Posted: Jul 10, 2006 2:45 PM

One of my hobbies is to study new places by experiencing the traditions, meeting the natives, and immersing myself in the culture. Over the last two weeks I was able to tour the streets of Luxor and Alexandria in Egypt and learn all about the history of this great country. I’ve always been a curious person, but learning about our world is more than just an amusing hobby for me. It’s a way to stay informed about the world, understand the lives of my fellow brothers and sisters, and improve my knowledge of history.

The Egyptian civilization began along the banks of the River Nile circa 3200 BC and soon became one of world history’s great civilizations. The Egyptians used engineering tactics to control the flow of the Nile to ensure the best irrigation and fertilization of their land. The Nile and deserts to the east and west allowed them geographic isolation that ensured protection and abundance. Egyptians then used their great knowledge of geometry and astronomy to plan the pyramids and layout of the cities to best ensure sustainability and protection. The Great Pyramid, known as the Tomb of Pharaoh Khufu (also known as Cheops), is one of the Seven Wonders of the World and is also the only surviving monument of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The Pharos of Alexandria, a lighthouse 140 m high, was another of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Besides their use of geometry and astronomy, Egyptians were adept at using science, industry and creativity to advance their civilization. They were the first people known to have separated copper from its ore, which they did about four thousand years ago. Experiments with steam power were carried out by Hiero in Egypt at least eighteen hundred years ago, and Hypatia (born around 370 AD) was the first woman to make a recorded contribution to mathematics. Egyptians had a 365 day solar calendar like our own and used water clocks and sundials to tell time. Egyptian medicine dates back four thousand years and it is believed that there were female doctors in ancient Egypt. The papyrus plant, a type of reed, was used to make paper and the ancient Egyptian cure for baldness was a mixture of crocodile, hippopotamus, lion, snake, goose and ibex fat.

Although Egyptians relied on science to create and grow their country, they also were very spiritual and superstitious. In the Middle Ages and for hundreds of years after, mummies were believed to be a powerful medicine and were ground up into powder and drunk in a potion. The Eye of Horus was believed to protect against hazards and ensure happiness. It is said that the shape of the Sphinx was started by winds shaping a natural mound. The tombs of the Pharaohs were stocked with food, equipment and servants (in model form) for the afterlife. As well as preserving the bodies of their rulers, the ancient Egyptians also mummified birds and animals linked to their gods: cats, bulls, crocodiles and ibises have been found in the thousands, carefully mummified and wrapped. Today, Egypt is predominantly Muslim—approximately 90 percent of the 79 million person population - with the majority being adherents to the Sunni branch of Islam.

Present day Egypt (the name “Egypt” comes from the Greek name for the country, Egyptos) has many customs that foreigners misunderstand. Egyptians for example, reserve their left hand for bodily hygiene and expect foreigners to abide by local standards of modesty. They tend to stand close to each other during conversation and distance can be seen as a sign of aloofness. On the other hand, men and women stand farther apart from each other than is the custom in the United States and Europe. Egyptians do not sit with their legs crossed and consider it impolite to eat everything on their plate. Showing the sole of one’s shoe is considered an insult and tapping two index fingers together is considered a crude gesture meaning, "Would you sleep with me?"

Egypt, a staunch ally of the United States, has a very interesting political dynamic because religion, tradition and the military play such strong roles in creating policy. Egypt has been a republic since 1953 and Mohamed Hosni Mubarak has been the President of the Republic since October 14, 1981. Despite valiant efforts, terrorism, crime and poverty are plentiful in Egypt, especially in the thousands of slums including those in Cairo and Alexandria. Egypt’s two largest Islamic terrorist groups are Jamaat al-Islamiyya and Egyptian Islamic Jihad, both of which have important ties to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorist network. Experts say bin Laden’s terror network grew in part out of Egyptian extremist groups, and many of al-Qaeda’s leaders are Egyptians. In recent years, bin Laden brought two leaders of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Ayman al-Zawahiri and the late Muhammad Atef, into the top echelons of al-Qaeda.

Although the country has seen better days, I saw plenty of hope during my time there. What was quite moving during my weeks in Egypt was celebrating the fourth of July at the American Embassy in Egypt with Ambassador Francis Joseph Ricciardone, my family and about 4000 invited guests. This was the first time I’ve ever celebrated America’s birthday away from the States. As our Marine guards marched and our National Anthem was sung, I have never felt prouder nor humbler to be an American in a foreign land. What is probably most shocking about this Islamic country is how welcoming and loving they are of all Americans, regardless of race, religion or ancestry.