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Wabash College and The Children’s Museum co-sponsored a study tour of Egypt, and several Wabash alumni and family members joined the tour. Raymond Brady Williams, LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities emeritus and his wife, Lois, accompanied the tour, and he wrote this daily summary.
Saturday, March 23
The trip from the brand new Cairo airport to our five-star hotel on the tip of an island in the Nile presented a kaleidoscope of new and old. We visited the Madame Mubarak Children’s Museum under construction by the army corps of engineers. A general of the Egyptian army gave us a tour of the new construction. The staff of the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis is designing the new exhibits for the museum, and Dr. Jeff Patchen, CEO of The Children’s Museum, described plans for the exhibits.
We passed new apartment buildings housing the burgeoning population of Cairo and the old city walls, tombs, al-Azhar mosque, and al-Azhar, the oldest university in the world, established in the 10th century by the Fatimid rulers who founded Cairo. City markets overflowed the ancient streets. The energy, traffic and pollution of Cairo were almost overwhelming. Our welcome dinner was at our hotel on the banks of the Nile, where we watched the stream of life float by as old as the ages.
Cairo is not old by Egyptian standards. An early morning flight took us up the Nile to Aswan and then (south) over Nasser Lake almost to the Sudan border at Abu Simbel in Nubia where we visited the two temples built by Ramses II for himself and his wife, Nefertari, in the 13th century B.C.
Originally cut into a mountain on the Nile riverbank, the massive temples had to be deconstructed stone by stone and lifted away from the rising waters of Lake Nasser and reconstructed in a human-built mountain. The temples in their original location were amazing examples of ancient ingenuity and workmanship, and the reconstruction is an equally amazing example of modern technology.
In the late morning we flew back to Aswan, the location of the dam completed across the Nile by Russians in 1964, which changed the flood cycle, the irrigation system, agriculture and industry of Egypt. We stayed overnight in the complex on Elephantine Island that was built to house Russians who built the high dam, but the complex is now a five-star resort, with wonderful views of the Nile.
Aswan is heavily guarded because destruction of the dam would cause a wall of water to rush to the Mediterranean in eighteen hours, destroying much in its path along the Nile. The beautiful Nubian Museum in Aswan houses some of the earliest cave paintings and the most important pieces saved from monuments inundated by Nasser Lake behind the dam.
In the morning we sailed by felucca to Philae Island to visit a Temple of Isis. On our way back to our hotel, we visited the quarry from which the granite blocks and obelisks were carved, some weighing as much 1200 tons, then to be moved by some mysterious method down the Nile to Luxor and Cairo.
Later that afternoon we sailed in a felucca to Elephantine Island to visit the Temple of Khnum. On the way back, we visited a government orphanage for boys for whom we had brought gifts and a contribution. The children who were part of our group enjoyed interacting with Egyptian children there and elsewhere. Egyptians were universally friendly. After learning that we are Americans, they often called out ‘Obama!’. We checked onto our Nile cruise boat, and some of our group spent the evening shopping in the Aswan bazaar.
Tuesday – Wednesday
Sailing down the Nile (north) to Luxor was restful and interesting. Egypt is fertile only in the narrow strip of land irrigated at the sides of the Nile, at a few oases, and in the Nile delta. We viewed the agricultural land, sometimes stretching like two ribbons only a hundred yards wide along the Nile.
Mobile pumping stations dot the riverbank to irrigate the land. We viewed scenes of towns and villages and stopped to visit temples to the gods Sobek, Horus, and Hatho r— gods unknown to most of us. Our Egyptologist, Fadel Gad, gave us detailed descriptions and explanations of the sites, history and mythology of ancient Egypt. We were introduced to the intricacies of ancient Egyptian religious beliefs and practices, now long dead, similar to the religions of ancient Greece and Rome. The monuments are now the haunts of tourists and scholars of ancient history, and thereby provide an essential element of the Egyptian economy and its foreign exchange.
"Old Wabash" on the Nile ...
Luxor is the repository of the majority of monuments of the ancient world, and we had a full day at temples built by the pharaohs. The Karnak temple is the largest temple complex in the world, covering some 300 acres, and it is connected with the Luxor temple by an avenue of the sphinx. Dr. Zahi Hawas, Secretary General of Supreme Council of Antiquities, has worked closely on projects with The Children’s Museum, and he arranged for us to have a private tour of current excavations.
The children with trowel and brush joined the archeological team in uncovering pottery at a new archeological site adjacent to the Karnak temple, while the site director gave the adults a guided tour of the dig. We saw a 2400 year-old, inscribed granite doorway that had just been discovered and reported in that day’s newspaper. We followed the avenue of the sphinx to tour the Luxor temple in the evening. Some, who still had energy — including of course the Wabash men — visited the beautiful Luxor museum.
Tombs for royalty are in the Valley of the Kings in a desolate area on the west side of the Nile across from Luxor. Complex, intricate networks of tunnels and rooms, elaborately decorated, reach down hundreds of yards into the mountains. We had special permission from Dr. Hawas to enter the tomb of Seti I where an excavation of newly discovered tunnels is underway. We peered through the dust to view astonishing, vivid wall and ceiling paintings. We visited the tomb of King Tut, which is relatively modest, and two other tombs containing stunning paintings. Preserved in the dry desert for thousands of years, the greatest threat to the paintings is the moisture brought into the tombs by tourists. After visiting the recently restored house of Howard Carter, the Egyptologist who discovered the tomb of King Tut, we had lunch at Chicago House, which served as the center for Henry Brested’s archeological mission from the University of Chicago.
After visits to Hatshepsut’ temple, built by woman who ruled Egypt as pharaoh, and to the ruins of houses and tombs of workers who dug and decorated the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, an evening flight took us back to Cairo.
Pyramids dominate the skyline of the Giza plateau across the river from Cairo. We spent most of the day on the Giza plateau, climbing in the morning to Kofu’s burial chamber in the great pyramid. The eldest and the youngest in the group made it to the top. We viewed a reconstructed funeral boat that had been buried with a pharaoh over 4500 years ago. Its function was to transport him safely into the other world. We also enjoyed a camel ride across the plateau in front of the pyramids. We spent more of the evening than we wished in heavy Cairo traffic at the beginning of a long Egyptian holiday over Easter weekend.
The rest of our group returned to the Giza plateau in the morning for a private meeting with Dr. Zahi Hawas, during which he introduced them to his current excavation of the homes of workers who built the pyramids. This archeological dig is very promising because it is leading to greater knowledge of daily life of common people during that period. The children again had the opportunity to work on the site with Dr. Hawas’ associates. Dr. Hawas joined us at our hotel for dinner in the evening.
I separated from the group on Saturday morning to make a special visit to the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Cairo, where a large portion of Bill Placher’s theological library will be housed. The seminary was established in 1863 on a houseboat on the Nile and then permanently moved to Cairo. A faculty of 16 full time scholars currently serves 192 students from Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Sudan and hundreds of lay leaders in Egypt. I met with President Atef Gendy to tell him about Bill Placher and to present to him a few of the books Bill wrote as the first fruits of the theological library the seminary will receive in due course. I wanted him to appreciate our special colleague and friend whose library will be housed at the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Cairo.
After the dinner with Dr. Hawas, some of the group attended Easter vigil at a Coptic Church. It is the main Easter service for Copts, ending after midnight. Copts do not have church services on Easter day. We were fortunate that Easter in the Coptic Church and the western churches fell at the same time this year. The church was crowded and the joy of the celebration was much in evidence and contagious.
The step pyramid at Sakkara, near Cairo, was the first pyramid and hence the oldest extant human building. The pyramid built for Imhotep is impressive above ground, but Dr. Hawas gave our group permission to view two sites not open to the public. We climbed down to a newly opened burial chamber under the pyramid and viewed the tunnel where current excavations were underway. I trust that college insurance would have covered us, or uncovered us, as the case may be, had the pyramid collapsed upon us. Then we visited a tomb for a 17 year-old male that had some of the best preserved and most beautiful carvings and paintings we observed in Egypt. The children and the more agile adults climbed down a ladder to the burial chamber where the lad had been undisturbed for over 4500 years.
The prize of the Cairo Museum is the treasure from the King Tut tomb, including the golden mask. The morning visit to the crowded museum included many more important, albeit less well-known pieces, including the Merneptha stele from the 13th century B.C., which contains the oldest reference to the people of Israel in the land of Palestine.
Following lunch at the beautiful al-Azhar park crowed with thousands of families on a public holiday, we walked along the old city wall and through the gate recently renovated by the Aga Khan to wander through the old city streets and bazaar. Wabash College hosted a farewell reception at our hotel in the evening, at which we ‘treated’ them to a rousing rendition of ‘Old Wabash’ before we went by bus to a village restaurant for a traditional Egyptian feast and evening of entertainment by dancers, including a whirling dervish. The evening was a fitting conclusion to a wonderful trip jointly sponsored by Wabash College and The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.
The Wabash contingent on the tour were Nancy and John Wilhelm ’58 and neighbor, Clarisse Gourley, Walter “Pat” Haney ‘62 and brother-in-law, Jim Chapman, Jane and Terry Mahoney ‘77 and daughter, Catherine, Amy and Clay Robbins ’79, and Lois and Raymond Williams ‘H68 and daughter, Thayer.
Clay Robbins summarized our experience: ‘”I see wonderful things” was the British Egyptologist Howard Carter’s response when asked what he saw by torchlight as he first looked into the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. That statement described my experience each day of our Children’s Museum-Wabash College trip—especially when I climbed down a rickety ladder into the tomb of Nefer, a teenage boy who entertained in the royal palace in 2500 B.C. … My only regret is that I did not persuade more Little Giants to join the tour. Next time!’
Photos top to bottom: Wabash on the Nile: John Wilhelm ‘58 , Clay Robbins 79‘ , Terry Mahoney ‘77 , Pat Haney ‘62 , and Raymond Williams H’68. Next, Clay Robbins ’79 with the papyrus manuscript of the oldest extant prenuptial legal agreement preserved in the museum on Elephantine Island at Aswan, Egypt. John Wilhelm ‘’58 viewing the narrow strip of fertile farmland beside the Nile river between Aswan and Luxor. Catherine, Jane and Terry Mahoney ‘77 in front of Hatshepsut’s temple in the desert area across the Nile from Luxor. Jane and Terry Mahoney ‘77 navigating the Giza plateau on camels in front of the pyramids. Catherine, Jane and Terry Mahoney ‘77 riding camels to the pyramids on Giza plateau. Raymond Williams ‘H68 presents a copy of one of Bill Placher’s books to President Atef Gendy as the firstfruit of Bill’s theological library, which is on the way to the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Cairo.