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Week 1: 8–14 January

This week we kicked off the 2023 Cairo semester with a group of eight students this year. We all arrived a few days before the official start of the semester, and the day after our arrival we went apartment hunting. After having toured more than ten apartments, we found two great ones at only about a 15 minutes’ walk to the NVIC. On clear days we can see the pyramids in the distance—not a bad place to stay for the coming months.

On Sunday the programme started with an introduction by Marleen De Meyer about our schedule for the next two months, assignments, the city of Cairo, and a brief history of modern Egypt. Then we took a drive through the city to become familiar with Cairo’s different neighbourhoods and a towering view over Cairo on Moqattam. During our first few days we had stayed mostly in Zamalek, so it was great to see more of the city!

Fig. 1: First group photo on Moqattam

On Sunday night, we all headed towards the Polish Centre of Mediterranean Archaeology in Heliopolis for a lecture by Jacek Kabacínski about his work at Gebel Ramlah. Upon return to Zamalek, we were greeted by a quite unique experience in Egypt: pouring rain! It was clear that Cairo was not built for these torrents, as the city was immediately full of flooded streets, waterfalls and leakages. Our apartments were unfortunately not immune to this, and one of them had gotten so wet we were not able to use the electricity.

Fig. 2: Laura came prepared for rain

On Monday we started the day at the NVIC, where we had the first of our five Egyptian Arabic crash course lessons. Our teacher Khawla goes through the material at breakneck speed, but after our first three lessons we are now already able to introduce ourselves, talk about our families, give directions, count, and write a few words in Arabic. All incredibly useful, and we have been able to put our new knowledge into practice already in taxis.

Besides our Arabic lessons, this week we spent a lot of time visiting other foreign institutes in Cairo. After our brief visit to the Polish Institute on Sunday, we started off at the Swiss Institute on Monday, where director Cornelius von Pilgrim showed us around the institute’s villas (that once belonged to Ludwig Borchardt) and told us all about the Institute’s history and efforts. Afterwards, we headed to the Deutsche Archäologische Institut in Kairo (DAIK), where librarian Isolde Lehnert enlightened us about the history of the institute (closely linked to the Swiss) and showed us around the library. We also got a personal library card, so we’re able to return to use the DAIK’s excellent resources. On Monday we ended the day with a lecture by Marleen about the NVIC’s own history and projects. 

On Tuesday we continued our institute visits with the Institut français d'archéologie orientale. We were welcomed in the IFAO palace by Amr Bahgat and were taken around the building and shown the institute’s impressive library by librarian Agnès Macquin. The library’s gorgeous first edition of the Déscription de l’Égypte was the highlight, and we all spent a few minutes silently gawking at. But this was only the start at the IFAO. The institute was so much bigger than most of us had expected, and we were also able to visit the institute’s laboratories (among which is the only C14 dating lab in Egypt), and their publishing house, where we saw the workings of the institute’s ancient printing presses, as well as the printing process nowadays. With its 95.000 titles, I’m sure we will return to the IFAO library to do some research! The last institute we visited was the American Research Centre in Egypt (ARCE) on Thursday. After a tour and explanation of the library by Yasmin el-Shazly and Amira Gamal, we were told all about ARCE’s ongoing archival projects by Fatma Fahmy and Ahmad Ibrahim, who focus mostly on digitisation of ARCE’s conservation archives. 

Fig. 3: At the IFAO library

On Wednesday we took a taxi to the Egyptian Museum at Tahrir Square in the morning, where we were first welcomed by Marwa Abd el-Razek in the Registrar’s Office, where she told us all about the database project. The database is only accessible on the two computers in the museum’s basement, so Marwa explained to us how to access and use the database there. Afterwards we headed into the museum with our first assignment: a treasure hunt for ten objects displayed in the museum. Sounds easy enough, but it turned out to be quite the challenge, as many of the objects on display have no visible labeling or numbering at all (and if they have a number, it might be one of four different types). To finish the assignment, we will need to use the museum’s database, as well as the research libraries of the institutes we visited this week. A great introduction to academic life in Cairo!

Fig. 4: Our cohort almost fits into the large Middle Kingdom wooden coffin of governor Amenemhat from Deir el-Bersha (at the Egyptian Museum)

After a free day on Friday, which we used to work on our assignments and catch up on some housework (and much needed rest) we went on our first day trip. And not just any, but to Giza! For many of us it was the first time seeing the pyramids, which was definitely a cool experience. However, we learned that Giza is so much more than just the pyramids. We went into the Eastern Cemetery where we walked past the countless Old Kingdom mastabas and tomb shafts and were able to visit the gorgeously decorated tombs of Meresankh III and others. In the afternoon we met Harvard PhD student Julia Viani Puglisi, who showed us around the Central Field Cemetery and told us about her work and the difficulties of building a tomb in a stone quarry. It was a very exciting day.

Fig. 5. In the tomb of Meresankh III at Giza
Fig. 6. In the Eastern Cemetery at Giza

All in all an intense and exhausting, but super interesting and exciting first week. By now we have all developed what we refer to as the ‘Cairo cough’, resulting from the soot, dust, exhaust fumes and cigarette smoke we have been breathing in for the past week. For breakfast, we have gotten into the habit to eat heated canned foul from the supermarket with flatbread we get from the cart down the street, as well as a cup of Egyptian tea and a glass of mango juice. Now, when we dodge the throngs of honking cars on 26th of July street on our way to the NVIC in the mornings, we are really starting to feel a part of Cairo life!

Kiki Freriks

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