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Out of Egypt

Sixteen members of the Krieger School community were in Egypt when anti-government protesters took to the streets in late January, forcing many to change their plans and flee the country.

Ultimately, all of the Krieger School affiliates managed to escape unharmed, though leaving amid the oft-violent demonstrations sometimes proved difficult.

Most of those in Egypt were there for the annual excavation season at Mut Temple in Luxor. Some members of the group managed to depart according to their original travel plans in the days before the unrest began. That was the case for Sanchita Balachandran, curator of the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum, as well as undergraduates Kelly Cummings and Michael Riecken.

Next out were graduate students Karen “Maggie” Bryson, Catherine “Katie” Cobb, Katherine Davis, and Marina Escolano-Poveda, who spent a tense night in Zamalek in Cairo on Jan. 28, listening to gunfire from their hotel room. On their way to the airport on Jan. 29, they rode past Tahrir Square, unsure whether or not they had flights awaiting them. Fortunately, they did.

University photographer Jay VanRensselaer wasn’t as lucky. Although he also had a ticket in hand when he arrived at the airport in Cairo on Friday, Jan. 28, VanRensselaer’s flight to Amsterdam had been delayed 12 hours. So he settled in with five bags of equipment and thousands of other stranded travelers from around the world.

“Everyone was as nice as they could be, watching each other’s bags and taking care of each other,” he says. VanRensselaer arrived home in Baltimore on Jan. 30.

For those who had originally planned a longer stay (into March and beyond), deciding to change their plans wasn’t easy, says Betsy Bryan, the leader of the archaeological team, which included graduate students Christopher Brinker, Ashley Fiutko, and Meredith Fraser; and Gaultier Mouron, a Swiss graduate student. With them was alumnus Peter Sadow ’94.

Bryan’s team had hoped to remain at the temple and continue working as long as possible, but safety became a concern. Although the media here were focused on Cairo, Bryan said there were significant protests in Luxor on Jan. 28 and 29.

“The first night, the protests were just outside my apartment and the police were tear-gassing everybody. Peter and I got tear-gassed a couple of times,” says Bryan, the Alexander Badawy Professor in Egyptian Art and Archaeology in the Department of Near Eastern Studies. “What really turned it for us was when the hotel where the grad students were staying had a fire set on their floor. I moved them the next morning to a safer place and we all agreed it was time to try to find our way out.”

Adding to Bryan’s concern: Through a process akin to eminent domain, the Egyptian government had, in the preceding few years, relocated many residents of Luxor for the benefit of the “Sphinx alley,” devoting prime real estate to the archaeological activities of the city and isolating tourists from the rest of population. Though tourism related to antiquities is the main economy in Luxor, the situation may have put the team at additional risk, perhaps aligning archaeologists with the government in the minds of the displaced residents, Bryan says.

While waiting to depart, the team began to shut down the site, reburying the mud brick structures to prevent erosion and storing pottery and equipment. Though Bryan’s team had secured tickets to fly out of Luxor on Feb. 2, the group was able to leave a day sooner with the help of International ISOS, the university’s travel services adviser, and Krieger School administrators who spent the weekend on the phone.

The university and ISOS also arranged flights for Nicole Salter and Daniel White, both undergraduates who were planning to study at the American University in Cairo for the spring semester. Lauren Lutz, a third Krieger School undergraduate studying at AUC, was in Lebanon when the unrest began in Egypt and was able to return separately to the United States.

The returning students were quickly settled into housing and spring semester courses at Homewood, says Lori Citti, director of study abroad at Homewood.

For her part, Betsy Bryan hopes to return to Luxor in May, but without students on this occasion. “The situation won’t affect things very much from what I can see today,” she says, “but I have no idea what will end up happening. I think the protesters were as surprised as anyone by the outcome.”