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You are viewing ancient Egypt

Remembering the honour of seeing an Egypt composed of kindness.


Egypt: a land of many colours.

People were out in the streets selling fruit at 4am on New Year’s Day.

It took me by surprise.

As did how Christian families wore red and gave each other gifts in their celebration of the New Year, rather than waiting a few days for Christmas on the 7th. Despite the Christian population of Egypt being just 10%, Santa was everywhere.

People were selling Santa hats on the streets

It was Christmas eve that was the big deal. With everyone bustling into church for a late night mass.

I spent Christmas day in Cairo’s antiquities museum, wandering quietly amongst the mummies. These were people who had believed themselves gods – kings in life and death. They were people who had worshipped the sun and the river. Their anamorphic gods enjoyed simple every day pleasures like measuring fields and writing (Seshat and Thoth respectively).

And these kings and their devoted subjects wrote love poetry that was simple and sweet.

The Flower Song (Excerpt)
To hear your voice is pomegranate wine to me:
I draw life from hearing it.
Could I see you with every glance,
It would be better for me
Than to eat or to drink.

Translated by M.V. Fox

The ancient gods blended together over time

They amalgamated from ‘Amun’ and ‘Re’ to ‘Amun-Re’ as time passed and needs changed.

It was a religion that both stood still through time – with Cleopatra performing rituals and using imagery of the Pyramid builders who had lived thousands of years before – and changed as the society integrated with its neighbours.

Every society has rules to guide you towards a good life

The book of life (or the book of death as it’s more accurately translated) told you what you shouldn’t do. It was a guide to leading your life in harmony with others. Don’t sleep with someone else’s wife. Don’t kill. Leave your neighbour’s donkey well alone.


In the Catholic church, I was told off for crossing my legs

I cross my legs out of habit. But in today’s Egyptian culture, it’s seen as insubordinate. And being defiant in front of Jesus and God, is not seen as good manners. To not cross my legs, in front of everyone who was higher up in the hierarchy by age or status, was a constant challenge.

I know the rules of my own culture, but in Egypt I was often taken by surprise.

In Cairo, they’d built one Orthodox church on top of another Orthodox church

They were separate but for a shared foyer and simultaneous services. A young woman ushered me into the women’s part of the upper church, she had been given my hand mere moments before by a mutual, male friend. The rest of the family I was with had disappeared into the lower church.

“You have a phone?”


“Be careful nobody steals it.”

They welcomed me in, and put me to use…

And when it came to communion I helped to clear the aisle of the extra chairs that had been brought out. We needed the chairs moved, because it was body against body in the great movement to be blessed. There might have been two churches, but the congregation could have filled four.  Amid it all, I held tight to my phone and tried to take chairs from beneath the bottoms of elderly ladies.

Persuading someone who has difficulty standing, to stand is difficult at the best of times. And I don’t speak Arabic.

All these memories flooded back to me today

Little things, like the way people knelt in the street when the song for prayer started echoing around the city. The generosity of almost everyone I met. The kindness of Christian and Muslim alike – the sharing of tea and chocolate.

It made me, who has no religion, open my eyes. And when individuals commit atrocities, it’s important to remember that fear is not all that lives in these ancient lands.

Articles on yesterday’s terrorist attacks:


Pestles and mortars in ancient Egypt

Goddess Mut, Luxor, Food offering

I have a small pestle and mortar that some kind person bought me for a birthday or Christmas. It’s one of my kitchen implements that I’m particularly attached to. My parents pestle has a wooden handle which doesn’t feel as smooth in my hand. Its end is narrower and handle longer. I like mine better.

Occasionally someone makes fun of my pestle and mortar, implying that it’s an unnecessary indulgence and a waste of space. Like it matters how often I grind spices?

Unlike my pestle and mortar, the ancient Egyptian tools were more vital for daily life. While grain was ground into flour on a saddle quern (rotary querns were first introduced in the late or Ptolemaic period) there was a vital step before milling. The husks of the grain had to be removed, and this was most likely done using a pestle and mortar. A helpful splash of water prevented everything leaping out of the mortar as soon as you started pounding. I might actually try this next time I am grinding spices.

The town of Amarna was where 18th dynasty king Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV or, in greek, Amenophis IV) attempted to build his new capital city of Akhetaten. Whilst Akhenaten had some wacky theological and aesthetic ideas, notably manipulating the human figure and annihilating most of the gods, we can probably assume that the baking techniques of the villagers remained unchanged. Here, in the ancient police barracks, and in house 6 of Main Street in the same ancient Egyptian town, small wooden club-like tools were discovered and have been categorised as pestles by clever Egyptologists. They’re just under 10cm in length. A limestone mortar in the corner of a house on West Street, with a rim built of mud and mud brick, alludes to more of the story. As does another on East Street, and another in the servants quarters of a house identified only by a number.

Other such pestles and mortars have been located at the workmen’s village at Deir el Medina where from the early New Kingdom the tomb artisans lived.

The pestle and mortar may well have also been used to extract oil from seeds, tubers or fruit. As it was crushed into a pulp, oil would be released. Consider the process of crushing olives to make olive oil. However, whilst the ancient Egyptians were keen to build little model granaries, and carve detailed baking scenes in their tombs, they’ve demonstrated little enthusiasm for depicting the oil making process. What oils they actually used remains a mystery.

I took the picture above in Luxor Temple last January. It depicts a king, I don’t know which, making an offering to the Goddess Mut. I’m sure the offering table includes something created with a pestle and mortar.