5000 years of Egypt

By , csmonitor.com

In the 5th century B.C., the Greek historian, Herodotus declared that Egypt had, "more wonders in it than any other country in the world" - and in the 2500 years since, it's safe to say that a few more wonders have been either found or added. Documenting all this history and making it accessible to the public is obviously a daunting and vital task, but the creators of Eternal Egypt have managed a pretty good start - and while they continue to add to the collection, we can lose ourselves in sifting through what's already online.

Launched in February, Eternal Egypt is the product of a three year partnership between the Egyptian government (with an eye toward tourism) and IBM (with an eye toward testing and promoting new web technologies). The result is a collection of more than 5000 years of Egyptian history (comprising the Pharaonic, Greco-Roman, Coptic, and Islamic eras), which is available not only on the web, but through mobile phones and PDAs as well. (This feature allows such innovative options as giving potential tourists a chance to "assemble their favorite objects in advance of a trip to Egypt for easy retrieval as a cell-phone based tour upon arrival").

But whether or not you're booking a flight to Cairo, the web visitor's first encounter with Eternal Egypt will be a Splash page which offers links to six different versions of the site (text only, and fully interactive options in English, French and Arabic).

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It also offers a series of photographs and animated headings that most surfers are likely to miss - as the opening's leisurely pace might convince them that nothing more is forthcoming, and induce them to proceed to the home page. For it's part, the opening slide show (with accompanying music) is not vital to the experience, but displays some impressive imagery - and if you decide that one viewing is enough, a checkbox allows you to set a cookie and skip past it on return trips.

Another Splash page feature is a link to a detailed Guided Tour of Eternal Egypt. This introduction to the site's unique features opens into a popup window, and in a very nice touch, the popup interacts with the main window - loading pertinent pages into the larger screen, depending on subjects being covered in the guide. If you need to refresh your memory during a visit, you can reacquire the guide at any time from the home page, and every page has links to a search engine, online help, a glossary (especially helpful, given the subject matter), and text-only versions of specific content.

Cookies and registrations allow visitors to track the pages they've seen during a specific visit, and even create a personal collection of favorite artifacts (so you can prepare for that trip).

Eternal Egypt, the website, is not without its own mysteries, though. Despite meeting all the requirements listed in the help section, some Flash/Shockwave content would crash not only my browser, but my computer, and I was completely unable to get past the Splash page even while using a cookies and JavaScript-enabled Netscape 7. Also, while exploring the "Larger Version" map in a popup window, turning off the "Show Titles" option would result in a completely blank frame. (Virtual sandstorm, perhaps.)

Positives outweigh negatives, however (though it will be a closer race if you don't have a broadband connection), and if you like what you see, there's more to come. The job of scanning, posting, and interrelating artifacts is expected to continue for some years, and whether or not you ever visit Egypt, there will be a strong incentive to occasionally keep in touch with its web home.

The main collection can be explored in a variety of ways - geographically or chronologically, by type (artifacts, characters and places) or topic listing, through articles, and by following Connections. In this last option, people, artifacts and locations are linked to each other via omnidirectional Tree Diagrams, leaving the visitor's explorations in the hands of serendipity. A smaller, but still significant, collection of Multimedia options offers such Flash/Shockwave features as virtual period tours of Alexandria and the Temple at Luxor, 3D rotatable views of 39 different artifacts, panoramas, webcams, more than 1500 zoomable, high resolution photographs, and 51 animated demonstrations of such subjects as Egyptian clothing and pyramid construction.

A built-in text-to-speech capability accompanies much of the content. For those interested in some of the details about the construction of the site, About Eternal Egypt offers a behind-the-scenes video, and details on such subjects as, "Image Acquisition and Content Creation," and an essay on the advantages of making the guide available to mobile phones.

The scope, quality, and quantity of items collected here is staggering; and the extensive crosslisting can keep you going for days. (For example, a page for Tutankhamun includes links to 26 articles, a glossary entry, related entries from the site's other navigational options, and a Connections listing of 55 artifacts from the tomb - and each of those pages will have their own set of additional related pages.) The site's guided tour and help pages will be invaluable to those who want to take the best advantage of the various navigational options, while casual browsers can simply dive in and see where their impulses take them.

The look of the site has a touch of "vintage" to it (vintage in this case meaning the mid-90s look of the icons that decorate the web pages), but in this case, it works nicely. The content is a bit too big for 800x600 screens, so those of us using the lower resolutions will have to resign ourselves to a lot of horizontal scrolling - a necessity that becomes annoyingly familiar since the so many site functions require reloading a given web page, which naturally reloads in a top-left position. (Fortunately, many of the interactives offer the option of opening into popup windows, which easily fit into 800x600 dimensions.)

Eternal Egypt can be found at http://www.eternalegypt.org/.

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