Category: garry-shaw

Medieval Fustat – Solitude in the City

The remains of a mud-brick house. Image by Henning FranzmeierA cat wanders by, leading to myself, the guard, my two friends, and the cat being the only occupants of the ruined city of Fustat on this particular day; it was originally home to roughly 200,000 people. This is an unexpected experience for Cairo solitude in the city.

The Medieval Capital

Fustat, the medieval capital of Egypt founded in 642 AD by General Amr Ibn el-As, was burnt to the ground (according to Arab tradition) roughly five hundred years later by order of the Vizier Shawar. Frankish crusaders were on their way, and he decided that it was better to have a razed city with a displaced population than a city under occupation. This must rank as one of the most unusual reactions to impending invasion ever concocted (but one that was also used by the Russians during the Napoleonic wars); I can imagine the messages passed down to the general population, We are facing the prospect of invasion and pillaging by the crusaders our defiant response is to burn our city to the ground and run; thatll showem. Everybody out by Monday. Yours Sincerely, the Authorities.

This might be a little unfair on Shawar; the Frankish crusader army, under Amalric I of Jerusalem, had already taken Bilbays, north of Cairo, on 5th November 1168 and horrifically massacred the population. After the massacre, Almaric taunted Shawar by stating that Bilbays was his cheese and Cairo his butter. Thus, Shawar, rightly fearing the assault of a dairy obsessed madman and not wanting a cheese-related metaphor from being applied to himself or Fustat for posterity, abandoned the city in order to save the population and stop it from being used as a base to attack Cairo. Given what happened at Bilbays there isnt any reason to suspect that the local people opposed his plan.

Tradition and Reality

The story of the absolute destruction of Fustat is, however, only a tradition; in reality the fire was likely limited in scope, restricted to churches attacked during anti-Christian riots, and so not directly connected to Amalrics invasion. There is little archaeological evidence that large scale burning occurred, and the city continued to exist after 1168, with rebuilding work recorded as carried out after the fire. The area was even included within the protection of Saladins city wall. Still though, over time, Cairo (founded in 969 AD) slowly overtook and eventually swallowed Fustat, leaving the earlier capital as a source of building material and fertiliser, before it finally became Cairos main rubbish dump the citys remains gradually becoming lost under centuries of garbage.

Fustat Today

In recent years the surrounding area has seen some development, thanks to the draw of the monuments of nearby Coptic Cairo, which is visited by large numbers of tourists each day. The remains of Fustat, however, lie forgotten in plain sight. The main problem is a lack of promotion; I stumbled across the massive archaeological site by accident when visiting the Islamic Pottery Centre at the end of it entrance road. Knowing that ancient Fustat had been in this area, and seeing the large archaeological site in the distance, I came closer, but expected to be hurried away by over protective guards (or asked for baksheesh-tips in order to enter). Instead I was welcomed in and asked to buy an entrance ticket (10 LE).

The Archaeological Remains

At first glance the remains of Fustat are more like an abandoned opencast mine than a medieval capital city an impression created at its edges where the grey sloping ground enters the great depression of the excavated area. Palm trees, weeds, cacti, and tall grass are evenly dispersed across the site, and the remains of small fired clay and mud-brick buildings are scattered around. The bricks are held together with thick mortar made from recycled limestone probably re-used from ancient pharaonic buildings. One house still has its window – three thick slats sitting on top of its mud-brick wall. Columns, lying toppled on their sides, speak of better times; some are made from Aswan red granite, and probably started their lives as elements of pharaonic period temples from the Memphite area, before being adapted for Roman temples and then Christian churches until finally being reworked in medieval times. Intricate columns capitals also lie about on the surface.

An intricate column capital. Image by Henning FranzmeierA large amount of pottery is scattered across the site, as well as being piled high close to the guards house. Some are decorated with images of birds, while green glazed pieces can also be seen. There are even clay pipes among the ruins. The next most striking feature at Fustat and probably the most dangerous if you arent watching where youre going is the sheer number of wells dotted around the site (almost all without any indication to their presence until youre standing above the hole). Apparently, nearly every house in the city had a well or cistern system, and the houses themselves are described as being multiple stories high, like a medieval New York city.

This is difficult to envision today when faced with the ruinous moonscape before you. There are no information signs (theres no one to read them anyway), which, despite leaving you a little confused, does lead to a sense of discovery whenever you come across something different. In one part of the site, after having become accustomed to fallen columns and mud-bricks, I came across a series of red granite mill-stones, all left together, and later an oil-press.

Solitude in the City

Cairo is not a quiet city. Even in my apartment I can still hear the incessant honking of the cars below. Its not a place your Aunt Margaret and Uncle Steve would go for a quiet weekend break to sit by the river and watch the boats go by; not unless they normally have voices in their heads incessantly screaming TAXI, FELUCCA (boat rides), or Welcome in Egypt, and enjoy hordes of people knocking them about on an uneven sidewalk. No. Cairo is famous for being a city with a pulse, where ancient meets modern, and everything is chaotic. This is its charm. Its hard to believe that Fustat was once the same a medieval metropolis of bustling streets, screaming vendors, rich and poor all living in close quarters. Today this space is an escape from all of that, a quiet bubble where it is possible to reflect on how the world has changed, and how it has stayed the same. Still, at the very limits of the site new apartments buildings rise up, a constant reminder that the modern world, with all its noise, isnt far away.

The Potters of Fustat

The Potters of Fustat - Photo by Garry ShawIf youve ever wanted to own a perfect hand-crafted piece of traditional Egyptian pottery made by a man with only one thumb and one eye I can tell you exactly where to go. His name is Salah and he lives in Fustat, in the area better known today as Coptic Cairo.

Getting to Fustat

Its an easy journey, you can take the metro from downtown Cairo there in no time at all, roughly only fifteen minutes. Then, after arriving, you get to confound the local tourist police by walking away from all the wonderful ancient churches, and straight down the dirty roads that surround the tourist precinct. Theyll tell you that you cant go down this street or that street, that youre heading in the wrong direction, but just keep walking; theyre trying to be helpful in their own way, because no one these days goes to visit the potters.

There have been potters living and working in this area since medieval times and, despite being shifted around by the Egyptian government, they can still be found close to the archaeological remains of Fustat the first capital of mediaeval Egypt – continuing their traditional trade below the imposing city wall of Saladin.

Salahs Workshop

I passed behind a modern pottery display area, situated on the edge of a busy main road to tempt drivers into making a purchase as they pass by, and entered the first workshop that I could find. It was made of stone and mud-bricks, with a roof half covered by straw and wood, and a dirt floor littered with straw. Within I met Salah, a warm welcoming man, who smiled and laughed, causing his face to crinkle with the type of wrinkles only etched into those that have lived a hard life. He is unshaven, and a cigarette hangs limply from his mouth. He introduces me to his two sons, Amr who Im told carries out the fine decorative work and his younger son Mohammed, who is normally at school.

The Potters of Fustat - WorkshopAfter the pleasantries Salah springs into action, grabbing a lump of clay with his rough hands from beneath a sheet of plastic, and carrying it over to his roughly constructed table, sunk slightly into the ground and held together by old nails and thin pieces of rope. He throws the clay on to a spinning wheel, cut into the centre of the table. Below, his feet rhythmically control the spinning of the wheel, surrounded by the curling remains of discarded clay that litter the floor. Seconds later a perfect pot sat upon the wheel, formed by the use of a scraper positioned on Salahs first finger. At this moment I realise that he only has one thumb, and one eye to match, making the quality and speed of his work even more impressive. Give me a lump of clay, a wheel, and a few hours, and Ill produce for you something resembling the elephant mans face Salah made five further pots in less than five minutes.

Making Pottery Fustat Style

Suitably impressed I decided to walk around the small workshop to get an idea of the process involved I quickly learnt that it is the preparation that takes the time, not the actual shaping of the clay. Outside the workshop was a large trough; this was for levigation the first part of the process, in which wet clay is left to stand and dry, causing the top layer to become finer, and the coarser particles in the clay to sink. The potters then scoop out the top layer and bring it to another trough within the workshop. Here the clay, which is mixed with higher quality powdered clay from Aswan in the south of Egypt, is brought and mixed with water before being trodden until it becomes more elastic and workable. From here it is piled up beneath a plastic sheet, next to the trough, ensuring that the clay stays evenly wet.

Once made, each pot is left to dry for up to a week before being fired in a large outdoor kiln any moisture left within the pots could cause cracking during the firing process. The kilns are loaded with burning wood at the bottom, and then the vessels are placed in the middle, above the flames; the roof is pierced with a series of holes to allow the smoke to escape. The doorway of the furnace can be made bigger or smaller, in order to control the amount of oxygen within. The kilns have a limited lifespan; the constant firing eventually causes the bricks and clay to crack and the structure to begin to disintegrate. Salahs kiln had been dormant recently, and it clearly needed some repair before it could be used again. Others were certainly in use, however, as the entire area smelled of burning.

Walking around outside, you could be forgiven for thinking you were standing on an archaeological site; everywhere broken pottery sherds emerge from the ground, slowly being covered by straw and dust until their existence is completely hidden. The main activity around me was roof tile production; young children carried them around on their backs, transporting them to open flat areas where they could lay them out on the floor so that they could dry for up to a week in the sun; a series of tiles had been unceremoniously stepped on by a dog, leaving full paw prints embedded in the clay. Up to 3000 tiles can fit within a single kiln, and they sell for only 40 piastres (about seven cents) per tile in the display area along the road.

Moving with the Times

Although working mainly in a traditional way, the potters have been forced to move with the times in order to keep business alive, leaving the time-honoured vessel shapes, such as the large zir water pots or small gulaa, behind. Today, in the display area youll mainly find a variety of moulded ornaments, such as large frogs covering their faces, mushrooms, cups emblazoned with large letters, and other such items that would be at home in your local garden centre. They even sell large ceramic fish – cute, but far from traditional – for about 20 LE ($3.50) each. Im startled by how cheap the items sell for, and also by the honesty of the shopkeepers when telling me the prices; if this were anywhere more touristic the starting price would be five times that, and could only be haggled down to twice the standard price after an hour of talking and thirteen cups of sugary tea. Even then the shopkeeper would still behave as if youd insulted his mother and kidnapped one of his children.

Even the potters overall environment is about to change the small mud-brick workshops are slowly disappearing, replaced by new, modern buildings behind. This is such a massive cultural shift that anthropologists from the Netherlands have been documenting the lives and practices of these people before it is lost forever. The changing work of the potters is also seen in the broken moulds that litter parts of the floor standardised shapes, that are quick and easy to produce.

Before leaving I return to Salahs workshop one last time to find he and his family repairing their kiln with old pottery sherds and clay; things are changing for the potters, but in the meantime life must continue in the way that it always has. It is a hard and dirty life, and soon to vanish forever; whether the traditions will survive modernisation will only become apparent with time. I say my goodbyes and take the road back to the metro station; close to the station, and firmly back in the tourist zone, I pass a rather familiar ceramic fish sitting outside a small shop only 110 LE, the vendor shouts, noticing my attention, good price. Things really can change very quickly.

The King and I(deology)

Sandro Vannini - King Tut Hunting Box (Detail)Although there is copious evidence for the Egyptian kings statues, huge depictions on temple walls, stelae the actual reality of the day-to-day work and personal authority of these individuals is often ignored in favour of discussions of divinity, art and ideology. There is good reason for this. Despite the extensive amount of evidence available to scholars, everything is shrouded in a thick layer of ideological presentation that masks the reality of the situation. This makes it difficult to separate fact from fiction: what are we to envision the king did every day?

Initially, just for fun, it is interesting to see what image is conjured up in your mind when you think of the word Pharaoh. What do you see? Is it a stern-faced man sitting in an alarmingly short kilt with an elaborate crown, being adored and bowed to by subservient followers? Or a warrior king riding on his chariot at the enemy line, firing arrows while steering with the reigns tied around his waist; the army trying to follow behind, but simply unable to keep up? Dont worry if these are your initial thoughts, they are images that have been fostered over a long period of time the image that the Egyptians themselves wanted to present and television has played a big part in recent years to reinforce the ancient propaganda.

Approaching the ancient evidence requires a large degree of scepticism and the need to push aside any preconceived notions regarding who the pharaohs were. We are, after all, delving into an alien world familiar yet not. Our only window into this world is the evidence that lies before us, which presents a certain foggy picture rife with distortion. Distortion occurs in many forms: first there is the simple human need to simplify it is impossible to describe all aspects of everything that ever happens, and so from the beginning the Egyptians are only leaving us a certain fraction of their experience. Next there is conscious distortion, the product of ideological manipulation. The vast majority of textual sources available to us are subject to decorum the rules that regulate how an image could be presented and what a text could say in any particular context. Evidence relating to the king, unsurprisingly, is the most affected by this.

None of the great warrior pharaohs of the 18th Dynasty, such as Amenhotep II, show any trace of wounds or injury. In fact, the great warrior Ahmose, who is described as liberating Egypt from the Hyksos invaders, is described by one scholar as delicately built, and probably unable to be a front-line war leader.

As defender of maat the Egyptian sense of order the king must be presented performing any action that continues this stability: he offers to the gods, he kills all enemies, he leads the army, he widens the borders of Egypt. He does this personally. Things must continue as they always have. This is quite clear in art, and it is the same in texts. In order to strip away these layers of ideology we must approach the texts with issues of genre, theme and context in mind. Context because the location of a text will give away why the information was recorded in the first place, and genre and theme in order to understand what information is being manipulated.

Egyptologists have identified many of the key themes that emerge in textual sources, and it is also possible to see switches in genre within individual texts. The scribes who composed these texts did have accurate records available these are known as daybooks, and record the date, name of the king, and important details required by the administration in a plain straightforward manner. If it was the daybook of the royal palace, it would also record the location of the king, his movements and activities.

Such daybooks formed the core of many royal inscriptions, which could be stored in the palace archive, and their original content can often be deduced from the official publications. Sometimes the same basic administrative record could be used by different scribes to produce different recreations of events.

Amenhotep II of the 18th Dynasty commissioned two stelae to record the events of his military campaigns into the Levant one would be placed at Karnak Temple in the south, and the other probably in a Temple at Memphis in the north (this stele was found re-used in a later tomb in the region). Both were thus religiously motivated. Seemingly the same daybook information was sent to the scribes in the north and south, but they did not work together on their compositions. Both stelae relate the same basic events, except in cases of royal valour when the scribes followed set themes to portray the king in the best possible light (normally at the expense of the army). Whilst crossing the Orontes river, the Memphis stele describes how the king saved his army by chasing down the enemy and killing them all with his arrows; the Karnak edition, however, simply records that he chased down the attackers and killed the enemy commander with his battle-axe, while the rest of the troops fled.

Such descriptions follow exactly the depictions of the king in battle. The narrative switch from plain record of events to ideologically motivated fiction the raging king, majestically attacking the enemy alone – is motivated by the need to show the king as defender of maat, controlling the chaos of the battle, while protecting the people of Egypt here represented by his army.

Sandro Vannini - King Tutankhamun's Hunting Box

What then was the kings true role as warrior on the battlefield? If all evidence relating to the king is inherently biased will he forever remain an ever present yet elusive figure? Regarding military texts, at least, if we strip away the ideological flourishes and simply try to recreate the original daybook entries from which the text was composed we are left with very little information to solve this problem. The evidence becomes neutral as to whether the king personally fought with his troops it wont allow us to say whether he did or not. We have to look elsewhere to tip the balance of probability.

For example, there is only one royal mummy that shows any sign of battlefield injury and there is always the possibility that he was assassinated in the palace. None of the great warrior pharaohs of the 18th Dynasty, such as Amenhotep II, show any trace of wounds or injury. In fact, the great warrior Ahmose, who is described as liberating Egypt from the Hyksos invaders, is described by one scholar as delicately built, and probably unable to be a front-line war leader. There are also references to the kings bodyguard in some textual sources, and also to his protection when travelling in Egypt.

Ignoring the ideological presentation of the king, and viewing this evidence objectively, does this not tip the balance of probability in favour of the kings not personally fighting, but having to be presented so for religious reasons? Firm evidence as to the reality of the situation may forever elude us, but sometimes there are hints at what may lie behind the shroud of ideology.

Desert Whales in Egypt

The Desert at Shaw Wadi El Hitan (The Valley of the Whales)Driving through the desert in search of whales sounds counterproductive, but I had been assured that if I hired a jeep and drove seventy kilometres from Egypts Faiyum Oasis out into the Sahara this is indeed what I would find. If this was a ruse it was a clever one, and UNESCO were in on it.

The cream coloured 4×4 arrived at nine AM. Perfectly on time a good sign. The driver, Mohammed, was a youngish man, perhaps in his early thirties, sporting a thick goatee beard and wearing a red and white chequered headscarf. He smiled and shook my hand. He had a confident air about him; this was reassuring as effectively, out in the desert, my life would be in his hands. The vehicle was less reassuring. Of unknown origin, it looked as if it had been driven from Russia the long way around the planet. On one side it was painted with the words, Land Croser, and on the other, Land Roser; a leaping leopard was emblazoned upon the front doors on both sides, but the image to the right had faded until only the leopards spots remained to form its feline shape. The vehicle was clearly the closest a machine could get to being un-dead, having been resurrected again and again by Egyptian shamans of engineering. A young boy of thirteen or fourteen sat in the front passenger seat; apparently he was coming along for the ride as Mohammeds apprentice. This was again reassuring; it meant that Mohammed had done this sort of thing before, at least enough times to act as a teacher. The sombre shape of the vehicle was now less threatening and became more a symbol of adventure, something a more perfect machine couldnt embody. My mind began to draw pictures of the rickety old jeep, driven by Mohammed, valiantly fighting through the desert dunes to the isolated valley where I would find the remains of ancient whales jutting out picturesquely among the rocks.

The Visitor Centre at Wadi El-Hitan, Valley of the WhalesDespite the reassurances, my initial nervousness of travelling in this part of Egypt was well founded in experience. The first time Id visited the Faiyum my trip had been violently brought to an abrupt standstill by an exploding tyre. I spent the second journey huddled up at the back of my taxi, trying to keep myself warm after the windscreen had been shattered by some unseen high velocity projectile. In order to keep moving the driver had punched a hole in the shattered glass just big enough to see out. Naturally, this odd situation received no attention from the police. I had decided then and there that my travels in the Faiyum were cursed. Heading out into the middle of the desert in an old soviet Land Croser could thus, very reasonably, spell doom. Just as my mind had drawn romantic visions of desert travel and ancient remains, my mind also drew images of a burnt out soviet wreck far from the road, half buried in a dune, the pathetic charred remains of a leopard barely visible on the blackened, baked side of the vehicle, Mohammed wandering in circles dazed and confused in the darkness, while I stand alone wondering how long it would be polite to wait before I could kill and eat Mohammed and his apprentice, cooked over the burning remains of our 4×4, in a desperate bid for survival.

The contrast seen by the ancient Egyptians between the fertile Black Land of the Nile Valley and the chaotic desolation of the Red Land the desert is still very noticeable to anyone travelling from the lush agricultural Eden of the fields into the Western Desert. Driving through the Faiyum I was met by scenes of leaning palm trees, all bowing in the same direction to some unseen master, donkeys carrying heavy loads twice their size, farmers standing in the fields carefully tending their crops in the sun, and bored looking cows and gamoosa-water buffalo standing and staring contemplatively at passersby. Behind them all, Lake Qarun was glimmering in the sunlight, while the distant desert hills beyond glowed a yellowish-red, emanating and sweating heat.

The whales were in Wadi El Hitan, The Valley of the Whales, deep within the Wadi Al Rayan Protected Area just south-west of the Faiyum Oasis. In the 1970s three artificial lakes were created here consisting of agricultural drainage water from the Faiyum, although one of these lakes had since dried up. In recent times the area has become a popular weekend holiday destination for Cairenes wanting to escape the bustle and pollution of the city. In 1989 the Wadi Al Rayan was designated a protected area, not surprising given that it is rich in wildlife and geological attractions, including a small oasis, waterfalls, and a large and varied bird population. My aim, however, was just to see the whales.

Although Wadi El Hitan had become Egypts first natural World Heritage Site in 2005 it is still only accessible by a desert track that leads off from the main asphalt road which connects Wadi Al Rayans major attractions; it is also much further out into the desert than any other tourist site within the protected zone. It thus emanated a sense of isolation, adventure, and danger, beyond the typical tourist experience, and so appealed to the moustachioed hat-wearing Nineteenth Century adventurer within me. Finally I could escape the tourist circuit, the herds that cram the Pyramids of Giza and the temples of Luxor. This would be man-versus-desert in the untamed wilderness that exists beyond visitors centres, informative panels, and loud-mouthed guides.

Bumping along the road that leads out of the fields of the Faiyum and into the Sahara I watched as the desert changed before me. Just in the space between the entrance to the Wadi Al Rayan and the turn off to Wadi El Hitan, twenty-five kilometres away, it had morphed from dark and speckled to white and clean, to golden dunes, and then back again to clean and flat. Here tyre tracks led off-road in all directions, criss-crossing one another as they disappeared into the distance; apparently no-one felt compelled to adhere to the occasional no off-roading and stay on track signs that would whizz by. Mohammed ignored them too, alternately riding on the asphalt road and hopping off to bump along the desert surface. He preferred driving on the desert itself he explained, as I lost a few more brain-cells from high-speed impacts with the ceiling, thrown around like a caged bird shaken by a naughty child.

A small sandstorm began, arising unexpectedly; Mohammed brought the Land Croser to a halt. All around small particles moved together in a violent dance ruled by chaos theory and thermodynamics, ramming the vehicle from all sides. My previous cursed trips to the Faiyum flashed before my eyes, and I began to consider who to eat first. Unperturbed, Mohammed and his young apprentice calmly opened their doors, stepped outside and performed some unseen checks on the engine. They returned soon after and the Land Croser roared to life. (Non)-disaster averted, we turned down the desert track to Wadi El Hitan, leaving the asphalt road behind.

Wadi El Hitan Short Toothed Sawfish FossilesAfter crossing a large expanse of clean white desert, rippled like ocean waves frozen in time, a simple entranceway slowly emerged from the dusty horizon. Red and divided in two by the desert track, it marked the entrance to the site. We continued along the road for a short time, passing large rocky hills on the right, while, unexpectedly, a large visitors centre grew closer and closer in front of me. A visitors centre? The moustachioed hat-wearing Nineteenth Century adventurer within choked and spluttered on his Earl Grey. A visitors centre! This didnt fit my courageous, lost-in-the-desert-perhaps-having-to-eat-my-own-driver fantasies. Instantly, upon arrival, I exited the Land Croser and surveyed my surroundings; the first striking feature was that there was a multitude of buildings, all constructed to aesthetically fit the landscape – domed mud-huts with irregularly shaped windows, made entirely from local natural materials. They were reminiscent of ancient desert dwellings or Luke Skywalkers house on Tatooine. There was a gift shop and snacks available in the picnicking and sheesha area, camel hire, toilets and a police hut. Information panels described the site, and maps were free, all bearing the acronym UNESCO. Damn you UNESCO, I seethed, such comfort and safety shouldnt exist in the dangerous expanse of the desert, they should have more respect for my preconceived ideas. I was in the middle of nowhere, the toilet should be a hole behind a rocky outcrop, my drinks should be the ones I foolishly forgot to buy before leaving the Faiyum, I should be in danger of being eaten by a desert fox at least once. I had travelled from a natural oasis to a man-made one.

Nevertheless, I took a map, used the modern clean bathroom, and bought a coke from the snack shop in which, unexpectedly, Mohammeds pregnant wife worked. So much for the dangers of the desert, my hazardous expedition into the unknown – this was a daily commute for a pregnant woman. Mohammed and his apprentice went off to sit and drink tea and chat with the other men idly passing their day smoking sheesha in the covered picnic zone. It was time to find those whales.

Basilosaures Whale FossilesThe path to the whales was clearly marked out by rows of red rocks. I followed them to the first exhibit which displayed the fossilised lower jaw bone, ribs and vertebrae of an ancient whale known as Basilosaurus Isis, a type of whale that still had functional hind limbs from an earlier phase as a land-based mammal. It was marked by a circle of small red stones, followed by an inner circle of rope held by stumpy posts. The fossils lay on the surface; while being impressive due to their antiquity, they were at the same time unimposing, as if they had been sitting there sunbathing within their little circle and Id disturbed them. Further remains followed: another type of whale called a Dorudon atrox, a short-toothed sawfish, the curious fossilised burrows of wood digesting Teredo, a marine turtle, and the fossilised mangrove roots that once formed a shallow coastline, and in which the various carcases of these animals had once become entangled. Between the fossil displays were small domed huts containing information panels describing every aspect of the areas history, and giving particular details about life here in ancient times. All around, as I walked from exhibit to exhibit, unusual rock formations dotted the landscape; pillars of stone standing in the desert. Over millions of years the weaker stone had been eaten away by the wind, leaving the harder stone standing. The life history of each column was strikingly visible in the stratigraphy, worn by the rock like a striped jersey.

My mental picture of an isolated area, deep in the desert, where the intrepid adventurer could find whale bones tantalisingly emerging from the sand had been composed both from fact and fiction, as most preconceived ideas tend to be. The firm reality was, nevertheless, just as exciting. There is a strong sense of isolation and peace at the site, even with a visitors centre nearby. At Wadi El Hitan it is possible to stand atop a rocky hill, listening to nothing but the wind whipping past your ears as you stare off at distant dunes and wind-formed shapes. A moment later, in a domed mud-hut, you can learn about the history of the valley, without ever feeling that the modern information boards and constructions are intrusive. The Nineteenth Century traveller within sat back in his chair and happily smoked on his pipe; apparently not all adventures can be tamed by a visitors centre and picnic zone, some adventures can be enhanced by them.