My first 3 weeks in Egypt
After a long trip to Cairo from Salt Lake City with an airline change in New York then a few hours at the Cairo airport with customs getting all of our equipment through, we arrived at our hotel in the afternoon, checked in then went our separate ways to enjoy a little time on Zamalek, the island on the Nile where we always stay. It’s quieter than downtown Cairo and the project can get a nice hotel for a lower price. Unfortunately, the donor funding this phase of the project doesn’t want to pay for time in Cairo, so we left the next morning for Abydos on a big bus, the size of a Greyhound.
The house staff was happy to see us, and those of us who have been here before were very happy to see them. They’re really wonderful. They cook for us, serve us, make our beds, clean our rooms, and keep the restrooms and showers clean. There are two little buildings with 3 stalls each, one building for toilets and sinks, and one for showers. We live luxuriously for an excavation setting.
Most of the rooms sleep 2. Three of the rooms sleep 3 to 6. I’ve always been in a 2-person room, however this year I have a room to myself. The team consists of director Dr. Matthew Adams; 5 excavators, one of whom is Matt’s assistant, 2 surveyors who record levels of the features and finds in the excavation units, and they are mapping the greater Abydos area; a field photographer; an objects photographer; a photographer’s assistant; a person who titles the photographs, changes them from raw to tif, then uploads them to an NYU storage site; a conservator; 4 artists who draw features in the field; an artist who draws objects in the lab; 3 people who are in charge of the conservation of the funeral enclosure; and 2 collection managers of which I am one. In addition, there is an Egyptian foreman who hires the workers and makes sure they keep working. Each excavator has an Egyptian supervisor who assists the excavator from our team. Then there are 2 terea (a large hoe) men at each unit and several men and boys who sit on top of growing mounds of sand sifting the sand that the bucket boys bring them.
Doha, the other collection manager, is Egyptian and a registrar at the Cairo museum. It’s been so nice having her here this year. She does the daily recording of finds while I do inventories on finds, check on their locations and preservation, and organize our new storage. Doha has also become my translator. I know enough Arabic now to communicate with my Egyptian workers, if it is simple. I have had my own Egyptian crew since I began working here. The supervisor and I have grown to understand each other most of the time. However, Doha saves me when the instructions become more than I can communicate.
My work this season is to sort through storage to find more room for new finds, supervise my crew as they replace aged and damaged baskets in the sherd yard with new ones, and arrange boxes on the shelves in our new storage. As we do this we inventory and check for condition and full documentation.
It has been mostly cold since we arrived; 30s at night and 40s to low 60s in the day. The only heat in the complex is the kitchen stove. So we wear coats or jackets and scarves. In the evening we all come into the common room, close the doors and try to be comfortable with the heat coming out of the kitchen and the heat created by so many people in one room. We had a short heat wave that still sometimes dipped into the 30s at night but now it’s cold again. Fortunately we have nice wool blankets that keep us warm. It will probably not be hot until after February, though it is becoming warmer during the day. On Wednesday there was a lot of sand was in the air. I could feel it in my eyes. The sun looked like a full moon and I couldn’t see the village that is about ½ mile from here, usually in full view.
In our second week we were invited to a birthday party at the house of the Guftis. They are the Egyptian field supervisors and have a house very near ours. They’re from the village of Guft and are mostly defended from the original field workers hired by Flinders Petrie in the late 1800s. The house was decorated beautifully. We had cake and soda pop then a few of the men danced for us. Men and women don’t dance together. Our men were invited to join in the dancing, and our women were invited to dance on the other side of the area if we wanted.
Even more fun was attending a wedding for which the date was made so that we would be here. My crew supervisor’s (Hamdi) son and house staff member’s (Singab) daughter married on Thursday last week. Hamdi and Singab men are, by the way, brothers. It’s still very common in Egypt, apparently for first cousins to marry. Even an Egyptian member of another team that was here when we arrived and took his Ph.D. orals the day after he left is married to his cousin. He said relatives are whom you know and sometimes that is whom you grow to love. Nonetheless, it was an interesting adventure. It is almost a mile walk to their neighborhood in the village. Our house manager was driving his mother, uncle, wife and children to the wedding. His mother badgered him, so I’m told, into turning around and giving me a ride. So his uncle left the car and I had a ride to the wedding not knowing that his uncle was booted out of the car until we passed him on the road.
As soon as we arrived, Hamdi came to the car and led me through a long hallway to a room filled with women and children. The women all wear black galibeas, (I have no idea if that’s spelled correctly) long black formless robes with high necks and long sleeves, and scarves completely covering their hair. Only one woman that I saw covered her face. Everyone wanted to meet me. It was actually very nice to finally meet Hamdi and Singab’s wives and children. I have known them for almost 10 years and met the families for the first time that day. That is except for the groom, Aymad. Aymad and his cousin Bosom worked closely with me for 2 seasons. We became good friends so it was very nice that I could be at his wedding. He seemed very pleased.
A woman sitting across the room from me seemed to compliment my scarf that I was carrying because it was cold. Then she motioned for me to put it over my head, so I did. The group with her applauded and gave me a thumbs up. I sat there for a very long time thinking that we were waiting to go out and see the festivities. I finally asked Mrs. Hamdi if we were going out and she led me out. It turns out that the women stay in the room and don’t attend the festivities, though the bride and groom have seats of honor in that room and them men join the women for a short time. When my other teammates arrived, they were taken into a different room just off the courtyard where the party was held and given sweets and soda pop (there’s no alcohol but lots soda pop). Mrs. Hamdi brought me out into the courtyard just as the bride and groom were processed through the crowd then were taken into the room that I had just left. After the bride and groom were display and photographed in the women’s room, the men and we foreigners went back outside and some men danced. Of course Dr. Matthew (Adams) was invited to dance, as was another of our group. And, of course, the foreign women watched and the local women stayed in the room. It was a very interesting look at the custom at least in this area of Egypt.