A rebirth of ancient Egypt

02-03-2012 02:56 PM

Talaat Radwan

An invitation to the soft opening of Mervat Abdel-Nasser’s Foundation for Creativity and Cultural Development, a centre for culture and civilisation that she founded on her

An invitation to the soft opening of Mervat Abdel-Nasser’s Foundation for Creativity and Cultural Development, a centre for culture and civilisation that she founded on her own initiative in Minya, Upper Egypt, is an eye-opener to others planning breakthrough projects in modern-day Egypt.
Turning point
Dr Abdel-Nasser studied at the Cairo University Medical School and is a fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in London. She holds a master’s degree in philosophy and a doctorate in psychiatry from London University, where she is a consultant psychiatrist and honorary senior lecturer at King’s College.
Dr Nasser has always been fascinated by the ancient Egyptian civilisation. A turning point in her life was the innocent answer given by the British youngster in London who, when she asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, said: “An Egyptologist.” A few days later a taxi driver told her how much he admired the Egyptian civilisation and said he had a large collection of Egyptology books.
The two events awakened her own passion for Egyptology, one that had absorbed her from early childhood. She decided there and then to pursue her own studies and began to work on the first of several books about Egypt’s cultural and philosophical heritage. After many years of dedication to research and lecturing Dr Nasser, believing that action speaks louder than words, moved back to Egypt and poured all her theoretical knowledge into the New Hermopolis project at Tunal-Gabal, 340kms south of Cairo. 
Egyptian history in a nutshell
Dr Nasser chose this project site because of its huge significance throughout different stages of Egypt’s history. In ancient times Tuna al-Gabal was a centre of the cult of Thoth, the god of wisdom, intellect and writing, and was a destination for the great minds and philosophers of the era from the four corners of the world. The Greeks linked Thoth to their god Hermes, and this gave rise to the ancient name of the town, Hermopolis, where the Egyptian, Greek and Roman cultures overlapped.
Not far from Tuna al-Gabal at Tel al-Amarna are the vestiges of Akhenaten, the city built by Pharaoh Akhenaten in the 14th century BC. One of the most important archaeological sites in the whole of Egypt, this was the first centre of monotheism in the Near East. This brief period of monotheism witnessed an innovative cultural, intellectual and artistic movement that, although short-lived, played a unique role in Egypt’s history and left a lasting legacy.
Near Tuna al-Gabal lie the Beni Hassan tombs with their magnificent murals depicting scenes of everyday life in the Middle Kingdom (2025 – 1786BC), and the city of Akhmim, also a centre of learning and philosophy that flourished until after the Arab conquest in the 7th century.
The area stands on the route taken by the Holy Family when they fled across Egypt, and contains several landmarks where they are said to have stayed. The region is also home to Sheikh Abada district, an important site of Islamic history.
Despite the cultural and archaeological wealth, the lack of organised tourism in the region meant the area was totally neglected. The sites are off the beaten track and reaching them often involves venturing along unpaved paths through a labyrinthine desert landscape. This has deprived the local people of the chance of making a livelihood out of tourism, and at the same time getting in touch with their cultural and historical roots and thus steering away from religious fanaticism and sectarian strife.
The main objective of the New Hermopolis is to develop the area economically and culturally by creating a self-sustainable community through the active promotion of alternative tourism, what Dr Nasser calls “tourism for development”.
The project encompasses an eco-village modelled on a pattern that existed in ancient Egypt, using local materials. To add a touch of whimsy, each of the 16 rooms is topped with a pyramidion.
The complex also includes a conference hall and a library specialising in the heritage of the Tunal-Gabal area. The garden features endangered tree and plant species that existed in ancient Egypt and serve as a miniature nature reserve to help classify and preserve them.
The project uses sound ecological procedures for water and energy preservation. A drilled well extracts the water needed for daily activities, while heat is generated by solar panels and a recycling station processes waste to turn it into fertiliser.
Dream fulfilled
New Hermopolis will not only create employment opportunities for the local community in the hotel business, but will also help revive the traditional crafts of the area. Dr Nasser dreams of restoring the area’s reputation as an intellectual and cultural centre by raising the historical awareness of the local people and encouraging them to understand the real worth of their culture, along with encouraging creativity, fostering local talents and enhancing the process of learning and education of children.
All profits obtained from tourism will be redirected to development of the local community to create a self-sustainable project that will eventually serve as a role model for other communities to follow, and will gradually achieve social advancement in Middle and Upper Egypt. The project is expected to open to visitors next October.
Quitting a teaching job at a prestigious British university; leaving the comfort of her London home to live for three years alone in the harsh conditions of the desert; defying the bureaucracy of Egyptian governmental officials and spending every penny of her savings on a project in the middle of nowhere, Dr Nasser overcame all sorts of challenges for the sake of a dream she firmly believed in.
WATANI International
4 March 2012
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