Dr Mervat Abdel-Nasser, New Hermopolis (Egypt)

Dr Mervat Abdel-Nasser
Dr Mervat Abdel-Nasser

Why Hermopolis, why me and why now?

New Hermopolis is an individual non-profit social enterprise founded by Dr Mervat Abdel-Nasser with the mission of capitalizing on Middle Egypt’s heritage for the cultural and economic development of this region.  

The project was conceived back in the 1980’s when I was struck by the increased dissociation of the Egyptians with their ancient past and the growing wave of religious fundamentalism and recession of liberal values.

The years I spent studying ancient Egyptian history as well as my life and work experience as a psychiatrist in the UK led me to ‘Hermopolis’ and its ‘philosophy.’  The idea of reviving Hermopolis, such as an ancient seat of tolerance and dialogue seemed to me like the right response.  The founding of New Hermopolis therefore is connected to this philosophy with its belief in the possibility of harmonious living, reconciliation of differences and the power of art to transform man and society.

Hermopolis is the name given by the Greeks to the city of ‘Thoth’ that lies in El Minia governorate, middle Egypt. It was named after ‘Hermes’, the Greek equivalent of ‘Thoth’, the lord of time, the guardian of thought and the ultimate communicator of knowledge.  Hermopolis became a world capital of learning in Hellenistic Egypt and inspired the development of Alexandria as a Cosmopolis.

The sum of knowledge produced by the ancient Hermopolis (Hermetica) was brought to Florence in the 15th century and had a great influence on the philosophy of Europe from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment and beyond. This is reflected in the life and work of major European figures of science, philosophy, art and literature. This shows the enduring legacy of this city and the tendency of its thought to emerge at times when humanity is faced with difficulties and uncertainties making a persuasive argument for the need to revive its spirit to serve our turbulent times.

New Hermopolis: description, operation and impact on the local community

New Hermopolis is an integrated model of development built on a privately owned land close to its ancient counterpart in Tuna el Gebel village (20 KM from the main city of Mallawi/ 320 kilometres from Cairo). It lies at the heart of many archaeological and historical treasures of this region including ancient temples, monuments, churches, and museums. (www.newhermopolis.org)

It serves the main city of Mallawi and its surrounding villages (24 major villages each with population of around 30.000). Based on local government figures, this area exhibits some of the highest levels of poverty and marginalization in the country. Despite its wealth of culture, the land that was once a great centre for learning and cultural dialogue has become impoverished and overlooked. Economic opportunities are scarce but opportunities for free and critical thought are even scarcer with resultant religious intolerance and fictional strife particularly along the Christian-Muslim juxtaposition, higher in this region than any other area of Egypt.

New Hermopolis consists of a Green Farm (10 acres/5 planted olive groves/ we had our first olive oil production in 2017), Hospitality Centre (Eco-retreat) and Cultural/Heritage Centre for the benefit of the local community as well as national and international visitors.

The work on the New Hermopolis Complex (Farm, Retreat and Cultural Space) began in 2004 and was ready for operation by 2011 (the early work involved required searching for the land, digging a well, generating energy and reclaiming desert in addition to other building issue) .The political events and the turmoil that beset the country in 2011 prevented the functioning of the project up until 2014 when we began to receive visitors mostly Egyptian and very few international tourists. The situation has nonetheless improved in 2016/2017.

However, Egypt’s tourism has long been governed by policies of mass tourism. This led to controlled tourist experiences which often entail staying at large concrete hotels and resorts, moving between only a few select archaeological sites. This strategy has proven primarily profitable to a handful of businessmen and big investors, while small businesses, investors, entrepreneurs, and local populations most often neither benefit from nor participate in the profits.  In this enterprise, sustainability is sought through demonstrating the role of culture/heritage in initiating new models of alternative tourism, re-define perceptions and promote values of responsible/solidarity tourism.

The New Hermopolis Retreat is at the core of this development. It is designed and built in accordance with ecological principles and adheres to practices of environmental sustainability. Our architectural designs maximize insulation and ventilation, keeping the site cool in the summer and warm in the winter. ‘Water’ is preserved through the use of our ‘local well’, and our ‘energy source’ is solar. All decorations are designed by local artists, using recycled materials.

It consists of 16 individual studios, all are named after thinkers, writers and artists connected with the philosophy of ancient Hermopolis from ancient history till our present time. The studios surround a square shaped ‘Lotus pond’ (This is a revival of the Egyptian Blue Lotus that is currently threatened with extinction). It has the capacity for 40 visitors.

Our food is mainly based on Egypt’s heritage cuisine and primarily prepared and served by well selected and trained villagers particularly women. This is part of an ongoing outreach program with the local village of Tuna El-Gebel to revive Egypt’s rural cuisine and offer local women skills in catering, food preservation and hospitality. In fact the entire work force of New Hermopolis including administrative, transport, housekeeping, maintenance (electricians, plumbers, joiners, etc), farmers, gardening and security are drawn from the local village.

” The founding of New Hermopolis therefore is connected to this philosophy with its belief in the possibility of harmonious living, reconciliation of differences and the power of art to transform man and society. “

Local populations are true partners of this enterprise and see it as an organic extension of themselves and their environment. They call it the protectorate/ or the protected one, a name that I personally cherish. They have now a great sense of pride and ownership,  and the tourists who stay with us are no longer seen as tourists (in the traditional sense), but guests that are in themselves a source of the local community’s pride and not only livelihood.

The New Hermopolis Art and Culture Program

This is part and parcel of the New Hermopolis Project, and runs parallel to the Farm and the Retreat activities. Besides the normal Guided Trips to Heritage and Antiquities Sites that lie in close proximity to New Hermopolis, we encourage increased connection to and understanding of the region’s heritage and culture through educational and community engagement programs. We also welcome international artists, writers, musicians, and others interested in Art Residencies for cross-cultural sharing, learning, and project collaboration. Our goal is to ensure that our visitors leave the place with a better appreciation for local communities and a sense of having participated in a worthwhile socially responsible and creative project.

Our Cultural Space is equipped with a library, seminar/conference facility and both indoor and outdoor performance areas. It offers the opportunity to host lectures, training courses, intercultural events as well as art exhibitions/ performances for the benefit of the local community and international visitors. It is an open environment for local cultural groups, tourists, artists, writers and other retreat groups. This creative medium is open to ideas and activities drawn from a wide range of sectors covering heritage, cultural and narrative studies, creative writing, visual and performing arts. It carries the ethos of engaging with the local heritage and art, both tangible and intangible to generate new ideas and experiences and impact local developmental projects.

Through this Art & Culture Program various avenues are now available for local youth to demonstrate and showcase their work to our visitors and their communities. By offering these public outlets we try to highlight the heritage wealth of this region and instill a sense of pride and ownership of this heritage.  We also encourage discussion of belief within an unthreatening creative medium.   Time and again, expression through the arts has been demonstrated to be an effective tool for building tolerant, open-minded and peaceful societies.

In addition to showcasing local community artistic talents we also offer Training in Creative Industries (albeit on a very modest scale). This includes skill training in creative writing, journalism, acting, videography and others.  With our investment in people we aim to establish a network of cultural entrepreneurs who in turn will be able to open new work opportunities particularly for a local mass of educated unemployed youth who are unable to find themselves in the traditional job market.  This will eventually lead to the creation of a new art that is bound to add to the attraction and sustainability of the Tourism Industry of this country. 

List of some of our cultural activities since 2014

(1) ‘Nile Project ‘Music Residency (16 days/2014) The Nile Project brings together artists from the 11 Nile countries to make music and showcase the potential of trans-boundary cooperation.

(2) Video documentary on ‘Kishk’ (2015), one of the authentic most culinary tastes of this region that is associated with a number of Egyptian traditions/ filmed locally.

(3) Video documentary on the transmission of the ancient Egyptian wisdom tradition into modern Egyptian oral tradition(2017) (folk song & tales)

(4)Production of a play ‘Trackers of Oxyrhnchus/Goats of El-Bahnsa’-based on one of  Sophocles plays that was found among the papyri of Oxyrhynchus/ Bahnasa city to the north of New Hermopolis.

(5) ‘Stick Dancing’  performances and workshops by the local Mallawi group.

(6) ‘Story telling’ (2016) performance exploring identity issues  with accompanying music/ by Egyptian heritage writer Ahmed Abu-Khniger and musician Hassan Zaki.

(7) Celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Egyptian writer Taha Hussain (2013) who is known as the ‘Dean of Letters’/ in collaboration with local youth.

 (8) Revival celebration of Egyptian Coptic Easter and Sham El-Nessem with locals– ancient Egyptian festival.

(9) Traditional Egyptian wedding (2015) (Youtube/ Juan Carlos & Mona-Sacred Alchemical Marriage)

(10)collaborative theatre workshop – art residency of  British Theatre director and Egyptian actors/ El Warsha Theatre troupe, based in Mallawi.

Many of the above cultural activities/ achievements and others were performed and showcased  among the proceedings of our annual  Thoth’s Festival – a revival of an ancient Egyptian festival that celebrated  the power of the ‘Creative Word’, the very essence of ancient Hermopolis and its guardian’ Thoth’ who conveyed to humanity all art and knowledge.    

The ‘First Thoth’s Cultural Festival’ took place  Oct. 2015 with a range of cultural activities designed to widen the scope of engagement, encouraging all forms of creative expression from storytelling, improvisation and  interactive theatre.

In our vision, the ‘Thoth’s Festival’ should one day become an international cultural event where creative minds from different walks of life can come together to think  about the world in creative ways to answer some of the  increasingly urgent problems we face today.

We have in mind the model of Hay on Wye Festival, UK that transformed an ordinary village in rural wales into an international capital of books and literary achievements. There are now Hay Festivals in many countries and It is certainly about time to have a Hay Festival in the ancient Egyptian city where the word was first born and the art of writing first began.

Our overall goal is to ensure that our visitors leave the place with a better appreciation for local communities and a sense of having participated in a worthwhile socially responsible and creative project.