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Robin Yassin-Kassab

Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

A Tour of Upper Egypt

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KarnakFor a long time I’ve been fascinated by the first Mesopotamian civilisations, the Sumerians (whose art, I think, has never been surpassed), Akkadians and Babylonians, but I didn’t have much of an interest in pharaonic Egypt before my recent visit. I’d seen the Pyramids five years ago, and they hadn’t done much for me – perhaps because Cairo has grown around them, or perhaps because I’d seen too many pictures.

But Luxor’s Temple of Karnak astounded me. Unlike the vast, inhuman pyramids, it gives you a sense of the scale and complexity of the people who worked and worshipped here three and a half to four thousand years ago. On the walls, ceilings, statues and obelisks there is plenty of realist depiction as well as the static, formulaic art I expected. In many of the buildings the roof, or at least the lower storey’s roof, is still on. Karnak is far older – and because of the truly ancient religion, it feels far older – than the equally intact Greek stuff I’ve seen in Turkey and Syria.

The architecture of Karnak’s Hypostyle hall must be among the most impressive in the world, and the impression of wandering through its forest of columns is entirely unphotographable. It feels fertile, like an organised swamp, and there are stars painted on the ceiling’s stone beams.

For the first time I saw a continuity between ancient Egyptian and Islamic architecture, the same focus on line, space and light.The arranged columns reminded me, for instance, of the Great Mosque in Fes, with its contradictory evocation of crowdedness and endless expanse. Like the great mosque complexes, Egyptian temple compounds functioned as schools, meeting halls, hospitals and libraries as well as places of worship. Karnak has a sacred lake, and its priests performed ritual ablutions before worship, as Muslims do.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

April 14, 2008 at 9:03 am

Posted in Egypt, Travel

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Visiting Syria

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on Mezzeh autostrade

on Mezzeh autostrade

I’ve just given up smoking, again, after a relapse in Syria and Egypt. I mean, what can an ex-smoker do, returning to Sham? In Oman very few people smoke. Abu Dhabi airport, where I spent an hour in transit, is of course smoke-free. But in Damascus airport the passport officials were smoking, and the police, and the baggage handlers, and the passengers. So it continued in the taxi, and in the house, and almost everywhere else. I’m not complaining.

I spent a too-brief ten days in Syria, mainly shivering. It was minus seven one night. Coming out of the hot mineral-water baths (men stepping into the pools clutching their cigarettes) at Jbab and waiting ten minutes for a micro to the city, I froze. My hatless brother-in-law said it’s because I haven’t done military service. He started his in the winter time, standing at attention in his underwear on subzero mountainsides, assaulted by insults and buckets of cold water. “Great days!” he mused. “Happy memories!” So it was cold, but the Syrians grumbled that it hasn’t rained enough this year. There was a big snowfall just after I left, and there’s been another one today.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

January 31, 2008 at 2:58 pm