Classical Egypt, Egyptian Classics : Toronto graduates in Classics reflect on their first encounter with Cairo and Alexandria

Classical Egypt, Egyptian Classics : Toronto graduates in Classics reflect on their first encounter with Cairo and Alexandria

Guilty Orientalists

This spring, Prof. Katherine Blouin planned and executed a trip to Cairo and Alexandria for the six extremely lucky members of a graduate seminar on “Orientalism and the Classics.” We spent the week utterly overwhelmed by the beautiful architecture and museums bursting with papyri. Besides giving us the opportunity to engage in the standard sightseeing, the trip aimed to further illuminate the history of Western scholarship in Egypt. We toured the Institut français d’archéologie orientale (IFAO), and we participated in a workshop entitled “Orientalism and the Classics,” which featured one talk on the biases that have prevented Western scholars from adequately acknowledging the history of wine production in the Mareotic region of Egypt, and another on the failure of 19th century scholars to learn Arabic, despite their frequent research trips to Egypt. These activities drew attention to the hold Orientalist attitudes had on our discipline, and we felt empowered to critique and resist their influence.

At the same time, we often found ourselves making the very sorts of observations about Egypt we had been critiquing during our seminar and at the workshop. I repeatedly stifled the thought that the older buildings in Alexandria were beautiful in their own crumbling way, or that the spice market in Cairo, was “just how I imagined it,” namely, colorful, bustling, fragrant– in a word, exotic. The six of us joked that we should call ourselves the “Guilty Orientalists,” because we continually caught ourselves and each other having these sorts of reactions to the sights that surrounded us.


Picture 1: Pharaonizing street art, Cairo (credit: Katherine Blouin)

In academic settings, such as our seminar at the University of Toronto or the “Orientalism and the Classics” workshop in Cairo, we had been faced with countless examples of 19th-century scholars who embodied a voyeuristic and exploitative academic gaze. In exploring the museums and sites of Egypt, however, we became aware of our own Orientalizing perspective, which we hoped to have already exorcized. Without having taken the “Orientalism and the Classics” seminar, we may have been less attuned to our own reactions to the cities we visited, but without the trip we may never have appreciated the pervasiveness of the Orientalizing attitudes we were critiquing: despite our active attempts, we ourselves were unable to fully eliminate these biases.

– Chiara Graf, Ph.D. candidate, University of Toronto

Of mosques and men

I have to admit that when we first received our itinerary for the Egypt trip, I was most excited about our planned excursions to the ancient sites – and antiquities museums – the Pyramids, the Serapeum in Alexandria, the Egyptian Museum. This was the Egypt I wanted to see, since it was the Egypt I was most familiar with. To think about the “modern,” non-ancient Egypt in the weeks before the trip was a little frightening, given the recent April bombings. In the last few weeks before the trip, I could not help but think in the back of my mind that Egypt is, after all, very close to ISIS’ caliphate, the new media boogieman. Ancient Egypt, I thought, was what I would enjoy most, not so much the rest.

Oh, how wrong I was. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy every aspect of the trip, I now have a new found appreciation for Egyptian history post 500 CE. On our second day in Cairo, we had the wonderful opportunity to explore the old city centre, the site of the spice market and many medieval and Ottoman period mosques, with Islamic art and heritage expert Karim Badr. My knowledge of medieval Egyptian history before our trip was spotty at best. I knew the general outline of the political history, but my knowledge really only focused on areas where Egypt bisected with western European history, like Saladin and the Crusades, or Napoleon’s invasion. The names of the Mamluk and Fatimid rulers Karim mentioned as he pointed to all the old buildings admittedly went over my head, but seeing what remains of their city really brought into perspective just how rich and diverse the history of Egypt really is, and how unsatisfactorily it is presented in the West. Visiting the old mosques, built by these unfamiliar rulers, I was struck by how reminiscent of European medieval churches they were, and realized how Egypt’s Islamic history was not such a foreign entity.

Though most of the mosques we visited in Old Cairo were no longer in operation, we did have the opportunity to visit a few still open to worshipers. These visits changed my outlook on the institution of the mosque. Before this trip, I had never been in a mosque, and though I never believed the media’s hype that mosques were “dens of radicalism,” I still only really pictured them as places of worship and religion only. Yet when I was in the Al Jame’Al Anway mosque, near the old medieval wall of Saladin, there was almost no “religion,” or at least the stereotypical version of “religion” I had in my mind, to be seen. Instead, the place was more like a park, where people could come to get out of the heat, rest, or simply hang out with friends. The image of a little child chasing after a rubber ball on the polished marble floor (Picture 1) has forever changed my view of the function of “the mosque” in society.

Old Cairo was but one amazing experience that our trip to Egypt gave us, and I cannot deny that when we finally did get to see the ancient sites, I was no less awestruck. However, Old Cairo in some ways was for me the unexpected highlight of our trip, since it challenged my preconceived notions of “modern” Egypt, that is, non-ancient Egypt. This Egypt is no less fascinating than that of the people who built the Pyramids or Alexandria, and indeed needs to be better acknowledged in the West.


Picture 2: Ibn Tulun mosque, inner courtyard (credit: Drew Davis)

– Drew Davis, Ph.D. candidate, University of Toronto

Ancient Greek literature in the flesh

Throughout our trip, some of my favorite things to see as a student of literature were papyri of texts that I recognized. Among many other examples, we saw a page of the Iliad, a fragment of Gallus, and a page of Menander, carefully preserved and on display in museums in Cairo and Alexandria. Because I’m used to reading texts after they have been edited and presented in neat, bound, modern books, it’s startling and exciting to me to see the delicate pieces of papyrus that have preserved them for thousands of years. It’s thought-provoking, too—looking at a shred of Misoumenos behind glass really makes a New Comedy student like myself realize how little stands between her and having no Menander at all.

In the Egyptian Museum, we had the privilege of visiting the lab where papyrologists work on the conservation of their collection. We spent an afternoon there learning about how papyri are cleaned, preserved, and displayed in a room that is crowded with storage cabinets and filled with tools and equipment that I’d never seen before. In the same way that I don’t often think about what ancient texts look like before they’re edited and published, I don’t often think about the work that goes into saving them from deterioration. When you spend all day, every day, reading millennia-old texts out of books that you touch, carry around, write in, and know well, it’s surprisingly easy to forget how far removed from you those texts actually are. The distance between modern classicists and the literature that we study is measurable not only in miles and in years, but also in technological advancements and academic interventions. The papyri collection in the Egyptian Museum was a salutary reminder to me of something that I should never forget in my modern library—how contingent the survival of ancient literature is, and how much work goes into keeping it.

– Rachel Mazzara, Ph.D. candidate, University of Toronto

The Ancient Library lives again


Picture 3: The interior courtyard of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (credit: Emily C. Mohr)

Those who have the opportunity to visit Alexandria, as my peers and I did this past spring on a class trip to Egypt, will observe that the ancient Library of Alexandria lives again in its modern instantiation, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Completed roughly fifteen years ago, the Bibliotheca boasts storage for millions of volumes and exists as one branch of an elaborate complex, including four museums, a Planetarium, and a conference center for hosting thousands, just to name a few.

First endowed by Ptolemy I, the ancient Library of Alexandria existed as a part of the larger palatial infrastructure, itself attached to the Museion, and provided lecture halls, meeting and multipurpose spaces, and a dining room for its guests. The vast compound served as a model for a community research institution similar to today’s colleges and universities. Intentionally “dedicated to recapturing the spirit of openness and scholarship of the original,” the Bibliotheca does not fail to impress.[1]


Picture 4: An interior glimpse of the Bibliotheca from the main viewing platform (credit: Emily C. Mohr)

The project of the ancient Library was an intellectual one in many arenas: it advanced Alexander’s goal of spreading Greek culture and positioned its multinational host city as a dominant force in the Mediterranean. The enormous scale of the Library, which may have stored up to a half a million volumes, and its ambitious classification system distinguished it from other ancient libraries in the Hellenistic kingdoms, such as those of Antioch and Pergamon. As did the Library in antiquity, the Bibliotheca now symbolizes Egypt’s cultural and intellectual achievements and advertises the growing contributions to scholarship from Arabic-speaking researchers.

Although the ancient Library fell into disrepair sometime during the late Roman Empire, the modern Bibliotheca Alexandrina achieves its aforementioned purpose and acts as a testament to its ancient predecessor. It is a thriving research institution, faithfully serving its community of local students and scholars, along with visitors from around the world, who queue down the street waiting for access. Perhaps the most encouraging aspects of the Bibliotheca are the sense of camaraderie it fosters among its users and the promise that it holds for future generations: As the academic world diversifies, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina readily offers its services to a new ensemble of academics that pays homage to Alexandria’s ancient reputation.


Picture 5: The external facade of the Bibliotheca, inscribed with the languages of the world (credit: Emily C. Mohr)

– Emily C. Mohr, Ph.D. candidate, University of Toronto

Moments in Masr

I immediately felt the urge to pinch myself upon looking up at the Pyramids in front of me; the moment hardly seemed as if it could be real. As a wonder of both the ancient and modern world, many people have only ever dreamt of seeing the Great Pyramids of Egypt, and here I was fortunate enough to be standing in front of them. Yet while walking among the Pyramids certainly is a moment I will never forget, what this trip in its entirety emphasized to me the most was that Egypt, or Masr, is so much more than just it’s Pharaonic past.  The ancient history is astounding – no doubt about it – but so is the more recent history (as in the past two thousand years…), and of course the country’s wonderful culture and people.

Just the city of Cairo, for instance, blew my mind because of the different cultures and religions that had taken root there over the centuries. In that city, Coptic Christian churches were constructed as early as the 4th century, the Mosque of Ibn Tulun was built by the Turkic Abbasids sometime in the 9th, one of the oldest universities in the world, Al-Azhar, was founded under the Fatamid dynasty, and in the middle ages the Ayyubid ruler Salah al-Din (known in the west as Saladin) commissioned the construction of the Cairo citadel.

What’s more, much of this multicultural and multi-religious history can be appreciated just by strolling the streets of old Cairo (for instance in the Khan el Kalihi and in Coptic Cairo) or peering inside all the city’s wonderful museums (like the museum of Islamic art or the Coptic Museum, both located in central Cairo). In true honesty, the various styles of architecture and art made me contemplate a completely new field of history to study. At the very least, the visit opened my eyes to a history that I truly had previously had only limited exposure to, and now am eager to improve my knowledge of.


Picture 6: An afternoon in Zamalek (credit: Katherine Blouin)

And yet, it must be mentioned that Egypt is not just its past either. The amalgamation of so many histories has over time pinnacled into one of the most beautiful cultures (and I must add, cuisines) of our present world. Some of my most vivid memories of the trip to Egypt do not even involve the (stunning) historical sites and museums mentioned above. Everyday experiences, such as watching locals smoke shisha at an ahwa (or coffee-house), drinking tea with mint on the roadside, eating gooey fresh dates right off the tree, or watching fresh bread being delivered in rectangular shaped baskets on the heads of bicyclists, are other instances that strongly illustrated to me the richness of life in this country.

Egypt is living history, and like other countries and cultures, much more than what is read in textbooks or seen on the news. I am enormously thankful for having the chance to join my Professor on such a trip. Travel is one of the best ways to learn and experience the many ways in which we as humans live, as well as clear the mind of any preconceived notions installed there by the colonialist or Orientalist discourse which has unfortunately long been perpetuated in the western world. I plan to visit Egypt again in the future, as there are still not only so many places to see and moments to experience, but culture to learn from.

– Shona Scott, Ma candidate, York University

Cairo first hand

When asked about my experiences in Egypt, the first thing I find myself trying to convey to others is how I was amazed by the long and diverse history of Cairo upon visiting the city. I have always been enamoured with Pharaonic Egypt since a young child, and admittedly, I set out on this trip with my excitement and expectations directed mostly towards seeing the antiquities and sites of ancient Egypt. The Pyramids of Giza and Cairo’s Egyptian Museum certainly did not disappoint my anticipations. However, I saw so much more of Cairo than just the relics of the Pharaonic past, and these other facets of the city’s history left a deep impression upon me. My peers and I visited some of the oldest Coptic churches in Cairo, as well as the Coptic museum, where we saw wonderfully preserved wooden and textile artifacts and religious icons. We also wandered through the spice market of Islamic Cairo, which was tucked beneath an old mosque, and explored several of the district’s historic mosques and mausoleums. With the guidance of our knowledgeable friend, Karim, we learnt all about the history of Islamic Cairo, an era about which I know little, but that I am now eager to learn more about. Visiting these different districts, Coptic Cairo and Islamic Cairo, left me with a deep impression of the different historical and cultural layers of this ancient city, both as they existed in the past, and as they are still enduring in the present. Pharaonic Egypt is just the very start of Cairo’s story. Cairo is a city with an incredibly rich and varied heritage, which is reflected in the city’s present life by the different, coexisting traditions and religions of its inhabitants. In our seminar last fall, we discussed how in the past (and still to some degree now) Egypt had commonly been defined by only its Pharaonic, Ptolemaic, and Roman phases in European scholarship. However, it was not until I experienced Cairo first hand and caught a glimpse of its historical and cultural complexity, that I understood the true meaning of our discussion, and realized that a consideration of Egyptian antiquity alone provides only a very shallow understanding of Cairo’s past, as well as its present.

– Naomi Neufeld, Ph.D. candidate, University of Toronto

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