Fellows Forum: Caroline Williams & Jen Thum
ARCE is asking current and former fellows to discuss their research and time in Egypt. Caroline and Jen spoke in July by phone. This exchange has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

CW: It’s so funny to be talking to you for Scribe in this ethereal way. Where are you?

JT: I’m in a café in Providence, Rhode Island. 


CW: There you are; I can hear all the background chitchat and I’m in my study in Williamsburg, Virginia, looking out, horrified, to see a deer nibbling my azalea bush. 

I have been reading your interactive dissertation; it brings in so many more people and opens the field in such a wonderful way. I was in Egypt 20 years ago as an ARCE fellow and this kind of communication was in its infancy. 

JT: Thank you so much! That’s really the goal. A lot of the places I’m studying are places people will never get a chance to see themselves, and I feel a responsibility to share what I’ve learned and be a reliable source. 


CW: So, you’ve been in Egypt for some time in addition to your Ph.D.?

JT: I’m almost done with my Ph.D. at Brown and I did my M.Phil. in Egyptology at Oxford working with John Baines and Elizabeth Frood. Before that I volunteered at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo writing labels; that was the first time I lived in Egypt.


CW: When were you at the Egyptian Museum?

JT: 2009-10. I wanted to take a year off before grad school, and I had a budding interest in Egyptian history. I lived on Talaat Harb right near Tahrir Square. That experience gave me a lot of fuel for my graduate applications because I was able to show active involvement in the field. 

CW: I went in a different direction. In my day, a third of my undergraduate class went on to marry. We weren’t trained for anything so I went to New York and worked for the Saturday Review magazine. After a few years of that I decided to go around the world. I went to Bagan in Myanmar and Angkor Wat in Cambodia, which were then quite undiscovered. Then I got to Egypt, and it was a riveting, electrifying experience.

JT: Oh, how cool!


CW: I earned Master’s degrees, and married John A. Williams and we had children, so I never went on to get a Ph.D. But I remained fascinated by Islamic Cairo and became interested in the Orientalist view of the city. The Islamic historic city was discovered by European and American artists in the 19th century and there are many paintings with views of the monuments. I was very interested in the accuracy of these depictions, which led me to become an ARCE fellow in 1998 to investigate how 20th-century Egyptian painters depicted their city and viewed their visual legacy. 

JT: There’ s a lot overlap between us, actually. I’m interested in different experiences of the same monuments and the same landscapes by different people. In places where the landscape has changed so much – for example at the First Cataract – I’m using archival photos and drawings from the 19th century to understand how they were imagined in the post-Pharaonic period. People give names to natural features; they stick out so they have a place in people’s imaginations. And pharaohs put their monuments on these natural features because they’re so visually prominent. I look at how other people later received them, especially when they didn’t know what the inscriptions said because they couldn’t read the text anymore.


CW: So, conducting research in Egypt was absolutely crucial for both of us. For me there was no other way to do my topic. In 1998, there was one book in French from the 1960s about Egyptian painters but there was nothing in English or other languages. I was able to meet with artists, many of whom are still active nowadays, and go to galleries that were showing their work.

Because I had a modern topic ARCE assigned me a corresponding Egyptian professor. He was an artist who had been part of the Nasser artistic renaissance. Nasser was very interested in getting artists to depict the changes that were taking place in Egypt: the Aswan Dam, village life in Luxor. He introduced me to all kinds of artists and collectors and galleries and gave me an insight into both artistic past and present.

JT: A lot of my arguments focus on natural features that are intentionally mobilized for their visual impact. I need to see that visual impact and there’s a huge difference between reading the text of a thing in a library and seeing it up close.


CW: Did you live in Zamalek? After your Talaat Harb experience?

JT: Yes. I was in Egypt a number of times over the last few years, sometimes with ARCE, sometimes through the Council for American Overseas Research Centers. I stayed with a friend in Zamalek who worked at IFAO [French Institute for Oriental Archaeology]. 


CW: Because my husband was an administrator at AUC we lived in various AUC apartments: one behind AUC downtown, then in Maadi and Digla, and in Zamalek. Zamalek was the best place to live in terms of my interest in the Islamic city because it was very easy to get to. As a fellow, I lived in Zamalek near the fine arts center with a sweeping view from Bulaq, over the Mukattam Hills down to the pyramids. 

JT: That is something that I did not have in Zamalek! 


CW: But like you, I had a number of expatriate residential friends and a number of Egyptian friends, so really Cairo was a second home.

JT: It felt that way to me as well. I knew the neighborhood and the neighbors and had a routine.

But above all the marvels of Egypt, I have to recommend the wonderful friendliness of the people.

CW: I’m so glad. You are obviously a wonderful ambassadress for America. I first saw Egypt in 1962. I went up the Nile in one of those Memphis paddle boats. There were only six passengers: one American, two Mexicans and three Egyptians. We went from Luxor to Aswan and saw the sand being removed from Abu Simbel preparatory to its move; Egypt was still a place that you felt you were discovering. It was exciting to see Historic Cairo in the 60’s, with George Scanlon and Christel Kessler, and K.A.C. Creswell was still alive.

But above all the marvels of Egypt, I have to recommend the wonderful friendliness of the people. In spite of the differences in where you were born or where you live or education or income, the Egyptians are always hospitable, helpful and funny.

JT: You said it so well. Many travelers to Egypt now don’t experience the people; they only experience the place. I do recommend organized tours for first-time visitors to Egypt because it’s easier to navigate, but the consequence of that is not talking to anybody who lives in these places.


CW: Do you have any words of wisdom for people starting out their studies of Egypt’s cultural heritage?

JT: Before you go or before you start your project, see what you can do to get to know other scholars and build your network. When you’re in Egypt, talk to Egyptians. They’re such an integral part of your research even if you’re not studying the modern Egyptian experience of Egypt. It’s essential; otherwise, you’re really only an outside observer.

CW: Absolutely. I was doing my M.A. in the mid-60s so it’s a span of 50 years, my goodness. The interesting thing is that in my day Islamic studies was really Eurocentric. 

JT: Isn’t that ironic.


CW: All of our professors were Ph.Ds. from Oxford, Berlin, the U.S. But now there’s a whole new cadre of Egyptian professionals and their approach to Islamic monuments is quite different from ours. We’re external and descriptive and their approach is much more internal and intuitive; they read the Quranic inscriptions and it’s sort of metaphysical. If you meld the two approaches you can get a lot from both. I don’t know if that happens in Egyptology quite as much—whether your Egyptian counterparts have an equivalent difference in approach.

JT: That’s a really interesting question. I don’t know that there’s such a great division between those perspectives but there’s a lot to be said for the experience of people in Egypt who are not coming at cultural heritage from the perspective of scholarship. There’s room for a dialog with young people in Egypt and those who won’t go into Egyptology because it’s still part of this world that they’re inhabiting and a thing that they’re interacting with, and they should be thrilled to claim it as their heritage. It’s not a uniquely Egyptian issue, but a public outreach issue between scholars and the public.


Caroline Williams - ARCE fellow 1997-98 

Caroline Williams

Caroline Williams received her B.A. from Radcliffe College in history, and M.A. degrees from Harvard University in Middle Eastern studies and from the American University in Cairo in Islamic art and architecture. Her publications have focused on various aspects of Islamic art and architecture, historical and urban Cairo, Orientalist artists and photographers, and 20th-century painting in Egypt. She has taught courses in art and architecture in the United States and Egypt, and has been an escort-lecturer on various art and academic tours in Egypt, Syria, Morocco, Tunisia and Spain.


Jen Thum - ARCE fellow 2016-17

Jen Thum

 Jen Thum  is a Ph.D. candidate at the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World at Brown University. Her dissertation is a study of ancient Egyptian royal living-rock stelae from the perspective of landscape archaeology. Jen is dedicated to public outreach; her dissertation outreach project, The Interactive Dissertation (brown.edu/go/egyptolojen), uses social media and an online newsletter to bring the monuments she studies to broad audiences.