Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Finding the Sarcophagus

Some friends are so special that everything you do with them is infused with light and joy. I've been very blessed in my life with a number of these friends and just recently had the pleasure of being able to spend three hours wandering in the desert on an afternoon of intensely clear light taking fun pictures and looking for a sarcophagus with one very wonderful one. Nathalie was in Cairo for about three or four years and I had the very good luck that she found herself at a gathering with another friend of mine a year or so into her stay. She was looking for a place to go riding with her daughter and I was recommended. This was the beginning of a weekly treat for me, as each Saturday morning she and Pauline would come out to the farm and we would go exploring or just whooping it up through the countryside and desert. One of the painful things about living in Egypt is the fact that unfortunately many of our people are transient, and Nathalie and Pauline moved back to Belgium this summer. They did, however, leave me a souvenir in the person of their cat who needed to be boarded for a couple of months until Nathalie could return to pick her up. Last week was the pick up.

We arranged to go out for a ride in the desert (Belgium is a little short on deserts so some sand time sounded good to Nathalie) and headed out around mid afternoon. We took two of the geldings, Nayzak for Nathalie and Pauline's special love Dooby. It was one of those breathtakingly clear days that we get once the heat and dust of summer begin to dissipate and we were delighted that I'd thought to bring my camera along. We headed south towards Sakkara marvelling at the intensity of colour and clarity that allowed us to see all of the pyramid fields from Giza to Dahshur. Generally it's possible to make out the Red and Bent pyramids in Dahshur if you know where to look, but on this day they were simply THERE. It's hard to determine distance on days like this because the air is so clear that details of distant objects are easily visible...but then again on a day like this it's really hard to worry about little things like time and distance.
I can't say that we started out with any particular goal other than to have a good time and store away views and memories for later, but as we rode and talked Nathalie remembered a photograph that she had taken early in her stay in which there was a sarcophagus in the foreground and the pyramids of Abu Sir and Giza in the background. She had wanted to use the photo for a publication but the resolution wasn't sufficient, and I suggested that we go find the sarcophagus and take more photos at a higher resolution. Sounds simple, right? Not exactly. The desert between Abu Sir and Dahshur probably contains a dozen empty sarcophagi just lying around soaking up the sun. The trick was to work out exactly where this one had to be to have those particular pyramids in the background. She was fairly sure that the photo had been taken on a visit to Sakkara during which she had just visited the tombs of Tiye and Ta-Hotep, on the northwestern edge of the complex. That helped to narrow down the area, since Sakkara north and Sakkara south run for about 8 km along the farmland. It was after closing time in the antiquities complex, things closing early during Ramadan, and there was almost no one to be seen anywhere. We took the horses in among the dirt roads that wind around the pyramids, taking care to avoid areas where there might be people working or the holes left over from their work, gradually estimating where the lost sarcophagus had to be from the view of the pyramids to the north. We finally found it near the old guesthouse for the area and spent some time taking pictures of it, first from horseback and then realising the futility of keeping bored horses still, on foot. Having accomplished the purpose so far, we opted to head south turning towards the entrance to the area, as yet undecided as to whether we would return by farmland or by desert. In the distance, we spotted a pair of people also on horseback and I was able to identify them as a couple of friends of mine from the way that they rode. Just as the manner of a person's walk can be so distinctive that they can be identified from a distance, so too can a person's seat in a saddle. We approached them to say hello and chat for a few moments. Still undecided as to our return route, we continued on our way south all the while in awe of the beauty of the afternoon and the views available of the many pyramids in the area. On a hilltop to the south of Sakkara Nathalie called Pauline in Belgium who announced that it was rainy, she was cold and just out of school and that it was perfectly awful of her mother to call from a horse in the middle of the pyramids. Mobile phones are wonderful for keeping track of and irritating one's children.
It seemed that everytime I put away the camera thinking that there was nothing more to capture, we would come across a vista that demanded attention. at one point we found two pyramids that lined up perfectly one inside of the other as we viewed them down a sandy wadi. The setting sun sometimes made it very difficult to see what the camera was pointed at, making us very grateful for digital photography. Eventually, we opted for a return north via the desert as well, because the day demanded a stop at the top of the Japanese Hill. The view from up there simply had to be enjoyed on such a clear afternoon. We rode the horses up the south slope of the hill, the one that they usually go down. I was imagining that we would just ride down the road, but oddly enough both the geldings were so accustomed to coming UP the road and down the hill that it seemed to be a waste of time to argue with them to get them over to the road when we could just pick our way down the north side of the hill. Pick our way down was exactly what we did and then we let the boys rip from the hill towards the pyramids at Abu Sir. As they flew over the sand towards home, I was especially pleased to see Nayzak leading the way. He had a problem with his back earlier in the year and had been on rest for about four months until it was settled, but while he wasn't feeling quite right, Dooby had been beating him in their desert races. He was obviously quite back in form now and poor Dooby didn't have a chance despite his longer legs.
We ambled back through the village just before iftar very pleased with our day. I would take Nathalie over to the farm of another friend of ours for a dinner after which Asmaa would ferry Nathalie and the cat back to Zamalek in the evening to rest before their early flight to Brussels in the morning. And the photo of the sarcophagus? Was it worth the search? You be the judge.

copyright 2006 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Thursday, August 31, 2006

To The Japanese Hill

We haven't much enjoyed this summer. Where in the past we've had weeks of days in the low 30's C with spikes up to 40 C or so, this summer it's been between 38 and 40 C for the past couple of months. With our current humidity, anything over 35 C has too high a heat index for it to be safe to work horses at any speed. Even the commercial carters would lay low under bridges to avoid the heat. Humans made for fans, airconditioning, and shade between the hours of noon and about 5 or 6 pm everyday.

This last week we finally got a bit of a break and a friend of mine and I decided to take a couple of the horses out into the desert one morning. We were training these particular horses for desert work and a summer off has left muscles less than optimal. We rode out near the pyramids of Abu Sir, went around the back of them and headed for the Japanese Hill. Just inside the desert edge is a plateau that represents what was the banks of the Nile many millenia ago and there is what would have been an island, an extension of the plateau but cut off from the main part of it. This is known as the Japanese Hill and it is a site reknowned fo its view of the pyramids of Giza to the north and Sakkara AND Dahshur to the south. This is an astounding vista, but one that we don't enjoy during the day in the summer.

The Japanese Hill got its name because every summer for the past at least fifteen or more years teams of Japanese archaeologists have come to dig away at the top and the sides of the hill searching for some kind of artifacts. Last week I finally found out what they have been searching for. Apparently one of the sons of Ramses the Second (I believe it was...easy to confuse which Ramses) was an amateur archaeologist himself and spent quite a bit of time reconstructing temples that had been abandoned, and this is one of his efforts.

Cristina and I had been out with her gelding on a moonlight ride with friends at the beginning of the summer and it hadn't been the best of experiences. I felt especially bad about it because Aybek boards with me and I didn't take into account the fact that he hadn't spent much time in the desert in the first place, hadn't done much night riding in the second and was only used to being around my herd of horses in the third. Since that night, we've been working on all of these things and have been riding in the desert, riding at night, and riding with strangers, but not all at the same time. That will come later.

So finally we found a morning that was cool enough to venture out into the sand again after the summer's heat. The wind off the river was brisk and fresh. For a change the haze of pollution over the valley was blown south and it was only grey north towards the city. We took the horses up onto the plateau where they had to deal with extremely broken ground thanks to the army practicing bulldozing and the sandminers taking over from there. All of this was new to Aybek who was a rescue who had been taken from Hurghada as a 2+ yr old that had been used for hauling tourists up and down the beach. Since his rescue, he'd mainly spent time hanging around paddocks and sort of growing up...just a little as he is a very small horse. From the plateau we noticed the archaeologists working over on the Japanese Hill and decided to go around the base to see what they were digging up.

We didn't approach the camp, however. The Antiquities Service gets very nervous about things like that and rather than make them nervous we stay an easy 200 to 300 metres away. We could see the limestone wall against the hill that had been excavated over the past few years and the wonderful Agatha Christiesque tents perched on the hill for the university staff. It was about 10:30 am, roughly time for the breakfast break for people who start working a dawn, and the Egyptian workers were sitting in the shade having a bite to eat.

By the time we circled the hill and headed for the countryside, the air was beginning to heat up and we were extremely happy to hit the shade of the trees along the canals. A couple stretches for galloping and we were back home where the horses could be stripped down for a shower under the hose.

copyright 2006 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Sometimes Mobbed Streets Are Okay

BBC NEWS | Africa | Egypt rejoices at record Cup win

After a week of news scenes of protesters angry at the lack of discretion and consideration by European newspapers publishing cartoons of Mohamed, the mobs in Egypt were a delightful change. To be sure, I made certain to get out of Maadi and back to the relative quiet of the farm as soon as the game was over. The streets everywhere filled quickly.

I'm not a big football (soccer) fan, but we've watched every one of Egypt's games in this series with wonder and delight. Last night a group gathered for standard football food (homemade sandwiches, chicken wings, beer, and brownies) to cheer on Egypt to a longed for victory. I sent messages to my daughter's mobile phone in New York with updates of the game because she had to be at work cataloguing books in Columbia's Butler Library. Her brother, soaring along on a cloud of adrenalin-produced euphoria, suggested that she should have told her boss it was a national holiday...Egypt was in the finals of the Africa Cup. Hmmm. Boss wasn't going for it. So there were ecstatic messages and whoops of joy when the last kick slammed home to give Egypt the win.

As we drove back out of the city, we were getting phone calls from friends who were estimating that they were going to be stuck in other places for hours...but no one seemed to really care. In the village of Shubramant on the way home, farmers were drifting back to their homes having gathered in coffee shops to watch the match. During the game, there were almost no cars on the road and very, very few pedestrians. Virtually the entire country was glued to television sets to watch the match.

Congratulations Egypt! It was a great series...and now back to our regularly scheduled programming, but with a smile that will surely linger for a while.