Home confinement obviously does not sit well with Egyptians; a casual look at Egypt’s mostly crowded streets bears evidence of that. Yet, with the spread of COVID-19, Egyptians are required to “Stay home, stay safe”. The government has been adamantly sending out this call in hope that partial lockdown may not have to progress into full lockdown should the spread of the virus threaten to get out of hand.
To attract more Egyptians into staying at home, the Ministry of Culture on 24 March launched an online initiative titled “Culture at your Hands”. The initiative involves the broadcasting on TV and social media of gem performances of song, music, ballet and theatre works; also of films and documentaries, and all works produced by the Culture Ministry. Two weeks later, Culture Minister Ines Abdel-Dayem announced that the number of visitors who had viewed the online performances hit one million; a pleasant surprise, she said. In view of which, she added, the online platform would go on broadcasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan which started 24 April, and would continue into the future.
Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities also chimed in with online virtual visits to Egyptian monuments and museums. Some of these are 3D visits which the ministry was able to produce in collaboration with international partners of scientific and archaeological institutes, including Harvard Semitic Museum, the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE), the Giza Project, the Egyptian Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, and others. The result has been works of astounding beauty reaching millions of visitors.
In your hands
The al-Thaqafa Bein Edeik (Culture in your hands) initiative was launched by the Ministry of Culture following the suspension of large gathering activities, and closure of cinemas, theatres, galleries, cultural venues, and the Cairo Opera House.
The initiative featured online broadcasts of Cairo Opera House ballet shows, including Swan Lake, Carmen, The Nutcracker and Zorba the Greek. It also showed performances by well-loved players and groups; among them gifted pianist Omar Khairat, rock band Masar Egbari that usually attracts large youth audiences, and the phenomenal Disco Misr duo—DJ mixers of oriental music with funky disco beats. A concert titled Waheshni wel Corona Hayeshni (I Miss You But Corona Is Holding Me Back) was live-streamed to more than 5000 viewers.
Among the videos uploaded was a concert conducted by Ahmed Atef, which featured current Minister of Culture Ines Abdel-Dayem who is a prominent flautist in her own right, and singers Wael Al-Fashni and Nihal Nabil. The concert included a selection of well-known compositions from Egyptian films, compiled and arranged by Atef.
Plays such as the Art House for Theatre’s Qahwa Saada (Black Coffee), and the 2019 musical Alice in Wonderland, as well as numerous films were screened.
With Ramadan in full swing, the Culture Ministry’s agenda has been beefed up to feature activities and competitions for all ages, especially children.
The Supreme Council of Culture has prepared a series of intellectual online events titled “Read with Us” that hosts a selection of creators from Egypt and Arab countries including Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, Sudan, Palestine and Saudi Arabia. The initiative presents a reading of a chapter in a book or novel, a short story, or a poem, in a 10-minute recording made by the writer/ poet in person. There is also the “Short Seminar Initiative” which sends out awareness messages on the psychological, social and scientific levels.
The Egyptian National Library and Archives is posting a collection of historical documents on Egypt during the month of Ramadan, in addition to another file titled Ramadan Periodicals which includes press releases on various topics related to the holy month. It also offers a religious cultural competition for children aged 9 – 12.
Readings of selected books on various topics are also offered by the General Egyptian Book Organisation, GEBO, as well as rare seminars on art, thought, and literature pioneers that ran during various editions of the annual Cairo International Book Fair.
GEBO has also made available online a large number of books free of charge, in addition to numerous publications of international literature translated into Arabic by the National Centre for Translation.
Seeing the sizable online reader turnout, Head of GEBO Haitham al-Hag Ali said that the organisation is seriously considering the activation of the sale of e-books online in the future.
Arts … and children
Under the title “Helwa Beladi” (My Beautiful Country), the National Centre for Theatre, Music and Folklore is screening episodes on folk art pioneers. Not to be outdone, the Egyptian Film Centre is posting rare documentaries of Egypt’s iconic figures and historical events that shaped the modern history of the country, among them the 1973 October War that culminated in Egypt regaining Sinai from the hands of the Israelis who had occupied it for six years, and the signing of a peace treaty with Israel in 1979.
A competition titled Fawazir Cinema Masr (Riddles of Egypt Cinema) has been launched, where scenes from famous films are acted out by young performers of the Talent Studio at the Creativity Centre.
Contestants are required to know the name of the original film, director, author and stars.
The Culture Ministry’s Fine Arts Sector has displayed the contents of all its art museums online, allowing tours within the various museums from home.
As for children, a sizable portion of Egypt’s population, the National Centre for Child Culture (NCCC) is broadcasting a variety of daily activities on its official YouTube channel that aim to develop the cognitive capabilities of children and raise their awareness on diverse topics through cultural and artistic activities, children’s stories, theatrical productions and cartoons, in addition to general knowledge contests. Children have responded enthusiastically. Muhammad Abdel-Hafez Nassef, Head of the Centre, said that, prior to COVID-19, the NCCC received a daily average of 300 children in its gardens. Now, he said, more than 50,000 children access the site daily.
Activities provided online will thus continue in the future, he said, after COVID-19 has abated.
Until the second week in April, the Ministry of Culture received through its YouTube channel 11,508,000 visitors, with the total number of screen time reaching 126,737 hours, and the channel recording 83,000 subscribers.
Viewership came from more than 25 countries around the world, in descending order: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, US, UAE, Canada, Kuwait, Germany, England, France, The Netherlands, Jordan, Australia, Oman, Bahrain, Iraq, Tunisia, Italy, Morocco and others.
The average age groups of viewers came as follows: 18 to 34 years: 59 per cent, 35 to 44 years: 21 per cent, 45 to 64 years: 15 per cent, 13 to 17 years: 2 per cent, over 65 years: 3 per cent. Males recorded higher views at 52.5 per cent, while females recorded 47.5 per cent.
Experience Egypt from Home
The Ministry of Antiquities’ initiative comes under the title: “Experience Egypt from home. Stay home; Stay safe”. Its content is available on the Ministry’s official website and social media platforms: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube, allowing viewers worldwide to explore ancient Egypt civilisation from the safety of their homes.
So far, the tours have covered a variety of sites that included ancient Egyptian, Coptic, and Islamic landmarks. Among them are the tomb of Menna in the Theban necropolis, the tomb of Queen Meresankh III on the Giza pyramids plateau, the Red Monastery in Sohag, the Mosque and Madrassa of Sultan Barquq in Cairo’s al-Muizz Street, the Ben Ezra Synagogue In Old Cairo, the tomb of Kerri in the rock-hewn necropolis of Beni Hasan in Minya, the tomb of Ramses VI in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor, the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square in Cairo, the Coptic Museum in Old Cairo, the Islamic Art Museum in Cairo, the pyramid compound of King Djoser in Saqqara.
Experience Egypt also includes more modern landmarks such as the Zoological Museum at the Giza Zoo and the Orman gardens.
It is easy to give a description of these tours, but none could come even remotely close to the stunning beauty experienced on the 3D visits. Reviewing a visit to the tomb of Queen Meresankh III, The Guardian described it as “true vicarious travel, offering a tangible sense of one of the finest tombs in antiquity plus information and computer reconstructions at a click”.
Viewers can visit the Ministry of Antiquities website or social media venues and explore at leisure. An image of the archaeological site greets the visitor and, with a click of the mouse, a panoramic view of the area unfolds. Little circles contain snippets of information on the history of the site, photographs from the original excavation, explanations of detailed scenes, paintings, or artwork. Larger circles on the floor take the visitor to other locations on the site.
A brief idea about a few of the virtual visits would help give readers a sense of the rich historical variety they represent.
The first of the tours explores the tomb of Menna in the Theban Necropolis, considered to be among the most beautiful tombs of nobles on Luxor’s West Bank. It dates back to the 18th Dynasty (1550 – 1292BC), and is T-shaped. It was never fully completed and was pillaged before its discovery in 1886, but is yet one of the most decorated in the necropolis. Menna was a scribe who called himself ‘the eyes of the King in every place’.
The second tour shows the unique underground tomb of Queen Meresankh III in Giza, which was hewn from bedrock, and discovered in 1927. Today, it preserves beautifully carved and painted scenes of the queen and her family, as well as servants, artisans, and priests. Queen Meresankh III was the granddaughter of the King Khufu, builder of the Great Pyramid, and wife to King Khafre. She bore him four sons and a daughter then unexpectedly died. The tomb was originally meant for her mother Hetepheres II who then donated it to her daughter upon her sudden death. It bears images of the Queen with her mother sailing together on the Nile or doing things together. The canopic jars recovered from the tomb are some of the earliest known or found. The black granite sarcophagus of Queen Meresankh and her skeleton are now at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Monastery, mosque, synagogue
The Red Monastery, which dates back to the fourth century, is located some 20km west of the town of Sohag, 460km south of Cairo. It is built of red brick, hence its name, and was established by St Bishai. It is also known as the monastery of Anba Bijol and Anba Bishai, and is famous for its rich decorations of old, vividly coloured icons which cover some 80 per cent of its walls, columns, pediments, apses, and niches.
The Mosque and Madrassa (School) of Sultan Barquq are to be found at al-Muizz Street in the busy quarter of medieval Cairo.
The compound was constructed in the late 1300s by Sultan al-Zahir Barquq and was composed of a mosque, madrassa, mausoleum, and khanqah. The buildings represent exquisite examples of Islamic art at its height, with high decorated walls and ceilings, lattice wooden windows, inner courtyards, and Islamic ornamentation and calligraphy.
In Old Cairo, near the Coptic Museum and numerous old churches, lies the Ben Ezra Synagogue. According to legend, this is the spot where baby Moses was found by the Egyptian princess. The original synagogue is believed to date back to 882, but was rebuilt and renovated over the centuries; the current building dates to 1890. Today, the Ben Ezra Synagogue serves as a museum rather than a working synagogue.
Daily life … and museums
Beni Hasan Tombs on the Eastern Bank of the Nile in Minya, some 250km south of Cairo, date back to the Middle Kingdom (1938 – 1630BC). They form some 39 rock-cut tombs, many of them famous for paintings of daily life images and important biographical texts. They show scenes of domestic life, farming, fishing, sports, and suchlike.
For details on the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, The Coptic Museum in Old Cairo, and the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo, the reader is advised to visit our links at wataninet:
For their part, Egypt’s major Internet service providers have done their bit by offering the public a variety of attractive and affordable packages that cover diverse needs. It is heartening that much of that Internet potential has gone into accessing knowledge and beauty of fascinating proportions.
29 April 2020