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Posts Tagged ‘egypt’

Photo: Amr Nabil/AP.
A man buys food at a popular restaurant in Cairo, March 22, 2022. The app Tekeya is working to counter food waste.

In restaurants around the world, especially in the fanciest ones, a lot of perfectly good food goes to waste because of some perceived defect. Can we find a better solution than throwing it out?

Eman Mounir reports at the Christian Science Monitor about a new app in Egypt to deal with food waste.

“Early one morning, servers at the Al-Aseel Al-Dimishqi restaurant began their usual preparations for the day. They laid out rows of baklava, kunafa, and other syrup-drenched, nut-stuffed delectables. But the offerings weren’t for customers who flock to the upscale New Cairo suburb. 

“Instead, within an hour, staff from an organization called Tekeya had arrived to whisk away 135 portions of perfectly edible dishes.

“The reason? The desserts – made a day earlier – weren’t considered fresh enough to dish up. 

“Throughout Egypt, which boasts a rich culinary history, such views aren’t uncommon. … Now, though, amid a global reckoning over the food chain and its role in the climate crisis, attitudes in Egypt are slowly changing. 

“The Al-Aseel restaurant is one of around a dozen across the Egyptian capital that Tekeya staff visits each day in a quest to stop fit-for-consumption food from being dumped. Restaurants pay a small annual fee that allows them to alert Tekeya whenever they have unsold food. Personal users of the app can then buy that food at half-price, or either the restaurant or the user can request Tekeya  deliver the food to a food bank or charity of their choosing. In total, up to 40 plates are saved from going to the trash each day. …

“Tekeya, which was inspired in part by the rituals around Ramadan, is the first such app in Egypt, where poor nutrition and undernourishment account for up to 55% of annual child deaths.  

“ ‘I’ve seen several platforms helping fight food waste across Europe. It’s uplifting to find one that does the same here in Egypt,’ says Al-Aseel’s manager, Ramez Abo Abed, who has been using the app for three years.

“In 2019, Menna Shahin had an idea particularly inspired by Ramadan, the Muslim holiday when the devout give to poor people and fast throughout the day. That prompts both celebration and waste. Since fasts are eventually broken with lavish meals at dusk, demand for food commodities soars by up to a third, and waste, in turn, also multiplies. 

“ ‘I would put so much thought into how to dispose of [food] responsibly without harming the environment, and how to minimize my excess usage,’ Ms. Shahin says. ‘I thought to myself, why not assist everyone to dispose of their excess food wisely?’

“Ms. Shahin ended up co-founding Tekeya along with her husband, Max Hartzen. By Tekeya’s second Ramadan, some 10,000 discounted meals were ordered during the holy month, with users choosing to donate roughly a quarter of those to charities.

“Now a 15-member team, Tekeya continues to face the stigma associated with ‘leftover food,’ says Aya Magdy, the startup’s account manager. ‘People presume that it’s food that has gone bad, making it difficult to convince them to buy or donate it.’

“Traditional Egyptian fare includes delicately spiced falafel served piping hot, while koshary, a staple street food, provides a hearty kick through mixing rice and pasta with fresh onions, tomatoes, garlic, chili, lentils, chickpeas, and a dazzling array of spices – these and other classic dishes almost all require freshly chopped ingredients. 

“But there’s a growing awareness of the impact of food waste on the environment. When food is thrown out, it rots and creates methane, a greenhouse gas that is almost 30 times as potent as carbon dioxide. To date, Tekeya counts at least 45,000 meals it has saved from ending up in landfills – preventing the equivalent of 133,000 kilograms (about 293,000 pounds) of carbon dioxide from being released into the environment, Ms. Shahin says.

“The team also works hard to guarantee the quality of the food it passes on, carrying out regular checkups amid stringent requirements. And because trust is such a big factor, if clients complain that the food from a restaurant is too stale or otherwise unsatisfactory, collaboration is immediately terminated.   

“The number of users has climbed steadily. The app now has more than 50,000 subscribers and 120 food suppliers in Cairo. And users tend to be conscientious themselves. Sara Harfoush, a teaching assistant in Cairo University’s Faculty of Economics and Political Science, was initially skeptical, so she conducted her own trials to gauge quality. After ordering off the app several times – and finding it satisfactory each time – she began buying food cheaply to donate to those in need. …

“The idea is catching on with well-known brands. Alban Khalifa, a dairy shop with multiple branches across Cairo, has been reducing food waste and financial losses through Tekeya for nearly two years. Regulars know they can snap up half-price puddings through the app at the close of day.

“That food would otherwise join the tens of thousands of tons of ingredients overflowing from trash cans on many streets of Cairo. In rural areas, heaps of discarded vegetables and harvests rot in the sun, attracting stray animals.

“There are other draws beyond environmental and sanitation concerns. Soaring inflation and another round of currency devaluation in March have further squeezed citizens in a country where a third of the population is classified as low-income earners. 

“Mohamed Refaat, a pharmacist in Cairo, says he quickly became a regular user after learning about Tekeya. The combination of contributing to saving the environment and getting good food at a discount is, he says, ‘very attractive to any user given the soaring prices and rising inflation rates.’ ”

More at the Monitor, here.

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Photo: Omar Adel via Unsplash.
The Al-Rifa’i Mosque in Cairo. The city’s redevelopment highlights every kind of culture, from mosques to belly-dancers.

Members of my extended family were in Egypt recently, and judging from the videos and photos, they had a fantastic time. It made me think of an article I saw back in January about Cairo.

Donna Abu-Nasr at Bloomberg CityLab had a report on how the city’s “revival blends ancient Egypt with modern tastes.”

She wrote, “When Egyptian ballerina Amie Sultan decided to go into belly dancing, she raised eyebrows among her friends and fellow professionals. Why switch from an art form that’s highly respected to one that’s often scorned in her home country and the rest of the Arab world?

“Six years later, Sultan wants to elevate a dance focused on shaking hips and torsos in low-end cabarets to the theater. It’s just one of the ways Egyptians are trying to establish a contemporary cultural identity in Cairo that taps into their heritage.

“The renaissance of traditions spans everything from new museum exhibits to artisans integrating old crafts into modern furniture and designers selling handmade jewelry, bags and shoes online. There’s also the redevelopment of buildings to champion Egyptian identity. For her bit, Sultan says her goal is to preserve, document and revive the performing arts. Egypt is the spiritual home of belly-dancing, which traces its roots back to ancient times. …

“Perhaps the most striking example of the cultural resurrection was when 22 mummies were transported through central Cairo [in April 2021] to their latest resting place at the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation. The multi-million dollar spectacle was broadcast live on state television. …

“Some parts of the sprawling metropolis are being refurbished in an attempt to recapture more of the tourism market. … One of those areas is central Cairo, also known as Khedival Cairo in reference to Khedive Ismail, the ruler under whom downtown Cairo was built in the late 19th century. The country’s sovereign wealth fund plans to redevelop the mid-20th century Mogamma building, a hulking government office complex. …

“Private entrepreneurs, like Karim Shafei, 48, have also for years been actively working on restoring that part of town. … The vision that he and his partner, Aladdin Saba, an investment banker, have for downtown is to make it a real city center that reflects Egyptian identity: a meeting point for Cairenes from all walks of life and a platform for innovation and creativity.

“ ‘There’s nowhere in Cairo where tourists can go and experience the contemporary Egyptian lifestyle, unlike many other cities such as Beirut, Istanbul, Paris and New York,’ said Shafei. ‘Today, there’s a big portion of tourism that’s intended to experience a country in its modern form. You want to experience the way cuisine is, the way people live, how they dress.’ 

“One thing that Shafei has noticed is a change in the government’s attitude toward restoration. In the past, authorities would just focus on painting a wall or fixing a sidewalk. In the past year, the discussions have become deeper.

“Sultan, the dancer, has likewise found a sympathetic ear for her project, which she is doing through her company Tarab Collective. When she has approached government officials with her idea, ‘there’s some shock, but then as they listen they actually see that this is a serious project.’ . …

“Belly-dancing has been associated with smoky cabarets where alcohol is served. … It’s also informally performed by people at home, at picnics or celebrations. …

“Last year, Tarab Collective produced a tribute to the golden age of Egyptian cinema and the dance’s divas from 1940 to 1960. It featured 12 performers and premiered at the closing of the Gouna Film Festival in October.

“[Sultan’s] company is also working on setting up an institute to teach the dance, register it with UNESCO as intangible heritage and change its name from one that comes from the French danse du ventre to ‘Egyptian dance.’

“ ‘At the end of the day, this dance represents Egypt,’ she said. ‘It’s how we show ourselves to the world, just like we identify Spain with flamenco.’ “

More at Bloomberg CityLab, here. I know I’ve told you that there was a wonderful belly-dancer at our son’s wedding — with flaming candles in her hair, no less. If I can get into my old computer, I’ll post a picture.

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Photo: James O Davies/The Historic England Archive, Historic England.
Sphinx House, Moulsford, Oxfordshire, is an example of Egyptian influences on the work of newly rehabilitated British architect John Outram.

Sometimes a person whose work hits a wall of resistance from contemporaries is merely ahead of the times. That may be the case with UK architect John Outram.

Guardian reporter Oliver Wainwright talks to the architect about his philosophy and rehabilitation. ” ‘Our beginning was a worm,’ says John Outram. ‘It had light-sensitive cells at one end that later turned into eyes.’ He is standing in the bathroom at the top of his house in London’s Connaught Square, explaining the symbolism of the patterns that line the walls of his shower.

“Three white worms wiggle their way across a background of blue mosaic tiles at the base of the cubicle, while a black I-shape floats against a band of red tiles above, denoting ‘the emergence of the ego.’ A third yellow band at the top marks the realm of light, where the figure of ‘thought’ appears between two triangles, signifying the parted halves of the ‘heap of history.’

“It’s a lot to digest before breakfast – and we haven’t even got on to the symbolic ceiling (the ‘raft of reason’) or the hexagonal serpent-skin floor tiles.

“ ‘I stand here every morning to do my exercises,’ says Outram, breaking into an infectious giggle. ‘A good dose of metaphysics sets one up for the day.’

“The eccentric architect has reason to be cheerful. At the age of 87, he is enjoying an unexpected wave of popularity. Having been stamped with the label of postmodernism – out of favor since the 1990s, when his work was described as ‘architectural terrorism’ – he has been rediscovered by a new generation, thirsty for color, pattern, ornament and fun.

“The last few years have seen several of his buildings listed, from the Isle of Dogs pumping station, that cartoonish temple to summer storms, to an opulent country house in Sussex built for the Tetra Pak billionaires Hans and Märit Rausing. Illustrations of Outram’s buildings can now be found emblazoned on T-shirts and mugs, while he has a growing following on Instagram, which he joined during lockdown, where he expounds his esoteric theories to a rapt audience. And now, for the first time, the full breadth of his maverick output has been brought together in a monograph. So how does it feel to be recognized so late in life, after years in the wilderness?

” ‘I call it being dug up,’ he says with a chortle. ‘Disinterred, as it were. It’s quite entertaining.’

“As Geraint Franklin, the book’s author, observes, the English have never quite known what to do with Outram. His buildings are hi-tech, neoclassical and postmodern all at once, yet they fit neatly into none of these categories. His chubby columns house sophisticated mechanical systems for ventilation, wiring and drainage, while simultaneously alluding to ancient mythologies in their richly layered ornament.

“A huge jet engine fan in the pediment of the pumping station helps to cool the machinery inside, while also standing as the symbolic source of the ‘river of somatic time.’ A pyramidal glass fireplace in the Egyptian-themed Sphinx Hill house in Oxfordshire summons momentous Pharaonic allusions, while cleverly sucking smoke beneath the floor to a hidden flue.

“In Outram’s world, embracing technology and modernity did not preclude the presence of poetry and history. … Outram piled it all on, mining inspiration from Sumerian, Egyptian, Chinese and Mayan cultures with magpie glee. …

“Born in Malaysia, where his army officer father was stationed, Outram’s outsider status owes something to his upbringing. His childhood saw spells in Burma and India, before he arrived at prep school in England at the age of 11, feeling like ‘a refugee from the British empire.’ His early exposure to the vivid sights and sounds of South Asian cities informed his impression of the classical world, as being ‘much more like India than like the British Museum. Very noisy, very smelly, very colorful.’ …

“Unlike his hi-tech peers, his projects rarely exceeded the capabilities of the average builder. ‘The problem with hi-tech is that it’s very expensive, and the tech isn’t very high,’ he says. ‘I’d been a pilot, so I knew what real hi-tech was – and it wasn’t suitable for architecture.’ …

“As Franklin writes, base materials are subject to an almost alchemical transformation in Outram’s hands. Humdrum concrete – which he once described as a ‘funereal porridge of muddy ashes’ – could be transformed into ‘blitzcrete with fragments of colored brick, ground and polished to an edible nougat finish. It debuted at his New House for the Rausings in Wadhurst, Sussex, in 1986, where five types of crushed brick swirl across the facade like confetti in the wind.”

More at the Guardian, here. Great Pictures. No firewall.

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Photo: National Museum of Ireland.
Found in an Irish bog. The psalter is shown here pre-conservation – lines of psalms clearly visible.

In the miracles-all-around-us department, imagine finding in a peat bog a medieval book of psalms that looked like the monastic compilers might have had links with Egypt! Lisa O’Carroll writes for the Guardian about a book on the psalter’s discovery and painstaking restoration.

“One summer’s day in Tipperary as peat was being dug from a bog, a button peered out from the freshly cut earth. The find set off a five-year journey of conservation to retrieve and preserve what lay beyond: a 1,200-year-old psalm book in its original cover.

“Bogs across Europe have thrown up all sorts of relics of the ancient past, from naturally preserved bodies to vessels containing butter more than a millennium old, but the 2006 discovery of an entire early medieval manuscript, entombed in a wet time capsule for so long, was unprecedented, said the National Museum of Ireland.

“The book fell open upon discovery to reveal the Latin words in ualle lacrimarum (in the valley of tears), which identified it as a book of psalms. One particularly unexpected feature was the vegetable-tanned leather cover with a papyrus reed lining, suggesting the monks could have had trade links with Egypt.

“ ‘It still blows me away,’ said John Gillis, the chief manuscript conservator at Trinity College Dublin, home of the Book of Kells, the Book of Armagh and 450 other medieval Latin manuscripts. ‘It was by far and away the most challenging, most interesting project I have ever undertaken – and to put that in context, I am surrounded by these iconic manuscripts.’

“Ten years after going on display at the National Museum in Dublin, the Faddan More Psalter is one of Ireland’s top 10 treasures and now the subject of a 340-page book from the institution documenting every stage of the ‘terrifying’ preservation process for future scholars. …

“The process of stabilising the book outside the bog, drying it and then unpicking and unfolding pages where possible was painstaking. Archaeologists placed the ‘conglomeration’ of squashed pages, leather and turf in a walk-in cold store in the museum at 4C. But there was no manual in the world to guide Gillis on how to go about the task. …

“Initial examination was limited in order to mitigate further trauma. CT scans and X-rays to find 3D structures were excluded owing to concerns that they could accelerate the degradation.

“After trying sophisticated versions of freeze-drying, vacuum-sealing, and drying with blotting paper, Gillis settled on a dewatering method using a vacuum chamber installed in the museum lab for four years to minimise shrinkage and decay.

“It would take two years before all the folio fragments were in a dry and stable state before the daunting task of dismantling could begin, a process chronicled in the book out later this month, The Faddan More Psalter, The Discovery and Conservation of a Medieval Treasure.

“ ‘It was absolutely terrifying,’ Gillis said of the responsibility he felt.

‘I heard from someone in the British Museum that there was a picture of the [book fragments] on the walls in a staff area there with the words “If you think you have a bad day ahead …”

” ‘You had this nerve-racking scenario of disturbing this material, which meant losing evidence, when the whole point was trying to gain as much information as possible.’

“Many of the spaces between the iron gall letters had dissolved into the bog, leaving an alphabet soup of several thousand standalone letters. It would take months after the drying process to piece them all together, in sequence on the right pages.

“ ‘The rewards when you slowly lifted up a fragment, and suddenly beneath this little bit of decoration would appear, particularly the yellow pigment they used. It would kind of shine back at you,’ Gillis said. ‘And you’d go: “Wow, I am the first person to see this in 1,200 years.” So that kind of privilege made all the sleepless nights and racking of the brain worthwhile.

“ ‘It was the purest conservation I’ve ever carried out. There is no repair, I’ve attached nothing new. All I’ve done is captured and stabilised.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: Reuters.
An Egyptian nonprofit has enlisted fishermen from Al-Qursaya, an island near central Cairo, to collect plastics that have been reducing the catch.

At the Center for Biological Diversity, I recently learned about the enormity of the plastics problem in waters where people fish. The website states: “Plastic accumulating in our oceans and on our beaches has become a global crisis. Billions of pounds of plastic can be found in swirling convergences that make up about 40 percent of the world’s ocean surfaces. At current rates, plastic is expected to outweigh all the fish in the sea by 2050.” Yikes!

New efforts large and small are needed to reverse what’s happening. On Twitter, the World Economic Forum is promoting one of the small efforts, which is how I learned about it.

Reuters reports, “For 17 years, Mohamed Nasar has supported his family of five by fishing in the Nile River near the banks of the tiny island of Al-Qursaya close to central Cairo.

“But the 58-year-old says fishermen like himself catch fewer fish every year as the Nile has become clogged with plastic bottles, bags and other waste.

‘The fish get caught in the bottles, and they die,’ said Nasar.

“A local environmental group named ‘VeryNile‘ has asked the island’s fishermen to use their boats to collect plastic bottles from the river. VeryNile says it buys the bottles at a higher price than the general market price on offer from traders or recycling plants.

“The initiative provides a sustainable solution for helping to clean up the Nile, while providing an additional source of income for fisherman like Nasar.

” ‘This job helped us a bit. We come and collect about 10 to 15 kilos (of plastic bottles), we get about 12 Egyptian pounds ($0.7682) for each,’ Nasar said as he sat in his boat collecting bottles. …

“Another fisherman, Saeed Hassanein, said cleaner Nile water would mean more fish.

” ‘On the one hand, the Nile is cleaner, and on the other hand the fisherman now has more than one source of income,’ he said.

“With the help of more than 40 fishermen, VeryNile has over the past year collected around 18 tons of plastic bottles, most of which were sold to recyclers.” More at Reuters, here.

The World Economic Forum, which defines itself as the “international organization for public-private cooperation,” is increasingly focused on addressing the consequences of global warming, and I hope it is serious about that. It’s easy to feel cynical about the forum’s annual conference for the world’s rich and powerful — called Davos because it takes place in Davos, Switzerland — but I have to believe it’s helping to make both the problems and the possible solutions more widely accepted. Besides, I know there are many altruistic people on the staff, like my friend Kai, who was one of them several years ago.

In a recent podcast, Radio Davos discusses initiatives tackling climate change, calling the current decade “the decade of ocean science, and one in which we must get on track for net-zero by 2050.”

So there’s that. Meanwhile, in Egypt, impoverished fishermen are pulling out plastic that corporations, cruise ships, and too many individuals keep dumping.

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Photo: Reuters.
‘Lost golden city’ found in Egypt reveals lives of ancient pharaohs.

Archaeologists in Egypt have had a run of successes lately. The most recent find of a whole city is expected to generate clues to the daily lives of the pharaohs.

The BBC reports that “the discovery of a 3,000-year-old city that was lost to the sands of Egypt has been hailed as one of the most important archaeological finds since Tutankhamun’s tomb.

“Famed Egyptologist Zahi Hawass announced the discovery of the ‘lost golden city’ near Luxor. [He] said the find was the largest ancient city, known as Aten, ever uncovered in Egypt. It was unearthed within weeks of the excavation starting in September 2020.

“The city dates to the reign of Amenhotep III, one of Egypt’s most powerful pharaohs, who ruled from 1391 to 1353 BC. …

“Betsy Brian, professor of Egyptology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, US, said … the city would ‘give us a rare glimpse into the life of the ancient Egyptians’ at the time when the empire was at its wealthiest.

“The dig revealed a large number of valuable archaeological finds, such as jewelry, colored pottery, scarab beetle amulets and mud bricks bearing seals of Amenhotep III. …

” ‘Within weeks, to the team’s great surprise, formations of mud bricks began to appear in all directions,’ Dr Hawass said in his statement. ‘What they unearthed was the site of a large city in a good condition of preservation, with almost complete walls, and with rooms filled with tools of daily life.’

“Now, seven months after the dig started, several areas or neighborhoods have been uncovered, including a bakery, an administrative district and a residential area.”

More at the BBC, here. Check out the photos.

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Photo: Ahmed Hasan / AFP via Getty Images.
The sealed wooden coffins at Saqqara in Egypt date from between the sixth and first centuries B.C.

On the weekend, when I was indoors with grandchildren for the first time in more than a year, one of the kids read to me from a book of “spooky stories.” One yarn was about mummies, which reminded me of the prepandemic time that grandson and I had visited the Egyptian section of the RISD Museum. Maybe Suzanne will show him the picture from today’s post about a recent discovery in Egypt.

Jo Marchant wrote about this at Smithsonian last November. “A giant trove of ancient coffins and mummies has been discovered at the vast Egyptian burial site of Saqqara. After hinting at a big announcement for days, the Egyptian antiquities ministry revealed the details this morning: more than 100 intact wooden coffins with brightly painted scenes and hieroglyphs, and well-preserved mummies inside.

“The announcement comes after a string of recent discoveries at Saqqara, including 59 intact coffins revealed in September and October. The newly announced coffins were found nearby, at the bottom of three 12-meter shafts revealed when archaeologists led by Mostafa Waziry, head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, were removing debris from the site. Other finds include funerary masks and more then 40 statues of the funerary deity Ptah-Sokar, all untouched for at least 2,000 years.

“Speaking at a press conference at Saqqara with dozens of the coffins displayed on stage behind him, Egypt’s antiquities minister, Khaled el-Enany, praised the Egyptian archaeologists who excavated the finds, which mostly date from between the sixth and first centuries B.C. ‘They have been working day and night and I’m very proud of the result,’ he said. Their story will be told in a Smithsonian Channel docuseries called Tomb Hunters, scheduled to air in 2021.

“As the coronavirus pandemic devastates the tourism industry on which Egypt depends, the recent finds have been publicized in a series of increasingly dramatic events. At a previous press conference in October, Egyptian officials opened a coffin live on stage. This time they went one step further, not just opening a coffin but X-raying the mummy inside, revealing the individual to have been an adult male, perhaps in his 40s. ….

“Egyptologists have welcomed the announcement. To find an unplundered necropolis from this period is ‘extremely significant,’ says Salima Ikram, an archaeologist based at the American University in Cairo, who works at Saqqara. They note that although the latest find is larger, it doesn’t differ significantly from the previously announced finds. ‘This is very impressive, but it’s lots more of what we already have,’ says Campbell Price, curator of Egypt and Sudan at the Manchester Museum in the United Kingdom. Nonetheless, researchers are excited about the possibilities for learning more about this ancient sacred landscape, and the people who were buried there.

“Saqqara, located around 20 miles south of Cairo, is one of Egypt’s richest archaeological sites. Home to the 4,700-year-old Step Pyramid, Egypt’s oldest surviving pyramid that’s about 200 years older than the more-famous Pyramids at Giza, the site was used as a burial ground for more than 3,000 years. Like the previous 59 coffins, the newly announced finds mostly date from fairly late in ancient Egypt’s history, from the Late Period (664-332 B.C.) and the Ptolemaic period when Greeks ruled as Pharaohs (305-30 B.C.)

“During this period, Saqqara was far more than a cemetery, says Price. It was a pilgrimage site, he says, like an ancient Mecca or Lourdes, that attracted people not just from Egypt but from all over the eastern Mediterranean. Buildings such as the Step Pyramid were already thousands of years old at this time; people believed they were burial places for gods, and wanted to be buried close by.

‘Saqqara would have been the place to be seen dead in,’ says Price. ‘It had this numinous, divine energy that would help you to get into the afterlife.’

“Geophysical surveys have revealed the remains of numerous temples buried under the sand. Archaeologists have also discovered millions of animal mummies, including dogs, cats and birds, believed to have been left as offerings. Recent finds of mummified cobras, crocodiles and dozens of cats, including two lion cubs, were reported in November 2019 and feature in a Netflix documentary, ‘Secrets of the Saqqara Tomb,’ released this month. Meanwhile the discovery of an underground embalmers’ workshop, announced in April, suggests a thriving business in dealing with the dead, with coffins and masks to suit a range of budgets.

“But the undertakers weren’t digging from scratch, says Aidan Dodson, an Egyptologist at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. They were reusing older, looted tombs, he says, ‘scouring Saqqara for locations’ suitable for placing new coffins, even beneath the Step Pyramid itself. That makes the site a densely packed mix of finds that range thousands of years. ‘One would be hard pressed to dig and not find something,’ says Ikram. The latest coffins come from an area north of the Step Pyramid, next to the bubasteon, a temple complex dedicated to the cat goddess Bastet, where older tombs were reused to hold hundreds of mummified cats.” As Laurie would say, “Holy Cats!”

More at the Smithsonian, here.

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Photo: Cairo Scene.
Last fall, the Mersal Foundation, a health-care nonprofit in Egypt, received one large award from AstraZeneca for its work with lung cancer patients and another to aid those afflicted with the Coronavirus.

When I read a story like today’s, which is about a nonprofit that’s filling the gaps in a health-care system, I think of my favorite Allen Ginsberg poem:

“When Music was needed, Music sounded
“When a ceremony was needed, a teacher appeared
“When students were needed, telephones rang
“When cars were needed, wheels rolled in …”

It reminds that good people can make things happen.

Sudarsan Raghavan reported recently at the Washington Post, “The pleas for help were flooding in. By 2 p.m., Raba Mokhtar was picking up the 131st call of the day to the Mersal Foundation’s 24-hour hotline. Like the vast majority, it was related to the coronavirus pandemic.

“On the other end of the line, a woman was frantically describing the condition of a relative, a 67-year-old man who had tested positive for the virus. He had a 100-degree fever and could hardly breathe. They had first tried the Health Ministry’s hotline to look for a bed in a government hospital, with no luck. …

“In a country where government health resources can be either stretched or inadequate and where most people cannot afford hospitalization, a once little-known charity has become a lifeline for thousands of Egyptians. For the past year, and especially during the latest coronavirus wave, the Mersal Foundation has contracted and paid for beds in private hospitals or provided oxygen tanks to people in need.

“Mersal and its founder, Heba Rashed, have become so trusted that more than a quarter-million people now follow her social media accounts to learn the true impact of the pandemic in Egypt. …

“Egypt has reported about 165,000 infections and 9,100 deaths since the start of the outbreak. Medical experts and even government ministers have publicly said the real numbers are far higher.

“Doubts among the public deepened in January when a video went viral online claiming that coronavirus patients at a government hospital had died because of a lack of oxygen. The government denied the report, but a week later Sissi ordered a doubling of oxygen production to meet increased demand.

“Against this backdrop, the Mersal Foundation has emerged as a trusted oasis of care. And Rashed, 40, has become a coronavirus prognosticator for her legions of followers.  

‘It makes me feel very responsible for every word I utter,’ she said. ‘People get affected by everything I say.’

“Growing up in Jordan and the Egyptian desert town of Fayoum, Rashed never intended to start a charity. In college, she studied Spanish and Arabic and later earned a master’s degree in linguistics and several diplomas in other fields. She later worked as a linguist and as a project manager. In her spare time, she volunteered at a local charity.

“Soon, Rashed said, she realized she had ‘no passion’ for her job and found her charitable work more fulfilling. She also noticed there were few nonprofit groups in Egypt specializing in health issues. So with two friends, she launched Mersal five years ago. ‘It was truly hard at the start,’ Rashed recalled. ‘We had no connections.’

“Eventually, they found a sympathetic donor. He gave roughly $1,300, and they set up the charity in Rashed’s apartment. Slowly they grew, soliciting donations mostly on social media. They began to get noticed by some larger donors.

“Today, the foundation has four offices in Cairo and one in the northern city of Alexandria, with roughly 200 employees, according to Rashed. …

“ ‘The second wave is much more vicious than the first one, in terms of the intensity of the infection,’ Rashed said. ‘The number of infections is bigger than the last wave. The symptoms are much more.’

“She was infected. So were more than half of her 100 employees in the office, forcing mass isolations. ‘It made it very hard to do our work,’ Rashed said matter-of-factly. …

“The case of the 67-year-old man who had been struggling to breathe was typical. His oxygen levels were extremely low, though he was using a tank. … Mokhtar, the employee who took the call, asked the man’s relative to send a complete medical report, X-rays of his lungs and any bloodwork. Mokhtar gave her the WhatsApp number.

“ ‘We will show them to the medical department, and we will get you a bed when one becomes available,’ Mokhtar said. ‘Peace be with you.’

“Finding a bed usually takes a few hours but can stretch into a day or two, employees said. … The foundation has contracted with more than 30 private hospitals. In some cases, patients who need help getting care can pay some or all costs. Mostly, though, the charity pays as much as $1,300 per day for hospital beds in intensive care units, money obtained in large part through online appeals for donations.”

More at the Washington Post, here. Grateful stories may be found at the Mersal Foundation Facebook page, here,

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krakatau_e32642

Photo: Volcano Discovery

I love stories about volcanoes that change the flow of history. The really big ones, you know, darken the skies for months — even years — and disrupt the sea like a tsunami.

As Katherine Kornei reports at the New York Times, there are other effects that researchers are just beginning to discover.

“Chaos and conflict roiled the Mediterranean in the first century B.C.,” she reports. “Against a backdrop of famine, disease and the assassinations of Julius Caesar and other political leaders, the Roman Republic collapsed, and the Roman Empire rose in its place. Tumultuous social unrest no doubt contributed to that transition — politics can unhinge a society. But so can something arguably more powerful.

Scientists [in June] announced evidence that a volcanic eruption in the remote Aleutian Islands, 6,000 miles away from the Italian peninsula, contributed to the demise of the Roman Republic.

“That eruption — and others before it and since — played a role in changing the course of history.

“In recent years, geoscientists, historians and archaeologists have joined forces to investigate the societal impacts of large volcanic eruptions. They rely on an amalgam of records — including ice cores, historical chronicles and climate modeling — to pinpoint how volcanism affected civilizations ranging from the Roman Republic to Ptolemaic Egypt to pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.

“There’s nuance to this kind of work, said Joseph Manning, a historian at Yale University who has studied the falls of Egyptian dynasties. ‘It’s not “a volcano erupts and a society goes to hell.” ‘ But the challenge is worth it, he said. ‘We hope in the end that we get better history out of it, but also a better understanding of what’s happening to the Earth right now.’ …

“Joseph McConnell, a climate scientist at the [Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nev.], and his collaborators are in the business of looking for debris [from long ago eruptions]. …

“Volcanic ash, more generally known as tephra, sometimes hides in ice. It’s a special find because it can be geochemically tied to a specific volcano. … The ice also carries a time stamp. Dr. McConnell and his colleagues look for variations in elements like sodium, which is found in sea spray that’s seasonally blown inland. By simply counting annual variations in these elements, it’s possible to trace the passage of time, Dr. McConnell said. ‘It’s like a tree-ring record.’

“Dr. McConnell and his collaborators recently analyzed six ice cores drilled in the Arctic. In layers of ice corresponding to the early months of 43 B.C., they spotted large upticks in sulfur and, crucially, bits of material that were probably tephra. The timing caught the scientists’ attention. Researchers have previously hypothesized that an environmental trigger may have helped set in motion the crop failures, famines and social unrest that plagued the Mediterranean region at that time. …

“Gill Plunkett, a paleoecologist at Queen’s University Belfast, set out sleuthing. After extracting 35 pieces of tephra from the ice, she pored over the rock chemistry of likely volcanic suspects. Nicaragua’s Apoyeque. Italy’s Mount Etna. Russia’s Shiveluch.

“But it was Okmok, a volcano in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, that turned out to be the best match, at least on paper. Sealing the deal would require testing two tephra samples — one from the ice and one from Okmok — on the same instrument.

“Dr. Plunkett arranged for a tephra handoff at a conference in Dublin. A colleague from the Alaska Volcano Observatory, Kristi Wallace, packed four bags of Okmok tephra in her carry-on luggage. The match was spot on, Dr. Plunkett said. …

“This eruption was one of the largest of the last few millenniums, Dr. McConnell and his collaborators concluded, and the sulfate aerosols it created remained in the stratosphere for several years. These tiny particles are particularly good at reflecting sunlight, which means they can temporarily alter Earth’s climate. …

“There’s good evidence that the Northern Hemisphere was colder than normal around 43 B.C. Trees across Europe grew more slowly that year, and a pine forest in North America experienced an unusually early autumn freeze. Using climate models to simulate the impact of an Okmok eruption, Dr. McConnell and his collaborators estimated that parts of the Mediterranean, roughly 6,000 miles away, would have cooled by as much as 13.3 degrees Fahrenheit. … Rain patterns changed as well — some regions would have been drenched by 400 percent more precipitation than normal, the modeling revealed.

“That climate shock came at precisely the wrong time, Dr. [Jessica Clark, a historian of the Roman Republic at Florida State University] said. ‘This was a period of Mediterranean-wide political, social and economic upheaval.’

“These cold, wet conditions would have almost certainly decimated crops, Dr. McConnell and his colleagues said. Historical records compiled by Roman writers and philosophers note food shortages and famines. … For a society already reeling from the assassination of Julius Caesar the year before, such trying conditions might have exacerbated social unrest, the researchers concluded. They might even have kick-started transfers of political power that led to the rise of the Roman Empire.

“ ‘It’s an incredible coincidence that it happened exactly in the waning years of the Roman Republic when things were falling apart,’ said Dr. McConnell, who published the team’s results in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”

This was a long, fascinating article. For additional details, including details about the effects of distant volcanic eruptions on the Nile River in Egypt, click here.

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Photo: Hayam Adel/Reuters
Cat statues found near Saqqara’s necropolis are pictured in Giza, Egypt. Recently, mummified cats, birds, lion cubs, and an enormous mummified beetle have also been found.

Members of my extended family are making a trip to Egypt this year, where the youngest generation can meet relatives they have only heard about and visit famous cultural sites. Maybe a toddler will get to ride a camel, who knows?

Historic sites in Egypt are benefiting from ongoing discoveries by archaeologists, as Ruth Michaelson reports at the Guardian.

“A rare discovery of mummified big cats, cobras and crocodiles has been unveiled by Egyptian authorities.

“Egyptologists are thrilled at the cache, which includes dozens of mummified cats, 75 wooden and bronze cat statues, mummified birds, and an enormous mummified beetle three to four times the normal size. …

“Of five large mummified wildcats, two have been identified as lion cubs; the remaining three will be analysed to determine their species.

“ ‘If it’s a cheetah, a leopard, a lioness, a panther – whatever, it will be one of its kind,’ said Mostafa Waziry, the head of Egypt’s Supreme Council for Antiquities.

“The mummified large cats were found close to the remains of an adult mummified lion discovered beneath the Saqqara necropolis in 2004, and provide more information about the ancient Egyptians’ use of animals in worship.

“Worshippers either believed that the mummified animals were deities to be worshipped, or mummified the creatures in order to offer them to the gods. ‘People would make devotional offerings in the form of animals as mummies,’ said Dr Salima Ikram, an Egyptologist and mummy expert at the American University of Cairo. …

“Ikram was elated by the new finds, which she estimated date from the Ptolemaic period that ended in 30BCE. ‘I think it’s one of the most exciting series of finds in the world of animal mummies ever,’ she said.

“Egyptian officials hope the new discoveries will spark curiosity among potential visitors to the country in the run-up to the opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum close to the Saqqara necropolis. The long delayed opening is expected [in 2020], amid fervent hopes the project will help draw tourist numbers back to the highs of over 14 million visitors who came to the country in 2010, before the 2011 revolution which overthrew former autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

“Political instability and concerns about security drove down tourist numbers in the years following, dipping to record lows after the downing of Metrojet flights 7K9268 close to the resort town of Sharm el Sheikh in 2015. In recent years there has been a surge in arrivals, with 11.3 million people visiting Egypt last year, according to local news reports. The UK recently lifted a ban on flights to Sharm el Sheikh that had been in place since 2015.”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: Mark Brodkin Photography/ Getty Images
After archaeologists found steps and postholes on either side of a ramp, they concluded the pyramid builders were able to haul from both directions, shortening the time to complete construction.

What were you taught in school about how the pyramids in Egypt were constructed? The story has always been partly guesswork, like the story of Stonehenge and the giant statues on Easter Island, narratives that change as new bits of data are uncovered.

Kevin Rawlinson writes at the Guardian, “The mystery of how, exactly, the pyramids were built may have come a step closer to being unravelled after a team of archaeologists made a chance discovery in an ancient Egyptian quarry.

“Scientists researching ancient inscriptions happened upon a ramp with stairways and a series of what they believe to be postholes, which suggest that the job of hauling into place the huge blocks of stone used to build the monuments may have been completed more quickly than previously thought.

“While the theory that the ancient Egyptians used ramps to move the stones has already been put forward, the structure found by the Anglo-French team, which dated from about the period that the Great Pyramid of Giza was built, is significantly steeper than was previously supposed possible.

“They believe the inclusion of the steps and the postholes either side of a rampway suggests the builders were able to haul from both directions, rather than simply dragging a block behind them. The team believes those below the block would have used the posts to create a pulley system while those above it pulled simultaneously. …

“Dr Roland Enmarch, a senior lecturer in Egyptology at the University of Liverpool and the co-director of the project that made the discovery, the Hatnub Survey, … told the Guardian that … the alabaster quarry itself, as well as the inscriptions they were there to study, had been known to Egyptologists for a long time, having first been found by Howard Carter – the discoverer of Tutankhamun’s tomb.

“His team’s original focus was not on the ramp leading down into the quarry, but on properly documenting the inscriptions found there. But their attention was soon drawn to the former’s construction – and what it could tell them about how pyramids were built.

“They said the inscriptions allowed them to date the ramp to around the time of the Pharoah Khufu, or Cheops, who built the Great Pyramid.” More here.

It’s amazing how archaeologists keep deepening our knowledge of the past. At the same time, the use of slave labor in building these monuments remains almost too painful to think about. And it reminds me that although slavery is no longer accepted as normal, we still face huge challenges to obliterate it.

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Photo: Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
The tomb of Mehu opened for the public near the Saqqara necropolis, in Giza, Egypt, on Sept. 8, 2018.

I have never been to Egypt, but members of my extended family grew up there. My experience of visiting an Egyptian tomb is pretty much limited to the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

But it seems new tombs keep being discovered, and after getting thoroughly studied, are being opened to the public. The tomb of Mehu, a top official under King Pepi I, was found in 1940 but was only opened to the general public in September of this year.

Josh K. Elliott writes at Canada’s GlobalNews, “Egypt has opened the doors of an ornate 4,000-year-old tomb to the public. … The Tomb of Mehu, in the Saqqara necropolis near Giza, features dozens of vibrant paintings from Egypt’s sixth dynasty, dating back approximately four millennia. …

” ‘Mehu, a top official under King Pepi I, … was a vizier, the chief of the judges and the director of the palace at the time of King Pepi, the first king of the sixth dynasty,’ archeologist and Egyptologist Zahi Hawass told [Reuters].

“The tomb includes two chambers with wall inscriptions that depict Mehu hunting, gathering a bountiful harvest and dancing acrobatically. It also lists Mehu’s 48 titles as pictures on the walls

“Hawass says the tomb contains several unique images from the sixth dynasty, including a portrait of two crocodiles getting married.

“The Tomb of Mehu was first discovered by Egyptologist Zaki Saad in 1940, but remained off-limits to the public until this month. …

“ ‘We opened this previously discovered tomb to invite ambassadors and show the media that Egypt is safe,’ he told Reuters in Arabic. …

“Egypt’s tourism industry has struggled in the wake of the Arab Spring uprising in 2011. … Tourism numbers rebounded in 2017, when they jumped up to 8.2 million foreign tourist arrivals, the UNTWO [UN World Tourism Organization] data shows. …

“Archeologists have found several high-profile sites in Egypt recently, including a massive, sealed sarcophagus, an ancient village and a giant statue of Ramses II.”

More at the GlobalNews, here.

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Photo: Tom Blackie via Flickr
The Avenue of Sphinxes on the Al-Kabbash road in Luxor. Recently, a previously unknown sphinx was discovered by construction workers.

Every day new discoveries. Today I have a story about a recent discovery in Egypt. But first, to refresh your classical memory, the mythological creature called a sphinx has the body of a lion and the head of a human. Although the most famous sphinx story — the one that involved Oedipus — took place in Greece, all the statues of sphinxes are in Egypt.

Naomi Rea writes at artnet news, “A previously unknown statue of a sphinx has been discovered in Egypt, the general director of Luxor Antiquities, Mohamed Abdel Aziz, announced [in August].

“Construction workers upgrading the historic Al-Kabbash Road between the famous Luxor and Karnak temples stumbled upon the find, the English-language Egypt Today reports. …

“The Ministry of Egyptian Antiquities is developing a way to lift the newfound statue from its resting place. … In the meantime, construction work has been paused on the road and the Minister of Antiquities, Khaled al-Anani, is encouraging tourists to visit the site to see the statue.

“A researcher in Egyptology, Bassam al-Shamma, told Egyptian media that the find is not altogether surprising as many similar sphinx statues have been found across Luxor. Several new discoveries have been found in recent years, and the road is already lined with many other small stone versions of the mythical creatures dating from around 1400 BC. …

“The mythical creature of the sphinx has the head of a human and the body of a lion. In ancient Greek tradition, the sphinx’s head is often a merciless female. … For the Egyptians, though, the guardian creature was seen as benevolent, and the heads of the statues were often carved in the likeness of pharaohs. This is the case with the famous Great Sphinx; the monumental statue is thought to have been sculpted in likeness of the pharaoh Khafra.

“Other famous Egyptian sphinxes include a granite example with the head of the pharaoh Hatshepsut, which is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The Great Sphinx of Tanis in the Louvre is one of the largest sphinxes outside of Egypt.”

More at artnet, here

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Photo: Magda Saleh collection
Egypt’s first prima ballerina, Magda Saleh, as she is today and in ballets of
the 1960s and 1970s.

I like to include stories about Egyptian culture whenever I see them because of my special connection to two naturalized citizens who were born in Egypt. Here is an intriguing New York Times article by Brian Seibert about an Egyptian who excelled at ballet and even performed with the Bolshoi in Moscow.

“Once upon a time, the Egyptian ballerina Magda Saleh danced the dream role of Giselle in Moscow as a guest star with the mighty Bolshoi Ballet. …

“Recently, in the elegant Upper East Side apartment that she shares with her husband, the American Egyptologist Jack Josephson, Ms. Saleh, 73, recounted how her life had been ‘punctuated’ by shifts in Egyptian political history. …

“In the era just before she was born, Egypt was no longer a protectorate of Britain, but British influence was still high. Her father, who would become a prominent academic, studied agriculture in Scotland and brought home a Scottish bride, Ms. Saleh’s mother. Their children spoke English and Arabic at home, French at school. …

“Her first ballet teachers were British, and she traveled to Britain to study ballet. By then, though, Egypt had undergone a revolution and soon it was at war with Britain. Young Ms. Saleh was called home, where she discovered that her British instructors had left.

“But the Egyptian government was now friendly with the Soviet Union, and new teachers arrived. In 1959, the Egyptian Ministry of Culture created an Academy of Arts, with a Higher Institute of Ballet, and imported teachers from the Bolshoi to run it.

” ‘This was unprecedented in Egyptian history,’ Ms. Saleh said. ‘We have this very ambiguous attitude toward dance and especially women dancers …

“ ‘None of this would have been possible,’ she continued, ‘but for a confluence of time and circumstance and one man, the first minister of culture’ — Tharwat Okasha, an army officer with vision and tenacity. …

“Ballet education came filtered through translation, with old Russians who had fled to Egypt during the Russian Revolution converting the instructions of the newly arrived Soviet dancers into broken Arabic.

“Yet the school developed rapidly, and in 1963, Ms. Saleh and four other female students were offered scholarships to study at the Bolshoi in Moscow. She was 19 — or ’19 going on 11,’ she said, ‘because we were so sheltered.’ Now they were on their own in the bitter cold of the grim Soviet capital, sitting on radiators before class to thaw. …

“The experience was tough. ‘But character forming,’ Ms. Saleh said. ‘The Russians taught us with love. Not love for us. Love for dance. They instilled this in us.’

“Back in Cairo, diplomas in hand, they wanted to dance. So the ballet institute mounted ‘The Fountain of Bakhchisarai,’ a 1934 Soviet ballet about a Polish princess abducted by a Tatar Khan. The Egyptian public loved it. The president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, awarded the dancers the Order of Merit.

“Even more meaningful to Ms. Saleh was the praise of a poor old man after a performance in the southern backwater of Aswan. ‘People had insisted that Egyptians wouldn’t accept Egyptian ballet,’ she recalled misty-eyed. ‘But we were right!’ ”

Read more and see some lovely pictures at the New York Times, here — and also here, at Ahramonline.

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There is still so much to be discovered about the cosmos, medicine,  psychology, nature … and human history.

Claire Voon’s story at Hyperallergic about a “new” 2,800-year-old painted sarcophagus is a case in point. The colorful hieroglyphs promise to add to our knowledge.

Voon reports, “Archaeologists in Luxor have found an exquisitely decorated, millennia-old sarcophagus near the pharaonic temple of Thutmose III that still contains the remains of its ancient owner. The discovery is the most recent to emerge from the Spanish Thutmosis III Temple Project excavation, which since 2008 has explored the 18th Dynasty pharaoh’s funerary complex, situated along the west bank of the Nile. …

“Archaeologists are now starting to piece together the history of the coffin’s permanent resident. Although termites had eaten away at parts of the slim, wooden container, as the team’s head, Myriam Seco Alvarez, told El Mundo, the surface still retains a rich array of hieroglyphs that offer clues. Sarcophagi are much more than simple containers for the departed, and the pictorial script on this one records that it belonged to a man named Amenrenef, who once served as a royal court advisor.

“The images, whose bright pigments have been preserved after all this time, also depict religious figures such as the ancient goddesses Isis and Nephtys and the four sons of Horus.

“The archeologists have since removed the sarcophagus from its tomb and brought it to a lab, where it will undergo restoration. The team also plans to carry out X-ray examinations to determine the exact state of the remains inside.” More here.

Photo: Thutmosis III Temple Project
A decorated sarcophagus recently found by Spanish archaeologists near Luxor.

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