Milan, 19 November 2017
My wife and I have just finished a little holiday in Egypt (I also went to do some consultancy on a project proposal in Upper Egypt, whose objective is to create small businesses around the reuse of agricultural and agro-processing waste; but that is a story for another day). We primarily visited Luxor, so the main thrust of our visit was the monuments of Ancient Egypt.
I must confess to being quite ignorant about the art, culture, and history of Ancient Egypt. Of course, I have a passing knowledge about all the usual things: the rather icky mummies
and the richly decorated Russian-doll like cases which enclose them
the – rather static and boringly repetitive – statues which fill halls in various Worthy Museums in Europe (here’s the British Museum’s, which I suffered through as a child).
Having read articles from time to time about King Tut and his tomb, I have of course absorbed a certain amount of his story, but to give an idea of the shallowness of my knowledge I have a very clear memory of doing a long line when I was young to visit a King Tut exhibition at the British Museum, but for the life of me don’t remember anything I saw in the exhibition itself.
I was also entertained in my childhood by the presentation of Ancient Egypt in the comic books I read: Tintin first of all
with the amusingly absent-minded Egyptologist Philémon Siclone
with the Egyptians speaking in hieroglyphics.
In more recent times, I have been tickled by films relating to various Curses of the Mummy.
And that’s about it. In short, I was really very ignorant about Ancient Egypt.
The hotel we stayed at in Luxor continued the comic-book theming of Ancient Egypt. We were staying in the Nefertiti wing, with the Cleopatra wing close by. These two pastiche statues greeted us every day as we made our way to the breakfast room
and the hotel’s walls were decorated with this kind of pastiche fresco.
Luckily, the French-speaking guide we had hired over the Internet turned out to be very competent. He had put together a nice programme which covered many of the best of the sites in and around Luxor: the temple of Karnak, with its large-scale bas-reliefs on its walls
the temple of Luxor, which we saw at night
with its avenue of sphinxes
Luxor Museum, which had some lovely pieces
several of the tombs in the valleys of the Kings, Queens, nobles, and in the village of the artisans, with their incredibly fresh frescoes
the temple of Dendera, with its amazing astronomical ceiling
the temple of Abydos, with its lovely bas-reliefs inside the temple
the temple of Hatshepsut, with its dramatic setting
and finally the Ramesseum, with the green fields fed by the Nile’s waters lapping at its feet.
I won’t pretend that by the end of it all I was an Egyptologist, but I do think I now have a passing understanding of the history of the 18th to 20th dynasties (noting, though, the rather depressing fact that there were 30 dynasties in all before the Romans put a halt to pharaonism; I have much more to learn). I also think I have a – still very sketchy – understanding of ancient Egyptians’ religion. Finally, I have a passing knowledge of the architectural principles underlining the buildings that we saw.
I do not propose to bore readers with a breathless precis of what we saw, heard, and sort-of understood. I’ll just comment on some of the things that particularly struck me as we went along.
The sun truly dominated the thinking of the ancient Egyptians. After our two weeks there I can understand why. I saw clouds just once, and that was in Cairo. In Luxor, we had a clear, hard, lapis-lazuli sky the whole time, with the sun climbing slowly from the eastern horizon
up to its apex
and then falling slowly to the western horizon, as we moved from site to site.
It must be like this all the year round, so I can understand how the sun played a primordial role in ancient Egyptian religion. I particularly liked, then, to hear that the obelisk, that most Egyptian of things, was considered a petrified sunbeam.
What a lovely idea! A ray of the sun, congealed – frozen – in stone, driving into the earth. The equivalence would have been even stronger in the old days, when obelisks’ pyramidal capstones were covered with electrum, an alloy of gold and silver; the tips of the obelisks would have flashed and glowed in the sun.
In Cairo, we were told the same thing of the pyramids, but it was more difficult to imagine pyramids as rays of the sun in stone.
The place of the sun in Egyptian religion reached its extreme under the “heretical” pharaoh Akhenaten: he abolished all deities in the Egyptians’ pantheon except for the solar god Aten. In his frescoes and bas-reliefs, he had Aten depicted as a disc from which emanated rays that ended in hands.
The sun caressing the Earth and all that is on it … a beautiful idea! For doesn’t all life on this planet ultimately depend on the warmth of the sun?
Akhenaten was an interesting fellow, not least because of the way he had himself depicted in his official statuary, with an elongated, sensual face, quite different from everything that came before and after.
(the statues of him in the National Museum in Cairo are even more intriguing, with a body that looks distinctly feminine, to the point that some claim this is actually his wife Nefertiti)
The sun even played a role in the design of the bas-reliefs which covered the walls of temples and tombs. We saw two types of bas-reliefs. The more delicate ones were true bas-reliefs, with the background cut down until the subjects were in light relief, like the ones I showed above from the temple of Abydos. The second type were created instead by cutting deep grooves along the outline of the figures and finished with some light molding of the figures. These were very striking in a raking light – in the late afternoon, for instance – when they stood out, almost like charcoal drawings on the walls.
It seems the effect was deliberate, to make reliefs that were readable in the country’s strong light.
The Egyptians held that the goddess of the sky, Nut, swallowed the sun at sunset and gave birth to him again in the morning. She was the wife (and sister) of the god of the earth, Geb. The story goes that she wanted to lie on him perpetually, but Ra ordered their father Shu, god of air, to force them apart. But Nut managed to keep her hands and feet touching Geb. I just loved the way the artists depicted these stories. The artists painted Nut – very often on ceilings, as one might expect – with her feet touching the Earth in one corner, her hands touching it in another, and her thin, lithe body curving along the edge of the ceiling between these two corners.
See how in the first of these two photos, Nut is shown giving birth to the morning sun and about to swallow the evening sun, while in the second Shu is holding Nut and Geb apart.
Originally, Nut was goddess of the night sky, and night skies are a common decoration of ceilings. We saw many ceilings painted blue and sprinkled – sprayed might be the better term – with a multitude of white stars.
It was a charming effect, and in the tombs certainly gave all those mummies lying on their backs a beautiful night sky to gaze upon for eternity – in the case of the photo above Nefertari, the main wife of Ramesses II.
I finish with the so-called Colossi of Memnon, although actually they are statues of the pharaoh Amenhotep III. Tourists who passed through here a couple of thousand years before us – the Ancient Greeks – misnamed the statues.
Truth to tell, they are not much to look at; they have suffered much at the hands of time. As we stood there, a muezzin nearby started singing his call to afternoon prayers.
Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar,
Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar.
Ashhadu al la ilaha illa-llah.
Ashhadu al la ilaha illa-Ilah.
Ashhadu anna Muhammadar Rasulu-Ilah, Ashhadu anna Muhammadar Rasulu-Ilah.
Hayya ‘ala-s-sala, Hayya ‘ala-s-sala.
Hayya ‘ala-l-falah, Hayya ‘ala-I-falah.
Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar.
La illaha illa-llah.
God is great, God is great.
I bear witness that there is no god but God.
I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of God.
Hasten to prayer.
Hasten to success.
God is great, God is great.
There is no god but God.
As the song floated over the shattered statues before us, I reflected on the seemingly inevitable passing away of civilizations and their religious constructs. The religion of the Ancient Egyptians was thrown onto the dust heap of history in the 3rd Century of the Common Era, after surviving 3,000 years or more, with a triumphant Christianity taking its place. After a mere 400 years, Christianity in Egypt was in turn overrun by Islam. Today, after 1,400 years, Islam stands seemingly secure in the lands of the Nile. But one day, when the statues before me will have crumbled to mere stumps of stone, Islam will no doubt have given way to something else. Nothing man-made survives the test of time.
Royal mummy: https://islampapers.com/2013/01/09/the-identification-of-the-pharaoh-during-the-time-of-moses/
Mummy cases: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/08/130823091144.htm
Egyptian statue room, British Museum: https://www.pinterest.com/rowan925/egyptian-exhibit-british-museum-artifacts/
Cigares du pharaon cover: https://www.bedetheque.com/BD-Tintin-Tome-4-Les-cigares-du-pharaon-32559.html
Cigares du pharaon egyptologist: my photo
Asterix et Cléopatre cover: https://www.bedetheque.com/BD-Asterix-Tome-6-Asterix-et-Cleopatre-22950.html
Asterix et Cléopatre speaking hieroglyphics: my photo
The Mummy movie poster: http://www.impawards.com/1999/mummy_ver1.html
Pastiche statues and fresco: my photo
Temple of Karnak: http://www.nilecruised.com/tours/karnak-temple/
Temple of Luxor: https://www.traveladdicts.net/2011/10/karnak-temple-luxor-temple-egypt.html
Avenue of sphinxes: http://www.travelphoto.net/a-photo-a-day/wordpress/2005/04/15/sphinx-avenue-at-luxor-temple/
Luxor Museum: http://egypt-magic.com/category/luxor/
Tomb, Valley of the Kings: https://www.flickr.com/photos/shelbyroot/1164944359
Tomb, Village of the Artisans: https://archaeology-travel.com/archaeological-sites/deir-el-medina-luxor/
Temple of Dendera ceiling: https://paulsmit.smugmug.com/Features/Africa/Egypt-Dendera-temple/i-BJPQ24h
Temple of Abydos bas-reliefs: our photo
Temple of Hatshepsut: http://www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-places-africa/mortuary-temple-hatshepsut-deir-el-bahri-002777
Sunrise Luxor: http://www.news4europe.eu/6369_entertainment/4797559_egypt-s-newly-discovered-artifacts-to-help-revive-tourism-in-luxor.html
Sun high in sky: http://www.psdgraphics.com/backgrounds/blue-sky-with-sun/
Sunset Luxor: my wife’s photo
Obelisk, Luxor Temple: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Luxor_Temple_Obelisk.JPG
Obelisk with golden capstone: http://www.riseearth.com/2016/08/mythical-benben-stone-landing-site-of.html?m=1
Sun rays with hands: http://www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-places-africa/art-amarna-akhenaten-and-his-life-under-sun-002587
Akhenaten head: http://www.panoramio.com/photo/2105526
Akhenaten statue: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/312437292872997702/
Grooved bas-reliefs: our photos
Goddess Nut, Dendera: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-egyptdenderaptolemaic-temple-of-the-goddess-hathorview-of-ceiling-68990173.html
Goddess Nut, tomb Ramses IV: http://www.gettyimages.it/detail/news-photo/egypt-thebes-luxor-valley-of-the-kings-tomb-of-ramses-iv-news-photo/88701257
Stars on ceiling, Nefertari tomb: https://www.pinterest.com/ancha_no1/inside-egyptian-tomb/
Colossi of Memnon: our photo