On an island in the Nile, amid the wind-rustled marshes of his 20-year-old papyrus plantation, Egypt's former ambassador to China, Italy and Yugoslavia has given new life to Egyptian history—again.
It was Dr. Hassan Ragab, now 83, who in the early 1970's rediscovered the techniques of producing smooth, integral sheets of papyrus suitable for writing or drawing on—techniques which had been lost for nearly a millennium (See Aramco World, July-August 1973). Now, over the past two decades, he and nearly 300 employees and co-workers have built a painstaking recreation of daily life in an Egyptian village in about 1500 BC.
Set in the days of the pharaoh Tutankhamen, Ragab's Pharaonic Village—one of the most successful living museums in the Middle East—began much as his search for papyrus began: with a dream, a little money, and lots of hard work on the banks of the Nile.
Ragab says that it was only after a disillusioning visit to the EPCOT Center at Disney World, in Orlando, Florida, that his vision began to form. EPCOT, he said, "was too computerized—there was nothing human about it. I began to think, 'Dare I have real, live people in my village, dressed in the manner of three or four thousand years ago?'"
In 1974, reinvesting the slim profits from his papyrus venture around the shores of the 15-hectare (32-acre) papyrus island, Ragab began the planting of 5000 trees that would in time screen out the view of present-day Cairo, which virtually surrounds the island. He began with the weeping willow, the date palm and the sycamore, all identifiable from tomb paintings, but many of the other trees and plants known to the ancients no longer grew in Egypt.
Likewise, many of the flowers, birds and animals painted on the walls of the tombs at Saqqara and Luxor were either extinct or no longer found in Egypt, including the sacred ibis, the Nile crocodile and the so-called "geese of Meidum," named for the town where a 4000-year-old painting of the birds was uncovered.
Ragab, however, was no stranger to such hurdles. Since his retirement from the Egyptian foreign service three decades ago, his dogged efforts to reintroduce papyrus had required journeys to Ethiopia and Sudan to gather roots of Cyperus papyrus. When Ragab returned to Sudan to collect plants for his living museum, he found the Meidum geese there as well, still very much part of the scene in a small village in the north of the country.
He brought back to Cairo other seeds, cuttings and roots from the mouth of the Atbara River that sweeps down from Ethiopia to join the White Nile just south of Khartoum. Over the next six years, he coaxed the trees and plants to take new root on his island, in the Egyptian soil that had once been native to them.
From the beginning, Ragab was determined that everything in the pharaonic village be genuinely related to daily life in ancient times. This, too, became a quest requiring years of research at museums and universities throughout Egypt as well as in Britain, France and the United States.
"Often, what I wanted to know, even they could not tell me," he said, speaking of conferences and interviews with scores of historians. "How did the king live? What did they have on their bedroom dressers? What did their doors and windows look like? Thousands of details had to be sorted out before a start could be made in building."
But gradually the village took shape: A nobleman's house and garden; a yard for Nile boat-builders; a threshing floor; a market; a field; and a huge, enormously costly temple of white stone. In 1984, after spending ten years and six million dollars, Ragab's Pharaonic Village opened to the public.
Now, visitors enter the village through Ragab's floating Papyrus Museum on the banks of the Nile in Giza. The two-story pavilion is filled with copies of ancient depictions of kings and queens, farmers, dancers and acrobats, along with ancient texts on love, poetry and medicine—all reproduced on papyrus sheets produced by Ragab's rediscovered process. The village proper lies at the end of a narrow canal lined with tall papyrus reeds, along whose banks grow the same water lilies that inspired the sentence from an ancient Egyptian prayer, "With the opening of the bud emerges the pure light of another day." The chugging launch that carries the visitors will be replaced one day, Ragab hopes, with an electrically powered Nile barge, brightly painted and constructed to match the ones carved and painted on the walls of ancient Egypt's tombs and temples.
The canal is a passageway back in time, and along it the visitor is introduced to the thinking of the ancients according to the records they passed down. One by one, replicas of the gods of ancient Egypt appear amid the papyrus reeds. Amon-Ra, "the king of all the gods," wearing a ram's head; Thoth, "counter of the stars," "creator of writing" and god of knowledge; Osiris, murdered by his jealous brother and returned to spiritual life by Isis, his wife, to become "ruler of eternity"; Isis herself, goddess of motherhood, holding her son Horus, the falcon-god who roamed the sky and symbolized the power of good against evil; and Bes, the joyful dwarf-god "who comes from the south," and who may have been derived from the ancients' occasional contact with Pygmies of Central Africa—all provide glimpses into the ancient Egyptian mind.
Suddenly, around a sharp bend in the canal, the white-kilted farmers of pharaonic Egypt appear, laboring in their fields, just as they are painted on the walls at Beni Hassan and Luxor. Some drive oxen and furrow the land with wooden plows. Others broadcast seed by hand, followed by a herd of rams that tramples the seed into the ground in the ancient manner. Farther on, men winnow wheat by tossing it into the air. Baskets of threshed grain are brought to be counted by a scribe before being poured into whitewashed silos of mud brick. This same mud is used throughout the village for all the residences, from Pharaoh's house to farmer's hut, just as was the practice of the time.
Potters, linen-weavers, fishermen casting their nets and perfumers at work beside a garden of flowering jasmine provide glimpses of other aspects of ancient Egypt's daily life and national economy. Beyond them appears the temple which, now as then, is the only stone structure in the village. Dazzling white in sunlight, it is the only unruined temple in the ancient style to be found in Egypt today.
"In our day, no one has ever built an [ancient] Egyptian temple, and we had to learn as we went along," said Ragab. The approach to the temple is lined with ram-headed sphinxes, and the temple walls are embellished with colored reliefs, all much as today's ruins likely appeared thousands of years ago. In its day, the temple was not a place for public worship but rather was the literal house of the ancient god. It was entered only by the priests, who were considered the servants of the god, and by the pharaoh. Here, however, visitors can explore as they wish while Ragab's designated "priest" carries out what rituals are understood to have existed in 1500 BC.
In the nobleman's house next to the temple, the owner appears to confer with a scribe in a courtyard filled with date palms and a lotus pond. Inside, in one room, the lady of the house sits attended by maids and a lute player.
Next door stands a farmer's house, where steps lead up to a roof shaded for the family's comfort—a feature that can still be found in the modern houses of Upper Egypt. On the hot outer wall of a clay oven, disks of unleavened bread cook fragrantly. Behind the garden wall is the market, where villagers buy and sell fruit, vegetables and straw baskets. Throughout the scenes wander the Meidum geese, thriving newcomers to a scene they left centuries ago.
Near the market, a visitor stands a good chance of running into Ragab himself. He insists that the village is not quite finished, that there is another project in the works. The reconstruction of Tutankhamen's tomb, just as it appeared when Howard Carter opened it in 1922, was finished two years ago, he said (See box, opposite).
"But my last and crowning achievement," Ragab said, waving his arm as if it were a magic wand, "will be a pyramid." Not, he added quickly, exactly like the ancient ones, but one with a steel frame, housing a craft center and a theater for ancient song and dance. "We've made replicas of the ancient instruments as shown on the walls of the tombs, but we still have to learn to play them and discover what kind of music they give us. The ancients left us no word about this."
In the decade since the opening of his living museum, Ragab has lovingly researched and added detail after detail to his pharaonic village; now visitors are so transported by what they see and learn that the occasional concrete apartment building topping the papyrus reeds and willow trees looms like an intruder from a scarcely imaginable future upon the real and living past.
Cairo-based photographer and filmmaker John Feeney has contributed frequently toAramco World for more than 20 years.