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Volume 34, Number 4July/August 1983

In This Issue

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Mirrors of the Past

"if the present is known from the past...in Egypt the past is known from the present"

Written and photographed by Ann Stewart Anderson

Inside, you can see how they did it in the ancient past: how they tilled the fields and harvested wheat; how they slaughtered animals, baked bread, fished the Delta and made bricks. And outside, in the sun, like mirrors of the past, you can see how they do it now...

Walking barefoot in the warm black earth, a farmer coaxes his oxen to pull at the plow as it etches out even furrows under the bright blue sky, urging them forward with a swift stroke of a whip made from leather strips wrapped around a stick. At the far edge of the field, his wife gossips and chatters with friends as they glide across the stony path, jars of fresh water balanced serenely on their heads.

The scene is not particularly unusual. Even in an age of advanced technology, much of the agricultural production in the world rests on methods ranging from traditional to primitive. But this is happening in Egypt, where, no more than 600 meters away (1,970 feet), in a rectangular room carved into a sandstone ridge, an artist painted exactly the same scene on the walls of his patron Nefer's tomb, about 2500 B.C. His picture records a farming process which has been repeated in exactly the same field near Saqqara for nearly 45 centuries.

Ancient Egyptians believed that the next life would be a mirror of all that is best in the present life. They cherished the bounty and beauty of their Nile Valley and could not envision anything that would be much different. So, when they designed their tombs, they insisted that the artists include scenes of familiar everyday life, and the result is an extraordinarily complete account of life in Egypt thousands of years ago - and an uncannily accurate depiction of some activities in Egypt at the end of this century as well.

In one tomb, for example, Sennejem and his wife, who lived under the 19th Dynasty (1320-1200 B.C.), are shown plowing and planting the field and subsequently harvesting wheat and flax in a way some Egyptian farmers closely follow to this day. In the Delta, for instance, the farmer walks behind his wife as she scatters seed from a hand-woven basket, just as Sennejem - and perhaps even his ancestors - did, an echo, perhaps, of the old belief in the importance of the female's participation in ensuring the fertility of the fields.

Near Nahia, a linen-producing village close to Giza, an inquiry about the dates the flax harvest was made by showing two farmers a tourist's postcard printed with a scene from the tomb of Sennejem. "Come back in one month," they advised. By then the harvesters were busily grasping the waist-high stalks in their arms, gathering them to their chests, and twisting them from the earth - exactly like Sennejem. Elsewhere in Nahia, the flax stalks were being soaked, pounded, combed and spun in a process mirroring scenes in other tombs.

Because the Nile has supplied an unending source of water and for centuries renewed the soil with its annual inundations, farming has always been a primary occupation for the Egyptians. According to Biblical accounts, Joseph's brothers came to Egypt to get grain, and during Roman times Egypt was regarded as the breadbasket for the empire's army. So it is not surprising that the tombs of both the Old Kingdom (c.2686-2160 B.C.)and the New Kingdom (1570-1085 B.C.) are filled with scenes of tilling, harvesting and gathering.

Menna was a land steward of the king during the middle of the 18th Dynasty (1570-1320 B.C.), and the walls of his tomb are adorned with detailed depictions of the wheat harvest. The fields are measured by surveyors and a young boy carries a curious device made from a number of ears of wheat woven together. A balding man with a pot belly leans on his staff while two obviously younger and more agile fellows stack the sheaves with wooden forks.

Last April, outside this tomb in the fields of an Upper Egyptian village, a similar scene was enacted during the harvesting of the wheat. When the first wheat is formed, and while it is still green, Egyptians weave several heads together to make an 'arusa, or "bride of the wheat," from the first fruits of the crop. It is a symbol of bounty and is hung over the doorways of every village home. Later, when the ripe grain is ready, the men go into the fields with short handled sickles, called mingal , which are identical to those used in the New Kingdom.

One difference is that Menna's workers cut the wheat just below the ear, whereas now the stalk is cut at its base. Otherwise it is the same scene, complete with children working beside older men.

There are changes, of course. Where the tombs show the ancient farmers threshing wheat by driving animals over the threshing floor, today's farmers use a post-pharaonic device called the nurag. But there are more similarities than differences. The fellahin, for instance, still rely on the spring winds to assist in winnowing; like their ancient forebears, they toss the threshed wheat into the air, allowing the lightweight chaff to separate from the grain and be carried across the fields on the breeze. Subsequently, the wheat is scooped into a bucketlike container, called the kalah , a measuring device duplicating the one used by Menna in the tomb painting.

Does this remarkable similarity mean that Egypt is backward? That Egypt is totally unaware of tractors and fertilizers and threshing machines? No, say experts, it does not. Egyptians are fully aware of the need to modernize many of their methods of agriculture and manufacturing - and they are actively studying available technology. However, they view new methods judiciously, with a careful eye for what will, and what will not, work best in their particular situation; for although many modern techniques are being adopted, where appropriate, the Egyptian farmer of today often sticks to the methods of antiquity deliberately, because in some cases they are still the most appropriate for Egypt's climate and topography.

Poverty, of course, is also a factor; it often precludes big investments in modem equipment. But it is also true that the ancient wooden plow cuts a shallow furrow whereas sophisticated equipment from technologically advanced nations cuts deep - and the deeper cut can rapidly dry out the topsoil.

There are similarities too in ancient and modern foods. In the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, the supplicant asks: "May there be placed for me offerings of food in my presence like the followers of Horus," and from the early days of the Old Kingdom, tomb artists depicted the slaughter of cattle, the dressing of fish and fowl, baking bread, preparing vegetables, cooking and roasting.

Offering tables, painted in the tombs, piled high with cucumbers, melon, squash, turnips and lentils look astonishingly like the laden carts in Cairo's markets. There is also celery, used as a vegetable, but in antiquity, also woven into funerary necklaces whose pungent odor would revive the deceased in the afterlife. Lettuce was prized both as a salad and as an aphrodisiac. In Cairo's Agricultural Museum raisins from the tomb of Tutankhamen (1361-1352 B.C.) are exhibited near some 3,000-year-old broad beans which resemble those used to make ful , the national dish of modern Egypt.

In ancient Egypt, of course, some food was obtained by hunting; on one wall of Menna's tomb, for example, the deceased is shown standing in a small skiff, hurling a boomerang across the top of a thick marsh, felling wild ducks. Today, the procurement of fowl is more prosaic. Most ducks and geese are raised domestically, next to village houses, or are shipped in quantity to the city from large poultry farms. But the manner of preparing and cooking the fowl remains remarkably unchanged. After the bird has been slaughtered, its feathers are deftly plucked, and it is cooked on a spit. Often the heat from the roasting embers is intensified by the use of a turkey feather fan. Like their ancestors, street vendors in Cairo fan their roasting corn, and chickens served in a popular restaurant are broiled over coals fanned by the chef.

Not all dishes can be prepared this way. Stews and soups must be simmered in enormous pots, a method as common now as in antiquity. In some parts of Egypt small clay structures support the cauldrons - exactly duplicating the practice shown in the tombs.

The similarities are endless. Both the Nile and its hundreds of irrigation canals provide a source for fresh water fish, and in the Delta area, fishermen use elegant triangular nets attached to long poles which are similar to those depicted in the Sixth Dynasty tomb of Princess Idut at Saqqara. Along the Mediterranean coast, teams of men haul nets which have been placed in the harbor from small boats, strapping the nets to their waists - as do the men carved in Mereruka's tomb.

When Herodotus visited Egypt in the Fifth Century B.C. and proclaimed that the country is a "Gift of the Nile," he was referring not only to the highly developed system of irrigation and the important source of fish. The river has also been the primary artery for transportation and communication. Even today many Egyptians travel it by boat, hauling cotton from Middle Egypt, stones from ancient quarries in Aswan and Tura, and livestock, food and human passengers from countless towns and villages along its banks. The Nile boats are broad beamed, with great triangular sails set to maximize the usefulness of the prevailing winds.

Although the ancient Egyptians apparently did not venture too far from the mouth of their great river, they did ply the Nile from the first cataract in Aswan to the Mediterranean. The ability to sail with the current going north, and with the winds going south, for the approximately 500 miles between the sea and Aswan was an important factor in the formation of Egypt's early sense of national identity. Using cedars imported from the mountains of Lebanon, they built ships in many ways identical to those made today in Alexandria, where workers crawl under wooden hulls, hammering and caulking with hemp rope, just as in Ti's Old Kingdom tomb in Saqqara.

In the tomb of Rekhmire, governor of Thebes and vizier during the reigns of Tuthmose III (1504-1450 B.C.) and Amenophis II (1450-1425 B.C.), are scenes from the temple workshops: goldsmiths, leather workers and rope-makers, carpenters and cabinet makers, brick makers and masons. Like the farmers and cooks, ancient artisans established systems for creating wares, some of which continue to be used by modern Egyptians. Today, in the area called Fayyum, for example, a brick maker gathers sticky mud in his hands, pats it into a rectangular wooden mold, then puts it in the sun to dry - exactly as a bricklayer did in Rekhmire's tomb. These unfired bricks were also used, only a decade or so ago, by architect Hassan Fathy in the model village he built in New Qurna, to show that traditional construction methods were still useful. And in spite of official policy, ordinary fellahin still use sun-dried mud bricks for mending and enlarging their own homes.

Carrying water for drinking, washing and construction from its source at the river or a canal has been a problem for Egyptians since prehistoric times - and the solutions then and now are similar. The tombs show women balancing jars on their heads, as is done today, and men both then and now carry pots on their shoulders or suspend them from a yoke.

In the tanneries of Cairo, workers scrape the hair from the skins, soak the hides in vats and stretch them to dry, using essentially the same tools and equipment shown in Rekhmire's tomb. And, at the potteries near the Amr Ibn al-'As Mosque, workers prepare the clay, throw pots on kick wheels and fire them in fodder-fueled clay brick kilns, using ancient methods to create jars which have been common household items from the earliest days to the present.

Rekhmire's men could easily find employment as metal workers in Cairo's Khan el-Khalili, for they would be completely familiar with today's techniques. Like the ancients, modern men work in pairs, pouring the molten metal into molds. And in one workshop an artisan carefully engraves a design on a copper vase similar in shape to one on the wall of Rekhmire's tomb.

A few streets away, craftsmen in the gold market shape delicate bracelets and earrings, tapping the precious metal with tiny hammers, just as their pharaonic ancestors did. They even compute the price by weighing it in a balance scale, similar to that shown on the wall of Mereruka's tomb.

On the sidewalks near the American University in Cairo, men saw, hammer, shape and varnish furniture in a way reminiscent of the exquisite paintings on the wall of the shared tomb of Nebamun and Ipouky; tomb painters of the 18th Dynasty (1570-1320 B.C.) captured men gluing parts of the tomb furniture, sawing a board held in the vertical position and applying paints, by using tools and methods not unfamiliar today.

What is the explanation for the many 5,000-year-old traditions which are still alive in contemporary Egyptian culture?

Some men, as noted, hesitate to change the millennia-old systems by which Egypt came to control and manage the annual inundations of the Nile, redirecting it with large canals and spreading its water to irrigate distant fields by an ingenious system of minute streams.

But does this also explain the seeming conservatism of other craftsmen? The baker? The fisherman? The mason?

In a sense, it does, for they, like the fellahin, have been shaped by the remarkably regular cycles of nature and the unchanging rituals of a placid lifestyle. And though they will, no doubt, eagerly accept the advantages of modernization, they will also be reluctant to change drastically or rapidly. As in all Third World countries, farmers and craftsmen are immensely conservative. Even in sophisticated Cairo, for example, residents still delight in their village roots. Urban dwellers continue to herd their sheep among cars caught in monstrous traffic jams, - just as they did in ultra-modern Beirut for years after modernization began.

Such traditionalism affects the national life style and permits the continuation of a way of life developed during antiquity. But choice is involved too, at least to some extent. As in the United States recently, traditional systems - such as the use of the wood stove - are suddenly being re-evaluated. Thus some methods conceived and developed in pharaonic Egypt are thought to be best for modern Egypt. This is exemplified by the wooden scaffolding which is not nailed or bolted, but is lashed together by strong hemp ropes. It may seem crude, but in a land where hardwood is scarce the planks may be used again and again.

Sometimes Egyptians are unaware that they are emulating their ancestors. One doubts that the woman who follows the line of relatives and friends bearing the deceased man's body to the grave in a village realizes that some of her rituals are exact duplicates of mourning practices in ancient funeral processions. And surely the old man who washes his white garment in a small tub is unaware that he looks just like the bald fellow doing his laundry in the nearby tomb of Ipuy (New Kingdom).

On the other hand, many Egyptians are not only aware of their traditions, but are proud of them. One man, watching construction workers carry earth from the excavation site in woven baskets placed on their shoulders, remarked, "Just like Ramses the Great."

Another man added still another explanation. Egypt has millions upon millions of surplus laborers, so to introduce "labor saving machinery" would be pointless, since in many cases manual labor is cheaper - and in many cases faster.

In Upper Egyptian villages today, two strong young men often face each other with their long walking staffs and engage in tahtib - a stick fight - consciously re-enacting activities shown on the walls of Medinet Habu, the funerary temple of Ramses III (1198-1166 B.C.) and the 18th Dynasty tomb of Khereuf. In today's tahtib the combatants kneel, crouch, swing their poles and try to dodge the touch of the opponents in postures so like those drawn in antiquity that it would be possible to choreograph the entire game simply by studying the ancient reliefs - illustrating, I think, that if the present is known from the past, then surely in Egypt the past is equally known from the present.

Ann Stewart Anderson once taught the history of Egyptian art at the Chicago Art Institute and has written for the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Louisville Courier Journal. She photographed this comparison of ancient and modern life in Egypt under a grant from Wellesley College and with the help of the Egyptian government.

This article appeared on pages 24-32 of the July/August 1983 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1983 images.