Saturday, February 27, 2010

february 27th EGYPT!

February 27th, 2010

I have been to Egypt this week.

The pyramids at Saqqara are still in my head. The step pyramid is from 4000-4500 years ago. You enter the area through a small opening in a 20 foot outer wall of refined yellow limestone---looking like alabaster—and enter a Hall of Columns—3 feet in diameter, 25 feet high.
We turn to each other, smiling and exclaim in startled whispers: the beginning of classical civilization. Set amidst desert, camels on horizon, sand in distance as far as one can see, the wall with stepped top encloses public ceremonial spaces. The yellow stone reflects the sun —golden. Saqqara is one of the most extensive archaeological sites in Egypt, the cemetery for Memphis, its ancient capital. Very beautiful, sere, powerful and yet of humane scale.

The Giza Pyramids across the river are a less meditative experience, crawling with tourists, neighboring the city of Cairo itself, another kind of a-maze-ment. As if down 23rd Street in NYC there was a building 3500 years old! We enter the second one with smooth limestone still covering its top: down a 4 foot cubic tunnel for 60 feet, then stand for air, then down another. To reach at bottom a rectangular bare room: 25 feet high perhaps 30 by 80 feet. A claustrophobic hike, to feel the stone above you.

Other wonders include the road to Memphis, lined with shops and people selling or carrying fruits and vegetables, sunny, slow, pacific—part of the agricultural outskirts of modern Cairo. Perhaps predictably in this landscape of ash and sand, people wear wonderful colors and designs, paint their trucks fabulously and their stores, Arabic script itself a decorative element. In the museum at Memphis, the pharaoh lies on his back (his leg broken) with smiling powerful face, 35 feet long, rounded lips, beautiful.

The Egyptian museum in downtown Cairo itself a wonder—its size perhaps a bit smaller than the Washington National Gallery or the Prado...? Impossible to do in a day but you know what you have missed and can go back. What I learn is that Egyptian art is not flat—the supposition of the frescos not withstanding. I gasp at the wooden statue known as the Village Headman or Mayor, "Sheikh-el-Beled"; 4000-4500 years old. When it was excavated the workmen assisting in the excavation work fell back in astonishment as the statue was an absolute portrait of their own mayor! In wood, in 3 dimensions, fully carved, even the back rounded, particular, the face a person, uneven ears, eyes of agate, alive, rotund, bellied—this is a citizen. An Egyptian type that in spite of many invasions has survived in the Nile Valley. In the same room, a scribe, legs crossed, back leans forward. The beauty, the intimacy ,the individualism of these portraits. I am in awe and admiration. It will take another 3500-4000 years to reach this degree of sculpted reality again.

Whereas the larger portraits of the kings and queens portray “serene majesty and youth” the portraits of the anonymous achieve another feeling entire. They make a relationship to our time, and of passage through time. Similarly, the ‘mummy room’ where, despite our B movie connotations, conveys awe of both terror and wonder. The kings are laid out chronologically, some are sons and one sees relation in the heads, the foreheads. The majesty of Seti, his beauty and fine features; Ramses with his long white hair, gone yellow with the fluids used to embalm him.

That these bodies are mirrors of ourselves from so many inconceivable years ago—there is both an underlining of our current contemporary ‘humanness’ and a sense of passage, that we live and die. We are both made large, part of the human dream of excellence and beauty, and laid low: time will bury us. That doubling is part of the intense beauty of these sculptures, and these bodies, these ‘things’. [I learn the Italian word for junk=roba. Molta roba]. Odd even so (no?) that bodies, mummies, are placed inside museums. We become art in death. Or is it museums are houses of the dead? As in Cairo, cemeteries are called ‘cities of the dead’. Is art then an identification with the dead? I always thought it was a celebration of the living, but perhaps no. Perhaps not so much a way to ‘beat’ time but to last in time? To extend into time, an aspiration of being with time changing, immortal, dead and not dead. To exist into the future. Our genetic thrust made manifest.

Too, the fresco paintings of geese resemble nothing so much as the Roman frescos from 2000 to 2500 years later. So much for a history of flatness!

Earlier that day we go to an Islamic mosque, the Citadel and then Coptic Church and Jewish Synagogue: all people of the book, as Mohammed described. The first sight of the Citadel is overwhelming: wood painted ceiling, multiple lights in multiple glass bulbs, pattern everywhere, glorious blues and greens and gold. The Coptic church seemed to relate to the orthodox Greek and Russian churches in their art, particularly the paintings which decorate the walls—ikon-like with a celebration of St. George killing the dragon alternating with Madonnas. These themes I found common in Russia.

The synagogue beautiful and not unlike an Islamic mosque —decorated with arches and patterns. Was it first a church? First a temple? It has a history as it has a basement that flooded earlier in the last few decades and thus, reminded me of St. Clement—house of worship built on house of worship built on….

Thursday we walked to Nomad, a store that had the best scarves we saw anywhere and then without a guide (yes!) took taxi to Bazaar. Very easy, walked through Egyptian part of bazaar, catching someone to show us the place (or did they ‘catch’ us?), not seeing another tourist which was refreshing. In very muddy streets (it had rained in the night) with women shopping in various degrees of veil, mostly male vendors. We see many interesting buildings, 'learned' by Kathryn regarding the sects of Islam that settled and fought over Egypt: Sunni and Shiite so absolutely relevant to the contemporary politic. Among us, we had a painter, a photographer/ filmmaker, a classicist and an islamicist —so we could fill in information at different times in different ways— prismatic. We got on well—each with our particularities of time and interests and appetite.

The bazaar itself was easy, lots of predictable tourist stuff plus some wonderful jewelry, metal antiques and belly dancing costumes for sale. Lauren practices this art and bought a professional outfit dripping with rhinestones plus head and arm bands! Gorgeous and while waiting for her to be ‘fitted’ we watched a chase through the market—someone had tried to rob another. A bit later, we watched him caught and marched back! As if a show put on for us. All the Egyptians store owners watching alongside. Then coffee at a 300 year old coffee house; early dinner at fabulous place with— well—truth to tell, the best bathroom we found in Egypt! We all wanted to live there. Coming out it started to hail! Snow in Rome first time in 25 years last week and now hail in Cairo. We bring ....extremes I guess. Rained for an hour or more—again, all the Bazaar owners enjoying the weather with amazement and wonder. We cab home to our island hotel on Zamalek (very nice area with cleaner air than lots of Cairo).

Next day picking up odds and ends as we headed to airport and slow flight home.

It was an intense week before leaving in that I worked shooting Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday plus Saturday morning. Thursday I took off and went to Tim Davis’s opening where none of his photos showed up (courtesy of Italian post!) —so we hung out, talked to Tim, looked at the group show. A great photo of Cairo at dusk with competing light of blue electricity and yellow daylight: TV satellite dishes dotting the landscape, suggesting pasted-in-circles—as if unreal as in an Andreas Gursky-like digital artificial montage. Thus, a full circle: from photo of Cairo to experiencing it firsthand.

I’ve been to Africa!

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