Study Abroad, At Home

For New York archaeology students, a planned semester studying ruins in Egypt turned into a round trip back to Manhattan

This semester, Barnard College junior Jennifer Altman-Lupu signed up to study abroad in the Middle East. She ended up on the Upper East Side.

Altman-Lupu and the other 11 members of her NYU-run archaeology study abroad program in Egypt’s Western Desert were evacuated on January 31 in the wake of the protests that would oust President Hosni Mubarak. As program director Roger Bagnall explained, “We didn’t want to be in a position where we wanted to get out and couldn’t.” One week later, the program was resumed back in Manhattan, with daily seminar-style meetings in the East 84th Street brownstone that houses NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW).

The students, who attend NYU and Columbia as well as Barnard, were initially drawn to the project by the promise of helping to excavate an ancient city: Amheida, a city in an oasis in Western Egypt that dates to the third millennium B.C. and is now largely covered in sand.

ARTIST: Lalo, the artist behind La Cucaracha, is also working on several TV animation projects and lighting dozens of Virgin of Gaudalupe candles to ensure their success. (
ARTIST: Lalo, the artist behind La Cucaracha, is also working on several TV animation projects and lighting dozens of Virgin of Gaudalupe candles to ensure their success. (

Like many of her colleagues, Altman-Lupu, who studies archaeology at Barnard and had previously participated in a dig in Italy, hoped that working with the international team of scholars who descend each winter on Amheida would help her determine whether to continue studying archaeology in graduate school. She recalls some of the pleasures of her four-week stay in Egypt: browsing the dig house’s small library, where she discovered and quickly devoured a small book about making glass in ancient Rome, and taking long sunset walks along a quiet, palm-lined road by a canal. “It was such a fresh new atmosphere. I find it to be a lot easier to think in Egypt,” she says.

Unfortunately, she and her fellow students had little time to think before the protests sweeping across North Africa erupted in Egypt’s capital. The day the Amheida project students reported to their dig site, January 26, turned out to be the first day after the protests that filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Altman-Lupu had already resigned herself to canceling a planned trip to Tunisia once her program ended, but did not allow the latest news to distract her from her work. In her first few days, she found two ostracon—pieces of pottery used for note-taking—that were deemed worthy of scholarly attention.

She wrote in a blog post two days later: “And just because I’ve been asked a bunch, the riots have not affected me at all. We’re really remote and cut off.”

Not everyone in her group was so calm. Altman-Lupu’s roommate, Roxanne Moadel-Attie, a Barnard psychology major who is part Egyptian, made frequent calls to her mother on Long Island, who held her phone up to her television to allow her daughter to listen to coverage of the uprising. When Moadel-Attie heard that the government was sending camels and motorcycles into Tahrir Square, it reminded her of her studies of tactics used by the government during the Islamic revolution in Iran. She became convinced it would be dangerous to stay in Egypt, especially for the group’s planned tour of the Nile River Valley in March, and made her case to anyone who argued for staying.

“I was trying to explain to them, ‘I’m telling you, I’ve studied this, I’m Middle Eastern—this is going to last a long time,’ ” she says. “Whether or not the protests physically last a long time, the state of turmoil and all the problems going on in the country are not going to be settled enough for you to be a regular tourist going to all the sites.”

Moadel-Attie also grew concerned when she couldn’t find phone cards for sale anywhere in the nearby town of Mut, though there were no signs of unrest there. “If we had stayed long enough, they might have run out of food, they might have run out of gas,” she says.

Parents of students began posting to the Amheida project’s Facebook page, debating the group’s security in their remote desert site hundreds of miles from Alexandria or Cairo. “I realized that it would probably be good to send a note to families to say that we were completely fine and there was no hint of trouble in the oasis at all,” says Amheida’s academic director, Ellen Morris. “But the morning that I sat down to do that, I got on the computer and there was no Internet. That’s the point at which all of a sudden it became clear that this wasn’t anything ordinary.”

Three days later, Moadel-Attie’s mother, Minoo Moadel, called NYU’s security office to tell them that she had found a company willing to evacuate her daughter from a nearby airport. “If you don’t get them out, I’m going to send a jet, and I’m going to make it known that you guys didn’t do anything,” she told an NYU official who handles international security. Her daughter called her two hours later to say that she’d been told NYU would be chartering its own plane. (NYU spokesman John Beckman denies that Moadel’s call was a factor in the university’s decision, which Bagnall says came after the university consulted the State Department.)

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