Kush and its Pyramids: Sleeping Next to the Elephant

Jebel Barkal Pyramids

What do people from Scotland, Canada, and ancient Kush have in common? They all know, or knew, what it’s like to “sleep next to the elephant.”

This phrase comes from a remark by former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, when addressing the Press Club in Washington, DC, in 1969:

Living next to you [i.e., to the United States] is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.

Smaller countries, or countries with considerably less population, tend to feel and be affected this way by a larger, more powerful neighbour. And that, says Gayle Gibson of the Royal Ontario Museum, was exactly the experience of ancient Kush, or Nubia, in what is now northern Sudan. Being Egypt’s southern neighbour over the millenia was often uneasy, and sometimes even fraught with danger. Particularly because Kush had the luxury goods – not to mention gold – that Egypt craved. As a result, Egypt seemed to assume that it had the right to the resources of the land, and often exerted its military might to take them. (Canada and Scotland might again shift uneasily in their chairs, wondering if they’re hearing an echo.)

Gibson recently presented a slide show and a very informative talk, called “The Pyramids of Kush,” in an afternoon session at the Toronto Reference Library. This lecture was the first event in the library’s program to celebrate Black History month. And what a history lesson we got! The topic was indeed the many pyramids that the rulers of Kush, or Nubia, erected for themselves, influenced by what they saw in Egypt. Yet the discussion also encompassed a swift tour of all the great Kushite or Nubian kingdoms.

Meroe pyramids, with shrines

I had known that some of the people of this land had served the Egyptian pharaohs as warriors, since they tended to be physically larger and stronger than most Egyptians. What I didn’t realize was that there were at least three great Nubian civilizations, the second of which had actually invaded and ruled Egypt for a few generations.

Kush, Gibson told us, tended to rise to greater strength during periods when Egypt had become weak for some reason. But while Egypt’s strong periods often meant bad things for Kush, it wasn’t always the other way around. When King Piye of the second powerful Nubian civilization conquered Egypt, he actually brought a renaissance of art and culture into Egyptian society. Unlikely as it seems, said Gibson, the Egyptians liked and welcomed the overlordship of these Nubian rulers.

It was during this period, from the 8th to 7th centuries BCE, that the Kushite pyramids first made their appearance. When you examine the caves and chambers carved into Gebel (or Jebel) Barkal, the mountain around which this civilization was centred, you see paintings and decoration much like that on the walls of Egyptian Pharaohs’ tombs. But the Nubian pyramids had their own character: smaller and steeper than their Egyptian inspirations. And rather than having tombs enclosed inside them, these pyramids sat on top of them as monuments and shrines.

Structure at the Karnak temple complex, built by Taharka

Even after the last Nubian ruler, Taharqa, was finally forced out — not by the Egyptians, but by the invasion of Sennacherib of Babylon — they rose once more in a third powerful civilization in their own land, about 150 years later, now centred at Meroe (pronounced “MER-oh-ay”; located northeast of present-day Khartoum). They continued building pyramids there, finally totalling about two hundred. The result is that there are actually more pyramids in Kush/Nubia/Sudan than there are in Egypt.

The Meroitic civilization was strong enough even to hold back attempted invasions by Emperor Augustus of Rome, and became a great trading nation. The only reason it finally faded was that camels became popular for taking traded goods straight across the desert. Since traders no longer needed to go up and down the Nile – which was the great source of Meroe’s wealth – trade on the river trickled to a fraction of its former volume. And Nubia was bypassed.

Ms. Gibson’s talk was a veritable feast for those of us who love to devour history. As an introduction to Black History Month, it also filled a serious gap in our knowledge of African history, a gap that most North Americans seem tragically to suffer from. And for those of us who sleep next door to a modern-day national elephant, it gave us a feeling of kinship with the Nubians, a fellow feeling that spans the millenia.

Tomb of Nubian King Tantamani, or Tanwetamani, at el-Kurru

Gertrude Bell: a Shaping Force in Iraq

Gertrude Bell in front of her tent in Iraq

Gertrude Bell in Iraq, 1909

Gertrude Bell had a lot of authority in Mesopotamia and Iraq around the time of World War 1. A lot. She hobnobbed with people like the young Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence (i.e. Lawrence of Arabia), helped draw the borders of the newly created country of Iraq, and even tried to educate its first king, Faisal I.

But all of this happened in the first two decades of the twentieth century – a time when women having this kind of authority was virtually unheard of, whether it was in Bell’s homeland of Great Britain, or in Mesopotamia. So how did she end up wielding such influence?

According to UBC’s  Dr. Lisa Cooper during a lecture for The Canadian Society for Mesopotamian Studies last Wednesday, what catapulted Ms. Bell into those rarefied levels was her background in archaeology. Bell knew the region intimately, having engaged in extensive travels and making detailed measurements and notes for the important ancient sites she encountered. On one trip, in 1909, she began at Aleppo in Syria, journeyed down the Euphrates to Babylon, came back up along the Tigris River, and then headed west into Anatolia, which is modern day Turkey.

These were not the idle travels of a gentlewoman trying to keep herself amused. Bell’s meticulous measurements and detailed photographs are sometimes all we have left of sites that were later looted or even destroyed. And when modern archaeologists return to many of the sites she described, her descriptions and conclusions still stand, and are often still cited authoritatively.

Dr. Cooper showed us one primary example of Bell’s expertise, on the site of the Ukhaidir Fortress, about seventy five miles southwest of Baghdad. Bell was able to examine the vaulting of the roofs and the types of domes used, and accurately pinpointed the influences — both western and eastern — that went into their construction. She recognized some elements learned from western Iran and others that seemed to have originated in pre-Christian Roman times.

The Newcastle University Library in Britain contains Bell’s archives, including all her photographs, diaries, and letters. In her diary entry of March 25, 1909, you can read how matter-of-factly she decided that Ukhaidir must be mapped:

The size and splendour of the place were a revelation and at once decided that I must plan it. Lunched with Mr Watts and then set to work. He gave me the measurements.

Astonishingly, despite that “size and splendour,” Bell had finished her work in three days. And the entry for the day (March 27) she spent writing out all her observations is very telling:

At night we went into the great hall to hear Ghamin[?] the guide sing to the Rebaba. A wood[?] fire and two wicks placed in the square holes above the columns. Ma’ashi made coffee and Ghamin sang the kasida of Abd ul Aziz ibn Rashid, then the kasida of the the Beni Sakhar and finally that of the Anazeh. There is a song too about this castle. They say it belonged to Na’wan ibn Munthir. Chosroes came and beseiged him here and was put to flight. Then one of his chief men induced him to cut off his ears and send him to Na’wan crying for vengeance against Chosroes. Na’wan received him well and wished him to take up his abode with him. He said in that case he must bring all his goods, 150 camels loads. He brought them and set them down in the big court and in the night armed men stepped out and sacked the castle.

This passage is significant because it shows another aspect of how Bell achieved the authority and influence she did. She didn’t just examine ruins, but she interacted with the people in the areas she studied. She learned the history of these regions not just from dead ruins but from living beings who could tell her stories and legends.

Dr. Cooper brought Gertrude Bell very much to life for the fervent and knowledgeable audience who attended her lecture. With extensive photographs and her own expert storytelling, she helped us understand why this woman stood with Lawrence, Churchill, and others as a historical authority and a nation builder.


Going Artsy at the TIFF Bell Lightbox

It took a few days to decide, but I’m glad I attended the first showing of From Ecstasy to Rapture: 50 Years of the other Spanish Cinema. This series is being presented each Wednesday evening until February 2nd, 2011, at the Free Screen sessions of the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the Toronto International Film Festival’s new home and film centre.

Toronto International Film Festival Bell Lightbox buildingAs the presenter told us, each Wednesday evening offers one form of film, following its use over a period of fifty years. So each week, viewers traverse the same fifty-year period in slightly different ways. The first showing was a series of 35mm films entitled “Documents,” featuring five shorts and réalités.

This was, as a companion remarked, an “artsy” experience, which was disconcerting to someone like me. I wasn’t raised to appreciate film, with its different techniques, as an art form in its own right. But I tried to view these five short films with that in mind, and I believe I learned something.

The first black and white piece, Fuego en Castilla, seemed to be re-enacting the Crucifixion using religious statues. Through a startling use of shadow, light, and movement, the statues seemed to come vividly alive. The grief of Mary, especially, was intense and powerful, almost enough to knock you backwards. But even more, you received an impression of deep anger from director José Val del Omar himself, as all these images were contextualized, in rare, brief flashes, in Franco’s Spain.

The films moved into colour and more modern times with director Gabriel Blanco’s De purificatione automobile. In scene after scene,  individuals and families hand-washed their cars with great care and affection on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Yet interspersed with these moments were scenes of old, derelict vehicles being crushed and dumped into a furnace to be melted down. Did the “purification” of the title imply that the old vehicles were “purified” to resurrect as the well-loved cars? Or was the love these people bestowed so lavishly on their cars a form of idolatry that needed purifying?

The fifth film, Le que tu dices que soy, directed by Virginia Garcia del Pino, was described as a documentary featuring people in “professions having to do with death, dirt or sex.” Six people were interviewed (a stripper, a butcher, a pig farmer, a national guard, a cemetery worker, and an unemployed woman). They commented on everything from how they viewed society, to what sort of job they might have preferred instead, to their romantic life, to what they liked about their jobs. The cemetery worker was the most cheerful of all of them, yet each one seemed surprisingly content and philosophical about their lot in life.

It was fascinating to see what preoccupied these filmmakers from 1959, when the first film was created, through 2007 and the last one. When it came to the effects that could be achieved, I was most impressed with the earliest film. Without all the blatant “special effects” in use today, the director was able to create an intense, emotional experience with “mere” light and shadow. I’d actually like to see both it and the fifth film again.

My companion and I also enjoyed what we saw of the Bell Lightbox itself. The upper levels open on one side into the large main entry area, creating a bright impression of space, especially given the high glass windows that front the building. And the seats, at least in our theatre, were to die for. The TIFF people clearly intend us to enjoy our film experience on every level.

The only minor, tiny complaint I might have would be that the screen was too high in our theatre. We sat in the middle rows, and still had to lift our heads to see the screen. If we’d sat in the front, we’d have had stiff necks by the end of the evening. Next time, we’ll sit in the upper rows so we can look straight on.

So there will be a next time? I think so. This was a film experience unlike any I’ve had before, but it’s remained with me and is still making me think, several days later. So yes — I’m sure I’ll be back.


The Harry Potter Camping Movie, or Deathly Hallows Part I

book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

You may be able to tell from the title what it was that didn’t thrill me about the seventh Harry Potter book — all that interminable camping! I really wondered how this would be handled in the movie, since I felt that a lot of it could have (and should have) been cut out or truncated in the book. I confess that when I heard that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows would be presented in two movies, my first thought was, “Oh no, they’re going to milk all that camping to the very dregs!” And I’d had such high hopes.

It wasn’t as bad as I expected, though, because it’s easier to handle those camping scenes when you can see Harry, Hermione, and Ron interacting in live action. However, I still have one beef that I had in connection with the book: you hardly get to see any other characters!

At best, all the other characters we’ve come to know and love over the years get brief cameos in this movie, as they did in the book. And much as I love Harry, Hermione, and Ron, part of what has always made their story so interesting was how they lived, learned, behaved, and struggled in the wider context of the wizarding world. After all, many of them were fighting Voldemort long before Harry was born. From Snape to the Weasley family to Draco to Hagrid to the other students at Hogwarts, we knew and loved the entire world of people normally hidden from us Muggles. Yet we saw only brief glimpses of them now and then in this movie.

I think I liked the episode inside the Ministry of Magic the best, primarily because there were lots of people there!

I understand that this lack of other characters, except in short glimpses, couldn’t really be helped in the book, which is written primarily from Harry’s point of view. I hoped the movie would be able to get beyond that. And the film did keep moving as much as it could, giving us occasional interspersed scenes with Voldemort, Snape, and the Malfoys, so we got at least a little relief from all that isolation of the three main characters. But in my opinion, it didn’t go nearly far enough.

But the dramatic moments were action-packed and the special effects were convincing. Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint have really grown over the years in their portrayals of Harry, Hermione, and Ron. So on the whole, I liked the movie quite well, and I do recommend seeing it. But if you, like me, were hoping for less camping and more of the other characters — don’t hold your breath.

Harry Potter books

This Close to Aslan’s country – Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Reepicheep was even more enjoyable and gallant than the first time. King Caspian seems to have taken on the accent of his Narnian subjects (but my, he looks nice with that beard). And yes, Eustace is as deliciously odious as he can possibly be.

The third Narnia movie based on the books of C.S. Lewis — Voyage of the Dawn Treader — came out just in time for the Christmas season. And while it’s not as strong as its predecessor (Prince Caspian), it’s a fun film, and a nice addition to the series. As was the case with the books, it has a lighter tone than the second instalment, partly because of its episodic, adventurous nature. And I suspect that the only people who will take exception to it will be the same purists who objected to Susan’s very light flirtation with Caspian in the previous film. Or those who want to see all the Narnia movies primarily as Christian conversion tools.

The plot deviates very slightly here and there from the story in the book. (But of course, what movie adaptation doesn’t occasionally vary a plot that works fine in print but which would not work in live action?) An element is added — the search for seven swords — that helps to tie the otherwise unrelated episodes more organically to each other, but in my opinion it doesn’t detract from anything.

Some things are given less time (for example, we don’t really see [pardon the pun] the Dufflepuds after their dilemma is resolved). And other things are extended – such as Eustace’s episode (I’m being careful not to include too many spoilers here). But the fact that it lasts longer than it does in the book gives Reepicheep a real chance to shine and to reveal his noble nature. It also allows Eustace a chance to grow as a person, learning to be both courageous and giving. So I think this enhances the movie, and provides a very redemptive message.

One difference between the Narnia and the Harry Potter films is that Narnia is almost filmed in real time. As the kids grow older in the story, the actors grow older in the movies. And when they’re getting too old to play young children any more, why, those characters vanish from the story for the same reasons. We did get to see Peter once, and Susan about three times in this movie, but it was Lucy, Edmund, and Caspian who stood at the forefront this time.

Rahmandu's daugher, in Voyage of the Dawn TreaderEdmund has always been my favourite character, and I’ve loved seeing him grow up and become a responsible person over the three films. I felt he really shone in the Caspian movie, and he just keeps growing in this one. And Lucy, too, steps into the limelight in Dawn Treader, ironically as she struggles to think of herself as someone other than “Susan’s younger sister.” I felt that both of these characters reached an appropriate culmination in their swan song in the Narnia movies. And they have me really hoping that someone keeps going and makes The Horse and His Boy into a movie as well, because by then, all four actors who played the Pevensie children will be old enough to play themselves as adult kings and queens.

The one character who I didn’t think got as much development as he might have was Caspian himself. He did have moments where he learned important things, and you could see that he had become comfortable with being the leader of his people. But at the end, when he promises Aslan to try to be “a better king,” it’s hard to see quite how he wasn’t being as good a king as he should have been.

Meanwhile, Reepicheep’s yearning for Aslan’s country was first mentioned late enough that it almost seemed like an afterthought, and not that important. So that when he finally has the chance to paddle his coracle into Aslan’s country, it’s not quite the deeply moving moment that it was in the book.

I’ve seen comments from disgruntled evangelical Christians who don’t think the “Christian message” is as clear in this movie as in the book. But for those looking for a “message,” what is there is uplifting and encouraging for a wider audience. On the whole, the movie is a lot of fun and well worth seeing.

Trifecta – Guitar-lovers get a Triple Treat

Pavlo, Rik Emmett, and Oscar Lopez after "Trifecta" concert

Pavlo, Rik Emmett, Oscar Lopez

Those of us who love the guitar experienced a triple treat recently at Koerner Hall, at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music. Three guitarists who are known for their music in different styles – the Latin musician, Oscar Lopez, Rik Emmett of hard rock fame, and Pavlo the Mediterranean guitarist – came together in a concert in support of their marvelous album, Trifecta. And to say it was a magical evening is an understatement.

The album itself had been an experiment in combining styles that have their own distinct flavours to see how well they could mesh. While Latin and Mediterranean music may sound similar and work more organically together, could they then be successfully combined with a rock ‘n’ roll sound? These three musicians gave us a living demonstration that they can.

There is something about watching master craftsmen at work that is just riveting. It didn’t matter what type of music these men were playing: their hands and fingers moved with such ease and control along those strings that you could almost believe the guitars were mere extensions of their own bodies. And they could coax divine sounds from them with the mere flick of a couple of fingers and the fine movements of a guitar pick.

Koerner Hall interior, Royal Conservatory, Toronto

Koerner Hall

The rock element was somewhat toned down, with the Latin and Mediterranean sound often predominating, as Emmett provided background rhythm and power chords during Pavlo’s or Lopez’s complex finger work. But the guitar leads of a hard rock band are swift and intricate, so Emmett was perfectly equipped whenever he soared into the same heady realms as his counterparts.

The atmosphere of the concert was warm and almost cozy, partly due to the genius of Koerner Hall itself. It’s arranged so that nobody is that far from the main stage. And the warm colours and soft woods around the stage and beamed across the high ceiling guarantees an intimate sound. Pavlo remarked that he’d been to Koerner hall soon after it opened last year, and immediately thought, “This is where we have to play!” He turned to us in the audience and said, “Isn’t this the perfect place for this concert?”

The musicians have been touring, off and on, since January, so they obviously know each other very well by now. Lopez often got the others laughing, and there was a lot of entertaining banter back and forth. At one point, Pavlo and Lopez goaded Emmett into getting up and demonstrating the patented “pelvic thrust” which, he explained, “every rocker has to learn at rock school.” Some of their giddiness might have stemmed from the fact that this was the final concert of their long tour. But the three musicians seemed genuinely relaxed and enjoying each other’s company.

At these moments, we in the audience felt as though we were part of a big family just hanging out and amusing ourselves. But each time these three guitarists got back down to business and began to play again, we were lifted to another realm entirely. A realm of brilliant skill and exquisite music that left us breathless.

Word on the Street: Readers in a Candy Store

Forget the kid in the candy store. Any Toronto book lover will tell you that the Word on the Street book festival is much more exciting than that. And infinitely more tasty.

Elizabeth Abbot, Charlotte Gray, Tim Cook

Elizabeth Abbot, Charlotte Gray, Tim Cook

This annual festival, held recently again not just at Queen’s Park in Toronto but in several major cities across Canada, might start with books,  but it then extends well beyond them. In fact, this event might be better described as a readers’ and writers’ festival, instead of narrowing it down only to books. Where else can you find one speakers’ tent devoted to e-readers and other digital ways of reading, another tent for magazine publishing, another for readings by the authors of recent best-selling books, and another whole tent completely devoted to cookbooks?

In one tent, people gathered to hear history authors read from and talk about both their writing process and the actual historical events they wrote about. In another, hopeful writers learned some of the manuscript submission process from publishers and agents. Some even had pages of their work critiqued on the spot by published writers and writing professors.

Word on the Street - booths everywhere!

Booths everywhere!

Beyond all the speakers’ tents, the streets on either side of the park were lined with information booths, populated by representatives from publishers and writers’ clubs, bookstores and magazines, and published authors promoting their books. Whatever aspect of writing or reading you were interested in, you could find it there.

I’ve attended several of these September festivals, usually looking at things from an author’s point of view. It’s been interesting to see the digital world gradually infiltrate and begin augmenting the physical. Three or four years ago, the farthest it went was the panel discussions about the great things that could be done by blogging as either a pastime or an occupation. This year, the panel about e-readers was conducted twice. And both agents and published authors talked at great length about how to use social media like Facebook and Twitter to promote your writing and build a fan base, even before you submit your manuscript anywhere.

Yet judging by the interests of the crowds and the brisk business being done at the booths of the bookstores, the physical paper book is no less alive and vigorous, even if digital books are also becoming popular. And despite complaints by many social analysts that the skill of solid reading is being used less and less in society, that doesn’t appear to be true in Toronto. You may get some clues from hearing about the frequent author readings throughout the city each year, not to mention the International Festival of Authors held each October.

But the best evidence you’ll get, of how Torontonians love their books, is to visit the Word on the Street festival in the autumn. And slowly work your way through the crowds and the immense feast of reading and writing laid out before you.

Four panelists at the "Look at Me! Look at Me!" Social Media panel

Nina Lassam, Mark Leslie Lefebvre, Anita Windisman, Julie Wilson