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Archive for the month “April, 2013”

Telling Stories, Part 2

When most people think of ancient Egypt, King Tut Ankh Amon comes to mind. Truly, the boy king himself was nothing special. He served for 10 fairly unimportant and unproductive years out of 3000+ years of impressive pharaonic rule. He is a household name because the discovery of his tomb was such a treat in 1922. At that point, all of the other tombs in the Valley of the Kings had been robbed twice, by both ancient tomb raiders and modern ones. King Tut’s tomb, however, was created in an unlikely place; the entrance is 4 meters below another tomb, which concealed it from modern greed and made it a cachet of artifacts.

So far, 63 of an estimated 65 tombs have been found in the Valley of the Kings, where the pharaohs buried themselves for roughly 500 years after they realized the massive stone structures called pyramids were attracting grave robbers like flies to honey. Pharaohs began construction of their tomb as soon as they ascended to power, and once they died, their people had 70 days — how long it took to mummify a pharaoh — to finish carving, painting, or preparing anything for the after-life.

Tut’s tomb is the shortest in the Valley of the Kings. At only 25 m long, it is a quick walk to a small room that housed his sarcophagus and the immense treasures that have made his tomb such a famous discovery. Most of those artifacts, such as the famous mask and the golden chair, are on display at the Egyptian museum in Cairo, but his blackened mummy is still in a climate-controlled box in the tomb. He’s the only mummy still in the Valley of the Kings, because, as our guide Abdul remarked, “it is good for business.”

In order to preserve tombs for future generations, only four are open to the public at any given time. In addition to King Tut, we also entered the empty tombs of Ramses IX, Ramses IV, and Merenptah. We were not allowed to take pictures in the Valley of the Kings, unfortunately.

The tombs create an underground world, spreading out beneath mountains like veins. Tombs are deep, with the ceilings, which all have a depiction of the sky, approximately 15 feet taller than the floor. Each tomb has an entry way that tells stories from the pharaoh’s life or about the gods, and most of the colors are still in tact. The path slopes down into the burial chamber, where many of the sarcophagi still sit because at 10 or sometimes 20 tons, they ain’t going anywhere.

The long entryway to the tomb of Ramses IX is covered in graffiti. Christianity first arrived in Egypt around 68 AD, and 600 years later, the Coptic Christians were suffering from persecution. They fled the lush river valley of Luxor and found themselves living in the tombs in the desert. In order to get light, they camped out near the entrance of the tombs, which is why there is Coptic writing covering the hieroglyphs and images of bishops and disciples over Anubis and Horus.

The longest tomb, which is not currently open to the public due to safety reasons, belongs to Hatshepsut, the queen who seized the throne from her step-son. Her tomb is on one side of the mountain, and her temple is on the other. The temple room and burial chamber meet on the same plane even though they are coming from opposite directions, and a one-meter thick wall separates them. Mysteriously, the wall was not built; the temple stopped on one side, the burial chamber on the other, and the architect (who was also her illegal lover) kept one meter of mountain in tact.

Hatshepsut's reconstructed temple

Hatshepsut’s reconstructed temple

After Thutmose III reclaimed the throne, he destroyed Hatshepsut’s temple. Statues were broken, cartouches and images of the former queen were removed, and sometimes, images of Thutmose were inscribed instead. It took a Polish team of archaeologists 5o years to reconstruct the temple.

Pillars

Pillars

Anubis, the god of mummification, with canopic jars for various organs

Anubis, the god of mummification, with canopic jars for various organs

On the left: the space where Hatshepsut's cartouche once was

On the left: the space where Hatshepsut’s cartouche once was

If you look closely at the body of Hatshepsut's statue, you can see the difference between the original stone and the reconstructed stone.

If you look closely at the body of Hatshepsut’s statue, you can see the difference between the original stone and the reconstructed stone.

More Hatshepsuts

More Hatshepsuts

Eagle pose next the the falcon, the representation of the god Horus

Eagle pose next to the falcon, the representation of the god Horus

Continuing to reconstruct

Continuing to reconstruct

Nearby, the Colossi of Memnon stand 18 m tall, towering over the remains of Amenhotep’s temple, which was even larger than Karnak when it was built in the 14th century BC. Most of the temple has since disintegrated, but excavators continue to find remnants throughout the land.

Both statues were originally built out of one piece of stone

Both statues were originally built out of one piece of stone

It's THIS big!

It’s THIS big!

Beyond the colossal statues, the remains of the temple.

Beyond the colossal statues, the remains of the temple.

***

Edfu is a small town in Upper Egypt, with a population of 195,00 people and 32,500 horse carriages. This city survives off of tourism; when will you come visit us?

Horse carriage convention

Horse carriage convention

The Horus Temple in Edfu is a young one; construction began in 237 BC and was completed 180 years later. The major temple is dedicated to Horus, god of the sky, who is often depicted as a falcon and the all-seeing eye. The major temple room holds a replica of a boat, which is where a golden statue of Horus was carried through the streets of Edfu on his festival day. This tradition has evolved in the Christian tradition in many European and Latin American countries, where they carry Jesus and Mary through the streets on Easter.

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Pockmarks scar the hieroglyphs throughout this temple and the thirteen smaller temple rooms that surround Horus’. Early Christians intentionally destroyed the images, daring the Egyptian gods to retaliate for the destruction they caused. When there was no response, many Egyptians converted from polytheism to Christianity.

The temple room for Min, the god of fertility, has extreme destruction. If you remember, Min is depicted as a man with a missing arm and leg, and as our guide Abdul oft repeated, “a sexual organ erected.” Thousands of years ago, all of the men in a small village were rounded up to fight in a battle. One young man stayed behind to protect the women (or stayed hidden so he would not have to fight, depending on the story teller). Upon the soldiers’ return, they found the women pregnant or new mothers. This extremely fertile young man, though impressive because some 400 births are attributed to him, needed to be punished for his immoral and illegal extra-curricular activities. They cut off his left arm and left leg, though perhaps that was the wrong body part to remove. Thus, Min is now portrayed with one arm, one leg, and one very erect penis. The early Christians removed all of the inappropriate images of Min that they could reach in this temple.

The giant pylon entrance

The giant pylon entrance

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Horus statue

A depiction of the sacrificial foods

A depiction of the sacrificial foods

The removal of Min's inappropriate parts

The removal of Min’s inappropriate parts.

Intentionally destruction

Intentional destruction

The temple at Kom Ombo sits directly on the banks of the Nile. As we were enjoying our afternoon coffee on the sun deck, we followed a bend in the river and an ancient temple arose out of the horizon. Our cruise ship docked at the base of the temple, and we walked through the least aggressive group of trinket peddlers we encountered throughout the entire trip to reach the steps.

The dual temple has significant Greek influence, as it was built during the Ptolemaic ruling. One half is dedicated to the crocodile god, Sobek. Two floor vents frame either side of the sacrificial table, and they lead to the Nile River. The draining blood attracted the crocodiles, a helpful way for the high priests to strike fear into the people and therefore encourage the people to bring food to appease Sobek. Of course, Sobek subsisted on the burning of the sacrificial animals mixed with the incense, and the priest was the one to feast on all of the gifts from the masses.

The second half of the temple, dedicated to the god of healing, consisted of six specific clinics. Based on the hieroglyphs, which included images of stethoscopes and scalpels, Egyptologists determined the purpose of each clinic: one for general practice, a second specializing in the head, another in chests, one focusing on the abdomen, a fifth on the nether regions, and finally one clinic for skin and bone diseases. The hieroglyphs show a variety of medical tools and procedures, many of which are still used or followed in some capacity today.

View of Kom Ombo from the cruise boat

View of Kom Ombo from the cruise boat

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On the right, Sobek the crocodile god

On the right, Sobek the crocodile god

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The separated clinics on the right

The separated clinics on the right

In the center, multiple medical tools. To the left, suggested positions for women giving birth.

In the center, multiple medical tools. To the left, suggested positions for women giving birth.

Crocodile mummies found in sarcophagi in Kom Ombo

Crocodile mummies found in sarcophagi in Kom Ombo

Reflections

Reflections

Then we decided to do some yoga.

Then we decided to do some yoga.

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Part One of the trip can be found here. Part Three on its way.

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Telling Stories, Part 1

Be warned: I haven’t found the rhythm in my words here, and I just can’t get it right. I’m publishing anyway, even though it is rough around the edges.

When I teach mythology, I tell my students that mythology is a culture’s way of understanding the world. They take what they see about the universe that is so much bigger than us, so much fuller than we can comprehend, and they turn their observations into bite-size explanations, stories we can easily swallow and digest until they become a part of us.

Why do the seasons change? Simple. Persephone ate of the fruit of the dead when she was escaping from Hades’ attempted forced marriage, which banished her to the underworld for a portion of each year. Her mother, Demeter, goddess of agriculture, mourns her loss each year, and nothing will grow.

Why does the sun disappear each night? Easy. The sky goddess Nut swallows the sun each night and gives birth to a new day each morning.

Why do we visit broken stone monuments and empty tombs, trying to ascertain meaning from the writing on the walls? Because stories make the world go round. Because through a story, one can experience something new. Because we make connections with the words, the pictures, and the things left unsaid.

Spring Break, Egyptian-style, included the touring of 13 different sites from the ancient world, each one with its own story to tell. And tell them I will.

***

Our first day in Luxor, we drove between Karnak and Luxor Temples, on a modern road weaving through the city parallel to the ancient avenue that connected the two temples. In recent history, that avenue was covered in layers of the constantly shifting desert, and the town of modern-day Luxor built up around it.

Once, the 3 km avenue was lined with an army of sphinxes, 3000 strong. The remnants of those statues still line the avenue, but they are in various states of disrepair, two evenly spaced rows of broken bases and bodies. And instead of using the avenue to walk between places of worship in contemplative processionals, it is used for a street game of soccer for young boys or a place for skinny jean clad young ladies to walk arm and arm. Men in gallabayas sprinkle the cafes lined up along the lip of the sunken avenue, and yellow and teal windows open up to a vista most Americans cannot fathom, as the layers of time melt together to become now.

We pulled into the parking lot of the polytheistic Luxor Temple, directly behind a car with a giant “Jesus” window cling plastered on like a cursive tramp stamp, just as the call to prayer began. The convergence of religions continued when we entered the temple, as the Muezzin’s call was blaring through the speakers of a mosque that was inadvertently erected on top of the buried temple. When Luxor Temple was rediscovered, the mosque was almost 1000 years old, an ancient artifact in its own right. So there it stands today, continuing as a fully operating mosque as tourists walk around the temple below.

Egyptian temples were set up in layers, and your social class determined which space you would get to worship in. The largest area, closest to the entrance, was reserved for the lowest class, and the actual temple rooms could only be entered by the pharaoh and high priest. The space for upper class worshipers was turned into a Christian temple in the 6th century; 16 columns were removed, hieroglyphs were plastered with stucco and painted over with depictions of Jesus and his disciples, and a niche was carved into the wall, framed by two Corinthian columns. The fluidity of religion, as three different ways of telling the stories of the world occupied the same space, left me astounded.

The avenue of sphinxes, near the entrance of Luxor Temple. These babies were surprisingly well-preserved.

The avenue of sphinxes, near the entrance of Luxor Temple. These babies are surprisingly well-preserved.

The mosque, from the point of view of the temple courtyard

The mosque, from the point of view of the temple courtyard

On the left, stucco and faded images from the Christian era. On the right, remains of hieroglyphs.

On the left, stucco and faded images from the Christian era. On the right, remains of hieroglyphs.

Luxor Temple, in the center of the ancient city Thebes, has a beautiful collanade and peristyle court, and the entrance is stunning. Originally, there were two obelisks flanking the massive pylon, but Muhammad Ali (not the boxer, but the Ottoman general who ruled Egypt in the 19th century) traded one of them to Paris for a large clock that stopped working after only five years. The sprawling temple was built over time by 4 different pharaohs, and each one added his own touch. Alexander the Great, for example, told the story of his ascension to the Egyptian throne through hieroglyphs. As a Greek, he was not of royal Egyptian blood, and to help win over the people, he depicted himself collecting the semen of Min (also Menew, Menu, and many other variations), the god of fertility, to use as his own, so his children would have claim over the pharaonic throne. Hieroglyphs: the ancient world’s propaganda.

The entrance to Luxor Temple

The entrance to Luxor Temple

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The remaining obelisk

The fallen head of a statue

The fallen head of a statue of Ramses II

All that remains where the statue originally stood

All that remains where the statue originally stood

Sitting Ramses II

Sitting Ramses II

An image depicting -- telling the story -- of the unification of Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt, through the interweaving of lotus and papyrus

An image telling the story of the unification of Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt, through the interweaving of lotus (symbol of Upper Egypt) and papyrus (symbol of Lower Egypt)

An inner courtyard

An inner courtyard full of Ramses II

The colonnade (and Ben!)

The colonnade (and Ben!)

I think this is my favorite shot of the entire trip.

I think this is my favorite shot of the entire trip.

Alexander the Great and the fertility god

Alexander the Great collecting fluids from the fertility god. The story of why he is missing an arm and leg will come in a later post.

From the back of the temple, which is nearly all in ruin

From the back of the temple, which is nearly all in ruins

The avenue of sphinxes, blurry blurry blurry

The avenue of sphinxes, blurry blurry blurry

***

Karnak, so named because of the local village el-Karnak, is the largest ancient religious temple in the world, occupying one million square meters. Technically, there are four sections to Karnak, and only the vast structure dedicated to Amun-Re is open to the public. It is a hodge-podge of temples, pillars, columns, and pylons. Many kings and queens added to the complex at Karnak over 3000 years time. The hieroglyphs all tell stories; stories of the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, stories of Hatshepsut’s reign, stories that Ramses II liked so much that he erased the cartouches belonging to other pharaohs and wrote his name instead, staking claim on all stories and columns he loved.

The row of sphinxes at the Karnak end of the avenue

The row of sphinxes at the Karnak end of the avenue

The size of this complex is overwhelming

The sheer size of this complex is overwhelming

This hall has 134 massive columns

This hall has 134 massive columns

And I mean MASSIVE.

And I mean MASSIVE.

The original colors, though faded, have survived thousands of years

The original colors, though faded, have survived thousands of years

Obelisk, made out of one single piece of granite

Obelisk #1, made out of one single piece of granite, as all Egyptian obelisks are.

Hatshepsut's obelisk - 29.5 m tall!

Hatshepsut’s obelisk – 29.5 m tall!

If you look closely, you can see a distinct line across Hatshepsut’s obelisk, showing a change in color. Hatshepsut married her brother and didn’t have any of his children. He had a son, Thutmose III, with a different wife and died when Thutmose was only 5. Hatshepsut seized the throne and served for 23 years, until her step-son overthrew her. He then destroyed everything she added to Karnak Temple, but he could not destroy the obelisk, as it was a religious symbol. Instead, he buried it with stones and sand, and the bottom 2/3 of the obelisk, which were not exposed to the sun, have retained the original color of the pink granite.

Broken obelisk

Broken obelisk

The two remaining obelisks at Karnak

The two remaining obelisks at Karnak

Inner lake created by Nile waters, for the cleansing of the masses pre-worshiping

Sacred lake inside the temple grounds, created thousands of years ago with Nile waters

Ramses II, the megalomaniac who pretended that other pharaohs’ additions were his own, erected two giant statues of himself in the temple. He ruled Egypt for 67 years and left nearly 200 progeny from his many wives. When his most beloved wife, Nefertari, for whom he built a temple at Abu Simbel, died, he married two of their daughters whose looks favored their mother. The small statue at Ramses’ legs is one of the beautiful daughter-wives.

Ramses II

Ramses II

Sun dipping below the ruins

Sun dipping below the ruins

The sun is also setting on this rambling post. More to come soon. Thanks for bumbling along with me.

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