Archive for the ‘ Ancient Lands ’ Category

Yinchuan:  A trip of serendipitous discovery



Keyvan Tabari

Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2016. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.


abstract: It was the news in the American media about the exciting wineries of China that attracted my small group of fellow-travelers to Yinchuan, a place we had never heard of before. We explored the surprising wineries. Some of us ended up having more fun, however, drinking beer in the equally unexpected Oktoberfest, celebrated in mid-September in our German-run hotel. The Brewmeister himself served us, joined by the chef at the restaurant.  Even the chief winemaker in town came to mingle, and we got a rare glimpse of the life-style of the rich and famous Chinese who were the other guests at the hotel.

All this paled compared to what I found in yet another fortunate happenstance:  the unfurling of China’s grand strategy for the world, which is President Xi Jinping’s newly announced initiative called “The Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st century Maritime Silk Road.” Its early manifestation in the form of the “China-Arab States Expo” in Yinchuan coincided with our arrival. The “Maritime” part of the initiative will be the subject of anther report. The present paper is about navigating the meaning of all that the other part, “Silk Road Economic Belt,” evoked.

In that pursuit, I also learned about China’s economic plans for developing its “wild west” and dealing with its Muslim minorities, while it nurtures critical relations with many countries west of its borders. Equally valuable was the opportunity to glance at how China perceives its past. The part of its history that comes to focus here is also of special interest to students of world history. In 1273 Genghis Khan led the Mongol army that defeated the Chinese Kingdom at Yinchuan which was then its capital. The Great Khan died here but his army went on to establish the first foreign dynasty, under his grandson Kublai Khan, which dominated all of China. Genghis’s other grandsons, meanwhile, were establishing their own dominion over lands that constituted the western side of the ancient “Silk Road”, thus creating another historic first: the political control of most of the civilized world by a single family – which was, furthermore, foreign to both sides.

With this tapestry of diverse subjects to review, this report will struggle to draw a cohesive picture of Yinchuan. Far from being conclusive, it will be content to reveal the need for further study and better answers to the questions it raises.


China-Arab States Expo

After a two- hour flight west from Beijing, when I arrived at the Yinchuan airport the first sign that faced me said الوصول (al-vusul). This was the Arabic word for “Arrival” – also included in the sign both in English and Chinese. In the lobby of the Arrival terminal, the sign for a restaurant that served “Islamic Foods” was only in Arabic and Chinese, with no English . I knew that Yinchuan was the capital of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, which had nearly 40% Hui Muslims, in its population. The Hui, however, were said to be the only Sinophone group among the ten predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in China; the others’ mother-tongues were languages other than Chinese. I started a conversation with a young couple as we waited at the carousel for our luggage. They were returning home from a trip to Australia. They were Hui and when I asked if they spoke Arabic, they said “No, we can only read the Qur’an.” That is the Islamic holy book which is commonly read by non-Arab Muslims in its original Arabic.

The Arabic in the airport signs were occasioned by the “China-Arab States Expo,” held in Yinchuan from September 10 to 13, 2015, just before my arrival. A big sign still standing in the airport, in Arabic, Chinese and English, announced the Expo’s goal,  “Uphold Silk Road Spirit, Deepen China-Arab States Cooperation,” with its logo shining in multi-colors  {1}

As I would find out later in the official publications {2}, the Expo included a “University Presidents Forum,” and another forum on “Global Smart City,” one symposium on sustainable development in agriculture, a “Green Expo” in Yinchuan’s “Green Garden” and it featured a “Cloud Computing Technology and Applications Exhibition ” which was at the Yinchuan International Conference Hall{3}. Representatives from 26 Arab countries participated, at least, in the University Presidents Forum in Yinchuan. When we left the airport, I noted that the wide boulevard leading to the center of town was still festooned with flags of many of those Arab countries.

Our tour guide kept assuring us that the Yinchuan Muslims were “very friendly.” They were “not like Middle Easterners.” He wore a dark suit and a tie, had studied international relations in the Big Island of Hawaii and had wanted to become a diplomat but, he said, “I do not have connections” which were necessary. Surprisingly, he did not have much to say about the Expo or the Silk Road Economic Belt Initiative of Chinese President Xi Jinping which underpinned it. Those subjects were important but apparently not thought to be of great interest to casual tourists.

Silk Road Economic Belt

My reading of current reports in the Chinese media, and other literature on the subject, indicated that the initiative, announced by President Xi in 2003, soon after he became China’s leader, was now at the heart of this country’s economic plans and geopolitical strategy.  Officially called “The Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st -century Maritime Silk Road,” the President’s proposal consists of two main components, the land-based “Silk Road Economic Belt,” and “The Maritime Silk Road”. The latter aims at “investing and fostering collaboration in Southeast Asia, Oceania, and North Africa, through several contiguous bodies of water – the South China Sea, the South Pacific Ocean, and the wider Indian Ocean area.” The Belt part covers “countries situated on the original Silk Road through Central Asia, West Asia, the Middle East, and Europe.” It “calls for the integration of the region into a cohesive economic area through building infrastructure, increasing cultural exchanges, and broadening trade.” South Asia and Southeast Asia will be added in the future as the extension of this “belt.” Also later, the China Pakistan Economic Corridor will link the two original components, the land-based Belt and the Maritime Road {4}.

There are compelling geopolitical reasons for China “to push forward with its One Belt, One Road plans at a time when its trading partners are potentially excluding it from strategic agreements,” such as Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and the EU-Japan. In China’s alternative strategic agreements with the new partners it now wishes to woo by this initiative, President Xi Jinping has been mindful to ease political concerns by pointedly emphasizing “Three Nos”. These consist of “no interference in the internal affairs” of other nations, “no seeking” to increase the “sphere of influence” and not striving for “hegemony or dominance {5}.”

There is also a strong urgent economic incentive, specifically, for the land- based Belt part of Xi’s initiative.  After thirty years of unprecedented growth, China is now faced with a slowing economy. Its leadership is looking for new ways to sustain growth, while its developing neighbors to the west are experiencing rapidly rising demand. The Belt initiative can serve as a project to redirect China’s domestic overcapacity and capital for regional development. Eventually, China’s growing domestic market would provide the chance for the region to capitalize by providing goods and services. Accordingly, the Silk Road Economic Belt features prominently in China’s 13th   Five-Year Plan, which will run from 2016 to 2020 {6}.

Yinchuan Showcase

Trial area. In 2014, the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF) which had been established ten years earlier decided to focus on the building of the Silk Road Economic Belt. While in the past it had been meeting as a ministerial conference in Beijing, CASCF chose to have its 2015 China-Arab States Expo in Yinchuan, deeming it as important for Sino-Arab cooperation in the province of Ningxia, and “a trial area for inland-foreign-oriented trade in China, with its eye on opportunities in Arab countries and the Muslim world.” As evidence of Yinchuan’s qualification, at the Expo the mayor of the city boasted of “its projects in recent years such as the Yue Hai Wan Central Business District, Binhe New Area, and Bonded Area”. He added that he hoped the Expo would help the city “to advertise its beautiful landscape, history, cultural heritage, and good ecology.” The officials of Ningxia Autonomous Region told the Expo about the province’s  “work on modernizing its agriculture for more cost-effective results using local characteristics,” pointing out that “Ningxia has climate and geographic conditions similar to Arab countries,” and therefore, there was “great potential for cooperation in such fields as dry land farming, water-saving agriculture, desertification control, and soil improvement {7} .”

Transitional times.  As we drove toward our hotel in Yinchuan we could see the impressive landscape of modern tall buildings in the part of town where new offices  and hotels  were located . Just outside of this area, however, we turned onto a bumpy road for an hour ride to another attraction of Yinchuan, its farmland. The farms on the one side were separated from the dusty road by an irrigation canal which was built on a berm. “We get very little rain here,” our guide said. “The Yellow River is practically the sole source of our water with its dams and canals,” he continued.  (Indeed, Yinchuan means “Silver River” which, I thought, might point out the city’s original raison d’être.) “The River comes from Tibet, and it is called Yellow because it is murky due to the silt,” the guide said.

The other side of the road we were on was lined with Poplar trees. A very dirty bus  covered with the dust of the desert and crowded with passengers, passed us. The women we saw among the passengers were wearing headscarves. Old Hui Moslem women usually wear headscarves but, our guide said, “other women also wear them for protection against the dust.”  On the drive back to the city, we approached a traffic jam and soon our van came to a standstill on the narrow road of the farmland just before we reached the wide new boulevard that served this modern part of Yinchuan. Two passenger cars blocked most of the entrance to the boulevard. When we were finally able to pass them, a half an hour later, our guide explained that those two cars, involved in an accident, were waiting for the insurance adjusters as neither driver was willing to accept fault.

It has been suggested that urbanization is a more promising way to deal with China’s surplus of capital and production problem than the Belt initiative. The country’s current urbanization rate of 52 percent is low given its level of development. A lot of the young rural population has come to cities as migrant workers, but they cannot bring families or truly become citizens of the cities due, in part, to the lack of sufficient housing. As we drove around Yinchuan, we noticed a considerable number of newly- built apartment blocks, presumably to address the housing shortages. We could not be sure that they were fully occupied.

Unused infrastructure. China’s current new kind of surplus, that of unused infrastructure, was evident in the miles of brand new freeways we saw in Ningxia as we later drove from Yinchuan to Shapotou, one of its major “ecological attractions,” some 200 kilometers southwest. The toll road G6 was an excellent four-lane divided road with an island in the middle which had trimmed bushes almost like topiaries in the middle . There were guard rails on both sides. Exits were numbered. There were signs in Chinese and English with icons for gas and food. We stopped at a “Servicer Area.” A sign in its urinal in Chinese, Arabic and English urged: “A small step forward. A big step in civilization .” On the road another sign said in English: “Waste discarding prohibited.”  Yet another sign read: “Please No Weary Driving.”

Traffic was very light, with only a few buses and several trucks and cars.  A Police car passed us with its lighting siren on without any visible reason. We noted ten road workers in orange vests, but no accompanying vehicle. Two women workers were picking up trash.  Coal burning power plants could be seen in the countryside. They were still in use also in the city of Yinchuan. Our guide explained:  “we have a lot of coal here.” He also said: “where we are driving was a desert 20 years ago.”  He amplified: “Yinchuan is surrounded by three deserts.”  Shapotou Desert tourist area is located in the southeast of the Tenggeli Desert.

Street scene. Notwithstanding all the signs in Arabic and English, I did not run into any Arab or Westerner (not counting the Americans in my small tour group). Their absence was especially conspicuous in the downtown area, called Xing Qing. I walked in this section of town which was by far its busiest. The Drum Tower  was a reminder of how Yinchuan looked before its recent “modernization.”  Like those in other cities of China, the Drum Tower, as its name indicated, was originally constructed for musical purposes. Now it faced a Western style plaza with its Burger King restaurant and a stage being set up for a karaoke- type participatory music event . At another corner of the street facing the Tower, however, was a lone Chinese musician sitting at the Gehu, the Chinese version of Cello, playing old Chinese melodies, with a basket for tips in front of him . There were more musicians in the long and wide pedestrian street, XinHua . However, they attracted attention more as curiosities. One was a singer propped up by a crutch under his arm . Another was interesting for his unusually small body and big head . Still a third was a paraplegic who played harmonica as he sat on a customized motorcycle . By far the largest crowd, however, gathered around another man with missing limbs who painted calligraphy on papers spread on the ground, holding the brush by his teeth.

The shops that surrounded this non-modern ensemble of entertainers were strikingly modern. However, they lacked any non-Chinese name signs. Not only English but even Arabic writings were missing. Only around the corner, I saw a food vendor who had the Islamic creed calligraphed on his cart . Here also there was a sign for a فندق (funduq), Arabic for hotel, on a building . This was apparently in anticipation of receiving Arab tourists from abroad which Ningxia hoped to “lure,” according to local newspapers.


A parallel campaign was to attract Western visitors, especially by the lure of Yinchuan’s wineries. My American companions had specifically come to visit them. Two days before the opening of the China-Arab States Expo, Yinchuan hosted another one, the East Helan Mountain Area International Wine Expo, in which seven wines from this surrounding area were given gold medals. So it was that our guide had lost no time in taking us directly from the airport to Chateau Bacchus on the outskirts of the city. As we drove through a rather dry farmland, he explained, “hot days and cold nights here are ideal for growing grapes and, therefore, for wineries.”  He added:  “this is the fruit season,” pointing to the vendors we saw selling watermelons on the side of the road.

“Chateau Bacchus began by a man who made his money in the south of China 20 years ago,” our guide continued. “He came and fixed the desert and asked the French for help. Then others came too.”  As we arrived through an imposing gate, a marching tune blared on the loudspeakers and a water fountain jetted water to cool the desert air.  This was to welcome us as the winery knew of our coming. As we approached the entrance to the winery’s main building, a group of men appeared on the steps . Taking them as the manager and his staff, we eagerly shook their stretched hands. But then they said goodbye and walked toward the exit. It turned out that they were the “Head of Tourism Office” and aides, on an inspection visit there. Chateau Bacchus had proudly posted on its gate an “AAA” ranking sign by the National Tourist Evaluation Committee . Alas, we remained the only visitors the whole time we were there.

A young woman was our host .  In a small “tasting” room, we sat at a plain table as she served us Grenache and Shiraz wines.  She poured from a glass which was used as a decanter , filled by another glass directly from the barrel . The grapes were from their own vineyards. Our host said “the winemaker is Chinese but the standards come from the French.” There were framed certificates of awards given to the winery, mostly from China, on the walls of the room . There was also a painting of galloping horses which were “the symbols of fast success,” we were told.

The winery had a “restaurant” but it would be opened “only with a prior reservation.”  Its wine was also sold only from barrels located at different branches for “club members.” Our host was the only staff we saw. She now led us to a cellar which was exclusively for the club members. This was a dark underground cave, with barrels of wine. The signs here, and in the garden of the winery were in Arabic, as well as Chinese and English .  A two-story building on the other side of the garden was called the Business Center. A sign at its entrance described it:  “The Business Center is a high-end Club, which sets catering, entertainment and accommodation as a whole. The dreams of Romance and Luxury can be come true, as if we enter the ancient European castle of Middle Ages.” Regarding the “romance,” inside the building were a lobby furnished with a white piano and a stairway leading upstairs to two bedrooms with two beds each. In another room, there were a basin, a washer and a dryer.

Winery Chateau Moser XV

As we left Chateau Bacchus we picked a branch from a grapevine in the vineyard just outside the gate and tasted its black Merlot.  The size of this vineyard was minuscule compared to the vineyard we saw in the next winery we visited in Yinchuan: Winery Chateau Moser XV . The biggest in Ningxia, the building area of the Chateau is nearly 140,000 square feet. With many fountains and turrets, the winery calls itself Changyu International Wine City . The name Changyu is a reminder that this is actually a subsidiary of a more venerable winery by that name in China’s northeastern Shandong province which is “the most comprehensive” winery, while the Yinchuan branch specializes in “high end” wines.

When we entered the “wine tasting center” building of Changyu, which was about 54,000 square feet, an electric people mover  carried us to a large auditorium at the other end, where we were shown a short film about the history of the winery. The Changyu winery was founded in the 1890s by Chang Bishi . He was the first Chinese Consul in Penang Pulau (today’s Malaysia). He was a philanthropist , and also provided financial aid to the 1911 Chinese Revolution. He was called by the revolutionary party the “Financier of Revolution .”

The winery presented itself as a part of “Changyu Pioneer International Chateau Alliance” in a “Chateau Alliance Map” showing branches in several places in China, including “Chateau Changyu Castle Yantai, as well as in Austria, France, Italy, Germany, Hungary and Moldova.”  The walls of the wine tasting center showcased pictures of famous world leaders with glasses of its wines before them:  Presidents Obama, Putin and Holland and Chancellor Merkel among them, as well as Bill Clinton and Bill Gates .

Our guide said that the winery received some 300 foreign visitors a year.  A guest book had recorded what previous visitors had said about their visits. The sign above it said, in English: “God has given to human good and valuable things, than wine.”  A page from the book featured comments which were equally unclear, such as: “I am the resveratral (sic), hug me will bring the blessing of health to you!.” We were now at the winery’s 38,000 square foot “mysterious underground cellars” which boasted a storage area for over 2000 oak barrels and 260,000 bottles for aging. There was a picture of a famous Chinese movie star of the 1920s, advertizing for this winery . We were given a gift of a 6-year old brandy, bottled in front of us from the barrel. Each bottle was closed with a cork that was literally hammered in .

A few wine bottles were on display. One was priced at about 50 dollars . The sales revenue of Changyu Group in 2007, reportedly, reached 695 million U.S. dollars, making it one of the top ten grape wine enterprises of the world, the first Asian enterprise to appear on that list. By 2012, its ranking on the list rose up to No. 4.  We were told that the grapes for the winery’s vineyard originally came from France‘s Bordeaux and Burgundy regions. The chief wine maker was from the Austrian Moser family:  Lenz Moser, the heir to “fifteen generations” of European wine planting and brewing technologies , looked at us from a framed picture on the wall of the winery. He has declared that this was one of the most potential production areas of best wine grape in the world because of its soil, dry air, number of days of sunshine and temperature differences between day and night.  Lenz Moser has succeeded in substantially increasing the sale of Changyu wines in Europe and was eyeing bigger expansion to even include the American market.

Affluent Chinese

According to Western reporters, for sometime the Chinese government officials and executives at state-owned companies buying expensive vintages for banquets and gifts were the major cause for an explosion in China’s domestic wine consumption. The government’s tough anticorruption campaign of the last couple of years has closed down that market. This has forced the winemakers to focus on the “real buyers,” those “who drink wine because they like it, not because of the status or favors it brings.” Prime among these are the middle- and upper-class Chinese, especially the young ones who “acquired a taste for wine while studying abroad.”

Chateau Changyu Moser XV, additionally, saw itself as “a wine estate” making “high-end chateau wine,” and aiming at “wine culture tourism” as a “high-end club of wine theme.” It boasted of the Byzantine style of its principle structure,  its “magnificent” domed castle . It expected soon to receive as many as 80,000 visitors a year. It hoped to draw them from wealthy Chinese who have begun to enjoy western-style vacations.  The promise of such a market is reflected in the nascent business of dividing big acres of land, which could be vineyards, into large parcels to create “mini chateaus” for the wealthy, as our guide told us. One such entrepreneur has reported that he has already sold two parcels around Yinchuan.

On the day I was in Chateau Changyu, virtually the only visitors I saw in the tasting center were Chinese school children . However, just outside, in the garden of the winery facing the Chateau’s castle, we noticed a crowd. They were attending a wedding in progress . This signified yet another aspect of the business of this winery, as an event venue. Our guide said the venue’s price exceeded 50,000 dollars. The Chinese wedding couple  and their guests  wore western clothes although the ceremony was conducted in Chinese, broadcast on loud speakers. Curiously, the wedding vows were engraved on glass in English at the altar . The ceremony was being filmed by a drone flying overhead.

That evening we pondered whether the guests at the wedding were responsible for our pricey hotel telling us that it had no room because it was full. We had advance confirmed reservations and the Kempinski hotel upgraded us to suites. “Germans honor their promises,” the German managers of the hotel told us. Now we were sitting in a festively decorated restaurant bar, celebrating Oktoberfest. The place was crowded with many Chinese guests. It advertised the traditional Paulaner beer, but we were exchanging “Prost!”  with the Brewmeister himself over his beer, made by the elaborate apparatus right here . This I owed to my German fellow-traveler who earlier had met the Chef of this restaurant, on his break, in the bar of the hotel lounge. The next morning, in the breakfast room of the hotel, also crowded with affluent Chinese guests, I was told by the Austrian woman who was the “Supervisor” of the room that Lenz Moser, the chief winemaker at Changyu was also among those attending the previous night’s Oktoberfest. She left me to communicate by sign language with her Chinese staff. Behind the counter, five cooks with aprons and tall chefs’ hats were struggling to fry eggs the western style.

When I walked out into the lobby of the hotel, I noticed some commotions at the elevator. There were guards watching its door as it opened. Presently, a young man and his small entourage came out and walked toward the exit from the hotel. I followed them at a distance. There were reporters with cameras tailing the man. Outside, at the entrance to the hotel, people had gathered around five young girls in red skirts and white tops and shoes, who were singing. Behind them was a black SUV with three escorting cars and a few more guards.  Soon the girls lined up in front of the SUV, smiling and holding thumps up as they faced the young man in his light yellow jacket .  As his cars eventually pulled out, I noticed a uniformed hotel staff, beaming as she looked on. I asked what was going on. She said “the Chinese super star is there.” I asked her to write his name. She wrote some Chinese characters. I said “in English.” She wrote “1401 Han Geng.” I asked “what is that number?”  She said “his room number” in the hotel. Han Geng is a Chinese Mandopop (Mandarin popular music) singer and actor, in demand by numerous TV shows, commercials and movies. He was in Yinchuan to make movies.

Xixia Kingdom Ruins

Yinchuan is famous for its West Movie Studio of Zhenbei Forts. The Studio is nicknamed “Oriental Hollywood” because it has supplied the background scenes resembling ancient northern small towns of China for nearly one hundred movies. The Studio was built around the ruins of two old forts from the Ming and Qing Dynasties. We went to see the even more ancient and historically far more significant ruins of Yinchuan on its last days as the capital of the Xixia (Western Xia) Kingdom. The city was destroyed in 1273 by the conquering Mongol army that came under the command of Genghis Khan. It is believed that the great Khan himself died of “uncertain causes,” a month before the conquest of Yinchuan was consummated. What was left in ruins, 30 kilometers west of today’s Yinchuan, is a cemetery with mausoleums of 9 Emperors of Xixia and 255 subordinate tombs. Together, they spread over 53 kilometers. They are dubbed the “Oriental Pyramids”.

I stood before one of the mausoleums which are called Tomb Towers. As a sign referred to it:“The Tomb Tower is the main architecture in the cemetery. It has a shape of octagonal cone, 23 meters high. Each side of the bottom is 13 meters. Various building components scattered around the tower is very dense. Including Chiwen, beast, ridge ornaments and so on.”  Each Tomb Tower was “an independent architectural complex with a garden above the ground and an underground palace.” The mausoleums were made of yellow-colored earth, and spread “in lines following ancient rites.” Some of the mausoleums had lost their top .

Another sign nearby described the cemetery, called the Outer City: “Outer City in a layout of rectangular, 340 meters long, 220 meters wide. At the central provision of south wall was a door: the door is the only remaining site. doorway with 7 meters remaining. Due to severe damage, outer city now full of collapsed, remaining site of bottom.”

The “Inner City” was where the people lived. Their “mysterious history and culture” is little known because of Genghis Khan’s policy calling for their complete eradication. As one expert has said:  “There is a case to be made that this was the first ever recorded example of attempted genocide. It was certainly very successful ethnocide {8}.” My further reading of the works of various historians was rewarding in revealing much about the “mysterious history” of Xixia, and the conduct of the Mongol invaders who, at this same time in history, quickly took over virtually the whole known world!

Still called by his birth name Temujin, the soon to be Genghis Khan launched a raid against Xixia in 1205 in pursuit of his rival Mongol Nilga Senggum. In 1207, now having been proclaimed Genghis Khan, ruler of all the Mongols at the official start of the Mongol Empire, he launched another raid into Xixia, advancing to the Yellow River, before withdrawing in 1208. The following year, Genghis undertook a larger campaign to secure the submission of Western Xia. He besieged the capital, Yinchuan, and forced the Emperor of Xixia to agree to submit to Mongol rule. Genghiz then turned west and, in his invasion of Khwarezmia and Eastern Iran, asked Xixia for military aid. He was refused and Genghis swore vengeance. After defeating the Khwarazms in 1221, Genghis prepared to punish Xixia and in 1225, he attacked. Steadily advancing from city to city, “Genghis engaged the countryside in annihilative warfare and ordered his generals to systematically destroy cities and garrisons as they went.” He reached Yinchuan in 1227 and laid siege to the city. His death in August was kept a secret in order not to jeopardize the ongoing campaign. A month later, Emperor Mozhu of Xixia surrendered and was immediately executed. “The Mongols then mercilessly pillaged Yinchuan, slaughtered the city’s population, plundered the imperial tombs west of the city, and completed the effective annihilation of the Western Xia state {9}.”

Xixia Museum

Some of what has been discovered about Xixia is on display in a museum. We walked on a new paved road through the vast plain with the tombs and Mount Helan in the distance, to the Xixia Museum. Just outside was a map showing China’s trade roads with the world of the time, covering all of the Middle East, to the Black Sea and North Africa. The foreign land routes were in red, the regional land routes in black, and the sea routes in blue. At the entrance to the Museum, a sign introduced Xixia: “The Western Xia Kingdom was a local ethnic minority kingdom founded mainly by the nation of Dan Xiang people during 11-13 century.  The Western Xia Kingdom was characterized by the absorption of cultures from the Central Plains and other northern nationalities. It is one of splendid pearls in the great treasure-house of Chinese history and culture.”

The sign went on to describe the Museum’s collection: “Western Xia Museum… has collected the works of Western Xia Kingdom history and culture. The exhibits are divided into six parts: the movement westward of the Dang Xiang people and the rise of the Western Xia Kingdom; politics, law and military affairs; socio-economy; culture; religion of the Western Xia Kingdom. The history and culture of the Western Xia Kingdom is revealed through a rich collection of objects, charts, drawings, photographs, models and audio-visual presentations, making it a scientific, educational and interesting experience.”

The collection consisted of old artifacts, pictures, frescoes and paintings. Among Xixia relics were a stone horse, Xixia tablet inscriptions, Buddhists scriptures, Buddhist drawings, the official seal, Xixia paintings which blended Uighur and Tibetan Buddhism elements and Xixia ethnic customs. Of special significance was a display of Buddhist scripture in Xixia Characters. These characters were created in 1036, on the basis of Tangut language, in imitation of Chinese characters. Tangut was the nomadic ethnic group that established Xixia.

As a sign at the Museum summarized Xixia’s cultural heritage, “The culture of Xixia was diverse, though dominated by Dangxiang culture. The murals and painted sculptures, inheriting and developing the artistic achievements of the Tang and Song dynasties, also mixed Dangxiang, Tibetan and Uighur cultures, enriching the treasure house of Chinese culture. The creation and use of Xixia characters to spread and interpret Buddhism not only followed the developments of the Tang and Song dynasties, but also developed a unique Xixia culture.”

The mission of the Museum was expressed in another sign:  “It is an educational base for patriotism and the unity of nationalities, as well as a favorite tourist destination for foreign and domestic guests.”  On this day, a handful of us were the only foreign visitors in Xixia, joined by a similarly small group of Chinese tourists .

Shapotou Desert

We found many more Chinese tourists in another attraction of Ningxia, the desert.  When we arrived in the huge parking lot of the Shapotou Desert tourist area, a little over two hours south of Yinchuan, the place was jammed with tourist buses. “They are over a hundred,” as one among us said, with only a bit of exaggeration. The Chinese tourists who had just stepped down from the buses were lining up at the ticket windows ; those who had received their tickets were smiling as they contemplated the map posted nearby showing the sites of the attractions in the area . The desert and river were shown prominently on the map.  As the tour companies publicized: “In the area the desert, Yellow River, high mountains and oasis merge into an integral and peculiar scene. Shapotou is listed as one of the Top 50 Destinations Must-see in China.”

We took the tram to the top of a sand hill where there was a picture “shooting place,” as the sign said in English, Chinese and Arabic.  We saw what was called the “First Bay of the Yellow River” below us. In the peninsula the river had carved, the sand had been pushed to the edge of the mountains. Next to us, tourists were sliding down the sand . Behind us was the “largest natural field of sliding sand in China,” dubbed “the Shapotou singing bell”.  The sound emission, we were told, was caused by wind or by walking on the sand. The tourists were putting on special footwear to walk on the sand. When ready with full appropriate attire, including hats, they waited for the special vehicles to drive them to the right place on the sand. Some chose to go camel-riding. The line of camel riders was long, and with the desert and the mountains in the distance, they created a scenery not generally associated with China.

The attractiveness of the desert belied the truth that living in its harsh environment was difficult. Our guide said that fact was the reason the Hui people had ended up here.  “They were near Xian and there they had an uprising about 200 years ago. As a solution, a Chinese general forced them to move here near the desert, saying fighting nature would make them too weak to stage uprisings.” This was perhaps the guide’s version of history recorded in more scholarly sources as the First Dungan Revolt, which began in 1862 by the Hui community in Ningxia and the neighboring Shaanxi and Gansu provinces, and suppressed some ten years later by a Qing Dynasty general, leading to thousands of Hui Muslims being then exiled to different parts of China.

Silk Road’s Children

What was puzzling, however, was the tour guide’s tale of the origin of the Hui people: “They are from the Muslim soldiers who came with Genghiz and the Chinese women they married.”  Genghiz did have some Uyghur Turks in his army in 1219 when he attacked the city of Otrar (Farab) in today’s Kazakhstan which quickly led to his conquest of Muslim Central Asia. He also forcibly recruited local Turks to fight other Turks in the region, but then he ended up slaughtering them {10}. There is, however, no indication that there were Turks in the army that Genghiz led to Yinchuan in 1227.

Indeed, the Hui look different from the Uyghur and other Turks who have Eurasian features, and trace their community in China to some 1,200 years ago, long before the arrival of the Mongols. The Hui are descendants of traders who settled along the Silk Road and took Chinese wives. Most likely, their paternal ancestors were Iranian-speaking people. Among them, were the Sogdians, an ancient Iranian people of Central Asia {11}.  Chinese general Al Lushan was the son of a Sogdian immigrant to China (his Chinese name means “the Bukharan,” from Bukhara, another Iranian-speaking city not far from Samarkand) and a Turkish mother. It was Al Lushan’s rebellion in755 that finally forced the Tang emperor to withdraw his entire army from Central Asia {12}.

After Central Asian Iranians converted to Islam, in China they left their marks in Arabic script which they had now adopted {13}. The word for Muslims used in the Yuan Dynasty (which Kublai Khan – a grandson of Genghis Khan- established in 1271) was Pusuman, likely a corruption of Musalman (the Persian word for Muslim); it was also used as a name for Persians, and Pusuman Kuo (Pusuman Guo) referred to the country where they came from. Indeed, the Arabic script they (Musalman) used was called Pusuman zi (pusuman script).

In 1941 the Chinese Communist Party in its conclusive treatise entitled “On the question of Huihui Ethnicity,” defined the Hui nationality as an ethnic group descended primarily from Muslims who migrated to China during the Mongol-founded Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) {14}. Today, many in Ningxia believe that four common Hui surnames—Na, Su, La and Ding— “originated with the descendants of Nasruddin, a son of Sayyid Ajjal Shams al-Din Omar, who ‘divided’ the ancestor’s name (Nasulading, in Chinese) among themselves{15}.”  Sayyid Ajjal was an aristocrat from Bukhara who rose in the administration of the Yuan dynasty to become the governor of the major province of Yunnan. As nomads, China’s new Mongol rulers, had to rely on the administrative skills of Central Asians, as well as other foreigners (together forming the Samu, meaning “assorted categories,” class), since they could not rely on the loyalty of the Chinese.

Another example of such Samu administrators was Kublai Khan’s vizier, Ahmad from the Iranian-speaking Tashkent (in today’s Uzbekistan) who had gained so much control over China that it amazed the visiting Marco Polo. Indeed, one of Kublai Khan’s achievements was to reopen the great east-west caravan routes with the Iranian-speaking world that had been closed since the Karakhitai (1124-1218) had severed them. Marco Polo was only one of the beneficiaries of the flourishing of trade. Ahmad’s jealous Chinese rivals seized upon his reputation as a womanizer to brand him as “villainous” and finally assassinate him. That land-route trade continued to thrive for another three centuries before being supplanted by the more efficient maritime exchange on sea routes found by navigators {16}.

Hui of Yinchuan

I found it hard to distinguish the Hui from their non-Muslim neighbors in Yinchuan. In the downtown, I ran into a Hui street vendor, and asked three young Hui girls direction to the Nanguan Mosque. The vendor wore a white cap, nicely embroidered, but the girls did not have headscarves. These items of clothing are considered distinctive to the Hui. In the mosque, I saw only two members of staff, both with white caps. There was only one visitor other than me. He soon joined a woman who was already in conversation with the staff. They were not wearing cap or headscarf. Their conversation was in Chinese.

The Nanguan Mosque lacked grandeur. Its main building was a simple two- story structure. Stairs led to a spacious prayer hall on the second floor which could accommodate a few hundred worshipers at a time. Next to the mosque was the Musilin Qingzhen (Muslim Mosque) Supermarket. Most of the other shops on the street were not marked as Muslim enterprises. The area was not especially crowded. Our tour guide ignored the “Muslim cultural Center” in this neighborhood as “just a small place for them to learn some things.”

We were told that the Hui were so thoroughly assimilated in Yinchuan that virtually their only connection to Islam was an aversion to pork. Muslim restaurants were distinguished for serving kosher halal mutton food. In the town of Zhongwei, some 18 kilometers from Shapotou, we had a lunch of that food [92], served in small private rooms of the restaurant. It was different from typical foods of the Chinese cuisine.

The Hui constitute about 26.3 percent of the population of Yinchuan and 33.88 percent of the total population of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Yet, both the mayor of Yinchuan and the Chairwoman (Governor) of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region are Hui. In some towns of that Region which has a population of 6.1 million, about half of the senior officials are ethnic Hui. All these are, in effect, appointed offices, although the governor is formally “elected by the Ningxia People’s Congress.”

Our guide said those positions are reserved for the Hui “by law”. The central Chinese government, indeed, has favored the Hui among China’s 10 different Muslim nationalities. As reported by various foreign journalists, the treatment of the Hui, who are the second largest such Muslim group, especially contrasts with that of the largest, the Uyghur.  For one thing, the Hui in Ningxia and the adjacent Gansu Province are allowed to practice Islam in the open. They operate Islamic schools and ignore the old policy which barred people under 18 from entering mosques.  In some cities there are mosques on practically every other block and women can sometimes be seen with veils. As one of their elders has recently told a Western reporter: “Muslims from other parts of China who come here, especially from Xinjiang, can’t believe how free we are.” The unrest of the Uyghur in the further west Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region is well-known. That kind of strife is almost nonexistent in Ningxia, as are the restrictions on religion that fuel the Uighur discontent.

The Hui generally subscribe to a moderate brand of Islam. They avoid proselytizing to non-Muslims and also, more important, avoid contact with Islamic organizations outside China. The Chinese government, worried about the spread of Islamic extremism, has shown concern that foreigners with ulterior motives might incite trouble among Chinese Muslims. The Hui people’s demonstration of the capacity to coexist with the Communist Party has been rewarded not only with government posts but also with allowing them to obtain passports for foreign travel. In Xinjiang, by contrast, “most important government posts go to the Han, and young Uighurs find it hard to get passports to travel abroad. Government workers in Xinjiang who go to mosques or fast during the holy month of Ramadan often find themselves unemployed.”

The Hui leaders have told Western reporters: “We want to show the world that Islam is a tolerant, peace-loving religion, not the religion of burqas and bomb-throwing that people see on the news…. We also want to show that … we fully enjoy the lenient ethnic policies of the government.” The Chinese government is seeking to leverage this posture by positioning the Hui as “mercantile emissaries to the Muslim world, a role that has been bolstered by President Xi Jinping’s national initiative for a new Silk Road.”  Special “Muslim products” industrial parks have been established where the Hui live with the help of inexpensive land and low taxes. An example of the enterprises that have benefited is the Yijia Ethnic Clothing. Its three factories now produce “50 million hats a year and provide more than two-thirds of the world’s low-priced Islamic headwear {17}.”

Hui Culture Park

In the last few hours of our stay in Yinchuan, out tour guide took us to the Hui Culture Park in Ningxia. As he had shown scant interest in telling us about the Hui, this visit seemed almost obligatory for him. The Chinese media call the Park “the best place to experience China’s Muslim culture.” The man in charge of the Park explained why it was established, in 2005: “There was no place that exhibited the history and culture of the ethnic Hui. So the government of Ningxia built this Hui Culture Park and Ethnic Hui Museum to fill this tourism and culture vacuum {18}.”

The Park is located not in the Yinchuan city proper but in Yongning County, one of the two counties included in Yinchuan.  We drove on a wide modern boulevard, with a number of new high-rise buildings on one side, in the otherwise largely vacant land.  About 165 acres (1000 mu) have been allocated to the Hui Culture Park. Nearly one third of this has been opened as the first phase in the form of an ethnic Hui theme park with a museum, a mosque, an “ethnic customs” village, a catering and performance center, a restaurant and an art and craft shopping street. The officials of the Park have said: “It’s the only place in China where you can see every aspect of the Hui culture {19}.”

We were among the first to arrive in the early morning in the large empty plaza at the main entrance to the Park which could hold some 20,000 people and, we were told, “during festivals … turns into a sea of song and dance.” This plaza led to a magnificent white building which had an arched entrance with a dome on the top, several smaller domes and minarets in the back, and long arched corridors, on the two sides. This structure was clearly meant to be a Chinese near replica of India’s Taj Mahal, built by the Muslim Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan, which I had seen in Agra. The Taj Mahal was in ivory-white marble; the Park entrance building was in plaster, its columns covered with intricate bas-reliefs carvings (gachbori) of Islamic calligraphy and decorative designs.

A man with a white cap and a woman with a headscarf entered the building with us. Inside the lobby we were met by another woman with a headscarf, who was a member of staff [97]. Scaffolding on the other face of the building was indicative that the Park was still a work in progress, more than a decade after it opened.  In a courtyard, a long reflection pool, another reminder of the Taj Majal model, directed us toward the “Aisha Palace (Temporary Museum) .” This Qasr (Palace) was not as ostentatious. Yet, with 7,000 square meters, it was the largest Hui museum in China.

As Park officials described it: “The museum is divided into five halls and has 1,000 relics and books on the Hui people and Islamism. The exhibits point to the historical and cultural origins of the ethnic Hui people, the development of Islamic civilization, the distinctive culture and customs of the Chinese Hui people, the Hui people’s contributions to Chinese culture and the establishment, development and changes of the Hui people in Ningxia{20} .”

I found much of this to be only aspirational goals. The Park director claimed that it “has attracted many foreign tourists with its rich exhibits.”  Some signs outside the Museum were in English and Arabic as well as Chinese, but there was no English writing in most of the signs inside, no English brochure and no good explanations by our own guide. One area was called, in an English sign: “park customs and culture of chinese hui people” with no further explanation in English, although there was a logo of allowing scanning with the picture of the Park in the middle . As I walked around here, I found on the walls a few pictures of people from centuries ago in Islamic garbs and on some of them there were a few lines in Arabic . There was no indication on how these were related to the Hui. In one corner, there was a map of China, with color-coded areas and a table showing the increase in the population of 33 parts, each from 1960 to 2010, indicating that the total population of all increased in that period from 3,934,336 to 10,586,087 . Other than the numbers, all the writings were in Chinese. This hardly made any sense to a visitor who did not understand Chinese. I only guessed by the numbers that the map perhaps was about the Hui population in China. Next I saw on another wall a picture of 9 men, some in military uniforms of the Imperial, Nationalist and Communist eras, as well a few in traditional Chinese clothes, with no explanation in any language but Chinese. Elsewhere, there was a series of Arabic calligraphy of the names of Allah and Mohammad [106], again with no explanation as to their specific connection with the Hui.

Among its collection of “relics,” the Museum claims “a Koran as small as a finger nail and an ancient golden bell as large as a human.”  Its most highly treasured items include “the oldest and best preserved Ningxia-discovered Koran from the Ming Dynasty between the 14th  and 17th  centuries, two ancient Arabic ship models and 12 sets of Islamic apparel which were donated by Abdullah Maatouk, the Kuweit (sic) judicial minister.” The Kuwaiti connection to the Hui culture was a mystery to me, until I noticed at one entrance to the Museum a display of pictures from Kuwait. A sign in Arabic said:  “The Opening of the Kuwaiti Wing.” This part of the sign was also in Chinese but not English. In another part of the same sign which was in English as well, two of the four pictures in the display collage were identified: “The Grand Mosque in the State of Kuwait” and a Kuwait Boom Ship. The signs for two other pictures were not in English.

Museum officials have said that its “variety of historical relics provide valuable materials for people to study Islamic culture,” adding that “We are working with Islamic associations and institutes.” They have reported that “ambassadors and scholars from Kuwait, Yemen, Iran {21}, Pakistan, Egypt and other Islamic countries all came to visit,” and have “ proposed to cooperate with the museum and have donated more relics to further enrich the museum.”  They have maintained that “The purpose for building this culture park is to offer a place for tourists from home and abroad to appreciate the Hui people’s history and culture, including Hui folk culture, dances, songs and movies. Our next plan is to expand the park.” They have added:  “We are planning to set up an Islamic cultural exchange center and an Arabic language school. We want to establish a platform for friendly exchanges with the world’s Islamic countries. I think this will also help Ningxia to open up to the outside world {22}.”

The Museum was connected by a courtyard to what was referred to as “a ritual palace”. There were tent- like structures in this courtyard, perhaps invoking the tents of the Bedouin Muslims. Two golden domes and four Minarets beyond the tents were, indeed, those of a mosque –which in the Chinese Communist parlance was referred to as a ritual palace.

In the huge grand hall of the mosque nine men and one woman were sitting on the floor listening to a woman guide . She and the woman in the group were both wearing long red headscarves, and pants and tops that covered the rest of their bodies. The mosque’s columns and walls were ornately decorated with traditional Islamic designs and the calligraphic Arabic profession of creed “There is no God but Allah; Mohammad is the Prophet of God.”  The semicircular niche in the wall, the Mihrab, indicated the direction that Muslims should face when praying.

Outside the Mosque we noticed that a few more tourists had now arrived in the Park. A few steps away, a white-capped man was pointing out something to a woman clad in the Hui traditional custom . They were at the door of a replica of what was called a typical house of the rich Hui in the countryside. We entered the courtyard which was covered with an overhang of grapevines . In the rooms inside the building, the furniture was of wood. Next door there was another house which featured, as the sign said, “The Hui’s feast .” We opted to see the restaurant of the Park which was in a modern looking building called Mansu’er Palace . A man with a big old- style straw broom was sweeping the steps in front of it. The restaurant was closed.

A man worshiping another god later drove us to the airport. He had a small bust of Mao Zedong on the dashboard of his van. “Some people here think that bust is a blessing, good luck, will protect you,” our local guide explained.




{1} As I read in Chinese sources: “The logo is meant to resemble an open gate, indicating that China welcomes overseas guests while the lights symbolize a bright future for Sino-Arab communications in culture and trade. The dome, composed of colored blocks to the left is a Muslim symbol to highlight its unique culture, and the concept of equality and cooperation with winning results. The red blocks represent China’s passion, energy and prosperity, while the green ones represent the Arab states, and life, hope and peace < 09/02/content_21776016.htm> (Accessed 5/19/2016) .”

{2} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)

{3} This was the 4th year the Exop had been held in Ningxia. According to the Chinese, it had “exerted a great deal of influence in China and abroad,” and resulted in “636 project agreements, amounting to 355.8 billion yuan ($55.4 billion), and vastly improving Ningxia’s foreign trade.”

{4} <,_One_Road>  References [2][3][4]  and[5][6] (Accessed 5/19/2016)

{5} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)}

{6} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)

{7} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)}.

{8} Man, John (2004). Genghis Khan: Life, Death, and Resurrection, pp. 116–117

{9} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)

{10 } Starr, S. Frederick (2013). Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane, pp.  448-449

{11} Ten years ago, while visiting Samarkand’s Afrosiob History Museum (in today’s Uzbekistan), I had seen a series of 7th Century Sogdian murals in one of which the ruler was depicted receiving gifts of silk from China, while in another panel a Chinese beauty was shown sailing in a boat.

{12} Starr, p. 122

{13} Accordingly, even in the Turkish Uygur areas of China, I had noticed, Kashgar’s largest Mosque is called Idkah (Persian for “a place for festivities”) and Turpan’s best hotel is called Boostan Mehmankhaneh (Persian for “The Garden Hotel”).

{14} In the long- gone Tang Dynasty, when Muslims first appeared in China in the 750’s, Islam was originally called Dashi Jiao (“Law of the Arabs”). Early European explorers speculated that the Hui originated from the Iranian-speaking Khorezmians who were transported to China by the Mongols.  In Xian (Chang’an), which was the capital of the Tang Dynasty (618–907) and continued thereafter as a commercial center on the Silk Road in the later dynasties, I was told by the assistant to the Imam, the leader of its 60,000 strong Muslim community, in 2005, that key Persian words were still current among the Xian Muslims. They included: bamdad (morning), and sham (evening) -used especially in reference to the times of Muslim prayer-, doosti (friendship), doshman (enemy), and khoda hafez (goodbye).

{15} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)

{16} Starr, pp. 450- 451

{17} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)

{18} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)

{19} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)

{20} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)

{21}  Iran was conspicuously absent in the Yinchuan Expo. China was a part of a group of world powers (the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council–the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France, and China- plus Germany) that negotiated and , on 14 July 2015, signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, regarding restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in return for lifting the sanctions on that country imposed in 2006 by the UN Security Council with China’s concurrence. Accordingly, China was expected to begin making “necessary arrangements and preparations,” in October of 2015, to implement its commitments under the JCPOA.  President Xi Jinping was the first major world leader to visit Tehran, almost immediately, after the sanctions were lifted. In January 2016 he went to plant “a flag for Chinese business and cast his country as a more accommodating alternative to the West.”  He pointedly stressed that China and Iran were “natural partners” in implementing China’s proposed Belt and Road Initiative. < > (Accessed 5/19/2016)

{22} <; (Accessed 5/19/2016)





An Image of China

Keyvan Tabari

Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2015. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.



abstract: Penglai, a city with less than half-a-million population in northeastern   Shandong Province of China, is unique, yet in many ways it typifies China for an outside  observer. It has roots in distinct legends and history but that past is a heritage shared by  all Chinese. It has had special encounters with foreign nations which have influenced other parts of China as well. It showcases the results of the contemporary rapid  developments of the county as a whole. Its future is a promise also planned for all of China. All of this made Penglai an ideal case for an investigation, albeit brief. This is my report.


Table of Contents




            Naval base


            Tengchow College




            Planning the Future






Every year, more than two million tourists come to Penglai. Most of them are Chinese and for most Penglai Pavilion is the most important site. Their long-held beliefs are reflected in the legends of the place, as I learned in September of 2015.

I followed the millenniums-old footsteps of the First Emperor to Danya Mountain, just north of Penglai city in the Shandong Province of China.  The Emperor had proclaimed himself Qin Shi Huang, after establishing the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), the first centralized empire in Chinese history. Then he traveled here from his capital Xian, looking for the elixir of life. As legends tell it, the Emperor had first sent the Taoist alchemist Xu Fu with 500 young men and 500 young women to the eastern seas to find the elixir, but Xu Fu never came back; instead, he landed in Japan and became the founder of Shintoism. The Emperor brought three times as many young girls and boys along with himself, but none of them ever returned either. His sailors blamed their failure to obtain the elixir on vicious sharks. The poor Emperor wandered up and down the coastline shooting at sharks with a crossbow in revenge. There were also dolphins seen from the cliffs above, at which the mighty King cast an impotent spear only to realize that his own days were numbered.

Emperor Qin Shi Huang did not achieve immortality (he is buried in the famous Xian tomb guarded by an army of terra cotta soldiers, horses, and chariots), but his trip contributed to the legend that grew ever more complex, all around what is today called the Penglai Pavilion, on Danya Mountain. It is here that the Eight Immortals are said to have crossed the sea using their special powers after they got drunk. The Eight Immortals are worshiped by Taoists and are, furthermore, an important element in the secular Chinese folklore of today. In Chinese mythology, they are a group of xian (transcendent saints), all men except for one woman, each with the power that can grant life and destroy evil. According to legends they were born in the 7th to 13th centuries and lived on the islands of the Bohai Sea where Penglai is located. They were first mentioned during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368); they are probably named after the Han people’s folkloric Eight Immortal Scholars. Taoism adopted this ancient tradition of depicting humans as becoming immortal. The Eight Immortals became widely known through the works of the Taoists. They have been the subject of many artistic creations, even in modern China.

If the legend of elixir connected the Eight Immortals to Penglai, another seemingly miraculous phenomenon has added its own legend to the place. Because of its rare geographic, climatic and maritime conditions, nearly every seven years, mirages, big and small and in different shapes appear at the sea facing Penglai City. They are more frequent in May and June. The last one happened on May 7, 2005. Thousands of tourists and local residents witnessed this mirage which lasted for four hours.  Off the shore, it reflected an image of the City, with its buildings, streets and crowds of people.  It had rained for two days before, causing the rising mist that created this image. To the believers, the mirage confirmed Penglai’s reputation as a dwelling place of the gods.  To the scientists, it confirmed Penglai’s reputation as a place of often- occurring “fata morgana,” an optical illusion in which layers of mist at varying temperatures refract light in such a way that distant objects are projected on the horizon.

The legends of Penglai entered into the creative imagination of Chinese scholars who came to call it renjian xianjing, meaning “the place of immortals among humans” or, more accessibly, “the fairyland of the world”. According to Chinese mythology, Penglai (Danya) Mountain, together with two other mountains, Fangzhang and Yingzhou, formed Sanxianshan (the Fairy Mountains). The Fairy Mountains were credited for having attracted not only Emperor Qin Shi Huang but later, the Han Dynasty’s Emperor Wudi (141–87 BC) who came “in search of God.” Famed Qing Dynasty painters, Yuan Jiang and Yuan Yao brought the imagined fairyland of Penglai on their canvases in the 1830s. Their works have been recreated by architects and landscapers in Penglai City’s Fairy Mountains Park  . The Park aims at depicting that “ideal realm of romanticism of Chinese ancient scholars into reality” by a number of graceful lakes, gardens and buildings in the style of Chinese classical architecture.


Fairy Mountains Park’s “reality” is not what you see today on the actual site of the legendary Penglai. Perched on the cliff of Penglai Mountain, there is a castle-like assortment of parapets, pathways, and buildings called Penglai Pavilion.  There is no lake and hardly any garden here. One tree, however, catches your attention because of its historical significance. Called the Tang Pagoda Tree, this “1000-year” survivor dates from when the Penglai Pavilion was initially built. The construction of buildings began during the Northern Song Dynasty, and the Song Dynasty complex soon came to rank among the “Four Great Towers” of China in the country’s literary tradition, joining Yellow Crane Tower, Yueyang Tower and Tengwang Pavilion which, unlike Penglai, are all in the south.

Some of the original structures of Penglai Pavilion still remain. Much has been restored, rebuilt and extended over time; recently, millions of dollars have been invested into developing the Pavilion. Although there are some “palaces” here, most of the buildings are in reality temples. The prominent ones are Sanqing Palace, Lvzu Palace, Sugong Temple, Thean Hou Temple, Long Palace, Mituo Temple and Penglai Pagoda. The last one is the main building of the Pavilion. Built in 1061, the Pagoda is a double-layer wooden construction surrounded by corridors with the best view of the mirages. A plaque with bold and golden letters Penglai Ge (Penglai Pagoda) written by Tie Bao, the famous calligrapher of the Qing Dynasty who lived in the 1830s, is hung at the Pagoda . Inscriptions of celebrities and well-known scholars are engraved on the interior walls. The main attractions inside, however, are the sculptures of eight drunken Immortals placed in the center around a square table and chairs, an arrangement of room just as described in the legend of Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea. It is said, the Eight (Lu Dongbin, Tie Guaili, Zhang Guolao, Han Zhongli, Cao Guojiu,  Lan Caihe, Han Xiangzi and the woman He Xiangu ), got drunk at Penglai Pavilion  and crossed the sea by different tricks of their own without using any boats. Nearby, a red rock marks the Red (Dan) Cliffs from which they set out floating over the ocean.

A thousand years later, the great poet, politician and calligrapher Su Dongpo sought immortality when he saw a man on the streets of Penglai who, he believed, was the Immortal Lü Dongbin. Su followed him, disguised as a beggar to the top of the Pavilion where the Eight Immortals were again enjoying a drunken feast before setting off on a journey across the ocean, wielding their magical powers. At Su’s insistence they agreed to take him along as the ninth immortal, but he was ultimately found lacking in the courage to leap out onto the water. Instead, the Pavilion is now adorned with the poems and calligraphy of Su Dongpo (1031-1101) who signed his name as Su Shi.  The Pavilion also features the works of other great calligraphers such as Dong Qichang (1555–1636).  There is calligraphy in Pavilion, now in red, in protest against the Japanese attack in the war of 1592–1598, which failed to damage the Pavilion, anyway, according to our guide. She added that there was even calligraphy by Chairman Mao, done when he visited in 1964, reminding us that “no art form is  more favored in China than calligraphy.”

Our guide also said that there was only one Buddhist temple in the Penglai Pavilion. The rest were Taoist. In addition to the Penglai Pagoda, these included the Dragon King Temple which dates to at least the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). It was dedicated to the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea, whose statue was flanked by eight  officers  standing on his two sides. In the capacity of the ruler of one of the Four Seas corresponding to the four cardinal directions, the Dragon was depicted as a humanoid, dressed in a king’s costume, but with a dragon head. Even older than this temple, was the Sea Goddess Temple, constructed in 1122.  It was dedicated to a local sea Goddess “who died young saving people from drowning,” our guide said. The Goddess’ golden sculpture was in the middle of the temple; there, she also had eight officers attending her.  In Penglai city, this Sea Goddess is also called Thean Hou, and her birthday is celebrated in a major festival in January.

While we were in the Pavilion, worshipers were engaged in burning some brown papers. These were “joss paper,” which are fake or ghost money. The practice of burning them is widespread in China. It is long-standing, a tradition traced back to about 1000 BC. The paper money burned is believed to be thus deposited in an afterlife “bank” for use by the deceased ancestors. The ritual is a mix of Taoism and folklore; Buddhists discourage the practice of burning, saying that the deceased would have no interest in worldly items. In our guide’s opinion, there was another difference: “Taoism does not believe in re-incarnation; Buddhism does.” She added, however, that ordinary Chinese worshipers do not distinguish the origins of their ritual practices which are often a mixture of Taoism, Buddhism and folklore. This was a position also espoused in the Harmony Palace of the Fairy Mountains Park, presumably as reflecting the views of ancient Chinese scholars. Here, Taoism of Laozi (571-531 BC), Buddhism of Sakyamuni Buddha (563-480 BC) and the teaching of Confucius (551-479 BC) were all honored, as each of those sages contributed a different part to an integrated harmony. Laozi’s part is the harmony between human and nature, Buddha’s is the harmony between human and ego, and Confucius’s contribution is the harmony between human and society. Not forgotten in this complex were the folkloric patron saints of the east side (the four supreme commanders) and the patron saints of the west side (four heavenly kings).


Naval base

The history of Penglai is a crucial part of the history of China. From the southern edge of Penglai Pavilion I could see the remnants of the fortified walls that once surrounded Dengzhou. That was the old town which in 1990 was renamed Penglai City.  Dengzhou was located on the northeastern corner of Shandong at the point where the Bohai Sea (Bay) begins in the Yellow Sea, which is itself a part of the East China Sea of the Pacific Ocean. Built in 1376 as a water fortress, Dengzhou was one of China’s oldest military ports. It was the harbor for the imperial war fleet and the town for its garrison.  As a naval base it defended China against foreign sea attacks. It proved useless against the Europeans, however, when they invaded the port soon after the Second Opium War in 1858.  At this same time, the replacement of sail-powered boats by steamships moved most commercial marine activity from Dengzhou to the deep-water port of Yantai, 55 miles to the east.

In its heyday, Dengzhou boasted gray protecting walls crowned by gate towers of three stories instead of the usual two, because the uncle of the first Emperor of the Sui dynasty (589-618 A.D.) was once the “prince” of this territory. The southern section of the city, its center around the harbor was completely razed in 2006 to make room for buildings with modern architecture. The northern part that hugs the sea has been preserved. Here, in the Seaside Square there is a massive new sculpture of the Eight Immortals which is a favorite photo spot for tourists. On the poles , called totem, surrounding it the history of the town is inscribed.

The Ancient Ship Museum nearby displays five ships from 800 years ago. Having been found since 1984 in the Bay of Penglai Sea Castle, these are evidence of the area’s trade, transportation and shipbuilding technology.  In particular, they demonstrate the Chinese invention of crossbeams bracing “ribs” which strengthened the ship and enabled it to better resist wind and waves. A couple of the vessels were Korean. They, too, had ribs, but the Chinese ships were the only ones that, additionally, had the “spine”  and, therefore, were better for battle as cruisers. The Koreans were treated as friends in the Museum displays. The Museum featured a statue of Menzhou Zheng, said to be the man who brought Confucianism to Korea. Before that, a sign said, Koreans did not have “ethical principles.” The Japanese, in contrast, were portrayed as old enemies in Penglai. The restored residence of the favorite local “patriotic” general Qi Jiguang is a tourist attraction, not far from the Ancient Ship Museum. He was a 16th century naval officer from Penglai who made his reputation by battling Japanese pirate ships in the Jiajing-wokou raids of 1547-1567.


 Penglai was the first port on China’s Shandong peninsula which was opened to foreigners upon the defeat in the Opium War. Among the first Westerners to come were American missionaries. In 1861, Jesse Boardman Hartwell arrived and set up Northern China’s first church of Southern Baptist Convention at a Guanyin Temple -Guanyin was the patron goddess of the seafarers. Today, close to Qi Jiguang’s old residence, still stands the Penglai Christian Church . On the day I visited, its bible- school class was nearly full . A Church official told me that it had a congregation of some 700 members and the membership was increasing. An early woman missionary is fondly remembered here. Called Lady Lottie Moon, she was the American Charlotte Digges who came in 1873 and stayed for nearly forty years. She followed local customs, saying that “she would be like the Chinese and wanted to die here.” A stone monument to her is erected next to the church.

Penglai also bestows especial honors on two other American missionaries. Presbyterian Calvin Wilson Mateer and his wife, Julia Brown Mateer, are remembered as “sincere Christians who wanted to help.”  This accolade accompanies their pictures, singled out to hang on the wall of the entrance to a hall which serves in Penglai as a museum of Tengchow College. Tengchow was the Romanized version of the Chinese name Dengzhou in the late 19th century. The museum we were shown, in a modern building in the new part of Penglai, consisted simply of a number of panels in Chinese that told the history of the College. A young woman, standing erect in a formal pose, explained the story on the panels for us, but also in Chinese. Another young woman, an instructor in English at the College, translated.

Tengchow College

Mateer transformed what began as the Tengchow Boys Boarding School into Tengchow College in 1882. He had established the Boys School with six “poor” students in1864, soon after arriving in Tengchow a year earlier. They were offered free board and lodging as well as paper and other study materials. In 1876, the school was renamed Tengchow College which was, at the time, actually a secondary school. Mateer himself compiled the textbooks and taught classes in mathematics, physics, chemistry as well as the Bible, Chinese and English. His wife taught history, geography and music. Some of the “poor boys” from the school graduated to become the school’s executives.

The Mateers had help from other American Presbyterian missionaries.  Among them as shown on the panels in the Tengchow museum, were John Livingston Nevius and Henry Luce Sr. Nevius collaborated with Mateer and Hunter Corbett to develop a method of spreading Christianity that made Shandong the strongest Presbyterian mission in China. Corbett is also credited with establishing in 1864 the Yi Wen Boys Academy at Tengchow which was eventually converted into an institution of higher education as Cheeloo University in 1928, becoming “the first university in China.”  In 1882, however, Tengchow College was the first modern institution of higher learning in China.

Henry Winter Luce and his wife came to Penglai in 1897 and their son, the future publisher of Time magazine, Henry Luce, was born here in 1898.  Henry Luce, Sr. gave up his job as a lawyer in the United States. to convert the “heathen hordes” because he saw China as a laboratory to establish the virtues of America’s “sentimental imperialism.” Some Chinese in Shandong had other plans.  Between 1899 and 1901 China was gripped with the Boxer Uprising, the movement of the militia united in Yihetuan (Righteousness). These were the well-trained, athletic young men whom the American missionaries referred to as “boxers” because of the martial arts and calisthenics they practiced.  The Uprising was fueled by nationalist sentiments and opposition to foreign imperialism and its associated Christian missionary activity.

The Eight-Nation Alliance of foreign powers, after being initially turned back, brought some 20,000 armed troops to China, defeated the Chinese Imperial Army (which had come to side with the Boxer Uprising), captured Beijing and suppressed the Boxers.  In the heyday of that Yihetuan Movement, Tengchow College suffered attacks and damages. Later, the school was moved to Weixian County in the Shandong Province, was renamed Guangwen College and eventually developed into Qilu (Cheeloo) University. The map in the museum showed this progression from Tengchow College to Shantung (Shandong) Protestant University, then to Shantung University, Christian University and, finally, to Cheeloo (Qilu) University. The multiple merges and restructuring of these and a dozen other academic institutions have resulted in today’s Shandong University.

If Tengchow College still exists independently, it was not listed among Penglai’s institutions of higher learning, in a Google search.  Yet our host at the museum said Tengchow was “today the only Christian school in Penglai.” He presented himself as the “Dean of the International Exchange Office” of Tengchow. He said the school had over 7,000 students from all over China, “because of its reputation.” A map in the museum showed how its students had indeed come from all over the country, a measure of Tengchow’s contribution to China’s elite. The Dean’s command of the English language indicated that he had “taught English for 10 years before” his current position. At the luncheon in the museum’s dining room, I sat next to a current instructor of English at the school. She told me that it offered all undergraduate degrees in “communications, management, technology and mechanical engineering.” There were no classes in Christianity. I asked if there were “any missionaries here now?” She replied: “We don’t encourage it but anyone can have his opinion.”


On the walls of this dining room there was only one framed picture . I asked the Dean if that was Confucius. He said “Well, yes, but he lived so long ago, nobody can be sure what Confucius looked like.” In another school building across from the museum, where the Dean first welcomed us, a massive statue of Confucius dominated the lobby. I now asked the Dean: “What principles of Confucius do you consciously follow in the teaching here?” He gave a deflecting response: “Very good question but very hard to answer.” He did not amplify. Instead, he glanced at the person who could have been taken for an old style “minder” from the government and  Communist party, as though seeking approval.

My question was not an idle inquiry. Based on what I had been reading, China has been experiencing a revival of Confucian teaching. This was ignited in part by President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream” which he proposed as a program of national rejuvenation upon taking office in 2011. “To solve China’s problem,” he has argued, “we can only search in the land of China for the ways and means to suit it.” He aims to establish China not just as a strong power, but also as a civilization with its own core values equal to the West’s. He foresees a long-term contest of values and ideologies in which Western political ideas of individual freedom and democracy are rejected by China’s distinct “cultural genes,” manifested in the traditional teachings of Confucius, and his contemporary sage Mencius: commanding respect for elders, filial piety and moral rectitude. This revivalism comes at a time when not only Communist dogma but also Chinese-style capitalism have lost their appeal. The Communists upon taking power in 1949 banned Confucian rituals as “feudal practices” and Mao’s 1966 -1976 Cultural Revolution was also an anti-Confucian campaign. But even before that, the New Cultural Movement of 1915 which was espoused by Christian missionary-educated Chinese, indeed led by Christians such as Dr. Sun Yat-sen, had concluded that China’s weakness was largely due to its conservative Confucian culture. It had sought to build a modern nation based on Western political and scientific thought.

The Mao age’s iconoclasm was only followed by unbridled materialism that, some believe, has led to moral collapse and corruption. President Xi, aware of the lingering strong influence of the Communists, wants to merge Marxist and Maoist ideas with elements of China’s ancient culture to forge a new ideology. Accordingly, under him, the education ministry has decreed that traditional culture and literature, deleted from the curriculum for nearly a hundred years, be taught at all levels of schools in China. They are to be especially a prominent feature of university entrance exams. Textbooks are being revised and teachers retrained to that end. University students are instructed to study “important books of ancient Chinese thought and culture.” Confucius occupies a central place in this plan. He is also a native son in Penglai, having been born in the Shandong Province.



Like President Xi’s China, Penglai appeared to straddle the recent past and a planned future. Nowhere was this more visible than at Haishixi Road/ Haishixi Lu . From the traditional window  of my room at Sanxianshan Hotel, I could see the contrasting Internazionale Hotel of Penglai under construction on the other side of the Road. My hotel was built in a classic Chinese royal style with ancient architecture and decor. It had a lobby gilded with golden decorations and sculptures made of precious woods such as rosewood, scented camphor wood, pear  wood  and jade . Its 150 rooms were furnished with heavy chairs of rosewood and Yangzhou lacquer, and Jingdezhen porcelain. It catered to the wealthy Chinese guests. Yet, it was modest in comparison with the “super luxury” promised by the modern Internazionale Hotel. Sanxianshan Hotel’s own vast size and 150 rooms were dwarfed by the immense edifice of the latter establishment which was expected to have 2,500 guest rooms.

When I stepped out of Sanxianshan Hotel, I had a glimpse of the complex of European-looking buildings on the other side of Haishixi Road. Called Europark, they were Penglai’s answer to Disneyland. For the Internazionale Hotel which they faced, this was the counterpart of Fairy Mountains Park which was just behind Sanxianshan Hotel. Like the Internazionale, the Europark was still an unfinished project. Even the shops of its front part which had apparently opened for business needed much work. The foods it advertised were all Western dishes: pizza, hamburgers and coffee, and the faces of the happy customers in the advertisements were all Western, but it offered slashed admission prices in Chinese-language signs.

Next to the Europark, closer to the Haishixi Road, were rows and rows of multi-story modern buildings, residential but still seemingly unoccupied. City officials claimed they were “70% occupied.”  I crossed the Road and took an alley just behind Sanxianshan Hotel. This was, in contrast, the inhabited part of Penglai. Modest hotels were advertising their rooms  for Chinese guests on signs with pictures. The open stairway in a building looked in urgent need of painting. Breakfast was cooked and served on the sidewalks.  Signs, all in Chinese, were courtesy of “Tsingtao Beer,” spelled in English. A woman carried a bag of groceries on the street with sidewalks of uneven heights. Several passengers were ferried in a make-shift cart rigged on top of a motorcycle. Laundry was strung to dry in front of stores. A neighborhood of small one-story homes indicated an older generation of housing construction from the multi-story buildings across the street. When I completed the loop back to Haishixi Road, the striking orderliness of its wide sidewalks, with the trimmed green shrubberies on their two sides, matched the neat red uniforms of two students striding on their way to school. The happy students at the primary school here, which I visited during their play time, posed for a picture with the inevitable “V” sign. Their narrow eyes and long-shaped face, in this town so close to Manchuria, were distinguished from the more familiar rounded Han Chinese features.

In this new part of town, you could see people jog or do a variety of kung fu . Sanxianshan Hotel was only a few hundred yards away from the beach. I took Haishixi Road just before the sunrise the next morning and stood on the shore of the Yellow Sea, which takes its name from the silt deposited by the sand of the far away Gobi Desert in the rivers that fed the sea. The sky and the sea were a canvas on which the rising sun played a symphony of glorious   colors . I tried not to be distracted by a man behind me who made a loud noise, spitting. I held onto the image of the little boat calmly moving near the shore. A man who was digging in the scraggy edge of the water caught my attention. When I got closer, I saw him shovelling and, every so often, putting something he found into a straw basket that sat next to him. When I looked into the basket I saw worms mixed in with the sand. I learned later that the worms were valuable to the fishermen as they were scarce in the Penglai market.

Planning the Future

I was told that the Bohai Sea that hugs the other side of Penglai had “some of the best sea food” in northern China. This was at a dinner given by the Mayor of Penglai for a group of visiting Americans which had invited me to join. Numerous dishes served on the round turning-table, indeed, testified that Penglai was blessed with plenitude in meat and produce as well. By some estimates, over 80% of the population of Penglai are employed in agriculture. Agricultural products constitute the largest industry in the province of Shandong. For Penglai officials, however, tourism is deemed the primary industry and wine-making the second. The American group was from Sonoma, California, sharing interest in both wine and tourism with Penglai as a “Sister City”.

Penglai Pavilion is classified as a “5A” tourist site by the China National Tourism Administration. That is the highest ranking, reserved for the likes of Mutianyu section of the Great Wall near Beijing. The beaches are also attractions; the visitors I saw at the shores, however, were strolling rather than swimming. Substantial sums have already been invested to develop the Penglai Pavilion’s tourism potentials. The absence of the desired non-Chinese tourists is noticeable. Now efforts are made to exploit the scenic hilly landscape on the outskirts of the urban center. Penglai encourages the extensive project undertaken by the privately-owned Hesheng Agricultural Technology Development Co. to promote “leisure tourism.” We went to see it.

We were received by the manager on the site. In his simple barn-type office, we munched on cucumbers and apples which were among the first products of this farm of “integrated ecological agriculture and ecological tourism.” Self-assured, the manager told us that he was developing “100, 000 Chinese acres” (about 16,500 American acres) of land at this area of rolling hills. We followed him for a brief tour of the headquarters section. A modest inn to our left was all ready to receive the first “leisure tourists” in the near future, as the manager said. Next to it was a simple horse-riding arena. Presently, two horses were produced. The manager mounted one and a horse enthusiast from our group climbed onto the other animal. Equestrians were a type of tourists the farm hoped to attract. The manager now took us to a stable with several horses. The protection of those “national Bohai original breed” horses was one of the goals of the farm. The manager was proud of his “star stud,” a German “warmblooded horse,” which the Hesheng farm had just acquired. “It cost us 5 million euros,” he said as we admired the stud which he had ordered brought out of his stable. “We expect to make 300 babies” by hybrid optimization of the thoroughbred with the Bohai horses, the manager said.


We were told that Hesheng is a Chinese company, “owned by a man who made his money in highway construction.”  From his farm, we drove down a few miles on a dusty road to a building under construction which would be the future home of Chateau Lafite. Its wine was expected to come to market in 2016.  “The foundation of Baron de Rothschild (Lafite) CITIC Winery (Lafite)” in 2012 was billed as a landmark since it “transformed” Penglai into a “hot spot for high-end” wineries. It is said that Lafite chose Penglai because “it is the only coastal wine-producing region in Asia” with the soil, sunshine, and temperature to produce high-quality wines.

The decision to establish “the grape and wine industry” as Penglai’s “core industry” was made by its “municipal party committee and municipal government.” Accordingly, in 2005, the Penglai Grape and Wine Bureau was founded. In Penglai’s middle schools, fifteen-year old students are taught wine-making.  Penglai now boasts “the largest number of grape and wine businesses in China.”  It has 12 “boutique chateaux” and another 11 new chateaux under construction.  We visited one of those completed chateaux (wineries). Called Scottish Castle, it indeed resembled a castle in design and was built into the rocky hills. From its patio you could see some of the vineyards where it grew several vintages of grapes. Inside the Castle we saw what was, in effect, the sometimes residence of the owners, a hedge fund manager from Yorkshire, England and his Taiwanese wife. The Castle also serves as a six-room hotel for guests from around the world. There is, furthermore, a great hall for events like weddings. We examined the antique furniture and climbed the spiral staircase where a colorful mural depicted the old tales of a Scottish explorer who experienced shipwreck on the Penglai shore but was welcomed by the Chinese officials.  On the main floor, around a wooden table, we noticed a few non-Chinese guests sipping the Castle’s wine. In 2005, the winery had its first 35,000 grape vine plants air-freighted from France and planted here. It has since grown a wide variety of grapes, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Grenache and Viognier. “We just didn’t know what types would work,” the owner has said.  In 2010, the winery started selling in the Chinese market it first 5,500 bottles, a Marsalan/Merlot blend called Treaty Port. The name came from the fact that the vineyard is situated near the coastal treaty ports, set up in 1842 by the British for foreign trade after the First Opium War.

That evening we visited a different style of winery-guesthouse establishment. Chateau State Guest served us dinner in the style of the guests of an Emperor of Tang Dynasty (618-907). According to legends the Emperor once visited Penglai and bestowed gifts of wine on his soldiers and civilians alike. Henceforth, the local residents started planting grapes. Chateau State Guest is a splendid Tang Dynasty palace. The award winning wines at our dinner were from Grand Tang Emperor Valley of Penglai. At that dinner, I learned a more plausible version of the Penglai’s wine-grape growing history. The grape from abroad was introduced here by the American missionary Samuel Wells Williams in 1873.  In that year, he happened to serve also as the U.S. Charge d’Affaires in Beijing; later, Williams would become the first American Professor of Chinese studies at Yale University.  The main current varieties of grapes in Penglai today were Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Gemischt, Chardonnay and Merlot.

There are 76 wineries in Penglai. Wealthy Chinese who have made money in other businesses are becoming major players in the wine industry. An example is Wu Feng and his wife Mei Ling who run a Chinese oil company. They are co-owners of Chateau Reifeng-Auzias. Another Chinese family has a much longer history in the area’s wine industry. Chateau Changyu in nearby Yantai traces its background to the Changyu Wine Company established in 1892 by Zhang Bishi. Also known as Cheong Fatt-Tze, a Cantonese businessman, he came to reside in Penang, Malaysia. He built such a huge trading empire there, extending it to China and Indonesia, that the New York Times called him “China’s Rockefeller” just before he died in 1915. By then Changyu was China’s largest wine producer. Its wines won gold medals in that year’s San Francisco’s Pacific Panama Fair of Nations, the first international awards for Chinese wines. Grapes for those wines originally came from France’s Burgundy and Bordeaux regions. The winery has kept its distinction to the present day and has become one of the top 500 industrial enterprises in China. In 1949 the Winery was nationalized.  Built in 2002, Chateau Changyu is now run by China’s bestselling winemaker, Changyu Pioneer Wine of Yantai.

The Chinese are still a nation of beer drinkers. In Penglai’s streets the signs for Tsingtao were everywhere. From 2002 China has been the world’s largest beer market, but only since 2011 it has been the world’s 5th largest wine market. To be a bigger player in the world’s wine market, it needs to export more. This explains the need for promoting participation in its wine industry by fine winemakers from abroad. Major foreign wine companies such as Lafite bring not just expertise but, equally important, they also have established access to foreign markets.


It would be audacious for a first time visitor to draw conclusions about Penglai from limited observations during a short trip. First hand contact, on the other hand, can provide some insight which might serve in understanding, and perhaps assessing, the current conventional generalizations about Penglai and even China. In Penglai I have found enough evidence not to dismiss offhand the following propositions. Tradition, legends, folklore, Taoism and Confucianism, all in an undifferentiated mix, still hold an important place in Chinese imagination and beliefs. Order and safety and the absence of signs of unrest indicate a stable environment.  Big projects are undertaken with the approval of governing bodies, indeed sometimes at their direction. The entrepreneurial motto of “build them they will come” was followed in the recent period of phenomenal growth. There has been overbuilding of infrastructures which are now underused. The phase of development emphasizing investment is giving way to the phase where emphasis has to be on expanding consumption. The need for contact and trade with the outside world is felt while generating pride in indigenous values has become another focus of attention. In all of these, Penglai presents a reflection of what is said also of China as a whole. In that sense, Penglai is a “mirage” of China.

The Museum that is Luxor


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2011. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise   distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.

_____________________________________________________________________________ abstract:Luxor is where Egypt showcases its antiquities. In what is called the largest outdoor museum in the world, the monuments to life and afterlife in ancient Egypt are on display. There are temples to worship gods, temples to worship pharaohs, and tombs of pharaohs so designed as to enable them to travel after death with gods in the underworld. The monuments were built over many centuries in this long-lasting pharaonic religious capital. Their remaining walls, columns, statues, and reliefs stand as witness to times long bygone. Even the scars they bear tell tales. They have been damaged by invaders from Persia,Greece,Rome, and Arabia. The town that hosts them is now a Muslim community. It has its own evolving story as it is overshadowed by all the fuss of the glamorous ruins it contains.


“Tourists no longer stay overnight inLuxor. They stay on the cruise boats that bring them fromCairo, or come toLuxorjust for a day by bus, to see the ruins of antiquities,” my host said wistfully as he drove us from the airport on the Suzanne Mubarak road. I was lucky to stay at his hotel in town. This gave me the opportunity to see what was left in the town ofLuxoritself, neglected by the crowd that came only for the temples and tombs of ancientThebes. The hotel’s few other guests were mostly low budget travelers. Young Romanian men doubled up in rooms that went for less than $30 a night. The hotel billed itself as “a three star hotel but with the feel of a five star hotel.” It was cozy. One night after dinner, the owner asked us how we liked the food, then he brought out his new chef. The lad of twenty-something lined up with his crew of three in their chefs’ white hats, a bit awkwardly, as we applauded them. The street in front of us was divided by an island. Shrubbery had been planted on the island. Amidst them were some big plastic mushrooms, presumably to remind you of the marshland of the Nilenearby. The temperature on this October day, however, hovered around 100 degrees; the pavement shimmered in the sun. The bigger hotel on the other side of the street seemed empty. The quiet of the street was broken by the click clacks of caleche, horse driven carriages, more often than the occasional passing cars. At dawn I was awakened by azan, the call to prayer, broadcast on loud speakers in the neighborhood mosques. I walked on the balconies that rounded the floor where my room was located to see who else was up. There were no lights on in any of the nearby buildings. My host was generous. Our hotel room was free. We were third party beneficiaries of his favor to a mutual friend who told us “he owes me for the favors I did for him.” The friend, Ahmed, laughed over his bowl of cereal which he had brought with him for breakfast due to “his conditions;” we ate the local bread and cheese. An expatriate Egyptian, he was here to “give back by helping finance” a modest sanitation project undertaken in cooperation with the local government. He had just come from Alexandria where he attended a bigger “charity-cultural event,” presided over by Mrs. Mubarak. Ahmed showed the picture he had taken with her. He was pleased when I joked that he was becoming Mr. Egypt in the U.S.

My group had a similar mission inAswanand Ahmed had invited us to learn from his experience inLuxor. That is how I got to meet the governor ofLuxor. The governor was famous as he had been in charge of creating “the world’s biggest outdoor museum” in the miles of treasured antiquities here, contained in the fabled Temples of Karnak andLuxor, the tombs of theValley of the Kings, and the Colossals of Memnon. A shiny late model big black BMW was parked at the entrance to the governor’s office but he was surprisingly without pretensions. He received us promptly, standing in the middle of the room and shaking hands with each one. Muscularly built, he still had the erect bearing of an army general. This former career also showed in his straight forward manners. We sat down to business immediately. He spoke in excellent English. He made a brief reference to his efforts to “improve tourism,” and his determination to turn the nearly two mile long “Alley of Sphinxes,” which connects the temples ofKarnakandLuxor, into “an all pedestrian road.” He quickly moved to the needed “health projects” inLuxorwhich were the agenda for this meeting. This was past eight in the evening. The governor works late. An aide came in and, inexplicably, turned in the television set that was on a corner of the office. Nobody looked that way. A few minutes later, the aide entered again and whispered something in the governor’s ear. The governor had one phone on the other ear; soon he had a phone on the second ear as well. We paused. When we resumed we concluded the agenda for tomorrow. The governor called in another aide. As the latter stood, conspicuously respectfully, taking notes on a pad, the governor issued several instructions to implement the agenda. I tagged along for some parts. The next evening we met the local notables at a dinner given on behalf of the governor. One was a woman physician who was running for the national legislature. This was the election season and I had noticed her face among the posters around town. Someone commented that the governor was immune to voters’ vagaries as his position was not elective. The venue was a garden restaurant which, coincidentally for us, featured a Nubian house  from the Aswan area. I was attracted to a green soup on the menu. “It is from the plant we call melokiyah; the soup from this mallow plant is called Jew’s Juice here,” the man sitting next to me said. He had once served as the press attaché at the Egyptian Embassy in Washington. “Incidentally,” he continued, “it is in the ruins of the Temple of Merenptah near here that the only mention of Israel in ancient Egyptian texts has been found. In that “Israel Stele,” Merenptah, who became the Pharaoh in 1213 B.C., says that he defeated the Israelites.” An American-Egyptian food historian sat on my other side. She pointed to karkady (hibiscus tea) that was being served now with lots of sugar, the way the Egyptians like it: “Sugar cane is unique to Egypt; other Mediterranean countries did not have it. It came from Persia.”  That was the only reference I heard inLuxor to the long Persian occupation ofEgypt (525 BC- 404 BC, and two shorter periods later), historic as it effectively ushered in the end of the Pharaonic period. The former press attaché invited me to see “the first library of Egyptology” that had been recently opened inLuxor. It boasted of having “10,000 books.” Not surprisingly, it is called the Mubarak Public Library. Mrs. Mubarak is the chair of its board of directors. At the entrance was a picture of the President himself, about three times life size and that many times younger than he actually looks now. In the shiny lobby of the library we walked down a few steps, dodging a poorly designed overhang, to enter the auditorium. A heavily accented British announcer told us about the glory of ancientThebesin a video production full of sound and images. Then we stepped out to examine the work in progress on the Avenue of Sphinxes just in the back of the library. It was dusty and dry there. Only one pedestal had kept its sphinx in the immediate vicinity, but there were more on pedestals in the distance as the Avenue cut through the town. I saw other parts of this Avenue the next day as we drove to theTempleofKarnak. My tour guide was highly critical of the demolition of the buildings and neighborhoods that the project for the recovery of the Avenue required. “People were forced to leave their homes, communities have been torn apart, and churches have been destroyed.” She pointed to a church that, she said, was next to go. She was a Copt. Her people, early Christians, see themselves as the immediate successors of “ancient Egyptians,” she said. Indeed, Copt is “the Western pronunciation of the Arabic Qibt, which is derived from the Greek word for Egyptian aegyptios,” she continued. The Coptic language, which is still used in religious ceremonies, is rooted in both Egyptian hieroglyphs and Ancient Greek. Its alphabet was founded on the Greek alphabet but it has seven characters taken from hieroglyphs. The Coptic calendar is “based on the ancient Egyptian calendar,” the guide said, “it has the same months but seven days in a week instead of ten.” Constituting about 10% of the population ofEgypt, the Copts are the only significant religious minority in the country. They have played an important role in tourism from the West. MyLuxor tour guide was well known by her colleagues, one of whom told us that her grandfather was the best tour guideLuxor ever had. “He was legendary for his love and knowledge of antiquities. He used to refer to himself as ‘the George of the time before Christ’.” The more recentLuxorthat has been fast changing was best recorded in the photography of another illustrious Coptic native son, Attaya Gaddis. His works, beginning from 1907, are on display in his studio’s original location under the veranda of theOldWinterPalace. That Palace was once a favorite of King Farouk. When I visited it, affluent guests were at the pool-side which was cooled by big fans. Gaddis’s grandson showed me some of his old photos, including one that was taken as the famous treasures were being brought out of the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun. One of Attaya Gaddis “specialties,” I was told, was photographing British soldiers as they arrived inEgyptduring World War Two. His family has maintained their special relationship with the British. The British Consulate inLuxoris the family’s tenant. Ahmed pointed out a special group of British citizens who might need the Consulate’s assistance today. They were older widows who come here “to marry young Egyptians. They don’t mind if their Egyptian husband has other wives. They pay for the husband’s expenses. They are called ‘working wives.’” On the street not far from my hotel I saw examples of them sitting on a chair in front of their stores. I walked into one souvenir store, called “San Karas Bazar (sic),” attracted by the signs in its windows: “Hassel (sic) Free Shop,” and “50% Descound (sic).”  The young salesclerk indeed left me alone to browse. He was busy reading a coffee-table size book. The book was a school text on Egyptology. George, as he called himself, told me that he was studying to be a tour guide. George and I sat down and compared notes about the history ofLuxor; he had no customers during this time.
Touring the town of Luxor, I was conscious of the fact that I was at the periphery of what mattered in this place as far as the outside world was concerned. “Luxor” was only one of the outer layers. It was the name that the Arabs gave (after the 7th century) to what the Greeks (332-30 BC) had called Thebes. The Romans who came between those two foreign occupiers (30 BC-396 AD), had built a military fort around the smaller of the two existing ancient Egyptian temples, now known as the Luxor Temple. Luxor is Arabic (Al-Uqsur) for “fortifications”. The Arabs’ name for the other temple here,Karnak, also connotes the “fortified settlement” which they perceived from seeing its imposing columns. These two temples, however, were “houses of gods” built by Pharaohs, mostly between 1550 and 1069 B.C., in their mostly religious capital of Waset. The decline of Waset mirrored the demise of Pharaonic rule when the split between Lower (Nile) Egyptin the north and Upper Egyptin the south became irreparable. Foreign powers took control, beginning with the Persians, followed by the Greeks, and then the Romans. Early Christians built their churches in the temples, carving crosses on the walls and erasing reliefs of the pagan gods. Toward the end of the 4th century, when the occupying Roman Empire adopted Christianity, ancient Egypt finally died. In particular, the knowledge of the “pagan” hieroglyphs that transmitted its culture was lost for more than a millennium. Luxor became a large village primarily known for its 12th century Muslim “holy man,” Shaikh Abu al-Haggag. Aside from his mosque, mud-brick settlements clung to the once mighty stone temples. “Egyptomania” changed all that. Napoleon arrived in 1798 and decided to revive Egypt’s greatness. The publication of the Description de l’Egypte, a collection by the scholars who accompanied him, revivedEurope’s interest inEgypt. Exhibitions of mummies and other funerary artifacts from the Theban tombs madeLuxor a subject of increasing curiosity. By 1869 when the first large group of tourists was brought toEgypt by Thomas Cook,Luxor was a popular destination. My interlocutor, George, now smiled. He would pass his exam in Luxor’s history, I said.
Temple of Karnak
The sign at the entrance to the Temple of Karnak tells you the names of the pharaohs who contributed to its construction over 1,500 years. Beginning around 2000 B.C., Karnak, together with the smaller Temple of Luxor connected to it two miles south by the Avenue of Sphinxes, evolved into the largest religious complex ever built by man. Their ruins occupy an area large enough to contain ten cathedrals in the heart of the town ofLuxortoday. The sheer size of the many columns still standing in the Karnak Temple dwarfed the tourists present from many countries on the day of our visit. We were soon lost in the jumble of walls, monolithic stone obelisks, and statues, covered with hieroglyphics writings and pictorial freezes. It was hard to make sense of it all, even with the help of our tour guide. We tried nonetheless, because they were invaluably informative about ancientEgypt. Karnakand LuxorTempleswere dedicated to the local deity Amun who was elevated to dominance among all ancient Egyptian gods during the reign of the local, “Middle Kingdom” dynasty. The Templesremained the religious capital of Egyptthereafter, deemed to be The Most Esteemed of Places (Ipet-Sut). As depicted in some of the reliefs in theTemples, Amun had eventually absorbed the aura of another major deity, Ra, the god of the sun, henceforth assuming the combined name Amun-Ra. He shared his “house” inKarnak, however, with two other gods: in addition to the “Amun Enclosure,” theKarnakTemple has two smaller Enclosures, one for his wife, Goddess Mut, and the other for their son, the Moon God Khonsu. The Amun Enclosure is connected to the Mut Enclosure by an Avenue guarded by ram-headed sphinxes. Ram was Amun’s sacred animal. These Sphinxes “were built by Ramses II, whose statue stands between the paws of each sphinx. The Egyptians thought of sphinx as guardians. The main attractions in theTempleofKarnakwere in the Amun Enclosure. Just outside its entrance was a ditch showing the canal that connected this place to theNile. There were also mud piles and brick walls next to the unused stones. These were for a ramp of the type employed to drag the stones delivered on theNileup with rollers for construction of the several pylons (truncated towers) of the Enclosure.

Inside the first pylon was theGreat Courtwhich is the largest area of the Enclosure. On one corner of the Court were the three chapels that held the sacred barques (boats) of Amun, Mut, and Khonsu, used during the Opet Festival which was the main religious annual event held in the Temple. “TheKarnakTemplefollowed the basic design of other temples of ancientEgypt,” our guide said. There was a processional way that passed through a series of courts and led to the sanctuary. After the second pylon we saw a statue of that pylon’s builder Pharaoh Ramses II, in the typical pose of arms crossed at the wrist. Between his legs and on his feet stood a smaller statue of his daughter, Bent’anta. We walked to a great hall with many papyrus-shaped stone pillars. “There are 134 of them,” the guide said. This Hypostyle Hall (with a flat ceiling) symbolized a papyrus swamp, which were common along theNile. “When theNileflooded, during summer, this hall with its columns was submerged under water.” On the back of the third pylon there was a freeze of the pharaoh sailing the sacred barque during the Opet Festival that took place in theNile’s inundation season.  In other freezes scenes of “victories over enemies, Lebanese, Canaanites,” were depicted. In the court after the fourth pylon, the famous female Egyptian Pharaoh Hatshepsut had erected two obelisks in honor of Amun. Thirty meters high, these monoliths fromAswanwere the tallest obelisks at the time; and the one still standing is the tallest surviving obelisk in Egypt. Its survival is paradoxically due to the efforts of her stepson and successor pharaoh, TuthmosisIII, who wished to eradicate all signs of her reign. He “wanted to destroy her obelisk but the God said no, so he had a sandstone wall built around it and that has preserved it,” our guide said. This obelisk, nevertheless, showed signs of partial obliteration of Hatshepsut’s images. The guide showed us the other Hatshepsut obelisk that was on the ground. This obelisk had several carvings of Amun. In one a pharaoh was kneeling before him. “That is Hatshepsut in the double-crown of Pharaohs, and Amun is crowning her” our guide said. In another, Amun was depicted holding Hatshepsut who was wearing the “white crown” this time. “Note that Hatshepsut is wearing a false beard and the kilt that male pharaohs wore; she was trying to enhance her legitimacy as a king since Egyptian kings were commonly male” the guide said. She added “and note that the beard is straight which means that the person depicted here is alive, while the dead pharaohs were depicted with curled beard”. Further, past the sixth pylon we came to two huge statues of Amun and the goddess Amunet. She was an early consort of Amun who was later overshadowed by Mut, but “remained locally important inThebesas a protector of the pharaoh,” our guide said. We were now at the entrance to “the Sacred Barque Sanctuary,” the very core of the temple where the Amun resided. It has since been redecorated by the Greek Philip Arrhidaeus (323-317), Alexander the Great’s half-brother, and successor inEgypt. Behind the sanctuary was a huge “Festival Hall” with carved stone columns patterned after tent poles  and beyond that was the “Botanical Garden,” so called because its walls were covered with of reliefs of fauna and flora that the pharaohs found in Syria and Palestine. Freezes of lotus, symbolizingLower Egypt, and papyrus, symbolizingUpper Egypt, were on the walls throughout the temple. The Botanical Garden was followed by the SacredLakewhere the priests of the temple bathed daily for ritual purity. On the bank of the lake we saw a giant stone sculpture of a scarab. The dung beetle was considered sacred by ancient Egyptians as the earthly symbol of heavenly cycle. “They believed it pushed the sun through the sky in the same way it pushed a ball of dung on the ground,” our guide said. She pointed out a small crowd of tourists gathered around the stone scarab. “They go around (yutoof) it because some guides tell them this brings good luck.” That evening I joined the throng that watched an extravaganza of light and sound aboutThebesstaged in an amphitheater setting beyond theSacredLake. As entertainment it was kitsch. As a learning experience it was disappointing. Like many tourists I had come many miles toLuxor. I searched for at least a rudimentary understanding of ancientEgypt. TheKarnakTempleproved that the task would be tedious. My notes seemed pedantic. I could see no alternative, however, but to continue. Incomplete and disjointed as my observations would turn out to be, they reflected on the shreds of the past that existed before me. They opened a door even if they might fail adequately to explain the contents of the room. My studied impression of what I would see had a distinct value not available except through this on-site visit.  

Temple of Luxor

Man-faced sphinxes protected the two sides of the nearly ten- meters wide, straight road that connected the Temple of Karnak to the Temple of Luxor three kilometers away. The entrance to the Temple of Luxor was flanked by two huge standing and one seated statues of Ramses II (1279-1213 B.C.), who added this part to the temple, which was begun by AmenhotepIII(1386-1349 B.C.). An even taller obelisk  stood like a sentry to the left. The obelisk, with a design — maximum height for minimum base — calculated to catch the first ray of the rising sun was meant to dramatize the illuminating and life-giving power of the sun-god Ra. It marked this place as a temple of Amun-Ra. (The Luxor obelisk once had a pair on the right side of the entrance to the Temple. That is now standing in Place de la Concorde inParis, following a tradition that went back to the early Roman Emperors. As devotes of Mithraism, those new solar rulers of the Mediterranean moved ancient Egyptian obelisks and erected more of their own in Alexandria and Rome,  including one in theVatican’s St. Peter square.) The first court in the Temple of Luxorhad walls with reliefs depicting scenes of the pharaoh “making offerings to the gods.” As your attention was drawn to the lotus capitals of the court’s rows of double columns you noticed an incongruous structure. It was the 12th century Mosque of Abu al-Haqqaq jutting up on the southern side. As soon became apparent, this was not the only foreign intrusion into the Temple’s ancient Egyptian architecture. Beyond a colonnade of papyrus columns, there were walls on the left side with reliefs dating from 1400 B.C., depicting in detail the procession in the Opet festival. The pharaoh was shown joined by nobles and common people. There were even acrobats  and drummers  among them. Next was a court with a flat ceiling supported by four rows of eight columns each. This lead to the core rooms of the temple. The first chamber had been the sanctuary of Amun, but the Romans had since painted it over with the images of their own leaders . On either side of it were the chapels of Mut and Khonsu. After a four column antechamber, where offerings were made, one could see the “Barque Shrine of Amun. Alexander the Great had since rebuilt this one. Reliefs on the walls portrayed him as an Egyptian pharaoh, receiving the “double crown” of unified, Upper and Lower,Egypt. The Temple of Luxor was developed as Amun’s southern ipet (harem), his private quarters. It was the abode of Amenemopet, the ithyphallic Amun of the Opet, as his image with an erect penis indicates. It served as a central focus of the Opet celebration, when the statues of Amun, Mut and Khonsu were transported here from their home in theTemple ofKarnak to be reunited with the statue of Amun of Opet, to symbolize fertility and rejuvenation.  This entailed an elaborate procession that took two to four weeks during theNile’s flooding season. The priests carried the cult images of the three gods on their shoulders along the Avenue of Sphinxes. The pharaoh was the high priest and the ceremony reaffirmed his close ties with Amun and thus enhanced his authority. My guide pointed out other evidence of the pharaohs’ efforts to associate themselves with Amun: their names. Thus, “Tutankhamun’s name which contains Amun means ‘the living image of Amun’; and his grandfather’s name Amenhotep II means ‘Amun is content’.” Names were important. The majority of the hieroglyphic inscriptions which you see in these temples are basically repetitions of the names and titles of gods and the pharaohs,” our guide said. “The loss of one’s name meant elimination from history. So the Pharaohs went to great lengths to protect their names. They wrote their names in a rectangular fortress wall known as serekh. This later evolved into the oval-shaped cartouche, which is French for cartridge.” She pointed to a rare set of statues of Tutankhamun and his child bride and said “Ramses I erased Tutankhamun’s name and replaced it with his own cartouche.” The names of those Pharaohs have long lost their aura of divinity and power. A part of their Opet ceremony, however, survives in Islamic Luxor. It is reenacted during the moulid (birthday celebration) of Abu al-Haggag, the holy man who brought Islam here eight centuries ago. A highlight of this three day festival is pulling a felucca boat through town and around the Mosque in theTemple ofLuxor.


The Governor of Luxor sent a van to take us to the pharaohs’ Funerary Temples and Tombs on theWest Bankof theNile. The few miles we drove by the river to the bridge that crossed over from theWest Bankwere surprisingly verdant .  The driver and Mohamed, from the governor’s public relations office who accompanied him, were disciplined. Both refused our repeated attempts to tip them.  They were not tour guides. We picked up a staff of the antiquities office at the ruins of the first funerary temple we visited. He barked some disjointed references to the “Memnon” and left us soon, seemingly as frustrated as we were with our inability to communicate with each other. His exact role remained undefined. What we were seeing were the Colossi of Memnon, the two largest monolithic statues ever carved, each from a single block of stone fifty feet high and weighing nearly one thousand tons. They were so called by the ancient Greeks who mistook them as belonging to the legendary African king, Memnon, who was slain by Achilles during the Trojan War. In fact they were only part of the largest funerary temple ever built by a pharaoh. AmenhotepIII(1390-1352) who developed theLuxorTemplefor worshiping the god Amun, constructed this funerary temple as a place where he himself would be worshiped after death. Over time the adobe material used in the temple dissolved as it was flooded every year, and its stones were removed by later pharaohs for their own projects. Both of the Colossi are statues of AmenhotepIII, but figures of his wife and mother are carved in front of his throne along his legs. Excavation, which we saw was still continuing, has revealed the existence of six sets of other massive statues, and also, behind this temple, theTempleofMerenptahwho became Pharaoh in 1213 B.C. It is here that the “Israel Stele” was found. Back in the van, we were stopped by an American woman, riding her bicycle on that hot road, who asked directions to an antiquities site. Mohamed pointed to some houses on the hills across the road. In broken English, he explained that they were mostly 300 year old structures which might have to be removed eventually since they had been built on top of the Tombs of the Nobles, so as to uncover those relics of antiquities. This was a controversial project as the current residents of those homes complained that their community would thus be broken even though they were promised better housing in the new settlement several miles away. Like the biker, we continued the rest of our visit that day without a tour guide. We were now in an area so secluded that the early Christians founded a monastery here. Deir al-Bahri (the Monastery of the North) was also where Pharaoh Montuhotep II (2055-2004), had built the first funerary temple in this region. What attracts tourists today, however, is another funerary temple which it inspired: the majestic Temple of Hatshepsut, built five hundred years later. One reason for the attraction is the dramatic setting. The backdrop for the temple is the lion-colored limestone cliffs that rise about 1000 feet from the desert plain. They hug a monument partly carved from the cliffs that oddly appears contemporary today. This, however, was the work of ancient Egyptians who called it Djeser-djeseru (Most Holy of Holies). Located at the site of an old shrine to Hathor (the Goddess of Love), it directly faces theTemple ofAmun atKarnak across the Nile. The legend about the Pharaoh who built this as a funerary memorial to herself is no less dramatic. She isEgypt’s only female pharaoh, unless one counts the Macedonian Cleopatra who took the throne one thousand years later. After the death of her husband, who was also her stepbrother, Hatshepsut became the regent of his only surviving son, a minor, from another wife. In fact, however, she ruled as a Pharaoh herself for thirty years even after her stepson reached majority, now as his co-Pharaoh. This she could do because of her royal lineage, on her mother’s side, from past pharaohs. The lineage, however, is believed to be also responsible for the decision by her stepson, TuthmosisIII, to order that all references to her be wiped out after her death, so as to ensure the succession by his own descendants who did not have the same royal lineage. Hatshepsut’s names and images had been erased in this temple; as they were also in the Templeof Karnak. The Christians’ defacing of the “pagan” reliefs has caused additional damage. What remains in the Templeof Hatshepsut, however, is still impressive and informative. Some statues of her stood at the pillar of the Temple A custodian in the traditional galabeya dress who spoke no English took me to see Hatshepsut’s disfigured image, standing next to her husband Tuthmosis II in the Chapel of Anubis (the jackal-faced god who protected the dead), at the end of the north colonnade on the first floor. Other reliefs here showed Hatshepsut’s divine birth. In one Hathor was depicted as a cow with a crown of horns and sun’s disc (in her guise as the sun god’s daughter)  licking Hatshepsut’s hand [50]. In another Hatshepsut was shown drinking directly from Hathor’s udder. In yet another relief Hatshepsut was in the presence of Horus, the god of the sky, who was depicted as a man with a falcon head. On the left side of the entrance we saw reliefs of men carrying myrrh trees for incense used in temple ceremonies. The trees were from Punt, a land whose exact location is still not known. “This is a scene of celebration because people were able to bring henna fromSomaliaand make money by selling it,” a fellow tourist who said he had studied these and adjacent reliefs told us. There were more recognizable scenes in the other reliefs nearby:  a pair of obelisk was being transported, from the quarry inAswan.

Valley of the Kings

As he erased signs of Hatshepsut’s reign, Thutmosis IIIwas making sure that he would be well taken care of after his own death. His tomb down the road from his late stepmother’s funerary temple is one of the most elaborate in the Valley of the Kings. Thutmosis has remained in good company there. The tombs of 63 Pharaohs have been discovered in the Valley so far. On the day I went there, these tombs had many guests. We boarded the tuf-tuf (windowless little electric cabins) to go from the visitors’ center to the tombs which were on both sides of the Valley, a dry canyon enclosed by limestone hills. The Al-Qurn (the Horn) mountain peak dominated the area. One could visualize the sun setting behind it, making this the appropriate site associated with the afterlife in the imagination of ancient Egyptians. The other appeal of the isolated and narrow Valley was that the tombs and their valuable contents could thus be better protected, especially against the thieves. To that end, ThutmosisIII, who was among the pioneers here, chose a nearly inaccessible location for his tomb. The design of his tomb was also exemplary in attempting to thwart would be thieves. We walked on a path off the main road that cut through sharp limestone rocks, climbed a steep staircase, and crossed a deep ravine to reach the entrance to the tomb. Inside there was a long passageway with a series of angles ending in a bridge of planks, over a steep ditch, at the other end of which was the antechamber of the tomb. Behind this was the oval burial chamber. It contained a cartouche-shaped quartzite. This was ThutmosisIII’s sarcophagus. His mummy was not here; it had been moved toCairo’sEgyptianMuseum. Instead we were greeted by a custodian. He was now spending most of his life in this 150 feet deep hole. He was friendly and in good spirit. A fan was moving the otherwise stagnant air. The walls in the corridors and chambers of the tomb were decorated with scenes from the imagined underworld of the afterlife and the pharaoh’s existence in it. There were boats, musicians, and images of gods and demigods. The blue color of the ceiling in a chamber recalled the sky. These decorations depicted what was described in the ancient Egyptians’ Book of the Dead, a collection of works that included The Book of Gates, The Book of Amduat (that which is in the underworld), and The Litany of Ra. This collection was about the journey of the dead souls who accompanied the sun god on his “sacred barque” through the darkness of the night (the land of the god Osiris), with each segment of the time guarded by a separate demigod. To reach rebirth at dawn, the pharaoh had to know the demigods’ names to get past them. The decorations we saw were to provide the pharaoh with visual help toward such knowledge. The pharaoh’s tombs were also stocked with food, drinks, provisions, and treasures which they would need in the underworld. None of that was left in Thutmosis III’s tomb or the tombs of two other pharaohs I visited in the Valley of the King, Ramses IIIand Ramses IX. The explanation for this was provided as early as the eleventh century by Nasir Khusraw, the Persian traveler from Marv, Central Asia, in his book Safarnameb (The Book of Travels), who among other places inEgypt visited Qus, nearLuxor, in 1050:

“The Sultan had a servant  … who was the commander of the mutalebiyan and was very rich and wealthy. Mutalebiyan are those who search for treasures and buried treasures in the holes of Egypt. People come from the Maqreb (Islamic countries west of Egypt), and the lands of Syria and Egypt and everyone toils in those holes and rubble of Egypt and spend fortunes. And there were many who found treasures and buried treasures, and many who incurred great expenses and did not find anything. For they say that in these locations the pharaoh’s wealth are buried. And if one finds something there, he must pay one-fifth to the Sultan and the rest will be his.”

The fabled treasures of Tutankhamun were found in his tomb in the Valley of the Kings in the twentieth century, but they have been taken to Cairo’s Egyptian Museum. His mummy was left in its coffin in situ, but Tutankhamun’s tomb is not remarkable otherwise, our guide assured us. We could not see for ourselves as that day Tutankhamun’s tomb was among those “being serviced for maintenance” based on a rotating program. Instead we went to see the house of the famous archeologist who discovered Tutankhamun’s treasures in 1922. It was a few miles away. In the middle of barren land a pleasant garden hosted a domed one-story adobe . Howard Carter lived here. He spent six years searching and digging for the tomb of Tutankhamun. The man who financed his work, Lord Carnarvon , almost gave up on him. Carter did not give up. He found what he sought in a last attempt. Tutankhamun’s tomb was in the only hitherto unexplored area, covered by his crew’s hut. I sat  behind Carter’s desk in his house marveling at man’s dedication to discovery. _________________________________________________________________ This article, entitled “ The Museum that is Luxor”, was published on the following website of on February 28, 2011, with related pictures:

Cairo’s Present is in the Past


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2011. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise  distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.



In a sense, all that we can know is only about the past. The present becomes the past as soon as the  proverbial ink used to write about it dries upon the page. This piece about Cairo in October 2010 is, of course, no exception. It might have value in shedding some light on the dying days of what is now ancient regime  –the handwriting was already on the wall. But it is about a more enduring distant past.


e narrow opening of a brief tour which inevitably allowed only episodic observations. abstract: The story of today’s Cairo is writ in the past. It is not just the Pyramids and the Sphinx of ancient times, it is also the monuments of Cairo’s Islamic history that make it so “now”. Here lie the double-tale symbols of the Sunni-Shiite clash and co-existence, as well as the fault lines of both “extremism” and “moderation” in a resurgent Islam that now preoccupies the concerns of much of the world. The visitors who flock to see the likes of Tutankhamun’s jewels are at peril of remaining innocent for ignoring all others that Cairo has to offer. This is my glimpse of the whole panorama thorough horough the narrow opening of a brief tour which inevitably allowed only episodic observations.



He sat in warm-up clothes and tennis shoes in the seat next to me on the plane. His smile that solicited a friendly response made his face pleasant. “I am returning to Egypt after twenty years,” he said in halting English. He had been “in business” in New Jersey, but was now retired. He showed me his American passport as though it was a trophy for a proud accomplishment. He was going “home” just for a visit. He stared into the distance as he said “my sisters will be at the airport”. He was almost giddy in anticipation of seeing changes that he knew had taken place in his absence, but almost nostalgically wishing that things had remained mostly the same as he remembered them.

The map selection on the monitor before me began with a page showing a plane with an arrow on its right pointing to “Mecca, 6345 miles”. In the row next to me a woman wearing the head scarf of Egyptian Islamic hejab (clothes of modesty) began her prayers soon after the plane took off, by holding her hands open before her face and whispering under her breath. Her two small daughters chatted in colloquial English, their little pink carry-on bags loose under their feet.

“Our flight will be a little over eleven hours,” the announcer said. “We will arrive on time in Cairo,” she assured us as the plane shook violently in the turbulent sky.


“There is my name,” said the man to his woman companion. They stood near me as we were about to disembark in the terminal from the bus that transferred us from the plane on the tarmac. The man was pointing to one of several signs held up inside the terminal at the Cairo airport. Travel agents were welcoming their VIPcharges and whisking them away before we went through the passport checkpoint. There were also two windows for the Bank of Egypt here. The experienced tourists rushed toward them. You paid $15 and got the slip that the passport officials honored by giving you the visa to enter Egypt.

The information desk in the arrival lobby told me taxis were metered. “Just walk outside. Taxis are there.” Outside, the road was divided by a barrier. A taxi spotted me immediately and stopped in the slow traffic on the other side of the divider. We negotiated the fare, shouting across the barrier.  No metering. Now he wanted me to cross over the barrier. He had come over and taken hold of my bags. The taxi looked battered. The Cabby threw my luggage in the back seat. I sat next to him. He put his seatbelt on. “Where is mine,” I asked looking for the my seatbelt. We communicated largely in sign language. “You don’t have one,” he indicated, “only the driver.”

We started on the long, perilous drive toward my hotel. The driver paid no heed to the lines dividing the road into lanes, or to other drivers who similarly challenged colleagues in their battered little cars.

The Cabby now turned the radio up full blast. The music was contemporary Egyptian rap. Several CDs were on the dashboard. “Do you have any Abdel Wahab,” I dared start a conversation. “Who?” I repeated: “Abdel Wahab, or Umm Kulthum?” It took a few seconds for him to figure out my different pronunciation. “How do you know these people,” he asked incredulously. “No American knows them.” I had told him that I had come from America. Those were famous Egyptian singers of the past. He respected them but today he did not have any of their recordings. He laughed and continued our conversation in another direction: “Bush very bad; Obama very good.” I asked him about the President of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak. He looked at me, then he turned his head and spitted out of the window. “Mubarak very bad.” I persisted. “How about his son?”  (He is rumored to want to succeed Mubarak.) “Gamal Mubarak very good,” the cab driver said.

He expanded his role to guide to landmarks of Cairo as we drove forward, pointing out mosques and other major monuments. “Qahira Jadid,” which meant New Cairo, he pointed to an area. To encourage him to concentrate on driving, I told him that I would give him a big tip if he got me safe to the hotel. He may have appreciated the incentive but did not show it in his actions.



I showed the receptionist my “Hilton HHonors” card and requested a room on the opposite side of the noisy street, as I had been advised to do by the travel agency that had made the reservation for me. The young man played with his monitor a few minutes and said “I have a room for you. It is on the second floor.” I asked if he was giving me the side I requested. “The room is on the street side. If you want the river side, I will look.” He did and then said “I have a room on the 21st floor with a river view and breakfast included in the executive floor. If you want it you have to pay extra.” After much negotiation we settled on a compromise.

I hauled my luggage through the smoke-filled lobby, crowded with foreign tourists. My room had two balconies. They overlooked a scenic part of the Nile . I opened the door and went out to a balcony to enjoy the view. The smog and noise proved too much of a challenge. I went to bed for some sleep after a very long flight from San Francisco.

At the Terrace Café serving breakfast, one of the several hosts soon claimed me. Without a word, he took me to a table next to the window hidden behind a pole. A little while later he came back and asked: “All OK?” I gave him a tip. He thanked me. When I was about to leave, he said: “When tomorrow?” I said between 7 and 8. He told the waiter to “reserve this table” for me for the next few days.

I asked the concierge to show me the best way to walk to Cairo’s famous old bazaar, Khan-e Khalili. He said it was too far, “take a taxi!” Then he turned to tell an American guest that he had no map of the city in English, only in Italian and French. I showed him the places I wanted to see on my map.  He smiled. He said:  “The prints are too small. I can not read them.”  He continued, “but go out left,” and then he named some streets which we could not find on the map. I went on my own and asked directions from several helpful passers-by.

Islamic Cairo

In the tomb chamber of the Mosque of al-Azhar I took off my shoes and sat on the bench when I saw two men doing so. I put the shoes down. A mosque’s attendant came toward me quietly, picked up my shoes, made their bottoms face each other and then put them down. This was the respectful way. Elsewhere in the mosque three men were lying on the carpeted floor, half-asleep.

In the Shrine of the Mosque of Hussein across the street, I took off my shoes and put them down the way the al-Azhar attendant had taught me. A man sitting on the floor motioned sternly that shoes should be left outside. A higher degree of respect was required in the mausoleum of Hussein, the Prophet’s grandson. I took my shoes out and came back. I then proceeded to take pictures of women in their special section that was on one side of the Shrine. No one objected to this.

Nearly all the women I saw on my walk that day wore the Islamic hejab. Only two did not. I thought they were Christians. My tour guide later said it was just that way in the part of the town I was visiting. In his section of Cairo, Heliopolis, “fifty percent have no hejab; women can choose,” he said.  His wife and one daughter wore hejab; the other daughter did not.

The Hussein Square that connects al-Azhar mosque to the Hussein mosque is called the heart of “Islamic Cairo” by tour guides. Bookstores displayed religious texts on their overflowing counters that extended into the streets. Tour buses lined up on one corner of the square. Tourists crowded the souvenir shops and restaurants that lined the other corner. They had been told by their guides that the Hussein Mosque was not open to non-Muslims. I did not see but a few Western tourists in al-Azhar mosque which they could enter. Like many other aspects of Islam, their knowledge of the rich history of this square remained non-existent or, worse, confused.

“My policy is to explain Islam to tourists. Al Qaeda is not Islam or Egypt.” I listened as a guide addressed his American tourists.  “Islam is peaceful and tolerant. It says that you can’t force belief. You must say ‘I believe.’ Most of my customers don’t know this.” He went on to attribute Egypt’s current economic problems to “9/11″. He said: “Al Qaeda hurt Egypt the most. Its number two man, al-Zawahiri, is an Egyptian. Even before 9/11, they decided to hit the tourists. They killed three tour guides, my colleagues. This was to split Egypt from the US.”

As to the Hussein Square, the guide simply said that it was built by “the Mamluks.”  The Mamluks are often the default answer of Egyptian guides to the tourist who is inquisitive about the country’s Islamic history. The guides describe Mamluks as the “slave dynasty,” as though assuming that such exoticism would satiate the questioner’s curiosity.

The Mamluks who ruled Egypt from 1250 to 1517, however, were not all the same or from the same dynasty; they were of Turkish and Kurdish origins. Only the leader of each branch might have once been a warrior owned by a ruler; he then rose in the ranks and eventually seized power for himself. The Hussein Square existed long before the Mamluks. It was the heart of the Fatimid Cairo.

Shiites and Sunnis

Its history, in fact, provided a good opportunity -generally missed by the guides- to comment on the Sunni-Shiite relationship, which is a current topic of intense speculations in Western media. The Fatimids were the first Shiite state in the world (after the five years of Ali’s Rashidun Caliphate in the 7th century)  and the only Shiite dynasty of Egypt, from 969 to 1171, when Saladin Ayyubid (of the Crusade fame) re-instated the Sunni domination of Egypt.

Today, the 90% of Egyptians who are Muslim are nearly all Sunnis. It is remarkable how they make use of the old Shiite institutions in the Hussein Square. Egyptian notables attend important religious events held in the Hussein Mosque; while al-Azhar is the mosque of the sheikh who is the supreme Sunni theological authority in Egypt. Al-Azhar was built in 972 by the Shiite general, Qaed Jawhar who conquered Egypt for his master, the Fatimid Caliph, al-Mu’izz.

He named the mosque after Fatemah, the daughter of Prophet Mohammad, whose honorific Shiite title is al-Zahra (Shining). Fatemah is especially honored by the Shiites for her staunch defense of the right of her husband, Ali, as the true successor to the Prophet, against Abu Bakr, who is regarded by the Sunnis as the First Caliph.

It was also Jawhar who in 973 laid the foundations of the city of Cairo, on command of al-Mu’izz, upon whose arrival in the city it was named al-Qahira (the overpowering -as he overpowered, gahr, the army of the Baghdad Caliph) al-Muizziya. The Fatimid Caliph wanted this new city to surpass all others in the world. Seventy five years later it was far along this path, as the earliest reliable description of the new Fatimid capital, in Nasir Khusraw’s  Safarnameh (Book of Travels) , indicated. That Persian speaking  traveler, from Marv in Central Asia, who lived in Cairo for more than a year, reported seeing “five and six storey buildings,” “20,000 stores,” eleven jama” (including Azhar), “fifteen mosques,”  including one, Amr ibn al-‘As,  that  never had “fewer than 5,000 worshipers,” attended with scholars and ‘”teachers,” innumerable caravanserai,  garmabeh (public baths),” and a “royal palace”  which “was said to contain 30,000 persons,” all  in the new city -actually the twin cities of Qahira and “Mesr (Metropolis)” to its south, which were less than one “meel (Mile)” or “one thousand steps” apart, yet connected.  Nasir who was the scholar-traveler nonpareil of his age, gave this judgement about Cairo at the end of his “2,220 farsang (league),” or more than 12,334 kilometers, trip around the Islamic world:  “It became a city the likes of which are few.”

Soon Cairo was considered more magnificent than the capitals of the two other rival contemporary Islamic Caliphates: the Abbasids’ Baghdad and the Western Caliphate’s Cordova. It now boasted a large madrasa (school) as a part of al-Azhar jama’ (complex). Built in 998, this Shiite school would eventually become, ironically, the renowned Sunni University that is now unrivaled as such in honor and importance.

The Fatimids built the Hussein Mosque on the site where their Caliphs are buried. The only mausoleum existing here today, however, is the Shrine (zarih) of Hussein which is attached to the Mosque. It is claimed that Hussein’s head is buried there.  This defies history as Hussein was killed in Karbala and more likely rests in the Hussein Mosque in that Iraqi city. The veneration of Hussein in the Sunni Cairo is especially notable because his martyrdom in the battle of Karbala against the Sunni rulers of the time (on Ashura, 10th of the month of Muharram, in 680) is the defining emotional narrative of the enmity between the Shiites and Sunnis. That enmity is central to the current narrative in the West emphasizing the obstacle to Islamic unity. Cairo ignores these and the fact that Hussein was the son of Fatemah Zahra.  Instead he is honored as the favorite grandson of the Prophet. The marble slab at the side of the mosque’s entrance quotes a hadith, reporting a saying by the Prophet: “Hussein is from me and I am from Hussein. May Allah love whoever loves Hussein”.

Historiography by Sites

The Fatimids have come back to Cairo after several centuries. The current head of their world-wide community, Karim Agha Khan, was allowed by the Egyptian government to convert a vast area which was previously used as a garbage dump into the city’s biggest park. Aptly called al-Azhar Park, its immaculately mainlined grounds are a favorite of ordinary folks for pick nicking. The affluent consider the elegant restaurant here as one of the best in town. We were taken there for lunch on the patio with an unobstructed view of the Citadel that Saladin built. Like him, and the Fatimids, many other conquerors chose to build their own new city in this metropolis.

This tradition goes back to the first Muslim conqueror of Egypt, Amar-ibn al-A’as, who in 640 AD built Fustat (Camps), complete with an Islamic complex (jama’), named after himself. Of that complex only the foundations of its Ibn al A’as Mosque remain in the area now called Old Cairo.  Such as they are, however, these foundations, like other Cairo monuments, bear witness to a colorful history shaping today’s Egypt.

The tradition of building new “cities” in Cairo continued in modern times. The Garden City district was established during the British domination of Egypt. Its special attraction was the security it offered to wealthy Cairoans because of the proximity to the British Legation located here. These days tourists are turned away from its leafy and charming streets, which are interrupted by roadblocks and other security measures, to protect the American Embassy in the age of anti-terrorism.

In the early 20th century the Gezira (island) in the middle of the Nile was developed with parks and gardens and a new choice residential neighborhood, Zamalek. in 1962 President Gamal abdel-Nasser, who was a leader of the Non-aligned bloc during the Cold War, built Gezira’s Cairo Tower , the city’s tallest structure,  partly to make a statement by using the U.S. aid money intended for him to purchase American arms. During the administration of his successor, Anwar Sadat, Mohandeseen, on the other side of the Nile from the Gezira, was developed as the favorite of the new, Westernized middle class. The current president, Hosni Mubarak, has favored Heliopolis which is on the northwest. His residence and office are there. The Egyptian elite has followed him.


The complex relationship of this elite with Mubarak dominated the political news in the days I was in Cairo , mid-October 2010. Mubarak is the third of the nationalist Free Officers group, led by Nasser, to rule in Egypt since 1952, when they deposed the Albanian dynasty’s last king, Farouk, ending his British protectors’ domination. I noticed the army’s continuing influence in politics in such anecdotal evidence as former generals being appointed governors of Egypt’s provinces (such as Luxor and Aswan), and the favorable opportunities afforded the officers’ children.

Mubarak has won the last five presidential elections with the help of his political party. He may well run for a sixth (five year) term in 2011. A new group onFacebook, calling itself the May Movement, had just emerged to support his candidacy. The elections for the national legislature were also to take place soon. The tamed Islamist Muslim Brotherhood had announced that it would contest thirty of the seats. Equally notable was the activities of the non-Islamists opposition which consisted of two groups, the Movement for Change and the National Assembly for Change. They, and many “independent” journalists, were staging a protest against the dismissal of the editor of the Cairo daily, Al-Dustour, after he published an article by the opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei (the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency).

“Change” was the key word in this opposition movement. “People are tired of Mubarak,” as my tour guide, the son of an army colonel, summarized. “Even members of Mubarak’s cabinet have been in office for decades. People want new, fresh faces.” The guide anticipated this change to happen inevitably because “Mubarak who is in his 80s is too old and in poor health.” The problem was that “if Mubarak dies, the president of the People’s Assembly, the Lower House, will succeed him, as Mubarak has always refused to appoint a Vice President who would, otherwise, succeed according to the Constitution.” In that context, the elections to the People’s Assembly had an added significance this year.

Daily life

Posters for the candidates were on display in the area still called Central Cairo (wust al-Balad) where ordinary Egyptians grappled with the more pressing problems of daily life. Not far from the Abdeen Palace where the formal Presidential events are held, I walked up the steps of the colonnaded courthouse which a plaque said had been built during the Mubarak administration. It was “Southern Cairo’s First Level Court”.  Inside, there was a spacious lobby with courtrooms on both sides and a grand staircase  that led to the upper floor. In the crowd, some men were in suits. One was standing at the door of a court room . I asked him if he was a lawyer.  He said yes. We had a conversation in English. He said he had “a client now coming from prison”. I asked what kind of case this was. He said “drugs; young.” I asked if his client was a drug dealer.  When he said yes, I asked if this problem was prevalent. He said: “Like everywhere, like the U.S.” I took some pictures. When I tried to take one of a court which was in session, two guards got up from their seats and motioned “No!”

There were many guards of all stripes in Cairo.  Some with weapons were manning flimsy protective stands, especially at government office buildings. There were not many soldiers.  Traffic cops, however, were ubiquitous and, to all appearances, largely ineffective.

“Cairo is the safest place in the world,” our tour guide said. “You can walk all over even after midnight; there is no danger.” I took up the challenge. Late at night, I went walking on the 26th of July Street. Outdoor Vendors blocked not only the sidewalks but parts of the street , causing even more congestion in the busy traffic. This was the season when dates ripened; fresh dates were in abundance. There were also vendors of bananas, and bread, and various kinds of clothes . Every block had at least one, sometimes more, coffee shops where men sat and drank tea, smoked shisha (water-pipe), and played backgammon .

I saw no women in any of those coffee shops.  There were, however, want adds on windows of some other stores for young “good looking”  women sales clerks willing to work “at all hours” . The showcase in a photo shop posted pictures of women customers with provocative writings in English. One said “love forever,” and the other: “With You I forget Any Thing”. The owner came out of the photo shop to protest my taking a picture of those photos. Other people, on the other hand, posed and invited me to take their pictures. One was a man who asked “Where from?” When I said “America,” he signed thumps up and said “Obama good; Bush bad.” Then he stumped out under his foot the imaginary face of the former President.

Many shops had Islamic writings on their portals:  Allaho Akbar (God is Great), Besmellah (in the name of Allah), Alhamodlellah (Allah be praised), sometimes in their vernacular meaning of praise employed for their products.On the sidewalk next to the local mosque two women were sitting on the cloth spread on the ground. They motioned me to go inside  the mosque. My tour guide later said the lack of violent crimes in Cairo was in part due to the dominance of Islam as the enforcer of the community moral code.

In the midst of this Islamic world there was one store that displayed bottles of alcoholic drinks at its windows. Its name, Simon Cafeteria, indicated that it was owned by Christians. Around the corner on another street was the walled campus of the Armenian National School.  There were also three flower shops on this block. They had bright lights but were surrounded by rubbles around them. A hazardously unfinished building next to them was occupied by stores open for business.

I saw a convertible car pulling up to the entrance of a hotel nearby. A just-married couple came out of the lobby followed by a small entourage. The bride wore a western-style bridal dress and coiffured hair. As the womenfolk ululated, she got into the car. Her husband sat next to her and the car drove into the uncommonly windy night. I went into the Westernized hotel for a bite to eat.

A band of three musicians and a woman singer played in a large lounge outside of the bar-restaurant. They were from Lebanon, I was told. Their audiences were women and men of Egyptian upper middle class who sat in upholstered chairs smoking shisha. Their western clothing was more frumpy than chic.


Foreign relations


In the bar, a man came and sat at the table next to me. He said he was from Saudi Arabia. I asked if he was here on business. “No. I am here to drink,” he said. It soon became clear that “here” was Cairo, not just this bar.  He explained that he had “a flat” in Cairo where he would come for a week at a time “just to drink.” He said: “In my country if I drink I will go to jail.” Later, I met a young American couple in that bar. They also were in Cairo “for fun” that was denied where they lived. That was Bahrain in the Persian Gulf. He was a solider in the American armed forces there; she was a clerk at the American base. “Do you ever go swimming in the Persian Gulf,” I asked. “No. The water is very warm, full of debris, and it is shallow for a long distance.” I asked if they knew how life was off the base. He responded that other than the American money given for “leasing” the base, “the main source of income for the Bahrainis is prostitution. They come from Thailand and the Philippines; and some from Europe. The Saudis are the big clients.”

In the lounge, I ran into Abdul-Aziz. He also had a flat in Cairo. He was an Egyptian but his permanent home had been Baltimore for some time now. He was drinking and smoking a cigarette. “My American wife would kill me if she saw me.”  This was bad for his heart problems. He laughed: “I come to Cairo to be able to do what I like.”

The suave Egyptian Ambassador whom I met for lunch with   friends the next day ate very little. Her figure fit elegantly in her fashionably professional dress. “I don’t drink myself,” she said, “but the drink of choice for my daughter and her friends is now hard liqueur, not wine.” She pointed to her colleague at our table: “He, on the other hand, is a connoisseur of wines. It is not unusual for him.” He smiled the modest smile of a diplomat: “I am a Coptic.” Between them, these Ambassadors managed a large part of their country’s official relations with the United States. I hoped for some enlightening response then, when I asked how they saw the prospects of the current new initiative to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian disputes, which was sponsored with great fanfare by the U.S., Egypt, and other “moderate” Arab States. I should have known better. The Ambassador’s answer was the carefully crafted familiar one: “The problems are complex but we are hopeful.”

The subject of the “initiative,” however, had already created a journalistic “scandal” in Egypt when handled less adroitly by the eager sycophants at a State controlled newspaper. The feature story in that newspaper had a picture of President Mubarak in the White House leading President Obama and Prime Minister of Israel into the negotiations room. When other, more objective photographic sources, revealed that in that scene, an enfeebled Mubarak was, in fact, dragging behind those men, the newspaper defended its doctored picture by saying that Egypt had always led the efforts to bring peace to Palestine. The cause of this episode was the Egyptian regime’s sensitivity to hints of Mubarak’s failing health.

Antiquities celebrity

The imposing Museum of Islamic Art with its rich collection hardly receives any visitor. This is despite major recent renovation of the Islamic Museum’s galleries. The government is also undertaking a restoration of the neglected historic buildings of Islamic Cairo. No less a figure than Zahi Hawass of the world of Egyptian antiquities chided our tour guide for not showing us the work that had already been done in the Mamluk era district. The guide later dismissed such work, which he said was only a jama’ consisting of a mosque, a madrasa and a sabil (a facility providing fresh water for the thirsty passer-by).

As to Zahi Hawass who had made him lose face before us, the guide said, he is only after publicity for himself. “Zahi is known here as ‘I, me, and myself’,” the guide said. I heard this description of Hawass also from some others in Egypt. “Hawass is very good in public relations,” they would add grudgingly. “Zahi is the media man. That is his forte. In that sense, he is good for Egypt.”

Indeed, Hawass has made himself the face of Egyptian antiquities in the outside world. Other officials make fun of his trade-mark excavation hat. “He copied it from Indiana Jones,” they say mockingly. “He charges $40 to sign one for the souvenir seekers.”

The tour guides in Cairo call themselves Egyptologists. The ones I talked to had studied the subject in the university. They regarded Halim Nureddin as the man of substance in the field. “He was my professor at Cairo University,” one of the guides said. “Zahi is all show.” Halim Nureddin used to have the job that Zahi has now: Secretary of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. I asked the guide who was Hawass’s patron in the government. He answered “it is not President Mubarak, but his wife. Her favorites are, first, the Minister of Culture (Farouk Hosni) and then Zahi. If the former had succeeded in his recent attempt to become the Director General of UNESCO, Zahi would have replaced him as the Minister of Culture.”

The guide said Zahi was still engaged in digging. “His goal is to find a monument like Howard Carter (who discovered the famous tomb of Tutankhamun).”  An older guide, Abdel Wahab, praised Hawass while revealing yet another aspect of his reputation.  He told us that he had gone digging with Hawass for 6 years. “At the beginning he gave me a hard time; he is a though man but a nice man. His hat and his clothes are American, unlike the old times when archeologists wore British clothes.”

Zahi’s excavation hat sits on a cabinet above his chair at the conference table in his office. “That is my chair,” Hawass yelled at me as I sat myself in the chair. He was sitting at his desk, still looking at documents before him. I had gone with an American group whom he received at the request of an acquaintance. We had been kept waiting some twenty minutes beyond our appointment time because, as his aide explained, “government auditors were in his office.” The aide said that this was a routine visit by the auditors. When we were finally ushered into his room, Zahi did not get up to greet us; he just raised his head looking inquisitively at us as we said our greetings. He then told us “You sit at that table!” The conference table was at one end of a rather modest office. In between were some sofas. A young western woman was standing in this buffer zone.

I said “I am sorry,” as I removed myself from the chair in question which I had not thought was Hawass’s since it was the furthest removed from his desk. He joined us after busying himself some more with his files. Upon finally sitting at our table, he turned to the member of our group next to him and said, abruptly, “Why are you here?”  Before she finished her response, Zahi barked “Who are you? Where are you from?” This treatment was then administered to each one of us. We proceeded to introduced ourselves. “I am a lawyer from San Francisco,” I said when my turn came. “Lawyer! You make lots of money.” I said “Not enough.” He responded “All lawyers say that.”

Someone asked about the hat. He said “the Chinese are making many of them which are selling well and the proceeds will go to children’s causes.” He chuckled: “George Lucas was here and asked why his hat did not sell well?” Hawass relished out-marketing the creator of Indiana Jones.

The phone rang behind the desk at the other end of the room. “Get that phone, Megan,” Zahi commanded the young woman who was still standing in the middle of the room. As she could not find which among the several phones was ringing, Zahi shouted angrily “the last one, Megan!”  There was a hush for a moment until Zahi turned his attention to us. Someone now asked about the progress in the construction of the new Grand Egyptian Museum being built to relieve the hopelessly overburdened Egyptian Museum of Cairo. Hawass said work is continuing despite some delay due to the recent world wide economic problems.

The new museum is an integral part of Hawass’s  commendable efforts toward the goal of collecting and showcasing Egypt’s finest antiquities in that country itself. He has been tireless in asking other countries to return such pieces of Egyptian heritage to Egypt. It is to that end that his admirers may justify his otherwise unusual behavior.

Museum of antiquities

Egypt banned the export of antiquities in 1835, and twenty years later established the Egyptian Antiquities Service. Its program to retrieve its ancient artifacts already taken abroad has met resistance. As our tour guide put it: “All have refused, except Israel which since two years ago, in accordance with the peace treaty, has returned some artifacts;  but it has kept the jewels.”

Regardless, the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities still has the largest and finest collection of such artifacts in the world. The collection has long outgrown the spaces of its 1902 building, and its facilities are antiquated by modern standards. It lacks climate control. I noticed that the artifacts were generally in old cabinets with little or nonexistent descriptive labels. What everybody wanted to see, however, were well known as many of those pieces had been taken to exhibits at various museums of the world. Among these was the collection of treasures from the tomb of Pharaoh Tutankhamun, especially his gold death mask with jewels used for eyes and eyebrows, the gold throne with inlaid semiprecious stones, his wardrobe, and his funerary couches. I noted a statue of Tutankhamun in black, the color which, as our guide pointed out, was an attempt for identifying the Pharaoh with Osiris, the god of regeneration.


The shortage of housing in the bustling Cairo of recent years has expanded its suburbs southwest so that the metropolis is now virtually connected to Giza, the once separate town where the Pyramids are located, literally in the desert. The Pyramids were, of course, made possible by the prosperity that Egypt experienced in the middle of the third millennium before Christ.

All three which are here, as well as the earlier Pyramid in Saqqara, several miles south, were built in the span of about one hundred years, a very short period in the nearly 3000 years of Pharaonic Egypt. Egypt has produced only these four big Pyramids. What is more, the three in Giza were built, successively, by one Pharaoh, his son, and then his grandson. Thereafter, the Pharaohs chose tombs dug in the hard-to-reach canyons like the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. Those were deemed to be more secure against theft.

Pyramids were the Pharaohs’ tombs. It was learning how to use stone in construction that made it possible to build the pyramids high. This could not be done when mud brick was used for those royal mausoleums. The only surviving of the “Seven Wonders” of the ancient world, the Pyramids are impressive monuments, inevitably making the viewer wonder how and why they were built. “They built a sand hill and rolled the rock stones to the top,” our guide said. Excavations, which continue, have yielded other information. Large groups of farmers were mobilized for the labor during the flood seasons. “As the meaning of the word in ancient Egyptian indicates,” our guide said, “the purpose of a pyramidber (house) ra (god) meat (road) — was to enable the Pharaoh’s journey after death to join the gods.” The Muslim Arabs who came later simply called it by its geometric shape: “haram (pyramid)”.

After being duly awed by size of the Pyramids, there was not much else to do here. In the distant past tourists as well as the locals used to attempt climbing to the top. The tallest, the Great Pyramid, is 146 meters, after having lost nine maters to the wind. “I knew a local man who climbed it many times,” our elder guide said. Climbing is now forbidden.

You could enter the Pyramids. “Entrance to pyramids was always in the middle of its north side,” our guide said as he pointed out the opening . “But there is not much to see inside.” Originally, however, the walls inside the burial chambers were inscribed with texts to help the Pharaoh in his afterlife journey. These earliest writings, called Pyramid Texts, were from the “Book of the Dead,” and included maps, images of gods and demons, and the correct manner of addressing them.

Outside the Great Pyramid, we saw piles of sand and rubble. “These are called Queens Pyramids. They are the tombs of the Pharaoh’s women,” our guide said.

For some tourists a bonus in visiting the Pyramids was riding a camel in the surrounding desert. There were guards on camelback  to make sure that hustlers were not close to the Pyramids. But not too far away we found Ragib who was holding up a sign which said “Welcome to Egypt.” He, our guide said, was “a good man.” His family had been in the business of providing tourists with camels and horses for over twenty years. They had several camels ready for hire today. They also displayed a picture of Ragib with President Obama when he visited here. “Nice man,” they said of Obama. “They say Obama is very popular here,” our guide interpreted.

The pharaoh himself intended to ride a boat in this desert after his death. We saw a solar barque of cedar wood which had been buried in pits near the Great Pyramid for the pharaoh who had built that Pyramid. Not far from here were the empty country palace of the last king of Egypt, Farouk, and the yet to be finished building of the Grand Egyptian Museum. All shimmered incongruously in the light of the bright sun and sand.

Down the hill was the earlier part of the path in the deceased pharaoh’s journey. A funerary temple facing us, we were told, had “a passageway leading to the Pyramid and was connected on the other side by a covered causeway to a valley temple on the bank of the Nile.” That was the route that pharaoh’s body took to his tomb in the Pyramid.

In front of the funerary temple was the Sphinx . It had the body of a lion and the face of a man. “Lion means strength, and the man is the face of Khafre (Chepren), the pharaoh who built the second tallest Pyramid here. The funerary temple and other parts of the complex built by his father, Khufu, have not yet been found.”

The funerary temples were built so that the ancient Egyptians could worship the pharaoh after his death with daily rounds of offering.  The Sphinx is called Abu al-Hol (Father of Terror) in contemporary (Arabic) Egyptian. Its function was to scare away would-be thieves from the tombs and their temples. Because efforts to provide such security failed, later pharaohs built their funerary temples away from tombs, as in Luxor.

On the day of our visit, the mood was celebratory, not fearfully guarded or funerary. The stage had been set for an outdoor production of Aida, Verdi’s opera commissioned  for debut at the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Today’s production, we were told, had been  sold out. Instead we saw the spectacle of several high school girls in colorful clothes , visiting on a field trip. “They are from the town of Mansura in the north,” our guide said.  They were pretty. “Mansura is famous for the beauty of its woman and men” our guide explained. “They have golden hair, and blue eyes and green eyes. This is because the French stayed there for some time. It is near where they discovered the Rosetta Stone. While there the French married many local women.”

When one of the students went to sit next to her mother on the bench, I noticed that the mother hid her own beauty under a black meliyya, the head-to-toe garment that only allows an opening of slits for the eyes.


This article, entitled “Extremism Alongside Moderation: Cairo’s present is in the past”, was published on the following website of on February 23, 2011, with related pictures:

Aswan: A thousand years later

Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2011. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise  distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.


abstract:Aswan is a rare place. It’s a living community amidst the ruins of old settlements. It was a strategic gatekeeper at ancient Egypt’s southern frontier. Yet it absorbed the very people it aimed to keep out. The Nubians of the south are now almost indistinguishable from the Egyptians. They were the early Christian converts in this corner of the world who were later integrated by intermarriage with the Egyptian converts to Islam. In this largely Sunni city, the legacy of the Shiite Ismaili rule still competes with those of the Romans and Greeks. All of these relics are ingénues compared with what is left of the Pharaonic age. In the ruins of Abu one finds the magic of this place. Like most things in Egypt, it is theNile. It was here that people looked for answer to the question that mattered to them above all: how bountiful would the River be in the year ahead? The Nilometer measured that. The divinity that the inhabitants prayed to was the God of Inundation. The past has largely stayed in Aswan, yet it has changed. I looked at the present face of Aswan in its streets, bazaars, institutions, and schools, all the while comparing notes with my predecessor of a thousand year ago, Nasir Khusraw, who recorded his observations in his celebrated Book of Travels.

Train trip

In the year 1050, Nasir Khusraw was in Qus, near present day Luxor, planning to go to Aswan, as we did now. In what became the best travel book (Safarnameh) of the age, he wrote of the two alternative roads for the trip: one on land across a desert which had no water and the other on a “sea of water.”  Nasir (from Marv inCentral Asia) chose the second. Most tourists today do the same: they cruise down theNile. We decided on the alternative. Instead of riding the camel as Nasir would have had to do, however, we went by train.

The porter who carried our luggage in the train station was not afraid of live lines in the tracks which he crossed with abandon; we used the overpass to go to the appropriate platform. There we sat on wooden benches waiting for our train. It did not arrive at the anticipated time. We were given no information about the reason and the expected length of the delay. In search of an explanation I began a conversation with local fellow passengers. Within an hour we were into rumors. In the next forty five minutes fantastic stories filled the vacuum left by the absence of facts. Then our train arrived, just as inexplicably; it effectively stopped the maturing of the budding conspiracy theories being bandied about.

In the space between the train’s cars which we boarded a man sat next to the luggage stowed away on two shelves. We added our luggage ourselves, but this did not stop the man from asking for an unearned tip. The cars were non-smoking, air conditioned, and had comfortable chairs. I had a view window. We went through dry but irrigated fields fed from water canals running parallel to the tracks. TheNilewas not far but it was often not visible. The fields were sometimes fenced in front with short mud and straw walls. The hot sun burned through the haze. Palm trees appeared occasionally, pregnant with ripe dates. Soon on our side to the west irrigation stopped in most places. Hilly, baked, light brown desert occupied the space. This was the Great Sand Dune Sea, matched on the east of theNileby the Eastern Desert. The bounty of theNiledid not extend far. The train plodded quietly as though it was a modern equivalent of the camel.


“We reached a town called Aswan,” as Nasir had written. “The country of Nubia is four leagues away,” he wrote, and Aswan was “greatly fortified” and “always had a defending garrison” so that “if someone from Nubia had bad intentions, he could not succeed.” Indeed, at the timeAswanmarked the border between Islamic Egypt and the NubiankingdomofMakuriain the south.  The people of Makuria were black and Christians, as Nasir noted. They were converted by missionaries sent in the sixth century by theByzantine Empire.

In Aswan, as Nasir had also noted, “facing the city, in the middle of the Nile, there is an island, like a garden, and in it are date trees, olive trees, and other trees and much farming.” I could see that island, called Elephantine, from the Aswan train station. That is where I stayed that night.

Next day at 5:40 in the morning, I sat at the edge of the huge pool of my modern hotel that seemed to cascade into the Nileat the other end. The sky was dark blue, the color that also hued the water. I was accompanied by a small animal kingdom. Three black birds hovered overhead. A smaller bird swooped down to the bank of the pool. Five persistent flies on my body were faster than my attempt at swatting. A cat appeared, soon joined by two more. Presently, they lost interest in me and went hunting for mice in the patch of garden on the corner of the pool which was adorned by hibiscus flowers. Beyond, little faux “oriental” domes of the adobe color villas of the hotel were half-replicated by the converse hollow of the satellite dishes on the roof. I was waiting for the earth’s orbiting to take it below the sun. At5:50the sun began to appear. It was partially blocked by a billboard foisted high inAswanon the east bank of the Nile. As the earth and the billboard moved lower and northward, the sun’s full force blinded me. It was at first red, then it turned molting white. It was big, foreboding, commanding. The hills behind me came alive. The water’s blue turned lighter. The temperature inAswanthat October day in 2010 reached 110 degrees.


The ferry over the Niletook me back to Aswan. A man who said he “knew” me because he worked in the restaurant of my hotel insisted on being my guide. When I resisted this offer of unwanted help so often dealt the tourists in Egypt, he protested a distinction, “I am not Egyptian, I am Nubian”. We were on Sharia as-Souq (Market Street). The Souq (market) was the institution that gave Aswan(from old Egyptian swenet meaning trade) its name. This was where ancient Egyptians and Nubians came to trade. As Nasir recorded, the Egyptian merchants brought “beads, combs, and corals,” and took Nubian “slaves”. In the Souq, Nasir also saw “wheat and millet” fromNubia which, he noted, were “both black”.

Today a shopkeeper in the Souk called out to me: “You look Egyptian. I have the right scalp hat for you.” The Aswan Souq that I saw was mostly one long and narrow alley. Its roof consisted of a series of retractable pieces of cloth that served as a protection against the sun. They appeared decorative as banners, but the main colors here were supplied by the merchandise. I counted 18 different colors in exotic spices displayed in one typical store. They had inspired the colorful baskets, a signature Nubian handicraft, hung for sale at several other shops.

The Souq, however, is not a museum store; it is where the people of Aswanshop for everyday needs. I examined three kinds of saffron being offered –Egyptian, Nubian, and Iranian. A salesman in another store showed me what he called the “Nubiatea,” the dried hibiscus flowers, used to make an all Egyptian favorite drink, karkadai. He also had lemon grass. Produce and fruit were sold in several stores. In season were tomatoes , green peppers, string beans, squash, potatoes, bananas, and pomegranate. A baker proudly showed his pita bread, his whole face and garment covered with the white flour used. The butcher had no problem attracting customers. Men in full length Egyptian robes, galabiyyas, and women with head-dresses lined up to buy meat. The shoe store had sandals in multiple colors to sell. Arabic music blared from a small canteen that sold sodas . It co-exited with a mosque that faced it directly on the other side of the alley.

Another mosque served the faithful just outside the Souk. Its signs showed separate prayer rooms for men and women. Here, out on the street, the local Kentucky Chicken franchise offered delivery on motorcycles. Coca cola provided the awning for a convenient store run by a pretty woman, whose last customer was an equally handsome guard. A few steps further, a store boasted the name of its “interior decorator”. Not far away was the big Coptic church in Aswan. The Copts were also conspicuously visible and active where Western tourists stayed. My big hotel and its upscale stores were run by them.


The Muslims have ruled in Aswannow for several centuries, and the early relics of their presence were in the IsmailiCemeteryhere. Some tombs go back even to the 9th century Tulunid dynasty which preceded the Ismaili Fatimids. Aswan was an important center of the Ismailis whose reign continued in the person of a local amir (Kanz al-Dawla) for sometime even after they lost power in Cairo. The vast Cemetery  is mentioned in the guidebooks as a major tourist attraction in Aswan. On the day I visited, it had no other visitors. The mausoleums over the tombs were distinct in architecture with their domes built on a square shaped structure. They were in various states of disrepair.  The shrine of Zainab here did not fare much better, although it is named for the daughter of the Shiite first Imam, a most venerated woman who the Ismailis deem to have been the first to issue summons to the Shiite community (da’wah) upon the martyrdom of her brother Hussein inKarbala.

The contemporary head of the worldwide Ismaili community, however, maintains a park across the Nile where his predecessor and grandfather Aga Khan III, and his wife, Begum are buried. The Aga Khans, who received this title of “commander” (of militia) from the Shah of Persia in the 19th century have been the recognized leaders of the Ismaili community at least since 1817, when the first Aga Khan from Mahalaat, Iran, asserted his claim to be the 46th Imam of the Ismaili community in the world.

The Ismaili community in Iranwas formed by Hassan-e Sabbah, known to the world for training a group of assassins for his political goals. He had come with his army from Egyptto northern Iranaround the year 1090, after his faction lost out in the internal struggle between the Fatimid princes in Egypt. Like Zainab, and Nasir Khusraw, Hassan-e Sabbah was an Ismaili da’i, committed to spreading the gospel of Ismaili religion.

In that retrospect, the Aga Khans “return” toEgyptafter nearly nine centuries in diaspora was not unusual. Spending most of that period inIran, Aga Khan I and his close associates moved to British controlledIndiawhen the British government showered him with rewards, including a pension, for using his cavalry to helpBritainin the Afghan War of 1841 and 1842, and the conquest of Sindh in 1843-44. His grandson and eventual successor, Aga Khan was knighted by the British. Among his great friends was another British favorite, King Farouk ofEgypt. It was during Farouk’s rule that Aga Khan III established a residence inAswan, as he found the post-partitionIndiaafter independence less hospitable. “He lovedAswanbecause he found its hot climate to be good for his medical problems,” my tour guide said.Aswanbecame his favorite wintering place. The family built a white villa in the garden on the western shore of the Nile from Aswan. After Aga Khan died in 1957, his wife continued to allow people to visit the garden until she died in 2000.

The concierge at the hotel discouraged me from trying to visit their Mausoleum. “It is closed,” she said, “only Ismailis with special permit could visit it.”  Mr. Saleh, however, said he could arrange a visit. “No problem,” he said, he “had been a guide here for many years.”  At the appointed time, however, he came sad with the news that we could not visit the Mausoleum. He said “I don’t know, but Aga Khan is a Baha’i or Indian and it is only for them.” When I explained that the Ismailis were a Shiite group, many of whom had lived inIndia, he was further confused. He thought I had come for pilgrimage to the site. He did not know why the Mausoleum was closed. He asked the captain of the felucca that was now taking us on a Nile cruise and reported that “Egyptians went to the Mausoleum for picnicking in its gardens, and as is their custom they played music and danced there. Karim Aga Khan, the current leader of the community ordered the Mausoleum closed because he considered such conduct as being a disrespectful use of the place.”


Mr. Saleh was a teacher I had met at a high school inAswanwhich we visited in connection with a cooperative project involving an American city. We were received at the entrance and led thorough a courtyard to the office of the school’s “Director of Administration,” at the other end.  Mr. Hussein, the Director was carefully frugal with the few English phrases he was certain he could use without mistake. For help, he brought in his favorite English teacher, Mr. Mohamed. As Mohamed began to give an introduction about the school, Mr. Hussein interrupted him, barking “what about Chemistry,” wanting Mr. Mohamed to describe the school’s chemistry program. No sooner had Mr. Mohamed responded to this command than Mr. Hussein barked again, “what about drama?” It was at this point that Mr. Saleh came in and interrupted Mohamed’s speech and derailed Hussein’s choreography.

Saleh went right through the length of the room and took a seat next to the leader of our visiting group and began an animated conversation with her.  He was loud and clearly much more comfortable in speaking English than his colleagues. He cut quite a figure with his untied tie crossed over his chest. The hapless Mohamed fell silent. The meeting collapsed into bilateral chatter. The school Director looked helpless in restoring the semblance of order. He concluded that he had no choice but to say “let’s go and visit the classrooms.”

We went through the halls of the school’s three-story building. The walls were covered with sayings, mostly in Arabic and many from the Qur’an, extolling the virtues of learning. One framed script also featured an ominous looking raised sword at the bottom. Another showed various versions of Islamic scripts, penning Mohamed, the name of the Prophet. They included sols, naskh, kufi, farsi, but not the tughra script. I asked Mr. Hussein for an explanation. He had none as he had not known what tughra was: the script used by the Ottoman Turks who ruled Egypt until as late as the 19th century.

We visited an English literature class, a Chemistry class, and a Math class, for the second and third year high school students. The class size was about thirty. Students wore uniform. The boys had white shirt and pants. They took the rows to the left of the blackboard. The girls sat in the rows to the right. They wore shapeless grey pants and tops that covered all their bodies, and white head-scarves that covered their hair and fell on their shoulders. I noticed two who were not wearing head-scarves. “They are Christians,” the teacher explained, but added “some Muslims also don’t wear head-scarves.”

The students did not all belong to the respective classes where they were assembled for us. When one was introduced to us as having been to theU.S.for some time and I asked him how his experience of going to school in the US compared with here, he began his answer by “I actually am not in this Math class.” He was one of the “exchange students,” who had spent a year in theU.S.He said: “In the States you could take elective classes; here you mostly have to take the courses required. It is much harder here. But even in journalism class I took in the States, I learned a lot.” A teacher said: “we have had exchange students from the U.S., as well as Malaysia,Italy, etc.”

In the English literature class a Sonnet by Shakespeare was written in chalk on the blackboard. The teacher was a wiry woman with a head-scarf and glasses. She walked swiftly back and forth in the aisles shouting questions at students in accented English, smiling. “Who was William Shakespeare?” A girl raised her hand. The teacher quickly recognized her by pointing to her. “He was a writer,” the student said. The teacher praised her but pursued her for more. The student added: “He was the greatest writer ofEngland.” The teacher corrected her “not justEngland, but the whole world,” and moved on both with her walking and questions. “What did he write?” She now recognized an eager boy with his hand up. “Plays,” he said. “Good,” the teacher said, “can you tell me the name of one?” The boy said “Hamlet”. The teacher was ecstatic. “Now who knows what a Sonnet is?” A girl volunteered. Helped by the teacher, she gave a definition, including the number of verses in a Sonnet: “fourteen”. Mr. Saleh who was with us could not contain himself any longer. He started reading the lines on the blackboard, slowly but with the tone of one who had done this particular drill many times. Mr. Saleh explained to me that he had been teaching English for twenty years. “I have problems with the Director because I tell him that I know much more than he does.”

I asked the students who their favorite English writer was. Two answered. One said “William Shakespeare.”  The teacher was pleased. Another said “Charles Dickens.” The teacher said “yes”. I asked the student why. She said “because he wrote with emotions.” Someone in our group asked if the students knew any American writer. Students and their teachers knew Hemingway. I asked if they had read Mark Twain. Students and teachers looked puzzled at the unfamiliar name. I explained that Mark Twain was one famous American writer I knew who actually wrote about his trip to Egypt. They had not heard of him.

In the chemistry class, a ragged table of elements hung next to the blackboard . Someone asked if any student could give the chemical formula for salt. A student raised his hand: “NaCl” I asked about the formula for water since we were by theNile. There was a grunt from nearly everyone: so simple. “H2O,” someone said. “OK, who won the Noble prize in chemistry this year?” The reaction was just the opposite. The silence was finally broken by a girl standing outside the classroom: “Two Japanese and an American.” Someone now asked if the students knew what they wanted to be “when they grew up.” A shy girl said “a Doctor.” The teacher explained: “Her father is a Doctor.” Another student also said she wanted to be a Doctor. When asked why, there was a momentary pause. Mr. Saleh rubbed his fingers, indicating money. But the student said “because I want to help the people.”

The students had small notebooks with long-hand writings on the desk in front of them. The highest technology in evidence was that table of elements. I asked if they used computers in their studies. A teacher replied to me that there were computers in the school. They showed me a room across the hall. “That is the lab,” they said. It was dark and from the outside it looked like an old fashioned chemistry lab. At lunch I sat next to the Deputy Director of the Ministry of Education’s office inAswan. Education is the charge of the central government. He had just been appointed to the position and said that he had big plans to improve education inAswan. He talked about the Intel project for using computers in teaching, launched inCairosome six years ago. Hopefully, it would reach Aswan soon.

The Deputy Director’s wife was not coming fromCairotoAswanfor another two weeks. In the meantime he was usually “eating at home, cheese and some ready to eat food from outside.” The next evening I met him at a dinner the Governor of Aswan gave for our group. In the lobby of a venerable hotel, the Governor greeted us with a warm handshake. In his fifties, he was handsome with a winning smile.  Once he exhausted his limited English, he relied on the head Director of Aswan’sNubianMuseumto offer more pleasantries and to understand ours. The Director sat next to the Governor at the dining table. The officials from other departments of the Aswan Governorate flanked them in strict protocol. The man from Education did not rank high; he was at one end of the table.

Our group was seated across the table from them. At the appropriate time we presented the Governor with the gift we had brought for him. He thanked us, and then with a signal to his group, the Governor got up and led a march of his whole party to our side. They bore gifts for each one of us.  The almost military demeanor was a reminder of the Governor’s background in the army. He had risen to the rank of a general. This was not the only instance I saw inEgyptof how its military used its alumni in a tentacle of political influence.

Nubian Museum

The Director of theNubianMuseuminvited us to visit the Museum. He assigned his deputy to show us the collection. The failure of the projector frustrated his efforts at a more elaborate video exposition in the auditorium. Adjacent to theFatimidCemetery, the Museum is in a modern building inspired by traditional Nubian structures. In 2001 it was awarded the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, established to honor concepts that responded to the needs and aspirations of Islamic societies. It is in fact a place to showcase the history, culture, and art of the Nubians much of which was lost whenEgyptbuilt the High Dam on theNilethat flooded their land in the 1960s. Most of the artifacts saved from the flood through a UNESCO rescue program are now in the Nubian Museum. On the two occasions I visited, however, its vast halls were almost without any other visitors. Tourists prefer, instead, to go far to see the Nubian temples, especiallyAbu Simbel, transplanted to locations near their original sites which are now under water.

Exhibits in the Museum provide sketches of life inNubiafrom 4500 B.C. to the present. A chart on the wall close to the entrance shows the fluctuating fortune of Nubian rulers throughout history. Various pharaohs were Nubian in origin. The pharaohs of the XII Dynasty who ruled from 1991 BC to 1786 BC originated from theAswanregion. The Nubian Khushite King Piye took control ofEgyptin 750 BC and established the XXV Dynasty. These “Black Pharaohs” ruled for the next 75 years. A case in the museum exhibited a replica of wooden black Nubian soldiers in military formation found in a tomb in Asyut, Egypt. As the sign said the Nubian soldiers fought “side by side” Egyptian soldiers.  The dominant influence of Egypt in the Lower Namibia, as the Aswan region is called, had caused the Nubian elite to embrace the cultural and spiritual customs ofEgypt, venerating its gods, and wearing its clothes. This was illustrated in the bust of “King Taharka” the most important of the Black Pharaohs in the museum. As the sign under it said, it showed “him idealized to conform to the Egyptian canons. ”  Our guide pointed out his broken nose and said “his rivals did this defacing to prevent his return from the dead, as the ancient Egyptian beliefs held.”

Down the hall was another example of Egyptian beliefs adopted by the Nubians. In a glass case, as the sign said, was a “statuette of the goddess (of motherhood) Isis suckling the young god Horus (her son).” This “symbolizes the idea of motherhood in Ancient Egypt.”  “Later,” the sign continued, “the Coptic artist used this notion to represent the Virgin Mary suckling the child Jesus.”

Another bust of a man spoke of the durability of customs and protocol. It showed the man’s left hand placed across the chest . He was the “warden” of a palace in ancientEgyptnearly 3,800 years ago. That gesture was “a mark of politeness and respect,” the sign under the bust said. “This is still the mark of respect inEgypt,” our guide said.

The Museum’s exhibits of the more recent history of Nubiawere several dioramas dominated by a replica of the saqia . This was the local word for the “Persian Wheel, the ox-driven system of lifting water from open wells, which I had seen as far east as India. A sign next to it explained its significance for the survival of the arid Lower Nubiaduring the “Hellenistic times.” “The impact of the introduction of the saqiya (saqia) on Lower Nubia settlement was very great, allowing the cultivation of large areas of land…. the population and wealth of Lower Nubia increased dramatically while those of the southern provinces declined.

Nubian villages

The Museum’s dioramas also included a model of a Nubian house, and a scene of mannequin Nubian men and women in traditional clothes, with the men playing local musical instruments.  Outside the Museum I could seem Elephantine Island in the middle of the Nile where there were two living Nubian villages with live people. I went there.

The villages are called Siou and Koti. I entered by walking into a colorfully painted Nubian house on the edge of theNile. A pleasant man greeted me and said this house had been in his family for seventy five years. “Its name, Baaba Dool, means grandfather.” After the construction of the Aswan High Dam, the house had to be modified “because of the change in the water level,” he said.  There were souvenirs for sale here, bread baskets, fans, and containers, “all locally made by my family from date palm and straw.”  He invited me to go to the roof terrace for a view. He pointed out another house across the little square that also belonged to “the family.” In between the two houses, there was a place for “the sheep.”

It was past 10 in the morning. A rooster crowed. I started to walk through the narrow  alleys  of the village.  A large woman in bright red dress said “Hi.” A man was pushing a barrel of hay . I asked “for what?’ He put his hand to ears and said “baa!”   Three Women were washing clothes outside a house. One stretched her palm to me and asked for “baksheesh”. I went inside a small grocery store which had coca cola but no bottle of water. On the television screen, a man was reciting verses from the Qur’an. The owner of a “cafeteria” invited me in to buy a meal.  At the entrance to another shop, a man called Ahmad Saber had his name, both in Arabic and Hieroglyphic, framed in a cartouche, the way the pharaohs did to protect their names. I visited a house which had turned its upper terrace into a small museum of local flora and fauna called Animalia . From there the garden below looked lush green.

Down in the alley, a group of women were sitting on the steps of a house, chopping greens in preparation for the family lunch. The sight of a tourist aroused a now familiar reaction. It was not just that they asked me for baksheesh, one woman even prodded her four year old son to extend his hand out to ask for his share. Around the next bend I saw the result of such training: a boy not older than three was flying solo. He was all by himself asking response to his silently stretched arm aimed at me. Presently, however, the sight of a goat grazing in the pile of garbage in the alley distracted him. Forgetting me he ran happily after the goat .

Ruins of Abu

Long before these Nubian villages there existed on the Elephantine Island a settlement called Abu. Indeed, it gave its name, meaning both elephant and ivory in ancient Egyptian, to the Island. The Egyptians built a fortress here around 3000 B.C., and later it also played a significant role in the ivory trade with Africa. It remained a trading center throughout the Pharaonic period. Furthermore, it was the cult center of Khnum, the God of Inundation and later worshiped as the creator of mankind, as well as his wife Satet, the guardian of the southern frontier, and their daughter Anket. Their worship did not stop until the 4th century when the occupyingRoman Empire established Christianity as the official religion.

I continued my walk from the Nubian village to the ruins which told that history. European teams still excavating here have turned the site into an outdoor museum. There were, however, few helpful signs. I only had a custodian who spoke no English to help guide me by gestures. His best was to impersonate Ramesses II, as he sat on the column bases remaining from a restoration of the KhnumTemple  undertaken by that XIX Dynasty Pharaoh. He put his feet where there were marks depicting big feet on a stone base with Ramesses’s cartouche written on it.  We saw reliefs depicting the ram-headed Khnum himself. What remained of the Temple of Goddess Satetwas more impressive. Columns with torus (convex) molding held up the heavy roof. There were hieroglyphic writings on them. This was a temple rebuilt by Hatshepsut, the Egyptian female pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty. On this day a group of western women all in  simple bright red garb were here, some sitting on the ground. They were silent and respectful as worshipers are. One seemed to be praying. My custodian guide motioned that I should be quite but he could not explain who those people were.

In the midst of the Ruins of Abu there is the Aswan Museum. Its old wing recalls the times of British dominance in Egypt, as it was the residence of Sir William Willcocks, the architect of the old Aswan“Low” Dam of 1902. The collection here is an incoherent mix of dusty looking artifacts, quaintly marked in brief hand-written signs. The Museum’s modern wing, added in 1998, is a bright space where the discoveries of the Swiss and German archeologists are on display with full explanatory signs in computer fonts. Of special interest to me was a 3rd century BC “verdict of a judicial collegium”  on papyrus in “hieratic,” a cursive form of writing developed from the hieroglyphic script. The area still under excavation just outside the Aswan Museum is revealing layers added to the ruins of the old Abu settlement by a succession of future occupiers, especially the Romans and the Greeks.


On the edge of this area, at the bank of theNilewas the most strategic of the sites. Here were several Nilometers made to measure the level of theNile. The oldest dated from the XXVI Dynasty (685-525 BC), the last native Egyptian rulers of the land before foreign occupiers — Persians, Greeks, and Romans– arrived. I walked down the Nilometer’s stone stairs to a small basin which collected the water of the Nile. The maximum level of the water reached here was crucial. It was an indication of the probability of a bountiful harvest.  If the Nilometer recorded a high level of water at this frontier of theNileinEgypt, the pharaohs could demand higher taxes from their subjects.

The Romans built a new Nilometer of their own only a few steps away. This served the same purpose for centuries to come. Nasir Khusraw who visited it a thousand years before I did left us the following report.

“Around (late June) the water of the Nilerises to twenty arsh (about 18 inches) above its level in winter as it gradually increases day by day. In Egypt they have built measuring tools and markers, and there is a functionary with a thousand dinar salary to record that increase. From the day that the water starts to increase, he would send heralds to the town to announce that today, God, the exalted and glory be to Him, increased the Nile so much. Every day they would say how many asba (fingers) it increased. When it reaches one gaz (about 18 inches) they give good tidings and rejoice until 18 arsh (a total of 27 feet) is reached. That 27 feet is the agreed goal. That is to say when it is less than that they call it deficiency and feel sorrow and disappointment and beseech God and give to charities. When it exceeds that level they rejoice and celebrate. Until it reaches 27 feet, the Sultan’s taxes would not be levied on his subjects.”

This article, entitled “A thousand years later -Aswan: Jewel of the Nile”, was published on the following website of on February 28, 2011, with related pictures:


BHUTAN: Magic is making the simple enigmatic

Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2010. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.                   __________________________________________________________________________

abstract: Puff the magic dragon! Even the country’s official name is magically evocative: The Kingdom of the Peaceful Thunder Dragon. Barely a half-million “people from the highland,” which Bhutan means in Sanskrit, have created a distinct culture in the isolation of their abode which is the narrow valleys of the Inner Himalaya Mountains. In that Shangri-la over centuries they mixed Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism with esoteric Tantrism and local Bon myths and legends of demons and animistic deities. Their only standing monuments of the past are the fortresses of their feudal elite. The monarchy that has prevailed in the last century is drawing upon this tradition to preserve its vision of the future. While much of that vision is from the fertile imagination of one man, the Fourth King, it is buttressed by emphasis on compassion and community. The audacious conceit is that happiness should be the goal of development in an age whose goals are defined in material terms. Foreign access to this experimental laboratory is carefully guarded, at the same time that Bhutan is becoming all the more attractive due to the increasing limitations on touring other Himalayan countries.


The Kingdom

Our flight from Kolkata to Bhutan was delayed for several hours. We were told that this was because of mechanical problems with the plane. Druk Air, the Bhutan airline, is the only one allowed to fly to the country’s only airport in Paro. The airline has only  two planes. When we finally arrived in the Paro airport, the proof of many of other legends about Bhutan was also on display. No airport represents a country so fully.

Bhutan, the land of “the people from the highland,” which is the Indian Sanskrit name for this Himalayan nation, calls itself Druk Yuel, or “Kingdom of the Peaceful Thunder Dragon”. We went through some exciting turbulence as we descended into a narrow, windy valley surrounded by green hills. The scenery painted an imagined Shangri-la. In the pristine air of late fall the yellowed leaves of weeping willow trees danced against a blue sky which was covered in some corners by fluffy white clouds.

The terminal buildings, built in 1983, vaguely resembled Swiss chalets. They were different in the trefoil cut out (horzing) at the top of their windows which is the trademark of Bhutanese architecture (but said to be of Persian influence). The buildings’ wooden exteriors were decorated with designs and patterns, each with a special significance in the ancient land’s iconography.

On one side of the tarmac a huge billboard made clear who virtually created this country. This was the portrait of all five successive members of the ruling hereditary monarchy. There was Ugyen Wangchuck, the first Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King) who in 1907 changed the system of government from what was an oligarchy (in which an elected secular ruler, desi, shared power with the chief abbot, the Je Khenpo, who was deemed to be the reincarnation of the Tibetan llama, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, who gained Bhutan’s independence from Tibet in the middle of the 17th century). Ugyen sufficiently accommodated the threatening foreign power of his time, Great Britain, to earn a knighthood from it.

On the Wangchucks humble origin and rise to power, our Bhutanese tour guide said: “Ugyen’s father, Jigme Namgyal was a water boy at the age of ten; he supplied water. By hard work and loyalty he rose high in government and once saved the governor’s life. As a reward the governor promised to give him his position when he retired. That is how Jigme Namgyal became the governor (penlop) of the district of Trongsa.” He then used this position to gain control of the whole country through a series of clever alliances with other regional governors.

Standing next to the first king, Ugyen, in the airport portrait was his son and successor in 1925, Jigme. He secured recognition for Bhutan as an independent country from its all important neighbor, the newly independent India, in 1949, by agreeing to be “guided” by India in external relations. However, it is Jigme’s son, the Third King, Jigme Dorji, succeeding to the throne in 1952, who is called the Father of Modern Bhutan.

Jigme Dorji opened Bhutan to the outside world, joining the regional grouping Colombo Plan in 1963 and the United Nations in 1971. Domestically, he was the pioneer in modernization and democratization of the country. Among other steps, he abolished slavery, introduced wheeled vehicles where before people and goods were transported manually, created Bhutan’s first Council of Ministers and its National Assembly, and launched a five year economic development plan.

Notwithstanding all of that, it was Jigme Dorji’s son and successor in 1972, Jigme Singye (standing next to his father in the airport portrait) who put Bhutan on the global map. Indeed, like other ordinary tourists, I owed my opportunity to come to Bhutan to this king. In the past almost all visitors used to be royal guests; it was only after Jigme Singye’s coronation that small groups of ordinary tourists were allowed in.

Jigme Singye became the Fourth King of Bhutan at eighteen, then the youngest monarch in the world. He still casts a dominating shadow on Bhutan, although he abdicated in favor of his son in the last days of 2006 -thus still managing to become the longest ruling Dragon King. Most official pictures of the Fifth, Jigme Khesar Nemgyal, show the “father king” hovering over him. This current King sees his job primarily as going around the country spreading “happiness,” our guide said.

Gross National Happiness

The world perhaps knows Jigme Singye best for his coining the term “Gross National Happiness”. He began thinking about the concept at age 17, even before he became the Fourth King. It was his preferred alternative to “gross national product” as a development indicator. It has guided the development plans of Bhutan. It aims at development that is acceptable to people; especially people should feel comfortable with its pace. The king has come to articulate his policy in terms of  6 specific objectives: sustainability, self-reliance, efficiency, people’s involvement, development of human resource, and regionally balanced distribution of development projects. Gross National Happiness envisages explicit criteria for measuring the progress of development projects in terms of the nation’s common good.

The concept’s explicit imperative of respecting Bhutan’s traditions and cultural values led the Fourth King in 1988 to institute the policy of enforcing a special code of Etiquette and Manners (Driglam Namzha). This attempt to promote traditional values has resulted in two especially public manifestations. It required all citizens to wear the 14th century dress of gho (for men) and kira (for women) in government offices, official events, and schools. Secondly, it made the teaching of Dzongkha (the Bhutanese national language) mandatory in schools. Specifically, the government’s “New Approach to Education” eliminated the study of the Napali, the language of an estimated 25% minority Nepalis, which had been granted in the 1950’s ( as a third language in primary schools in the south where they lived) in order to integrate that large group which had migrated form Nepal in the early 20th century (along with granting them citizenship).

The Fourth King justified his new policy as promoting the goal of “One Nation, One People.” The Nepalese, however, disagreed. Their traditional culture (Lhotshampas) was not the same as that of the majority Bhutanese (Drukpas) which the King wanted to strengthen; and their religion was Hinduism, not Buddhism that the King wanted to honor. These Nepalese’ resentment was manifested in refusing to follow the new dress code. Zealous enforcement of the new policies led to the exodus of tens of thousands of the Nepalese between 1988 and1993. They were mostly housed in refugee camps set up by the United Nations. The population of these camps reached 160,000 by 2005.

Adverse publicity and international pressure have made the Bhutanese government modify its policy. It has begun negotiations to take back those refugees who could prove they had moved from Bhutan. The process has not gone smoothly. Only a few have been allowed back. The government, meanwhile, has also eased the enforcement of the dress code.

Ironically, the “dress diktat,” has recently come to haunt Bhutan. While I was visiting, the Hindustan Times (11/19/09) reported that the government of Darjeeling, in the neighboring India where many Bhutanese go for higher education, had recently issued a decree for a “cultural revolution,” requiring that all college students wear local (Darjeeling) traditional clothes. This made the Bhutan government quite anxious. A Bhutanese government delegation called on that Indian state’s government for help to exempt the Bhutanese students from this decree.


Notwithstanding, the Fourth King’s orthodox views are still in evidence. Almost all of the men we saw in the Faro airport wore the traditional gho. While they seemed to fit in the colorfully unusual, decorated architecture of the terminals, that architecture seemed more newly conceived than organic when we saw more of the buildings in Paro itself. All the buildings of the downtown were constructed in the 1980s. They were all painted on the exterior. The stores all had uniform blue signs in English. The remarkable similarity of these buildings and their contrast with older structures on streets and alleys just behind the main street, with no such signs and exterior decorations, gave downtown Paro the feeling of a shell stage set for movies.

Paro’s main street was empty except for the rare tourists. Only on Sunday a crowd of Bhutanese appeared in the main square of town to shop in the Asian open market that was held there. While some women wore old style Bhutanese long skirts, others and most men did not wear the kira or gho. They wore western clothes . The clothing stall in the market also sold parkas, pants and other western style garments. Other goods were mostly produce, many imported from India, all for traditional food of simple people: vegetables (cabbage, tomatoes , eggplants, onions, greens, potatoes, hot pepper, carrots, and fava beans ), eggs, milk, and grains , and fruit (bananas and oranges). Some products were special to Bhutanese cuisine: dried yellow cow skin which is eaten as a snack, and dried yak cheese as well as dates, a cheese used in many dishes. A woman was selling beetle nut powder, chewing it herself as her red teeth showed. Most goods were displayed on clothes spread on bare hard ground. There was hot coal on the ground to provide heat against the mountain cold.


A few cars were parked in a parking lot next to the Paro market. We saw nothing like a traffic jam in all of Bhutan. There is no traffic light in Bhutan. Tourists are encouraged to admire the “dancing” of the sole traffic cop as he directs the traffic in the country’s busiest intersection, the main one in the city with the most population at about 100,000. That is Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan. The main attraction in Thimphu, however, is the National Memorial Chorten. This is in fact a memorial to the memory of one individual, the Third King, built by his son, the Fourth King, in 1974. Its location is rather unique because chortens (literally receptacles for offerings and containing religious relics) are commonly constructed in places deemed inauspicious, such as mountain passes and river junctions , for the purpose of warding off evil.

A Tibetan-style chorten, the National Memorial is in the form of ancient Indian stupas. Each of the five elements of its architecture has a symbolic meaning: “The square base was the symbol of earth, he hemispherical dome was water, the conical spire was fire, a crescent moon and a sun on the top were air, and the spike symbolized the light of the Buddha,” our guide said. The many statutes and paintings on display at the Memorial were additional symbolic references to Bhutanese Buddhism. On this day several pilgrims were circling the chorten . Worshipers were rolling the prayer wheels. An old woman who was sweeping the grounds with a broom, stopped to pose for us. She held a smaller prayer wheel in her hand.

Much of the written records on Bhutan’s Buddhist history have been destroyed in the fires and earthquakes of the 19th century. What is left is mostly in the National Library. Tourists are taken to the Library, however, to see the “world’s largest book.” On display in the lobby, this is simply a book of pictures of Bhutan taken by a group of Americans. The sign in the same lobby strikes a more modest note: it estimates the population of the country at “barely 650,000″.

This does not prevent Bhutan from boasting about having 13 types of traditional arts and crafts. They are showcased in Zorig Chusum, a new school established to train young artisans, with the goal of preserving that tradition. There were both men and women in the stone carving class. They labored on intricate designs . Only women were in the weaving class. In a shop elsewhere two women demonstrated how hand-made paper was produced from tree bark with the help of a wood-fired kiln .

Textiles are the most important art form.  A National Textile Museum exists in the capital. There women clad in kira and sitting on the floor demonstrated their techniques. The patron of the Museum is Queen Ashi Sangay Choden Wangchuck. She is the youngest of the four queen mothers. Her husband is the Fourth King. He had one wife before marrying three sisters all at once and in the same ceremony in 1979. (The public ceremony was not held until October 31, 1988.) His second wife is the mother of the incumbent Fifth King and was ranked third (after his son and husband) on the list called “The Royal Government of Bhutan.” The Prime Minister came only after her on that official list. The other queen mothers each has a duty, usually as a patron of a foundation for “the underprivileged people, youth, nuns, women and Aids,” according to our guide.

The Fourth King’s three new wives had something special to offer him. They were the daughters of Yab Ugyen Dorji, a descendant of both the mind and speech incarnations of Bhutan’s founder, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel. This is significant because when the death of the Zhabdrung was finally revealed in 1705, it was announced that three rays of light emanated from him representing his mind, speech, body, but only the reincarnation of Zhabdrung’s mind came to be considered entitled to be the head of state.

Polygamy in Bhutan, however, does not require such special circumstances. “There is a man who has seven wives, all in the same house,” our guide said. Polyandry is also allowed and practiced. “There is one woman in the parliament who has two husbands,” the guide said. Economic reasons are sometimes the explanation; especially in the past, for example, two brothers shared the expenses by having the same woman as their wife. Our guide said: “Homosexuality is considered normal among would be  monks. The novices can stay together as a couple in the monastery until the time they take the vow of celibacy to become fully ordained monks.”

This sexual libertinism contrasts with the ban on smoking. Not only smoking in public places is banned, but Bhutan is also the first country to have declared the very sale of tobacco illegal. There is, of course, a black market in cigarettes. Around the corner from our hotel in Thimphu, I saw a man smoking openly. Drinking is a problem. Our guide said that the only beggars in Bhutan are those “asking for money to drink.” He also attributed the intolerable fights he witnessed between his mother and father to excessive drinking by the latter.  The one sign of public campaign against drinking which I noticed was in the  odd form of a message on a yellow bag in English: “Quit alcohol and lengthen your life span.” The sign was hanging low on a pole on the side of the road we took to see another oddity, the Takin. This is the national animal of the Bhutan, a cow-goat hybrid which experts have not yet been able to relate to any other animal.

Across the Inner Himalayas

The trees on the sides of this road were festooned with flags. They were payer flags. Prayer flags were everywhere in Bhutan: on religious buildings, houses, mountain passes, and meadows,. They came in five  colors, each representing a natural element: blue (water), green (wood), red (fire), yellow (earth), and white (iron). They all serve the same basic purpose: invoking “the blessings and protection from the deities” our guide said. There were some variations among the flags. Some were hung from strings, but most were mounted on poles. The smallest flags were those on the rooftops of homes. To ensure the family’s welfare,” our guide said. The largest flags were outside important public places and “represent victory over the forces of evil,” the guide said.

The flag called mandihar is flown for a deceased person, unusually in batches of the auspicious number 108. They are and placed at high points overlooking a river. This was the type of flag we saw on the Dochula Pass as we drove from Thimphu to Punakha. They were erected in the memory of the 10 Bhutanese soldiers who died in the 2003 battle against the Assamese rebels from India. The Fourth King personally led “from the front” the 6,000 strong Royal Bhutan Army in that successful engagement with the estimated 2,000 Assamese. This was Bhutan’s first military campaign in more than a century. In addition to the flags, 108 stupas were built here in the memory of the killed soldiers.  Assamese separatists were using Bhutanese territory to launch raids against targets in India, including buses carrying Bhutanese passengers. The significance of keeping India happy was obvious: the landlocked Bhutan faces the Chinese dominated Tibet on its northwest and north. India is its only other bordering neighbor.

Alongside the Stupas and flags, on the Dochula Pass there was another remarkable sight: an election announcement board. This day it was empty; it did not announce anything. The Pass at 3050 meter is the highest point reached by passenger cars in Bhutan. The entire country is mountainous. We were in the Inner Himalaya. To our north was the Greater Himalaya. The peaks there reached 7554 meters. Nobody has climbed them; many remain virtually unexplored. “Bhutanese can’t climb them because they don’t want to desecrate the mountains which are considered sacred,” our guide said. “A British group tried to climb those peaks and did not succeed because they were too steep. The government does not allow it any more.”  From where we stood on the Pass we could see three snow-packed peaks in the distance when the clouds moved away. The valleys and forested hillside south of these, at 1100 to 3500 meter in elevation, are where all of Bhutan’s main towns are located. We were going from Thimphu to Punakha. The hillsides were generally too steep for farming. We were driving on a ridge that was the watershed of several major rivers. Fast flowing, the rivers had formed deep ravines below us.

We were almost alone on the narrow winding road. Occasionally, we came across a convoy of cars carrying a funeral party. “Death is big here,” our guide commented, “birthdays are not.”  A few miles outside of Thimphu a few people were standing on the shoulder of the road waiting for transportation. They were bundled up in western clothes . Wood fires rising from the valley polluted the air. At one point we ran into several men in a truck as it drove off the main road toward a quarry in the woods. At another point we saw a cowherd with his herd, talking on a cell phone.  Road work was being done by women without any equipment. Prayer wheels on the side of the road were powered by running streams . We stopped to buy red and yellow apples from roadside vendors. Further down other vendors were grilling corns for sale. In the woods we noticed Rhododendron flowers. They were on trees and not bushes. “There are forty three kinds of them,” our guide said, “the largest variety in the world.” He also said that Bhutan had “360 species of orchids.” When we descended toward the Punakha valley we saw Poinsettia trees and wild cherry blossoms . At the border between the administrative districts of Thimphu and Punakha our van stopped for “immigration check”  at the Dzonkhag, or provincial immigration checkpoint. These exist at all borders between Bhutan’s 20 districts. This was to keep track of foreigners in Bhutan, our guide said.

Palace of Great Happiness

The valley of Punakha is fertile because of temperate climate and the waters of the Phochu and Mochu rivers. At the juncture of these rivers with the color of glacier water, was the gold-domed the three-story Palace of Great Happiness , Bhutan’s most beautiful Dzong. It was originally built in 1637 by Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. This complex was once both the religious and administrative center of Bhutan. As Thimphu has became the political capital, the Punakha Dzong now serves as the winter seat of Bhutan’s Chief Abbot, Je Khenpo, and the Central Monk Body. The monks winter and summer between here and Thimphu. When we were in Punakha they had just arrived for the winter season.

The Je Khenpo was about to officiate at a ceremony for this occasion. We could not go to the main chapel but we saw him from the outside in a yellow robe. Rows of monks were sitting on benches, the young ones in red robes and the seniors in saffron robes . The Central Monk Body is government-supported and under the authority of the Je Khenpo who holds office for life. Bhutanese families commonly send one son to become a monk.

Buddhism was brought to Bhutan by the Tibetan kings as early as the 7th century, but Guru Rinpoche is credited for the establishment of Buddhism in Bhutan. He was invited in 746 to come from India by a local king of Bhutan to save him from a demon who possessed him. Rinpoche did this by converting the king to Buddhism. He then founded the Nyingmapa (“red hat”) sect of Mahayana Buddhism here. Rinpoche’s religious significance has been such that he is recognized as the national patron saint of Bhutan.

From the 11th century the various religious schools took final shape in Bhutan. Bhutan shares with Tibet three main schools of Himalaya Buddhism – Kagyupa and Sakyapa in addition to Nyingmapa. The fourth, the Gelugpa, remains in Tibet. On the other hand, Bhutanese Buddhism is steeped in its own folklore and mythology.  “School texts describe demons that threatened villages and destroyed temples until captured through magic and converted to Buddhism. Many events often do not seem credible and have accurate chronology. Spirits, ghosts, medicine men, and lama reincarnate are accepted as a part of life” our guide said. Much of this is from Bon, religious practices prevalent until the late 16th century. Buddhism in Bhutan did not replace Bon, it absorbed Bon’s beliefs. “The invocations of local and protective deities, and the offering of incense to the mountain deities, are everyday rituals in Bhutan. Every locality, mountain, lake, river, or grove of trees has its deities and they are worshiped by the local communities,” the guide continued.

Bhutan prides itself as being the “last surviving independent country in the world that practices the Mahayana form of Buddhist culture” – ignoring Tibet because it sees it as a part of China. Mahayana focuses on liberation of all living beings, as distinguished from the other branch of Buddhism, Hinayana, which focuses on pursuing liberation for the individual. Aside from the recognized teachings (sutras) of Buddha (called Sakyamuni in Bhutan in reference to his home state) which are studied by both Mahayana and Hinayana followers, Bhutanese Buddhism also relies on Buddha’s tantaric teachings. From tantra (continuum in Sanskrit), these are a collection of esoteric teachings which, it is claimed, Buddha offered only to a select few of his early disciples.

The integration of tantras and Bon in Bhutanese Buddhism is exemplified by the deity Mahakala (Wisdom Defender), recognized as the guardian deity of Bhutan.  He is the Bon overlord of all the mountain gods as well as a tantaric Buddhist form of Hindu god Shiva.

“For me personally, philosophy, which I call real life, and religion were reconciled after reading a lot. I concluded that religion helps a lot in real life.” This is how our guide summed up his position on religion. “I believe that Buddha is not god but if I say that my mother will kill me because she is illiterate.” To the guide, Buddha said “I am the awakened one, not good or unusual.”  As the guide understood it, “enlightenment is the ability to distinguish between good and bad and to act on that. Greed, hatred and ignorance are evils. Greed, hatred, and envy are evils inside a person which are the causes of suffering. ” The guide’s Mahayana beliefs showed in these remarks: “enlightenment is achieved by enlightening others. A beggar gives you an opportunity to enlighten yourself.”

Our guide also explained the role the spinning of prayer wheel played especially for the illiterates: “it is like chanting mantras.” There were different mantras each for a purpose. “Their aims are to reduce suffering and to purify you.” The guide then said that he had “considered becoming a monk   because at home his parents constantly fought.” The guide wanted to escape suffering by becoming a monk.

Symbols in Paintings

The meaning of Bhutanese religious culture was also to be found in the symbolic figures of its traditional paintings, exemplified by those on the walls at the entrance to the Palace of Great Happiness.  Each colorful figure was significant.  The dominant faces were the Four Guardian Kings who protected the four primary directions. The King of the West was depicted in red, holding a serpent in his left hand and a stupa in his right. The King of the East was in white and played a flute. The King of the South who was blue in color carried a sword. The King of the North was in yellow and had a mongoose that vomited jewels in his hand. People call him “the God of Wealth,” our guide said. The old man in the pictures “represents survival,” the guide said, “the deer is for tranquility, the black neck crane is peace, the mountain is stability, water is the symbol of nourishment, and flower is prosperity.” He pointed out the painting of lotus and said “lotus symbolizes detachment from suffering, from the muck of the soil“. In one grouping there were four animals. The guide explained: “The bird brought the seed of the tree, the rabbit fertilized it, the monkey watered it, and the elephant protected it”. According to the guide “this teaches the value of cooperation.”

Divine Madman

Further down the valley we went to see the Chimi Lhakhang Monastery. This was a temple built by a lama (teacher), Drukpa Kuenley, who came here from Tibet. He is better known as the Divine Madman. “He got that name because of his behavior,” our guide said, “he breached all vows. He believed that to be a Buddhist one did not need to follow any rule. He was called divine because of his supernatural power. His mantra has all the awful words.” What he wanted to teach was that “it is not important how to behave or to say the proper mantra (there is a proper mantra for each occasion and purpose), but it is the belief and devotion that count.”

Next to the temple was a black stupa . “In it is buried a burned dog that was the demon woman,” our guide said. “That is why it is black.”  The Divine Madman had a reputation for sexual appetite. We were told that there was a replica of the Divine Madman’s penis in the temple. It is believed that this temple could enable conception in childless women who visit it. Our guide said that the penis was “the sign of fertility but also it was for protection against evil. The Divine Madman used his private parts to subdue evil.” Together with the temple’s fertility reputation, it was also considered an auspicious place for helping prospective parents choose their baby’s name. This is what our driver wanted to do today. As we accompanied him inside the temple, he first lit a candle, “because darkness is ignorance,” our guide explained. Then he prostrated before the altar, so as “to ask for forgiveness and purification,” our guide said. Then the driver approached two very young monks who were standing next to the alter and holding a book. Our driver carefully pulled a black string from between the pages of the book which contained names. The name that was thus revealed was a girl’s name. The driver beamed; he was happy. We applauded him. “If the child is a boy, he could change the name,” our guide said nonchalantly.

There was a group of young monks in red robe sitting on the ground in front of the temple. Many were reciting  the texts placed before them, while gently bobbing their heads. “They are moving to the rhythm of the old Buddhist text they are reading,” our guide said.  A few older monks were tutoring them. One monk was blowing the long horn.

“There is an emphasis on memorization. When they are young the monks do not understand the meaning of the texts. Mid-teens they proceed either to the shedra (philosophy school) or perhaps join the ritual school” our guide said.  “Monks continually take vows, as they progress from novice to fully ordained monk. They are celibate and must abstain from smoking and drinking alcohol, but they are not required to be vegetarian and may eat meat in the evening. A few monks join monastic orders after adolescence, but they are not the norm. Monks may renounce or return their vows at any time, and have to pay a token fine.”

There are 10,000 monks (and 1000 nuns) in Bhutan. Some of the other Bhutanese boys were playing soccer a few hundred yards down from the temple. They were from the College of Natural Resources that had put in a fenced “Avenue of Plantation” next to the dirt road that led to the temple. A few steps from the short and narrow stretch that was this Avenue there was an old farmhouse. There a man was sitting on the ground cutting stones while a woman was carrying her baby on her back in the front-yard . Crop husks were being burned. Land was being plowed with the help of oxen . Winter crops of mustard and wheat were going to be planted here . Red rice, a delicacy from this area, had been collected. Rice stocks with grains still on them were kept separate, in piles marked with a top , from those without grains in piles which had no top . The door on a house had a horseshoe nailed on it for good luck .

This pastoral setting with mountains in the background could well have survived from many centuries past. As we approached the road where our van was parked, however, our attention was drawn to contemporary world by the sight of a souvenir shop , the General Shop cum Bar , and the RKPO General Bar and Restaurant . At the bus stop a curious college student who spoke English engaged us in a conversation about the United States, as his friends looked on .

Wangdue Phodrang

Across the river from our hotel in Punakha they were building a whole new town. We could see the streets grid in the distance . The project looked impressive. We could not help but hope that it employed architects and builders different from the ones who had done our hotel. This was a brand new hotel for foreign tourists; so new that the good luck banners for the opening were still hanging at the entrance. The tiles of the ceiling in the bathrooms, however, had already fallen. The ceiling was leaking in my unit. The electric outlets were oddly placed six feet high on a wall. The mirror was across the room from the oversize sink. The soap container was broken. A water bottle filled with white liquid soap substituted. On it in red marker someone had handwritten “soap”. The bedroom was huge with windows on three sides exposed to the mountains and river. Insulation was poor and the thin curtains were no protection even against outside lights.

The new town under construction was to replace the nearby old town of Wangdue Phodrang. After 400 years sitting on a cliff, that town was believed to be about to fall into the river below due to landslide. It now looked no more than a ramshackle collection of wooden boards forming small store fronts teetering precariously on the edge of the cliff. It was, however, still a live and active town.

In the main square the open market was just over and a woman was sweeping the debris. Shoppers with their full bags were waiting at the concrete milestone in the center of town for transportation.  Signs had not been changed to English in this traditional town, but the video and movie racks in the stores displayed Indian films. The one film advertised in English was “Aagey se Right,” a 2009 Bollywood production about a terrorist who comes to bomb places in Mumbai but abandons his plans when he falls in love with a local bar girl. I looked into several other shops. They were family run general stores with their small shelves crammed full of merchandise of all sorts used in simple households. The grocery store sold what were the staple produce: cabbage, cauliflower, hot peppers, and green beans . The Kazang Hotel had a big sign but limited space that clearly could offer only very small dark rooms. I walked into a store where the owner was playing cards with friends, including a soldier whose uniform showed a swastika on the shoulder. I asked what the name of their card game was. The owner said “marriage game”.  As I left I said I hope you will all get married”. The owner laughed: “We are already married”.  The shopkeeper next door was counting the money she had made that day. Prominent among her merchandise on display were Hacky Sack balls.

Young monks were playing Hacky Sack in the courtyard of the dzong a few hundred yards away.  They were good at keeping the wire ball aloft by their kicks. The Wangdue Phodrang Dzong is one of Bhutan’s oldest; it still has wooden shingles. Inside the Dzong’s chapel, monks rolled prayer wheels. Some ordinary Bhutanese arrived and joined them to roll the wheels as well. There were stacks of bags of agricultural seeds in the chapel, to be “consecrated,” our guide said. The Dzong was built as a fortress at this strategic location on a promontory overlooking the meeting point of the Sunkosh and Tangmachu Rivers. The legend is that Zhabdrung who constructed it named the Dzong after a boy he saw building a sand fortress on the bank of the river below. The Dzong was built using stone masonries from India who then settled across the river in a village which still exists.

Not far from here Indians were now building Bhutan’s latest dam. The Gammon India Co. was the general contractor of the dam. The trucks used on the job were Tatas, the products of another Indian company. One was transporting Indian workers to the site. Indians financed all the cost of the project with a 40% grant and 60% loan. They will be paid back by the hydroelectric power that the dam will produce beginning in 2014. The gas for cars in Bhutan was also supplied by Indian gas stations. An Indian company built and maintained the roads as Project Datak .

Suiting Indian workers, the climate here was more tropical than mountainous.  This was a heavily wooded area. On a walk in the jungle we could see small monkeys sitting on the branches of trees .


The overwhelming majority of Bhutanese work in farms. In Paro a young woman was our host for a visit to her family’s house on the farm. Her parents were both working in the field. She had just finished the two year course of the school of management and was looking for a different job than farming.

The house was built of pounded mud . It was a two story structure with wooden beams supporting the upper floor. The ground floor was used as a barn. The living quarters were on the second floor. We reached it by climbing an outside ladder. There was a separate shack on one corner of the yard where the family cooked the food for the cows and distilled Ara, a grain liquor made on special occasions.

At the entrance to the upper floor sat the grandfather . In his 90s, he was fit enough to climb the steep ladder. He had his own room . There were two teenage sons. They slept in the same room which had one bed and several mattresses . The walls of this room were covered with pictures of stars, singers , and soccer players, all cut out from magazines [122]. There were also pictures of the king and his father . The books on the study desk included the Oxford International Learner’s Dictionary, a volume on economics, and the Bhutan Civic book which was a general work with excerpts from a broad range of writers, including a French author.

The young woman had her own room. Here the pictures posted on the walls included a photo of San Francisco’s “crooked” Lombard street from a calendar that had been given to her. It felt rather strange to see it here as this address was so close to where I lived. The parents’ room also enclosed the chapel of the house. Called choesum, this was an elaborately decorated alcove. The kitchen had what the guide referred to as a “a modern stove” . This was the warmest place and “parents sometimes slept here on cold nights.”

National Museum

As in Wangdue Phodrang, the Dzong in Paro was built by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, in the middle of the 17th century, in the form of a fortress to defend against repeated invasion from Tibet. It was erected on the ruins of an 8th century monastery that had been built by Guru Rinpoche. Hence it is called the Fortress on a Heap of Jewels. Burned in a fire of 1907, the Dzong has been reconstructed and is deemed to be Bhutan’s finest . Its gleaming whitewashed walls tower over the valley. A mural of a variation of mandala unique to Bhutan and an exceptionally carved wood interior are among its hallmarks. The original old wooden bridge over the Paro River had been reconstructed; it could be removed to protect the Dzong against invaders. The Paro Dzong also had a watchtower. This doubled as a dungeon and ammunition store. The watchtower now houses Bhutan’s National Museum.

We could see the old weaponry in the Museum. There was a collection of old textiles and another of thangka paintings which translate a written religious text into graphic signs. A glass cabinet displayed maps of ancient stone-forts. There is evidence that this country was inhabited as early as 4,000 years ago. The artifacts existing in the Museum, however, were all dated from much later periods. What is known about early history of Bhutan is mostly based on legend and folklore as only a few old manuscripts have survived.

Tiger’s Nest

Not all dzongs are ancient; one was built as recently as 1997. On the other hand, some old dzongs still remain to be discovered in Bhutan. That is why the young Swiss archeologist I met was here. She had come to assist her professor in digging around a newly discovered old dzong. She said there were two categories of old dzongs, the earlier and the younger. The earlier were built “free on rocks,” the younger ones “on mandala directions.”

We were talking at the foot of Tiger’s Nest before starting a hike that is almost obligatory for all tourists. Taktshang Goemba (Tiger’s Nest) is a monastery built in 1692 around the cave where Guru Rinpoche meditated for three months after subduing the local demon. He had flown here on the back of a tigress, a manifestation of his consort Yeshe Tsogyal. A fire in 1998 destroyed that structure and its contents. It has been rebuilt since. From the valley we could see it on the mountain half-covered by clouds, but even at the 8,200 feet where we our trail began only the outline of the monastery could be discerned. We were going to walk another 1000 feet for a better look. Others chose to ride horses .

On the path through blue pines there were clearings where we could see the magnificent scenery below.  There were also several souvenir vendors with their “local” wares spread on the ground. One was a small silver vile with inlaid turquoise which Sanom, the vendor, said contained aphrodisiac liquid. Penis signs were present in various forms along the way, including the head of the walking stick we were furnished and the spigot of a running water fountain. Like most tourists we stopped at a landing which had a teahouse and Cafeteria . Sitting outside we had our closest view of Tiger’s Nest , perched 3000 feet above the valley, obstructed only by the ubiquitous prayer flags .

Kyichu Lhakhang

Bhutan’s monasteries (goembas) are located in caves and other remote places which would allow the monks peace and solitude. The rest of its 2002 religious buildings did not have that requirement. These include chortens which contain religious relics, and temples (lhakhangs).

Paro’s Kyichu Lhakhang is one of Bhutan’s oldest temples, the survivor from among the 108 built in 659 by the King of Tibet to defeat evil. On the day of our visit a special religious ceremony was being held there . There were monks, and nuns, and a priest . They chanted prayers from old Tibetan texts. There was also music from Bhutanese instruments of flute, telescopic trumpet, and drums.

In the courtyard of the temple we noticed a pile of iron links. These had been forged by Bhutan’s 15th century bridge builder, Thanktong Gyalpo. According to our guide “he built 108 iron bridges. He was the one who originated the use of iron chains in making suspension bridges.” None of those remains standing, but the iron from one of them was used in a bridge we were shown later that day. On the way back, however, we saw men using bows and arrows now imported from the United States as they engaged in their ancient sport of archery.


This article entitled,  Bhutan: Magic is making the  simple  enigmatic, was published on the following website of on November 4, 2010 with related pictures:

Letter from Cairo


                        Copyright© Keyvan Tabari 2004. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari. ________________________________________________________________________

The Pita Seller

I was  sipping tea  in the alley that doubles as the outdoor serving area of Fishawi’s Coffeehouse in Cairo. A boy of about seven passed through, pedaling small loaves of freshly baked pita bread, shammy, held in a tray on his head. I asked for one. Showing his fingers, he wanted five Egyptian pounds. He could not break my twenty pound note. The customers next to me did not have change either. An Egyptian man walked by and noticed my problem. He picked a pita from the tray, gave it to me, and paid the boy one pound. I thanked him and held out my money. He waived his hand to say his was a gift. I learned later that the price of the pita was only two-tenths of a pound. From such scenes I have formed my impressions of Cairo, which I visited in the first five days of April 2004.

Fishawi’s is located in Khan al-Khalili, Cairo’s old bazaar. Although both are recommended by guide books, neither is a tourist trap. The bazaar is a center of local trade and the coffeehouse’s customers are mostly local . I was sitting on a bench softened by a thin cushion. Around me were men, and a woman, smoking sheesha, the water pipe. Every so often, a waiter would bring hot coals in a small brazier to stoke the pipes. On the wall opposite me in the alley, next to an oval mirror, was the door to the coffeehouse. The building looked authentically old, fitting between its neighbors. I went in. A few customers were inside. There were two rooms, not very big, with wooden and worn furniture, but still charming.

Khan al-Khalili was established in the 14th century and seems not to have changed much since. I looked at the medieval archways where people lived and worked. The shops sold goods that must have also been in demand several centuries ago. I thought of the frequent complete overhauls of shopping centers in California and the changing fads in their consumer products.  The day before, I had seen the farms outside Cairo as we drove to Memphis, the earlier capital of Egypt. They seemed as ancient as the ruins of Memphis and its sphinx and statues of Pharaohs, and the nearby pyramids of Saqqara.

Relics of Religion

Our group sat on the carpeted floor in the cavernous prayer room of the Mosque of Mohammed Ali. The guide pointed to the European clock in the courtyard. “That was the gift Khedive Mohammed Ali received from France in return for sending the Paranoiac obelisk that is now in Paris,” she said -as I would closely paraphrase such sayings in quotes here. The clock has never worked, having been damaged on delivery. “What a bargain!” she said.

It was the history of Islam, however, that the guide wanted to talk about now. When she got to the Sunni-Shiite differences, she explained that the Sunnis believed Mohammad was the prophet and “the Shiites believe that Mohammad was the prophet too, but have very high respect for Ali.” She paused and gave me a meaningful glance.  The two of us had a discussion on this subject in the morning part of the tour, when I was her only client. Her characterization of the Shiites was different then. She had said that the Shiites, unlike the Sunnis, did not believe that Mohammad was the prophet, “They believe that Ali was the prophet.” I offered that the Shiites would be surprised to hear this as they clearly believed that the prophet was Mohammad, and Ali was merely the first Imam. I did not expect that our exchange would modify the guide’s views. She had told me that she belonged to the Borhani religious group that studied Islam carefully. She may have now simply allowed for my presence. I wondered if how she described the Shiites in the morning did not more accurately reflect the general view in Egypt.

“There are no Shiites in Cairo,” our guide said; this, in a city that was founded by the Shiite Fatimids in the Tenth Century. The guide explained that the Fatimid dynasty’s reign was ended in 1171 by the Sunni Saladin, of the Crusade fame. The Sunnis have since dominated Cairo. One of the most venerated sites in the city, however, continues to be the Mosque of al-Hussein where the Cairoans believe the head of Hussein, “the prophet’s grandson,” is buried. There were more worshipers around Hussein’s shrine than in any of the other major Mosques I visited. Although in Cairo they may not mention it, for the Shiites Hussein, their Third Imam, is the symbol of their grievances against the Sunnis. His “martyrdom” in the battle of Karbala against the ruling Sunni Khalif is annually commemorated as the defining tragedy in the Shiite history.

Islam appeared pervasive in Cairo. At a grocery store to buy a bottle of water, I had to wait in line with two other customers while the owner prayed on the floor. I saw overflowing crowds of men praying on the street sidewalks in front of small mosques. Taxi drivers hung verses from the Koran on their rear view mirrors. Most women wore the Islamic headdress. This was by choice, as I also saw Muslim women without such headdresses. I asked one such woman, a guide, if I had heard correctly that a tourist police was asking her why she was not wearing the Hejab. She looked at me offended and said that I misunderstood, and that nobody had a right to tell her what to wear. Nobody dressed immodestly. To meet boys, my guide went to the coffeehouses, but she sought calm and serenity in a mosque.

The shrine that contained Hussein’s relic was in a rectangular room. Two third of the worshipers were women, but they were packed standing in only one side of the room, separated from the men, far fewer in number, some of whom comfortably lounged on the floor and the chairs in the other three sides. I had already seen this disparity in the Al-Azhar mosque . Its vast courtyard was lined with many rooms. As we were crossing it, my guide pointed to one room where some women were praying and said that was set aside for women. I asked, “Which room is for men?” The guide looked at me with a smile of incredulity, his hands stretched out with palms up. “The whole place is ours,” he said.

In conversation with me the Cairoans would invoke Islam as the guide for political as well as moral conduct. Even their hope for a favorable resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian problem was cast in the millenarian promises of the Koran.

In the old quarter of Cairo, I visited a 9th century synagogue with a well in the courtyard which was claimed to be where the Pharaoh’s daughter found the baby Moses. The Jews also fled here in the 6th century when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Jerusalem temple. No Jew worships at this synagogue now. The nearby Hanging Church, however, is an active center of the Coptic community that lives largely in its own neighborhood, separate from the Muslims. Pictures of visits by all of Egypt’s Presidents were in conspicuous display in the church. Fifteen percent of Egyptians are Coptic, my guide noted. The next day, as I was walking by the Nile, a young man who said that he was a Coptic Egyptian made himself my uninvited company for a few blocks.  After learning that I came from the U.S., he said “I hate the Arabs”.  I gathered that he was referring to Muslim Egyptians.

I recalled that two years before, in New York, a friend had taken me to dinner at the house of a wealthy émigré Jewish Egyptian family. One of the sisters, not present, was married to a well known Coptic Egyptian. The conversation was mostly about the Arabs, not complementary, but the focus included Palestinians as well the Egyptians since one of the guests had just come from Israel with stories about the terror of the Intifada. Now I was walking some distance south on Giza’s Sharia el-Nil, a broad boulevard. The sidewalk was occupied by sheep herders with their flocks. They looked biblical. Call it kitsch, but I imagined Abraham.

Quiescent Politics

The former Shah of Iran is buried in Cairo’s Ar-Rifai Mosque under a simple flat tombstone. There is a royal Iranian flag in the otherwise empty room with its elegantly ornate walls. In a room two doors away lies the body of the Shah’s former brother-in-law, Farouk, the last king of Egypt. The Shah was given sanctuary in his last days from the vengeful wrath of Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution.  The Egyptian revolutionaries had shown greater tolerance by allowing the return of Farouk’s remains from exile. When they overthrew him, the king was despised by his subjects for the same reason the Shah was denounced by his: despotism in collusion with foreign powers.

Politics seemed quiescent in Egypt. President Hosni Mubarak has now been in office for more than two decades, but there was no picture of him, neither a banner extolling his virtues in the streets of the Capital. Nor, on the other hand, did I notice any evidence of an organized opposition to him. “It is so hard to make a living now that people are left with no energy for political activity,” one Cairoan explained. Such sentiment toward Mubarak as was expressed to me was favorable. Even the grooming of his son to succeed him was approved. The son’s benevolence toward the youth was noted: “He organizes computer classes for them.” Mubarak was accepted also because “there is no one better on the scene.” The Cairoans complained about the increasing poverty and the widening gap between the rich and the poor, but they did not blame the President for those problems.

Mubarak was credited with being “smart,” and appreciated for keeping Egypt out of un-winnable wars. In reaction to the American invasion of Iraq, unpopular among Egyptians, Mubarak had declared that he would not stop anyone who wanted to fight with the Iraqis but would not sacrifice Egyptian soldiers against the overwhelming American power.  Two Cairoans related this to me approvingly. They also agreed with Mubarak’s rationale for not intervening militarily in the Palestine conflict: “How could you fight them when they have nuclear bombs?”

The tariff sign  I saw at the Cairo Zoo differentiated among “the Egyptians, the Arabs, and the Foreigners.”  The other Arabs are neither foreigners nor Egyptians. The headquarters of the Arab League is a prominent building in the center of Cairo. One Cairoan told me, however, that the other Arab countries were unreasonable in expecting Egypt alone to carry their burden. When I heard that there would be a huge demonstration provoked by the recent Israeli assassination of the Hamas leader, Ahmed Yasin, I went to the campus of Cairo University which has a grand plaza capable of accommodating thousands. I found, instead, only festive small clusters of engineering students in nice suits and dresses, celebrating their graduation. Across town, in the elite American University of Cairo, which is near the barricaded American Embassy, students were playing basketball.

A short distance from Cairo University is the Embassy of Israel, a relic of the Camp David Agreement of 1978. These days, the Cairoans’ hostility toward Israel is so intense that, in conversation with me, it extended to all Jews. The United States, one said, is believed to be controlled by the Jews.  The disappointment with America has been accentuated by the U.S. occupation of Iraq: “while Saddam may have been bad, the Iraqis should be left alone in deciding their own affairs,” I was told. “Even if one assumes that democracy is good, it cannot be imposed by foreigners.” The Cairoans stressed that they distinguished between the American people and the American government. Their anger at America, however, was such that one said “Ben Laden is a hero here because he was able to hurt America.” I reminded them that far from hurting Egypt, the United States was giving it billions of dollars annually in foreign aid, more than any other country save Israel. One Cairoan dismissed this aid as going only to those friendly to the U.S. in order to enable them to stay in power. The other considered it as simply owing to Egypt for its entering the peace agreement with Israel. Perhaps no amount of aid could adequately reduce resentment against the U.S.  The Cairoans’ sentiment seems to be derived more from a sense of dignity and pride: they feel outraged and humiliated by what they perceive that Israel and the United States are doing toward other Arabs.

Being a Tourist

As my taxi approached the pyramids of Giza, I was trying to make out their outlines in the smog that engulfed Cairo that day. Suddenly, I saw several young men running toward the car. The driver did not stop; he left four of them behind. The fifth man, however, opened the back door of the moving taxi, jumped in, and seated himself in the back. I was sitting in front as passengers do in Cairo. Not quite understanding what was happening, I yelled at the new arrival, “What are you doing here? Get out of my taxi.” He shouted back several phrases, including “I am with the government.” I said I did not care and he had to get out. The vehemence of my protest finally made him leave. My driver then confirmed that the intruder wanted to be my guide for the pyramids. I fended off several other such would be guides, while I viewed the two bigger pyramids from the outside and walked toward the third one, the Menkaure. Here I was met by another man who offered to take my picture. Before I knew it he literally forced me over a camel. The beast got up, my picture was taken, and I paid the man. At the entrance to the Pyramid, an official tourist police stopped me and said that I could not take my camera inside. As I was trying to figure out where to leave the camera, he grabbed it and told me to follow him. We went inside the pyramid. He led me down to all the corridors and storage rooms, pointed to where I should pose and took my picture. When we returned to the outside opening he gave back my camera. I tipped him well, as he sternly warned me not to tell any one outside about what he did for me.

The would-be guides of Cairo were already notorious for their hassle at the time of the visit by Mark Twain. They usually approached me by asking “where you from?” which was then followed, regardless of my answer, with “welcome!” Soon thereafter, they made their pitch, persistently. When I declined their invitation to visit a store, they would reproach me, “just five minutes to look, not five dollars.”  The position of a guide with an established tour company is a coveted one. A carpet salesman who claimed he knew four languages -and spoke English well- disclosed that his career goal was to become a tour guide. Enrollment in the school of tourism, I was told, requires high grades, second only to those for medical school.

I found that a good guide book served me as well as any tour guide. Indeed, the great value of Cairo’s popular tourist attractions was the direct sense of awe they induced simply because they were so venerably old and monumentally huge. Detailed description almost distracted from this enjoyment.

The pyramids and the sphinxes are located in stark desert settings. Cairo’s Museum of Antiquity is only a slightly less harsh environment for its magnificent artifacts. They are warehoused rather than displayed. I saw no docent or museum guard. Cleaning crews were throwing buckets of water on the floors and moping under the feet of visitors in the galleries.

Life pulsated through the splendid architecture of medieval Cairo. I exchanged pleasantries with men who were buying lunch from a street vendor just next door to the 9th Century Ibn Tulun Mosque, which still provides the worshipers tranquility in its enormous courtyard of simple grandeur.

The buildings that were Cairo’s attempts in the 19th century to imitate European cities looked tired but still charming, in the Talaat Harb square. Groppi’s, once a gathering place for tout Cairo, was now only a half empty patisserie. Café Riche ignored its past as the locus of Nasser’s hatching his coup and, instead, boasted of its literary heritage with an imposing picture of the Nobel laureate, Naguib Mahfouz, dominating those of lesser luminaries. A far more modest Ali Baba Cafeteria , in the Tahrir square, which Mahfouz regularly visited, was more like a place at which to conjure the tales  of his Cairo trilogy. The Cairo opera house which once premiered Verdi’s Aida now made no overtures to foreign visitors; my hotel concierge tried several days in vain to find out the current program.

The River

What is truly inspiring and beautiful in Cairo is the river Nile. It is majestically wide, and surprisingly not crowded with vessels. It is cleaner than expected. The Nile is the view coveted by the new fashionable high rises. On its banks, especially on the Corniche el-Nil, lovers promenade. An hour at the sunset in the ancient sailboat, Felucca , is the most sublime experience in Cairo. In the near stillness of this old water one peers into history. I was lucky, because on that night there was also a full moon on the opposite side of the sky.


Belly dancing is Cairo’s signature night entertainment. The show began around eleven, as we were being served dinner. The menu was not limited to Egyptian cuisine -which I did not find especially creative with its heavy use of tomato sauce. The warm-up acts consisted of two bands of three performers . They were all singers; one also supplied the music by a synthesizer. Each group performed for about an hour. The songs were all Arabic. The belly dancer came on the stage at an hour and a half passed midnight. She was accompanied by eleven instrumentalists. Her dancing was more athletic than the belly dancing I had seen in the West. She changed her gorgeous colorful costumes several time. She did not come down from the stage and nobody went up to plant money on her body. She danced for nearly an hour. Egyptians stay up late for their fun. I noticed that at least three in the audience were talking on their cell phones as the show went on. I wondered what urgent matter had to be attended to so early in the morning.

The performances of the belly dancers as well as the singers struck me as too repetitive, excessive, and overwhelming. I was reminded of the arabesque in the visual arts of Cairo. It was tempting to project this notion also into my observation of the life of ordinary people in Cairo. In this view, the chaos of the Cairo traffic -cars, pedestrians, and donkey driven carts competing for the same space- was merely an exaggerated version of the same patterns. Western tourists could escape this unfamiliar environment by retreating to the modern world of their mostly new hotels. This cultural transition was always a strange experience for me.

In the prism of my hotel, Cairo looked different. Opulent and luxurious, the hotel was a bargain by Western prices. It was staffed to the brim. Apparently all Egyptian, except the senior managers, they spoke nearly impeccable English. The service was deferential and effusive. Everybody seemed to have learned my name, and to use it when speaking to me. I had never seen such courteous and efficient concierges. My requests were accommodated almost instantaneously and confirmed in beautiful, typed cards which were promptly slipped under my door. I indulged in savoring the cooling pool. There, I was corrupted by the pampering of never fewer than three attendants. Each asked about my welfare and catered to my ordinary needs. Further, unsolicited, each brought me, separately, such quaint perks as bookmarks when they saw me reading. I never use bookmarks.  Unable to refuse the overwhelming hospitality, I was left pondering what to do with them. It occurred to me that such problems only arise in the “friendly and moderate” Egypt that is depicted in some Western media.

This article entitled Letter from Cairo was published on the Website of Protocol Professionals, Inc.  in 2004, with the related pictures.