Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Day in Old Cairo

It is December 2007. I am researching the 15th book in my Roman Mysteries series, this one will be set in Roman Egypt.

entrance to the souk in Cairo Old Town
Our tour group is planning to visit Tanis, on the eastern Delta, in order to look at some more pyramids and hieroglyphs. They will be driving for nearly three hours there and it will take them longer to get back. They will be in a military convoy. Unable to face another day at a desolate site with nothing but rocks, I ask Richard if he minds a lazy day in Old Cairo. He welcomes the idea of breakfast at 9.00 instead of 6.00am.

I ring Omar, the wonderful taxi driver who took us to the Pharaonic Village and he says he is at our disposal. I find out later that he was suffering from flu but came to our rescue anyway.

We meet in the hotel lobby at 10.00am and Omar drives us to Old Cairo where we see the so-called hanging church, built in the late 3rd century above the Roman Walls. We also descend to a crypt where Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus stayed during their sojourn in Egypt. We wander through the sunny gardens of a Greek monastery and graveyard. It is green and peaceful, with little birds twittering. I have not heard much twittering on this trip. Just the cawing of crows and ravens at the ancient sites.

Cairo rooftops & minaret
We go down a covered street to the synagogue, then re-emerge and find Omar, who's been enjoying a mint tea in the sunshine. I say I would like to see the City of the Dead, the extensive graveyard of Cairo, with its population of poor and homeless, and he takes us to see some Islamic crypts. He helps us scramble on top of the crypt and from here we can see the rooftops of Cairo. It's a perfect day.

Omar teaches us the difference between Fatimid, Ottoman and Mamluk minarets. He takes us to a place where we can see mosques with all three minarets and expects me to take a photo. I wish he'd driven more slowly through some of the old, poor parts of Cairo where you still see boys carrying buckets of hot coals and women balancing trays laden with bread and men smoking their hookahs. What I really want to see is the bazaar.

Gayer-Anderson House, Cairo
Omar agrees to take us to the bazaar but drops us at the Gayer-Anderson House first. He says we'll like it. We do. A British major named Anderson refurbished two Cairo mansions in the 1930's and made them his home. Although he converted some rooms, he left most with their wonderful carved wooden screens. In the major's little private museum I see a replica of my favourite Egyptian cat, now in the British Museum. Now I know why it's called "The Anderson Cat"! There is a secret room behind a cupboard and a wonderful rooftop. Scenes from The Spy Who Loved Me were filmed here, too. (You can see a fun article about movies set in Egypt here.)

Omar in the antiques shop
Omar parks his car and leads us into the bazaar. He knows I like Roman things and takes us to an 800 year old hole-in-the-wall antiquities shop. The owner, a tall, ascetic-looking man -- takes us upstairs to his holy of holies and orders mint tea. We make polite conversation for a while. Then he brings out a small marble head. It looks vaguely Roman, but does not seem to represent anyone in particular. If authentic, the carving round the eyes would suggest a late date: 4th or 5th century AD. Then he makes the mistake of bringing out three more heads, all obviously by the same workshop. If he had produced just the one, I might have been convinced, but now I suspect a con. Anyway, the heads are ugly.

antique sharp-nosed fish?
Something in a glass case does catch my eye, however. It is a small bronze model of an 'oxyrhynchus', a sharp-nosed fish, about as long as my thumb. These were worshipped in the town of Oxyrhynchus, famous for its papyri. Perhaps it was a votive offering at a temple in the Fayum. The dealer says the asking price is £150. 'How old is it?' I ask. '1800 years,' says the dealer. 'How can you tell?' 'By the patina.' Deeply sceptical, I offer £5. But we are so far apart that negotiations cease then and there. Anyway, isn't it illegal to take real antiquities out of the country?

Perfumer in Cairo Souk, 2007
On the way out of the bazaar I buy ten little glass perfume jars for £5, about a dollar each. That's more like it!

Richard buys some spices in the spice market (after waiting for the staff to finish afternoon prayers) and I finish off my shopping with a bottle of lotus oil from an Aladdin's cave perfume shop.

We are back in Giza by 6.00pm, too late for Richard to do a watercolour, but early enough to have a delicious meal at Felfela, an excellent and inexpensive restaurant near the hotel. Three hours later the rest of our group arrives. They are tired and hungry, and even though David spotted a Seth animal, I'm secretly glad we spent the day in Old Cairo.

P.S. If you liked this you might enjoy my blogs about Upside Down Egypt & 12 Fun Facts I learned at the Pyramids. Also A Week on the S.S. Karim.

[I was researching Roman Mystery 15, The Scribes from Alexandria. It is now available in paperbackKindle and as an abridged audiobook, and is perfect for primary schools studying Egypt in Key Stage 2.]

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Ice Cold in Alex

It is Sunday 9 December 2007. My husband Richard and I are on the last leg of our second trip to Egypt, researching The Scribes from Alexandria. This will be one of the few books set in Alexandria of the past without Cleopatra, because my interest is Roman Alexandria. (However, Cleopatra does make a kind of cameo.)

Our tour group is given the choice of a free day or an optional day trip to Alexandria. Well, obviously, it's got to be Alexandria! Only four of us opt for the tour: me, Richard, David and Derek. David is from Edinburgh and Derek from York. They are both easy-going and our small group means we (or rather I) can dictate the places we go and the things we see. I have a checklist of things I'd love to see. Today's guide Walid looks about 18, though he must be in his mid-twenties. He drives a cerise microbus.

Alexandria Toll Gate - coming from the south (Cairo)
A 7.00am start means the road is clear. We pass the Cairo tollbooth an hour after setting out. It is yellow and made to look like a Nile temple with sculptures and hieroglyphics. Advertisements mar this attempt somewhat. After the Cairo tollbooth, the road becomes bumpier and agriculture starts to appear. After 100 kilometers and another hour we reach the Alexandria tollbooth. It is white and blue, (the colours of Greece), with imitation Greek columns and the words ALEXANDRIA in big Greek letters above it. The famous Lake Mareotis has moved, or shrunk. Our guide tells us the water is salt water from the sea. But it gives a good impression of what Alexandria's situation might have looked like. Another half hour or so brings us to the waterfront and the famous 'corniche'.

scene from Ice Cold in Alex
Michael Palin called Alexandria 'Cannes with acne'. We can see traces of its colonial beauty but it is now sadly decrepit and dusty. Still, it has a certain charm helped by perfect weather. After three days of solid rain we have struck gold with a mild blue day. We all talk about the famous scene in a 1958 film Ice Cold in Alex where John Mills and Sylvia Syms and some others have an ice cold beer in Alexandria at the end of a hot and arduous desert adventure. The last scene is famous. The four of them go into a hotel bar and order ice cold beer. For a moment they savour the anticipation and watch moisture condense on the glass. Then they drink it down. According to imdb.com trivia, John Mills was drinking real beer because ginger ale and other substitutes didn't look real enough on film. In the final cut (the 14th take) he actually was quite drunk!

The cerise microbus takes us to the site of the lighthouse first. There is a medieval fort there now. Walid doesn't know much about ancient Alexandria but I try to stay quiet and just take in the surroundings, imagining the great lighthouse rising up above us, like Ostia's only taller and covered in white marble. While we are exploring, some Egyptian girl students (early teens) ask Derek if they can take his photo. We joke afterwards that he should have asked for 'baksheesh'. (Whenever you take someone's picture here in Egypt, they expect you to pay them a tip for the privilege.)

Pompey's Pillar (so-called)
Back in Alexandria proper, the so-called 'Pillar of Pompey' was a pillar re-used by Diocletian in the third century. It may once have been part of the Serapeum, the magnificent and famous annex to the great Museum or "Library" of Alexandria. I think this hill could be the remains of the Paneum, a conical hill which was sacred to the god Pan. We know from ancient writers that you could look out over all of Alexandria from its top.

Next stop are the catacombs of Kom es-Shoqafa – "mound of shards" – which might have been the Alexandrian equivalent of Rome's Mons Testaccio. These Graeco-Romano tombs display a strange mixture of Greek, Roman and Egyptian imagery on them. We go down to a huge catacomb riddled with inner rooms, stone recesses and tunnels. There is even a massive triclinium where the family of the dead person would have a meal in his or her honour.

the "Alexandria Quartet"
Then it's on to the Graeco-Roman theatre. This is very small and I think it's more likely to be a lecture hall. We know that the famous Museum (where the Library was) had lots of famous scholars who gave public talks. Nearby are baths and a 3rd century Roman townhouse called the Villa of the Birds, on account of the pretty mosaics on the floor.

The National Museum in Alexandria is beautifully laid out, with proper lighting and dust-free cases, (unlike it's massive cousin in Cairo). It's also a manageable size. The Pharaonic gallery is downstairs, the Graeco-Roman on the ground floor and Islamic one floor up. Half an hour is long enough for us to look at our preferred sections with a quick glance at one other floor. David raves about the quality of the Pharaonic art downstairs and regrets leaving his camera in the hotel.

Alexandria's eastern harbour
We are delighted to discover that lunch is included in our tour. Our microbus takes us back to the Corniche through dusty roads and crowded traffic to a delightful restaurant called The Fish Market. It has a magnificent view over the brilliant blue sea and reminds me of Sausalito, looking out over the San Francisco Bay, or of Sydney, Australia. For the first time in a week I feel like we are on holiday. The waiter brings a delicious assortment of meze, then a choice of whole grey mullet or tomato pasta for main course.

After lunch we find a decrepit hotel from Britain's colonial period to recreate the famous moment from Ice Cold in Alex. We can't find a bar so we have to make do with a table and we drink Egyptian beer instead of Carlsberg. The hotel staff think we are crazy as Walid and I art direct the scene. (above from left to right: Caroline, Richard, Derek and David at the Windsor Palace Hotel)

the modern Library of Alexandria (in 2007)
Our final stop is the brand new Library of Alexandria. It is on the waterfront, nowhere near the original library, but that doesn't matter. It is really stunning. My favourite bit is a triangular pool at the back which reflects palm trees on the waterfront.

It's 4.30pm and the sun is low in the sky. We start back and stop for a quick 'comfort stop' on our way out of Alexandria. How glad I am that we did. The first part of the trip is quite scary. It's pitch black with no street lights and Egyptian drivers pass on either side. Our driver drives very fast. He's good, but donkey carts and pedestrians wear no lights. What if he hits one? We reach the Cairo toll booth in good time, just over two hours. However, suddenly the road is packed and we aren't moving at all.

recreating the moment from Ice Cold in Alex
This is the Mother of all Traffic Jams. I have never seen anything like it. Three lanes of highway are occupied by five lanes of honking cars, trucks, taxis, cars, minivans and tankers. For most of the trip we are at a standstill or moving at a crawl. Our driver goes on the bumpy shoulder of the highway, when he can move, but another pickup truck is even further to the right on the sandbank. Richard, Derek and David give him the nickname 'Sandbank Sam'.

After an hour or two we see people walking on the dark side of the road. They are easily overtaking us. Trapped by two lanes of traffic on either side, I try not to think about what would happen if I suddenly needed the toilet. I wonder if this is divine punishment for the torture I inflicted on Flavia in The Beggar of Volubilis. I wouldn't be surprised to see a woman giving birth by the side of the road. People are certainly doing other things there. Finally, finally the hotel is in sight. We were hoping to be back by 7.30pm. It is now nearly 10.00pm. It has taken us nearly five hours to get back. I will never complain about London traffic again.

The other members of our group spot us and run out of the hotel restaurant to greet us. They have moved to a big table so that we can join them. None of the four of us feel like eating but we all order beers and for us this is really an Ice Cold in Alex moment. Never has a tall cold beer tasted so good.

Friday, December 07, 2007

A Break from Pyramids

Mini Abu Simbel in Cairo
Thursday 6 December, 2007. Richard and I are in Cairo to research Roman Mystery 15, The Scribes from Alexandria. I wake up at 4.00am with a plan.

Instead of going to Heliopolis today to see an obelisk and some more tombs, we could get a taxi to the Pharaonic Village, the theme park about way of life in ancient Egypt.

At breakfast that morning, Richard gamely agrees to the plan. After some investigation I find a taxi driver called Omar – a jewel beyond price – connected with the hotel. He says the Pharaonic Village opens at 9.00am and that he will take us for 70 Egyptian pounds (£7). I agree and we set off just after 8.30 and arrive on the dot of 9.00. Half an hour later Richard and I find ourselves the only ones on a kind of flat bottomed boat with chairs. A few others – full of Egyptian schoolchildren – are towed by tug, but ours has its own motor.

The barge putts slowly around the perimeter of an island fringed by papyrus beds. There is an English commentary on a loudspeaker which gives a handy summary of Egyptian cosmology as we pass painted plaster statues of Egyptian gods and goddesses. There is even a mini Abu Simbel.

ploughing at the Pharaonic Village in Cairo

sheepish shadouf demonstrator
Then we get to the good bit: real Egyptians and animals acting out the way of life: ploughing with a wooden plough, sowing the seed and getting sheep to press down the ground, threshing by cow, winnowing, a man operating a shadouf for bringing up water, landowner paying taxes, making honey, building boats of papyrus and a fisherman beating the water. (We saw this last activity for real on our boat trip from Luxor to Aswan last May.) There are also tableaux of brickmaking, mummification, perfume-making, painting and carving, a carpenter and armourer's workshop, potters, grape-treaders, spinners and weavers. We also see a demonstration of papyrus making. The actors look a little sheepish but were mostly cheerful. I fear they may not be paid much.

guide #5, Ahmed
We disembark from the barge and are met by Ahmed, guide number 5. We are the only English-speakers so we had him all to ourselves. He is very charming and informative, though a little nervous at first. He punctuates every other sentence with the phrase 'By the way'. But then he relaxes and gives us an excellent tour of a rich man's house, a poor man's house and a temple. There is incense burning in the temple and it makes the air smoky, catching the beams of sunshine coming down past columns. Finally Ahmed takes us to see a reconstruction of King Tut's tomb. All the grave articles are fake, of course, but it is good to see how they had been left in the rooms. And it is all very accurately done. We recognize some of the items from the King Tut exhibition in London and see others later that afternoon at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

blue lotus at the Cairo Hilton
Omar had taken us to the island in his comfortable car, chatting about mothers-in-law and his four children. The taxi to our rendezvous with the others at the Nile Hilton is a ancient, battered, black and white vehicle held together with duct tape. No seat belts, naturally. Luckily the traffic is moving at a snail's pace.

'It's not far to the Nile Hilton,' I say to the taxi driver. 'Is it?' Blank look. 'The Nile Hilton,' I say slowly. 'Is it far?' More blank looks. 'Do you speak English?' I finally say. 'My English,' he replies carefully, 'is not perfect.' But he gets us there and we meet up with the rest of our group for a quick snack before the dusty treasures of the Cairo Museum.

And there, in a pool before the museum are several perfect specimens of the rare blue lotus!

[I was researching Roman Mystery 15, The Scribes from Alexandria. It is now available in paperbackKindle and as an abridged audiobook, and is perfect for primary schools studying Egypt in Key Stage 2.]

Pyramids R Us

by Caroline Lawrence
(author of The Roman Mysteries)

Today is a day of pyramids. We see a red pyramid, a bent pyramid, a mud pyramid, a rubble pyramid and an off-limits pyramid. We travel to sites south of Cairo: Dahshur, Saqqara and Abusir. We are mainly alone at these sites and not hassled by other groups and touts.

Nevertheless, my favourite thing is driving through the villages, seeing life unchanged after 4000 years: a woman carrying a circular tray on her head, it was piled with disc-shaped pieces of bread. I see a donkey drawn cart, a butcher taking cuts from a side of beef hanging in the street. In a palm grove a man squats by a campfire while his friend is stretched out on the earth behind him, fast asleep. All the women here wear headscarves and the men all have skullcaps or turbans. Some ride donkeys astride, with their feet straight out, others ride side-saddle. In a mastaba at the site of Saqqara I spot several reliefs of the oxyrhynchus or sharp-nosed fish!

At Abusir, a site not usually open to tourists, we see one of the earliest columns with a capital. This one has a lotus capital. I ask Joclyn if she has ever seen a blue lotus. She says only twice. Once at the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities in Cairo and once at the Pharaonic Village. The Pharaonic Village is a kind of educational display on an island in Cairo with living tableaux of ancient life along the banks of the Nile. She explains how it came to be. 25 years ago an Egyptian named Hassan Regeb wanted to research how papyrus was made but discovered that none of the original Nile papyrus plants had survived. So he bought a plot of marshy land cheap from the government on condition that after he grew his papyrus he would make it a tourist attraction. It sounds good.

[I was researching Roman Mystery 15, The Scribes from Alexandria. It is now available in paperbackKindle and as an abridged audiobook, and is perfect for primary schools studying Egypt in Key Stage 2.]

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Pyramids and Sphinx

by Caroline Lawrence, author of The Roman Mysteries.

It is December 2007. We have flown to Egypt for the second time to research The Scribes from Alexandria, my antepenultimate Roman Mystery. My husband (and map-maker) Richard and I arrived late last night – 10.30pm London time and 12.30am Cairo time – and it was 4.00am before lights out.

Le Meridien Pyramids Hotel in Giza, Egypt
We are staying at the Le Meridien Pyramids Hotel in Giza, so this morning I pull back the drapes, not sure what I will see. Pyramids! Two of them. Medium sized, flat against the hazy, cloud-speckled dawn sky. A busy road and some pylons in the foreground, and the back of the hotel. This is the view they never show you!

Roman Mystery #15
The morning is mild and even a little cool sitting out by the pool to have breakfast. We have a nice select group of fellow travellers on this academic guided tour. There are only nine of us in all, plus not one but two expert guides. Rawya is our Egyptian guide and Joclyn our British guide. Both are women, both extremely knowledgable and articulate.

At a few minutes past 10.00 we set off along the manic road to a roundabout then back up past the Mena Auberoi Hotel, which is older and four starred, probably nicer than this rather soulless modern one. Not that I'm complaining.

A few minutes later we are at the pyramids. They say you have to be standing in front of them to get the full impact, but I didn't feel any particular sense of awe. They are big and familiar and as you might expect there are Egyptian men and children ready to beg you to buy postcards, gifts, burnooses, camel rides, etc.

Our guides advise us to ignore these entrepreneurs, especially the ones offering a short camel ride.

Twelve FUN FACTS I learned at Giza:

pyramid at Giza
I. A pyramid is essentially a big fat obelisk.

II. The pyramids would have been covered with smooth slabs of white limestone in ancient times, making them even more impressive. This is what Flavia and her friends would have seen when they visit in the first century AD. There would have been graffiti all over them, too. Greek and Latin, of course.

III. A massive cedar river boat belonging to Cheops was found buried on the south side of the Great Pyramid. It has a special display room near the spot where it was found. It is amazing.

IV. The lovely triangular felucca sail didn't come in until 300 AD! Until then, all boats were square-rigged.

V. There are smaller more conventional tombs by the pyramids. These are called mastabas and are usually for friends and family of Mr Pharaoh.

VI. The ka is the double of a person. The ba is the spirit. According to Egyptian tradition, both are created with the body but are immortal. When the body dies, these two live on and wait to be reunited to the body on the Day of Resurrection.

VII. In the depiction of figures on walls, etc. there are three symbols to show children: a lock of hair over one ear, no clothes, a finger at the mouth. Children are shown aged about twenty but small. Twenty to thirty is the ideal age for to come back on the Day of Resurrection. (Nobody knows the date of this momentous event.)

VIII. Egyptian granite comes from one place: Aswan. It is composed of crystals of pink, grey and black. You get pink, grey or black granite depending on the proportion of those three colours of crystal in a piece of granite.

IX. The Nile was closer to the Sphinx (and to the pyramids) in ancient times. A short canal brought water to the Sphinx for easy boat access and to provide water for the priests and temples.

X. The Sphinx was up to its neck in sand until the 19th century.
(Though it may have been cleared at times before that.)

Caroline on camel
XI. The Sphinx is slowly melting, worn away by constant sand in the wind. In a hundred years or less the head will probably fall off! Also pigeons are now nesting on its face. Recent bird-flu scares forced Egyptians to destroy the columbaria on their houses and so the pigeons must find new homes! Their guano does not help matters.

XII. The Ptolemaic Greeks were the first to do restoration work on the Sphinx, probably around 200 BC.

P.S. Contrary to what I had heard, camels are fun to ride!

P.S. If you liked this you might enjoy my blogs about Upside Down Egypt and A Day in Old Cairo.

[I was researching Roman Mystery 15, The Scribes from Alexandria. It is now available in paperbackKindle and as an abridged audiobook, and is perfect for primary schools studying Egypt in Key Stage 2.]

Sunday, December 02, 2007

December in the Delta

We are off to Egypt: to Lower Egypt. Confusingly, Lower Egypt is actually above Upper Egypt on modern maps. We'll be based in Giza at a hotel with a pyramid view. (Probably one of those terrible blots on the landscape but at least we will be in it looking out). Our last day includes an optional day trip to Alexandria. Sadly there are very few physical remains of what was arguably the most beautiful city in the Roman world. But my next book is set there and that's why we're going. Here's our itinerary:

Tuesday: The Giza Plateau - Pyramids and Sphinx

Wednesday: Sakkara/Dashur - lots more pyramids, including a newly opened complex at Abu Sir

Thursday: Heliopolis/Cairo Museum - morning in Heliopolis, afternoon in the Cairo Museum

Friday: Fayum - The Ptolomaic-Roman City of Karanis and the labyrinth at Heracleopolis (!) and the famous mastaba tombs. (This is where many of those stunning Romano-Egyptian encaustic coffin portraits come from.)

Saturday: The Delta - visit to the ancient cult city of Bubastis (lots of cat mummies!), then to some excavations at Tanis

Sunday: Alexandria - the new museum, Kom el Dikka and some catacombs are on the itinerary

Monday: home... inshallah!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

King Tut

'Everywhere the glint of gold… Wonderful things!' And that's only the gift shop.

King Tut has come to London, to the O2 Bubble, once known as the Millenium Dome. It's easy to get to but when you arrive at North Greenwich tube station on the Jubilee line there's only one sign pointing you to O2 and it points you the wrong way! Ignore that sign and look for the brightly painted pyramid and head towards that. A covered walkway takes you to the Dome.

Inside the Dome there are no signs either, so turn right and go past all the Starbucks and trendy eateries and past the ice-skating rink. Once in the queue, they will ask if you want to buy the audioguide at £4. It's worth it. Omar Sharif, an Egyptian actor, narrates the show in his velvety, accented voice.

Entry is timed which means the rooms never get too crowded, though there is a sheeplike element to tourist shuffling from one room to the other. And the exhibition itself? Very satisfying. The rooms are dramatically lit with a nice ambient soundtrack and all the display cases are designed for maximum viewing from all angles. The objects are wonderful and there are just enough of them. Any fewer and you'd feel cheated, but more would exhaust you.

My favourite part was identifying the name T-U-T on so many objects: loaf-of-bread, quail-chick, loaf-of-bread. That's how you spell Tut in hieroglyphics. I loved the gold relief of Tut in his chariot, with a little ankh symbol running behind to protect him. I loved the staff in the shape of a Nubian captive. I loved the wooden statue of a girl swimming; she's lost her duck. I loved the jewelry, in that distinctively Egyptian combination of turquoise, orange carnelian, dark blue faience and gold. The star piece -- a little coffinette for Tut's liver -- is beautifully displayed and the video screens behind show details you might not notice.

Finally the gift shop, full of outrageously expensive items like a Tut key ring for £5 and a £35 book to the exhibition. I splurged on a deliciously tacky King Tut Tissue dispenser. You pull the kleenex out through his nose, (reminding you of the method of extracting the brains from the nostril during preparation of a mummy). I also paid a pound to get a mechanical scribe to print my name in hieroglyphics. On the back of the sheet is a handy guide to hieroglyphics. And if you are really keen you can buy a Zahi Hawass hat! It looks like Indiana Jones' hat but this is the hat worn by the real Egyptian archaeologist who wrote the guide book.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Ancient Roman Sofia

Russian Church, Sofia
Whenever I travel, I always try to look for remnants of the past. At the moment – September of 2007 – I am in Sofia, Bulgaria. My reason for coming is to spend a few days watching the filming of the second season of the Roman Mysteries TV series at Boyana Studios. Filming stops for the weekend so I have two free days. As I occupy my time exploring the capital of Bulgaria, I look for traces of this city's Roman past. Here are some ways I find the past in the present.

1. The food.
Food is always a good way to go back to Roman times, or at least to get you thinking about it. Today it starts at breakfast with the hotel buffet. I help myself to olives, cucumber, wholemeal bread and white cheese. This is a Roman breakfast, I'm sure of it! And it's delicious.

Sofia subway roman tombstones
2. The physical remains.
I try to go to the Sofia Archaeological Museum to see some Roman artefacts; that's always a good way of bringing the past closer. But they're filming a movie with Martin Sheen in the square out front, so it's closed. But then I unexpectedly come across part of the Roman walls in an underpass. There are some columns and tombstones here. The Romans were here of course: this was Thrace.

3. The way people look.
I often sit at a cafe and watch the natives and try to imagine them in Roman garb. It's easy to imagine some of the Bulgarians in rough tunics; most of them seem like farmers and peasants: the plebs. You don't see as many 'patrician-types' as you do in Rome or Naples.

Sofia Women's Market
4. Markets and/or souks. The Women's Market here in Sophia really takes me back in time. Market stalls are divided into sections: from onions and herbs to chains and cogs. There is a clothes market, a flower market, a herb market, veg market, fruit market, fish market, a honey market. You can buy books, olives, cheeses, sweet peppers. People have obviously come in from the villages or suburbs to sell their produce, just as they would have on market days in Rome. Over there an old lady in a headscarf has brought in some herbs from her garden. Here a weathered man has got two cardboard cartons full of mushrooms; he probably gathered them this morning up on the mountains. Food that was in season in September of AD 81 is exactly the same food in season in September AD 2007. It is in Sofia that I eat the best tomato I have ever had in my entire life. Of course the Romans didn't have tomatoes.

Sofia's synagogue
5. Religious venues and festivals.
These often reveal aspects dating back to Roman times. I get to Sofia's synagogue before 1.00pm, as the guide book recommends, only to be reminded that today is Yom Kippur. But the nice caretaker says if I come back later, he'll let me have a quick peek. I come back at 4.00pm and he lets me in. Although this synagogue was built around 1905 its layout is not much different from the synagogue in Ostia, Rome's port.

lunch with pigeons
6. The customs.
As I sit on a park bench eating cold, folded-over pizza from lunch, I realise I have never been in a city where so many people eat fast food. They eat on the move, they eat on benches, they even eat hunkered down on their haunches. Some eat openly, some furtively. On every block there is a place selling food to go. This is very Roman. In Rome, Pompeii and Ostia, most small houses or apartments didn't have a kitchen. A hearth with a fire would be too dangerous. What did they do? They ate fast food from all those tabernae and thermopolea.

7. Human behaviour.
That young man with a cane, sitting on a bench and tossing bread to attract pigeons... is that something you would have seen in ancient Rome? That little girl, running gleefully among the same pigeons and making them scatter. I'm sure you would have seen that. The old couple, just sitting and watching the world go by. That couple kissing on the park bench, hardly coming up for air... would that have been allowed in Rome? It's all food for thought.

[Season 2 of the Roman Mysteries TV series was partly filmed at Boyana Studios in Bulgaria. The TV series is based on my books, The Roman Mysteries, and is now available on DVD.]

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Roman Silchester


Today I went to check out what's happening at the archaeological excavation of Silchester, which was the Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum. Located between Reading and Basingstoke, about 60 miles west of London, Silchester is one of the biggest teaching digs in the country.

Dr Hella Eckardt -- Lecturer in Roman Archaeology at the University of Reading -- has invited me to come see what was happening because I hope to set a future Roman Mystery mini-mystery at Silchester. Hella's specialty is diaspora in the Roman Empire. In other words, what were North Africans doing in Roman York? And what were people from the Rhineland doing in Silchester? Hella studies their bones and grave goods to get the answers. She likes my books because I have different ethnic groups and nationalities and this reflects what the Roman empire was like! She and I are also going to collaborate on some worksheets for school-children to do when they visit the site.


It is a beautiful summer day with friendly fluffy clouds, the kind of day when England is at its best. Site director Jon meets me at Mortimer train station and drives me to the site. I find Hella and she introduces me to excavation director Amanda Clarke and excavator Mike Fulford, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Reading. Mike has been excavating Silchester for over 30 years! I ask him what was unique about this Romano-British settlement and he tells me it was special because it thrived from the Iron Age continuously through the Roman period. Then in the 6th century AD it was completely abandoned.

Hella gives me a tour of the site. Over a hundred volunteers (mostly students) are helping to excavate one insula (city block) of the town. This insula had some private houses as well as small industries, like a metal-workers and perhaps fullers' (laundries). Like most archaeological sites, it is quite confusing, with many different layers of occupation. You have to have a certain kind of mind to understand what's going on. Hella does have that kind of mind. I don't. Even though she explains it clearly my attention wanders. I am more interested in the tents and the portaloos and the fact that all the volunteers have to be driven a few miles to take showers! Also, they are having a masked ball in the marquee this evening for their end-of-dig party.

I perk up when Hella shows me some of the artefacts they've found this season. This summer, they have been 'digging in the AD 60's and 70's' which means they're at the level which puts them exactly during the time my books are set. Hella shows me a dupondius of Vespasian (you can recognize his ugly mug even through two thousand years of corrosion) and also one of Claudius, during whose reign Britannia was first occupied. She also lets me examine a bronze fibula, a pair of bent tweezers and two iron signet rings, both with intaglios made of pale yellow glass paste (?). One signet ring has a tiny horse's head and boar's head, the other has a centaur looking at a shrine. I also see a clay tile with the footprint of a dog imprinted in it. Here is evidence of a ancient Romano-British dog running across tiles drying in the sun!

It's the last day of the season and there is a mechanical crane called a 'cherry-picker' there, so that photographers can take aerial views of the site. Amanda says that Hella and I can go up in it! From up here you can get a bird's eye view of the excavation. We look down and can clearly see a well, traces of a round building, the road running from the Northern Gate to the Southern Gate and other such things.

After the breathtaking view from the cherry picker, we sit on a finds bench and eat a sandwich lunch and discuss the site.



Here are some interesting facts about Calleva Atrebatum:

Calleva means 'woodland'.
Atrebatum means 'of the tribe of Atrebati'.
Nobody knows why the town grew up on that particular site.
Nobody knows why it was completely abandoned many years later.
A nearby church is built on the site of a Romano-British temple.
There is an amphitheatre outside the town walls.
There's a strange marker inscribed with 5th century AD Irish script.
(Sadly too late for my books)
Some of the wells are lined with wine-barrels made of silver fir.
Silver fir only grows in the Alps.
The barrels probably contained Rhineland wine.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Meeting Colombo

Peter Falk as Columbo
I was dreading the Hay-on-Wye literary festival. It's very prestigious and the only one of the big three I hadn't done (the other two are Edinburgh and Cheltenham) but it's in the middle of nowhere on the border of England and Wales. Everytime I travel west – to Cheltenham or Gloucestershire, for example – two things happens: it rains and the train breaks down. Just back from a research trip to Egypt, I was suffering King Tut's Revenge. I did not fancy a three hour train trip.

But one perk of going to Hay-on-Wye was that the actor Peter Falk was going to be giving a talk that evening. My publicity representative from Orion, Sarah, had reserved comp tickets. In case you don't know, Peter Falk plays the TV detective Colombo, who 'looks like the guy next door but is the best homicide detective in the world'. Colombo has been seen by about 200 million people around the world and is recognized wherever he goes. His trademarks are his beige raincoat, his rumpled appearance and apparently average brain. He always gets the criminal by saying as an apparent afterthought: 'Just one more thing' and then asks the question that will incriminate them.

I got to Paddington station by 9.20 to meet Sarah. I had eaten some plain boiled rice for breakfast and felt OK. Not good, but OK. We got on the train and sure enough, after about two hours travelling, it broke down at a place called Evesham. And it was raining. After half an hour my mobile rang. It was the transport organizer at Hay-on-Wye. They were going to send a driver to pick us up at Evesham. And Peter Falk was on our train so we would be driving with him. Excitement!

Sarah and I got off the train, and there he was, shuffling down the platform from the first class section of the train. He looked smaller and browner and much more frail than I had imagined, but it was him: Colombo! He was with his British publicist Emma from Random House. We all went into the dingy waiting room to get out of the rain and sip cups of tea. Soon the car came and we all piled in. Peter got in front and kept his big black valise on his knees. He had only flown in two days before and was very disoriented. I don't think he knew that Hay is in the middle of nowhere and that we would be driving for an hour and a half. Also, he hadn't slept since he had arrived and he was convinced he was flying home the following day – Thursday – when actually he had another round of radio interviews before a flight home on Friday. And he is nearly 80 years old.

Falk was in Hay to promote his autobiography, Just One More Thing, anecdotes and thoughts on his life. We all chatted happily in the car; it took our minds off the winding road. Of course he was in front, and the rest of us were jammed in the back seat. At one point Falk brought out a big bag of chocolate and munched a few pieces, then offered it round. 'No thanks,' we all said. And I asked. 'Where's it from?' Peter looked over his shoulder at Emma. 'Where's it from?' he asked. 'The Dorcester,' she replied.

I did my event at 5.00pm – it went well thanks to the huge efficiency of the staff at Hay – and I signed books for nearly two hours. While I was signing, I asked Sarah if she could buy me a copy of Peter's book. Later, back in the Green Room I had just eaten some more boiled rice and changed out of my stola and back into my normal clothes when Peter came in with his entourage to get ready for his 8.15pm event.

'Hello, Mr. Falk,' I said, coming up with his book, 'Will you sign your book?'

'Who are you?' he asked.

'I was in the car with you from the train station,' I said. 'Don't you remember me?'

He waved his hand dismissively in that typical Colombo way, 'There were three or four people back there. I don't remember. But I'll sign your book.'

The venue was packed with at least 800 people. When Peter came on with his interviewer Paul Blezard, you could feel the waves of adulation and love flowing towards him. But he wasn't on top form. He would launch into an anecdote and then get sidetracked and forget the original question. Once he even asked if he could look in the book to find a story, so he could tell it right. But then he couldn't find the passage. And he kept hitting the mike as he waved his hand dismissively. At first people laughed warmly at his Colombo-ish befuddledness, but soon they realised he really was very tired and confused. After a while, he fielded questions but couldn't always understand the British accent. We did learn that his favourite episode of Colombo was the only one he wrote, which starred Faye Dunaway as the beautiful murderer: It's All in the Game. Finally he finished his hour and received rapturous applause. It didn't matter that he couldn't remember the stories or understand all the questions. He was Colombo and everyone loved him and wanted to let him know.

Emma changed his ticket so he could fly home the next day.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A Week on the S.S.Karim

Monday 21 May 2007 - We arrive at Luxor airport and are greeted by our handsome young guide Ahmed. It is gloriously hot as our little minibus takes us to the S.S.Karim, an ancient paddle-steamer which will be our home for the next week. Usually it takes up to 30 passengers but this week there are only 16 of us; this is because it is the end of the season and starting to get hot. We are outnumbered 2 to 1 by the crew of 32. From Walid the manager down to the boys in the engine room, they are uniformly charming and helpful. Alladin at reception always has a smile and Abdul the 'chambermaid' makes creatures out of towels when he cleans our cabin twice daily. He calls his towel creations 'Egyptian Art'.

We set sail immediately, leaving the heat and noise of Luxor for the cool blue Nile. The boat, built in 1917, is a pure delight of teak and brass and Art Deco stained glass with a big shaded terrace for sipping fresh lemonade. Our cabin is right at the back and we have a tiny but private semi-circular balcony over the wheel. Luckily we dock most nights and aren't kept awake by the wheel's rhythmic wheezing.

Tuesday 22 May 2007 - A delicious buffet breakfast, the first of many. There are sticky buns and cereal, but I choose the Roman option of cucumber, tomatoes, cheese and a freshly cooked omelette. Then a glorious day sailing down the Nile. We are travelling at only three miles per hour, so we can really see the life on the banks of the Nile, unchanged over 4,000 years. Men in their long, loose tunics and turbans cutting alfalfa for their donkeys, boys fishing from a small rowing boat, women washing clothes by the river. It is surprisingly lush. A Roman traveller would have recognized date palms, acacias, papyrus, mimosa and sycamore, but not the banana plants, sugarcane, pampas grass, cotton or mangos.

Ahmed gives us a briefing in the air-conditioned wood-panelled Edwardian lounge. He tells us to be careful of scams. We are rich tourists. Half the population of Egypt is very poor. The market traders will try lots of tricks. They will say something costs '5 Nubian pounds' when there is no such thing as a 'Nubian pound'. They will sell you perfume made with vegetable oil, so that you end up smelling like an omelette. They will try to sell you papyrus made of banana leaves. Worst of all, they will be very aggressive, sometimes even grabbing hold of you.

We arrive at Edfu to visit the Temple of Horus, and sure enough, as soon as we step off the gangplank they are upon us. Boys selling bottled water, men selling postcards and carved Egyptian cats. They reach out at you and shout and wave their goods in your face. Even after we get on the minibus they tap on our windows our yell through the open door. Finally we drive through hot, scruffy streets to the temple. Like all the temples and tombs we will see here in Egypt, it is very impressive. Ahmed tells us lots of interesting facts, some of which I will be sure to use. For example, in Egyptian cosmology, the sky is feminine, the earth is masculine and the moon, too. This is the opposite of the Greek and Roman myths. Egyptian hieroglyphics are fascinating, of course, and the animal-headed gods, and the story of Seth vs Osiris. But what really interests me are the glimpses of timeless Egyptian daily life I see around me.

We set sail again with relief. It is maybe 105º out there but under the awning, making its tiger-stripes of sunlight, and with the breeze from the river and a cold drink, it is glorious. The heat sucks all energy from you and the rhythmic pulse of the paddle-wheel is very soporific. It is evening now, and the banks of the Nile have come alive. Women filling buckets of water, brown slippery boys splashing in the bank and a grey donkey hurrying down a steep slope for a drink of cool water.

Wednesday 23 May 2007 - We passed through Esna lock last night at about 4.00am and now are berthed near the Temple of Kom Ombu, where the crocodile god Sobek is worshipped. Sadly there are no more crocodiles in the Nile, though there would have been in Roman times. This city was important in Roman times because it was midway between the gold mines of Nubia and the Mediterranean. Strabo came here and made notes about crocodiles and their feeding. I must make this a stop in my next book, The Scribe from Alexandria... We see a couple of dusty mummified crocodiles in glass cases and when we get back to our cabin on the S.S.Karim we find 'Egyptian art' in the shape of a crocodile!

We reach Aswan about 3.00pm and we dock next to a row of much bigger riverboats. Aswan was the gateway to Nubia and is now the last town before the high dam. The river is quite wide here and studded with islands. Almost at once a felucca pulls up to take us to the Botanical Gardens on Kitchner Island. A felucca is the timeless boat with a distinctive triangular sail. Like most of the feluccas here at Aswan, the owners are Nubians. The boy at the tiller has lovely features and neat ears, his skin mid brown rather than pale like Egyptians or ebony like Ethiopians. At the end of our trip he picks up a tambourine and sings for us.

In the evening we take a coach and painted wooden motorboat (they call it gondola) to the sanctuary of Isis at Philae, beyond the high dam. The sound and light show is a bit boring. It needs actors! But the temple is impressive at night. And there are bats!

Thursday 24 May 2007 - We opt not to return to Philae in the heat of the day. Instead we go with Steve and Sue to see the Aswan granite quarry and the famous unfinished obelisk. Steve is a stonemason from Dudley and he bounds around the rocks like a kid in a candy shop. 'Why didn't I bring my rock-chisel?' he moans. A quick stop at the Nubia Museum and then an expensive drink on the opulent terrace of the Old Cataract Hotel, where parts of the 1978 film Death on the Nile were filmed. It is bliss, and worth every penny.

At lunchtime I go across the street to an internet cafe. On my way back I am accosted by Egyptian men saying 'Hey, Madame!' and 'Hey, you!' The driver of a horse and cart follows me along the street and won't leave me alone. 'I'm only going one block!' I say, but he keeps following me. Then another man on foot approaches me. I start to run away, back across the street, and almost get run over by a bus! Even though I am dressed modestly in my long black shirt and trousers, I must remember a woman on her own invites attention. Next time I will have to take Richard with me as protection.

That afternoon there is an optional shopping trip to the souk to buy an Egyptian galabaya, the long loose tunic worn by men and women. It will be all right because I am in a group, and Ahmed is along. I bought my galabaya at the quarry so snap pictures while Ahmed helps the others make their purchases. I am epecially pleased with my photo of the water-seller, who clangs two little brass dishes together to announce his arrival. Of course you must ask permission to take a photo first and afterwards given them a little 'baksheesh'. I brought a bunch of US dollars for this purpose.

That night we are entertained by a belly dancer (very tasteful) and a whirling dervish (very dizzy) in the ship's lounge.

Friday 25 May 2007 - Today most of our party got up at 4.00am to make the three hour coach trip to Abu Simbel. Althought it must be stunning, Richard and I opt for later start on a boat trip of bird-watching and plant-identifying in the islands of the cataract, along with a visit to a Nubia village. I am more concerned with getting plant and animal details right and Richard loves birds. There are only about eight of us on the gondola, including a nine-year-old English boy with glasses and a Peter Pan haircut. Our guide introduces himself as Arabi. His father was head gardener at the Old Cataract Hotel and taught Arabi about plants. Arabi became interested in birds around the age of six or seven, and taught himself. He points out the hooded crow, swallows, parakeets and 'loving doves'. He shows us how to differentiate the great egret from the cattle egret. We also see a purple heron and lots of moor-hens, which I guess are from Africa since 'moor' comes from 'Mauretania'. He also sees a galinule, a green bee-eater and a little bittern but our eyes aren't sharp enough. Arabi grew up here and claims the Nile is so clean you can drink from it. He demonstrates!

At the end of our trip I can identify the wattle tree (a kind of acacia), the frangipani, liburnum, mimosa, jacaranda and the flame tree. In the water we see bullrushes, pampas grass and mimosa, with its little pink flowers. My book will be set in May so I make note of everything in bloom.

Presently we arrive at the Nubian village. It is very hot outside, but cool in the Nubian house. Arabi hands the nine-year old a baby crocodile and Richard holds one, too. Richard describes the crocodile as bumpy on the back but with an underbelly soft as a kitten's. I ask him if the crocodile is hot or cool or medium. Medium.

The plastered walls are covered with colourful and primitive designs. Of course, the Nubians used to be mainly nomadic, but since all their land was flooded by the high dam in 1960, they have been re-located to houses in and around Aswan. We are served mint tea and I get a 'Nubian henna' design on my hand. Outside I photograph an old man with his donkey cart, a Nubian family and spice-seller at his stall. The villagers are very poor and even after I give them 'baksheesh' they beg for more.

Everyone is back at the S.S.Karim by 2.00. The party to Abu Simbel were delayed because of a flat tyre on their coach, but luckily it was repaired and they are not bones bleaching in the desert. As we sit down to another delicious meal, the S.S.Karim chugs out into the Nile and we say farewell to Aswan. Now we are travelling north again, back to Luxor, and the current will help us go a little faster. Maybe 5 miles per hour.

In the afternoon we have a tour of the ship and see what goes on below our luxurious cabins and lounges and sundecks. We see the engine room and the pistons and the captain's cabin. The captain is about 22 years old and drives with his knees! His father was a steamer captain and his father before him, so I'm not worried he's so young. Alladin says he knows this stretch of the Nile so well that he never needs to use charts.

Saturday 26 May 2007 - We docked at Edfu late last night. I get up early and see the street come alive. Soon it is full of caleches, the little one-horse carriages which take tourists to and fro. Some horses are well-looked-after, others look very pitiful. We are eating breakfast when the S.S.Karim moves back out into the Nile. It is the hottest day so far, with a haze on the horizon. Ahmed tells us they have not had one single drop of rain so far this year! We sail all day and the big riverboats pass us smugly. But we don't mind. I try to write but the heat makes me sleepy and all I want to do is take a siesta. We arrive at Esna Lock, a town so poor that it seems to have survived a bombing. But even so, the towns here are ten times more colourful that the towns in Libya. We wait on the bank for about three hours before we finally get permission to pass through. Then we are on our way again.

Sunday 27 May 2007 - Today is our big hot air balloon day. We are off the boat by 5.10am and a coach takes us to the riverbank. From there we pile onto a jolly painted gondola which chugs us across to the West Back. Because the sun sets to the west, the West Bank is always associated with death. Our pilot Amr is on board the ship. He tells us the drill and I notice he's wearing a Blue Peter badge. That's all right then.

The balloons are in a field, about half a doze of them. One or two are already ascending, with only the sporadic hiss of the flames. Twenty of us pile into a sturdy basket divided into four sections. What surprises me is the terrible roar and heat of the flame as it heats the air. It's so hot I feel my hair might burst into flame. And the balloon itself is so fragile, just silk. But soon we are rising and although I cringe every time the flame blows it is an amazing sight. We cruise over the valley of the nobles and the barren mountains of the West Bank. The other balloons float around us, some higher, some lower. At last we start our descent. On the road below is a red truck full of about eight men. They are looking up at us and I realise they are our landing crew. We go lower and lower, so low that I fear we'll clip somebody's roof dome or get tangled in the phone wires, but finally we come down for an 'English-landing' (three bumps) and the crew swarm over us, holding down the basket and deflating the balloon. I can't say I enjoyed the experience. But I'm glad I did it.

The Valley of the Kings is also to be endured, rather than enjoyed. The heat is ferocious and it's packed with tourists though it's only 8.15. A Disneyland style-train takes us up to the entrances, but this place is like a stone quarry, with no shade and the lofty stone walls pound back the heat. It is not even cool inside the tombs, as you might expect. 'This is not crowded at all,' says Ahmed, as we pile back on the air-conditioned coach. 'You should see it in February and March.'

We endure one more blistering monument, the tomb of Hatshepsut, then run for the cafe and a cool drink. I am sure the temperature is nudging 110º.

Later, after lunch and a siesta, Richard and I walk down some of the backstreets of Luxor. Again we are struck by the poverty, but Egyptians are always cheerful and friendly.

Monday 28 May 2007 - The next morning I get up early as usual and see the balloons rising over the opposite bank. The Nile is like a mirror. They are breathtaking. Today we visit Karnak and Luxor Temple. We see the tallest columns in the world and an obelisk that was once tipped with electrum so that when the sun shone you could not look directly at it. Steve the stonemason buys three little alabaster statues for about £5: an ibis, a cat and a sphinx. Quite a good deal. But when he gets on the bus he discovers they are wax. The expert confounded!

We sandwich a papyrus factory between Karnak and Luxor. I get to see how the Romans would have made their most popular writing material. After Luxor Temple we go back to the boat for one final delicious meal, then sadly take our leave.

For me the worst part of the holiday was the aggressive sellers. In Morocco the police make sure the stall-holders do not accost you (as they used to do only a few years ago). If only the Egyptian government could enforce the same rules.

The things I enjoyed most about Egypt were:
Bats at Philae
Bird-watching around the Aswan islands
Lemonade at the Old Cataract Hotel
Getting my hand hennaed
Life unchanged along the banks of the Nile
Hot-air balloons (from the ground!)
Hieroglyphics of ducks, owls, and bees
The papyrus factory
'Egyptian art'
Tasty food like felafels

But the best thing of all was the S.S.Karim itself!

P.S. For more stories of my research in Egypt, Italy and Greece, get From Ostia to Alexandria with Flavia Gemina: Travels with Flavia Gemina