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January 9, 2008

The Nilometer and Egyptian Museum—المنيل و المتحف المصري

Filed under: Masr —مصر,Nile—النيل — Tags: , , , , , — admin @ 11:00 pm

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Our trip to the Nilometer and the Egyptian Museum was quite different than the one the previous day to the Egyptian Agricultural Museum. The Egyptian Museum is a stop on pretty much every tourist’s itinerary and is hence tended to by the government with all due care. I had been told that the Egyptian Museum was underwhelming and aged and dirty, but this was not my impression, perhaps because of my experience the previous day. The Egyptian museum lacked the smell of mothballs, the signs were legible, many of the displays were vacuum sealed (a rather more effective form of preservation than mothballs, I’d suspect) and we were blessed with Chahinda Karim as a tour guide.

But, our first stop was actually the Roda Nilometer, which sits at the southern tip of Roda Island (or Manyal Island, or any of several combinations and spellings of the two names). Roda Island sits in the Nile River between Cairo and Giza, with the northern tip housing the Grand Hyatt hotel/mall/cinema (a common combination in the big hotels on the Corniche), and a couple medical academies and al-Manyal Palace lie between it and the Nilometer.

Nilometers were common structures in ancient Egypt, frequently found in temples to the gods. They were used in part to presage the coming of the summer flood. The level of the river tended to rise slowly at first, and then rapidly, so there was some value in knowing when the flood would come in earnest so as to get temporary structures and other things out of harm’s way. Anyone living on the banks of the river and paying any attention could probably have made this observation of the river’s rise, however, so the official nilometers had to have had some other function. This other function was to provide rulers and the priesthood with an exclusive source of knowledge by which to justify their power and make it appear to come by divine right. While dead reckoning and a generation of observation could likely give a reasonable guess as to the river’s behavior in the coming season of inundation, this could not compete with the precise measurements on the graduated scale of the nilometer, coupled with generations and millennia of previous observations: all closely-guarded secrets. In addition, rulers and priests had the advantage of data from upstream. The most important nilometer was, in fact, on Elephantine Island in Aswan, which we are told the Ancient Egyptians believed to be the source of the Nile (I personally don’t think they were that stupid, although the ancient scribes may have thought their readers were). News of the rising waters was communicated with haste (and probably some secrecy) to priests downstream. Taxes on agricultural produce from the coming harvest were calculated based on readings from the nilometer. While it cannot be assumed that the elaboration of a robust mythology—much of which revolved around the behavior of the Nile—was designed to further concentrate state power around exclusive knowledge of the single most important resource of the society, Ancient Egyptian mythology certainly functioned to facilitate this process, and the priesthood would be stupid to not take advantage of it. Many of the dramatic re-enactments and public rituals represented in hieroglyphic texts are clearly designed to place the priesthood in a position to mediate between the gods and the people by right of divine authority and exclusive knowledge.

The Roda Nilometer should be considered in this context. Much of the ancient mythology was long gone and forgotten, and certainly the Pharaohs and priests had gone the way of the Barbary Lion. But when a new nilometer was constructed on Roda Island during the Abbasid Dynasty in 861 CE (AD), the tradition of throwing a “virgin” (Chahinda Karim tells us it was always a doll) into the Nile to encourage a good flood was still very much alive and the Islamic conquerors went along. In fact, the tradition persisted as long as the flood itself did—that is, until the High Dam was built. Otherwise, much of the ancient mythology had died out, leaving the conquerors an opportunity to start largely from scratch. This is likely what motivated the order to construct the new Nilometer on Roda Island. The Nilometer eventually came to be an important center of administrative power, with couriers rushing this way and that with water level readings from various locations and the Nilometer at Roda Island at the center of this communication network. Announcements of and orders for seasonal riparian festivals, tax policies and flood preparations originated here. The largely utilitarian structure was covered with an ornate dome and the marble nilometer itself stabilized at various times by arches or a single wooden beam. The ornamental quality of the Roda Nilometer points to its significance as not only a practical and administrative center of power, but a symbolic one as well, no less so than the Ancient Egyptian temples. That the Roda Nilometer has been maintained and refurbished through the ages, even after the usefulness of the actual scale had been superseded (the Pashas had in fact just drawn some numbers on one of the bulwarks on the island to measure the level), indicates the persistent need for such a symbolic center of power. Even now, with the flood almost completely tamed by the Aswan High Dam, the Roda Nilometer persists with an ornate Ottoman-style dome and a Ptolemaic marble nilometer column stabilized by a beam from the Middle Ages decorated with old Kufic script.

The last two photos above are taken from Roda Island of two adjacent islands. The first is el-Qursaya (القرصاية), the residents of which are in a battle with state authorities against eviction orders, rumored to be motivated by a desire to make way for golf courses, parks or hotels, all of which are reasonable scenarios. The second is a view toward Jacob Island, now largely home to The Pharaonic Village, which I have yet to have had the pleasure of visiting, but which sounds like an amazing(ly tacky) simulacrum of Ancient Egyptian life.

After our tour of the Nilometer, we visited the Egyptian Museum (or Museum of Ancient Egyptian Antiquities). While the museum on the whole was interesting (and, for the lack of caustic insecticides, rather more pleasant than the Agricultural Museum) and we were under the unequalled guidance of Chahinda Karim, I found it slightly difficult to maintain focus and retain what I had learned there. This was partly due to the phenomenon of museum-itis, introduced in my previous post, and partly because of the throngs of people we shared the space with. It was a strange crowd. Chahinda informed us that many of the people there were Egyptians either studying for their exams in the subject of Ancient Egypt or, in fact, taking their tests then and there. The rest of the crowd consisted of people from numerous countries, mostly guided by Egyptian egyptologists speaking the language of the group. The Egyptian State apparently expends a great deal of money educating these egyptologists specifically to train them for jobs in the tourism industry. In crowded contexts like these, the informal agreements and cultural norms among tour guides become more obvious as they shephard their flocks through the museum as if piloting enormous cruise ships through congested river-ways.

Truthfully, I can’t speak much to the content of the museum as I find the entire subject of Ancient Egyptian mythology tiresome. For reasons that should be evident from my statements above, I get the sense that the whole mythology is just so much ancient government propaganda. Generally speaking, the only thing interesting I find about it is the way in which that propaganda is being mobilized in an equally propagandistic way by the current regime. The latter, however, panders to such a low common denominator that one need know no more about the history of Ancient Egypt than the general shape of the Giza pyramids to recognize the uses to which it is being put.

One thing that did stand out about the offerings at hand in the museum was the display of King Tut’s tomb. This boy king had layers upon layers of intricate gold artifacts all around his mummy. It was mind-boggling that so much time and effort and artistry went into supplying this minor king with shiny playthings for the afterlife. It made me wonder what the tombs of some of the “greater” kings would have looked like, had they not been eviscerated by grave-robbers.

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