I wake up with an incredible surge of excitement. Today we are going to Amarna. This is the reason I am on the tour. I would have paid the entire price just to go to the site of Akenaton’s city. I have dreamed of this place and visited it a thousand times in my imagination. To see Amarna with my own eyes. Can it even be possible?
But to prolong the anticipation or maybe because of the way the roads run, we first are going to Tuna el Gabal, the necropolis for the ancient city of Hermopolis.
I’m beginning to grow accustomed to the sight of mud brick houses with dirt floors, and ducks, donkeys, goats, and buffalo on the front porch, but I am still startled to see a woman sweeping the ground with a reed broom just a little bigger than a whisk broom under the gaze of a satellite dish. Fadel calls Egypt the land of contradictions and indeed it is—arid and fertile, modern and ancient, donkeys and cell phones. It is as if the front foot of the land has stepped into the 21st century while the back foot remains in the 1st.
If I can divert a bit from the travelogue, I think it is the mixture of the new and the old that most Westerns can’t understand unless they experience it first hand. The people retain a sensibility of the centuries, of farming, of living along the river, of the vast desert. Their minds and mindset are still shaped by the same forces that shaped the lives of their ancestors. And yet they now talk on cell phones, carry submachine guns and drive motorcycles, all the while transporting sugarcane to market on donkeys and washing clothes in the river. It’s no wonder they see the world in ways those of us who have never pounded our underware on rocks can’t understand. Ancient minds in a modern world make for a tinder keg where responses to situations can have disasterous consequences. Until we who live in the West realize that just because someone wears a tie and carries a iPhone, he doesn’t think the way we do, I believe there will be continual misunderstanding and confusion. And yet, especially here in Egypt, the people are gentle, kind and hospitable. It is possible for the world to live in peace. We just have to work a little harder at it.
Okay, small political commentary over. I’ll try to stick to ancient sites for the rest of the entry. As we pass a Coptic Church with a large mosaic image of Our Lady on the front, Fadel says that Egyptian tradition holds that Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to Heliopolis, the City of the Light, when they fled Israel to avoid the Massacre of the Innocents. It’s interesting to realize that I have been to Jordan where Jesus walked as an adult and now to Egypt where he walked, or rather toddled, as a child.
It is very early in the morning…at least for me since we got on the bus by 7:30 am. In the villages or even larger towns instead of workers heading off to offices, the water buffalo are being brought to the fields. Every now and then I see a man with a briefcase waiting to cross the road alongside a buffalo. That’s certainly not something you’d see anywhere in America. Because it gets so hot here, work starts in the cool of the morning. I see a man wielding a hoe in the field looking exactly as if he has stepped out of a wall carving. His hoe unchanged in four millennia. He raises it over his head and pulls up a chuck of dark, black soil. Over and over, he carves the earth, readying it for planting. In the next field over, another man sows, flinging seeds from a leather pouch over his shoulder just as his ancestors have done from the beginning of agricultural cultivation. The seeds spray in an arc and almost in the same motion, he reaches into the pouch and repeats the gesture over and over.
A small truck passes us, overladen with cabbage,cauliflower, tomatoes and at least three people standing on the bumper, hanging onto the top with one hand. Fadel says that a recent law has made talking on the cell phone while driving illegal because it is too dangerous. Apparently falling off the back of rapidly moving vechiles isn’t a danger, but I’d take cell phone chatting over holding on for dear life any time.
I’m surprised by the number of Christian symbols I see in this part of Egypt, even though the Copts were among the first believers in Christ. I just assumed that Chrisitianity had been completely supplanted by Islam and so seeing crosses and images of the Virgin stop me. I am particularly surprised to see a mosque right next to a Coptic church. The minuret next to the Cross. I wonder what the Crusaders would think if they could see the at least nominally hospitable relationship?
Tuna el Gabal is another one of those remote, rarely visited by tourist sites. I sometimes get the feeling we are waking the guards up from their naps when we drive up to the gates. Fortunately for me and my aching legs, we aren’t going to be doing any climbing until this afternoon. The catacombs of the god Thoth are an easy walk from the guard stations.
I really didn’t know what to expect. I knew that Thoth was represented by either an ibis or a baboon and that these catacombs had been used to store mummies offered to him, so when we descended, not all that far under the ground to see a city of the dead was breathtaking. As far as you can look are corridors filled with little niches for ibises and bigger niches for baboons. In some areas, piles of pottery are tossed aside, either because it is worthless or because it awaits further investigation. Either because we are with Fadel or because so few tourists visit the area…or both…the guard brings out an actual ibis mummy for us to touch. The resin coating makes it very hard and very heavy, almost like a brick. Despite the layers of wrapping and coatings, you can still see the shape of the bird, with his head tucked back under his wing as if he had merely been asleep for centuries and might, at the behest of the god, suddenly awake from his slumber and send forth his call of adoration. The guard also brings out a sarcophobus filled with ancient linen wrappings. We are allowed to touch. I can barely believe it. We are touching a mummy and its wrappings. The linen is very heavy, finely woven, but weighty. It still remains its white color although additional fabric on the bottom is a deep saffron.
I could have stayed in the catacombs for much longer, just staring into the niches and exploring the area devoted to baboons where a sculpture of a baboon scowls across an offering table and a baboon mummy, its unwrapped skull grinning in grim amusement. Even in life, baboons are unattractive animals with their large canines and pointed snouts and mummification does little to improve their appearance. With reluctance we waddle after Fadel back out in the heat of the desert. If this is what it is like in November, god help us what it must be like in July or August. I either would never go outdoors or die instantly of heat stroke. I’m quite sure those would be my only two options.
Before we leave this site for Amarna (Oh Amarna, I’m coming; I’m coming. It won’t be long now.) we visit the tomb of Petosiris, a man who lived at the time of Alexander the Greek and who had his tomb done in the new-fangled Greek style. Well, sort of done. All the scenes are typical of Egptian tombs with the characteristic front/profile posture of all Egyptian art, but the clothing is Greek.
I’m getting anxious to see Amarna. I’m sure Petosiris and his tomb are very interesting to scholars, but I have deliberately avoided anything to do with the Greco-Roman period of Egyptian history on this trip, Perhaps another time, to see Alexandria and explore that later facet of history. But not now. Now I want to see what I came to see. The city of the Horizon of the Aten, the home of Akenaton and Nefertiti and Tutankamen—Amarna.
But not yet. I’m beginning to feel like a kid on Christmas eve, thinking that Christmas morning will never come. We bundle back into the bus and watch the movie of life stream past the window. More villages, more children, more laundry, more donkeys, more dirt roads. We stop to see all that remains of a Temple to Thoth, two huge baboon statues. People leave the bus to take pictures, but I am too excited to waste energy on Thoth, so I snap an image through the bus window and take a deep breath. Soon. It has to be soon.
Fadel tells us that we will be leaving our bus to take a ferry across the Nile and board a smaller bus that will take us to the actual site of Amarna. The ferry is definitely not for tourists. We share it with schoolgirls in their navy clothes and white veils, obviously some sort of uniform; mothers, babies, a vegetable truck and a donkey cart. We are as much a source of intrigue and amusement to the other passengers as we are to them. I catch the eye of one young mother who has been staring at me and smile. She smiles back, clearly embarrassed that she has been seen, but the universal language of the smile erases the unease. A grandmother sends a frightened young boy and a bold young girl over to shake my hand and welcome me to Egypt.
As we pull away from the dock, our fashionista, who has never met a stranger and who is one of the most outgoing, exhuberent women I have ever seen, gets invited by the captain to steer the ferry. I suspect it is on underwater steel cables, so she won’t be able to drive us around on a sandbar, but her blond presence in the wheelhouse causes amusement among Americans and Egyptians alike.
Finally, we get on the bus that will take us to Amarna. As we pass by a newly cultivated field, a cloud of white butterflies performs a ballet in the blinding sunlight. My heart dances with them.
I am almost there.
What is it like to visit the place of your dreams? Sometimes, when you see something you have imagined forever, it isn’t what you expect and you are, as much as you hate to admit it, just a touch disappointed. I felt that way when I saw the Mona Lisa. So small. So unimpressive. So not what the Mona Lisa was supposed to be like. Part of me was fearful that I would experience that same sense of disappointed when I finally laid eyes on the Temple to the Aten, the Northern Palace, the Royal Road. But the part of me that could have been an archaeologist knows that there probably won’t be much to see, except rubble and sand, and besides, it isn’t the ruins, but the land, the horizon, the place that I have come to experience. If nothing remains to be seen, so much the better for then I shall see what Akenaton saw when he sailed the Nile and declared, “Here I shall build my city and here I shall live for the rest of my life.”
At last we are there. How can you even begin to describe what is being processed internally while still trying to describe what is being seen externally? How do you step back enough to report while being flung mentally back and forth over the centuries? How do you put a dream into words?
Amarna is desert. Pure and simple, both in the metaphorical and actual sense. There is nothing here but rocks, dirt, sand and heat. Akenaton was looking for a virgin location to establish his new city and this certainly would have been that. Even now it’s about as desolate as you can get and still be near the banks of the Nile which we know the city was from ancient illustrations and documents. But it is filled with light, filled with the glory of the one God, the Aten. The words of his Hymn to the Sun, which are almost identical to Psalm 102 of the Hebrew Scriptures, fill my mind:
Because Thou has risen, all the beasts and cattle repose in their pastures; and the trees and the green herbs put forth their leaves and flowers. The birds fly out of their nests; and their wings praise Thy Ka as they fly forth. The sheep and goats of every kind skip about on their legs, and feathered fowl and birds also live, because Thou has risen for them.
Why does Akenaten’s hymn sound so much like a prayer to Yaheway of the Hebrews? Could it be that Moses, raised as one of the children of the Kap, the household of the Pharaoh, might have been Akenaten’s friend? Could he have passed on the idea of the one god to the man who would be King? The similarities are too close to be mere chance. Somehow there is an overlap of influence here. What might have happened to the world if Akenaton’s beliefs had prevailed? How would the course of history have changed? Things to ponder in the night.