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Month: November, 2017

LUXOR, EGYPT

Milan, 19 November 2017

My wife and I have just finished a little holiday in Egypt (I also went to do some consultancy on a project proposal in Upper Egypt, whose objective is to create small businesses around the reuse of agricultural and agro-processing waste; but that is a story for another day). We primarily visited Luxor, so the main thrust of our visit was the monuments of Ancient Egypt.

I must confess to being quite ignorant about the art, culture, and history of Ancient Egypt. Of course, I have a passing knowledge about all the usual things: the rather icky mummies

and the richly decorated Russian-doll like cases which enclose them

the – rather static and boringly repetitive – statues which fill halls in various Worthy Museums in Europe (here’s the British Museum’s, which I suffered through as a child).

Having read articles from time to time about King Tut and his tomb, I have of course absorbed a certain amount of his story, but to give an idea of the shallowness of my knowledge I have a very clear memory of doing a long line when I was young to visit a King Tut exhibition at the British Museum, but for the life of me don’t remember anything I saw in the exhibition itself.

I was also entertained in my childhood by the presentation of Ancient Egypt in the comic books I read: Tintin first of all

with the amusingly absent-minded Egyptologist Philémon Siclone

then Asterix

with the Egyptians speaking in hieroglyphics.

In more recent times, I have been tickled by films relating to various Curses of the Mummy.

And that’s about it. In short, I was really very ignorant about Ancient Egypt.

The hotel we stayed at in Luxor continued the comic-book theming of Ancient Egypt. We were staying in the Nefertiti wing, with the Cleopatra wing close by. These two pastiche statues greeted us every day as we made our way to the breakfast room


and the hotel’s walls were decorated with this kind of pastiche fresco.

Luckily, the French-speaking guide we had hired over the Internet turned out to be very competent. He had put together a nice programme which covered many of the best of the sites in and around Luxor: the temple of Karnak, with its large-scale bas-reliefs on its walls

the temple of Luxor, which we saw at night

with its avenue of sphinxes

Luxor Museum, which had some lovely pieces

several of the tombs in the valleys of the Kings, Queens, nobles, and in the village of the artisans, with their incredibly fresh frescoes


the temple of Dendera, with its amazing astronomical ceiling

the temple of Abydos, with its lovely bas-reliefs inside the temple

the temple of Hatshepsut, with its dramatic setting

and finally the Ramesseum, with the green fields fed by the Nile’s waters lapping at its feet.

I won’t pretend that by the end of it all I was an Egyptologist, but I do think I now have a passing understanding of the history of the 18th to 20th dynasties (noting, though, the rather depressing fact that there were 30 dynasties in all before the Romans put a halt to pharaonism; I have much more to learn). I also think I have a – still very sketchy – understanding of ancient Egyptians’ religion. Finally, I have a passing knowledge of the architectural principles underlining the buildings that we saw.

I do not propose to bore readers with a breathless precis of what we saw, heard, and sort-of understood. I’ll just comment on some of the things that particularly struck me as we went along.

The sun truly dominated the thinking of the ancient Egyptians. After our two weeks there I can understand why. I saw clouds just once, and that was in Cairo. In Luxor, we had a clear, hard, lapis-lazuli sky the whole time, with the sun climbing slowly from the eastern horizon

up to its apex

and then falling slowly to the western horizon, as we moved from site to site.
It must be like this all the year round, so I can understand how the sun played a primordial role in ancient Egyptian religion. I particularly liked, then, to hear that the obelisk, that most Egyptian of things, was considered a petrified sunbeam.

What a lovely idea! A ray of the sun, congealed – frozen – in stone, driving into the earth. The equivalence would have been even stronger in the old days, when obelisks’ pyramidal capstones were covered with electrum, an alloy of gold and silver; the tips of the obelisks would have flashed and glowed in the sun.

In Cairo, we were told the same thing of the pyramids, but it was more difficult to imagine pyramids as rays of the sun in stone.

The place of the sun in Egyptian religion reached its extreme under the “heretical” pharaoh Akhenaten: he abolished all deities in the Egyptians’ pantheon except for the solar god Aten. In his frescoes and bas-reliefs, he had Aten depicted as a disc from which emanated rays that ended in hands.

The sun caressing the Earth and all that is on it … a beautiful idea! For doesn’t all life on this planet ultimately depend on the warmth of the sun?

Akhenaten was an interesting fellow, not least because of the way he had himself depicted in his official statuary, with an elongated, sensual face, quite different from everything that came before and after.

(the statues of him in the National Museum in Cairo are even more intriguing, with a body that looks distinctly feminine, to the point that some claim this is actually his wife Nefertiti)

The sun even played a role in the design of the bas-reliefs which covered the walls of temples and tombs. We saw two types of bas-reliefs. The more delicate ones were true bas-reliefs, with the background cut down until the subjects were in light relief, like the ones I showed above from the temple of Abydos. The second type were created instead by cutting deep grooves along the outline of the figures and finished with some light molding of the figures. These were very striking in a raking light – in the late afternoon, for instance – when they stood out, almost like charcoal drawings on the walls.


It seems the effect was deliberate, to make reliefs that were readable in the country’s strong light.

The Egyptians held that the goddess of the sky, Nut, swallowed the sun at sunset and gave birth to him again in the morning. She was the wife (and sister) of the god of the earth, Geb. The story goes that she wanted to lie on him perpetually, but Ra ordered their father Shu, god of air, to force them apart. But Nut managed to keep her hands and feet touching Geb. I just loved the way the artists depicted these stories. The artists painted Nut – very often on ceilings, as one might expect – with her feet touching the Earth in one corner, her hands touching it in another, and her thin, lithe body curving along the edge of the ceiling between these two corners.

See how in the first of these two photos, Nut is shown giving birth to the morning sun and about to swallow the evening sun, while in the second Shu is holding Nut and Geb apart.

Originally, Nut was goddess of the night sky, and night skies are a common decoration of ceilings. We saw many ceilings painted blue and sprinkled – sprayed might be the better term – with a multitude of white stars.

It was a charming effect, and in the tombs certainly gave all those mummies lying on their backs a beautiful night sky to gaze upon for eternity – in the case of the photo above Nefertari, the main wife of Ramesses II.

I finish with the so-called Colossi of Memnon, although actually they are statues of the pharaoh Amenhotep III. Tourists who passed through here a couple of thousand years before us – the Ancient Greeks – misnamed the statues.

Truth to tell, they are not much to look at; they have suffered much at the hands of time. As we stood there, a muezzin nearby started singing his call to afternoon prayers.

Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar,
Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar.

Ashhadu al la ilaha illa-llah.
Ashhadu al la ilaha illa-Ilah.
Ashhadu anna Muhammadar Rasulu-Ilah,
Ashhadu anna Muhammadar Rasulu-Ilah.
Hayya ‘ala-s-sala,
Hayya ‘ala-s-sala.
Hayya ‘ala-l-falah,
Hayya ‘ala-I-falah.
Allahu Akbar,
Allahu Akbar.
La illaha illa-llah.

God is great, God is great.
I bear witness that there is no god but God.
I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of God.
Hasten to prayer.
Hasten to success.
God is great, God is great.
There is no god but God.

As the song floated over the shattered statues before us, I reflected on the seemingly inevitable passing away of civilizations and their religious constructs. The religion of the Ancient Egyptians was thrown onto the dust heap of history in the 3rd Century of the Common Era, after surviving 3,000 years or more, with a triumphant Christianity taking its place. After a mere 400 years, Christianity in Egypt was in turn overrun by Islam. Today, after 1,400 years, Islam stands seemingly secure in the lands of the Nile. But one day, when the statues before me will have crumbled to mere stumps of stone, Islam will no doubt have given way to something else. Nothing man-made survives the test of time.
_________________

Royal mummy: https://islampapers.com/2013/01/09/the-identification-of-the-pharaoh-during-the-time-of-moses/
Mummy cases: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/08/130823091144.htm
Egyptian statue room, British Museum: https://www.pinterest.com/rowan925/egyptian-exhibit-british-museum-artifacts/
Cigares du pharaon cover: https://www.bedetheque.com/BD-Tintin-Tome-4-Les-cigares-du-pharaon-32559.html
Cigares du pharaon egyptologist: my photo
Asterix et Cléopatre cover: https://www.bedetheque.com/BD-Asterix-Tome-6-Asterix-et-Cleopatre-22950.html
Asterix et Cléopatre speaking hieroglyphics: my photo
The Mummy movie poster: http://www.impawards.com/1999/mummy_ver1.html
Pastiche statues and fresco: my photo
Temple of Karnak: http://www.nilecruised.com/tours/karnak-temple/
Temple of Luxor: https://www.traveladdicts.net/2011/10/karnak-temple-luxor-temple-egypt.html
Avenue of sphinxes: http://www.travelphoto.net/a-photo-a-day/wordpress/2005/04/15/sphinx-avenue-at-luxor-temple/
Luxor Museum: http://egypt-magic.com/category/luxor/
Tomb, Valley of the Kings: https://www.flickr.com/photos/shelbyroot/1164944359
Tomb, Village of the Artisans: https://archaeology-travel.com/archaeological-sites/deir-el-medina-luxor/
Temple of Dendera ceiling: https://paulsmit.smugmug.com/Features/Africa/Egypt-Dendera-temple/i-BJPQ24h
Temple of Abydos bas-reliefs: our photo
Temple of Hatshepsut: http://www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-places-africa/mortuary-temple-hatshepsut-deir-el-bahri-002777
Ramesseum: https://www.egypttoursplus.com/ramesseum-temple/
Sunrise Luxor: http://www.news4europe.eu/6369_entertainment/4797559_egypt-s-newly-discovered-artifacts-to-help-revive-tourism-in-luxor.html
Sun high in sky: http://www.psdgraphics.com/backgrounds/blue-sky-with-sun/
Sunset Luxor: my wife’s photo
Obelisk, Luxor Temple: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Luxor_Temple_Obelisk.JPG
Obelisk with golden capstone: http://www.riseearth.com/2016/08/mythical-benben-stone-landing-site-of.html?m=1
Sun rays with hands: http://www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-places-africa/art-amarna-akhenaten-and-his-life-under-sun-002587
Akhenaten head: http://www.panoramio.com/photo/2105526
Akhenaten statue: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/312437292872997702/
Grooved bas-reliefs: our photos
Goddess Nut, Dendera: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-egyptdenderaptolemaic-temple-of-the-goddess-hathorview-of-ceiling-68990173.html
Goddess Nut, tomb Ramses IV: http://www.gettyimages.it/detail/news-photo/egypt-thebes-luxor-valley-of-the-kings-tomb-of-ramses-iv-news-photo/88701257
Stars on ceiling, Nefertari tomb: https://www.pinterest.com/ancha_no1/inside-egyptian-tomb/
Colossi of Memnon: our photo

LE COUSIN JEAN

Luxor, 11 November 2017

This painting, “A Dawn” by C.R.W. Nevinson, which is coming up for auction at Sotheby’s, was making a splash in the newspapers a couple of weeks ago. It shows tired French troops marching silently to the front on a dawn morning in 1914, those cataclysmic first months of the War when France suffered staggering losses. Nevinson, who was in France as a volunteer ambulance driver within weeks of war breaking out, must have seen these men marching by.

When I saw the painting, it made me think of my French cousin Jean – well, not my cousin, strictly speaking; my French grandmother’s cousin. When I was young, there was this faded oval photo hanging in my grandmother’s living room, of a bearded young man in uniform, solemnly looking out at the viewer. The photo was bordered in bleached purple velvet. One day, when I was nine or ten, I asked my grandmother who this young man was. She became very solemn and intoned, “It is le cousin Jean. He died in the First World War. He died very bravely.” Suitably impressed, I kept silent for a moment before carrying on with my life.

But that photo of le cousin Jean has always stayed with me. It has something to do with his quiet composure in the photo; there was none of that swagger you often see in studio photos of World War I soldiers, with the sitter showing off his uniform and trying to project a military bearing. Jean just gazed steadily out at the viewer. So on this day, the 99th anniversary of the end of the First World War on the Western Front, my memory jogged by Nevinson’s painting, I’ve decided to memorialize his story in that war, illustrating it with other paintings by Nevinson. I should warn readers that his is not a particularly dramatic story. He just did what he had to do.

Jean was 23 when war was declared in 1914, and he was called up almost immediately. He joined his local regiment, the 95th Infantry Regiment, as a sub-lieutenant. The 95th took part in the initial French attempts to retake Alsace and Lorraine. But when the Germans attacked Verdun, leaving the beleaguered city and its string of forts in a deep salient, Jean’s regiment was pulled back and thrown into the furious attacks and counterattacks that took place as the Germans tried to completely surround Verdun and the French tried to stop them. The armies on both sides fought to the point of complete exhaustion.

It was during this period that Jean was wounded in Bois d’Ailly, just south of Verdun, some time in late September-October 1914. He was wounded badly enough to be invalided out. He was probably subjected to the rough and ready medical aid that was available, especially at the beginning of the war.

At some point, Jean had recovered enough to be brought back into active service. He joined a regiment newly-formed in April 1915, the 408th Infantry Regiment. It was created with “elements from the depots”, presumably wounded soldiers like Jean as well as others passed over in the first round of call-ups. He joined one of the regiment’s machine gun sections.


The regiment spent 1915 and the first months of 1916 in a quiet sector of the front. Then in early March, as the situation rapidly deteriorated for the French in the Verdun sector after the Germans renewed their attacks in February, the regiment was shipped in urgently to fight around the Fort de Vaux, in lunar landscapes like this.


The regiment suffered heavy losses, but Jean survived. They were eventually pulled out for rest and refitting. By late September/early October 1916, they were in good enough shape to take part in some small battles at the tail end of the Battle of the Somme. They spent the time thereafter in reserve positions, filling in gaps here and there. They probably did a lot of marching back and forth, from one position to the next.

The regiment’s second tour in the dreaded mincing machine of Verdun came in October 1917, although by then the worst of the fighting was over. By now, Jean had risen to be a Captain, no doubt because everyone else above him was either dead or was filling holes in the ranks even further up the chain of command.

The regiment was out of Verdun by January 1918, moving to a quieter sector. Then, at the end of May, the regiment was sent to the sector just south of Rheims. This was part of the Allies’ increasingly desperate attempts to stop what turned out to be the Germans’ last roll of the dice. In March they had punched a hole through the British lines. In June they punched another through the French lines just west of Reims and had managed to move 14 km south, but now they were caught in a salient, from which they were trying hard to break out. At midnight on July 14th, they abruptly started a bombardment of the eastern wall of the salient, just south of Reims. Their goal was to break through to the town of Épernay and so cut Reims off from Paris. On the morning of July 15th, they began hammering their way through the narrow valley of the River Ardre and the two woods on either side, the Bois de Vrigny to the south and the Bois de Courton to the north. Jean’s machine gun section lay nestled in the Bois de Courton. At some point, Jean went over to his commanding officer to report. While there, he was badly wounded by a shell burst. The family history says that his last words to his commanding officer were, “I’m sorry, Sir, to be leaving you at such a moment” before climbing into an ambulance. Did he really say that? I suppose he could have, but the family can only have known of this from a letter which they received from the commanding officer. Quite often the writers of these letters of condolences tried to make the man’s death more noble than it had been, in an attempt to soften the blow. My guess is that he just crumpled to the ground unconscious, bleeding profusely, and they bundled him into an ambulance.

In any event, according to the French Ministry of Defence’s bureaucratic fiche which logged his death, he died the same day in an Italian dressing station in a small place called Cartière, near Hautvillers, which lies some 10 km from the Bois de Courton. Jean was 27 when he died.

The reference to Italy confused me until I read that the 76th Infantry Regiment of the Italian II Corps had been posted just south of the Bois de Courton on the road to Épernay. The Allied High Command had given the II Corps the task of holding the road, which they managed – just – to do. I suppose the Italian dressing station was the closest to that particular sector of the front.

Jean’s body was brought back home by his family after the war for burial in the family plot; they were lucky, his body could be identified. So now he lies, together with his parents and maternal grandparents, in a graveyard which is a mere 5 km as the crow flies from where the ten year old me stared at that faded photo and asked my grandmother who the young man was with the steady gaze.
______________

CRW Nevinson, “A Dawn”: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/oct/30/first-world-war-painting-expected-to-reach-up-to-1m-at-sothebys
CRW Nevinson, “Troops Resting”: http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2016/modern-post-war-british-art-l16141/lot.3.html
CRW Nevinson, “The Doctor”: https://www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/362469469989052114/
CRW Nevinson, “La Patrie”: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01b6rnx/p01b6qvn
CRW Nevinson, “La Mitrailleuse”: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/nevinson-la-mitrailleuse-n03177
CRW Nevinson, “In the Trenches”: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/393431717421822995/
CRW Nevinson, “After A Push”: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/20212
CRW Nevinson, “Column on the March”: https://kweiseye.wordpress.com/2014/09/29/christopher-r-w-nevinson-1889-1946/amp/