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Egypt's other pasts

By Sylvia Smith for CNN

A traditional view: The Pyramids and The Sphinx



Cairo (Egypt)
Monuments and Heritage Sites

CAIRO, Egypt (CNN) -- Although Egypt stands at the crossroads of continents and civilizations, images of pyramids, The Sphinx and mummies dominate, eclipsing its other historic cultural and religious strands.

Now attempts are being made to redress the balance and to put the Pharaonic period in context through an ambitious renovation project in Cairo and a series of cultural events in the United States.

Tourism has flourished under the watchful eyes of the Pharaohs with the majority of foreign visitors being attracted by the prospect of viewing ancient tombs and temples.

But this rather blinkered view of Egypt's past has been criticized because it overlooks the county's debt to the heritage of the Greeks, Romans, Copts and Islam.

A huge refurbishment of the old mosques in historic Cairo and the opening of the newly redone Coptic Museum has brought fresh interest in these cultures.

According to Mostapha Abbadi, Professor Emeritus of Archaeology and Greco-Roman studies at the University of Alexandria Egypt's history has been shaped by a series of important events, arguably the most significant being the Arab invasion.

During a recent address at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, he explained to the audience that the arrival of Islam and the supremacy of the Muslim religion in Egypt virtually obliterated all previous pasts. "But," he adds. "The rediscovery of Egypt in the 19th century by European scholarship changed all that."

The thrill and excitement of important excavations in the Valley of the Kings just over a century ago placed the Pharaohs once again center stage.

During a recent five-day Egyptian cultural fest in Washington DC, that included music, poetry, talks and lectures, eminent academics and media personalities looked at the myths, symbols and misconceptions about the country past and present.

Debates were wide-ranging but with particular focus on the relationship between the pyramid builders and modern-day Egyptians.

Fekhri Hassan, Petrie Professor of Archaeology at University College, London described the phenomenon that drew such attention to the Pharaohs during excavations such as that of the tomb of King Tut.

"There was huge emphasis on the gold and treasure. This played into a change in the intellectual climate of Europe." During the exiting years of adventure and discovery, Fekhri Hassan says, there was more emphasis on material goods, rather than enlightenment.

"The way Europeans started to establish status was by luxury consumption. The public were not able to see beyond the glitter and gilt. And so didn't understand the hidden meanings of Egyptian philosophy on questions of death, survival, poverty and disease."

At the well-attended concerts music provided the link conjuring up the Nile as Egypt's unifying force with instruments as diverse and the nye, 'oud and the drum.

The mighty river has served as a conduit for commerce, beliefs and travelers over many centuries, and along its banks diverse civilizations have grown up, and flourished. And this rich history was conjured up before the audience as groups of Egyptian musicians sang and played.

Renditions of 'Oum al Khalthoum, sufi chants and the mystical music of the Moulad led enthralled listeners well beyond the boundaries of the pyramids and time stood still as the dancers whirled and turned.

Only once did the dynasties of Pharaonic rulers reassert themselves when Zahi Hawass, Head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, spoke of the treasures yet to be discovered.

"So far we have uncovered only 30 per cent of our treasures," he stated. "70 per cent are still waiting to be found. Almost every day a significant discovery is made. And the sands of Egypt still have plenty more secrets to reveal."

Photographs courtesy of Richard Duebel

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