Some of you might know that I’ve spent the past three months in Egypt, living literally next door to the pyramids of Giza and working about an hour’s drive away at the site of ancient Egypt’s first capital city, Memphis (now partially covered by the modern town of Mit Rahina).
Until just two days ago, we weren’t able to speak in detail to the wider public about the nature of the project owing to permissions, but I’m now so pleased to say that my collaborators, Ancient Egypt Research Associates (AERA), have just published our first press release:
and our generous primary funder, USAID, has used social media several times over the Autumn to hint at our activities:
There’s so much to say about the programme that we are running and the incredible history of the site of Memphis (it was the political and religious centre of pharaonic Egypt for thousands of years, the pyramids are part of its cemetery complex, it is the home of the Apis House (the only site of its kind! …where bulls were mummified as part of an elaborate ritual process), Alexander the Great sacrificed to the Apis bull and was crowned king here; it was long a tourist and pilgrimage destination for everyone from ancient Romans to Greek philosophers to antiquarian travellers, and it was ‘lost’ – no one could quite locate its remains – until just two centuries ago.
I’ll save more of the details for our collaborators to tell you about when we launch our webpages and social media in the future. In the meantime, if you’re keen for views on ancient Memphis, check out this impressive Facebook page run independently by one of AERA’s alumni. Also, make sure to learn more about AERA’s fabulous and long-standing research and teaching efforts in Egypt.
For now, I just want to briefly mention the fieldschools that we’re leading, which form one of the principal outputs of the project (and are a new addition to AERA’s portfolio). Herein, we are training Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities inspectors and related Egyptology and museums professionals in archaeological site management, heritage interpretation, tourism development and community engagement. This training is an applied programme, delivered via a combination of lectures, classroom-based production, and on-the-ground development of Memphis as a tourist destination (including construction of a walking trail/interpretative route around eight of Memphis’ principal sites). Just yesterday, at the Ministry of Antiquities headquarters in the Zamalek district of Cairo, we celebrated the graduation of our first 32 Egyptian trainees and 4 Egyptian supervisors, who work at key heritage and cultural locations around the country. I was excited to see that one student, the excellent Shaimaa Magdi, invited her journalist friend to the event, so you can catch some of the diploma ceremony on YouTube:
and if you read Arabic, you can learn more about it all here.
What’s been the most special aspect of this project for me? Definitely my contact with Shaimaa and the many other Egyptians who’ve studied with me, my small team from York, and AERA. These students are truly the most wonderful human beings that I’ve ever encountered. They have touched me in a way that I couldn’t have fathomed, and I feel like my faith in the fundamental goodness of humanity has been affirmed by my interactions with them. I can’t say enough how much happiness, laughter, kindness and warmth they’ve shared with me. I looked forward to every day of teaching them because they made me feel hopeful for the future, and they made our many challenges seem slim and even manageable because of their individual and collective good spirit and generosity. On a personal level, then, I’ve been changed by them.
But as I teacher I’ve been changed too. This is a direct result of my students’, AERA’s, and York’s shared eagerness to learn together, to revise and edit and rethink our outputs together, to challenge common understandings of heritage management, to work six days a week, at least 9 hours a day (and, on many days, up to 12 or more hours per day!!) on panels and guidebooks and websites and more, and to create something completely new out of a very difficult archaeological site that’s been virtually forgotten. It has been inspiring, and it’s profoundly altered my professional practice.
Moreover, often on a daily basis, I’ve received the most touching feedback from the students – the kind of feedback that makes you cry with joy – that reaches right to your soul – that warms your heart and leaves you feeling empowered and capable of changing the world. I’ve asked permission from one of my students, the exceptional Sara Komy, to quote her words, because I would be lying if I said that the project wasn’t full of challenges, but it is the highs that come from these comments that instantly boost your confidence and motivate you in the face of difficulties:
This message of Sara’s is just one of a series that have touched my heart, given me strength, and further heightened my deep love for Egypt. As you can imagine, even though I only flew home yesterday, I miss my students tremendously. Everyone should be so lucky to meet people who make you feel as if, together, you can genuinely transform the course of history and construct a better world.
I’ll leave you with a couple more images of all of the happy times that we’ve had together (and there have been many!).
I look very forward to returning to work with my Egyptian collaborators again in 2016. I’m off now to catch up on everything I’ve missed here in York!