Egypt January 2011: The Island of Philae

Near the spot where the northern tip of Lake Nasser, a reservoir, intersects with the southern tip of the River Nile is The Island of Philae, famous since the 4th century BCE as the center of the cults of the Egyptian gods, Isis and Osiris. The mid-twentieth century construction of Lake Nasser submerged Philae for at least half of the year, and when it became clear that the Aswan High Dam would submerge the island’s magnificent temples forever, the Egyptian government, in connection with UNESCO, relocated them to to the nearby Aglika Island–still called, nevertheless, Philae. Thus the temples, which would otherwise have been lost to modern tourists, remain accessible to them. Access to Philae is by motorboat, a fleet of them visible in the first photo below. Egypt is full of smokers, and you can see one of these gentlemen in the second photo below.

On the way to Philae
Smoking and thinking

The Egyptian cult of the goddess Isis extended across the Mediterranean during the Ptolemaic period, which lasted from 323 BCE to the death of Cleopatra in 30 BCE, and continued long after that. The sister of Osiris, Isis was an enchantress who briefly revived the dead Osiris and conceived a son by him named Horus, with whom the pharaohs identified themselves in opposition to the evil Seth. Isis was credited with instituting marriage and stood for the established order of things. She became the divine mother not just of Horus but of all the gods and the patron especially of women. The worship of Isis as a nurturing mother rivaled the devotion to the Virgin Mary in the early centuries of Christianity.

The Temple of Isis on the island of Philae
The Temple of Isis closer up
Isis herself, I think
A Nearby Cat photographed by Mary

Egypt January 2011: The Aswan Dam

The hotel shown in my earlier post was close to the Cairo airport, so it was relatively easy for our tour to catch a flight to Aswan, which sits at the base of the Nile River at Egypt’s southernmost tip. The first photo is of me at the Aswan Dam, an enormous piece of construction work undertaken by Egypt’s President in the 1950’s, Gamal Abdel Nasser. The so-called High Dam has succeeded in managing flooding, improving irrigation, providing hydroelectric power and in all these ways contributing to the economy of Egypt, Unfortunately, it also came close to extinguishing the ancient Nubian population around Aswan–farmers, mostly, who suddenly found themselves in an alien technocratic society. The huge man made reservoir resulting from the construction of the High Dam is called Lake Nasser.

In the background to the left a monument to Egyptian-Soviet cooperation in building the dam

The second photo is an instructive map of the African states to the south of Aswan, including, if you look closely, Sudan (a protector of the Nubians), Ethiopia, the Congo, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda.

The third photo shows you the Nasser Memorial (in the distance in photo 1) closer up. The tendency of Middle Eastern countries to play East against West and vice versa (as in Turkey’s current purchase of jets from Russia) was also evident back in the Cold War era when both the United States and Russia were interested in supporting Egypt’s construction of the Aswan Dam and Nasser looked to Russia to fill the necessary monetary gap. This stunning memorial to Soviet-Egyptian cooperation stands as a reminder of that period when, by the way, I was still in high school.

Finally there is this photo of a stern fellow I know nothing whatever about. I call him my “Egyptian buddy.”

A Visit to Egypt January 2011: Just Before the Uprising

The ancient origins of Egypt make it easy to forget the country’s proximity to others in the modern Middle East. You can take a bus to Cairo from Tel Aviv, Israel, or Amman in Jordan. Libya and Tunisia sit on the Mediterranean west of Cairo. My wife Mary and I happened to travel to Egypt from the last week of December in 2010 to early in January 2011. Very shortly after we came home we sat watching on television as Richard Engel sympathetically reported the January 25th Uprising on Tahrir Square in Cairo: its earlier stages, the forcing of the resignation of Hosni Mubarak as president, and at length the sinking of the revolution to a then indeterminate end.

We had watched the pictures of Mubarak smiling triumphantly on street signs as our bus tour of Egypt made its way around Cairo. The planners of our tour chose Tahrir (that is, Liberation) Square in downtown Cairo as the very last place we visited, not of course in anticipation of the Uprising there, but because the Square is the site of the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities where we could review the wonders we had witnessed on our trip–places like the palace of Hatshepsut, a 15th-century BCE female pharaoh, and the Valley of the Kings. (The photo below is of Mary in front of Hatshepsut’s palace.)

Our trip began at a Cairo hotel that welcomed Western tourists, as you will notice below, during the Christian holiday season. From there we flew (for quiet reasons of security) to Aswan, the subject of my next post.

The American Dream and the Ability to Change

The American Dream of achieving success is behind much of our country’s energy and innovation–in medicine for example, and advances in technology. But as I suggested in an earlier post, it is possible so to immerse ourselves in hopes of succeeding that we grow afraid of enjoying the little leisure we have left from work, as if thoughtful enjoyment were a forbidden departure from the relentless pursuit of our goals. So instead of leisurely reflecting on our lives and how satisfying or troubling they have become, we feel compelled to so something more “useful,” like re-checking our email.

But besides encouraging an obsession with work, the American Dream carries the danger of wrongly convincing us that the possibilities of success are limitless: “there’s no end to what you can accomplish,” we say to our children. We fall for the addictive fantasy that our work will open the door to a future of uninterrupted smooth sailing. Tons of work, we imagine, will eventually lead to almost no work and living with no leisure to nothing but leisure. Advertisements for retirement facilities are good at promoting this illusion. They suggest that “peace and quiet and open air,” to borrow a line from West Side Story, “wait for us somewhere”–more specifically, at their place.

Smooth Sailing

If we can ditch self-reflection for the sake of getting our work done, we can also ignore bad news because all that does is upset our unrealistic attachment to the limitless. Never mind reports that an accountant given to precision has raised legal questions about how the debts on so and so’s private jets, multiple homes, Jaguars, yachts and off shore bank accounts can ever be satisfied. Never mind the “bad news” about a billionaire caught paying for sex in a strip mall, the shooting at a local high school, the fatal overdose of an A-student on the night of his college graduation, or the latest suicide of a rock star. To the dreamer these are all just unfortunate exceptions to the prevailing rule of hitting it big.

The great representative of this dreamy American type is Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” So convinced is Willy that his son Biff will make it to the top that he shuts his ears as the young man admits that, in an effort to satisfy his father’s illusions, he has become a chronic thief. I only want “good news,” Willy insists. And yet we understand Willy because often so do we.

Unquestioning belief in the limitless opportunity offered by the American Dream makes it hard to adjust to the changing conditions of the limited lives we actually live. Our talents may be considerable but they are not unbounded, and neither is the uprightness of our behavior. (Willy Loman’s travels as a salesman included a mistress– more of the “bad news” he’d rather not be reminded of.) We may be healthy on the whole but we also have physical weaknesses it is foolish to ignore, as do those who refuse to visit a doctor until their cases get critical. Similarly mythical is the common idea that we must hold onto our homes until death is on our doorstep.

Long-term care, if we are fortunate enough to have it, now consists mostly of a choice between in-home care (aging in place) or moving to what used to be disparagingly called a retirement “home” but now, with the increase in our aging population, is more like a fancy, well equipped (and expensive) retirement palace. The American Dream will be of little help in deciding which of these options makes the most sense. The wisest solutions depend not on some grand preconceptions about what old age should look like, but on the circumstances of each aging individual or couple.

The Imprint of Hamilton College

For many years after I left Hamilton College in Clinton, New York to take up my long career of teaching, scholarship and service at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia I had occasion to be reminded of Hamilton’s imprint on me. Once, just before making our way through Clinton to Buffalo to visit my mother, Mary and I notified Dwight Lindley, my department chair during my time at Hamilton (and probably the one most insistent that I NOT stay on there!), that we would be passing through. Still as generous as when we first arrived at Hamilton years earlier, Dwight threw us a party, and a surprisingly high number of my former English department colleagues showed up to renew our acquaintance. A few years after that I sent Dwight a manuscript of the book about Samuel Taylor Coleridge I had started at Hamilton and at length completed. Protesting truthfully that he was no Coleridge scholar, he nevertheless read the whole of my book, suggesting slight revisions here and there. Soon after that book was accepted for publication, not on the recommendation of Dwight (a scholar of John Stuart Mill) but of a Jesuit scholar of Coleridge, a poet and philosopher born some 34 years earlier than Mill.

Dwight retired some 15 years after I first met him at Hamilton, and he told me then that he and his wife Janie hoped to do some travelling. They did manage a trip to Europe that included Rome and a Mass in Saint Peter’s at the Vatican, and when I asked him on his return how he, an Episcopalian, reacted to that Mass, he replied: “You Roman Catholics know how to put on a show!”

Janie, while in her car after shopping at a Clinton supermarket, experienced a cerebral aneurysm, and after that nothing was the same for her or Dwight. On a spring trip Mary and I took to visit Dwight, he told us of his daily trips on the New York State Thruway in the bitter cold of winter to see to her needs at a Syracuse hospital. He also showed us the bathroom adjustments he had made so Janie could shower without falling when she got home. Then there was the untended garden in the back of the house Janie and Dwight had built for themselves in anticipation of years of retirement that never materialized.

When Janie died, Mary and I made another trip to Clinton and the Episcopalian Church she and Dwight had attended. It was right across Williams Street from the apartment where Mary and I had lived with our two daughters when I taught at Hamilton College some twenty years before. In a conversation I had with Dwight several years after Janie’s death I asked him how he was doing, to which he said: “I’m getting along, but I miss her terribly.” But not one to pass up an opportunity for a joke, he added: “Don’t let anyone talk to you about ‘the golden years’. All the gold goes to the pharmaceutical companies!”

When my younger daughter Margaret came to making her college search, she decided all on her own to attend Hamilton College, graduating four years later with a Phi Beta Kappa key. She now regularly attends the yearly celebration for inductees into Phi Beta Kappa from Saint Joseph’s University, the school I taught at for over 40 years after leaving Hamilton.

Saint Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, at Saint Joseph;s University, the Jesuit University in Philadelphia

My friendship with Dwight Lindley did not end with his death and burial (next to Janie) in the Hamilton College cemetery. Their daughter, Anne, was a nine year old at the time Mary and I lived for over a week with the Lindleys before I started my first term teaching at Hamilton. I remember us seeing Anne ice skate at the Clinton Arena when Dwight and Janie invited us to see her there. When Anne grew up, she married a Spaniard as generous as her father, whom Mary and I met once on a trip we took to Madrid. Anne and Carlos have two daughters whose photos we still see yearly on the Christmas card Anne sends us from Madrid. People important to us die, but our relationships with them don’t.

The Prado, a world famous art gallery in Madrid