Egypt – Treasures of the Desert (2008)

Egypt – Treasures of the Desert (2008)

Ascending the gateway to the other world is not for the weak-kneed, literally. You have to bend in half and crawl your way first down and then up, groping the walls on the sides of the very narrow passageway.  There is no stairwell, just a wooden board with slats on it to break your fall should you slip. Apart from your joints, your lungs also need to be in perfect condition to be able to draw in any oxygen molecules that might still be lingering in this alleyway.   The passage is just every bit as eerie as you might have imagined – dark, dingy and somewhat claustrophobic despite a diffuse light whose source is invisible.  There is a faint musty smell that is mildly nauseating.   The passage goes on and on, seemingly interminably, so much so, you come to believe anytime now you’ll ascend to the heavens straightaway. But no such luck. Eventually you reach a chamber, about 10 meter long and 5 meters wide.

We’re inside Cheops, the largest of the three Great Pyramids of Giza, the only ancient wonder of the world still standing, defying the ravages of time, and the devastation wrought by a quaking earth that might have dislodged structures less majestic.  A diffuse light from an indeterminate source lights up the cell to reveal a damaged alabaster coffin. It is open and empty as if inviting you to step into it and lie down, the nearest you can come to being a pharaoh yourself.  Should you venture to attempt this, you’re bound to jump out of your skin – not so much out of fright, but because the cold and clammy alabaster makes your skin crawl.  The cell is bare without any murals that embellish the tombs of pharaohs in the Valley of Kings near Luxor.  There are two tiny square holes on the walls. Peering into them brings you face to face with discarded plastic water bottles.  Actually, these holes stretch right upto the surface of the pyramid on either side. They have been built at a precise angle to capture the rays of two specific stars in the sky. Ancient Egyptians believed that the soul of the deceased king would ascend directly to these stars through this shaft.

Cheops pyramid, or Khufu as it is known in Egypt, was completed around 2560 BC to house the mummy of King Khufu who reigned for 23 years.  Recorded Egyptian history dates back to 3000 BC and Khufu himself belonged to the fourth dynasty.  Early history was first recorded in Greek by Manetho, an Egyptian priest at the behest of King Ptolemy I. Manetho culled facts and figures out of funerary temples, monuments and other archeological records.  These have been corroborated by subsequent archeologists and historians.

A staggering 137 meters high, Khufu was built with over two million limestone blocks each weighing 4.5 tonnes and quarried from a nearby mine in Giza on the outskirts of today’s Cairo.  How on earth did they lug all these stones up in an age without Komatsu cranes?  Your Egyptologist guide tells you how ancient Egyptians fashioned a ramp around the pyramid as it was being built and just rolled these blocks on pieces of wood. Of course, they employed an army of slaves to do that, but in those days, without  IT and financial services, construction  was probably the largest source of jobs in Egypt.  In fact, Khufu and his two sons who built the other two pyramids at Giza had virtually emptied the treasury for their grandiose funerary monuments so much so, famine stalked their kingdom soon after. No wonder the subsequent rulers abandoned building pyramids and settled for less extravagant mortuary structures.

Khufu’s pyramidal tomb was a departure from the usual box-shaped tombs of the earlier emperors. This is because Khufu, whose mother’s mummy had been stolen by tomb-raiders was paranoid about encountering a similar fate.  In ancient Egyptian belief, perfect preservation of the mummy was critical to afterlife.  Mummification of royal bodies is a recurring theme in Egyptian art, sculpture and mythology.  Anubis, the jackal god presides over mummification. Your guide thinks it was perhaps a ruse to co-opt jackals so that they did not eat up the mummies. Loss of a pharaonic mummy would be a fate worse than death itself. So, Khufu commissioned Hem Iwno,  the royal architect who had first designed the step-pyramids of Sakkara  – it was customary for royal tombs to be constructed and completed during the life time of the king under his supervision – to build him an impregnable stone fortress where his mummy would lie safely until escorted by god Osiris and goddess Isis to join them in paradise.

Where then was Khufu’s own mummy then? Why was the sarcophagus empty? Your guide tells you how Khufu contrived to dodge the tomb-raiders by building a secret passage deep into the entrails of the pyramid.  The entrance to this chamber is in the adjacent Giza village, under the three smaller pyramids which were built beside Khufu to entomb his queen and sisters. Khufu’s real resting place was found accidentally in 1920 when the tripod of a photographer adjusting his camera for that immortal shot of the great pyramid slipped right through the dirt and dropped twenty feet below with a faint thud.  Khufu’s own coffin was in a crypt fortified with granite blocks, virtually impregnable except with dynamite which was unknown in those times.

There is a tiny statue of Khufu in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, having been brought there from the Temple of Osiris at Abydor in upper Egypt.  King Khufu may have been eclipsed by the overwhelming allure of his own pyramid, but he was an eminent emperor.  There are extensive records of his life and times from his own tomb as well as those of his family and courtiers buried in the vicinity of the great monument.  Adjacent is the pyramid built by Khafre, Khufu’s son, standing on an elevated plane and wearing a shimmering limestone crown. Originally, all three pyramids were covered in limestone plaster that gave them a brilliance visible for miles around.  Perhaps they even sported a golden crown. But the plaster was chipped away and carted to embellish mosques and palaces that were built more than two thousand years later.  The third pyramid on the site is that of Menkaure, not inconsiderable in girth, but dwarfed by  its neighbour, Khufu. The three pyramids belonged to the Old Kingdom, fourth dynasty that ruled from 2625-2500 BC.  There are over 110 other pyramids in Egypt scattered over the Nile delta.

Our next stop is the inscrutable Sphinx, majestically overlooking the necropolis. Called Abu al Hol in Arabic, the Sphinx was so named by the ancient Greeks who believed it resembled a mythical winged monster with a lion’s body and woman’s head, one that killed anyone unable to solve the riddles it set.  Carved at the bedrock of the causeway to the Khafre pyramid, it is believed to resemble Khafre himself. Its nose has been blown away though and many stories abound on the provocation for the maiming.  Framed by two pyramids on either side, the Sphinx is perhaps the single spectacular symbol of all that was grand and awe-inspiring in ancient Egypt.

Impressive as they are, the three Great Pyramids pale into insignificance beside the grandeur and opulence of the necropolis on the west bank of the Nile in Luxor, 679 kilometers upstream.  Ancient Egyptians reserved the westerly direction for after-life, associating death with sunset. Just as the sun reappears the next day, so would the interred monarch, albeit sapped of all his juices and dessicated to brittleness in his mummified form. Death seems to have been a pervasive theme in ancient Egypt. Exotic funerary practices and elaborate tombs painstakingly embellished may give the impression that ancient Egyptian civilization was morbid and death-obsessed. On the contrary, this fascination with after-life could be viewed as life-affirming practices where death was viewed merely as a transitional state. Egyptian theology entails neither rejection of earthly life nor willing martyrdom in the name of an ideal paradise.  Death is just another state where the social trappings of status and rank as well as material possessions continue to provide comfort and support. Perhaps no other civilization in recorded history is known to have celebrated death as ancient Egyptians did.

Valley of the Kings

Approaching the Valley of Kings by road, you pass the massive Colossi of Memnon, the two statues believed to be those of the Ethiopian King and the son of the dawn goddess Eos. These statues are the only two remains of a flood plain that once supported a large temple complex.  Not far away is the glorious Temple of Hatseshpsut, a pharaonic regent who crowned herself queen. Standing amidst a sandy wilderness, this temple is one of the finest examples of Egyptian architecture of the time.

You’d be forgiven for dismissing the expansive Valley of Kings as yet another desolate stretch of the desert.  Not even a blade of grass grows on the barren hillsides. Had not Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter, British Egyptologists unearthed the splendid tombs in this sprawling necropolis in the first quarter of the twentieth century, humanity might have missed altogether this incredibly vivid and most ancient royal heritage. The valley is ringed by barren hills one of which- al Qurn – is shaped like a pyramid.  The Valley of Kings has 62 tombs that have been excavated so far,  albeit long after tomb-raiders had carried away everything portable and valuable.  The only tomb that was found in tact by Howard Carter in 1922 was that of young Tutenkhamun who, by age 19, had already been monarch for nine years and had died of a mysterious disease in 1327 BC. Even modern archeologists almost missed this tomb, buried as it was, under rubble from an adjacent tomb.  Its presence was revealed when a donkey in Carter’s excavation team just vanished through loose lands into the bowels of the earth.

Relatively insignificant pharaoh that he was, even King Tut had been buried with such priceless treasures as an exquisitely engraved golden mask and cartloads of dazzling gold jewellery encrusted with precious stones, an indication of what might have been buried in the tombs of the greater monarchs like Ramses II who had ruled for 63 years most of which considered the golden years of ancient Egypt.  Unfortunately, these seem to have been lost forever to humanity since no one knows when these tombs were raided by robbers and where they removed their priceless contents.  Fortunately, the robbers have left the tombs in tact without vandalizing them.

Tutankhamun regalia  is on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. In fact, King Tut’s mummy had been encased in three sarcophagi, one inside the other and these in turn contained three coffins. The first coffin was made of gilded wood, the second, of coloured glass and inlaid with precious stones, the third, made of solid gold.  Archeologists also found a treasury protected by Anubis, the jackal god, and containing calcite Canopic jars that might have held the boy king’s liver, lungs and kidneys. The tomb at Valley of Kings now has his mummy, fairly well-preserved for someone who died four thousand years ago. The murals on the walls still retain their bright colours.

Of the 62 royal tombs that have been unearthed, only 12 are open to visitors and of these, your ticket entitles you to visit just three.  Tombs of King Tut and Ramses VI require additional tickets.  But as you would find out, they are worth every Egyptian piastre. The tomb of Ramses VI is probably the most glamorous of the lot with dazzling murals and seemingly never-ending corridors.  Most tombs follow a set pattern with four passages each symbolizing a specific stage on the journey to afterlife . You pass through long passages constructed east to west, to first the Hall of Waiting to the Chariot Hall and finally to the Burial chamber situated at right angle. The tombs were decorated with pictures from the Book of the Dead with colourful scenes to guide the pharaoh on his journey. Others have scenes from the Book of Caverns, Book of Gates, Book of Heavens and Book of Earth.

A visit to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo is indeed a chastening experience.  From the fashionable footwear and garments on display to the furniture, vehicles and household objects, the stuff used in pharaonic times is not very different from what we use today in our modern homes. Only the pillow seems to have evolved – from a curved wooden headrest to today’s eiderdown-filled cushion.  There is little doubt that the Egyptian civilization was indeed a very advanced and refined one on which subsequent generations spanning five millennia have improved little.

Our journey through Egypt takes us to other spectacular archeological sites as well. The temples of Abu Simbel far in the Nubian desert, Philae Temple dedicated to goddess Isis in Aswan, Kom Ombo, Edfu, Karnak and Luxor temples all on the banks of the Nile.  Many of these temples bear the unmistakeable evidence of Greco-Roman influence in their architecture.  You almost develop a crick in your neck, gazing at the towering columns of Karnak Temple in Luxor.  Karnak is a spectacular complex of sanctuaries, pylons, pillars and obelisks all engraved with scenes from Egyptian mythology interspersed with history and a wonderful place to get lost in the past!

Egypt has had its fair share of foreign rulers leaving their indelible mark on the subjects’ customs, rituals, art and architecture through the ages. After a series of ethnic Egyptian and Saite Kings spread over three kingdoms – Old, Middle and New – spanning over two thousand years, Egypt fell to Nubian Kings from 760-656 BC.  The Nubians were not ethnically very different from Egyptians themselves. Persians ruled over Egypt from 525 BC.  The Macedonians led by Alexander the Great liberated Egypt from Persians in 332 BC and went on to found Alexandria. The Macedonian Greeks led by Alexander’s General Ptolemy I invaded Egypt in 305 BC and held sway for three centuries, leaving their lasting mark on the architecture of the period even while assimilating Egyptian gods into the Greek pantheon.  Queen Cleopatra was the last of the Ptolemies. As intelligent as she was beautiful, Cleopatra kept her hold over Egypt by marrying Julius Ceaser, the Roman emperor who might have otherwise posed a threat to her kingdom.  When Caesar was assassinated, she married Mark Antony.  During this period, Alexandria became the centre of unparalleled scholarship and culture. Eventually, the Greeks made way for Romans who came in around 30 BC.  Islam came to Egypt in 640 AD.  The capital, accordingly, shifted from Memphis to Thebes (Luxor) to Alexandria to Cairo.

(Published in Frontline dated Aug 2, 2008)

We wrap up our tour of Egypt with a visit to Abu Simbel on the banks of the Nile in Nubia.  From Aswan, we speed through 280 kilometers of featureless desert to Lake Nasser, the largest man-made lake in the world created by the construction of Aswan High Dam. The dam was Nasser’s pet project to harness the Nile to feed his countrymen, conceived in an era when big dams had not yet become a bad word. Two majestic temples – one for Ramses II and another for his queen Nefertari,  keep silent vigil over the turquoise blue expanse of the lake. The temples were relocated to the present location when the lake threatened to submerge the original temple site.  At the entrance are four mammoth statues of Ramses II, one of them damaged ,in a seated posture depicting him as king of this world. After all, his reign of 66 years was perhaps the longest for any Egyptian monarch and was considered the golden era of ancient Egypt.  As you enter, you find more of his statues in funerary posture – hands crossed over chest – and finally, in the pantheon, he is depicted as god, seated alongside Ra-Harakhti, Amun and Ptah.  The sheer magnitude of the statues is stunning.   Could a civilization of such splendour and grandeur have left anything less dazzling for posterity to marvel at?

(Published in Frontline dated Aug 2, 2008)



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