Egypt’s ‘Stick Game’ UNESCO-listed

This week brought great news regarding Egypt’s rich cultural heritage, namely the inscription of Tahteeb (Stick Game) on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Tahteeb is regarded by the UNESCO as performing art and as a social practice / festive event (two out of the five domains of Intangible Cultural Heritage). Tahteeb, which involves a non-violent stick fight that seems more of a dance, traces its roots to Ancient Egypt. It acquired this ‘festive’ character much later in Upper Egypt, where it remains to be practiced during important social events, usually accompanied by traditional popular music. Local communities take pride in this tradition which showcases not only their skill and swift movement, but also embodies the values of fraternity and respect.

Tahteeb is the second element of Egypt’s Intangible Cultural Heritage to be recognized by the UNESCO (the first was al-Sirah al-Hilaliyyah Epic back in 2008). To my Egyptian mind, I can think of tens of other unique elements of heritage that could easily find their way into the list: khiyamiyya (craft), tanoura (performing art), traditional Muslim and Coptic mouleds (festive events), the Nubian language (oral tradition), to the end of the long list.

During their meeting in Addis Ababa, the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage adopted 15 other new elements from different countries. This includes the Beer Culture in Belgium, the Rumba in Cuba, the Valencia Fallas Festivity in Spain, the çini-making in Turkey, etc. Check it out here.


Barcelona’s Sant Pau Hospital: World Heritage Pearl

A walking distance from Gaudí’s famous Sagrada Familia is another masterpiece of Modernism, namely the Hospital of Santa Creu and Sant Pau, somehow eclipsed by its mammoth neighbor and the fame of its builder. But make no mistake: this hospital is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it comes as no surprise in a city where architecture seems to descend from heaven rather than rise from the ground!

Following years of restoration work, the hospital finally opened its doors to visitors. Long serpentine queues basked in the sun, waiting for their turn to contemplate firsthand the miracle of Lluís Domènech i Montaner, one of Barcelona’s legendary architects that championed the Modernist style together with Antoni Gaudí.

Once through the entrance, and following the initial aesthetic shock passing through the Administration Pavilion, one comes face to face with a wonderland of domed pavilions and colored towers that glitter under the sun: a symmetrical labyrinth of spikes, chimneys, chimera, gargoyles, and everything fanciful. A panoramic view of this huge space features more of a landscape/skyscape than just a fragmented group of buildings. The harmony of the complex embodies the very essence of an ‘ensemble’, and any itinerary offers a tour de force of Modernist glamour.

The construction work for the hospital started in 1903 in response to a growing population propelled by the feel-good factor of a confident city thanks to the industrial revolution. Lluís Domènech i Montaner wanted a hospital that would be not only functional, but also inspiring and cheerful. His attention to the human element was translated into a ‘garden-city’, where separate pavilions dedicated for different diseases are surrounded by greenery and pleasant walkways over a huge space. On the inside, the pavilions are no less impressive, with murals, tailor-made ceramic tiles, wrought iron lanterns, colored glass windows, and all the luxury of detail.

So far, six of the twelve pavilions have been fully restored and opened to public, and I think the photos can speak better for the charms of this site.

Evora: Portugal’s Ancient Jewel

While tourist herds flock to the Disney-like Sintra, Evora remains to be the real deal and the perfect destination for a memorable daytrip (or two). Once the residence of the Portuguese kings, its UNESCO-listed historic centre has more to offer than just azulejos and whitewashed facades.

The Cathedral is the logical starting point, given its monumentality and the impressive views from its top. A gothic treasure, its interior features a full spectrum of styles including Manueline Renaissance and Baroque, but the most impressive treat is the view from the pinnacle-studded top.

From the Roman era, the Diana Temple is an impressive first-century structure with massive Corinthian columns. As serene as it is, the square where the Temple is located suddenly emanates an eerie feeling when you remember that it came to be surrounded by institutions and offices of the Inquisition.

Other obligatory visits include the University of Evora, the Silver Water Acquiduct and several churches, the most incredible of which is the Capella dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones). As we walked into the Chapel, one could read on the entrance: “We, the bones here, await yours!”

Inside, the shock is inevitable: thousands of bones and countless skulls excavated from a cemetery form the walls and the pillars of the chapel, arranged in perfect order. The Chapel was built by the Franciscan during the heat of the Counter-Reformation, and serves as a memento mori (reminder of death). The poem below –on one of the Chapel’s pillars- says it better:

“Where are you going in such a hurry traveler?
Stop … do not proceed;
You have no greater concern,
Than this one: that on which you focus your sight.
(…) If by chance you glance at this place,
Stop … for the sake of your journey,
The more you pause, the further on your journey you will be.”
Fr. António da Ascenção

Published: Napata, Land of the Black Pharaohs

There was a time when Egypt was ruled by Black Pharaohs (from the Nubian part of present-day Sudan). These pharaohs founded the Twenty-fifth Dynasty, which managed to reunite Egypt following a period of political chaos, before finally retreating against the advance of the Assyrians.

Everyone knows Tutankhamen, Akhenaton and Ramesses II, but names like Piankhi and Taharqa definitely deserve to be known. My new article in Ahram Online is the second of three articles about the Nubian Pyramids and the Black Pharaohs, this time with a focus on the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Gebel al-Barkal and Napata. Here is the link for the full article:

Jebel BarkalColumn crowned with Hathor - Jebel BarkalBarkal Pyramids 4

Published: A walk around Sudan’s Nubian Pyramids

“Clearly visible from the Khartoum-Atbara highway, the pyramids of the Royal Cemetery of Meroe stand alone on a sandy ridge like a row of broken teeth.” – Paul Clammer

Excerpts from my travel account of the Sudan trip were published by Ahram Online yesterday in the form of an article (the first of three articles), in which I talk about the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Meroë, the last Kushite capital where I came face to face with tens of Nubian pyramids.
Here is the link to the article:

As I once mentioned, Sudan has over 200 pyramids, spread over the sites of Meroë, El Kurru, Nuri and Gebel Barkal. More on the issue in other articles.

Meroe 10Meroe 7

Published: The Patios of Cordova

Cordova may be famous worldwide for the Mezquita (the Grand Mosque dating back to the Umayyad Period), but what really drew my attention when I first visited the city was the elegance of the Cordovan patios. Recently, the traditional Fiesta of the Cordovan Patios has been added to the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

An article of mine was published about this Fiesta in Ahram Online. You can read it here:

Published: Wadi El-Hitan, in the realm of the Lizard King

Wadi El-Hitan (Valley of the Whales) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Egypt. The site is famous for whale fossils (and those of other species) that are over 40 million years old, including the Basilosaurus (King Lizard). Apart from its unparalleled paleontological and geological value, the site resembles a lunar landscape sculpted by time and carved by erosion. This is my article about Wadi El-Hitan, published today by Ahram Online: