The Arab World

Morocco was the last Arab country on our itinerary, and so I thought it fitting to do a brief recap of the Arab world, as visited by us. (Note: The Arab world should not be confused with the Muslim world, which includes non-Arab Muslim places.) As “Arab” is, at its most basic level, an ethnic designator, my survey will focus on demographics and cultural identity within these states.

Our entry into the Arab world on this trip began with a stopover in the Gulf, in the United Arab Emirates and Oman. Not only by its membership in the Arab League and the (Arab) Gulf Cooperation Council, but also through its name, the UAE reminds us that it is Arab. And, given its location in the Arabian Peninsula, one could hardly disagree, on many levels. However, as most who have visited the UAE know, the UAE is a country that may be owned and operated for the benefit of the local Arabs–called Emiratis–but is primarily inhabited by outsiders (80% of the population), some of whom are Arabs from other parts of the Arab world, but most of whom (perhaps a majority of the population) are from the Indian Subcontinent. One proud Indian resident told us that Dubai is the most modern Indian city–and in some ways it is hard to dispute the description of Dubai as an Indian city. Could South Asians at some point overwhelm the locals and take over the country? Have they already? Oman, though also solidly “Arab,” and populated far more by “natives” than overseas workers, has a distinct cultural identity owing to its former colonial empire, and dark skinned Omanis of clearly African descent but Arab identity seem to fit in quite seamlessly into Omani society–a multicultural vision of what it means to be Arab.

From there we traveled to Syria and Jordan. There is a dost-protest-too-much quality to Syria’s official name, the Syrian Arab Republic. As I described in my posts of 2008.04.16 and 2008.04.25, Syria may be squarely in the center of Arab history, as the base of the Umayyad Caliphate responsible for most of the expansion of Arab identity and Islam, but the actual ethnic makeup of Syria, in some genetic sense, is incredibly diverse and clearly not the same as the Arabs of the Arabian Peninsula. Basic awareness of history points out that the population must be not only of Arabian descent but of Phoenician, Greek, Persian, Turk and Roman (and perhaps even some Crusader and Mongol). Jordan is somewhat more Arabian, its royalty claiming descent from Mohammed, but the many Palestinians living in Jordan no doubt share the same genetic background as the Syrians.

After some more stops in the Gulf and a hiatus from the Arab world in the Turkic world (see post of 2008.11.05) and Iran-e Bozorg, or Greater Iran, by which I mean all of the areas in the Near East where Iranian languages are spoken, such as Afghanistan and Tajikistan (see posts of 2008.05.12 and 2008.06.12), as well as Muslim East Asia, we returned to the Arab world in Cairo.

Is the official name of Egypt–the Arab Republic of Egypt–as misleading as Syria’s? I would argue yes. Egypt, as the most populous country in the Arab League (more than twice as much as the next most populous country), may have a good claim to represent modern Arab identity today, but a comparison of the reliefs and paintings of Ancient Egypt–created hundreds and thousands of years before “Arab” existed as a significant cultural designator–with the faces of modern Egyptians shows that the population of the Nile seems to have remained largely constant. Egyptians may consider themselves Arabs, but they really are Egyptians first.

Again after leaving the Arab world, we returned in Mauritania, one of the newest members of the Arab League (see post of 2008.12.12), and one that somewhat straddles Sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa. This was followed by Morocco, a country that is increasingly recognizing its Berber identity as well as its Arab (see post of 2009.01.21).


Is there such a thing as the Arab world? A common sense of identity that the countries of the Arab League truly share? Yes, of course, but it is one of significant diversity–diversity of ancestry (with people of many different ancestries now claiming Arab ethnic and cultural identity), as well as diversity of religion (in particular the Christian populations of Egypt and the Levant, see posts of 2008.10.01 and 2008.04.16) and many minority groups (from the South Asians of the Gulf, see posts of 2008.04.03 and 2008.04.04, and the Kurds and Armenians of Syria, see post of 2008.04.16, to the black Africans of Mauritania, see post of 2008.12.12).

Walled Cities of the Muslim World

Walls of Taroudannt, Morocco

Encircling walls have been, historically, a common feature of cities around the world. Beijing’s and Paris’s old walls may have been replaced by ring roads quaintly maintaining references to the old gates, and few big cities have maintained their walls (Istanbul comes to mind), but most of the cities of the world were at all point surrounded by walls protecting the urbane and civilized from the relative lawlessness of the hinterlands as well as foreign invaders. Walls distinguished what was inside, the developed density of organized city life, and what was out.

I don’t want to get into causes–an interesting discussion, no doubt–but many of the greatest walled cities that survive into the present day seem to be in the Muslim world, particularly in the Middle East. Cairo, Damascus and Jerusalem are some of the most fabled, while smaller but still notable examples include Khiva in Uzbekistan, Lefkosa/Nicosia in Cyprus and Meknes in Morocco. Even among the Muslim cities that have lost their walls, many such as Old Delhi and Kashgar have retained much of that old walled atmosphere.

Walls of Cairo

Walls of Lefkosa/Nicosia

Walls of Khiva

That old walled city atmosphere–what is it? It has a lot to do with density–when walls constrain the growth of a city, urban life is forced to develop inward and upward, and life of every sort fills the alleys. Commerce and markets–the souqs so characteristic of Muslim cities–consume much of the urban core. Families are seen strolling from home to workshop to restaurant to hammam. And just as safety was one of the main reasons for building walls, to be able to maintain the order of civilized life inside, safety still reigns in these cities. Children run in the side streets, and scale and proximity somehow prevents the anonymity of city life from developing, every neighbor a constant presence.

We thought that we had a pretty thorough experience of Muslim walled cities by the time we got to Morocco, but we were pleasantly surprised. Of all the walled cities that we have visited, none equals the atmosphere of Fez–probably the most genuine, authentic and atmospheric walled city in our travels. More than any place else, one feels a continuity in Fez–a sense that the same people have occupied the same homes and narrow alleys for hundreds of years, living their lives in very much the same ways. Below, some images of Fez.

Fez is actually two different walled cities in one, with a substantial royal enclosure to boot. Here, the walls of Fez al-Jadid, or “New” Fez.

Markets fill many of the main arteries of traditional walled cities. Sometimes, covered.

Commerce is not limited to the “traditional”–here, a Credit Agricole branch.

Complementing the markets are warehouses or inns, called funduqs or khans, for merchants and merchandise.

Greeting neighbors, perhaps on the way to the mosque beyond

Fresh water and proper sewage facilities are of course essential to the functioning of a city–perhaps the single civil engineering technology most important to life in density. The street of Fez are still filled with fountains, public restrooms and hammams.

And room for industry as well. The famous tanneries of Fez are still in full production, not only for the local market but for import abroad.

Persistence of Iconography

It’s amazing how some images persist through the centuries and are reused again and again, sometimes in entirely different contexts and with totally changed meanings. In this post, I thought I would show you some symbols we have run into on this trip, repeatedly and unexpectedly.

Caduceus of Hermes

The caduceus (or wand) of Hermes is a symbol of somewhat uncertain origin of the Greek god, and it is still used as the astronomical symbol for the planet Mercury (and sometimes mistakenly in place of the rod of Asclepius as a symbol for medicine). We saw this image in two odd places on our trip.

The first, the Roman-era catacombs in Alexandria. Alexandria, founded centuries earlier by Alexander the Great, remained a great center of Greek culture for many centuries. This tomb complex is believed to have been built by the resident Greeks; however, it was built largely in Egyptian style, showing that local Greeks had to some extent adopted Egyptian art and forms. Here, the caduceus is shown (on left) with a snake wearing the pharaonic crown of Upper and Lower Egypt.

The second, Mount Nebo, Jordan. Mount Nebo is an important pilgrimage site for Christians (and presumably Jews, although we did not see any Jewish pilgrims), who believe that it was the spot from which Moses saw the Promised Land (and passed away). On this spectacular vantage point are located ruins of Byzantine churches and an active Franciscan complex of worship. Why a caduceus? No clue.

Four Evangelists

It is believed by some that the popular depiction of the four Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, John and Luke) as four “animals” (bird, bull, bear and human, respectively) is derived from ancient Egyptian funerary tradition, in which bodily organs were placed in four canopic jars of which the lids depicted four Egyptian gods (Imsety, Hapi, Duamutef and Qebehsenuef) in four animal forms (human, baboon, jackal and falcon, respectively). If so, Egyptian Coptic depictions of the four Evangelists in animal form–here they even look like canopic jars–must be some of the earliest.

Chapel, Monastery of St. Paul, on the Red Sea, Egypt

An illustration of the animal forms of the four Evangelists from the medieval Irish Book of Kells

All-seeing Eye

The “all-seeing eye” or “eye of providence,” the cyclopean eye at the apex of a truncated pyramid, is one of the best known of icons and features prominently in some of the most persistent conspiracy theories. Here is the all-seeing eye on the Franciscan Church of the Annunciation in Ljubljana, Slovenia and the U.S. one dollar bill.


Part of the all-seeing eye is of course the pyramid. The pyramid form has been used as tombs from the 26th c. BC on, as other examples from the 4th c. AD and 19th c. AD below show.

Red Pyramid of Dahshur, the first true Egyptian pyramid

Pyramidal Byzantine Christine tomb at al Bara, one of the Dead Cities of Syria

Tomb of sculptor Antonio Canova inside the Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice, Italy

Why are these images and forms used again and again? In part, I think it’s becuase they’re what artists know how to draw and are used to drawing (or, in the case of the pyramid, a shape of simplicity of stability to which architects may be attracted). But mainly I think it’s because the new tradition (whether the Franciscan priests in Jordan or the Catholic Church in Slovenia looking to ornament their place of worship or the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing brainstorming designs) wants to latch on to the talismanic power that such icons have derived over centuries of use, to base their images on ones that are accepted or believed to be powerful, the grafting of a new idea on an older tree, the same reason that religious sites are so often re-used (see post of 11.10) and ancient stories (from Isis to Mary and the flood of Gilgamesh to the flood of Noah) are incorporated into newer faiths.

Faces of Egypt

Egypt is an Arab country, and indeed the Arab conquest came quickly to Egypt given its geographical proximity to the Arabian Peninsula. Nonetheless, Egypt represents a far more ancient culture, and Egyptian Arab identity, to me, seems a particularly distinct one compared to the Arab cultures of the Gulf or even the Levant, both areas in which the modern nation states do not seem to represent a distinct/discrete ethnic identity or culture.

Other than the Nubians originally from southern Egypt and perhaps the Bedouin in the Sinai, we did not encounter significant ethnic minorities, although perhaps it could be said that the Copts represent an Egyptian line with less Arab genetic input. Some pictures:

Vendor, Alexandria. In Alexandria we noticed that many Egyptians seem to have green eyes; it seemed less common in other parts of Egypt.

Scholar, Al Azhar Mosque. This man, to me, seemed somewhat “un-Egyptian” in appearance–he said that his family was from the Delta region.

Perhaps part of this is due to Ramadan, but Egypt feels far more religious than most of the other Islamic countries we have traveled to. The calls to prayer seem louder and more urgent and public worship far more common and conspicuous. Most shockingly (though perhaps that is too strong a word), there is an astonishing number of men who walk around with zebibas (“raisins”), which are forehead prayer bumps from repeated prostration during prayer. While some Egyptian men seem to wear these marks proudly as a testament to how devout they are, it is generally believed that they are intentionally inflicted (perhaps by scraping one’s head on the carpet in an exaggerated manner while praying), rather than a necessary consequence of frequent prayer–little else could explain the absence of such marks on the foreheads of the devout in other Islamic countries.

Foreign Powers in Egypt

One of the things that I find surprising about Egypt is that, despite its development centuries ahead of other civilizations and its great material and cultural heights, it never really expanded too far outside the boundaries of the modern state of Egypt–never was there a real expansionary period, a great and lasting Egyptian empire. True, aspects of Egyptian culture spread far around the Mediterranean (perhaps most famously the cult of Isis, which finds echoes in the worship of the Virgin Mary), but Egypt was far more often part of a foreign political entity than the center of an empire. Perhaps this was because Egypt’s most glorious years came well before the age of great empires, but the last 2500 years or so have seen numerous foreign powers in control. The Persians came in with Darius, the Greeks with Alexander the Great, the Romans with Marc Antony and Caesar; the early Arab conquest from Arabia was followed by the Fatimids from the Maghrib, Saladin from Syria and Turkic rule through the Mamelukes and the Ottomans; and most recently there were periods of quasi-colonial rule by the French and British.

It could be said that in general Egyptian culture was less affected by the outsiders than the outsiders were by Egyptian culture, especially before the Arab conquest–Egyptian forms of religion and art persisted stubbornly throughout the Persian, Greek and Roman periods, and even Christianity developed into a local church, the Coptic Orthodox (see post of 10.1). Outsiders who ruled Egypt, such as the Greek Ptolemies and the Turkic Mamelukes, eventually became essentially domestic dynasties, even if they were by blood foreign. Ancient Egyptian culture and history have an appeal that has persisted even in modern America: “Walk Like an Egyptian” (incidentally, a pose we did not see in ancient Egyptian art), Art Deco (see post of 9.15), countless movies, the list goes on. But, as I began, Egypt has for a very long time seen many foreign powers come and go, and in this post I wanted to share some photographs showing their relics–Egypt is not all pharaohs and mosques.


“Philosopher’s Circle” of Greek thinkers (from Homer to Plato), at the pharaonic Saqqara funerary complex. The Saqqara complex originally dates from Djoser (2667-2648 BC)–these Greek sculptures were added much later during the Ptolemaic era.

Caduceus of Hermes at the Catacombs in Alexandria. The tombs are believed to date from the first to fourth centuries AD, and although there is a mix of Pharaonic and Greek imagery, it is believed that they were for the local Greek population, which had adopted some Egyptian iconography and styles.

The Greek presence in Egypt continued right through into the twentieth century, especially in the city of Alexandria, where a number of Greek coffeeshops remain as witnesses to the city’s Greek past. Early twentieth century Egypt was a far more multicultural place than it is today; since then, most Greeks have moved elsewhere.

Greek Orthodox Church, Old Cairo. The Greek Orthodox Church also maintains the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai (see post of 10.1).

Greek Inscription, Elephantine Island, Aswan


Roman fortress of Babylon, now called Old Cairo. The Romans/Byzantines were decisively evicted from Egypt by the seventh century Arab conquest, but their Christian faith still persists today in a significant minority of the population.

Roman fresco, Luxor Temple

Latin inscription, Luxor Temple

“Pompey’s Pillar” in Alexandria was actually hoisted by Diocletian, following his quelling of a revolt in Alexandria around 300 AD.

Some of Egypt’s finest remaining temples date from the Greco-Roman era, including the Temple of Horus at Edfu and Temple of Isis at Philae, pictured below. The foreign powers continued Egypt’s ancient religious traditions, placing themselves in the place of the pharaohs on the sculpted reliefs on the walls of the temples.


Ruins of Abu on Elephantine Island. There is evidence of Jewish settlements on Elephantine, which is near present-day Aswan deep in Upper Egypt. According to Graham Hancock, the Ark of the Covenant was temporarily stored here in a Jewish Temple, before its journey to its current alleged resting place in Ethiopia.

Jewish synagogue, Alexandria. Most Jews have left Egypt, just as they have left most other Middle Eastern Arab countries.


Napoleon arrived in Egypt near the end of the eighteenth century, and is responsible not only for subduing Ottoman control, but also for the first scientific survey of Egypt’s archeological treasures. This inscription in the Temple of Isis at Philae records the French military expedition in Egypt.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Egypt was run essentially as a colony of the British Empire. During this time, a Belgian entrepreneur by the name of Edouard Louis Joseph (Baron Empain) developed the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis, building for himself this mansion (now known as the Baron’s Palace) in the form of a Hindu temple.

Old Winter Palace Hotel, Luxor, built in 1886 during Egypt’s colonial period