Sunday, October 14, 2007

Egypt: Lost Realms

Egypt's most famous monuments are the pyramids and Sphinx at Giza. Culturally, however, we know little about the Old Kingdom which produced them. The Golden Age of ancient Egypt was the Middle Kingdom, after the breakdown of order had spawned a questioning which expressed itself throughout literature and the arts. It was the Middle Kingdom which produced works such as The Tale of Sinuhe, who flees after learning of a conspiracy against the king and becomes the leader of a nomadic tribe in Syria. Then also legends of the Old Kingdom rulers took the form of moral fables, leading to the image of Khufu as a proud tyrant, for example.

The primary capital during much of the Middle Kingdom and the New Kingdom which came later was at Thebes in Upper Egypt, where Luxor is today. With that status, its main local deity, Amun, also assumed a commanding place in Egyptian mythology, being merged with Ra, the primordial self-creating sun god worshiped at Heliopolis since before the Old Kingdom. Today his main temple, located at Karnak about a mile north of Luxor, is the largest ancient temple discovered anywhere in the world and the Egyptian monument which draws the most tourists after the Giza pyramids. Indeed when I look over my pictures, tourists are everywhere in them, a human river flowing past banks of sphinxes and emptying through the entrance between two huge edificial walls to fill out a maze of pylons, columns, statues, and obelisks built and renovated continuously from the start of the Middle Kingdom through to the age of the Ptolemies the last of whom was Cleopatra.

Describing all the details of Karnak would bore anyone but an Egyptologist. What really strikes you is its monumental scale. In one section, the Great Hypostyle Hall, there are rows of columns 80 feet tall. This is not, however, as tall as the hieroglyph-covered Obelisk of Hatshepsut which you see rising in the background as you pass through one hall. Near the back is an area dedicated to Ptah, with a sacred lake where the priests would perform their ablutions before rituals, and bleachers for tourists who come to see the nightly sound-and-light shows found at most major ancient Egyptian sites. Few places carry as much culture and history as Karnak, which for almost 2000 years was a center of politics for one of the ancient world's greatest powers, a focus of laborers who, contrary to the often-repeated stereotype of being slaves seem to have engaged in something like collective bargaining, and definitely took pride in their work, and the center of worship for the gods who ran the universe, the key to the understanding of everyone from the king to the lowest ranks of society.

The crazy thing about Karnak is that it manages to be this impressive despite being mostly ruins. The only completely preserved ancient Egyptian temple is the Temple of Horus at Edfu, one of the stops on my cruise. After getting off the ship you either walked through the town or haggled a fare with the driver of a caliche, the horse-drawn carriages used by both tourists and locals to get around cities in Upper Egypt and which, presumably due to gas prices, are now cheaper than the broken-down black and white taxis. Eventually you came to another huge structure which took the Ptolemies 180 years to build. Aside from its overwhelming presence, the thing I remember most was a small darkened chamber with a small ark, which I think had to do with the pharaoh's journey to the afterlife. Another Ptolemaic temple we stopped at was the Temple of Sobek at Kom Ombo. Sobek was the crocodile god, and the temple stands on a ledge right next to the river where there used to be a lagoon filled with crocodiles. When you arrive just after dusk the sky is still a bluish-black and the yellow lights on its facade of brownish Hellenistic columns makes for a spectacular site while docking.

After returning to Luxor from Aswan, I had hoped to see some of the sites on the West Bank, such as doing a horseback tour of the Valley of the Kings or taking in the colossal funerary temple of Ramses III at Medinet Habu. However, an ill-timed gap in the train schedule meant I didn't get there until just after 4 in the afternoon instead of around noon as I had planned, and the next day I had to press on to Cairo so as to be back in Jerusalem when I wanted to. Therefore, the last ancient Egyptian site I saw was Abu Simbel, home to two colossal temples carved out of a mountain in the days of Ramses II. The larger of the two temples has on the outside four 70-foot tall statues of Ramses II seated and records the peace he made with the Hittites after the Battle of Kadesh, the first peace treaty in recorded history. The smaller one is dedicated to Hathor as personified by Nefertari, Ramses II's favorite wife. The six statues on its facade are only half as large, at just over 30 feet.

One of Ramses II's alternate names translated into Greek is "Ozymandias," and as such he became the subject of a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley with the famous last lines:
"'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

The power of the pharaohs as expressed in their monuments has long led people to thoughts of the passing of ages and earthly power. The kingdom of the pharaohs, however, is not the only lost realm one finds traces of in this land. The site of Abu Simbel is gorgeous, looking as it does out over the vast expanse of Lake Nasser, product of the Aswan High Dam through which the Egyptians finally gained control of the Nile's annual flooding. Beneath its placid waters, however, lies the lost realm of Nubia. Aswan the city is located at a short stretch of water known as the First Cataract, which is not a waterfall, but rather a place where the river's channel is littered with small islands and boulders. This historically marked the boundary between Egypt and Nubia. In a country like Upper Egypt, however, life is only along the Nile, and when the building of the Aswan High Dam led that river to swell miles beyond its banks, Lower Nubia was destroyed, its people relocated to development towns most of which were in the deserts around Aswan.

Much of the population of Aswan is Nubian, including the felucca captain whom I hired for a spin around the islands one hot afternoon. The most striking thing about the Nubians to me was that they all spoke with what was clearly the same accent as Jamaicans, and some even had Bob Marley flags on their ships or in their shops. There are two schools of thought on the effects of the relocation. One sees the dam project as leading to cultural annihilation. The Nile was really central to a lot of Nubian culture, and being moved into the desert isn't the same. In addition, the land they have to farm is far worse than that along the riverbanks, which some say is what leads many Nubian men to have to leave their families to seek employment in the north. The other school, however, argues that once the olive and palm trees begin producing the economy will be better than it ever was, the different Nubian communities now have a much higher standard of housing and infrastructure than they did, and points out that Nubian men have always gone north to seek employment. About dusk one evening I took a ferry across to Elephantine Island, site of a relocated Nubian village. The buildings were colorful, and among them were irrigated fields closed in by stone walls. The people were also friendly. As the sun set and the day's Ramadan fast ended one man standing outside invited me in for tea, but I demurred. He didn't really press the issue, suggesting it was just a pro forma invitation to go with the season when a stranger was about.

The next day I went to Aswan's Nubian Museum. One exhibit was called "Nubia Submerged," which I thought might deal with the modern Nubians and their relocation. Instead, it talked about all the ancient Egyptian temples that were now under Lake Nasser. Several of these were relocated, such as Abu Simbel, but many more are now beneath the waters. The main exhibits of the museum dealt with Nubia as Nubia, but it was all historical. On some level, the actual Nubians were missing from this. There was a small ethnographic section, but nothing in it of memory; the Nubians did not speak, but were represented. Nubian culture is not lost in the sense ancient Egypt is. The people remain, from two thin children paddling a rowboat around the cataract to an old lady walking down a quiet Aswan street in the heat of the afternoon with a face was blacker than the black of her headscarf as the sun caused one to sweat and the other to fade. It seems to me, however, that the Nubians are in a sense lost in the world, a once-great historical artifact misplaced out of the way while its intellectuals look for a way back and its young people slowly assimilate into the Egyptian mainstream. One can see the day where a culture now living may within a century be more lost than the imposing ruins of Karnak.



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