On 10 April, the southern province of Sohag celebrates its National Day. Watani offers its readers a glimpse into this little-known but fascinating region and its rich history
It has suffered years of depression. A 1995 FAO survey revealed that more than 93 per cent of the households in the southern province of Sohag had a per capita income below the absolute poverty line. Most of the population is rural; however, with a 2.7 per cent population growth and an increase in the rate of urbanisation from 15 per cent in 1985 to 23 per cent in 1995, local agriculture no longer met the needs of the booming population, and neither did State services in education, healthcare, water sanitation, electricity and communications. At the turn of the 21st century, unemployment rates had risen to more than 25 per cent and Sohag ranked as Egypt’s second poorest governorate.
The governorate of Sohag, some 450km south of Cairo, extends along the Nile Valley with most of its major towns located on the river’s west bank. Formerly known as Girga after its eponymous capital, then the governorate’s largest town and an important economic centre, the governorate was renamed in 1960 when its capital was relocated to the flourishing city of Sohag. By 2014 Sohag’s population had reached 2.4 million.
“Made in Sohag”
Today, prospects for Sohag appear to be taking a turn for the better. Under Governor Ayman Abdel-Moniem, social and economic development plans are being set in place to alleviate poverty and improve the quality of life for residents in the hard-hit area. Dr Abdel-Moniem was appointed governor of Sohag in 2014 and has remained in his post through two subsequent governor reshuffles.
A year ago, an exhibition under the title “Made in Sohag” was held in Sohag. The idea behind the exhibition, the first of its kind in the region, was to display local crafts and cottage industries run by local residents, companies, and NGOs. These included hand woven carpets, embroidered items, furniture, agricultural products, and baked goods. Dr Abdel-Moniem said he had always dreamt of turning Sohag into a ‘little China’, where local industries and crafts would be exported first to other parts of Egypt and then abroad.
“It isn’t an impossible dream,” he said. “Sohag has a unique past experience in this regard with the world renowned textiles produced in the town of Akhmim and sold on foreign markets.” However, Sohag’s textile industry suffered badly in the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprising in January 2011, and is now severely threatened.
At the outset of his appointment as governor, Dr Abdel-Moniem sent a request to the presidency for an economic conference in which cabinet ministers and businessmen would be invited to discuss development and investment opportunities. The Presidency liked the initiative so much that it decided to expand the conference to include all the governorates of Upper Egypt.
An agreement was signed in 2016 between Chinese industrialists and the Academy of Scientific Research to implement projects that include EGP50 million in Chinese aid. Following the signing, Sohag governor announced plans to establish a joint venture Egyptian-Chinese factory for the production of solar energy panels. Dr Abdel-Moneim announced that the factory would be built once the Regional Development Research Centre (RDRC) affiliated with the Scientific Research and Technology Academy in Sohag had completed its research on the improvement and alteration of the solar panels in such a way that would enable them to withstand local weather conditions such as very high temperatures and dust.
Egyptian and Chinese researchers have been working on the project in January 2016 in the hope of finalising the design of the end product by yearend. “Once this has been achieved we can proceed with construction of the factory,” Dr Abdel-Moneim said.
The agreement includes the establishment of an Egyptian-Chinese joint laboratory at the RDRC in Sohag for the purpose of conducting research in renewable energy.
In January 2017, Dr Abdel-Moneim announced that the first steps to build a cement factory east of the town of Dar al-Salam had already been launched. And in February 2017, the first investment services conglomerate was opened in Sohag by then Investment Minister Dalia Khorshid.
Last week saw the signing of a project for sustainable and inclusive local economic development between Sohag Governor Dr Abdel-Moneim, Swiss Ambassador Markus Leitner, and United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) regional representative Ms Giovanna Ceglie. Switzerland is financing the project to the tune of USD1.3 million; UNIDO is the implementing partner. The project aims at boosting productivity and employment opportunities through counselling micro-entrepreneurs and offering agricultural training to farmers.
The month of May should see the start of constructing an industrial complex in the industrial district west of Girga. The complex will be established over 300,000 square metres; it will include 200 small industries, each built on 900 sq.m. and granted the necessary official permits to run small industries.
Development plans for Sohag are not only limited to industrial projects. The governorate is attempting to promote tourism, especially given its huge tourist potential which, if properly used and advertised, could make Sohag a popular destination for both foreigners and Egyptians.
Flowers and folk dance
The marina at the Sohag town of al-Balyana has been completely renovated to offer a docking point for boats travelling between Aswan and Cairo on extended Nile cruises, so passengers can visit the magnificent temple at Abydos. The EGP2.7-million renovation of the 120m-long pier was funded by the Tourism Ministry and executed by the Armed Forces Engineering Authority. Another marina is being built on the east bank of the Nile close to the town of Akhmim to encourage more cruise ships to stop there.
To promote tourist awareness among Sohag’s young, painting and photography contests have been organised for the under-20 age group, as well as competitions in research on Ramesses II.
The efforts have begun to bear fruit. The Cairo Aswan cruise ship which docks at Balyana is warmly welcomed by residents, sometimes with flowers and folklore dance performances in which the tourists eagerly join. Extended cruises had been discontinued since the Arab Spring turmoil in January 2011; ships began docking at Balyana when cruising was resumed late in 2015 and tour operators again included Abydos on their itineraries.
Plans to promote tourism in the area include the establishment of a national museum at Sohag; the reopening of archaeological sites such as Naja Hammad, al-Hawawish, and the Akhmim necropolis; and the call to increase the number of Nile cruises between Cairo and Aswan. Attempts are also being made to encourage religious tourism, especially to Sohag’s many Coptic monasteries and churches such as the White and Red Monasteries and the Monastery of the Martyrs. New archaeological sites are continually excavated and new treasures unearthed. In 1981 a statue was found of the beautiful princess Meritamun, the beloved daughter of Ramesses II. Digs are ongoing at the Hawawish necropolis.
Since predynastic Egypt
Sohag was one of Egypt’s earliest inhabited settlements, a centre of ancient economic and religious activity. Today it is home to many historical sites; Abydos, 11km from the west bank of the Nile, is especially significant.
In ancient times Abydos was the capital of Upper Egypt’s eighth nome or territorial division, and archaeologists suggest that the area between modern-day Girga and ancient Abydos was the location of Thinis, Upper Egypt’s most important city in pre-dynastic Egypt at a time when it was still divided into the Northern and Southern Kingdoms. In about 3100BC a powerful young prince named Narmer unified Egypt into the nation we know today. Narmer, also called Menes, founded the First Dynasty. It is believed he was born in the area of modern-day Girga. Thinis was the capital of unified Egypt during the First and Second dynasties, before it moved north to Memphis.
The necropolis of Abydos is one of the oldest burial sites in Egypt and was where the earliest kings of united Egypt, including Menes, were laid to rest. The ancient Egyptians also believed that the god Osiris was buried there, and Abydos was a major centre of his cult.
Several pharaohs built temples at Abydos, the most renowned of which is the temple of Seti I of the 19th Dynasty (1292 – 1189 BC), known as The Great Temple of Abydos. The temple is the only one in Egypt that still retains a ceiling with original astrological drawings. One of its walls carries the Abydos King List, a long list of the cartouche names of all the pharaohs who ruled Egypt from Narmer to Seti I himself, with the exception of a few names (including Akhenaten and Tutankhamun) that had fallen from grace or were considered illegitimate. The list is invaluable for Egyptology.
The Akhmim martyrs
Abydos, however, was not the only place of great importance in Sohag’s ancient history. The town of Akhmim on the east bank, the capital of the ninth nome of Upper Egypt, was an important centre for the cult of the god Min, the ancient Egyptian god of fertility and harvest. Historians who visited the area before the thirteenth century describe an imposing temple that existed in the town but which unfortunately has not survived.
The nearby necropolis of al-Hawawish dates back to the Fourth Dynasty. Akhmim continued to be a religious centre during the Coptic age and many monasteries were built in the area.
The story of the martyrs of Akhmim is testimony to the faith of Sohag’s residents when the persecution of Christians was at its peak. On the evening of 29 Kiahk 303, Christians gathered in church at Akhmim to celebrate Christmas Eve. The governor, Irianus, stormed the church and asked the congregation to worship the idols as required by the State. The Christians defiantly confessed their faith in Jesus Christ, and so the soldiers slaughtered all those present inside the church until the holy blood of the martyrs flooded the streets of the village. When the Christians in nearby villages heard about the massacre, they courageously rushed to Akhmim in order to receive the crown of martyrdom. The killing continued for three full days and more than 8,140 Christians were martyred. Some of the bodies of these martyrs are preserved at the Martyrs’ Monastery in Akhmim. Other important monasteries in Sohag governorate include the White Monastery (Saint Shenouda the Archimandrite) and the Red Monastery (Saint Pishay).
In ancient times Akhmim was, as now, a renowned centre for weaving and textiles. This importance increased during the Coptic era and many textile fragments displayed in museums worldwide testify to the city’s skill and craftsmanship. Akhmim’s fame in textile making lived on through the Islamic era, but started to decline sharply in the 20th century after the establishment of modern textile factories in the city of Sohag.
Sohag played an important role in the resistance against Napoleon’s French campaign in Egypt. On 10 April 1799, the people of Sohag fought the advancing French occupation troops and forced them to retreat. The local people showed unparalleled courage during the battle and many lost their lives defending their land. This date now marks Sohag’s national day and commemorates this victory.
Over the centuries, and with the conversion of Egyptians to Christianity and then to Islam, the importance of the ancient cities around the Abydos cult centre diminished as the old pagan worshipping practices were abolished in favour of the new religions. New capitals were built further north such as Alexandria (c. 331 BC) and Cairo (969AD) turning Egypt’s political life as well as social and economic development away from the once-flourishing cities of Upper Egypt.
Modern scientific research has proved the existence of the lost city of Thinis buried somewhere under modern construction. Should this ancient Egyptian capital be unearthed, archaeologists promise that the touristic map of the entire region will be redefined and Sohag’s future assured.
Born in Sohag
Despite the challenges, some Egyptians born in Sohag defied the odds and managed to rise to local and international fame. The list of notable Egyptian who come from Sohag is long, to name but a few:
Rifaa al-Tahtawi (1801 – 1873) was a writer, translator and renaissance intellectual. Upon his return from a five-year educational mission to Paris he founded the school of languages in 1835 and wrote many books to bring about reconciliation and understanding between the Islamic and Christian/Western cultures.
Emad Hamdy (1909 – 1984) was a renowned actor in the 1950s and 1960s. He appeared in more than 100 films and is considered among the most important actors in the history of Egyptian cinema.
Gamal al-Ghitani (1945 – 2015) was a journalist, author and novelist who wrote historical and political novels as well as cultural and political critiques. Editor-in-chief of the literary weekly magazine Akhbar al-Adab (Literature News) from its launch in 1993 until 2011, he was awarded many prizes, among which the Egyptian National Prize for Literature (1980), the French Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (1987), the French Award Laure Bataillon for translated literature (2005), one of the highest French awards to be bestowed upon non-French writers. He gained this award for his epic work Kitab al-Tajalliyyat (Book of Illuminations), which appeared in its final Arabic form in Cairo in 1990. In 2009 he was awarded the Sheikh Zayed Book Award worth about USD200,000, one of the world’s richest literary awards.
Onsi Sawiris (b. 1930) is a Coptic businessman and the patriarch of the Sawiris family. After his first business was nationalised in 1961 he moved to Libya, returning to Egypt during the more business-friendly regime of the next Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat. He and his three sons, Naguib, Samih and Nassef, resumed their activities in Egypt with full force over the past three decades and founded the Orascom conglomerate, with companies operating in the fields of construction, telecommunications and tourism, science and technology and industry. The Sawiris family also actively engages in charity and economic and social development through the Sawiris Foundation for Social Development, which also offers the Sawiris Foundation Awards for Egyptian Literature.
The Abdel-Nours are a Coptic landowner family that originated in Girga where the family chateau still stands. Mounir Fakhry Abdel-Nour (b. 1945) is a renowned Egyptian politician whose father, Amin Fakhry Abdel-Nour was among the founders of the liberal al-Wafd Party in the 1930s. The younger Abdel-Nour went on to become a successful industrialist, and followed in his father’s footsteps in politics to become MP in Egypt’s 2000 parliament, and later Secretary-General of the Wafd. From 2011 to 2015 he was cabinet minister in several successive cabinets, handling at various times the ministries of tourism, industry, trade, and investment.
29 March 2017