Last October we took a much-awaited trip to Egypt. It had been a long time in planning and finally, in 2022, we could visit. The brown boy and I went with our friends Anirudh, Mishta, and Lekha, and took the children.
We landed in Cairo on a blazing hot afternoon, the city – whose name originates from “al-Qahirah” (the victorious) – so similar to Indian metropolises and yet so different in its sandy-hued dilapidation.
The first day after downing cups of cardamom-flavored Turkish coffee, (with high silt content like the Nile!), that Anirudh called “a gastronomical black hole”, we went off to see the pyramids – first the ones at Dahshur and then Giza.
The Sphinx in all its majesty was our first experience of all the obliteration and defacement of Egyptian sculpture. It was not Obelix who broke the nose of the Sphinx, as our guto believed.
Travelers, natives and conquerors across centuries have destroyed, defaced, and carried off parts of sculpture for various reasons – from necessary construction pieces for their dwelling in ancient times, to the eradication of previous regal influence, or to adapt to prevailing religious dogma. Paul Theroux calls it a sort of negative sculpture, the art of obliteration, and all done with great care. In most cases only the face or the nose missing, and the rest intact. Maybe the defacers were art lovers, or maybe they feared the wrath of the gods…
As we know, the majesty and significance of the Egyptian civilization was unknown until the deciphering of the Rosetta stone in early twentieth century – so here is the painting by David Roberts (c.19th century) that I am thinking about in the sketchbook…
The next day we visited Islamic Cairo. Cairo dates back to the 7th century, so there were multiple layers of history to be discovered there.
We visited the Al-Azhar Mosque where Lekha and I were asked to cover up our bare necks and ankles (!!). While shopping in Khan-el-Khalili Market, Mishta found a beautiful walking stick that had a preserved snake inside it. Egyptians, even now, seem to be fascinated with death and mortality. In the market there were stuffed animals, foxes, cats, and crocodiles – memories of beloved pets, being displayed and sold.
At a roadside cafe in Cairo.
One day we spent at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and marvelled at the craftsmanship skills of the ancient Egyptians.
We also spent time seeing Coptic Cairo, the areas where the Greek orthodox church settled, built around the place where Joseph & Mary took shelter with the baby Jesus as they fled to Egypt! Coptic Cairo was an avalanche of adornment. As faiths were practiced, flourished, and overtaken by other faiths at the same location, the influences of visual language remained, overlaid on top of each other…and the need to show devotion through ornamentation of the holy site, however small the space, prevailed…
In Cairo we caught a performance of the Tanoura Dance, a breathtaking spectacle.
Another day we went to visit Alexandria, to visit the new Alexandria library designed by Snøhetta (which is not open to children!), sit by the Mediterranean Sea and eat fish.
The food was always fabulous, and I had to stop drawing and eat.
Continued in Part 2