Back from the Egyptian city of Aswan, where the sun shines (not always benignly), winter rainfall is zero, and ruined temples are witness to the succession of civilisations over millennia. But one guide's comment stuck in the mind. Pointing to rubble of crude bricks, and contrasting it with the standing stone columns of the temple, he noted that almost nothing remained to show how ordinary people lived, because their dwellings were made of mud and straw; only the places of worship were built to last. As he might have added, but did not, any pictorial evidence of daily life that survives in the temples is skewed – towards the rich and powerful, of course, but also to fit an agenda.
This is one reason for the continuing fascination with Pompeii. While much of the detail about how most people lived must be culled from contemporary writings, Pompeii's ruins provide a snapshot of a city in every aspect whose existence was cut off on one fateful day. The ordinary and the ceremonial are side by side, equal in death as they would have been in life. The Cambridge classicist Mary Beard is the latest to have attempted its resuscitation, in her book and, last month, with characteristic ribaldry and verve, in her BBC2 documentary Pompeii: Life and Death in a Roman Town.
Which poses the intriguing question of how our "civilisation" in, say, late 20th and early 21st-century Europe, might be interpreted by those who come after – so long after that only traces remain. Will our far-distant descendants be trying to divine how we lived from the remnants of cathedrals – and if they do, will they understand that, even in our time, these often glorious edifices were monuments to the past? What, if anything, will they glean about how ordinary people really lived their lives?
How will they know that worship, for many, did not loom large in their week; that there was such a thing as a suburban semi with a garden; that there were high streets and supermarkets and private cars, and that most people had at least a passing acquaintance with fast food. How might they dissect railway stations, which – as ruins – might resemble cathedrals or parliaments? And what of fragments of railway line, or airports and planes, or hospitals? A city set in stone by disaster is one thing; a whole region constantly evolving, abandoning one thing, embracing another – the transition from horse to car to, well, what might follow? – is something else. How to understand satellite TV from fallen aerials? Nor will they necessarily be able to read, or understand, what we wrote. Considering the vast lacunae we might unwittingly leave, perhaps our knowledge of ancient worlds is even more limited than we think.
The admirable after-life of a surgeon-star
Very much in the here and now is the Magdi Yacoub Heart Foundation. You don't have to spend long in Aswan to spot one of its little white vans with the bilingual logo on the side. But it was a surprise to me, though probably it should not have been, to find that the Egyptian-born heart surgeon who put Harefield Hospital on the map with his pioneering heart and lung transplants has used his celebrity not just to found a national and international charity, Chain of Hope, but very specifically and energetically to help the many have-nots of his native land.
His heart foundation, of which his former patient Omar Sharif is a patron, is now setting up a cardiac research and surgical centre in Aswan to serve the often-neglected south of Egypt. Money is coming also from the Gulf state of Qatar. As with Chain of Hope, surgeons will donate their time, and patients will be chosen on clinical criteria alone.
It's always illuminating to ask of stars, in whatever firmament, what they did next. Well, along with his academic work and growing orchids, this is what Yacoub – or, to be correct, Professor Sir Magdi – did next. And a thoroughly enviable postscript it is, too – one that will stand as testament to the man, long after his last patients have reached the end of their gratefully extended lives. I've long been critical of the NHS for its dependence on foreign medical staff and the effects that such recruitment has on their poorer homelands. But the skill and the money that Yacoub has donated to Egypt must repay many times over the country's loss when he first came to Britain as a young specialist in 1962.
Letters as cyphers to a soul
All right, I'm a bit of an alphabet junkie. Years ago, sitting through an amateurish show staged for foreign visitors by the Georgian ballet in Tbilisi, I relieved the boredom by comparing the names in the bilingual Russian-Georgia programme to figure out an almost complete Georgian alphabet. Learning about the principlesof Korean script enhanced a visit to Seoul.Arabic has rather more users than either Georgian or Korean, and shame at my helplessness anywhere in the Middle East made me pick up a neat little book at Luxor airport last year.
Back in Egypt a year later – still, alas, Arabic-illiterate – I finally got around to reading it. Very Simple Arabic Script by James Peters, a former Foreign Office Arabist, is the most wonderful primer. Systematic, elegant, it does exactly what the title says. It is an introduction to the Arabic alphabet, letter by letter, and through that to the fundamentals of language and culture.
It is no reflection on Peters's efforts that I could still make out only a fraction of the street signs by the end – however instructive the primer, you still have to put in the hours. But I wondered whether the same could be done for the Latin alphabet or, say, Greek, or Cyrillic. And I'm not sure it could. The conjunction of sound and meaning and aesthetics is nothing like the same. In the simplest of ways, Peters affords a glimpse into another world.