A survey of Egypt, Part IV: Tanta to Alexandria
On our Survey of Egypt, we spent the first night out on the road in the Delta, in Tanta. We stayed in a nice three star hotel, where I am guessing I was the only westerner in the hotel. Nevertheless, people there were very nice to me and I felt completely at home. This is also where our last permit caught up with us, along with our third team member, Osama el-Gibaly, from the Egyptian press office. He would prove invaluable to us on the long journey to come, as a facilitator in tight situations, particularly where we wanted to photograph someplace that one is ordinarily not allowed to photograph.
The 27th of September would prove to be both an interesting and long day. It was also one where we ended up making a decision to vary from our original itinerary, but more on that later.
Photographers love mornings and evenings, when the light is often warmer, not as harsh, and sometimes even the landscape is altered by seemingly magical influences. So it was as we set out this day from Tanta. Often, we began our days very early, sometimes three or four in the morning, and my team had a bit of a tendency to fall from the bed to the van in a dream state. But when working, a photographer's eyes must always be open, alert for that photo-op hidden in a moment's glance and missed in an instant. Suddenly, as the sun rose, I turned to look out beyond the roadside greenery and found a magical land of smoke and water, beautifully still and mysterious. It was a photographer's dream and a moment I will not soon forget.
I must have spent an hour along the road firing off shots out into the countryside, but then it was time to move on. We moved through villages and the small town of Sammamud, where we visited the local market. I have to mention that even here, in the Delta, where there are very few tourists, security is tight. Every few miles, it seems, we encountered a police checkpoint and its seems they were always serious about their work. Often, as Osama and Tamer explained why an American was running around taking pictures all over the Delta, I would wander down to the banks of a canal, where I would always find fishermen, or on the opposite bank, a herd of goats or a busy farmer toiling at his day's labors. Then, once the local authorities were sufficiently confused about the nature of my work, we were off again.Yalla bena, lets all go.
We attempted to find Tell el-Rub'a, known by the Greeks as Mendes, but we could not. Finally, we moved on to El-Mansoura, a city that really impressed me. Mansoura is a very clean city, with fine gardens, wonderful views down the canal and a beautiful university campus. We were also made to feel very welcome here, actually by a professional police captain who escorted us through the city. One gets the feeling of el-Mansoura as an upscale college town, with nice stores and a very modern population.
In fact, El-Mansoura has an interesting history that sets it off from much of the rest of Egypt. Here, the French settled for a while during the Crusades, and this explains the often light-skinned, fair-haired people one finds in the city. Indeed, the women of this city are traditionally considered to be the most beautiful in Egypt.
Surrounding Mansoura are cotton fields, a staple crop in Egypt known for its quality throughout the world. Yet, there was a time when cotton was king, particularly during the American Civil War when Egypt's cotton was like gold on the world market.During this period, grand and elegant villas were built along the Nile in El-Mansoura, and today they add to the city's wonderful flavor.
While the city does not receive many tourists, there are a few famous spots. One is Dar Ibn Lockman, the house where Louis IX, King of France, was imprisoned after his defeat in 1250. Another is the Shinnawi Palace, built by an Italian architect in 1928 and considered the most magnificent of its type outside of Italy. I could have stayed on for a while in El-Mansoura, and in fact, just as we were leaving, I spotted a grand Ramada hotel that looked as nice as any hotel in Cairo. But it was time to move on once more.
Our next stop was St. Dimyana, once again a historic Coptic monastery with a very friendly local priest, who opened up the monastery completely to us. St. Dimyana, sometimes with various spelling such as St. Damyanah, is perhaps more interesting for its history and its Moulid, one of the largest Christian pilgrimages in Egypt, than for the actual antiquity of its buildings. It has four churches that date from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, though elements within them are sometimes older. According to tradition, St. Dimyana was the daughter of a Roman governor during the reign of Diocletian. A marriage was arranged for her, but she refused and instead convinced her father to build her a palace where she and forty other virgins could retire in the worship of their lord, Jesus Christ. Eventually, even her father was converted to Christianity, which so enraged Diocletian that he had all of them executed. Here, in one of the churches, can be found the tomb of Dimyana.
Like a number of others, the construction of the oldest shrine at St. Dimyana is ascribed to St. Helena, the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine.
From St. Dimyana, we moved on to the site of the Temple of Behbeit el-Haggar, really more of a pile of large blocks than anything else, but one that looks like it could someday be reconstructed into a bit of grandeur. Just from the looks of it, there is enough material here to complete a decent sized temple. Behbeit el-Haggar was built during the 30th Dynasty and the beginning of the Ptolemaic Period of the 4th century BC. It is believed to have been dedicated to the goddess Isis.
At first, it would seem like there is little here of interest, other than a few artifacts set aside in front of the workhouse. However, moving to the rear of the mound of blocks, one finds many inscriptions, some very clear and and well preserved. Doubtless, one day this site will be of greater interest to tourists than it is today, and we will probably learn much as this oversized jigsaw puzzle is placed back in order.
Our next stop, really not on our agenda, but interesting nonetheless, was at Sakha where there is located the Church of the Holy Virgin. Often, one of the most difficult obstacles in getting a lot of work done in Egypt is the very hospitable nature of Egyptians, and this was one of those instances. So very frequently, I have a formidable agenda when I am in Egypt, but it is the nature of Egyptians to slow me down a bit, so prior to exploring the church, a soft drink and some conversation were necessary. I really do not mean to make this out to be a handicap. Indeed, I am forced for a moment to remove the single-minded blinds I wear when working and to enjoy the company of strangers turned friends, and to understand more about the images I seek.
So it was at Sakha. As I sat with the priest in his office near the doorway, sipping a Pepsi, outside the perish children played hide and seek with me making me smile and even giggle. Only I could see their antics, and for a while, I sat back and enjoyed the moment.
Here, it is really not the church that is so famous, but a stone found within a glass case inside the church. This area is known as Bikha Isous, which means "the footprint of Jesus" and the stone is known by the same name. Tradition holds that when the Holy Family arrived in this area, they were thirsty but found no water. But then the child Jesus touched a stone with his foot and water spouted forth, leaving his foot imprinted in the rock.
This stone was later discovered at Dayr al-Maghtis, which means "monastery of the pool," so known because it was a place where people went for baptisms. Even Saint Dimyana was said to have been baptized at Dayr al-Maghtis. A monastery did exist here during the 13th century, but was destroyed, at which time one of the monks took the stone and hid it under the front door of the monastery. After the stone's discovery, it was sent to Pope Shenuda, who kept the stone for some time. It is said that he prayed, and made three liturgies over the stone, before proclaiming it as Bikha Isous as mentioned in the tradition.
Today, at specific times, perfumed oil is poured over the footprint and collected. It is said to have a healing power and people come from all around to participate in its powers.
Many western theologians are not convinced Bikha Isous does actually hold the footprint of the infant Christ, this only reveals a basic and important difference between western beliefs and those of the Coptic Orthodox tradition. Western scholars do not believe until they have something proved, while the Coptic faith starts by believing and needs to have something disproved. As pointed out in "Be Thou There, The Holy Family's Journey in Egypt"
"In this context, Western tradition attaches great value to scholarly evidence and makes Westerners skeptical about a certain belief if no convincing evidence can be provided. On the other hand, the Coptic Orthodox tradition attaches great value to faith and the statements or revelations of important church fathers, who would not make such statements if they were not supported by known facts and traditions. Thus the logic that 'it is true if we have evidence' stand diametrically opposed to the reasoning that 'it is true if it comes from a trusted source and it could be true.'"
Saying goodbye to the beautiful parish children, we next moved on to Buto, where we found Dr. Phil Urich Hartung, of the Deutches Archaologisches Institut just returned from Germany. I was keenly aware of Buto's importance. It was the Lower Egyptian counterpart to Nekhn, Greek Hierakonpolis, and perhaps the most important religious city in the north. Buto was perhaps depicted in Narmer's Palette, but Dr. Hartung's team is working on areas now that completely predate Egypt's pharaonic period. Here, ruins range in date from predynastic times all the way through the Roman period, and over an extensive amount of ground.
Most of the site is not developed for tourism and would be of little interest to visitors. However, there is an open air museum that includes some wonderful pieces of sculpture, stela and other structures. Here, a structure that looked much like a well had also a staircase, submerged in ground water, that connected with the well. We were unsure of its purpose, but my colleagues suggested that it might be a nilometer. Perhaps one of our readers knows better.
This evening, our original itinerary called for us to stay in Damanhur, where we arrived not long before sunset. We photographed the very large masjed (mosque), and since it was Ramadan, and the hour of Fitar was upon us, we were invited to take breakfast with the poor and other travelers at a tent set up nearby the mosque. Damanhur was a friendly and enjoyable city. After eating, we sat for a while at a local coffee shop that faced the masjed, and which seems obviously to be the heart and soul of this city. Unfortunately, Damanhur lacks any real tourist hotels, so we decided to move on to Alexandria to spend the night and get an earlier start on exploring Alexander the Great's city the next day. Alexandria has grown as a tourist destination in recent years, and it seems that there is more and more to see here.
A view of Alexandria at night with Fort Qaytbey to the far right