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Week 7: 16–22 February

Skipping a beat from the usual tune in a predominantly Islamic country, we decided that Sunday would be a fitting day to visit the Coptic Museum in Cairo (fig. 1). Before heading on into the museum, Marleen managed to mature our minds with a multitude of quickfire facts. For example, the Coptic museum is the only museum in Egypt of its generation that was not founded by a foreigner. In 1907, Marcus Simaika Pasha had the great idea to gather money from the Coptic community in order to build a private museum (which he would be the director of until his death in 1944). The Museum was officially opened in 1910, though it was not until 1930 that it became a state museum and it was a further nine years before objects were moved from other museums in the country to where they now rest. With our preliminary intake of information aside, we headed on in to see what type of objects it had in store for us. After a time browsing the artefacts, we decided to pop next door to where it all goes down in the modern day, the still active, Coptic Hanging Church. Named on account of its architectural arc over the Roman ruins below, the hanging church is a sensory explosion particularly on the eyes and more fervently, the nostrils. The beautifully decorated interior of the church (rather different in layout to the classic catholic cathedrals that grace much of Europe) holds within its midst a visibly thick congregation of burned incense that hits you like a wall upon entrance. After revelling within the walls of the church for a decent dosage of minutes we split into a number of different cabs and headed to our final stop of the day. The NMEC (National Museum of Egyptian Civilization) is a UNESCO funded project already conceived of in the 1980’s. The idea of this museum is to deal not only with a single culture/period of Egyptian history (Pharaonic, Coptic, Islamic etc.), but to assemble objects relating from prehistoric times right through to the modern age, encompassing all cultures within that time. Unfortunately, at the current moment only a single hall of the museum is open to the public, but when finished it will hold the royal mummy collection (currently on display at the Egyptian museum) as well as a whole host of other gems from this beautiful country.

Fig. 1: Exploring the Coptic Museum in Fustat

Skipping over self-study Monday, on Tuesday we gathered at the NVIC at 8am and took a bus down to Saqqara, an Early Dynastic/Old Kingdom royal necropolis and burial site from the First Dynasty right through to the Ptolemies. Our starting point was the step-pyramid of Djoser, the first king of the Third Dynasty who decided that one mastaba was not enough, and so piled five more on top until he had a structure that would later inspire the monuments that would still universally represent Egypt thousands of years after their construction. When we were not distracted by the gorgeous dogs (fig. 2), we managed to walk around his enclosure and see things like the House of the South and the famous heb-sed court. Leaving Djoser, we headed over to the Fifth Dynasty Pyramid of Unas, where ‘The Portuguese Machine’ Joao Marques gave us an insightful overview of the complex, and especially, a rundown of theories surrounding the rare scene depicting starving bedouin that is now kept in the Imhotep museum at Saqqara (fig. 3). Inside the pyramid many of us got our first real life glimpse of the pyramid texts, a corpus of spells found inside pyramids from the end of the Fifth Dynasty onwards which, among other important functions, make them far more interesting to visit than the bigger yet completely undecorated pyramids at Giza.

Fig. 2: The canine population at Saqqara
Fig. 3: Joao's site presentation at the Pyramid of Unas

The next stop on the trip was the New Kingdom necropolis where both Cairo University and Leiden University hold a concession (fig. 4). Here we visited the tombs of Maya (the overseer of the treasury under Tutankhamun) and Horemheb (as a general – which eventually became the tomb of his wife) (fig. 5). One curious scene we saw in the latter tomb depicted a bunch of conquered foreigners, pleading for their lives to a translator who passed the message on to Horemheb, who eventually Chinese whispered it to the king. After lunch we visited the mortuary site of Teti I, the Serapeum, the Bubasteion and the Imhotep Museum before calling it a day and heading back to Cairo.

Fig. 4: Running into Tarek Tawfiq excavating in the New Kingdom necropolis for Cairo University
Fig. 5: Jake Colloff taking notes in the tomb of Horemheb

Passing over a visit to AUC, a day of self-study and a day off (that was really more self-study) we arrive at Saturday, the day of the GARDEN VII conference. GARDEN (Graduate Annual Research Discussion on Egypt and Nubia) is a conference held annually at the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo, dedicated to allowing advanced students to discuss their research and methodologies in a more relaxed environment. Representatives from our team this year were plentiful, with talks being kickstarted by our very own Portuguese pocket-rocket Daniela Martins, speaking about abroad military officials and how their foreign positions are rewarded back in Egypt (fig. 6). With no surprise to anyone, the talk was just as delightful and insightful as all that we have come to expect from her.

Fig. 6: Daniela Martins speaking at GARDEN VII

Coming in next was the first Leiden representative, Dean Adair (aka Big Deano) who educated us on previous approaches to the earliest examples of writing found on the predynastic ceramics and labels of tomb U-j at Abydos. He then developed this by giving his own, well-argued, definition of writing, and a quantitative analysis of the material that has so evasively escaped previous attempts to interpret it.  After a break and some more lectures from our international peers, KU Leuven came into the fray swinging with an appearance from Eleonore Nikolai, speaking on cattle feet deposits as part of ritual slaughter. This topic is a development of the work from Marleen’s initial Barsha study, and I’m personally very interested in what she will find when she expands the study to a wider Egyptian context. Sneaking in before lunch was another representative of the mighty Dutch kingdom, with Charlotte van Rijsbergen lecturing us on the subject of infant burials. Her argument concerning children as being as ‘equally human’ as adults, shown through their instant naming at birth, was a point I had not previously considered. After koshary, it was time for the reserve team to shine, with bench players Lieve Verledens and ‘yours truly’ participating in the poster presentations (fig. 7). At 2:30 we’d made it to the final stretch in which Matthieu ‘Heb-Sed’ Cornelissen detailed plans for his comparative Masters study, between his favourite Egyptian festival and the Hittite Purulli festival. Having spent the previous night listening to him practicing, it was great to see him nail it on the big stage (which he totally did). Rounding off the Cairo semester’s representatives was none other than impact player Martijn ‘the beast’ Jacobs, whose powerpoint on the development of Old and Middle Kingdom tomb shafts at Dayr al-Barsha was a high-quality way to round off the day.  Like the rest of them, Martijn did the group proud and I think Leiden, Leuven and Liverpool can be extremely happy with their performances at the conference this year (fig. 8).            

Jake Colloff

Fig. 7: Lieve Verledens presenting her poster at GARDEN VII
Fig. 8: GARDEN VII group photo
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