Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 January - 4 February 2009
Issue No. 932
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Esna revisited

In Esna, Giovanna Montalbetti takes stock of history

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Clockwise from top: the second oldest minaret in Egypt was built in the Fatimid era; the only remaining mill to extract lettuce oil; once thriving with business, the condition of the textiles market has now deteriorated; the rich architectural style of Esna

History is fickle: a city bursting with life today may well slip into oblivion tomorrow. The cycle that seems unavoidable for all cities and empires, albeit to greater or lesser degrees, is sometimes quick and definite, leaving no physical trace of a given site's former glory. This is the case of Troy, for instance. In other cases, the process is slower and the cities remain, and instead decay very gradually. Ironically this is the more lethal blog to a city's fame. A city whose brightness slowly fades is not the stuff of legends, as it does not trigger the imagination, nor does it awaken our curiosity.

Speaking with General Manager of Coptic and Islamic Monuments of Upper Egypt Nasr Mohamed Ewedah, I realised that although it remains one of the region's most important cities, Esna has definitely lost some of its past lustre.

Located some 33 miles south of Luxor, Esna has been known under many different names. During Pharaonic times it was Iunyt -- after the goddess featured in the Amduat -- and later Ta Senet, meaning the Holy City. The Greeks knew it as Latopolis for it was believed here the perch-like fish, lates, embodied the goddess Neith, considered sacred in the area. It was said that a cemetery for these holy fish was located west of the city.

According to Ewedah, Esna's most important monuments from the Pharaonic period are the Al-Muaalla tombs on the east bank of the River Nile, featuring that of Ankhtifi, from the First Intermediate Period. Few visitors come to see them though, as Esna is best known nowadays for the Ptolemaic temple of Khnum, and for being the location of the locks crossed while on the Nile cruises.

Esna's importance grew during the 18th Dynasty as Egypt's relationship with Sudan developed. But the Esna-Derr route was not to hold its capital importance for long. It would have to wait until the 26th Dynasty to regain its interest, becoming under the Greeks and Romans the capital of the Third Nome of Upper Egypt.

"It was later called Steti or Sne by the Copts," Ewedah told Al-Ahram Weekly. "Until we got to its Arabic name, Esna."

During the Roman era the city became tragically famous as the City of Martyrs. Esna, many of whose villagers were Coptic, witnessed persecution under the reigns of Decius and Diocletian. In 250 AD Decius issued an edict for the suppression of Christianity in simple terms. By a certain date, that varied from place to place, all the inhabitants of the empire were required to make a sacrifice to the Roman gods. The accomplishment of the sacrifices would be officially registered by the magistrates of the community, who would give each individual a libellus or certificate. Those who refused were to be sought after and sentenced to death.

Decius became known as "the fierce tyrant", but it would be a few years later, under Diocletian, that Christians in Esna would suffer the fiercest persecution yet. As Ewedah explains, "the emperor sent in his troops, who murdered 80,000 martyrs. There is a tomb named 'The Three Brothers'. In it rest the bodies of three brothers, their mother and their sister. It is said the Romans killed them and dined on their bodies."

"There are many monasteries in this area," Ewedah added. "Deir Manaos wa Al-Shuhada, or the Monastery of the Three Thousand Six Hundred Martyrs, is considered a commemoration to these emperors' persecutions. The 10th century church is said to be one of the most beautiful in Upper Egypt. But there is also Deir Al-Fakhouri, or the Monastery of the Potter, who like the ancient god Khnum in Esna Temple, sits and creates the world out of mud," he smiles. So it seems, cultures have mingled in Esna right from the start.

Esna was also famous during the times of Fatimid ruler Al-Mustansir Biallah. According to the historian Al-Maqrizi, it was during this time that a great famine scorched Egypt, and even then Esna was described as having many buildings and green gardens, with waters that didn't ebb and with rich agriculture which helped the country in facing the crisis. The historian also mentions how Esna was a meeting point for many of the major poets of the time.

Ewedah tells of a silent witness to Esna's splendour during this period: the Emari Minaret -- one of the oldest minarets in Egypt -- which can be traced back to Badreddin El-Gamali, who built the walls of Cairo, and which escaped the mosque's demolition in 1960.

It was during the Ottoman era that the city's commercial centre was built. Wekalet Al-Gedawi stands north of Esna Temple, and owes its name to its chief merchant and owner Shahbandar Al-Toggar Al-Sayed Hassan Al-Gedawi. Merchants from Sudan, central Africa, Somalia and Kenya were just some of those travelling through the Aswan road to stay in the second floor of the Wekala. They stored their goods in the first floor until they could display them at the market that was regularly held in the Wekala's courtyard. The Berber sold baskets and other items made of dyed palm leaves. Other star products arriving to Esna by caravan were Arab glue, ostrich feathers and elephant tusks.

If the Wekala was the place to find imported goods, the Kaysariya, consisting of shops arranged in a long alley covered with wooden ceiling, was the local city market. It was towards the end of the Ottoman period, in 1798-99, that Napoleon's troops and scholars arrived to Esna. In Description de l'Égypte, the city is portrayed as surrounded by low lands with good agriculture to the south, and with gardens kept by expensive irrigation to the north. They described how the city was "on top of an eight to 10 metre-high hill of ruins."

Despite the large number of boats in its port, the French noticed many of Esna's outer brick houses were destroyed as the city was built in the part of the river where the tide flowed strongest to the shore, eating into and collapsing both the shore and the houses on it. Apart from describing the Esna Temple, they pictured in their illustration plaques the ruins of four other nearby temples that have now disappeared, an inventory for which can be found in the walls of the temple of Khnum.

Napoleon's expedition also took note of the political intricacies of Esna -- a safe exile for the beys in opposition to Cairo rulers -- and of the peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Copts.

Partly as a result of this cohabitation, Esna's industry flourished. Caravans promoted the horse trade business in the area, and some local products were on high demand. The city had become the manufacturing centre of huge amounts of soft raw cotton fabrics, and of the big scarf known as halayah, used widely in Egypt. The area also produced the aads esnawi, the famous Esna lentil. There were five or six small clay factories where pottery was made, and around 20 presses to produce vegetable oil for gastronomic and medical purposes, such as onion, sesame or lettuce oil amongst others.

Only one of these presses survives today, and that is the Bakour press. Its current owner is Abdel-Hamid Abdel-Radi Ahmed Bakour, who proudly explained to the Weekly that the oil press has been in his family for countless generations. "It is Pharaonic art," he said. "We know from our grandparents that all the oils were made like this." When asked about any famous saying related to the oil press, he looks at the pressing stone that came so long ago from Aswan and reflects: " Yetlaa men al-maasara yekhosh al-tahoun," which literally means: Out of the press and into the mill. "That is how some people suffer in this life," he sighs.

Bakour yearns for the days when the press was swarming with activity, but most oil is bought bottled nowadays. But he is not the only one overtaken by nostalgia: even the city's intricate streets appear to dream of a more frenzied past. Walking through the city, it seems time is moving slowly over Esna and its gentle people.

During the era of Mohamed Ali, Esna was one of the governorates of Egypt. It ran from Gerga on the north to the Shalalat waterfalls south, including Aswan and other cities. Ali Pasha Mubarak also discussed the beauty of its houses, its antiquity treasures and the growth of its population. There used to be a well famed tarboush factory back then. It is now long gone.

Gustave Flaubert marvelled at lively Esna in 1849, and 30 years later Emilia Edwards wrote about the city, impressed by its activity and by the existence of its buried temple. Then in 1909 the first barrage in Esna was constructed, and just like the waters of the river, the rhythm of the city became a little less frantic. Today, visitors walk straight from the boats to the narrow alley full of tourist shops in which sellers seem to shake off time's spell in order to call out in all languages. Except for the temple, they are unaware of the fact the streets they walk through are testimony to a much richer history.

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