The Capitoline Crime: Boxing up Nudity

In 1565, the Italian artist Andrea da Volterra was commissioned to ‘cover the genitals’ of the painted figures in Michelangelo’s ‘Last Judgment’ at the Sistine Chapel with painted loincloths because the Pope at the time could not tolerate this nudity at the heart of the Vatican. One should never forget that the Italian Renaissance had its antiheros and antagonists, or how else would we understand the discourse of someone like Savonarola and his infamous Bonfire of the Vanities in plain quttrocento?

That was centuries ago, and you would think we have learned our lessons, especially in Italy, where classical humanism was revived and where art is at home, but the devil always lurks behind the cross, and economic interests happen to speak louder than aesthetic drives. Such was the case when, earlier this week, some Italian officials forgot that in art, sometimes, covering naked bodies is more profane than exposing them. They covered up the nude statues in Rome’s Capitoline Museum so as not to offend the Iranian President who was on an official visit; they ‘boxed up’ part of the heritage of an entire -great- nation to satisfy the taste of one man whose country ranks where it ranks on every human rights abuse list (a very unworthy heir of a great Persian Civilization).

 Italy did not build its glory and did not gain its status in the hearts of intellectuals and art lovers by renouncing and hiding its heritage, even if the price is billions of dollars in deals with oil-rich countries with filthy hands and twisted taste. The assault against art that covering up the nude statues represents is, to my mind, the epitome of a failed intercultural dialogue, and one can only remember this Ovid’s quote: ‘beauty is a fragile gift’.

 If we want to honor their immortal quality, fragile gifts should not be handled by shaky hands. Do not shy away from what is yours to please he who does not appreciate, because in denying Christ thrice, Peter was no less criminal than Judas.

The Dying Gaul


The Cervantes Year: Exemplary Tales

“(…) but in some palaces jesters fare better than sensible people.” – Cervantes, ‎Exemplary Novels

The year 2016 commemorates 400 years since the death of both Miguel de Cervantes ‎and William Shakespeare. To many people, Cervantes is remembered only for his ‎masterpiece, Don Quixote. Nevertheless, the story of Cervantes himself is an interesting ‎one, full of twists of fate and gestures of genius.‎

During the time of Cervantes, there was a famous Spanish saying that went: ‘Iglesia, ‎mar o casa real’ (Church, Sea or Royal House), meaning that commoners with no noble ‎titles could only improve their chances in life and their status by joining the clergy, ‎seeking wealth through adventure at the sea, or attaching themselves to some noble ‎house. Cervantes was no exception: In 1571 he joined the Spanish forces that, leading ‎the fleet of the Holy League, fought and defeated the Ottoman Empire’s fleet in the ‎Battle of Lepanto. ‎

Cervantes suffered a serious injury during the Battle, causing him to lose use of his left ‎arm, and earning him the rather cruel and inaccurate nickname of ‘El Manco de ‎Lepanto’ (the one-armed man of Lepanto). To add insult to injury, he was taken captive ‎a few years later on his way back and taken to Algeria, where he spent 5 years in prison. ‎He tried every trick to escape, but he was only released thanks to –indirect- divine ‎intervention: the Trinitarian Order saved Cervantes, a Catholic order that redeemed ‎Christian captives in Muslim lands through offering its own members as ransom. ‎

In addition to his masterpiece (Don Quixote), Cervantes was –in his own words- the ‎first Spanish writer to introduce the novella in Spain after the success that it enjoyed in ‎Italy thanks to Boccaccio. A crucial figure of Spain’s ‘Siglo de Oro’ (Spanish Golden Age), his novellas combine the use of farce, satire and picaresque ‎characters in both realistic and idealized settings dotted with gypsies, picaros, moriscos, witches, and impossible loves.

Below is a selection of quotes from ‎Cervantes’ highly entertaining and highly recommended ‘Novelas Ejemplares’ (Exemplary Novels):‎
‎ ‎
“it seems to me that love’s impulses go unchecked until they meet with reason or ‎disillusionment.”‎
‎ ‎
‎“Hare-hunting is very pleasurable, especially when the hounds are borrowed.”‎
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‎“Good painters imitated nature while bad ones vomited it.”‎
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‎“It suits me better to be a hypocrite than a self-confessed sinner: the illusion of my ‎present good works is gradually erasing my past misdeeds from the memory of those ‎who know me. Indeed, false sanctity harms no one except those who practice it.”



The Tomb of Ramses VI: Heaven Underground

Light years away from our daily sorrows and fears, there are unperceived moments which always last.

The most incredible tomb in Luxor’s famed Valley of the Kings is neither that of Tutankhamen nor that of Horemheb, but rather a tomb usurped by the XX dynasty pharaoh, Ramses VI.

An otherwise insignificant pharaoh, Ramses VI will always be remembered for this unearthly tomb where one comes face to face with one awe-inspiring corridor after another, all adorned with fantastic depictions of scenes from the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Day, Book of the Night, Book of the Caverns and Book of the Gates. Then comes the burial chamber with its unique astronomical ceiling showing the constellations, the decans and the daily journey of the solar disc through the body of the goddess Nut: the Netherworld was never so serene; the sky was never so vivid, even if it is a motionless starry sky. Is it any surprise we are made of star-stuff?

There were no other visitors; I had the place for myself. Alone in the burial chamber, I spent an eternity contemplating the celestial splendor at the heart of an underground tomb: a true theatre of heavenly delight, where the mortal and the divine are in perfect harmony, and where my light is the shadow of Ra’s might.

Ramses VI Tomb 1

Astronomical Ceiling of Ramses VI Tomb

Ramses VI Tomb 2

Panoramic View of Ramses VI Tomb

Ramses VI Tomb 4

Tomb of Ramses VI – 1

Ramses VI Tomb 5

Tomb of Ramses VI – 3

Ramses VI Tomb 3

Tomb of Ramses VI – 2

Sun sets over Luxor Temple

Sun sets over Luxor

Relief of Thutmose III at Luxor Museum

Thutmose III

Medinet Habu: Splendor of the Pharaohs

Having contemplated the ‘House-of-Millions-of-Years’ (mortuary temple) of Ramses III from a hot-air balloon earlier today, it was time to explore it on foot. As I approached the temple, walking through the migdol (Asian-style fortress-gateway), I finally came face to face with the warrior-king: Ramses III –in the fashion of his predecessors- grabs his enemies by the hair as he raises the other hand to smite them with a club, to the satisfied look of Amon-Ra and Ra-Horakhty. Such is the iconographic program of the first pylon at the Temple of Medinet Habu, but it gets much more interesting at the second pylon.

Having confronted the Nubians to the South and the Libyan to the West, the real threat came from the North and the East: the Bronze Age Vikings of the Eastern Mediterranean, known as the Sea Peoples (a heterogeneous coalition of Aegean populations), swarmed Egypt during the reign of the XIX Dynasty Pharaoh, Ramses III. The clash was so intense that the walls of the second pylon of the Temple of Medinet Habu still echo the carnage. Picasso should have found inspiration here for his cubist style: the captives depicted are shown with the feathered helmets typical of the Sea Peoples, with arms bound over heads and behind their backs in a rather ‘modern’ composition reminiscent of Picasso’s ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’, only thousands of years older. The images are exceptional in both their quality and their style, as some of the captives (Peleset and Tjeker) are shown frontally, an anomaly in Ancient Egyptian art.

Elsewhere, the walls of the peristyle halls are covered with horrific reliefs showing intense battles, scattered bodies, mutilated captives and severed hands and genitals; a grim reminder of the fate that awaited the enemies of Egypt. This, obviously, is not why Medinet Habu, the best-persevered mortuary temple on the west bank of Thebes, is also the most impressive. Why then?
The second court’s portico holds the answer: winged cobras and solar discs adorn ceilings and doorframes, while colored columns and pillars present a radical aesthetic shift from the rest of the scenes in the Temple. The colors glow as the continuous interplay between light and shadow lends this portico a sense of serenity rarely seen anywhere else in old Thebes; art for eternity, eternity in the memory of stone.

Following a quick stop to greet the seated statues of the XVIII dynasty Pharaoh Amenhotep III (Colossi of Memnon), we proceeded to visit the incredible Theban Tombs of Sennedjem and Ramose at Deir el-Medina. The best was yet to come at Valley of the Kings, but that is another story.

Medinet Habu Temple 5

Medinet Habu Temple 3

Enemies of Egypt - Sea Peoples

The Sea Peoples on Second Pylon

Medinet Habu Temple 7

Medinet Habu Temple 5

Medinet Habu seen from Hot-Air Balloon

Medinet Habu seen from Hot-Air Balloon

Medinet Habu Temple 3

Medinet Habu Temple 2

Medinet Habu Temple 1

Medinet Habu Temple 1

Medinet Habu Temple 2

Medinet Habu Temple 4

Enemies of Egypt

The Enemies of Egypt on First Pylon

Heading to the Colossi of Memnon

Colossi of Memnon

Medinet Habu Temple 6

Medinet Habu Temple 6

Karnak: Epitome of Cosmic Harmony

Like a good son of the Nile, I headed to Luxor to visit the ‘Hidden One’ and to pay tribute to the immortal Theban Triad. The attendants of stars had explained to me how the Temple of Karnak, being a solar temple, was aligned with the winter solstice sunrise; they had explained all about the heliacal rising of Sopdet (the name given by the Ancient Egyptians to the star Sirius), but I had to see it for myself. I had to come and meet Amun, Mut and Khonsu.  

I walked into the Temple of Karnak as a pilgrim of passion, just like many other times when I sleepwalked into Karnak in some of my dreams. Ancient Egyptian temples were more than just symbols of power or places of worship; they represented a microcosm, a realm of order in an ocean of chaos embodied by the outside world. The pylons (entrance gateways) marked the transition from chaos to order, but it does not end here. The monumental gateway is reminiscent of the hill that emerged from the primordial lake; the one on which the ancestral god Atum created himself. And because one layer of meaning is never enough, you can also think of the two flat towers flanking the gate as symbols of the two hills between which the sun first rose. How many pylons have I walked through in Karnak? I lost count, but I knew I was walking right into a time machine, as the innermost pylons are the oldest.

Then came the most splendid part of the temple, charged with cosmological symbolism: the Great Hypostyle Hall. A forest of 134 pillars, this mammoth structure commissioned by the XIX Dynasty Pharaoh Seti I utilized a New Kingdom signature element: the papyriform columns, all with closed-bud capitals except for the two central rows which, standing higher than the other columns, end in open-umbel capitals at a height of 21 meters. Closer to the sun, they are blessed with the gift of Ra, and the buds are no longer closed, but are rather open to embrace the sunlight. The papyrus plant must have grown around the primordial pond, the way they still grew along the shores of the Nile.

Architecturally, the difference in height between the two central rows of columns and the rest allows for opening clerestory windows that let in just the right amount of light that would respect the mystery of the temple’s interior, off limits to the public. Whatever happened inside the temple was the priests’ business and theirs alone (and the Pharaoh’s). Is it any wonder that the name of Amun means ‘the occult’?

Long gone is the roof that the columns once supported, but fortunately, some of the architraves are still there, giving us an idea of how the roof was once supported. What was once the most sacred part of the Temple (Holy of Holies) is now empty; the god no longer resides here.

Another clear solar symbol in Karnak are the obelisks of Thutmose I and Hatshepsut (the later weighing over 300 tons!). These are ‘petrified sunrays’ that adorned Ancient Egyptian temples, usually staged in pairs.

Rows of ram-headed sphinxes mark the processional avenues outside the temple. How many devout followers must have petitioned these rams (representations of Amun) to convey their prayers to the great Amun? How many times must have these rams witnessed the procession of the sacred barque carrying the statue of Amun during the annual Opet Festival?

Many are the Pharaohs that embellished this complex, each leaving his/her mark on this eternal and sacred cult centre from the XI Dynasty onward: Seti I, Ramses II, Ramses III, Merenptah, Nectanebo I, and the list goes on. Only during the reign of Ramses III, the Pharaoh dedicated 240,000 hectares to the cult of Amun, as well as 32 tons of gold, 1000 tons of silver and 2400 tons of copper to the Temple of Karnak.

Returning to the Temple at night for the Sound and Light Spectacle, one wonders whether this Temple was built or whether it had descended from heaven. On a clear night, the priests must have been able to observe the night sky reflected on the still surface of the Sacred Lake. I thought nothing would impress me more in Luxor. Luckily, I was wrong.
Ram-Headed Sphinxes at KarnakAvenue of the Ram-Headed SphinxesKarnak 2Karnak 6Karnak 4Karnak 1Karnak 3 The Mammoth Central Columns
Sun sets over Karnak

Lecture Review: Al-Andalus as a Civilizing Bridge

It is always an incredible feeling to lecture at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina where once, in its original version, students and scholars gathered around the likes of Euclid, Ptolemy and Hypatia! Am I not, after all, a distant heir to their legacy?

“An orchard is a treasure if the gardener is a moor.” – Spanish Proverb

This phrase is a proper metaphor of the civilizing effect that the Muslim presence had on the Iberian Peninsula and beyond after they had conquered that part of the world in the VIII century, referring to it ever after as ‘al-Andalus’.

More than just a geographical denomination, al-Andalus eventually became synonymous with an extraordinary human condition, as people from different cultures and creeds came to forge a golden age whose zeitgeist was the coexistence and whose epitome was the Library of Cordoba.

From the introduction of new crops and irrigation techniques to the establishment of libraries, universities and observatories, one can hardly perceive the scale and scope of the unparalleled body of knowledge developed and bequeathed to us by generation after generation of Andalusi philosophers, mathematicians, physicians, botanists, astronomers, poets, and the list goes on. The names include Al-Majriti, Ibn Rushd (Averroes), al-Zarqali (Arzachel), al-Zahrawi (Albucasis), Ibn Zuhr, Ibn al-Baitar, Ibn Ammar, and countless other figures. It was in al-Andalus that Ziryab founded the first proper musical institute in Western Europe, the Umayyads founded Europe’s first paper mill in Xativa and its first silk workshop in Almeria, while Cordoba’s Library became the world’s second largest under the enlightened rule of al-Hakam II in the tenth century (second only to the House of Wisdom in Baghdad).

The cultural imprint of al-Andalus can still be seen today, not only in the Iberian Peninsula and the Maghreb, but also in some of the most unexpected parts of the world, like Latin America (where the Islamic mudejar style was introduced by the Spanish invaders) and Basin of the River Niger (which hosts one of the biggest collections of Andalusi manuscripts in the whole world).