Week 4–5 (1–14 February)
Within a blink of an eye, the Cairo Semester went halfway through! We have fast-forwarded to Week 4 with Olaf Kaper, who took us onto the far fringes of the Western desert, all the way to the Dakhla oasis. That is one of the amazing perks of having a virtual semester, as it enables one to reach the most distant locations within Egypt‘s borders (and even beyond)! We followed in the footsteps of the Old Kingdom expedition leaders to Balat, we encountered their massive mastaba tombs, saw traces of the long-distance trade along the Abu Ballas Trail and the modest material remains of the local oasite Sheikh Muftah culture. We also had a chance to familiarize ourselves with the Graeco-Roman temples abundantly scattered around in the region, as well as to test our sharpness of observation in a little practicum with relief fragments that Olaf had set up for us (fig. 1).
The following day we met Verena Lepper, who introduced us to an ambitious project of “Localizing 4000 Years of Cultural History“ in Elephantine island. It was fascinating to hear all about piecing papyri together and unfolding them virtually using radiologic technologies. She completely shattered the stereotypical perception of an “armchair” philologist and proved yet again the significance of grasping the latest innovations and ingeniously applying them in one’s research field.
We also had a chance to join several museum curators for guided virtual tours of ancient Egyptian collections and explore their origins, highlights and contemporary display practices. Ben van den Bercken from the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam took us on a thought-provoking debate on the ethics of displaying human remains in museums. Gabriele Pieke revealed the gems of the Reiss-Engelhorn Museum in Mannheim and its historic photography collection. And Dietrich Raue from the Georg Steindorff Egyptian Museum in Leipzig heart-warmingly showcased how important it is to be on good terms not only with one‘s academic ‚cohort‘, but also with the general public (fig. 2).
The ever-increasing interest and re-interpretation of the Nubian cultures over the last decades, led us all on a quest deep into current-day Sudan during these past two weeks. Dietrich Raue was the first one to take us on a short historical Nubian Tour to Mirgissa and Aniba. It was Julia Budka, however, who enlightened us on her far-reaching interdisciplinary project „Diverse Nile“, which focuses on studying the cultural diversity in the Dal cataract region (fig. 3). A mind-blowing array of methodological possibilities (including archaeometry, micromorphology, and petrography to name just a few) are employed by her team to trace the ‚contact zones‘ and untangle the fluid relations between the Egyptians and the local communities that once existed along the Middle Nile valley.
The next stop was the ‚Pyramids and Progress‘ project that explores the rise of Egyptology in Belgium. It was Vincent Oeters who enthusiastically took us on a historic railway journey through the western intellectual landscape of the 19th century and the role Jean Capart played in this wide-encompassing network of thoughts. As a delightful supplement to this presentation came Nora Shalaby‘s EES talk on the ‘Abydos paper archives (1883-1960s)’ that offers a sneak-peek into the early functioning of the Antiquities Service in Egypt and to observe the Egyptian attitudes (as opposed to the Eurocentric ones) towards their own heritage.
Marleen brought us back to the Giza plateau three more times to go through the development of its Western and Eastern cemeteries. However, it was settlement archaeology that wrapped up our Week 5. It was a refreshing shift from tombs and temples that allowed us to dwell into often not-so-visible and more down-to-earth realities of the ancient Egyptian lives. Miriam Müller showed us around Tell el-Dab‘a (also known as the ‘Venice on the Nile’) and got us all intrigued by the curious foundation rituals (fig. 4). Wouter Claes took us into the Great Walls of Elkab and tested our knowledge on prehistoric pottery, while Johanna Sigl shared with us snippets of daily life on Elephantine island and taught us that even pests can be of great value when it comes to identifying household activities (fig. 5). Finally, Harco Willems took us along on a search for settlements in the Hare Nome, and revealed how the local quarry sites (to our great surprise) helped him to get closer in resolving this challenging pursuit.
Eagerly looking forward to seeing what the final two weeks shall bring on our Grand Egyptian Tour! Although it does feel somewhat upsetting to know that the journey is getting to an inevitably close end…