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September 27, 2017

The ABABDA: A Vanishing Culture

The California Science Center, already well-known for their creative and inspiring collection of Brain Food, recently sponsored the Cleopatra Exhibit in 2013. Throughout the afternoon, I  sported memories of footprints in the Sahara sand, the shape of the Queen’s Chamber in the Great Pyramid, and watching as my son started at the top of a huge dune and rolled a quarter-mile down – almost swiftly into the Nile!

Cover Photo: shot with the Ababda Tribe, SE Sahara Desert, Egypt
Cover Photo: shot with the Ababda Tribe, SE Sahara Desert, Egypt

I have had the distinct pleasure of traveling to Egypt (twice!) with the esteemed archaeologist Dr. Willeke Wendrich. Traveling with Wendrich and the members of the Director’s Council of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA enables entrance into places (and circumstances) that are shielded from the typical traveling consumer.

For example: when one visits the huge and beautiful Sphynx on the Giza Plateau in Cairo, one would typically stand behind a cyclone fence to look down into a large pit (larger than a typical American home) at the Sphynx, where it had been dug out of the surrounding desert sands. On the day that we were there, spectators would see eight little people climbing around and between the paws of the magnificent Sphynx. We were the 8 people. When at 3pm, they closed the Great Pyramid to the public, they opened some long-sealed chambers and tunnels to us – the same facilitous eight. WHAT A PRIVILEGE!


A typical hut of an Ababda nomad.
A typical hut of an Ababda nomad.

Dr. Wendrich led us on a 5-day journey to visit a tiny location on the southeastern coast of Egypt called Baranike. We were all going there to celebrate the Grand Opening of Dr. Wendrich’s museum that was filled with artifacts of the Ababda existence.

Many of the adventures along the way  had occurred because ‘civilians’ had been restricted to visiting the limited sites and cities along the Nile, including: Alexandria, Cairo, Luxor, Aswan and a few other smaller lesser-known towns. But Dr. Wendrich, who had led archaeological excavations in various out-of-the-way sites in Egypt for nearly twenty years, knew exactly what she was doing. She had planned to take us way off the beaten Nile, through the middle of the country, down along the Red Sea to finally end in Baranike.

This had to be the most eventful and adventurous journeys I’ve ever taken!

We left Luxor and headed toward Amarna, the city founded by the Egyptian King Akhenaten. He was the guy that married the beautiful Nefertiti, and together they bore a now-famous son by the name of Tutankhamun.

Born Amenhotep IV, he decided to cast off the traditional idealistic religion that honored many gods, to replace it with his own belief of worshipping only the single god, Aten. During the sixth year of his Kingship, he changed his name to Akhenaten to honor this god. In addition, he decided that he should have his own seat of power, so he changed the capital of Egypt from Thebes (Luxor) to Amarna. And boy did he ruffle some robes!

Back to the road. After our little visit with the long-waisted king, we hopped back into our noisy vehicle and headed back to the road which was a couple of miles away. The noise increased, and soon our vehicle stopped altogether. The driver said that if we all got out to push, he could do what was needed to keep it running for the remainder of the excursion. So there we were, a rabble of Southern California business people plus a few archaeology professors, pushing a broken-down old bus through the Sahara Desert. Success, onward.

We traveled for the remainder of the afternoon, when we all needed a good stretch and a cold beer. There no were cities within a couple of hours of our location that were either authorized or facilitated to handle our group. In other words, no comfortable restaurants, and noplace to sleep. Because tourists were not allowed to venture this far away, there was never a need to build hotels. 

After over-hearing lots of frantic discussion in Arabic over the walkie talkies, we were ushered to the place that would be our home for the night: a cement factory. Apparently, because this town where we found our weary selves happen to be a common place for 3 unfriendly religious groups (Coptics, Catholics & Muslims) to meet and battle, they had to find a place that was walled and ergo, easily guarded. Et voila, the cement factory.

Our uzzi-laden escorts scurried us out of our bus into the welcoming arms of a group of well-wishing helpers that greeted us by playing tune of ‘Yankee Doodle’ on little fifes. It worked, we instantly went from feeling a bit of terror at the situation, to kindness and warmth as we saw how much these folks sincerely wanted us to be comfortable.

This is a little sheltered port where the ancient Egyptians, the Ptolemies, would bring the elephants off the boats from Africa and lead them on a long sand-swept journey all the way back up to the cities along the Nile to act as ‘war machines’ . Inland from the port our vehicle stopped in front of a tiny lone concrete building. And by ‘lone’, I REALLY mean ALONE! If you stand on the roof of this building and looked in every direction, you would see the sands of the Sahara in every direction. Period. We were brought to this way-off-the-beaten-path place to celebrate the opening of this little building: the Museum of the Ababda, nomadic shepherds that still live today as they have for many many centuries.


A 'Jump' dance of celebration for the Ababda.
A ‘Jump’ dance of celebration for the Ababda.

Their culture is now nearly extinct, in part due to a vast number of all-inclusive resorts that have recently been constructed all along the coast of the Red Sea. Many of the Ababda people have been taught to drive and work in large hotels, which means that they will no longer consider the open sands to be their homes. Dr. Wendrich has been excavating this area for many years with the hopes of finding every last remnant of the Ababda culture. With the assistance of several governments, Wendrich was able to oversee the construction of this little Saharan museum. And our journey to this place was for the specific purpose of celebrating the opening of the museum to honor and preserve the fading ancient culture of the Ababda. Back to last week: a visit to the Cleopatra Exhibition at the California Science Center in Los Angeles brought back the memories of these precious people and of our journeys into the vast and silent Sahara Desert.


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