Saturday, April 30, 2011

Medinet Habu

 Dateline: Thurs., April 28th

This morning I moved out of Luxor. Across the river, to Medinet Habu. And this afternoon the temperature in Luxor hit 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 Celsius). In breezy Habu, it must have been at least 10 degrees cooler.

And my house is remarkably cool. It's an apartment really, but it feels like a house. The building has a Nubian-style brickwork dome as the ceiling of each room. And the floor tiles are not modern ceramic, but traditional hand-made tiles, with geometric designs in earth-tone colors. (The tiles could have come straight out of the Pharaoh’s palace, in nearby Malqata! But they didn’t, of course.) The point is that these domes and unglazed ceramic tiles are thermally efficient, as well as beautiful.

Later in the afternoon, my landlord kindly drove me to the main road to do some shopping. As we drove back up the road, he observed that Qurna Mountain had disappeared. Qurna Mountain is the hiding place of the tombs of the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens. Medinet Habu is almost in the mountain's shadow, which sounds ominous. But the mountain is like a friendly and protective presence—which I can see as I look out of my bedroom window or relax under the grape arbor at the side of the house.

The khamsin had kicked up. A strong wind straight from the Western Desert and, beyond that, the Sahara. And so the mountain was hidden by a shining invisibility of sun and sand. Although, as we approached, the mountain re-appeared.

This evening I walked around the corner in search of food at one of the many nearby restaurants. These restaurants, and a hotel, are ready to serve visitors to the temple of Ramses III, which is just opposite the restaurants—or rather, the restaurants are opposite the temple, since the temple was here first, of course!

The wind was really kicking up, so, reluctantly, I ate in the dining room, instead of on the terrace with a full view of the temple. The wind was warm. Not warm, but hot, as if someone had opened an oven door.

In the small hours, I woke up. Because I was a little cold, I think. The wind was now blowing almost chilly through my open window.

What I haven’t mentioned is the exhilarating quality of the wind. Disquieting, energizing, almost electric.

To be continued.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Hazardous Celebration!

There are risks associated with the Easter Monday celebration in Egypt. [See yesterday’s post.]

For one thing, you can’t have an enjoyable picnic if you’re in the middle of a sandstorm! But severe sandstorms are uncommon at this time, it seems. Sham el Nessim is at the very beginning of khamsin, the windy season.

Several people each year die of botulism poisoning from eating the traditional fiseekh, which is salted fish. Some people dispute that the botulism is contracted from the fish. Others have switched to dishes such as tuna salad—which also has its dangers as a picnic food in a hot climate! In any case, the moral seems to be that you should buy your fiseekh from a reputable fasakhani and not from your local supermarket.

They say that fiseekh was part of the festival in pharaonic times. But this can’t have been true in all places. In some regions of upper (upriver, southern) Egypt, fish was taboo and wasn’t eaten. Even then, apparently, it was hazardous to eat fish from Nile waters! [Although the other day I saw one or two people fishing from the dubious-looking waters of a canal. And people fish from the Nile even in Cairo, where the water must be really nasty. After all, not so long ago the worst danger from falling into the Thames wasn’t drowning but poisoning from the murky water.]

Apart from fiseekh and boiled eggs, traditional foods of this season are onions and scallions and garlic, as well as tirmis, a kind of bean (legume). One source also lists molokheya, a dish prepared from a kind of green leaves. But Egyptians eat this all the time anyway.

Many places in Europe have special Easter breads. No special bread is reported for Egypt. But bread is special here every day. So many kinds, all absolutely fresh and delicious. The wheat is grown in the fields all around Luxor.

As we’ve seen, the word sham means not only smelling or breathing, but also life and resurrection (shemu in ancient Egyptian). The word sham must surely be related to shams, the sun. The sun gives life. Without sun, the crops cannot grow. (In ancient times, remember, shemu was the hot, dry season, the season of harvesting crops.)

Of course, the sun also gives death. We all know that the desert sun is deadly. So the ancient Egyptians often depicted the sun with a cobra at its heart. It gives life, but it carries a deadly poison. The Pharaoh was the sun, giving life to his people and bringing death to evildoers. (Well, in theory, anyway.)

Here’s a happy thought. This is one picnic where you don’t have to worry about getting rained on. Oh dear! That’s not a very happy thought for people living in the English climate, enjoying a picnic of soggy sandwiches, crammed inside a car because the grass is too wet.

Happy Sham el Nessim, everyone!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Sham el Nessim

Or, more correctly, Sham en Nessim. [For you linguists, the definite article el changes to en, for reasons of euphony or ease of pronunciation, because the noun begins with the letter n.]

This is the holiday celebrated on Easter Monday (the day after Coptic Easter) by people of all faiths in Egypt. Like the Easter celebration most of our readers are familiar with, it is associated with colored eggs and family get-togethers, especially picnics.

In his book Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1834), Edward William Lane reports:

A custom termed “Shemm en-Nessem” (or the Smelling of the Zephyr) is observed on the first day of the Khamaseen. Early in the morning of this day, many persons, especially women, break an onion, and smell it; and in the course of the forenoon many of the citizens of Cairo ride or walk a little way into the country, or go in boats,…to take the air, or, as they term it, smell the air, which on that day they believe to have a wonderfully beneficial effect.
[Note: the Khamaseen or Khamsin (fifty )is the wind which often brings sandstorms, and also the windy season which typically lasts around fifty  days. And the festival is celebrated everywhere in Egypt, not just Cairo.]

This celebration is roughly 5000 years old! The name comes from ancient Egyptian shemu, which was the harvest season and the first season of the year in the ancient-Egyptian calendar.

The first day of Shemu was believed to be the anniversary of the day of creation. This was the day when the benu bird (gray heron, symbol of life and resurrection, and probably the prototype of the phoenix—the Greeks borrowed almost everything from the Egyptians!) sat on the first mound of earth that rose out of the swirling waters of isfet, or chaos. So, even in ancient times, eating and decorating eggs was an integral part of the celebration.

The ancient word shemu was not only the word for the harvest season, but also the word for life, renewal, resurrection. So it is probably the origin of the modern word sham, which means smelling or breathing. After all, if you can't breathe you aren't alive! So, then and now, the whole festival is a celebration of the breath of life and the breath of renewal and the bounty of the earth.

So, when you enjoy an Easter egg of any kind—chocolate, painted, etc.—just remember that the ancient Egyptians started this whole thing of celebrating with eggs.

Well, that’s enough information for one day. More tomorrow or Thursday, inch’Allah.

I first learned of this holiday only about a week ago. (After all, this will be my first Easter in Egypt.) I read about it on page 22 of Egyptair’s Horus magazine, April issue.
Internet sources are Wikipedia and: 


Monday, April 18, 2011

Kingfishers and Hoopoes

Dateline: Saturday, April 16th--post delayed by technical difficulties.

This morning I was visiting an apartment on the west bank. Directly across the river from the city of Luxor, that is.

As we sat drinking tea, on the balcony overlooking a banana plantation, I saw a large-ish bird fly into a small tree—perhaps a fruit tree. It was a brownish-looking bird and its wingspan had striking dark stripes. At first I thought it might be a small bird of prey. But then I saw its mate walking on the path nearby. I was watching a pair of hoopoes—although the first bird was now invisible among the leaves of the tree.

This is part of the reason why I want to live on the west bank. To be close to nature, and especially to see and hear the birds.

On our way back to the ferry, we were driving alongside a small canal. Wires were strung across the canal at intervals. Once, and again, and again. On each set of wires—well, on only one wire in each instance, to be precise--sat a kingfisher, surveying its domain or keeping an eye out for dinner or both.
The kingfishers here are like nothing you’ve seen, I’m guessing. They’re pied kingfishers. Entirely black and white, in a stunning configuration. To see them in flight is remarkable. The zebras of the bird kingdom, I guess.
I was wishing I could see the kingfishers in flight again, as I did when I was visiting Egypt last spring.

And now, this evening, I have in my mind an image. The beginning of a chapter. An “oh, by the way” chapter. (More about “oh, by the way” chapters later, perhaps.)
A kingfisher dives towards the river, catching a meal. A crocodile leaps out of the river and catches the kingfisher for dinner.
This is all you need to know about the new chapter for now. Especially because I haven’t written it yet. You see, this evening I faced a dilemma. Should I start the chapter first? Or should I start the blog entry first? As you see, the blog won.

Oh, and here's your free bonus for reading this post. For those of you who believe crocodiles can't jump--and for the amazement everyone else as well--we present this video.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Revision woes

[Well, my post about revision is lost in cyberspace. So now I’m typing in Word (trying to get into that habit, rather than typing directly into the blog), making an effort to remember the post while it’s still fresh in my mind.]

While I was away, I actually dipped a toe tip into revision.

Revision is terrifying. Even more scary than writing the first draft. At least, it seems that way now.

After all, everyone tells you the first draft doesn’t have to be perfect. “Don’t worry about getting it perfect. Just get it written down on paper.”
But not so with revision, where the goal is perfection.
So I tell myself that, even in revision, perfection isn’t achieved all at once. It comes in stages, each stage nearer the unreachable goal of perfection.

There’s always more research that can be done, for one thing.
I think I need to immerse myself more in the ancient literature, for example.
Also, there are sites that I need to visit. (Real sites, not websites!) I need to ride down to Dendera temple on the river, for example. And I have to get myself back to the beautiful sites right here around Luxor.
And it’s an inspiration just to look inside a “picture book” and browse through pictures of anything ancient Egyptian. But I can’t do that while my books are in storage.

I think I need to do a few funky things with chronology, here and there. Insert a couple of chapters that don’t fit neatly into a single time slot. (More about these “oh, by the way” chapters later, perhaps.)

Then there are the camel skeletons (see my March post.) All those bits and pieces which didn’t find a home in the first draft. They need to go in somewhere, but you’re not sure where. They’re flying and fluttering inside and around your head like a flock of bats, or like the playing cards at the end of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Revision has so many bits and pieces involved. Nothing like working more or less straight through the first draft. (Although doing a printout and working through is probably the next step.)
I tell myself it’s like doing a jigsaw puzzle. Bit by bit, with time and perseverance, the pieces will fit together somehow, even if some of them have to go in unlikely places. And the pieces that don’t fit, at the very end? Well, they probably belong in a totally different puzzle.

No more time to revise this post—although I might revisit it later. I want to move on to some posts about getting back to Egypt.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Herbal Remedies from Ancient Egypt

The ancient Egyptians used a wide variety of herbs medicinally. Here's a list of some well-known herbs and their ancient medicinal uses:

Garlic was believed to provide vitality, soothe flatulence and allow digestion.
Onions  prevent colds and act as a diuretic.
Honey and milk were used for the respiratory system as well as throat irritations.
[I would guess this would be cultured milk such as yogurt or rayeb.]
Honey, a natural antibiotic, was also used to dress wounds.
Dill was used to soothe flatulence [and] also for its laxative and diuretic properties.
Aloe vera was used to treat worms, relieve headaches, [and] soothe chest pains, burns, ulcers and skin diseases.
Camphor tree was used to reduce fever, soothe gums, and treat epilepsy.
Parsley was used as a diuretic.
Mint was used to soothe flatulence, aid digestion and as a breath freshener.
Sesame was used to soothe asthma.
Thyme was also used as a pain reliever.
[Quoted from Horus, the magazine of Egyptair, March 2011, p. 24.]

The ancient Egyptians used many other herbs whose English or botanical names have not yet been identified.
It sounds as if the ancient Egyptians, like us, had lots of digestive problems!

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A Devoted Reader--Two Quarters' Worth

A sweet little true story from Elaine, commenting on Rachelle's blog:

In my Bible, page 976, scripted in ink beside the verse “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life” (Proverbs 13:12) are these words: “Writing rejected 2/07.”
I think that particular rejection was the worst I’ve known as it pertains to my writing. A publisher held onto my manuscript for six months before declining.
I remember closing my door and sobbing my gutteral ache. Moments later, I see tender hands reaching beneath the crack at the base of the doorway and my little son saying, “Mommy, here’s two quarters. I’ll buy your book.”

Thanks, Elaine & Elaine's son.

Scrivener, anyone?

Does anyone have experience with Scrivener software?
I heard of this software only recently. I'm thinking it might help me with revision. Since it has a virtual bulletin board where I can post virtual reminder cards for bits & pieces that I'm trying to keep track of/incorporate into the text--camel skeletons, for example.