Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Hassan Fathy Village 'Endangered'

***Note: This is the unpublished version of the story I wrote. The edited version will appear at Al-Masry Al-Youm.

A Crumbling Village

Sixty years ago Hassan Fathy conceived a village in Luxor that would inspire international architects and scholars. Now his vision could be considered a failure; the buildings have collapsed, are crumbling or are covered with new construction.

Fathy used local materials and traditional knowledge with an ambitious idea to create a village that provided new opportunities in work and life for the poor. He hoped this model could be replicated. Although Fathy's dream was never fulfilled, the few remaining residents in the village have dreams of their own.

In what's left of the collapsing village, writer Ahmed Youssef el-Jemel hopes to one day become a famous director. With pictures from the movie Titanic on his mobile phone and a fresh script in hand, el-Jemel wants to use the medium of theater to discuss social issues.

Inside a village that is falling apart, however, el-Jemel has few indicators that dreams come true or that problems can be fixed. While giving a tour of the village, el-Jemel expressed frustration as he showed the state of disrepair around him. A strip of buildings across from his two-room home was once the village khan. A large corner of the roof its outdoor promenade has collapsed. The fallen mud bricks are still scattered on the ground beneath the gaping hole.

"This is very dangerous," el-Jemel said.

"The people come from the government and they say they're going to do something and they never do anything."

Residents say high-level government officials such as Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif and Supreme Council of Antiquities chief Zahi Hawass visited about a year ago and promised the residents the village would be renovated after decades of neglect.

The residents might get their wish soon.

In early October the World Heritage Fund (WHF) released its yearly additions to the list of Endangered Sites, which included the mud-brick village in New Gourna conceived by Fathy. Several UNESCO officials are expected to visit the "endangered" site in the coming months.

"It's true, I agree with [the WHF]," said Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA). "But they can't say [New Gourna is] endangered. The Supreme Council in Luxor is rebuilding. We are doing a plan for the restoration."

To describe Hassan Fathy's village in Luxor as "endagered" is a gross understatement. Most of the few buildings left from this socio-architectural experiment in the 1940's have crumbling walls, broken windows, sloping foundations, collapsing roofs and are now part of a larger village that is literally on top of the old structures. Were it not for the mosque, theater and the few remaining residents, Fathy's dream of idyllic peasant architecture was abandoned when he died 20 years ago.

"There's been no money since Hassan Fathy died," Hussein Ahmed Youssef, or Abu Hagag, who lives in the village and holds the key to Fathy's former house.

"Everything is dead from the government. They want to kill everything in Hassan Fathy," he said.
Fathy spent most of his adult life dedicated to rural development. He saw the countryside as a paradise that had fallen to disease and filth, "whose streams flowing underfoot had become muddy and infested with bilharzia and dysentery." He believed that if only given opportunity to live and work better, the rural poor would lift themselves up from poverty and sickness.

"My purpose was always to restore to the Gournis their heritage of vigorous locally-inspired building tradition, involving the active cooperation of informed clients and skilled craftsmen,” he wrote.

His idea, however, never really caught on with the residents. He wrote that many of the residents of Gourna did not want to move into his village in the first place and that most of them seemed disinterested in the building of the village. That many of the current villagers built additions to their homes with concrete and steel is a testament to the demise of Fathy's hopes.

He also received opposition from the government and what one resident describes as "jealousy." In his book, "Gourna: A Tale of Two Cities," Fathy explained that he planned to open a craft school to teach the villagers skills such as carpet weaving to earn a living. He wrote a letter to what was then the Ministry of Commerce and Industry for permission to open the school. The director general wrote back that Fathy was trying to "force his ideas" on the ministry and that it wouldn't be accepted.

“From his tone it seemed almost as if I was trying to take something from him instead of giving him something free. Thus the weaving experiment died away, entirely through active governmental discouragement,” Fathy wrote.

Determined to train the villagers, Fathy designed an apprentice system to be implemented in the khan. Today the khan, which is falling apart, is used as government offices. During two visits by Al-Masry Al-Youm all of its doors were padlocked.

Fathy himself, however, is not without blame for the outcome. Since he was building in the 1940's, he took for granted that electricity and outdoor plumbing would become a standard amenity. As a result, the residents cut crude holes in the walls to feed electricity into their homes. Furthermore, ground water seepage is causing the foundations of buildings to slope, creating deep cracks in the walls. Fathy chose the site specifically because it was sheltered from ground water.

"We settled upon a patch of agricultural land close by the main road and the railway line, low down in a hosha–a permanently dry field kept free from floodwater by a system of dikes," he wrote.

Fathy, who described the meticulous planning of the village in his several writings, never imagined that water could harm his village. He also did not want to believe that the residents would not accept the way of life he imagined, even though he wrote that they did not want to move there.

"Whether, when he has lived in a truly beautiful and dignified village, he will still hanker after imported modernity, we shall have to wait and see," Fathy wrote. "Perhaps, when he has no reason to envy the rich man anything at all–his wealth, his culture, and his consequence–then too he will cease to envy him his house."

It probably was not envy that drove the residents to build with materials other than mud brick, but economics. Cement and steel are now much less expensive than it was 60 years ago, and provides a means to build several floors, which saves the amount of land used.

A number of factors contributed to the demise of Fathy's village, but maybe his vision was simply too idealistic. He hoped others would buy into his ideas, but few ever did. He thought the village could serve as a model for others and spread, but it has never been replicated. Despite this, Fathy remained an advocate of rural development until his dying days, clinging onto the dreams he formed as he gazed at the countryside through train windows as a young man.

Like Fathy, el-Jemel is holding onto his own dreams. Although he hopes to be a famous director, he would be satisfied if his ideas help change some of the traditional behaviors in the countryside of Upper Egypt. His play, Thaar (Revenge), tackles the issue of honor killings between families that turns into a vicious cycle of violence. He is planning to show it in Cairo in February.

"When someone kills someone from another family they don't call police, they kill someone from the other family," he said.

"I want to stop this because it's wrong."

Photo Captions:

Hassan Fathy hoped to build a village of local materials with skilled craftsman. His idea never spread and local residents eventually built with cement and steel.

The mud-brick buildings of Fathy's village are falling apart.

Many of the narrow streets of the village are covered with garbage and debris, such as the entranceway to Fathy's former house.

Abu Hagag, who keeps the key to Hassan Fathy's house, is frustrated that residents have received little help to preserve the village.

souq: The souq, or market, is now locked up. Villagers travel elsewhere twice a week to another market.

mosque: The local mosque has cracks in its ceilings.

khan: The village khan was once used as a training center for crafts, but is crumbling in the hands of the government.

sign: Residents complain the government has let the village go to waste.

theater: Inspired by ancient amphitheaters, the cultural center has been all but abandoned as its walls and ceilings have deep fissures.

elJemel: Ahmed el-Jemel has dreams of becoming a famous director. His play, Thaar, or Revenge, discusses the issue of honor killings in the countryside.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Budget airline launching in Cairo

Saturday 26 September 2009 - 02:52 PM
By Andrew Bossone

During tough times in the travel and tourism business a new low-cost airline is launching in Cairo.

The Sharjah-based Air Arabia and the Egyptian hospitality company Travco Group International recently announced a partnership to form Air Arabia Egypt for budget flights in Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA).

"The low-cost model, which will be used in operating Air Arabia Egypt, is uniquely attractive in these challenging economic times. When travel budgets are low and travel is a must, travelers prefer value-for-money options," said Sara Salib, the director of marketing and public relations for Travco, in an email to Al-Masry Al-Youm.

Profits in the worldwide commercial airline business have declined sharply in the last two years. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicts the global industry will lose US $11 billion in 2009. Commercial airlines lost $16.8 billion in 2008, a drop of $29.7 billion from the previous year.

"Reported losses have already exceeded $6 billion in the first half of this year," said an IATA report released this month. "Although the beginnings of an economic upturn are now visible…yields are much weaker than anticipated and oil prices higher. These last two factors are more than offsetting better economic growth."

Airlines in the Middle East, however, have suffered less than other regions, the report says. Although commercial airlines the Middle East are generally smaller than counterparts in North America and Europe, for example, carriers in the region are gaining a greater market share of international flights. It is also the only region in the world that had higher year-on-year passenger traffic in 2009.

And there's evidence that a low-cost model can be successful. Air Arabia's net profits for the first half of 2009 are up by 21 percent from the same period last year to $52.6 million, according to a report by AFP.

“At a time when the global aviation industry is witnessing serious challenges as a consequence of the worldwide financial crisis, we continue to move forward with our strategic expansion strategy, as demonstrated by this important announcement," said Sheikh Abdullah Bin Mohammed Al Thani, chairman of Air Arabia, in a press release.

The low-cost carrier model has worked in Europe and the United States, and even been recession proof. The Irish carrier Ryan Air has increased its number of passengers for every month year-on-year since January 2007. The American carrier Southwest Airlines earned a profit for 71 consecutive quarters until the beginning of 2009–and rebounded in the second quarter.

Figures for EgyptAir Express, the national carrier's low cost airline, are not available on the company's website beyond June 2008. Similarly, tourist figures are not available past the same time period on the Egyptian Central Bank's website, the official place the Ministry of Tourism publishes statistics.

The numbers for the first four months of 2009 show a 13.2 percent drop in the number of tourist nights compared to the same period in 2008, while the number of tourist arrivals during the same period has declined 10.3 percent to 3.67 million arrivals.

The tourism industry is going through some rough times, thanks to the global financial crisis. The Ministry of Tourism had released figures for the first four months of the current year, showing a 13.2 per cent drop in tourist nights and a 10.3 per cent decrease in tourist arrivals compared to the same period last year. A report released this month by the Center for Trade Unions and Workers Services also stated that the tourism sector is the highest in terms of layoffs this year. If anything, the timing is right to take advantage of tighter travel budgets and Egypt as an affordable destination. In addition to Air Arabia's experience as a low-cost airline, the new group will benefit from the economy of scale in an end-to-end hospitality group like Travco.

"Controlling all aspects of the tourism value chain also allows operating efficiencies and cost savings," Salib said. "Being the only fully integrated powerhouse in Egypt and the region only increases Travco's competitive advantage."

Air Arabia will have a 40 percent stake in the new venture and will handle the day-to-day operations, serving on a joint board with Travco, which owns 50 percent. Travco declined to name the independent Egyptian investor who owns the remaining ten percent. Air Arabia, which flies to 57 destinations east of the Atlantic Ocean, launched its second hub in Casablanca this year to compliment operations in Dubai. The company has not announced when flights will commence from Cairo.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Exact Date Pinned to Great Pyramid's Construction?

Andrew Bossone in Cairo
for National Geographic News
September 21, 2009

The Egyptians started building the Great Pyramid of Giza on August 23, 2470 B.C., according to controversial new research that attempts to place an exact date on the start of the ancient construction project.

A team of Egyptian researchers arrived at the date based on calculations of historical appearances of the star Sothis—today called Sirius.

Every year around the time of the Nile River floods, Sothis would rise in the early morning sky after a long absence.

"The appearance of this star indicates the beginning of an inundation period" for the Nile, said team leader Abdel-Halim Nur El-Din, former head of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities.

Throughout their history, "Egyptians … started their main buildings, the tombs, and the temples at the beginning of the inundation"—an auspicious time, since floodwaters brought fresh soil, maintaining the region's fertility.

In addition, pharaohs always started building their tombs at the starts of their rules. Khufu, the pharaoh meant to be buried in the Great Pyramid, took power in 2470 B.C., according to Nur El-Din and colleagues.

The researchers therefore compared the modern calendar, the ancient Egyptian calendar, and the cycle of the star to find the exact day Sothis would have appeared that year.

The team believes the ancient Egyptians observed the star from July 17 to 19, and the inundation period began 35 days later—on August 23.

(Related: "Great Pyramid Built Inside Out, French Architect Says.")

Pharaohs Reset the Clock

Using Sothis's arrival to keep track of the annual Nile floods made sense, said Mark Hammergren, an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago who was not involved in the work.

"It happens at about the same time every solar year, so it corresponds to the seasons, and it provides them a good fixed date," he said. Hammergren agrees with the days Nur El-Din's team calculated for Sothis, based on other researchers' estimates for the dates the star would have risen during ancient Egyptian times.

Still, Hammergren noted, the "appearance" of the star is subject to weather conditions, which might have obscured its first rise in any given year.

Mahmoud Afifi, the general director of Giza antiquities, is also concerned about placing an exact year on the start of Khufu's rule.

Ancient Egyptian chronology reset to zero at the beginning of each pharaoh's reign, making it difficult to match Western calendar years with the dates given for ancient events.

What's more, dated lists of kings are unreliable, since the ancient Egyptians often had political motivations to alter the historical record.

Some unpopular pharaohs could have been left off the lists, for example, which would have changed the ruling dates of every pharaoh that followed.

Many scholars debate the precise year Khufu ascended to the throne, with some estimates as much as 139 years earlier than the date Nur El-Din and his team selected.

In addition, the design of the monumental Great Pyramid probably took considerable time to prepare, Afifi said, which might have delayed the start of construction beyond the first year of Khufu's reign.

Pyramid Mysteries

For Afifi, many aspects of the Great Pyramid simply remain shrouded in mystery. (Explore an Egyptian pyramids interactive.)

"We don't even know why [Khufu] chose the Giza plateau for his tomb, when his father was in Dashur, 30 kilometers [18.6 miles] away," he said.

"There're a lot of theories about the Great Pyramid, because it is the last [surviving ancient] wonder of the world."

Hands of Clay

Hands of clay
Thursday 17 September 2009 - 03:32 PM

By Andrew Bossone

Between worn, brick walls and beneath thatched, wooden roofs, ceramics makers in Old Cairo create pottery just as the ancient Egyptians did. Clay blocks still come from Aswan, where the pharaohs extracted minerals for tombs, monuments and crafts. The pottery is still handmade, formed on a workshop assembly line and then cooked in a kiln, but some things change with time.

"It's the same system that the pharaohs used. Only now the market demand is different," said Ibrahim Qurani, 46, a pottery maker since he was ten years old.

Under the threat of foreign imports and a slumping global economy, this old craft could crumble like the clay powder from which it originates. Despite an uncertain future, work continues.

Construction by the Egyptian government, with support from the United Nations and the Italian government, has been ongoing for several years to create a new village of workshops and homes for local craftsmen and their families.

In addition to improved working and living conditions in new buildings, the area could also benefit from increased exposure to tourists. The construction is taking place in a small valley known as Butn el-Baqara and Sha' el-Taa'ban, or the "Belly of the Cow" and "Crack of the Snake," respectively, up the road from Egypt's oldest mosque and most famous churches and synagogue.

Although local artisans look forward to moving, they are beginning to wonder when it will happen. Locals told Al-Masry Al-Youm they expect the government to demolish their current buildings following Eid after Ramadan. They are concerned the new buildings will not be finished on time.

"Every revolution has its victims," Qurani said. "The government has a vision to turn all of this into Fatimid-style buildings with domes."

If they are forced to close shop without a new location, they said they would have to look for work elsewhere, in similar workshops in Cairo and Fayoum, or make ends meet as taxi drivers.

The office of the Cairo Governorate told Al-Masry Al-Youm it had no knowledge of plans to move ceramics workers after the Eid, but said that marble workers might join the new village soon. The village has about 30 functioning workshops, according to local sources.

As they wait for their next move, the artisans keep churning out rows of vases, water fountains, tables in the shapes of animals and wall lamps, or ableek, as they always have. But they are concerned about change, even if it could be for the better.

Workers in the ceramic industry make between LE 15 and LE 50 per week depending on their skill level. A young child who carries objects or makes tea and coffee earns a weekly wage of about LE 15, while an experienced pottery maker earns more based on output. A skilled pottery maker in Scotland makes more than 400 British pounds per week, or about 75 times their Egyptian counterparts, according to a Scottish government website.

Egyptian ceramics makers begin at a young age. Qurani said children learn the trade more easily, as he praised a 17-year-old who started working when he was ten, just as Qurani did. "There is a good relationship between him and the cast. He loves it," Qurani said.

Despite an artistic sense cultivated for thousands of years, Egyptian ceramics makers say their trade is increasingly forced to compete with imports. "It's not hard work for the importers," said Mamdouh Abu Islam, who owns a ceramics shop. "Here, the owner works [in the workshop] just like my brother does. He pays the workers, whether they're family or not and he sells the objects."

Samy Fattah, a ceramics importer and wholesaler, says business has suffered this year in sectors related to gifts and home decorations because of the ailing international economy, making competition more difficult. Fattah sells most of his items to tourist bazaars, so declining tourism numbers and tighter wallets have hurt his business. Although he will not complete his accounting books until the end of 2009, he expects sales will have declined this year by more than 30 per cent.

"You can easily feel there is a problem all around the world," said Fattah, who travels to several countries each year for his company Eximport.

Egyptian ceramic imports usually come from China, Morocco and Palestine. Chinese factories tend to produce cooking bowls common to Egyptian kitchens, while the Palestinian and Moroccan ceramics include artisan dishes and vases.

"People love the handmade objects," said Hassan Fouad, who has sold hand painted plates from Palestine in Khan el-Khalili for seven years. "The foreigners like it more than Arabs, and they pay."

These types of ceramic dishes, which are white and painted with multi-colored patterns, became so successful with tourists that another shop in Khan el-Khalili called Mizar El Fishawy opened its own factory in Fayoum two years ago. The quality of the dishes equals their Palestinian counterparts, but sells for around LE 45 less per piece, around LE 90 for a bowl, for example. The shop also has more variety because it took patterns from the Internet rather than relying only on traditional styles.

Unlike dishware, Fustat pottery is typically large and heavy. The smaller objects include unique figurines of houses from the countryside or people dressed as traditional fruit sellers or musicians. Although the Fustat artisans are masters at forming pottery with their hands, the final step of painting sometimes needs improvement. The workshops occasionally partner with artists to create an improved finished product. The Egyptian government has also supported recent university graduates of arts faculties with their own village near the Fustat workshops.

"The artist brings his own vision and it's like he has engineers working for him," Qurani said. "Since the worker has an artistic sense, it's easy to meet the demands of the artist."

The Fatimid Dynasty established its administrative and economic capital in Fustat in the 10th century, developing art and architecture that remain today. If history is any indicator of the future, ceramics workers might have a revival. As Egypt has been conquered and rebuilt many times for 7,000 years, ceramics survived through all of it.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Egyptology celebrates 200 year anniversary

Wednesday 19 August 2009 - 09:36 AM
One of the most comprehensive works published about Egypt celebrating its 200th birthday, La Description d'Egypte, on display at the Invalides in Paris until September 19th, offers a glimpse of the inspiration that sparked modern Egyptology and a wave of Orientalism

By Andrew Bossone
It is literally a text and visual description of Egypt, the likes of which have never been matched. La Description compiles notes, sketches of buildings, people and animals, as well as color reproductions (such as the bas relief from Medinet Habu accompanying this article). About 160 civilian scientists, called savants, accompanied General Napoleon and his troops to Egypt. Eventually, nearly 200 engravers in France reproduced the work of 62 draughtsmen, and consumed about 2,200,000 sheets of paper for printing plates alone.

"For Egyptologists the [La Description] volumes mark the first systematic, scientific recording of Egypt's ancient monuments, and represents the beginning of all later scientific documentation (and epigraphy) in Egypt," says Raymond Johnson, the director of the Epigraphic Survey of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, "the achievement is all the more remarkable considering that Egyptian hieroglyphs had not been translated yet."

Approaching the exhibition borrowed from the Louvre–under the gilded dome of the Invalides–La Description appears relatively small. It only contains a slight fraction of the 7,000 pages of La Description's exhaustive 11 volumes. The exhibit is displayed above and to the side of Napoleon's massive tomb, however, which has eight of his greatest conquests, including Egypt, written in stone on the ground. The quartzite tomb was intended to resemble red porphyry, a granite quarried only in Egypt, used in the tombs of Roman emperors–of which Napoleon fashioned himself to be.

"By the beauty and the sheer size of its pages, [La Description] represents a masterpiece of French publication; it is one of the most beautiful monuments erected to honor the glory of Napoleon, rightfully presented next to the tomb of the emperor," explains Yves Laissus, the curator of the exhibition and Honorary Inspector General of Libraries.

"Despite the limited surface area of the exhibition space, I feel that the presentation contains enough information to allow the visitor to comprehend–if not the work's total content–at least the monumentality of the work; the presence of the furniture literally supporting the volumes emphasizes this character," Laissus wrote in a email to Al Masry Al Youm.

Laissus says that the exhibition is more about the intellectual work of Napoleon's exhibition than the journey itself. Yet La Description is a testament to Napoleon's foresight in Egypt to transform his first major military campaign as a ruler–a defeat–into his empire. Although some 50 per cent of his troops were stranded and many died of illnesses, he had planned his return early. Depending on which story of history you believe, Napoleon returned from Egypt simply to ascend to power or he fled to Palestine after defeat at Abukir by the British navy and Mamlouk troops. Regardless of how he left, he used Egypt as the launching pad of his empire.

Within only a few years after returning to France, he seized power as first council, institutionalized the revolution, and established the Napoleonic code and the Legion of Honor. La Description was first published in 1809, but was not fully released until 1829, thirty years after Napoleon landed in Egypt. It took the world by storm.

At the U.S. National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, an exhibit of Napoleon's life and personal items includes pieces from La Description.

"The astonishing visual feast of ancient Egyptian art presented in the volumes ignited the imagination of its readers and launched a wave of Egyptomania throughout the world not seen since Roman times," notes Johnson. "Architecture, furniture, and even the minor arts were all influenced by the ancient Egyptian art captured in those volumes."

Pharaonic obelisks inspired the Washington Monument, for example, which was dedicated to US war heroes, just as those in ancient times celebrated the pharaohs.

"Who would have thought of Napoleon as the intermediary between Egypt and America?" asks Steve Frank, vice president of education and exhibits of the constitution center.

La Description remains one of the greatest cultural publications in history. "It opened the door to the Middle East, and remains the rock from which all present, scientific work in Egypt was launched," Johnson says. "It is venerated by all as a bridge between the West and East, past and present."

"La Description de l'Egypte" is on display at the Invalides in Paris until September 21. More information can be found at:

"Napoleon" is on display at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia until September 9. More information can be found at:

Technology preserving the pharaohs

A new tomb has reopened after authorities installed a system to reduce moisture and purify the air

Wednesday 12 August 2009 - 05:32 PM
By Andrew Bossone

The ancient Egyptians performed transfiguration spells to breathe life into corpses, while the Opening of the Mouth ceremony allowed the deceased's body to breathe, but today their great tombs deteriorate with each breath of every visitor.

The problem is moisture and humidity—something even the ancients worked to prevent. Egyptian archeologists recently discovered special internal channels cut into the Valley of the Kings to collect water and direct it away from the tombs.

"Three thousand five hundred years ago the Egyptians took good care of their own tombs," said Mustafa Waziry, the manager of the West Bank for the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA).

Now new technology to combat the destructive effects of humidity is allowing the SCA to reopen tombs long sealed for their protection. Most recently the tomb of Horemheb, last pharaoh of the 18th dynasty, reopened after a four-year closure due to dangerous humidity levels.

Tombs in the Valley of the Kings receive an average of 5,000 visitors per day, Waziry said. The moisture and carbon dioxide (CO2) from their breath slowly destroys the walls of tombs and disintegrates the paintings.

"To keep the color for thousands of years, you need dry weather," Waziry said.

Horemheb’s tomb was a particular problem, until new German-made dehumidifiers were installed. Waziry told Al Masry Al Youm that previously, the humidity inside the tomb reached up to about 75 percent, compared to 41 percent outside. Now the tomb is more or less on par with the rest of the valley.

"Horemheb was the most difficult tomb in terms of humidity and CO2," Waziry said. "I remember a couple of years ago when we opened the tomb just for 48 hours, we noticed the humidity was getting really high. So that's why after two days we closed the tomb."

Horemheb's tomb, which was noted for its beautiful painting when first discovered in 1908, is now 14th tomb open to the public in the Valley of the Kings. The SCA plans to install more machines in all the other tombs, eventually in the Valley of the Queens and some in the tombs of the nobles as well.

Waziry said protecting the tombs from the elements is a continuation of the Pharoahs’ original intent.

"That's why the ancient Egyptians and Pharaohs chose this area, the Valley of the Kings, to cut their tombs in the belly of the mountain," he said. "They meant to make their tombs completely shut away from visitors, from the air and CO2, from the humidity."

Tradition meets tourism

By Andrew Bossone
Wednesday 29 July 2009 - 05:13 PM

Few towns located on a coast can resist the influence of tourism. Although Ile de Ré remained largely a secret haven for fishermen and farmers for 1,000 years, this island off the mid-West coast of France has finally succumb to tourists and the money they spend.

A little more than a decade ago, Ile de Ré was still filled predominantly with the families that have inhabited the island for centuries. But former French Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, bought a house there in the 90’s, and as one local described it, the island became a “playground" for the rich during their summer holidays. Now, of its 18,000 inhabitants, only 25% live in Ile de Ré all year round.

“All of the culture on the island has disappeared," claims Eric, who was born there.

Despite the tourism offices and meandering visitors, the island seems to have maintained much of its original look and charm due to strict laws governing construction. There are no big hotels, no buildings more than two stories high and no public advertisements. All buildings must be built with the same specifications they have always had historically: white walls, terra cotta roofs and doors that must be one of three colors: blue, green or grey, representing the fishermen, farmers and other locals, respectively.

The interior of Ile de Ré is a remarkable example of preserved, historical landscapes. With the exception of a couple supermarkets– which look like large barns from the outside– and the newly paved roads and trails, the farms and hills are uniformly carved like a well-trimmed bush.

Some of these rules have both practical and aesthetic purposes. The low buildings and narrow corridors help create a barrier from the harsh winds off the ocean in the winter. During the summer, the zigzagging passageways fill with bright flowers, creating the perfect atmosphere for getting lost on a leisurely stroll.

Even the local animals look like they always have. Oddly enough, the donkeys of Ile de Ré wear pants. The shaggy-haired breed traditionally worked on the island’s marshes, carrying salt, and so the locals gave them pants to protect them from rashes caused by mosquitoes and sodium. Now the donkeys, still in their striped cotton pants, are a kitschy fixture for rides and photos.

Today the three principle towns, La Flotte, St. Martin and Ars have harbors surrounded by upscale restaurants and pubs, filled mostly with seniors and families gazing at the picturesque views of sailboats on the Atlantic Ocean while nibbling on the oysters known for their nutty flavor.

“All the oysters come from the island because it would be a shame to import them," said Eric, who also runs a local gourmet shop.

A great way to occupy time on the island is to ride bicycles. Ile de Ré is filled with elaborate bike trails connecting all the towns. It’s relatively easy to stop off for a gelato or a cold drink, or to go to the beaches to bathe in the sun or the cool Atlantic waters. The trails pass through vineyards and farms, a natural bird reserve, salt marshes dating to the 10th century, a large stone prison, German bunkers from World War II, a small lighthouse with a great view from the top and a church with a black and white spire that was used by sailors as a compass to safely navigate through the shallow waters of the coast.

During the low tide in the afternoon, the coastal waters of the north side of the island recede significantly, leaving small boats on the ground until high tide. Some people sit in the dried-up patches of sand on sunny days, while the crowds flock to the sandy and pebbled beaches on the south. During high tide, the water on the north does not look particularly pleasant to swim in, but the coastline has nice promenades lined with stone walls for leisurely strolls.

With the exception of the largest town, St. Martin, Ile de Ré has no nightlife. The island, however, is across from one of France’s most popular tourist destinations, La Rochelle, which has plenty of concerts, clubs and activities. Buses between the two places stop running around 7:30pm, so if you don’t have a car, you will be stuck wherever you are or pay a minimum of 50 Euros for a taxi to return. To get to Ile de Ré, trains run several times a day from Paris to La Rochelle, but tickets should be booked at least a week in advance, especially if you have a Eurorail pass. Buying a ticket at the Montparnesse station, where the trains depart, can take a few hours. La Rochelle train station has several car rental agencies, which is probably the best idea to get around since public transportation is sparse and taxis are expensive. The island has several camping grounds.

Some of the other activities on Ile de Ré include fishing, sailing, flying kites, water sports, boat cruises to nearby islands, thelasso therapy (the medical use of seawater) or visiting some of the unpretentious art galleries exhibiting pieces by local as well as international painters.

Ile de Ré offers a relaxing and wholesome environment. It’s represents the perfect blend of tradition and modernization for the traveler who seeks little more than a quaint atmosphere with a few amenities.


During high season, hotels range on average from 60 to 120 Euros and up. For a modest hotel, try L’Hippocampe in La Flotte or make an inquiry at Le Bistrot du Marin in Saint Martin, which has small double rooms for 65 Euros. The island also has several campsites for 20 Euros-a-day that are geared for families and provide shared facilities such as pools and special playing areas for children. If you are seeking luxury, Le Clos Saint Martin is a private villa with a spa by Clarins that has rooms ranging from 400 Euros. For the environmentally minded, Les Vignes de la Chapelle adheres to the EU Eco-Label Scheme that requires efforts to save water and energy, reduce waste and take measures to improve the local environment. The hotel has a swimming pool and Jacuzzi heated by solar panels and recycles rain water for its garden. Double rooms cost around 200 Euros during high season.

Most of the restaurants on the island feature menus predominantly filled with seafood and in particular oysters, the local delicacy. Prices vary, but in general, most restaurants fall in the range of 20 to 30 Euros for a meal, which usually includes a plate and either an appetizer or dessert. For a romantic evening, try Bô, which features Mediterranean cuisine starting at 29 Euros a meal. Located in Saint Martin, Bô offers a cozy environment with a garden and terrace. The house specialty is risotto with langoustines, asparagus and Parmesan cheese. For more casual fare, try the Creperie Café de L’Ilot, which has crepes and salads under 10 Euros. The island also has a few supermarkets filled with all the standard French fare to avoid the costs of restaurants.

For more information such as hotels and restaurants, visit the island’s official tourist website at

'Iron Lady' to face maximum punishment

Prosecutors plan to add 30 new charges of check fraud to Hoda Abdel Moneim's existing slate of fraud and bribery charges

Monday 07 September 2009 - 01:00 PM

By Andrew Bossone

Prosecutors will recommend the maximum punishment for Hoda Abdel Moneim, a high profile businesswoman who fled the country more than 20 years ago while under investigation for fraud.

"In any crime in Egyptian law in the penal code there is a minimum and maximum sentence," Adel el-Said, head of technical office of the general prosecutor, told Al-Masry Al-Youm. "We will ask for the maximum."

Abdel Moneim–dubbed the Iron Lady–defrauded investors in her real estate properties to the tune of LE45 million in the 1980's after the government ordered her to stop building and return money she acquired. She also allegedly bribed officials to obtain building licenses and acquire bank loans. She was sentenced in absentia in 1996 to 64 years in prison and in 2000 to 10 years in prison with hard labor for bribery and misuse of public funds.

"When you take a huge amount of money from a bank, the bank has to be sure you are fit to pay it back," said Magdi Youssef, the head of foreign cooperation for the Administrative Control Authority, the financial crimes investigation unit that started looking into Abdel Moneim's accounts as early as 1983.

The prosecutor's office said she now faces an additional 30 counts of check fraud for writing checks to repay investors without enough funds in the bank to support them. The maximum penalty for check fraud is a fine of LE 50,000 and imprisonment, according to a former official from the Ministry of Justice. She will also be retried for her previous convictions in an appeals court.

She will not face hard labor if convicted, according to the prosecutor. That punishment has been abolished for financial crimes. But given the high profile nature of her case–and that she had ties to high government officials–the outcome will be viewed as sending a message about the government's attitude toward corruption in business.

"We don't need another businessman who will evacuate the country; we need real businessmen," said Ahmed el-Naggar, an economist for the Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies.

"It will be a very bad message to society if corruption is not punished. And it's a very bad message to businessmen."

The severity of her punishment, however, could discourage others who have fled the country in the middle of a scandal. It was rumored that Abdel Moneim had struck a deal with the government to return, but the prosecutor's office had no knowledge of such a deal.

Passport control officials caught Abdel Moneim in the Cairo International Airport in the end of August when she was arriving from Greece, where she is believed to have spent the last two decades. The Embassy of Greece in Cairo said that the Greek government played no role in extraditing Abdel Moneim.

It still remains unclear why Abdel Moneim returned with the same audacity of passing through airport security as she did when she left. She may have believed that the statute of limitations, which is 20 years for felonies, had passed. The statute freezes, however, if there is an obstacle to enforcement, such as when the suspect flees the country.

Her lawyer, Raggae Attia, declined to comment on the case when approached by Al-Masry Al-Youm. Abdel Moneim will remain in custody as she awaits an appeals hearing.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Giant Fortress's Remains Found in Egypt

Giant Fortress's Remains Found in Egypt

In late May 2008 archaeologists announced the discovery of new artifacts from the giant fortress Tharu, including the relief seen above.

The fort, located in the Sinai Peninsula near modern-day Gaza, helped protect the eastern borders of ancient Egypt for a thousand years.

Photograph courtesy Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities

Andrew Bossone in Cairo
for National Geographic News
June 2, 2008

Archaeologists have uncovered more remnants from Tharu, the largest known fortified city in ancient Egypt, which sits near the modern-day border town of Rafah.

The fortress, also known as Tjaru or Tharo, covered about 31 acres (13 hectares), Egyptian authorities say. Its discovery near the Suez Canal was announced in July 2007.

Tharu helped guard the empire's eastern front in the Sinai Peninsula and served as a military cornerstone for Egypt's ancient leaders.

"It was built [more than] 3,000 years ago, and it was an important and strategic point," said Mohamed Abdel-Maqsoud, of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities.

The fort's remains were found as part of a project that began in 1986 to explore the "Horus Way," an ancient military road that connected 11 fortresses linking Egypt and Palestine.

The path also served as an entry point for traders coming from Asia.

"This is the only way to enter Egypt by land coming from the east," said Fayza Haikal, a professor of archaeology and Egyptology at the American University in Cairo. "It was the way not only for armies but also commercial [expeditions]."

So far Egyptian authorities have discovered four fortresses along the Horus Way, which essentially formed the same line as Egypt's current eastern border (see map).

Home of Kings

Among the ruins, archaeologists uncovered reliefs depicting several pharaohs—including Thutmose II, who reigned from 1492 to 1479 B.C.; Seti I, who ruled from 1294 to 1279 B.C.; and Ramses II, ruler from 1279 to 1213 B.C.

This indicates that the fort was one of the most important locations in ancient Egypt.

"All of the kings arrived here," Abdel-Maqsoud said. "The inscriptions we found explain this."

The Thutmose relief is thought to be the first such royal monument to be found in Sinai, suggesting that he may have built a fort in the area, according to Egyptian officials. Earlier studies suggest that Seti I built Tharu in the area of Thutmose's original fort. That is a common occurrence in Sinai, where buildings from many eras can be found stacked atop each other, the American University's Haikal said.

(Related: "Egypt's Earliest Farming Village Found" [February 12, 2008].)

Tharu subsequently served as the headquarters for Egypt's vast military empires.

The fort lasted for at least a thousand years after Seti's death, including periods of rule by the Greeks and Romans.

Double Fortification

Tharu stood for a millennium mostly for one reason: its size. Its walls stretched 1,640 feet (500 meters) long and 820 feet (250 meters) wide.

"A fortification like that, with the Nile also—it must have been very difficult to attack Egypt," Abdel-Maqsoud said.

Tharu's walls were lined with towers 66 feet (20 meters) wide and 13 feet (4 meters) tall that overlooked the east bank of a now desiccated tributary of the Nile.

Sketches of Tharu from the north outside wall of the Hypostyle Hall at Karnak indicate the fort may even have included a moat filled with crocodiles.

In addition to its own troops, weapons, and horses, Tharu may have supplied all the troops following the Horus Way with food and water.

Archaeologists discovered rows of large granaries that had their own extra fortifications, just in case enemies breached the exterior defenses.

Tharu's reputation for defense eventually earned it a new name, Hedwa, which means "to walk on the ground while looking in every direction."

"The Egyptians were never defeated here," Abdel-Maqsoud said.

"If you want to pass through this area you must hide yourself," he added. "You must walk on your hands and knees."

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Ancient Egyptian Temple Entrance Found in Nile River

Ancient Egyptian Temple Entrance Found in Nile River
Andrew Bossone in Cairo, Egypt
for National Geographic News
May 27, 2008

Archaeologists have discovered a portico, or covered entryway, of an ancient Egyptian temple beneath the surface of the Nile River.

The entryway once led to the temple of the ram-headed fertility god Khnum, experts say.

A team of Egyptian archaeologist-divers found the portico in Aswan while conducting the first-ever underwater surveys of the Nile, which began earlier this year.

"The Nile has shifted, and this part of the temple began to be a part of [the river]," said Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities.

(Hawass is also a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence. The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)

Today's Nile obscures many objects from ancient times, and archaeologists believe the underwater excavations will reveal other significant artifacts.

Surviving Time

The massive portico is too large to be removed during the current excavation, but archaeologists removed a one-ton stone with inscriptions that could date from the 22nd dynasty (945-712 B.C.) to 26th dynasty (664-525 B.C.).

The stone itself could be much older, however, because like many objects throughout Egyptian history, the original materials of the Temple of Khnum were reused to construct newer buildings.

A stone found in the Nile River bears inscriptions that could shed light on features surrounding the ancient Temple of Khnum. The stone was found near the recently discovered portico of the temple and could date from the 22nd dynasty (945-712 B.C.) to 26th dynasty (664-525 B.C.).

Photograph courtesy Supreme Council of Antiquities

"In a town that was continuously inhabited, of course [older buildings] were always demolished," said Cornelius von Pilgrim, director of the Swiss Institute of Architectural and Archaeological Research on Ancient Egypt.

"While doing this [demolition], all the architectural elements, all the stones, were used in new houses, new buildings."

The temple of Khnum was first erected in the 12th dynasty (1985-1773 B.C.) or 13th dynasty (1773-1650 B.C.) and was later rebuilt and expanded under subsequent regimes, including by the "female pharaoh" Hatshepsut (1473-1458 B.C.)

Two large columns and more stones of the temple will be removed from the river when excavations resume later this year.

The stones found around the portico of the temple, like the one already taken out of the water, often have inscriptions that describe ancient times.

These inscriptions could contain a precise date of the construction of a nearby feature known as the Nilometer, a basin that ancient officials used to measure seasonal floods and thereby determine taxes.

"In the Nilometer one could see how high the flood was," von Pilgrim said. "And depending on the height of the flood, one could predict how good the harvest would be. And based on this they fixed the taxation."

Khnum's temple was located at a religious, political, military, commercial, and mining center of ancient Egypt, von Pilgrim added.

"This was an enormously important building. It had a major importance for the whole country," he said.

Beneath the Surface

Plans are underway to conduct a complete survey of the Nile from Aswan to Luxor starting in September (see Egypt map).

In continued underwater surveys Egyptian archaeologists expect to find more antiquities in the Nile, not only because of waters that rose throughout the centuries, but also because of accidents and natural disasters that caused objects to fall underwater.

Parts of an ancient Christian church were discovered during this excavation across from Khnum beneath the east bank of the Nile, the team reported.

The archaeologists also believe shipping accidents could have been common given the high volume of traffic in Aswan's harbor. Aswan was a bustling port for the sandstone and the red and black granite quarries that supplied the ancient world with building materials.

In other places in the Nile, excavators such as the 19th-century French archaeologist Auguste Mariette, lost important archaeological objects in the water as they were being shipped to Europe from sites up and down the Nile.

"Auguste Mariette moved obelisks from Dar Abu Naga in Luxor," Hawass said.

"There were two obelisks that were drowned 10 meters (32 feet) opposite the Temple of Karnak. And that is [only] what is known."

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Pharaoh Seti I's Tomb Bigger Than Thought

Pharaoh Seti I's Tomb Bigger Than Thought
Andrew Bossone in Cairo, Egypt

National Geographic News

April 17, 2008

Egyptian archaeologists have discovered that the tomb of the powerful pharaoh Seti I—the largest tomb in the Valley of the Kings—is bigger than originally believed.

During a recent excavation, the team found that the crypt is actually 446 feet (136 meters) in length. Giovanni Battista Belzoni, who discovered the tomb in 1817, had noted the tomb at 328 feet (100 meters).

"[This is] the largest tomb and this is longest tunnel that's ever found in any place in the Valley of the Kings," said Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA).

"And we still did not find its end until now," said Hawass, who is also a National Geographic Explorer-In-Residence. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)

This faience ushabti figure was recently found in the tomb of the pharaoh Seti I, who ruled Egypt from 1313 to 1292 B.C.
Tombs typically contained one of the statues, dedicated to serving the pharaoh's needs in the afterlife, for each day of the year.
Often appearing with crossed arms and an inscription explaining their purpose, the statues were also crafted from wood, alabaster, and limestone.
Photograph courtesy Supreme Council of Antiquities

Uncovering new parts of previously discovered tombs is rare, although not unprecedented.

In 1995, for example, U.S. archaeologist Kent Weeks opened the KV5 tomb that housed the sons of Ramses II—the son of Seti I—and found that it too was larger than expected, with multiple passageways and more than a hundred small chambers.

The tomb of Seti I, who ruled Egypt from 1313 to 1292 B.C. at the apex of its artistic accomplishments, is impressive not only for its size but also for the breadth of art on its walls, experts say. But its size could be expanded even farther by future expeditions.

"The ancient Egyptians never built something without a plan, without an aim or a target to do this, so I think this tunnel [in the tomb of Seti I] will lead to something important," said Mansour Boraik, director of Luxor Antiquities.

Washed Away

Archaeologists also found clay vessels, fragments of the tomb's painted wall reliefs, and a quartzite ushabti figure—a funerary statue—during their search for artifacts and efforts to clear debris.

These objects could have washed into the tunnel during floods starting from the 21st dynasty, between 1090 and 945 B.C., according to archaeologist W. Raymond Johnson, director of the Epigraphic Survey of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago.

Pharaohs from the 21st dynasty onward quarried the tombs of their predecessors for their own royal burials, he pointed out.

During this process they rewrapped and reburied the royal dead in hidden cachette tombs, such as that of Amenhotep II, located near the tomb of Seti I.

They also filled in the deep shafts typically cut into the ground of the tomb after the second entry corridor. The shafts—known as wells—were filled in to make removing heavy objects from the tomb easier.

These shafts likely served the ceremonial purpose of establishing a direct connection with the underworld, but also had a practical advantage: flood protection.

"These shafts would catch the rainwater if it did get in the tomb," Johnson said.

"It would catch [rainwater] before it went to the burial chamber and divert it downward. But [many of] these [shafts] got filled in order to drag the sarcophagi out, and they didn't clear them out."

The filled-in shafts left tombs susceptible to flooding from rainwater. Other locations in the Valley of the Kings, such as KV5 and the tomb of Ramses II, show signs of such flooding, Johnson said.

(Related: Surprise Finds at Egypt Temple 'Change Everything'" [December 17, 2007].)

After torrential rains in 1994, the SCA built protective raised edges on the front of all the royal tombs as protection from rainfall.

An All-Egyptian Team

The objects found in the tomb of Seti I would have washed into the tunnel long before the side chamber to the tomb collapsed during excavations nearly 50 years ago by the Abdul Rasul family.

Until the current excavation, the tomb was deemed too dangerous to enter because a small section of the vaulted ceiling of the burial chamber had since collapsed.

The excavation is the first discovery by an all-Egyptian archaeological team in the Valley of Kings. Foreign archaeologists have traditionally led missions in the past two centuries.

The team of five archaeologists and one geologist is also looking for other tombs. They believe they could find the tomb of Ramses VIII (circa 1150 B.C.) near the tomb of Merenptah (1225-1215 B.C.) because ancient graffiti indicates a tomb in that location.

"The Valley of the Kings still has a lot of mysteries and a lot of tombs that need to be excavated," Boraik, of Luxor Antiquities, said. "All of the scholarship has not been exhausted."

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.