The Penises Of Ancient Egypt

The thousands and thousands of wall carvings in temples throughout Egypt kind of become a blur after a while. Don't get me wrong — they're beautiful and you kind of lose yourself in them as you walk through temple after temple — but there are a lot of them:

Kom Ombo Temple, Kom Ombo, Egypt

Luxor Temple, Luxor, Egypt

Most (all?) of the carvings were originally painted. Some still retain their colors, providing a perspective you don't usually associate with the carvings:

Medinet Habu/Temple of Ramesses III, West Bank, Luxor, Egypt

But the unpainted carvings are also striking in how modern they look — the bas reliefs of graceful figures look like art deco. I guess then I should say that art deco borrowed from the Egyptian temples. If so, I can see it for sure.

At one point I wondered if the carvings were overkill. The folks who did the Mortuary Temple of Ramesses III on the West Bank of modern-day Luxor kind of went to extremes to praise the Pharaoh's achievements. After a while it's like, we get it! With so many vanquished armies he's clearly the greatest of all time:

Medinet Habu/Temple of Ramesses III, West Bank, Luxor, Egypt

And then I wondered whether contemporary audiences thought of the carvings as a kind of endless text that they could probably just skim. Sort of like a boring Jenny Holzer installation.

"Mesmerizing" might be an apt way to put it, because you just get overwhelmed by the craftsmanship. If you're like me, you zone out after seeing so many of them. Until you get to the penises.

This carving from a wall in Kom Ombo Temple north of Aswan depicts, if memory serves, medical ailments. The intention — again, if memory serves (maybe someone can help me out here) — is that the lower penis is more aged than the upper penis, and less able to either ejaculate or urinate correctly — thus the impaired five drops versus the normal seven drops:

Kom Ombo Temple, Kom Ombo, Egypt

Kom Ombo Temple, Kom Ombo, Egypt

This image from the Luxor Temple shows a carving of the fertility god Min, whose penis is in danger of being rubbed away to the sands of time (no, for reals):

Luxor Temple, Luxor, Egypt

Luxor Temple, Luxor, Egypt

Finally, this carving from the Mortuary Temple of Ramesses III within the Medinet Habu complex on the West Bank of Luxor depicts Ramesses III's desire to see his enemies' penises, because for Ramesses III (we were told) it wasn't enough to merely see their dismembered hands — apparently there was a racket going on among his troops where they'd chop off the hands of any old person and present them as the real deal. A load of penises, on the other hand — well, what more proof do you need that an enemy army is truly vanquished?

Medinet Habu/Temple of Ramesses III, West Bank, Luxor, Egypt

I finally asked our guide whether his tours were always so penis focused.

"Simple," Tommy said without skipping a beat, "I can tell what you all are interested in."

And it's true! Nothing perks up a dry tour like several-thousand-year-old penis carvings. It's the perfect jumping off point to get across information about the history of this pharaoh or that.

Tommy was a great guide and spent as much time as we wanted answering every question we asked him. He made us call him "Tommy" because he said it was easier to pronounce than his real name, which I thought was something along the lines of "Tamir," though I'm not really sure because to us he was Tommy. And when he found out that I recently got my sightseeing license, he even made a special point to impart tips and wisdom about the field. He was very cool.

I think I also said before that we didn't really ask him about the political environment in Egypt. It wasn't that he wouldn't have answered but rather that — for me, at least — it just didn't seem germane; I guess I imagined he might be circumspect about answering a bunch of questions about Egyptian political life, especially for a busload of tourists he was carting around for less than a week.

And besides, something about all those images of Mubarak everywhere really puts a damper on things — not that political life isn't a legitimate point of inquiry, and one that guides must be asked about all the time, but how candid do you think he's going to be when those sunglasses peer at you from all corners of the country?

Hosni Mubarak Picture, Giza, Cairo, Egypt

And what exactly do you ask someone — "Hey, what's with all those creepy images of Mubarak?" A question like that easily sounds like you think they live in North Korea or something.

Today is the eighth day of protests in Egypt and they still don't seem like they're losing momentum. And if I've been glib about conveying my feelings, or if pictures of penises seem like they minimize the gravity of the moment, that's not my intention. We met so many nice people in our nine-plus days visiting Egypt and we've been thinking about all of them now that we're safe at home and following the news reports from afar. Even the creepy dude in Luxor — I hope they're all safe and hopeful that something truly remarkable might happen there.

See also the Big Map: Egypt/Jordan, December 27, 2010-January 11, 2011.

Posted: February 1st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: National Geographical | Tags: , , , , , ,

Headline: Protesters Swarm Streets Directly In Front Of Cairo's Famous Ding Dong Bazaar

One good thing about continuing to get the paper is that you seem to notice more cool stuff than you would had you just scrolled through your reader or visited a website. For example, I don't know that I would have caught that the Ding Dong Bazaar near Tahrir Square is featured in the background of this front page image accompanying another story about the unrest in Egypt had I not picked up the paper yesterday morning and said, "Oh wow — there's the Ding Dong Bazaar!"

New York Times Front Page Showing Ding Dong Bazaar Near Midan Tahrir/Tahrir Square, January 29, 2011

New York Times Front Page Showing Ding Dong Bazaar Near Midan Tahrir/Tahrir Square, January 29, 2011

I happened to take a picture of the Ding Dong Bazaar as the minibus we were in was making its way toward Tahrir Square on our way to the Egyptian Museum, which is basically located in the opposite direction of where this picture was taken:

Near Midan Tahrir/Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, December 29, 2010

Ding Dong Bazaar, Midan Tahrir/Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, December 29, 2010

I took a picture of the Ding Dong Bazaar because Michael and Jen pointed it out as we were sitting in traffic and — duh! — stuff named "Ding Dong" is inherently funny.

I'm sad that I don't have more pictures of Tahrir Square. What can I say? I guess I was off my game after just landing in Egypt.

Egypt was a whirlwind, and the fact that everything seems to be devolving into chaos just weeks after visiting lends a strange and exciting perspective to our recent trip. The updates from yesterday are frightening and sad — reports of looting at the Egyptian Museum struck a nerve for me, having just visited there — though that is tempered by pictures of Cairo citizens forming a human cordon to protect the museum (at the link) — an amazing and touching sight (here's more about the situation at the museum, with the quote from one person pleading with the crowd not to loot: "We are not Baghdad!"). Again, what can you say besides that you hope everyone stays safe and that there's a peaceful and just conclusion to the unrest . . .

See also the Big Map: Egypt/Jordan, December 27, 2010-January 11, 2011.

Posted: January 30th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: National Geographical | Tags: , , ,

All Of Egypt Is An Irish Kitchen

It's a cliche to say that when someone says "it's not about the money," it's always about the money. But I was reminded of that in Luxor.

As some background, I like to think I can navigate unfamiliar environments with the geospatial skill of Rand McNally. I take a look at a postage stamp-sized guidebook map and think something along the lines of "Oh, sure, that's just 25 short blocks, then turn left on such-and-such unnamed street, then an immediate right and we're right there!" Jen refers to these outings, not unsubtly, as "Tortellini Death Marches."

The original tortellini death march was in Bologna, when I took a look at the address of what was supposed to be a really good lunch spot and thought that when they said it was at Via Saragozza, 240, well 240 can't be that far away, can it? One hour later, we arrived. Well, maybe it wasn't an hour, but it probably was. And halfway through the trek out there I revealed that I thought, but wasn't totally sure, that the restaurant was actually open (something about the fact that it was apparently only open Mondays for lunch made me a little skeptical). Jen was not happy. Thus, the "death march" moniker. (The restaurant in Bologna, if it still exists, is highly recommended!)

So anyway, back to Luxor. After an afternoon of walking around and shopping — since, as our Egyptian guides said, that's what ladies like to do — we were ready to eat dinner. We stood in front of the train station, consulted the guidebook and saw that there was a promising sounding restaurant situated basically on the way back to the hotel. I talked over our route, vetting it with the others, and tried to be realistic about how long it might take.

"See, just there" — pointing with my finger — "to there." It looked like about a mile. "About a mile, OK?"

Should we have taken a taxi? Probably. But we had been shuttled around like a school field trip for days, and it seemed nice to keep walking. Until we started walking.

Now to be fair, it was a pretty cool walk — if some of us weren't "hallucinating" from hunger, I would have taken some pictures — Al Mansheya Street was pretty lively — lots of hanging meat! And apparently lots of leering men as well, which wouldn't have bothered me, per se, but for some others — well, I guess it doesn't make for the most pleasant early evening constitutional.

And it wouldn't have been the worst walk but things got a little hairy on Al Madina Street — now I see it's just 19 short blocks, but at the time it only looked like an indeterminate number of unnamed blocks, then a left onto a street that probably didn't have a street sign either.

So we're walking, and walking — and hallucinating — and just when I'm about to argue that there's no need to cut our losses, a very helpful mustachioed man jogs across the street to ask us if we need help. Ah, I think — I'll be a man about it and cut our losses.

"Not about the money!" he yells. "No money! I just help you!"

So I tell him that we're trying to find the Jewel of the Nile Restaurant and he says something along the lines of "ah yes, of course — it's just down this other darkened street in what you might assume would be the opposite direction, then around the corner and . . ."

Just when I'm about to follow this friendly man into the night, I see that Jen and Compulsory are hanging back on the corner of unnamed street and unnamed street. I'm pretty sure I know that the restaurant is not in that direction, or if it is, it's another wild detour away from the restaurant, but . . . well, he wants us to follow him down this darkened street. I begin to walk away back toward the street we'd been following.

"You Americans, your nose in the air!" he yells back at me. "I am not fucking bin Laden!"

It wasn't so much that I thought he might be a terrorist — though of course the ideological underpinnings of Al Qaeda do come from Egypt — but more a matter of what they always say about catching more flies with honey than with dropping bin Laden's name within 30 seconds of meeting someone.

Michael reported back to us that in the end, the man wanted some money. Michael gave him a pound coin.

"What am I supposed to do with this, shove it in my ass?" he said to Michael, who basically shrugged and walked away.

A block later a waiter saw me trying to discern landmarks on the map and asked us if we were looking for something. He told us that the restaurant was just two more blocks away. And it was. See, not so bad!

This episode became known as the Tahini Death March.

Looking back, the Google Map says that it is about two kilometers from the train station to the restaurant — just over 1.2 miles. Not a terrible walk, but like I said, we had walked a lot already, and some of us were hungry while others were hallucinating. It was probably about 40 minutes of walking in total — not counting all the other walking we did, including a semi-unpleasant 40-minute detour attributable to — I maintain — an outdated map.

This all happened on January 3. Today is January 28, and from the news reports, Egypt seems to be a much different place. Maybe not — conventional wisdom is usually that dissent is always there just under the surface waiting for something to spark some action:

Ibrahim Abdelkhaled, 25, a mobile-phone repairman, said: "The government is trying their level best to make sure these protests don't happen. But we already agreed on the place yesterday. We expected them to try to shut down the networks."

He added, "We're here because we're demanding the resignation of Mubarak and his government because after 30 years we are all fed up with him. We will march in the streets so that he leaves."

One axiom might be that the more pictures of a leader you see, the more they have to worry about. Similarly, the more they want you to think they're in control, the less they're probably in control (or not — we'll see I guess).

Here's a street in the Cairo suburb of Giza:

Hosni Mubarak Picture, Giza, Cairo, Egypt

Here's the "Mubarak Touristic Road" outside of Luxor:

Mubarak Touristic Road, Luxor, Egypt

There were so many pictures of Mubarak around that I almost forgot to take a picture of one — I figured that I'd always see another just down the road. It looks like an Irish home with all those pictures of JFK in kitchens, except in this case all of Egypt is an Irish kitchen.

And at the time, we loved those sunglasses! We couldn't decide whether it was a nod to Timbuk3 or a convenient way to hide crow's feet.

I'm happy we got to parachute into Egypt for a week or so there — and it's strange to think that before a Tunisian produce seller set himself on fire, the only unknown about traveling to Egypt was whether the weather would hold. Hopefully everyone will stay safe and things turn out for the best, whatever the best may be.

See also the Big Map: Egypt/Jordan, December 27, 2010-January 11, 2011.

Posted: January 28th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: National Geographical | Tags: , , ,