim view of Jesus Christ. Guide: Allah, in the Muslim view, did not marry; he is not like a human being; he did not have a son or a daughter. Author: I see. Guide: So, we consider Jesus Christ instead as a prophet, a messenger from God to the people. We believe in Moses, in Abram, and that, like them, Jesus Christ was also a messenger. We have to believe this to be a Muslim. Author: Very helpful. Now what, on the other hand, is your view, as a Muslim, of the ancient Egyptian gods? Guide: Nowadays we regard these gods as pagan. It is not to believe in, to pray to the animal, like the cow (Hathor), something like this. But like the ancient Egyptians, the Muslim believes in a second life.
The idealizing Apollonian mode is absolutist and extremist from the very first architectural overstatements of Old Kingdom Egypt. Western greatness is unwise, mad, inhuman. Revolutionary Spenser puts the eye into English poetry. Horace’s theory that a poem should be like a picture was much discussed in the Renaissance. But Spenser goes far beyond this. Image, A.C. Hamilton insists, is crucial in allegory.
The main school of Islam, which became what today is called “Sunni,” accepted the succession of the Four Rightly Guided Caliphs. The “Shia,” or “Partisans,” of the Prophet’s cousin Ali, however, took a different view, that the succession had gone wrong from the beginning, and that Ali was the only rightful successor. Accordingly, the Ummayad and Abbasid caliphates were therefore to be viewed as illegitimate.
Author: Do you personally believe that you will have a second life? Guide: Yes, as a Muslim we have to believe in that. But it is not like nowadays; it is the Eternal Life. Author: And will all Muslims enjoy Eternal Life? Guide: No, there are two groups: some people, they go to Paradise, and they enjoy Eternity and everything that they wanted; and then the people who were bad in their first life, like killing people and lying, and so on. Author: And what happens to them? Guide: They will not have the Paradise; they will go to the Hell, which will be burning. Author: How terrible! Guide: Yes, like that. Author: I cannot thank you enough for your exposition of Mohamed’s theology. Now tell me more about yourself.
And his audience continues to widen: to westerners, Bob’s apocalyptic truths prove inspirational and life-changing; in the Third World, his impact is similar, except that it goes further. Not just among Jamaicans, but also among the Hopi people of New Mexico and the Maoris of New Zealand, in Indonesia, in India, even — especially — in those parts of West Africa from which slaves were plucked and taken to the new World.
The aggressive eye is the conceptualizing power of The Faerie Queene and the mast of its largest ideas. Spenser is history’s first theorist of aggression, anticipating Hobbes, Sade, Darwin, Nietzsche and Freud. Only Leonardo and Michelangelo before him had struggled with the moral problems of the awakened eye. Not since Homer had there been so cinematic a poet. Spenser’s long blazing sightlines prefigure the epic sweep of film.
Salah al-Din’s position was uneasy. A Sunni vizier to a Shiite Fatamid caliph, a contradiction in terms, he controlled but a part of the military as rivals contended for power in a disordered country. When the Fatimid caliph died Salah al-Din proclaimed himself sultan. Subsequently, Egypt returned to the Sunni fold, and the caliph in Baghdad was required formally to recognize Egypt as the deputy of his overlord.
Guide: What do you want to know? Author: Well, you are not like most Egyptians, who are born, who live and die in the village where their parents were born. You, by contrast, have traveled widely: you have been all the way to the other end of the Nile, to Abu Simbel. When you visit these great monuments, the temple of Ramesses II, for example, or the temple that he devoted to his wife, what is your experience of them? Guide: Something incredible, you know. And when you visit many temples, like Karnak Temple and Luxor Temple, the Royal Graves on the West Bank, you see that the ancient Egyptians were very religious people. I think that their lives depended upon their relations with the gods.
Even before the 1951 hurricane had mashed down the zinc and packing-case residences of the shanty-town, the region had a reputation as an area of outcasts. Specifically, the Trench Town environs had become one of the main homes in Kingston for the strange tribe of men known as Rastafarians, who had set up an encampment down by the Dungle in the early years of the Second World War.
The opening up of secular space in Italian painting through perspective is paralleled in the vast distances of The Faerie Queene. Spenser’s typical moment is the glancing of light off the armor of a faraway knight. Who is it? We hear no name until the scene is nearly over. Spenser understands medieval armor as western pagan identity. He is an Apollonian thing-maker, linking stony Pharaoh Chephren to modern metal cars.
Having established the great Citadel of Cairo, Salah al-Din then advanced on Jerusalem. In contrast to the savage Crusaders, once he had captured people he permitted them to go free. News of Jerusalem's fall caused consternation throughout the west. Pope Urban II collapsed and died when he heard of it. Barbarossa, Philip August and Richard the Lion Hearted answered the call, each by assembling strong armies.
Although a few such men, like the trio of “mountain lions,” named after the Ethiopian guerrillas who swore not to cut their hair until Ethiopia was freed from Italian occupation, wore their hair long and uncombed, in the manner of Indian saddhus, most only had their faces framed by their matted beards. It was not until the 1960s that “locks” became common, partly because long hair had the effect of unnerving conservatives.
Author: We have spoken of Ramesses II. In your view of Egyptian history, who are the most extraordinary people? Guide: Well, certainly Ramesses II, Akhenaten, and also Tutankhamen, because of his tomb. Author: They are famous because of their political power. Do you also believe that they are worth emulating for their spiritual strength? Guide: Yes, that’s right. You know that the ancient Egyptians believed in these kings, as gods. Author: We must conclude our conversation, for as our van approaches their precinct, the Great Pyramids are looming into view, only, however, to be obscured immediately by a high-rise modern building, behind which is now appearing? Guide: The pyramid of King Chephren.
Personality in Spenser is armored, an artifact of aggressive forging. The theme of The Faerie Queene is the same one that I found in Michelangelo, a conflict between definitiveness and dissolution of self. In the Renaissance, sex has a dangerous freedom. That barbaric power consigned to the medieval Hell now waits in every glade, returned to its old place in nature. The western eye is sucked into will-lessness by the lure of sensual beauty.
The wretched Fourth Crusade, in 1204, for which the Christians had designated Egypt as its objective, never came anywhere near Egypt. The Fifth crusade, in 1218, again had Egypt as its target; this time the Crusaders carried through, intending to strike directly at the base of Ayyubid power to loosen its grip on Palestine and Syria. They invaded Egypt through the eastern Delta and laid siege to Damietta.
Briefly known as “fearlocks,” this soon mutated to the marginally less threatening “dreadlocks.” These primal figures, around whom the funky aroma of marijuana seemed permanently to float like an aura, could appear as archetypal and prophetic as a West African baobab tree or like the living, terrifying personification of a duppy, that most feared of dark spirits on the Island of Springs. It all depended upon your upbringing.
Casuarinas still obscures the second pyramid from view, the morning smog having reduced its rough surface to a blur. We are mounting higher, up a long curving avenue. A man on a camel appears above us, turning about 90 degrees to head toward the second pyramid, modern Cairo behind him in a milky miasma of modern pollution. We have dismounted our own steed, the tourist van, and are crossing a sandy space on foot to Chephren’s pyramid, confronting its official entrance (its secret entrance only to be revealed later). Author: So, what, do you feel, as we stand here, is the relation between this ancient, forbiddingly grand structure, and modern Cairo? Guide: The common thing between us is the religion.
Author: By which you mean that just as the Ancient Egyptians were very religious, so the modern Egyptians, or at least the 80 per cent that make up its Muslim population, are equally so.
Guide: Yes. Author: But you are taking this as a religious question. Let me ask you: Did you grow up in Cairo? Guide: No, I grew up in Giza. Author: How interesting! Can you recall, then, when you were young, what impression the pyramids made on you? Guide: Yes, it is all my life, the pyramids, for my house is very close to them. So I open my eyes on the pyramid. Author: What I am asking is: What have the pyramids meant to you in your life? Guide: When I was in high school, on the way to classes, they gave me the strength.
To preserve its autonomy, the Spenserian eye suspends itself in voyeurism, a defense that turns into perversion. Judaism avoided this dilemma by elevating the word and banishing the eye. But Christianity, assimilating pagan art, was divided from the moment it left Palestine. Spenser’s amoral dynamics of the western eye makes his poem the supreme work of Renaissance literature, until Hamlet, whose every scene is voyeuristic.
Author: So maybe you have received from the Ancient Egyptians (might we say?) a personal heritage. Guide: Yes, the pyramids gave me the power to continue my life. Author: Having walked all the way up to the pyramid of Chephren, we are now examining the casing at its base. You of course know that the accuracy with which the stones of this pyramid were cut and fitted defies modern engineering. I have read that the average tolerance (the distance) between the original slabs of white limestone that sheathed it surface was 1/50 of an inch. Some people think that this represents “magic,” others that the ancient Egyptians had a technology that has been lost.
What is your view of the problem of their surpassing skill?
The Seventh Crusade was a well-financed, well-manned initiative by the King of France, Louis IX. Like his predecessors, Louis saw Egypt as the key to the Holy Land, a rich base from which to conduct operations throughout the region. Damietta could have been defended this time around, but its garrisons and inhabitants instead panicked and fled. The Arab historian Ibn Wasil called it “a disaster without precedent.”
In the 21st century, dreadlocks are ubiquitous, though often as a fashion statement rather than as an emblem of religious belief. Jamaica’s followers of Rastafari, however, are fully aware that, at this time of great change, humanity is living in its last days. Following the prediction of the Book of Revelation upright “dreads” signify that only the righteous will move forward through the apocalypse into the new era.
Guide: Yes, when you come and look very closely at the pyramid, you wonder how they could possibly have been built. Author: My guide book has a detail that corroborates what you say: “It has been calculated that at the height of the construction, one block of 2.5 tons was being added every 2 minutes.” Now how is this possible? Guide: They were using 100,000 men for building the pyramid. Author: Do you believe that this pyramid was constructed by building a large ramp made of earth about it? Guide: Yes, I believe so. Author: Other students of the process say, however, that if you built such a ramp, one that obscured the work that had already been done, you could not then achieve such accuracy of measurement.
The Apollonian line to which The Faerie Queene belongs began in Egypt and Greece and passes through Donatello and Botticelli, Blake and Shelley, to the Pre-Raphaelite painters and Oscar Wilde. It then reappears in cinema, implicit in western art and thought from the start. The Faerie Queene makes cinema out of the West’s primary principle: to see is to know, to know is to control. The Spenserian eye cuts, wounds, rapes.
Author: Now, you have not only had the opportunity to experience the pyramids from early childhood up to your present adulthood, you have also had the chance to see them through the eyes of Japanese people, of Europeans, of tourists from around the world. How do people from other cultures view the pyramids? Guide: For the French and for the Germans, they want to learn lots of information about the pyramids. They want to know all the details. For the Japanese, it is a very big building, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and all they want to do is take photos. Author: And which view of the monument is more admirable? Guide: The first. Author: Oh, because you have so much information to offer, right?
The Mamluks were strong patrons of scholarship and the arts, given both to knowledge of the world and to imagination. “What one can imagine always surpasses what one sees,” wrote Ibn Khaldun, “due to the imagination.” Except for Cairo, “which surpasses anything that one can imagine.” Khaldun had seen too much of the world to be easily impressed, but Cairo took his breath away, this “garden of the universe.”
Author: Among the professionals in the field of Egyptology, which began in Italy, moved to France in the 19th century, then to Germany and England, many are now from the United States. What do you think about the American view of Egypt? Guide: Well, it is sort of in the middle, between the Japanese and the French or German. They want information, but not too much, and not too little, like the Japanese. Author: In the 19th century we re-discovered the pyramids. Late in the 20th century, we began to see a connection among the great pyramid cultures of the world: in Meso-America, in Egypt, in India and elsewhere. What do you think of the possible relations among the various cultures who used the form of the pyramid?
Only 144,000 souls battled to save the world from the perpetrators of the Babylonian greed and destruction that are all around us and endeavoring to destroy both humanity’s essential good and the environment in which positivity may flourish. They were to be depended upon. In the 1920s the rhetorical fuel that would help bring about such fiery thinking was provided by Marcus Garvey, the colorful prophet of black self-determination.
Guide: I am better at the connection among the Egyptians, the Greeks and the Romans. The later civilizations, which occupied Egypt, especially in Alexandria, began to adopt Egyptian features: they mummified the dead, they started to believe in some ancient Egyptian gods, they started to make statues in the same style as the ancient Egyptians. Author: Do you think that perhaps the Japanese will start doing this too, for they are very fond of imitation? When one goes to a store in China or Japan, one often finds Egyptian things. Guide: Yes, the Japanese like papyrus a lot.
Author: Now what do you, as a modern Egyptian (and tell me your honest opinion), believe about modern Japanese culture, since you have seen so many Japanese?
Direct contact with Botticelli was unnecessary; the Apollonian style was latent in medieval armor, in which Spenser clothes so many of his characters. Spenser’s questing knights, isolated against empty panoramas, replay Apollo’s hostility to nature. The West has always made Apollonian art objects out of arms of war. The bronze carapace of Homer’s heroes is a male exoskeleton, a hard western Will, like a football helmet.
Guide: I think it is work. The Japanese have become what they are because they like to work. They are like Ancient Egyptians, right? Author: How about modern Japanese and modern Egyptians, are they also similar? Guide: Modern Egyptians work, but only for money, for enough money to leave. Author: But this is not true of you! Guide: Yes, it is. Author: You only work to make money? Guide: Yes. Author: To return to an earlier subject: Modern opinion divides over the question of the function of the pyramids. It tends to dismiss the earlier idea that they were built primarily as tombs. What do you think was the function of the pyramids? Guide: During creation a mountain arose in the shape of this pyramid.
Cairo was “the metropolis of the world,” the “mother of all cities,” the meeting place of nations, the human anthill, the heart of Islam,” It had “palaces without number, flourishing madrasas and khanqahs, where its scholars could shine like dazzling stars. The city stretched over the banks of the Nile, the river of paradise and receptacle of the rains of heaven, whose waters were there to quench men's thirst.”
Author: As a modern person, not as a Muslim but as a person who knows about science, can you still believe in the ancient Egyptian account of the creation, with Nun and Atum-Ra, etc.? Guide: I think that at first the whole universe was water, yes. But after a while, you know, some pieces of land started to appear. Author: I think that you have been reading the Bible, perhaps. Guide: [Laughter.] Author [to his tape recorder]: We have mounted the road further, in the clear air of Giza, to view the second pyramid. A red pickup truck, blue and yellow markings on its side, descends the asphalt road, as camels with their riders ascend it. We turn back from the pyramid of Chephren to face the larger pyramid of Cheops.
Garvey, who had been born in St. Ann in 1887 and who had founded the United Negro Improvement Association, spoke to an audience at Madison Square Garden of “Ethiopia, Land of our Fathers,” and proclaimed that “negroes” believed in “the God of Ethiopia, the everlasting God.” Most significantly, he delivered a pivotal pronouncement: “Look to Africa, for the crowning of the Black King. He shall be a Redeemer.”
The sun is striking one of its faces and raking another. The haze is burning off. Two large birds circle the summit of the smaller pyramid, of Chephren. As we circumambulate it, we pass the two entrances to its burial chamber. Finally the largest pyramid comes into view. We continue, halfway to the pyramid of Mycerinus. The skies having cleared, the desert opens up to view: a butte; dunes; off in the distance, camels. As we arrive at the higher elevation of Mycerinus, buildings of modern Cairo emerge on the horizon. Author: Do you ever think of the pyramids, so often regarded as tombs, as also representing Life or Renewal? Guide: Yes, the ancients believed that they would bring man to the life again.
Western culture has always been obsessed with burnished surfaces. The elegant Corinthian war helmet, for example, with its flat cheek-guards and keyhole eyes, is an eerie super-self, smooth as a staring skull. Eastern armor is squat, sinuous and bushy. Asian art is based on the female curve, not the rigid male line. Eastern armor uses organic shapes, whereas western armor insists on technological insulation from nature.
Author: So you feel that the pyramids are symbols of Rebirth? Guide: Yes, they represent a re-creation, like the original creation of the universe. That is why they are building the pyramids. Author: We are returning, now, on foot, for our trip by van to visit the Sphinx. What does the Sphinx mean to you? Guide: It means to me the guardian, the guardian of the pyramids, of the tombs, of the noble families, of the country itself. Author: We have followed a route parallel to the great causeway and arrive at last in front of the Sphinx. The pyramid of Mycerinus reads off its left shoulder, the pyramid of Chephren farther to its left, the pyramid of Cheops rising to a height that appears less than that of the central pyramid.
Living in the troubled 14th century, having traveled as far as Reconquista Spain, in the west, and all the way to the court of Tamerlane, in the east, having experienced Damascus before its fall, Ibn Khaldun was fascinated by the forces at work in history and in the contemporary world, and he sought to explain them. “When the universe is turned upside-down, we must ask whether or not it is changing its nature,” he said.
The Sphinx is gazing eastward, over a wall. Perhaps the Sphinx is looking after your house in Giza. Guide: [Laughing.] Maybe so. My house is next to the tall building there. Author: You have told us of your childhood relation to the pyramids. What sort of a personal relationship do you have with the Sphinx? Guide: Well, you know, I considered the Sphinx to be my guardian [laughing again]. Author: Do you still regard it in this way? Guide: Yes. Author: It is interesting that the Sphinx, from such a distant, alien culture, can still protect you. (We have reached a point where the Sphinx is exactly centered under the apex of the pyramid of Mycerinus. You know, some think that it originally had the head of a lion.
In 1930, rising above aristocratic in-fighting that could have over-shadowed that in a Medici court, Ras Tafari Makonnen, great-grandson of King Saheka Selassie of Shoa, was crowned Emperor of Ethiopia and given the name of Haile Selassie, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah. Surely this was the fulfillment of Marcus Garvey’s prophecy, thoughtful proponents of the movement agreed.
Guide: No, the head is human; it is Cheops’ head. Author: In Luxor we notice that the Sphinxes have the heads of rams. Guide: This is because the ram is the secret animal of Amun-Ra. Author: But the ram is not a sacred animal to you, is it? Guide: No, no. Author: So you could only worship, or be protected by, something that had a human head? Guide: Yes, that is right. Author: Do you mean to tell me that your guardian, who has protected you from childhood, has the body of an animal? Guide: Yeah, yeah. Author: Is this not a contradiction for someone who believes in Islam? Guide: No, no, no. Author: We are viewing upward to the head of the Sphinx through a breach in the wall of the Graeco-Roman temple.
The western soldier is a steely marching machine. The Japanese Samurai is bristly and rotund; his armor pregnant, overgrown by vegetation. He is camouflaged, relapsing into female nature, like Spenser’s leafy Artegall, who is in a spiritually unreconstructed condition. Compare the imperial tombs of Egypt and China, the Pharaohs’ mummiform granite sarcophagi or the gleaming jade burial suits of Han princes.
The pyramid of Chephren rises from the right shoulder of the Sphinx. You have told me that the Greeks and the Romans also oriented their temples for the worship of the Sphinx. So, you have something in common with them; though you belong to another religion, like the Greeks and the Romans, you worship the Sphinx. Guide: Yeah, yeah. Author: Notice that I am using the word “worship.” I am quite surprised, for you seem to be saying that you actually revere, adore in a religious sense, the image of the Sphinx. Guide: Yes, that is right. Author: One function of this temple that we have just passed through was mummification. What is your own view of mummification? Is it for you a matter of life, or of death?
Far from stagnating, Egypt did fairly well overall under Ottoman rule, as is evident from the growth of its population from three million to four-and-a-half million by 1798. Alexandria continued its long decline, until it was little more than the fishing village that it had become by the time when Alexander visited it two millennia earlier. Cairo, known as Mother of the World, remained a great Eastern city, one of the capitals of Islam.
Guide: It is a process of Life. They wanted to keep him for a long, long time, so later he could go inside the body again and have Eternal Life. Author: We have arrived in the causeway, which leads back to Chephren’s pyramid. We are parallel to the Sphinx, whose perfect profile reads against a now cleared sky. What are we looking at here? Guide: The tombs of the nobles.
Author: And we are also looking at two camels. Guide: [Laughing.] Yes, that is right too. Author: Some foreigners want to excavate beneath the body of the Sphinx, because they have read in an ancient text of a burial chamber that might hold the key to the whole complex. What do you think? Guide: I think that we should not disturb the Sphinx.
The 1930s were years of social unrest and upheaval in Jamaica. Labor unrest on the island in 1938 culminated in the vicious suppression of striking sugar cane workers on the Tate & Lyle estate in the west of Jamaica. Under its orders, the estate’s manager, a member of the Lindo family, dismissed out of hand the demands of 600 workers for wages of a minimum of four shillings a day, offering them half that amount instead.
We are driving toward Islamic Cairo on a new thruway, past recently constructed apartment blocks in red brick outlined with off-white concrete pillars. Continuous, centralized power in one area distinguishes Egypt from other Islamic nations such as Syria, Iraq, Anatolia, Andalusia and Persia, where different cities vied for supremacy in different epochs, sometimes simultaneously. There is a rather relentless uniformity in this modern housing. Muslim Egypt was ruled from a single site, the area between the mosque of ’Amr in the south and Bab al-Nasr and Bab-al Futuh in the north. Though green fields full of cattle, water buffalo and vegetable gardens do relieve the monotony.
Outside this area in Cairo very few medieval buildings of interest have survived, whereas, within it, a large proportion of its medieval and post-medieval monuments still stand, as witness to more than eleven centuries of history. To one side the landscape opens up: palm trees, arching their branches upward and outward. What we today call in English Cairo is an agglomeration of four cities. Water-filled paddies under cultivation. The succession of capitals began with al-Fustat (641), the Abbasid foundation of al-Askar (750) and the Tulunid establishment of al-Quata’i’ (870). We pass a large green truck stacked high with Pepsi-Colas.
The fourth satellite city came with the Fatimid conquest.
The median of the modern thruway is without vegetation. First named al-Mansuriyya, it was later renamed al-Qahira (The Victorious), after the planet Mars, in ascendance when ground was broken for the new capital. The roadway itself is well maintained, well marked. Under the Fatimids, al-Qahira became the seat of power, a ceremonial, residential center where the Caliph dwelt with his court and army. As we approach the modern metropolis, television aerials give way to satellite dishes. Nonetheless, al-Fustat remained the productive and economic center of Egypt. A transformer station occupies a large, gravel-paved compound. Misr, as the old city was, and is, called, continued to flourish.
At the turnoff for Lebanon Square we exit. Travelers from the tenth to the mid-eleventh centuries reported that it competed in grandeur and prosperity with the greatest Islamic cities. At the end of the down ramp we join city traffic. Recent excavations at al-Fustat have corroborated these contemporary descriptions. Soon we mount onto another superhighway. Al-Qahira, on the other hand, stood high above the problems of the mother city. As we pass an exit for Sudan Street, we notice buildings from eight to twelve stories high. A French ambassador to Cairo, speaking of the palace in 1167, mentions “floors of colored marble, grouted with gold,” “a colonnaded courtyard with silver pipes.”
(Doris Behrens-Abouseif, Islamic Architecture in Cairo [Cairo: American U.P., 1989])
Western Apollonianism by contrast is ungiving, impermeable, adamantine. It is an aesthetic of closure. Donald Keene says that Japanese sentences “trail off into thin smoke,” a vapor of hanging participles. In other words, Japanese sentences avoid closure. Even the sword blade, in the West a harsh phallic totem, is given an interior by Japanese connoisseurs, who project poetic landscapes into its hundred folded layers.
(Camille Paglia again, followed by more interwoven sentences from Doris Behrens-Abousief)
Crossing the railway tracks, we head into Cairo proper. These accounts imply that, by the end of the eleventh century, Egypt’s two symbiotic capitals, Misr and al-Qahira, physically manifested the separation between the indigenous people and the ruling elite. Children, out of school for more than an hour, are still dawdling on their way home. The larger city, Misr, supported the productive and mercantile population, whereas al-Qahira was inhabited exclusively by the foreign rulers. Along the thruway a retaining wall, in molded concrete, rises as a three-meter-high barrier. After his victory over the Franks, Salah al-Din became vizier under the last Fatimid Caliph, whom he overthrew in 1171.
Quickly we skirt The Ministry of Youth, its letters in gold, Arabic above, English below. This enabled him to reestablish the supremacy of the Sunni Caliphate of Bagdad. Here, among buildings that house financial, real estate and corporate offices, curtain wall construction commences. Thereby ending two centuries of Isma’ili Sh’ite rule in Egypt. Their surfaces are covered, like mountain stepping stones, with individual air-conditioning units already laboring to control the humid heat of midday. Not, however, before the establishment of a Caliphate in Egypt under the Fatimids did an indigenous style in art and architecture crystallize. A white-on-green official sign points us toward “Downtown Cairo.”
The mosque of Ibn Tulun, despite a few later variations, is still a product of the Abbasid court art of Samarra. Traffic begins to clog, gradually eventuating in a standstill; stalled on the flyover, we are slowly overtaken by a young Egyptian man of perhaps 23. Cairo’s new status as seat of the Fatimid Caliphate led to the emergence of a new, individual style. He has a Coke can in one hand, a cell phone in the other. The arts and architecture of the Fatimid period show an integrated use of Coptic, Byzantine and Samarra elements. As he proceeds toward the downtown business district, leaving vehicular traffic behind, we await passage over one of the branches of the Nile, its restaurants visible from the flyover.
Foreign forms in Fatimid architecture and decoration thus express not a provincial version of an imperial prototype. We at last return to the recognizable cityscape of Zamalek, where author’s modest hotel is located. But a demonstration that the new imperial city had considerable attraction for craftsmen and artists from many traditions in and outside Egypt. Still on an elevated highway, two stories above ground level, we press onward, slowly. According to Shi’a doctrine, the only legitimate and authoritative religious leaders. Having crossed over the larger of the two branches of the Nile, we descend from the bridge, down its ramp to ground level, where the ambiance grows more demotic.
In the Ayyubid period (1171-1250), decoration is quite distinct from that used during the Fatimid period. In this colorful neighborhood, traffic grows a great deal more unpredictable, a policeman seen near his wit’s end trying to regulate it. The arabesques are more abstract and more intricate, to the extent that the basic design is concealed behind its densely carved curves, which are very minutely and delicately executed. Cars wedge their way into the flow of traffic from a side street. Their basic arrangement, however, follows the usual geometric rules. A pile of sand falls off a donkey-propelled cart. Indeed, the stuccos resemble lace, as at the base of a minaret added in 1237 to the shrine of al-Husayn.
To an astonishing degree, Khedive Ismail’s attention was fixed not on his own society but on the emerging larger world of Europe and beyond. More pro-western than his predecessors, he was fond of saying, “My country is no longer in Africa; we are now a part of Europe.” After visiting France in 1867, he returned to Egypt, dazzled by the transformation that Napoleon II’s engineer Haussmann had imposed upon it.
It has bounced over a bump in the road, its driver honking his horn and gesticulating. During the Bahri Mamluk Period (1250-1328) Cairo’s legacy of monuments is for the art historian a source of both delight and despair. The driver of a pickup truck, ignoring the donkey-cart driver’s signal, moves into our path. Owing to the variety of forms and patterns adopted during this period, greater by far than that found in later periods. Cars behind the pickup also ignore the warning, further clogging up traffic. The architecture of the Bahri Mamluk is primarily Cairene, based on Fatimid and Ayyubid traditions. This requires that our driver get out of the car and enter into negotiation with a policeman.
It, however, did not preclude foreign influences, especially felt in Mamluk architecture. Once the way has been perfunctorily cleared of sand, we continue along the narrow street until, within a block or two, the neighborhood grows more middle class. The madrasa of Sarghitmish and the Sultaniyya mausoleums have double shell domes with high drums, a style alien to Cairo but common to Eastern Islamic architecture. We reach an overhead highway but instead of mounting it turn beneath it. Not only were there foreign architects in Cairo, but the Mamluks themselves came from Central Asia, from the Caucasus, and even from Europe. A lumbering red-blue-and-white bus pulls out in front of us.
The Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517 changed the status of Cairo from an imperial seat to a provincial capital. We follow a black sedan, its red and green back lights lit simultaneously. It became a city without a sultan, governed by a viceroy (called a pasha) sent from Istanbul for a limited period. Slowly we proceed under the overpass. Cairo was simply a stage in the pasha’s career. We come to a corner café in pink and red, its Arabic letters in blue neon. A multitude of Ottoman governors ruled between 1517 and 1798 (when Napoleon conquered Egypt); some left religious buildings of interest, but others remained only names in a long list of rulers. On a wall, a silver graffito, in English, reads “ME.”
After hearing the addresses of assorted labor leaders, including Alexander Bustamante, then the leader of the new Jamaican labor movement, the workers attacked the Tate & Lyle offices and assaulted the European staff. Local police fixed bayonets and advanced on the employees: four strikers were killed, including an elderly woman who was bayoneted to death. Dozens were rounded up and jailed, including Bustamante.
Western armor is separatist, dividing self from self, self from nature. Spenser’s is moreover symbolic of Apollonian externality, strife and solar wakefulness. It ensures visibility for personae hardened against their own sexuality. In The Faerie Queene, Nature lurks everywhere with seductive dissolutions of surrender and repose. Arms and armor not only symbolize the fortitude of male heroes but of Spenser’s heroines as well.
Whereupon Khedive Ismail resolved to turn antiquated Cairo into a Paris by the Nile. Dissatisfied with its medieval maze of streets, he sent his wrecking crews crashing through old neighborhoods, destroying architectural treasures along the way, so that Cairo could have boulevards of its own. New gardens were laid out. A big opera house was built at Ezbekiah, which opened in November 1869 with Verdi's Rigoletto.
Author has descended on foot into Old Cairo, arriving at a beautiful square cultivated with a well kept lawn, surrounded with palm trees, at the center of which a fountain, cordoned off with stone pillars and a high iron railing. On one side stands an elegant mosque, its minaret inset with an electric yellow-faced clock, its hands indicating 2:15 pm. On another side of the square is an arcade containing shops and cafés. On yet another, a trench is being excavated, next to a public building, beyond it the dome of another mosque.
In wealth, size and power Cairo was unrivalled. The Ottoman Turks were not yet a threat; the Mongol menace had receded. Christian Europe was sending merchants, not warriors, to the Mamluk capital. The sultan cashed in handsomely. By a redistribution of fiefdoms, which he had forced on his amirs, 5/12 of the empire’s revenues, including the tax receipts of Mecca, Damascus and Aleppo and the tariffs of Jedda, Alexandria and Tripoli, flowed directly into the Sultan’s coffers in the Citadel.
(Max Rodenbeck, Cairo: The City Victorious [New York: Vintage, 2000])
We continue out of this brighter space into a darker alleyway, where an Egyptian restaurant is specializing in lamb; on to a highly aromatic herb shop. At an opening to a bazaar’s interior, author peers in, only to be peered back at. In front of a sidewalk café, men sit on sofas against a wall, brass trays in front of them, set on small, circular, wooden tables, filled with cups of coffee and glasses of warm water. An inlay shop devoted to mother of pearl is showing boxes, cases, backgammon sets that fold up, all made of black teak.
Al-Nasir Muhammad’s eleven daughters received a dowry of some 800,000 gold dinars each. His fourteen sons were among the wealthiest men in the world. They were not, however, so fortunate in several other ways. During the six short years that followed al-Nasir’s death, murder and intrigue prevented five of them from succeeding him. Soon after their brother Hasan, a lively freckled red-haired boy of twelve, acceded to the throne, in 1347, the Black Death struck down a third of his capital’s population.
Another shop is showing slippers, in blue, in black, in beige, in red. We make another turning, to enter more deeply into the maze. Turning once more, we end up behind a man with a long stick who is guiding two sheep down the corridor ahead of him. A waiter with a single glass of water on a tray crosses in front of us. Objects of finely worked silver fill a shop’s window, the objects reflecting themselves. Inside, behind a counter stacked with silver trays and ewers, sits the owner in languorous conversation with five or six other men.
Ironically, the youthful Sultan Hasan found himself richer than ever before. As whole families were erased, thousands of victims died intestate. Their property reverted to the ruler. Perhaps in the hope that an act of piety would appease God (or perhaps encouraged instead by courtiers seeking commissions and kickbacks), Hasan decided to spend this hoard on the most gigantic religious edifice yet seen in the Islamic world. It could not be complete, of course, without the most glorious royal tomb to grace Cairo.
The silver shop is constructed of intricate alcoves that both reveal and conceal its wares. We return through dark alleyways, through less dark alleyways, into the bazaar’s still dark concourse, but two meters across. Copper-handled walking sticks are on display. From the concourse we return into the not very brightly lit side street. In a window are fabrics embroidered with Arabic words in gold and silver. In the next shop silver bracelets are displayed, silver boxes, and silver plates. “Sunny Land” reads the name of a print gallery.
Hasan chose a site across from the polo grounds, below the sumptuous Striped Palace that his father had built, from whose windows he could watch the progress of its construction. The work began in 1356, hemorrhaging funds at 1,000 dinars a day. The building’s lavish ornamentation reflects the eclecticism of the Mamluk’s imperial city. Its sunken doorway, capped with a stone semi-dome, carved into stalactites like the interior of a pomegranate, mimics the portals of Seljuk mosques in Anatolia.
The street grows livelier as we progress. Carts begin to fill the sidewalk, pushing out into the narrow motorway, which is filled with motorcyclists, bicyclists and pedestrians. At a cross street, two minarets, in opposite directions, conclude their two prospects. A boy with a cage atop his head thus makes clear that the freshly baked loaves of bread within it are for sale. As a convenience he has piled smaller loaves atop the cage as well. Older women in black, middle aged in grey, younger in brighter colors all promenade past.
His armed Amazons, Belphoebe and Britomart, are among the most potent women in literature. Spenser removes the usual archetypal basis of female force, the daemonic, and re-imagines his heroines as Apollonian angels. This had not been done since Greek Artemis. He creates a Renaissance cult of married love. As C. S. Lewis observes, Spenser’s “romance of marriage” replaces the “romance of adultery” found in Courtly Love.
Like Memphis in Herodotus’ time, Fustat in the 11th and 12th centuries was a city where races and creeds mingled peaceably. Aside from the constant influx of slaves, the cross-currents of war and commerce and religious devotion brought waves of foreign immigrants. The Fatimid army included Sudanese, Berger and Turkish brigades. The palace guard was a veritable foreign legion of national mercenaries. The Persian traveler, Nasir Khusraw, describes the Fatimid court as a haven for political refugees.
On the eighth anniversary of the crossing of the Suez Canal, Anwar al-Sadat, the President of Egypt, sat in state on a reviewing stand in the ancient capital of Heliopolis before the pyramidal Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, He was watching a military parade. Most eyes had already shifted to observe aerial acrobatics, but Sadat saw a truck stopping in front of the stand and a team of soldiers jumping out and rushing toward him.
A man with two large plastic sacks full of clothing, one in black, one in grey, walks by, holding them in either hand. Push carts are filled with coconuts, with underwear, with vegetables. The shop signs now are almost exclusively in Arabic. Beige, red and black brassieres hang on ropes, as next door, incense, already lighted, fills the air with smoke, which drifts idly over the ladies’ underwear. Modern athletic pants, destined for use as ordinary street wear, hang from on high. Baby shoes, polo shirts, button downs, ladies’ dresses.
They riddled his body with bullets and killed seven others by tossing hand grenades.
“Princes of the Magreb, Yemen, Byzantium, Slavonia, Nubia, Ethiopia and Georgia,” wrote Khusraw in his Safarnameh, “as well as sundry men of letters, receive stipends from the caliph. They live at court like ministers of state,” he added, “with nothing in particular to do but wander about, chat with each other and retire to their quarters.” While Egypt luxuriated, Europe was lurching instead to the end of a dark age. Beginning with the Synod of Toulouse, in 1229, the Catholic Church established the Inquisition.
A culinary stand is doing a brisk business in baked yams. The street is crowded with Chaos but also with Prosperity. A man stops to unload a dingy, reinforced plastic bag of charcoal tied to the back of a black bicycle. Author turns into a street that soon is covered by the overhead highway. The surface below is potholed, filled with random rocks and detritus. We continue on our course homeward, glancing into a mosque whose inner court has been covered in Astroturf. The traffic is congested with black-and-white taxis vying for fares.
The depth of biblical and historical knowledge displayed at a Rastafarian reasoning was impressive, as was the mental agility to perceive every semantic subtlety of the arguments propagated. The same is true of such meetings today. The myriad contradictions that litter Rastafari assume the status of numinous truths, when one recalls Carl Jung’s assertion that “all great truths must end in paradox.”
Sedans, pickup trucks, buses compete for space in this unregulated street. A well-dressed Cairene in a camel’s hair coat has difficulty finding for himself a taxi, then negotiating a fare. After the garment district ends, the brass appliance district begins. A view up one alleyway reveals three minarets to three different mosques. A scrawny parrot walks along the front of a bookstore, all whose offerings are in Arabic. In a window three pyramids are displayed, large, medium and small, gradated from beige to grey.
The Mamluk Beys having fled or gone into hiding, it fell to the only authority left, the native-born sheiks of the great mosques, to surrender the city. On 24 July the Franks entered Cairo unarmed, laughing in the markets, paying the outrageous prices demanded. Napoleon took up residence in the eastern suburbs, by the lake of Azbakiyya, in the newly built palace of Alfi Bey, a wealthy Mamluk. To the surprise of the common people, “Bunabart” was not a devil with foot-long fingernails, as the Beys had said.
A man in thick spectacles trudges past, a scale dangling from one hand, its pan from the other.
We are back in Zamalek, one of Cairo’s notably upper-middle-class neighborhoods. Author is touring on foot its upmarket shops. “Blue Sky Travel,” reads a sign, “United Tour Services,” another, “Boutique Champollion” (a reference to the brilliant Frenchman who deciphered the hieroglyphs). The curb is lined with late-model Japanese sedans and SUVs, in white, maroon and grey. At the corner of a building constructed of carefully mortised stones, now painted beige, is a sign reading, “The Anglo-Swiss Hotel, 6th Floor.”
The Awakening of Egypt expresses, more than any other symbol, the national liberation struggle. Sculpted by Mahmoud Mukhtar in 1928, the work, which stands to this day, epitomizes the spirit of the 1919 Revolution. (The statue first stood in Ramesses Square but is now in the avenue leading up to the University of Cairo.) Its creator was an ordinary Egyptian from the heart of the countryside, unlike most other sculptors in modern Egypt up to that time, many of whom were foreigners, mostly Italians, commissioned to do statues and busts of the royal family. The work of Mahmoud Mukhtar by contrast was intimately associated with the nationalist movement.
Amidst all the other shops is a stand purveying kebab called “Takeaway El-Kayyam,” So bad is the parking problem in this affluent neighborhood, that the three outermost lanes of a six-lane avenue are filled with parked vehicles. Above the El-Kayyam, a golden pharaoh sits on his throne. Local residents stroll past on the sidewalk and in the street. Inhibited by pedestrians, we negotiate our own way in among double- and triple-parked cars. Amidst a flurry of honked horns we find ourselves skirting the office of “Somali Airlines.”
He grew up in Tambara, a village near Mehalla Al-Kubra. Though he worked in agriculture, like every Egyptian he had a passion for beauty. Fate enabled him to enroll in the School of Fine Arts, where he quickly proved an astute student. For four years, the Italian dean of the School of Fine Arts kept Mukhtar secluded from the environment in which he arose. After a period of intensive study, he introduced the young Mahmoud to Prince Youssef Kamal, recommending that he be sent to Paris to study. In the City of Light, Pierre Coutin, the French sculptor, took the Egyptian under his wing. Mukhtar’s talent bloomed, as is manifest in his famous statue of Aida.
We walk under signs for “Mass Travel,” for “Corebio Car Engineering,” reaching an intersection over which freeway traffic is moving. Beneath the high thruway, white buses are circulating, in yellow on blue. Traffic arrows direct us to “Ramesses Square” and “Dhamra,” to “Al-Waili” and “Heliopolis,” to “Nasr City,” to “Cairo Airport.” On the corner, as we wait for the light to change, a sign in white on red advertises “Cheops Travel.” In a white veil, a woman wipes her forehead with a tissue, then her nose, then her cheeks, then her chin.
The piece was lauded in the French press, which extolled this “young artistic genius from the land of the Pharaohs.” Soon afterwards, Mukhtar was appointed curator of a Paris museum, for which he created statues of war heroes. Critics linked his artistic development to certain developments in Egypt following World War I. Not long after the 1919 Revolution, the Egyptian sculptor then left his position at the French museum to “devote himself full-time to an Egyptian work. Its concept had been germinating for two years. First he sketched it out, then enlarged it. He was delving into his imagination for an image to manifest “the glory of the awakening.”
A smaller bus reading “African Tours and Diving” crosses in front of us. (“The most advanced countries of the world have subjected their systems to practical experiments.”) A young woman, long-haired, attractive in her oversize dark glasses, also crosses in front of us. (“After many trials they progress, and the more they progress, the closer they come to Islam.”) Insistently horns encourage the traffic light to change. (Sheikh Muhammad Mitwalli Shaarawi, in Al-Raai al-Aam, 1 July 1994.) As it does we re-enter the heavy traffic.
It was on 4 May 1920, under the headline “Mahmoud Mukhtar: the famous Egyptian sculptor,” that Egyptians first heard of what has now become a familiar landmark. The politician Wissa Wassef wrote: “It is Egypt awakening the Sphinx, which has opened its eyes to the sound of her voice. To Westerners the Sphinx is the symbol of muteness and deafness.” He went on to urge that Egypt “pave the way for brilliant Egyptian talents, of the likes of Mahmoud Mukhtar, so that they do not have to labor in Europe and then be ignored in Egypt, so that their own nation can benefit from having their talents and enable them to convey their knowledge to the nation.”
The sun is warm but pleasant. “Fine Tissues,” read the blue letters on the white ground of a panel truck. A young couple chats in their red, second-hand Fiat, an attractive female friend in the back seat attending to them. (“All earthy matters must be judged in respect of the interests of the afterworld.”) Among the crossing hoods of cars we finally enter on foot the ramp to Zamalek. (Ibn Khaldun, on the Muslim theory of governance, in Prolegomena, c. 1380.) Ahead rises a tall tower, to one side of it, an advertisement for “Arab Bank.”
The sculptor portrays his subject, not with its eyes open, but with its eyes just opening as though awakening at that very moment from its centuries-long slumber. As for the woman symbolizing Egypt, “every feature is depicted painstakingly. Her forehead shines; her long nose resembles Cleopatra’s. This, however, does not detract from her beauty. Her lips are slightly parted as though to pronounce noble words; her chin suggests a righteous tenacity; and her hands evoke the generosity of her ancestry.” Moreover, she has cast off the veil. Coupled with the report was an appeal to the Egyptian people to donate money towards the purchase of this work of art.
On the bridge, beside the sidewalk that we use to cross it, the traffic has built up again. Lining the downtown side of this branch of the Nile, are high-rise commercial towers, their windows in darkened glass. Sunlight rakes their riverward surfaces. From our higher, and more leisurely, perspective, we can observe cars as they turn beneath the overhead bridge. The effect is one of affluence. A woman in a white headscarf, a grey robe, walks across the street below us. Having mounted the access ramp, we now hover above the Nile.
Mukhtar then decided to return to Egypt, encouraged perhaps by his new-found fame. He was not to be disappointed by the welcome he received in Cairo. An official committee greeted him upon his arrival, and shortly afterwards the Cairo Club itself hosted a huge reception in his honor. Al-Ahram reports, “It was held in Shubra, in an elegant marquee, at the center of which had been erected a model of The Awakening. Ahmed Hishmat Pasah presided over the ceremonies. Women sat in one row and men in another. The speeches that were delivered expressed the great appreciation felt by the Egyptian people for the statue and its creator.”
It is close by at first, starting with the intimate pock of a microphone and a discreet cough or two. Somewhere in the sleeping city an answering cough stutters. And now, as the local muezzin shuts his eyes and cups a hand by his ear, that first sound takes sudden shape as syllables and words rising strong and clear. An echo follows from far off. Then another in the middle distance, quickly joined by a third.
Multiple ferry boats are nestled against the Nile’s near bank, while upriver, modern commercial towers catch the light in a slightly shady ambiance. This metropolis is not fully formed and exudes a mild air of corruption. Beyond, newer, high-rise condominium appear, associating with one another, in more imaginative architectural forms. They seem to stride through the urban landscape, as though expressing a mildly diffident confidence. We have taken our proper homeward turn, past a stalled Mercedes, its hood elevated.
More voices enter, until a mighty chorus soars in rounds, relaying the call to prayer clear across the valley from east to west with such amplified force that God would not need to be All-Hearing to hear it. An electric cloud of sound accumulates and holds, suspended over Cairo for a full minute by the loudspeakers of some 1,000 mosques, before slowly dissolving piecemeal into the twitter of the waking birds.
Mansour Fahmi explained why this work reverberated among the Egyptian people: “Since ancient times, Egypt has always preferred to inscribe its mysteries and its hopes in stone. Today, God granted one of Egypt’s sons the ability to follow in the footsteps of his ancestors, and this man fixed in stone Egypt’s national aspirations. Its message, moreover, reaches both the learned and the unschooled, the literate and the illiterate. It reaches all the people of our nation.” Following the event, a committee was created to oversee a donations drive to cover the cost of the commission and the eventual placing of the statue in one of the capital’s squares.
Before long we descend the off-ramp, looking out over an enormous race track, within which a small golf course has been constructed. “Imperial Hotel,” reads a sign to the West. We step down into the relatively quiet, affluent side streets of Zamelek, well endowed with generations of arboreal growth. “Sale,” read yellow letters on a black banner, stretched across a shop’s window. Two well-to-do girls in long hair and black slacks motor comfortably through this polite ambiance. We skirt a large modern hotel with balustrades.
Mukhtar announced that he wanted to make the statue not out of bronze but out of the native stone of his country, “because this stone is a national element.” Al-Ahram reports, “Cutting the blocks of stone in Aswan and transporting them to Cairo was, in itself, a major undertaking. Some of the pieces weighed up to 35 tons and had to be transported using the methods adopted by Egyptians thousands of years ago. Finally, twelve huge pieces of granite reached Cairo, and from these the statue will be created according to the existing model.” On 8 June 1922, Al-Ahram announced to its readers that within a week Mukhtar would begin work on the piece.
In this age of fluorescent light and 24-hour TV, many Cairenes stay up too late at night to heed the muezzin’s advice that prayer at dawn is better than sleep. Yet nearly all those late risers will find some way to appease Allah, for ignoring the dawn call. They may add an extra prostration to one of the four remaining prayers of that day, for example, or pass alms to a beggar, or perform some other small act of piety.
“Its base will consist of a fourteen-meter-tall block of black granite; the stones, lined up end-to-end, are between 180 and 200 meters each in length and will stand within an area 180 meters square.” Al-Ahram dispatched a reporter to Mukhtar’s workshop to follow this work in progress. It was a large wooden room with burlap lining its walls. The artist's assistants, it was reported, were “toiling industriously at the sculpting of the massive blocks of stones. Alongside them were plaster casts of the various parts of the statue that they were copying. The model was three-and-a-half meters tall, whereas the completed statue,” it was said, “will be seven meters in height.”
We pass an affluent mosque too, in el-Gazira Street. Even in these sheltered by-ways traffic is intense, kinetically, visually, audibly. Gatekeepers, in sunny chairs before their gates, lazily perform their duties. At Ashiba Gallery a sign reads “Redwing Shoes,” followed by a red wing. We negotiate another turn through traffic to arrive at Budget Rent-a-Car, then on into a street so narrow as to accommodate only one lane of vehicles between its closely packed curbs. We come upon a row of elegant colonial mansions boarded up.
The reporter took the occasion to inform his readers that it would be another three years before the statue was completed. But to finish it on time, the sculptor needed to double the number of his assistants. Not only that, but the LE7,000 that had been collected for the project had almost run out. “We must, with some anxiety, ask what will be the fate of this statue if the money should be exhausted and no more is forthcoming? Will Mukhtar leave his country and return to Paris, to a milieu that appreciates works of art, one in which he will continue to build the splendid future that awaits him? Or can we guarantee that progress on this project proceeds rapidly?”
The Egyptians, said Herodotus, were “religious to excess, beyond any other nation in the world.” The focus of Memphis was the Temple of Ptah, not some Roman-style forum or senate. Not only was there no separation of religion and state, the pharaoh himself was man’s direct link with the gods. Beliefs may have changed since Herodotus visited Memphis, but religion still permeates the collective life of Cairo.
In a letter to the editor, an Al-Ahram reader shed further light on the financial question. “It cost LE3,000 to ferry five of the granite stones from Aswan to Cairo,” he wrote, “and the remaining pieces cannot be transported by rail. Then there is the question of transporting the stones from the dock in Boulaq to the desired location, which would require a crane to lift them from the boats and load them onto special transport vehicles.” The writer quoted the contractor in charge of procuring the stones from Aswan: “The blocks were cut from a single layer of rock in the mountain from which the ancient Egyptians used to quarry the stones for their statues.”
Old mansions, their gardens still intact, have been fashioned into offices for doctors, architects and other professionals. Again, the traffic comes to a halt, before a kiosk with large striped awnings in white and baby blue. “Baraka,” reads a legend. We are still above the scene, here looking down into a taxi cab, on whose dashboard, atop a green plastic sheet, has been arranged an ocher throw-rug. A passenger, his evening edition of an Arabic paper open, talks to the driver, gesticulating, not likely about the evening news.
Eventually, the committee concluded that the location for the statue had to meet the condition that “it not obstruct the movement of traffic in the train station square and take into account the future needs of roads and the like.” The decision outraged Egyptians, and with them Al-Ahram, which charged, on 18 April 1925, that “The will of an individual or a handful of individuals is seeking to undermine the will of the entire nation!” Government foot-dragging on the question of the work continued for another two years — the life span of the Ziwar government. However, the drive to complete the statue again picked up steam when the elections of 1926 were held.
100,000 congregations pray in public to mark the end of Ramadan. They will have fasted by day for the full lunar month. Their devotion will have turned the rhythm of the city almost upside down, shops staying open into the small hours and daytime business dragging almost to a halt, a hush falling at dusk till the moment when a cannon shot from the Citadel declares the day is done and the feasting may begin.
These brought in an overwhelmingly Wafdist parliament and the Adli Yakan cabinet that consisted of a majority of members of the Wafd Party. The death of Saad Zaghlul in August 1927, moreover, did not put the brakes on the project; to the contrary, the death of the national leader seemed to make its completion more urgent than ever. The Senate voiced its growing impatience when, on 16 February 1928, a member took up the subject with the minister of public works: “Every Egyptian hopes to see the statue, The Awakening of Egypt, completed as soon as possible. The government has decided to erect it on the square of the capital's train station.”
The Leading Natural Water in Egypt,” reads an advertisement. A portly man walks in among the stalled traffic, offering for sale a box of ripe strawberries. Another, 65, his front teeth missing, holds a comb upright above his head. “Emperor Divers” reads his tee shirt. At last the traffic inches forward, past a blue jump-suited man pushing a blue refuse cart with his broom. “Misr Service” read the blue letters on its back panel. We continue through an intersection, past a sign pointing us toward the Greater Cairo Library.
The senator had to wait only two months till a new government was in place, headed by Wafd leader Mustafa El-Nahhas, and keen to demonstrate his nationalist credentials. Preparations thus went into high gear for the statue’s unveiling. On 29 March Al-Ahram published two front-page photos: one of the statues resting on its base, many workers bustling around it, a second, with a woman’s face figuring in the statue. To confirm reports that all was proceeding smoothly, Al-Ahram again dispatched a reporter, who wrote that under Mukhtar’s supervision, his assistants were busy polishing up the basalt base and putting the final touches to the statue.
We encounter increasingly upmarket emporia: The Sock Shop, Soirée, Nicks Plus. Two guards have adopted a desultory posture before The Embassy of the State of Bahrain. We arrive at, and quickly depart from, The International Language School; men and women alike in front of it stand waiting for their buses. Suddenly, inexplicably, the traffic clears and we continue down an almost automobile-less avenue, only a police car facing us in the wrong lane, its lights blinking. We pass the Sheik’s Hotel with its Café Royal.
“For the polishing, they are using very hard rock affixed to an electric machine,” the reporter wrote, adding that this process should be completed within days. “By mid-April,” he predicted, “all should be ready for the unveiling of the glorious national monument. The first of its kind in the modern world, this statue will revive the era of ancient Egyptian sculpture and art.” The Al-Ahram reporter was a little off in his prediction, not because of delays in the work, but because King Fouad kept putting off the day when he could attend the unveiling ceremony. Egyptians, therefore, had to wait until His Royal Majesty “deigned” to agree on Sunday, 20 May 1928.
We leap upward to a new level of affluence. Ahead, through the dappled light among the leaves, a scarlet SUV arrives. Sunlight selectively strikes individuals, as though bestowing grace upon them. A Mercedes crowds one curb, a BMW the other. Fresh fruit is on sale in abundance. Guards, in green military post boxes, protect large mansions, in among which are art galleries and antique stores. Well-heeled kids stroll by, smiling. We negotiate our way past pedestrians of many nationalities. At last we arrive at our neighborhood.
Al-Ahram of 21 May could be dubbed the Egypt Awakening edition. The tone was set by Editor-in-Chief Dawoud Barakat whose headline read “Egypt Awakening: a pause for reflection.” “This statue,” he wrote, “emanated from purely Egyptian traditions which are preserved in the monuments of Saqqara, Karnak, Edfu, Dendera and Nubia, and which dictate that Egyptian life and civilization should be perpetuated in stone.” In addition to other cultural commentary, the edition featured a lengthy poem written by the “Prince of Poets,” Ahmed Shawqi. The greater portion of the newspaper, however, was devoted to detailed coverage of the events the day before.
Before returning to his hotel author decides to pay a visit to the “Egyptian Perfume Center,” where he is offered delicious whiffs of Lotus Perfume, Attar of Roses, Double Jasmine, Narcissus, Mimosa, Lavender, Black Narcissus and Heliotrope.
The newspaper reported that at precisely 5.25 o’clock the “royal retinue” departed from Abdin Palace by car and arrived at the site of the statue at 6.00. “Policemen and soldiers encircled the square of the train station and lined the streets through which the procession passed.” The ministers, headed by El-Nahhas, awaited the king’s arrival. “When His Royal Majesty appeared, he passed through the doorway and drove directly up to the royal box. Once the king had descended, all present in the pavilion arose.” The marquee for palace and government officials had been set up so that the king would preside over the proceedings from an elevated position.
El-Zamalek morning scene, observed from fourteen stories above the large playground of an international school, author standing in chilly air on his narrow balcony. Though the hour is early, the lot is already filled with kids in school uniforms: blue shirts and red jackets. They are joined by threesomes, foursomes of older kids dressed in grey. Some younger kids have taken off their jackets and are running about in their blue shirts and grey school pants. Several informal soccer games are in progress. Schoolbags have been piled together at the playground’s center, out of which rise three tall date palms. At the school’s front gate, the kids continue to arrive, being dropped off by parents, by taxis, by small school buses.
When Fouad sat down, El-Nahhas rose to deliver the opening address, inspired by the memory of the nationalist movement and of Saad Zaghlul. The newspaper noted that the speech was one of patriotic pride. Referring to the 1919 Revolution, El-Nahhas declared, “Egypt arose as one to demand freedom and independence for its citizens and entry into the fold of nations on the basis of equality and friendship. From the first day, Saad Zaghlul, the advocate of national resurgence, established these truths through his force of persuasion and his power of oratory, enabling the idea of resurgence to shine forth and the nation to emerge triumphant in this important quest.”
At a slower pace their teachers arrive, in head scarves. The school occupies several colonial villas with their servants quarters. For the younger kids a formerly domestic garden has been covered in Astroturf and filled with recreational equipment: ladders, a gym, a slide covered by a cylinder. A red sedan enters and parks in a garage behind one villa. A pale green car heads out of the frame, its back lights blushing crimson at a stop sign. Up our street, in the opposite direction, a yellow sedan pulls out, to encounter quickly a bright green SUV. Down at the other end of the street, older kids, more conservatively dressed, are seen trudging toward their morning classes. The apartment buildings are either six or eight stories tall.
Elsewhere El-Nahhas addressed the impact of the political revival on life in Egypt. “Freedom is indivisible and cannot accept fragmentation in any domain where it is exercised,” El-Nahhas said. “Therefore, all Egyptians, men and women alike, gathered around the sweet font of freedom and drank their fill, consequently liberating their minds and spirits and opening broader horizons for their hopes and aspirations. This has had a profound effect on all social, economic, academic and artistic life.” The pro-palace elements had feared that El-Nahhas would take advantage of the occasion to turn the statue’s unveiling into a commemoration of Zaghlul.
600 was the year of two oaths. First, a Muslim Arab army from the Syrian garrison toured the Arabian Peninsula, forcing the inhabitants of the two Holy Cities of Medina and Mecca and the people of Yemen to swear loyalty to Muawiya at the point of the sword. This was speedily succeeded by a counter-march by the men from the garrison at Kufa, which, though it failed to intercept the Muawiya’s army, did at least supervise another oath of allegiance devoted to the legitimate Caliph, Ali.
(Barnaby Rogerson, The Heirs of Muhammad [Woodstock: The Overlook Press, 2006])
The railing behind which author stands has been painted bright enamel green. The wall at his back is freshly whitewashed. We look out over the broader scene to the majestic Nile, barely rippling, as it passes through a canyon of high-rise buildings. Across it, out of vacant lots recently demolished, stretch yellow construction cranes. To the south: banks, fancy hotels, a tall residential tower. High above, a jet is streaking toward Abu Dhabi or Dubai. We return to the playground scene, where three soccer balls are in play: green, chrome yellow, solar red. Cairo’s morning is underway. As classes approach, the program has turned from play to formal exercise, the students lining up to compete with one another.
Both sides, however, saw that this rivalry undermined patterns of trust and true belief. An exchange of letters was established, an informal truce. Muawiya agreed to administer Egypt, Syria and Palestine; Ali, Iraq, Persia, Central Asia and Arabia. Thus a frontier that for centuries had unwittingly divided the Middle East into Byzantine and Persian Empires was once more delineated. That two oaths of loyalty had been imposed by rival armies had disgusted many older believers.
Therefore, they prevailed upon the organizers to play one of those subtle tricks that politicians sometimes resort to. A correspondent, who had been on hand, reported that many in the audience had had difficulty following the prime minister’s speech, the podium positioned so that most of the audience could only contemplate the respected speaker’s back, without even hearing him. As in all such events, certain segments of society were offended, in this case women’s rights advocates. In a letter to the newspaper, one reader protested against the exclusion of women from the event. “Is Egypt’s revival for men alone?” she asked, “And did men alone produce it?”
It also rekindled the anger of three Kharijites, who even on the holy pilgrimage to Mecca found themselves caught up in political compromise and doublespeak. At the conclusion of the haj they vowed among themselves that they would act. They drew lots and promised that on the fortieth anniversary of the Prophet Muhammad’s migration from the persecution of Mecca to the safety of Medina they would strike, so as once again to free Islam, by removing Ali, Amr and Muawiya.
In among the lines of students move robed teachers, hooded in veils. Rhythmically the children clap their hands, above their heads. Now they begin formal chanting to a background of Arabic music. The chanting next gives way to singing, some of the younger children waving their hands spontaneously as they do so. Up a side street a light grey car moves slowly, pausing before it turns. On the asphalt, dressed in a baby blue windbreaker, a man of 40 sweeps the schoolyard. Over the loudspeaker, a voice replaces the music. The sweeper finishes his work, emptying refuse into a green barrel, which, leaning to one side, he carries by its handle across the lot, broom under his other arm. A white bird overflies the scene.
Pasadena, CA, October 6, 2012. The Mars rover Curiosity will get to try out its scoop this weekend, according to current NASA plans. “The request that the engineers made to the scientists: Find us a good sandbox to play in here, on our way to Glenelg,” said Mike Watkins, Curiosity mission manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, at a press conference Thursday. “This site, Rocknest, is exactly that,” he added.
Their attacks took place during Friday prayers at Ramadan in the three great mosques of Fustat, Damascus and Kufa, where they knew that Amr, Muawiya and Ali would be personally leading the prayers. In Fustat the white-veiled imam lying prostrate in prayer before worshippers was felled like a bull at the altar by one blow of the assassin’s blade. Amr, however, had chosen not to lead prayers that morning and was able to execute his executioner before the day was out.
The white-headed, white breasted bird descends, showing wings in russet and grey, as it settles into the branches of a palm tree below. More kids, yet later arrivals, scamper through the gate, run down a corridor beside the school yard and out on to its asphalt to take their places in the already formed lines. Another red sedan arrives to enter the same garage that the earlier red sedan had entered. A jet overflies the scene from north to south, against the course of the Nile, its four engines leaving vapor trails that merge into one. On the horizon the Ramesses Hilton stands tall. A boy of ten appears at the gate in his red jacket, a yellow schoolbag on his back, followed in by a little girl, likely his sister, similarly attired.
The vehicle is parked 400 meters as the crow flies from Bradbury Landing, where it descended August 6. It will likely stay there for another two weeks, with scooping to begin on Saturday. “Curiosity rotated its wheel around the sandy material to make sure that it is loose, dry soil,” Watkins said. The rover will use its instruments to determine what this sand is made of, to make sure it meets the scientists’ needs.
In Damascus, Muawiya was bent in prayer before massed ranks of Muslims, but a quick-moving bodyguard, observing an unusual movement in the crowd, managed to save his master from all but a glancing blow. In Kufa, the Kharijite assassin, Ibn Muljam, loitered in the shade beside Ali’s modest doorway with other petitioners. His attack, a broadsword swung at Ali’s head, was neither expected nor intercepted. The fourth Caliph of Islam had suffered what proved to be a mortal blow.
“Or did every Egyptian, man and woman, take part in this noble, glorious endeavor? I wonder whether those who held that women should be barred from attending the ceremony thought about the Egyptian peasant woman whose determined gaze is set upon the future. I wonder if they realized that this woman, standing at the head of the Sphinx in order to wake him up, is indeed a woman and she is none other than Egypt.” Also offended were conservative religious elements who felt that making statues violated the tenets of Islam. Some did not voice their objection directly but rather criticized the statue aesthetically, arguing that it lacked harmony.
The little girl wears white stockings beneath her grey skirt. As the loudspeaker announcements conclude, the children applaud, then shout two sentences in unison. Out on the street, stand two khaki-clad soldiers at attention, in black berets, as in casual parade. The lines of schoolchildren begin to snake their way toward an exit, one by one. In the street, under a green lamppost, stand two black-clad policemen, heavily armed. More kids continue to arrive at the school gate, even as the playground lines are disappearing up steps and through the school’s doorway. Four palm trees have put out new leaves. Atop a well-kept villa behind the school, on a well-swept terrace, hangs a line of black, and white, women’s laundry.
“It serves as a sort of ‘mouthwash’ for Curiosity to clean out its hardware,” a NASA expert said. At the end of the rover’s robotic arm is The Collection and Handling for Interior Martian Rock Analysis mechanism, which scoops, processes and samples drop-off. “Though it was clean when assembled at NASA facilities, an oily film that accumulates on Earth is hard to avoid,” said Daniel Limonadi, a sampling expert.
He died aged sixty-three, as had his master Muhammad, the Prophet of God, and the first Caliph, Abu Bakr, his successor, and his successor, Omar. Ali’s body was washed by his three sons, but, fearing that his grave might be desecrated by his enemies, they never disclosed its location. Although his tomb is nowhere, it is also everywhere, for his shrines are scattered at sites across the Muslim world, from Afghanistan to India, most specially beneath the golden dome at Najaf.
Responding to such criticism, a “senior engineer” observed that any impression of disharmony was due to the spotlights surrounding the statue, which were poorly placed, lighting only the lower part of the piece while leaving the rest in shadows. He urged the Ministry of Public Works to readjust the spotlights. Another attempt to pour cold water on the occasion was made in the British press. A reporter for The Near East wrote that when he consulted experts about the statue, he was told: “It is wrong to attach value to that which does not testify to the excellence of Egyptian taste. The unveiling of this statue is not an event that warrants commemoration.”
Projecting from the side of the street on which author observes the scene are the triangular, red and yellow sections of an awning. For the most part the kids have filed out of the playground, through the school’s vestibule, and into the school proper. From within is heard more chanting, more recitation. Left behind on the asphalt playground is a singular class of athletes, dressed in identical grey sweat shirts and pants, some having added to the ensemble their red jackets. Next to the entrance into the garage in which the two red sedans have been parked, on the sidewalk, is a turquoise car, beneath two palm trees bearing many generations of fronds. On the adjacent building a balcony has been built to accommodate the trees.
The murderer of Ali, though reviled as a schismatic assassin by Muslims, both Sunni and Shia, would yet be sung as a hero by the Kharijites (who still survive within Islam). So much so that a romantic myth was woven into the story of Ibn Muljam, that his mission had been wished upon him by Qatam, his Kharijite bride. Qatam, who had lost both her father and her brother at Nahrawan, like an Islamic Salome, had demanded a dowry of three thousand dirhams.
Curiosity’s instrument is so sensitive that it needs this film scrubbed away. The handling of sand sample will be used for this purposes. Effectively, the rover will vibrate the sand on sensitive hardware, sand-blasting it, then spitting it out and repeating three times. Scientists looked for a boringly safe Martian sand dune,” to be sure that it wouldn’t do something weird such as turn to paste or absorb water,” said Limonadi.
Nor would she consent to join Ibn Muljam on the marriage couch till the price include more, as, in the secret fastnesses of their deserts the Kharijite poets sang:
Ne’er have I seen so fine a dowry paid
As that of Qatam, so the world has heard.
Three thousand dirhams, a black slave and a maid,
And Ali’s head, cleft by a flashing sword.
From within the school whistles and drums accompany renewed shouts in unison. Atop the school’s cluttered roof sits an unused daybed, a dusty desk. The grey-suited athletes below, in their enthusiasm, have all assembled and lined up against the wall, though they cannot maintain the file. A whistle releases them to rush across the yard. The influx of new students diminishes. Nearly everyone by now has arrived for school. Meanwhile, over the broader scene, the rest of Cairo has arisen. The tall windows of an official, 19th century building, have had their shutters thrown open, their windows propped ajar. Gauze curtains float out from a bedroom window, and over a railing. Automotive traffic begins to thicken.
The Islamic world, however, soon realized that they had murdered the perfect Muslim man. With every passing day his personal virtues became ever more obvious: his complete honesty, his unbending devotion to the true practice of Islam, his innate fairness, compassion and generosity. He could honestly claim to know the message and practice of the Prophet better than any other Muslim, for Muhammad had declared that “I am the town of knowledge and its gate is Ali.”
The rover will perform an X-ray diffraction experiment, using a device called ChemMin, to detect minerals in the sample. The technique has never been used on Mars, said Ashwin Vasavada, deputy project scientist for the rover mission. “Even the most boring sand on Mars will be new to us.” The rover will probably end up at Glenelg around its 90th Martian day, when Curiosity will try out its drilling system.
At 9:30 author returns to his station. The activity in the neighborhood visible from his 14th floor balcony has altered. In the playground a team of girls has been challenging a team of boys at soccer. (Along the quay of the Nile traffic has backed up.) The soccer goals have been attached to stanchions that support basketball backboards and net-less rims. Now the soccer game has broken up; two of the boys practice their karate kicks on one another. Elsewhere, atop a building that lacks satellite dishes, a large scaffolding has been erected, three stages high. On the highest level two workmen are lazily preparing to work, or beginning to think about it. Thrust up through the scaffolding is a triangular, cross-braced girder.
Ali’s name stands at the head of the complicated diagrams kept by the Sufi masters, which document the descent of mystical knowledge and spiritual practice through every generation of Islam; likewise, he is the genealogical fountainhead of all the dynasties of the descendants of the Prophet. He is the guild master par excellence, the revered patron and exponent of every craft and profession, be it humble basket-weaver or esteemed master of Arabic calligraphy, be it teacher or cadet.
At 10:00 o’clock a man in blue-and-grey livery, with a red plastic broom and blue plastic scoop, picks up pieces of unobservable refuse from the otherwise immaculate, grey-tiled rooftop.
On 17 July 1798 the Mamluk Beys called for a general mobilization. The able-bodied men of Cairo, gasping staves and kitchen knives, rushed forth to the port of Bulaq, raising such a tumult that to a scornful al-Jabarti it seemed that they were waging a war of noise. The main body of the Mamluk army, meanwhile, sallied forth to meet the French. Its soldiers, says al-Jabarti, were “at odds with each other.”
At noon the sun struggles to emerge from behind clouds. Since its early appearance as a red-orange ball, it had not been seen. Its warmth reduces the soccer students to their undershirts.
They were fearful for their lives and comforts, immersed in self-delusion, arrogant and haughty in their presumptuousness. When 25,000 French troops arrived, in sight of the Pyramids, at the village of Imbaba, across the Nile from Cairo, the outnumbered Mamluk cavalry did not wait. Standing tall in their saddles, they had what a French officer described as “complexions of roses” under their silk turbans.
At 1:00 o’clock, on the grey-tiled rooftop, a line of very colorful wash, modern blouses and fashionable slacks, has been added to the black, and white, traditional women’s wear.
These nonetheless superb horsemen gripped their reins in their teeth and charged headlong across the fields of clover. At full gallop they fired first their carbines, then their braces of pistols, which they tossed behind them for their servants to collect. Those Mamluks still in the saddle launched their javelins, finally drawing scimitars (they wielded one in each hand) to slash through the enemy at close quarters.
At 2:00 pm, through the windows of what author called an official 19th century building can be seen the grey uniforms of the special group of athletic students, and a teacher’s white blouse.
The technique had proved effective against Bedouin bandits and peasant tax-evaders, but the well-equipped French, grouped in neat squares, blew apart the Mamluks with canister-shot and controlled musket volleys. Few of the flamboyant warriors got close enough to do any damage. “The dust thickened and the world became dark from the smoke of the gunpowder,” says al-Japarti. “The firing proved deafening.”
At 4:00 o’clock, Number 9, in a green shirt, the only student wearing a colored one, make a shot on goal and scores, against a goalie whose red jacket is draped over the crossbar above.
After a mere three-quarters of an hour, the earth still shaking and the heavens falling, the Mamluk dead, a thousand in all, littered the ground. The remnants of their magnificent army sped off to the south. The French had lost but twenty-nine men. The Mamluk Beys having fled or gone into hiding, it fell to the only authority left, native-born sheiks of the great mosques, to surrender the city to the Franks.
At 6:00 pm school kids flood into the street, grabbing one another, undecided which way to go.