Widan al-Faras: Tracing the World’s Oldest Road

“The pyramids and temples of the Egyptian Old Kingdom (early-mid-third millennium BC) are testament to an epoch of global significance in the evolution of monumental stone architecture. The basalt quarries of Widan el-Faras and gypsum quarries of Umm es-Sawan (…) were key production sites in the foreground of this transformation to large- scale stone quarrying.” – Elizabeth Bloxam and Tom Heldal

We finally spotted the twin peaks marking the ancient basalt mines that we were looking for. This is the place they call Widan al-Faras (Ears of the Mare) in the Northern Fayoum Desert, some 80 km away from Cairo. We now had to find something extraordinary, something that we had only seen in photos and that none of our safari friends had ever explored: the World’s oldest surviving paved road. Just like the World’s oldest pyramid and the world’s oldest zodiac, this road –too- had to be in Egypt. The story is an interesting one.

It’s the 26th century BC in Egypt. The great Pyramid Builders of the IV Dynasty (Old Kingdom) are literally making history in the form of huge pyramids, impressive funerary temples and beautiful basalt sarcophagi. The basalt for the temples’ floors and walls and for the sarcophagi had to come from somewhere, and this somewhere happened to be Widan al-Faras. Problem: how to move basalt blocks all the way to the site of the Giza Pyramids? Solution: a quarry road to the ancient Lake Moeris (bigger ancestor of the present-day Lake Qarun) some 11 kms away, and floating the basalt from there to Giza during the flood season as the water rises (the Lake was connected to the Nile, see map below). Sounds simple? Wrong guess.

Building an 11-km road in the desert and having it equipped to move massive basalt blocks was anything but easy. The Ancient Egyptian workers had to use not only slabs of limestone and sandstone, but also logs of petrified wood to stabilize the road. Moreover, the landscape is not plain and the desert sand seemed to cover everything. As we finally approached the road, and following the initial thrill, thrill eventually gave way to awe. Over 4,000 years after it was built, some stretches of the road are still –almost- intact and clearly visible against the dramatic backdrop of the distant twin peaks. As we traced the quarry road further away towards the Lake, we stood on a cliff and saw it vanishing into the horizon, like a road to eternity.

The road is a about 2 meters wide, the petrified wood logs are brilliantly black, and –shockingly- the road is neither protected nor ‘signposted’, which means that desert-goers can easily drive over it and that unchecked tourism can do much damage, something clearly visible at some parts.

The whole area is one unique example of what the experts call an industrial landscape (in this case, a quarry landscape) where one can get ‘the full picture’ of the mining process: you see the mines where they cut the stones, the purpose-built quarry road used to transport them, the petrified forest from which logs were used in stabilizing the road, traces of encampments and the final stage of the road (the quay) close to Qasr al-Sagha site (an Ancient Egyptian temple).

Nevertheless, you would need to pay a visit to the Giza Pyramids if you want to see the ‘final use’ of the Widan al-Faras basalt: the floor of the Khufu funerary temple is a good example, and so are the mortuary temples of Userkaf, Sahure and others.

Back to Widan al-Faras, our visit had to follow the ‘logical’ sequence of things at the region. That meant a visit to Midde Kingdom Temple of Qasr al-Sagha (built on the site of an Old Kingdom one) followed by a visit to the Greco-Roman city of Dimai (Dima, of Ptolemaic origin). The massive stones of the otherwise insignificant Qasr al-Sagha and the mudbrick walls of the abandoned Dima seem to defy time, standing against all the odds and bearing witness to the shifting shores of the Lake over the millennia.

That was the last adventure for 2013. Exactly a year ago I was exploring the Nubian Pyramids of Meroe and Jabal Barkal in Sudan, and exactly a year from now I wish I would be exploring one more wonder in my part of the world.

At the World’s Oldest Pyramid: A Day at Saqqara

Scroll down for photos, and click any image for a higher resolution.

Saqqara is the most important part of the cemetery of the ancient residence of Memphis.
Memphis (Greek for Mennof Ra’) was the capital of the first province of Lower Egypt. Only Thebes in the South was comparable in importance and splendor to Memphis.

In the early 2nd dynasty, the royal necropolis (city of dead) moved from Abydos to Saqqara, which derives its name from the funerary god Sokar.
The necropolis has pyramids, tombs and monuments from almost every period from the Early Dynastic Period down to the Greco-Roman times, but it remains most famous for monuments from the Third, Fifth and Sixth Dynasties.

The visitor to the present-day site of Saqqara can enjoy several attractions, the most extraordinary of which are the Step Pyramid of Djoser (the world’s oldest pyramid), the Pyramid of Teti (accessible through a steep causeway), the Pyramid of Unas (with the earliest pyramid text in history), the Tomb of Mereruka, the Tomb of the Butchers and the Tomb of the Brothers (Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum), all featuring very interesting paintings depicting scenes from daily life in Ancient Egypt.

The Step Pyramid of Djoser (Pyramid of Saqqara)
Djoser is the founder of the 3rd Dynasty. His Step Pyramid is the first ever built and the oldest stone building of its type (built around 2660 B.C.). The Pyramid is 62 meters high and consists of 6 “mastabas”. It was constructed by Imhotep, a genius physician and architect, later venerated by Greeks as “Esculapius”.

The Tomb of Irukaptah (The Butcher’s Tomb)
This is the tomb of Irukaptah, the Master Butcher of the King. It comes as no surprise that the walls are loaded with scenes of butchers at different ‘stages’ of their job: tying up an animal, cutting through its chest, dismembering it, and carrying offerings to the king.

Nevertheless, the interesting thing about this Tomb is a row of 14 statues sculpted in niches, looking almost identical. Some interpret them as self-portraits of Irukptah, tracing different stage of his life: a visual diary that starts with the young butcher, and ends with the same man whose back is a bit hunched as a sign of old age.

The Tomb of the Brothers (Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum)
The fashion industry and the ‘beauty centers’ are nothing new or modern. Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum were the Overseers of the Royal Manicurists during the 5th Dynasty some 4,400 years ago!

They are depicted in a very unusual pose on the inner walls of their tomb, as they seem to embrace, with their noses touching. This led provoked a debate about whether they were gays. Other scenes featuring them both with their wives seem to present a counter-argument, but the controversy lingers on.
Brothers (or lovers) apart, there are scenes of men milking cows or acting as ‘midwives’ as they help some cows ‘deliver’ calves.

The Tomb of Mereruka
This tomb belongs to an important vizier from the 6th Dynasty. It has some unique paintings, the highlights among which are the goldsmiths’ scenes. Next come the depictions of men standing in their boats and hunting hippopotamuses in the Nile (or keeping them at bay).

The wealth of details and the realism employed in painting the different species of fish is awe-inspiring to say the least.

The Tomb of Idut

This 5th Dynasty tomb shows a spectacular scene of men in papyrus boats tricking their cattle into crossing a canal: they take a calf away from its mother by the canal, then sail away slowly, thus forcing the poor mother to follow them venturing into the water. The entire herd follows, and the job is done.

My Lecture in Bibliotheca Alexandrina: Tales of al-Andalus (2 Jan 2014)

(Scroll down for Arabic)
I am pleased to announce that I will be giving a lecture at Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Egypt) on 2 January 2014, titled ‘Tales of al-Andalus’ (2 hours, in Arabic). Through these tales, I will try to trace distance memories and present an alternative history of one of history’s most fascinating periods. The lecture starts at 18:00h and the tales are:

Bird of the Orient
Saint Matamoros
Between two ‘Hakams’
The Majus Crisis
A Manuscript’s Odyssey
From Yusufiya to Nasiriya
Ibn Khaldun’s Orange
The Hornachos Pirates

محاضرتي في مكتبة الاسكندرية: حكايات الأندلس (2 يناير 2014)
يسعدني أن أعلن عن قيامي بالقاء محاضرة في مكتبة الاسكندرية في 2 يناير 2014 بعنوان “حكايات الأندلس” (ساعتين، باللغة العربية). سأحاول من خلال تلك الحكايات أن أستحضر ذكريات بعيدة وأن أقدم تاريخ غير تقليدي لواحدة من أروع فترات التاريخ. تبدأ المحاضرة في تمام الساعة السادسة مساءاً، والحكايات هي:

عصفور من الشرق
القديس قاتل العرب
بين الحَكَمَين
محنة المجوس
رحلة مخطوط
من اليوسفية إلى الناصرية
برتقالة ابن خلدون
قراصنة هورناتشوس


2013: Tribute to some incredible Art Museums

Whenever a year approaches its end, I look back at what that year added to me in terms of aesthetic exposure, and I check that year’s balance in terms of artistic masterpieces experienced for the first time.

In that sense, 2013 has been a year of one aesthetic orgasm after another: Following literally years of planning and yearning, I finally visited the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, Musée de l’Organgerie, Centre Pompidou, Musée Rodin, the Uffizi Gallery, Galleria dell’Accademia, the Bargello, the Palatine Gallery, Siena’s Civic Museum, Joan Miró Foundation, the MNAC…to the end of the long list! I’m not mentioning the cathedrals, churches, palaces and other attractions here, only the museums.

It would be meaningless to compare or even try to remember everything, but here are some of the things that I don’t think I would ever forget. These are the ‘unforgettables’ of 2013:
– Cour Khorsabad (The Louvre)
– Winged Victory & Venus of Milo (The Louvre)
– The New Department of Islamic Art (The Louvre)
– The Renaissance Masters Collection (The Louvre)
– Jacque-Louis David’s Collection (The Louvre)
– Impressionism Collection (Orsay)
– Monet’s huge water-lilies (l’Orangerie)
– The Gates of Hell (Musée Rodin)
– The Maestà of Duccio, Cimabue & Giotto (Uffizi)
– Botticelli’s Room (Uffizi)
– Michelangelo’s David (Academia)
– Donatello’s David (Bargello)
– The Catalan Romanesque Collection (MNAC)
– Works by Ramon Casas & Fortuny (MNAC)

I am attaching photos that I took for all these museums, an artistic ‘farewell’ 2013.

A Morning with Joan Miró

Today, in a group of students and friends, we visited the Joan Miró Foundation in Barcelona, which houses literally thousands of artworks by the artist who died in 1893 (aged 90). Luckily, there was a wonderful exhibition featuring works by Monet, Chagall, Klee and many other masters. Below are excerpts from things that I explained during the visit:

The Foundation, inaugurated during Miró’s lifetime, was intended not only as a museum of his works, but also as a centre for the study of Contemporary Art. Housed in a beautiful building in the Mediterranean Style by Joan Lluis Sert, the collection spans different stages of his artistic career, with some outstanding masterpieces.

It is impossible to appreciate the art of Miró without understanding the tragedies that he had witnessed and that had shaped his character and style. His strong attachment to the Catalan land and culture and the shock provoked by the two wars that he experienced (the Spanish Civil War and WWII) obviously marked his art ever after.

Miró was an alchemist that managed to turn very popular motifs (like birds, women and stars) into a very personal vocabulary and pictorial language that became characteristic of his work and that became unmistakably ‘his’. When he portrayed war, he produced horrifying and disturbing artworks, and when he wanted to escape the horrors of war, he produced a surrogate reality where stars and planets obeyed a profound lyrical order, as if slowly swinging to the rhythm of a divine tune…the music of the spheres?

I end this with a quote by Miró, in which he described his state of mind during war:
‘I felt a deep desire to escape. I closed myself within myself purposely. The night, music, and the stars began to play a major role in suggesting my paintings.’

A magnificent short film about Miró traced his artistic career from his early days in Catalonia, then in Paris and Mallorca, and all the way to the US, where he influenced the Abstract Expressionists, and found the inspiration for realizing monumental and large scale artworks. Another visit to Japan opened his eyes to Japanese calligraphy, something that would translate into heavy black lines. Fine lines, heavily-populated canvases and figurative shapes would give way to a mature economy of elements that would be characteristic of his old age.

Panoramic View

With students and friendsThe Gold of Azure

Homage to Barcelona’s Modernist Art

While Barcelona’s history is rich in artistic tradition, its Roman and Gothic legacies remain eclipsed by an extraordinary legacy left by Modernism between the late XIX and early XX centuries. This style transformed the city’s skyscape once and for all, thanks to the genius of architects like Antoni Gaudí, Puig i Cadafalch, Domènech Montaner, Enric Sagnier, as well as sculptors, artisans and designers like Josep Maria Jujol, Joan Busquets and others.

This is a tribute to Modernism through 30 photos that I took in this charming city where I live. I did not put titles because the focus is on the style rather than individual buildings or architects. You can click any image to enlarge it.

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