The Odyssey
The Odyssey
Base Camp
Trek Connect
Time Machine
Multimedia and Special Guests

Middle East Abeja Dispatch

You Can't Have Your Cake and Eat It, Too: Monument to a Lost War
December 18, 1999

The round building looks kinda like one of those fancy birthday cakes they sell at Superfresh, but it's surrounded by dozens of cannons and several fighter planes. What's inside it that deserves such protection? Gold? Diamonds? No. This building contains the military secrets that enabled the Egyptian army to defeat the Israelis in the war of October 1973.

"But wait!" you might say, if you know your history. "Egypt lost the 1973 war!" You might even say they got their butts kicked (if you use that sort of language!). But my parents are here with me, and we visited Cairo's confectionary-esque October War Panorama together, so I just said, "But, Egypt has lost all four of the wars it fought against Israel!"

We entered the gates along with a group of Egyptian junior high school students. Hundreds of adults and kids were there, but we were the only foreigners. All around the Panorama, students of different ages were looking at the mighty war machines, proudly displayed, with signs in Arabic and English telling us their significance.

Click image for
larger view
This is not a toy!
This is not a toy!

"Howitzer 152 mm. Range 17,230 m. Used as part of the artillery groups of the divisions to destroy the enemy fortifications, defenses, weapons and fire sources."

Well, that's true, I figure-to a point. This particular war started well for the Egyptians because they caught Israel by surprise. The attack was launched across the Suez Canal and into the Sinai Peninsula on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, when much of Israel's army had gone home for the holiday.

"But wait!" you say, knowing your geography so well from the Odyssey Web site. "Isn't the Sinai a part of Egypt? What was the Israeli army doing there in the first place?"

As I've said before, trying to understand Middle Eastern history and politics is like putting your brain in a blender and hitting the "puree" button. We're moving into the Israel/Palestine stage, which is right next door to Egypt, so knowing the history of one place is essential to understanding the history of the other, especially when we're talking about war in the Sinai Peninsula. The funny thing is that the history changes, depending on who's telling it!

The Sinai is a desolate desert peninsula that not only connects Palestine with Egypt, but is also the only land connecting the continent of Eurasia to Africa. The only inhabitants, traditionally, have been Bedouin nomads, like those Jasmine and Kavitha visited last week. Traders and crusaders have crossed it; the Holy Family was said to have crossed the Sinai to Egypt to flee Roman persecution; and this is where Moses and the Jews were said to have wandered for 40 years!.
Vocabulary Box

Howitzer - a small cannon
Palestine - The country of the Jews in Biblical times, before Israel became a state
Eurasia - The combined continents of Europe and Asia
Bedouin - nomadic peoples who have inhabited the Sinai Peninsula for thousands of years

As if all that didn't make the Sinai important enough strategically, there is also the Suez Canal. Built in 1869, this canal connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea. So, not only are two continents connected by land here, but also two oceans (the Atlantic via the Mediterranean, and the Indian via the Red Sea) are connected by water! This place has more strategic significance than you would expect from a dry, sandy patch of desert (not to mention the fact that the Odyssey used the Sinai to get from Cairo to Israel and the Palestinian Territories).

Are you confused yet? I am! But I can't just tell you about why Egypt had this bizarre War Panorama built for a war that they lost, and I can't even tell you about the 1973 war itself, without going into a bit more history. So bear with me, OK? Let's start by quickly naming the three wars between Egypt and Israel that came before the October War. Don't worry if you don't get it all this time, because we'll go over it all again in the coming weeks, I promise! Also, you can click to our groovy new timeline and put things in a little more perspective.

War 1: When Israel declared independence in 1948, The Arab world was incensed, and Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt all declared war on this tiny new state. To make a very long and very complicated story very short, they all lost. Check Kevin's article to learn more about that.

War 2: In 1956, Britain, France and Israel invaded the Sinai, all the way to the Suez Canal. Israel had full control of the Suez, but United States military pressure forced them to withdraw-this time. Check my article of last week to learn more about the Suez crisis.

War 3: Nasser was the first president of independent Egypt. He was very popular, both inside and outside of Egypt, because of his diplomatic success in the Suez Crisis and his pan-Arab philosophy. He preached the uniting of the Arab world politically and militarily, and wanted to "drive the Jews into the sea" and reclaim Palestine for the Palestinian Arabs. Well, all of his passionate speeches caught up with him, and other Arab leaders encouraged him to take action.

So in 1967, while Syria, Jordan, and Iraq prepared in the northeast, Egypt began to amass its troops on the border of Sinai. Egypt also closed off the Straits of Tiran, between the Sinai and Saudi Arabia, which is Israel's only access to the Red Sea.

Click image for
larger view
Abeja marching to the tune of...?
Abeja marching to the tune of...?

Again, Egypt and her allies got their butts kicked. This time, Israel attacked early in the morning by surprise, and took out all of Egypt's air force within 3 hours. The entire war itself only lasted 6 days, and Israel, once again, proved her military superiority. Some people joked that Israel only had the U.S. weapons it used in the war for a free seven-day trial period. By the time a United Nations-brokered cease-fire was signed, Israel had won control of the Gaza strip (which had been a part of Egypt), the Sinai peninsula, the West Bank and Jerusalem (which had been a part of "Transjordan"-what is today the country of Jordan) and the Golan Heights, which were a part of Syria. And this time, they weren't giving them back!

OK. After that whirlwind tour of only 20 years, we're almost back to the War Panorama, and the kids crawling all over the big tanks and stuff. But first, know that the Arab hero Nasser died of a heart attack in 1970, so his vice-president, Anwar Sadat took over Egypt. And, of course, the Sinai Peninsula was still under Israeli control.

After taking a bunch of pictures of the kids outside the giant birthday cake, my parents and I, along with all the classes, got to go inside and see all the wall murals glorifying the war and praising the Egyptian military success. But the icing on the cake, so to speak, was the "panorama" itself. We climbed up, around and into the top of the cake, to what looked almost like an Imax cinema or a planetarium. There were seats all around, and painted on the walls, for 365 degrees, were images of a violent battle in a sandy desert.

Click image for
larger view
The battle for the Sinai Peninsula
The battle for the Sinai Peninsula

The students all sat down and the chairs began to rotate slowly, making a gradual journey all the way around the room. Meanwhile a dramatic soundtrack played, complete with the explosive sounds of battle and an emotional narration of the events of the 1973 war. They brought us two Walkmans with the soundtrack in translation, but I don't think they are really prepared for non-Egyptians. Mine was barely understandable, and my mom's was in French!

We listened for a while, as the story was told of the Egyptian army's rapid advancement into the Sinai, reclaiming territory occupied by Israel for six years. "And the borderline fort falls!" Boom! Crash! Ka-bang! "The Egyptian flag is once again and forever hoisted high above one of the 45 points!" Bang! Crash! Pow!

I must admit we didn't stay for the whole thing. Since my school teacher wasn't there making me pay attention, and my parents were getting pretty bored spinning around in circles looking at a war mural, we slipped out, no longer curious about what the giant cake holds inside. I mean, I know how the war ended. After the initial victories for Egypt and Syria, the United States reinforced the Israeli troops, who rallied and managed to re-conquer the Sinai before another cease-fire was negotiated.

So why the glorious October 1973 War Panorama? Well, first of all, the initial victories renewed Egypt's national pride, which had been so badly injured in the three previous wars. Even today, since Israel is still viewed as a pariah by the Arab world, the 1973 war is still seen as a military accomplishment to be proud of. Secondly, the initial victories made Israel feel a little less cocky about its military superiority, and therefore a little more interested in making peace with its neighbors.

The Sinai Peninsula remained under Israeli occupation until 1979, when Sadat and the Israeli Prime Minister, Menachem Begin (pronounced men-NOCK-em BAY-gin), signed the historic Camp David Accords. Egypt became the first Arab country to make peace with Israel and to officially recognize Israel's right to exist as a nation. Although the agreement won the Nobel Peace Prize for both Sadat and Begin, it was seen by most of the Arab world as a traitorous act. Egypt was banned from the Arab League, and Sadat was assassinated in October 1981, at a parade commemorating the 1973 war.

So when will true peace come to this region, I wonder? Remember Kevin's article, about how the Israeli textbooks are starting to change how they tell the history of the formation of the state? Well, here's another example of how a country teaches its children history, based on what its people want their children to know. What is the truth? Is this the October War, as Egypt calls it, or the Yom Kippur War, as Israeli school children are taught?

This gets me thinking back to the way I was taught history growing up. What wars do you learn about? What is the slant that the textbooks take? Might there be another way to look at history?


Abeja - Where the Heck are We, Really?
Christine - Flee to Egypt, and Stay There Until I Tell You
Jasmine - A Life of Love
Jasmine - Promises of the Promised Land
Kavitha - The Miracle of Oil
Nancy - Two Women, One Man - Feudin', a-Fussin' and a-Fightin'
Team - A Global Holiday
Team - Exercise Your Right and Write

Meet Abeja | Abeja's Archive

Base Camp | Trek Connect
Time Machine | Multimedia and Special Guests

Home | Search | Teacher Zone | Odyssey Info
Meet Abeja