March 19, 2012

Liberation Square in Cairo - Tahrir

Stepping into Liberation Square at the back of the Hilton Hotel, one finds the Egyptian Museum right in front. A magnificent collection of artifacts are laid out rather haphazardly, and if a specialist devoted his whole life to browsing through the museum, he would never see everything there is to see. Some years ago when a number of the more precious items were being evaluated for insurance purposes, their value was estimated at around five billion Egyptian pounds (U.S. $13 billion).

Liberation Square in Cairo - Tahrir
The museum is cramped, some of the windows are broken, and occasionally birds fly into the exhibition hall. Only the exhibits in the Tutankhamen Collection have been well arranged, and there are plans for building a separate museum which will be entirely devoted to this collection. If it is built, “Old King Tut’s” burial accouterments will be displayed in a museum located beside the Great Pyramids at Giza.

I must have visited the museum more than fifty times but one of the few things that always disappointed me was the fact that the Rosetta Stone displayed there is an imitation. The actual stone is housed in the British Museum in London. The Rosetta Stone was found in 1799 by Napoleon’s invading armies. It contained identical inscriptions in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, demotic characters and ancient Greek. By comparing the three languages, the learned French Egyptologist Jean Francois Cham- pollion in 1822 succeeded in deciphering the inscription.

The deciphered hieroglyphs were the key that opened the gate to understanding ancient Egyptian civilization. Since I could not see the actual stone in Egypt, I tried to see it during a brief visit to London but could not even see it there because the stone was then on loan for an exhibition in Paris! The British Museum was, however, selling exact plaster replicas of the stone for as little as U.S. $100, and those surpassed the poor copy on display in the museum in Cairo.

The Rosetta Stone is not the only treasure that the Egyptians have lost. A native guide at the museum told me that much larger pieces such as famous obelisks and relics from the age of the Pharaohs had also been taken abroad, because, as he said, clenching his fists, “It is regrettable that in the past so many of our leaders were fools.”

Most people think that the Red Sea and the Mediterranean were linked for the first time by the opening of the Suez Canal, but there was a smaller canal already in existence at the time the Suez was opened, and through the ages there have been a number of canals connecting the Red Sea and the Nile. The earliest record of a water link between the two waters dates to the reign of Darius I who lived from B.C. 521 to 486. The Darius Stele exhibited in Gallery Thirty-Five in the east wing of the ground floor of the museum carries an inscription describing the celebrations marking the opening of a canal.

Just a short walk from where the ten roads meet in Liberation Square is the Kasr El Nil Theatre. Here Umm Kalthoum, the famous Egyptian singer, who was loved not only by her own people but by Arabs everywhere, occasionally gave recitals. She died in February, 1975, at the age of seventy-seven, buf the songs she made famous—songs showing her love for the Arabs—are still played daily on the radio all over the Arab world, and her records are still selling. Y Habibi—Oh! My Love—which she was singing right up until her death, was her theme song. I can remember the sultry tones of her voice even now.

Mrs. Kalthoum had a most extraordinary voice. Whereas the ordinary singer can hold a single note for a maximum of forty seconds, she could hold a note for more than a minute and a half. Because the chorus was repeated, she could make one tune last for over two hours. Someone even did a doctoral thesis for the University of Cairo titled “An Analysis of the Voice of Umm Kalthoum.” According to his thesis, her voice vibrated 14,000 times per second, three times that of the average person.

Mrs. Kalthoum’s private villa was situated on the west bank of Zamalek, quite near my own apartment. During my strolls, I often saw her sitting on the verandah of her rose-colored villa overlooking the Nile drinking tea with her family.

On the eastern edge of the 26 of July Street are the Ezbekieh Gardens, which were bound on one side by the Opera House. Built in 1869 to commemorate the opening of the Suez Canal, Verdi composed Aida to mark the construction of the Opera House. He was unable to finish Aida in time for the opening, so it was celebrated instead with a performance of the composer’s Rigoletto. The Opera House had to wait three more years before its commemorative work was finally performed there.

The Opera House and all of its historical records were completely destroyed by fire one morning in 1971. No opera house has been built to take its place.

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