Dessert and Discourse: A Virtual Tour of Ancient Egypt, Part I 🇪🇬
we're off to explore the pyramids, the sphinx, and the ruins of Thebes
No dinner party is complete without dessert! This post is part of my monthly salon dinner series, and is for paid subscribers only. Free subscribers are invited to join for dinner, where I give you a full menu, discussion topics, and book and movie recommendations; click here to return to that post.
Hello, my favorite Substack people, and welcome to new subscribers Erin, Clarice, and Paul! Thank you so much for your support—I’m thrilled you’re here.
Apologies for my tardiness in getting this newsletter out. This is one of the final missives I will send from Cairo, so I felt like it should be some auspicious capstone project from my time in Egypt, and I stewed for a long time over what to talk about. Then, as I was scrolling through my camera roll a couple days ago and reminiscing over the iconic ancient sites I’ve visited here, it hit me: wouldn’t it be fun to do a deep dive into everything I’ve seen? The whole idea of this salon series is to “travel virtually,” so today I’m taking that literally. We’re going on a whirlwind tour of the temples, tombs, and monuments of ancient Egypt, in chronological order from the dawn of the Pharaonic era all the way up through the Roman period. As we move through the sites, we’ll talk about the broad historical context, and see how Egypt evolved as an empire.
I realized I had bitten off more than I could chew about halfway through composing this “tour,” so it will come in installments (3,000 years of history is kind of a lot, who knew?!). Today’s part covers the Old and Middle Kingdoms of ancient Egypt, as well as the dawn of the New Kingdom; the next will focus on the rest of the New Kingdom and the Ptolemaic and Roman periods. Our journey will take us over over 700 miles from modern Cairo all the way down to Egypt’s southern border with Sudan, so bring your comfiest walking shoes and your most protective sun hat!
Of course, such a trek will require energy—we can’t possibly leave without having dessert. And what could be better than om ali? Om ali is one of best Egyptian sweets there is, a creamy bread pudding that’s broiled to a bubbly, golden finish and topped with your preferred mix of pistachios, raisins, and shredded coconut. This version from Egyptian baker Cleobuttera has a delicious twist: it uses store-bought palmiers instead of bread, so the texture is less mushy and more al dente. Wash it down with shay bi laban, or black tea with milk, Egypt’s unofficial national drink.
Now that we’re on a sugar high, let’s begin our journey. We start in the environs of Cairo, known to the ancient Egyptians as Memphis. This was the capital established by Narmer, who united Lower (northern) and Upper (southern) Egypt circa 3000 B.C. and established the Old Kingdom, an age in which the pharaohs enjoyed centralized, consolidated power. This relative political stability allowed arts and architecture to flourish, and about five hundred years after the reign of Narmer, the pharaoh Djoser channelled that artistry into a structure the likes of which no one had ever seen—something to solidify his status as a divine being. Our first stop is the Saqqara Necropolis, where the age of pyramid building was born circa 2650 B.C.