Sunday, November 22, 2009

Day Seven--Abiding at Abydos

I’m still on an incredible high from actually seeing and standing and breathing and being where Akhenaton and Nefertiti and Tut lived. Well, mentally I’m on a high. Physically I’m feeling the climbs in every cell of my body. But it was worth it. It was so worth it. Sometimes we do things that we pay for afterwards, but the price, no matter how high, is worth the experience. Yesterday was that for me.

It doesn’t help that we have a very early morning; out to the bus by 7 am, which means suitcases at the door by 6:30 at the latest. I can never quite figure out how to put everything I need for morning in a small bag and get all the rest tidied up the night before. Not to mention, I don’t understand how a suitcase can get so incredibly jumbled when I have carefully put everything in ziplock bags. Since we still have a long ways ahead of us, I am fighting the good fight to keep things in order. Entropy is winning, however.

Before we got too far this morning, the bus had a broken fan belt. We pulled off the side of the road while the driver repaired it. I’m not sure what impressed me more—the fact that he could replace the belt or the fact that he carried a spare belt with him. It made me wonder what other parts were tucked into the belly of the beast? Do bus drivers in the states carry replacement parts? Do they know how to repair their vehicles? I ponder these things as most of the people get off the bus and wander around. They seem to think it would be cooler off the bus than inside. Despite the lack of air conditioning, I think the relative shade of the bus is preferable to the heat of the outdoors. But then the thought of moving makes my legs throb and so I opt for sloth instead of seeing.

We are driving through little villages with dirt roads, narrow alleys, men milling about and children waving excitedly.
Not many women are out, unless they are doing laundry at the banks of the river or, occasionally, working in the fields. This part of Egypt has been considered dangerous for tourists, so we have at least two police guards, usually front and rear of the bus, and an on-board guard, the one who helped me climb to the tombs yesterday and gave me the sprig of revitalizing mint. It is still in my left pocket and I can smell the faint traces of the spicy aroma in the heat. One of the reasons that this area is considered a danger spot for tourists is because the University of Asyut has been associated with Islamic fundamentalists and also this area is home to a fairly large Coptic Christian population. Even while we were here, there was a shooting resulting in death between a Muslim and Christian over the price of a coke. You’d think that I would be scared, but the little girl who wanted to be a war correspondent and became a religion writer instead seems perfectly at home. After the initial shock of seeing weapons all time, I’ve become fairly inured to the sight of large weapons I can’t readily identify and don’t really want to.

I keep reflecting back on yesterday, mainly because it was the highlight of the trip for me and I can hardly believe that I actually made it to Amarna, but also because we haven’t seen much this morning. One of the reasons for the early departure was to cover the distance we have to cover. Most tourists visit Cairo and then fly to Luxor or Aswan; we are driving and that takes a fair amount of time. As does repairing broken fan belts.

Our first stop is the White Monastery, a Coptic Church founded in the 5th century by St. Shenouda, a saint I’ve never heard of, but then I’m not well versed in Coptic saints. Apparently it once housed a large monastic community, but now it seems more like a cross between a tourist attraction and a regular church. In fact, a baptism just occurred before we entered the courtyard and the proud family was taking pictures of an adorable little girl in a gleaming white communion dress. The papa handed her to one of the women in our group for pictures and then she was passed off to me. I was surprised at how light she was and how tiny, a dark-eyed beauty surrounded by white lace. The language was foreign, but the joy of the parents and the family was the same world over. A new life, entering into the old traditions, celebrating a faith and future.

What really stands out for me about the White Monastery is the bathrooms. They were wonderful, clean, spacious, with toilet paper. When you are getting used to peeing in a toilet that has been used several times before and tossing the scrap of paper the attendant hands you in a basket instead of flushing, modern bathrooms are like a little slice of heaven. They even have running water to wash your hands. One odd thing, each stall had what looked like a shower head in it as well as the fixtures. I never did figure out what that was all about and the lack of language skills made it impossible to ask. Maybe it was used to hose the stalls down at the end of the day. Or not.

I have to admit I missed a bit of the scenery today as the warmth, the hum of the engine and the rocking motion sort of put me to sleep. But by the time we got to Abydos, I was wide awake.

Abydos is considered one of the most beautiful temples in all of Egypt and I can definitely understand why. The main cult center for the god Osiris, the god of the dead, it was used as a necropolis for more than 4500 years. It is here that an Englishwoman, Dorothy Eady, took the name Omm Sety and lived for 35 years, claiming to be the reincarnated lover of Seti I. I’ve read about her story and while parts of it are completely outlandish, she did know some things about the working of the Temple and locations of relics that would be hard to explain. Maybe I’ll look up her story when I get home.

The Temple of Seti I is one of the most complete in Egypt. It is simply breathtaking. It also requires a great deal of walking. Have I mentioned that one walks and walks and walks when visiting Egypt? I don’t want to bore the reader (or the writer for that matter) by describing the layout of an Egyptian temple, so suffice to say they are long, relatively narrow and incredibly beautiful, from the stately pillars to the incredibly vivid wall murals.

I have to admit that some of the magnificence of the site is going over my head because I am so tired from yesterday. I slip away from the group now and then and lean against a pillar, occasionally sitting on a base if it looks undecorated and if no one is watching. In one of these rest stops, I look up and am captivated by the painted ceiling. How did they get up there to paint it? What sort of scaffolding did they have? The craftsmanship is still breath-taking after all these millennia. I keep bending over farther and farther until I almost lose my balance, catching myself only by backing into one of the pillars. So much for not touching the artifacts!

At one point, sunlight from a small window high on the wall streaks into the temple and I manage, in a small miracle, to capture it on film.
Even though we are no longer in Amarna, I can see why Akhenaton depicted his god as rays of light ending in hands. In this place, with the strong Egyptian sun streaming into the dimly light cavern of the temple, it is easy to see why the Sun, as the Aten or as Re, was worshipped. I pause in silent reverence for having had the chance to experience this moment of complete awe.

The colors on the murals almost defy description. They are still vivid red, blue, yellow, looking more like a Hollywood set than something thousands of years old. One of the women on the trip is an expert in dyes and paints and she asks Fadel if they used lapis or turquoise for the blue. He says lapis, but I can tell from her expression that she thinks turquoise must have been included. I wouldn’t know, but the blue is deep and rich, sometimes with a slightly green cast. In the Egyptian museum, I saw some artists’ palettes with their stone grinding kits containing ochre (I recognized that) and other minerals. I didn’t see any blue or green stone; perhaps that was too valuable to just leave lying around.

We turn a corner and my weariness evaporates as I see the famed King List! The ancients didn’t reckon time as we do, from a given starting point, marching relentlessly into the future. Rather, they dated events as occurring in such and such a year of a King’s reign. The count started over with each new king, so figuring out the sequences of kings was vital for archaeologists. And now here I am, looking at the only remaining King list still in situ. Fadel points out the solar disc and the duck signs, which indicate “son of god,” a designator of the Pharaoh. Once he has shown it to us, it suddenly appears everywhere on the wall. Isn’t that always the case? Once something comes into your field of awareness, you begin to see it all over the place. Of course, this Kings’ list doesn’t list any of the so-called Heretic Kings such as Akhenaton or Tutankhamen or that radical feminist Hatshepsut, but it does contain 75 (I think that’s what Fadel said) of Seti I’s predecessor. I’d love to reach out and touch just one of the cartouches, but if everyone did, the rock would be destroyed by the heat and bacteria on our hands, so I content myself with merely staring, gap-jawed, at the rows and rows and rows of names, all neatly tucked into their cartouches, a record of some of the greatest men to ever rule this part of the world.

Outside, behind the Temple is an odd structure called the Osireion which is partly underwater.
Seeing water in the desert is odd enough, but apparently this building was always partially surrounded by water, although the rising water table has flooded much of it today. While what we saw was apparently built by Seti I, this area seems to have been a site of worship back eons into the distant past. I wonder what it is about certain areas that cause them to give off a sense of holiness? Many of the cathedrals of Europe are built on pre-historic prayer sites, where people gathered to worship the Divine millennia before written history. This site, which seems to be in the middle of nowhere, was one of those places. Was it because there was water here? Or was it something else, something more elusive, more mysterious, more intangible? Staring down at the giant blocks of granite, “floating” in the greenish water, I feel a certain pull, a certain resonance that perhaps is my answer.

One of the things that most amazes me about these sites is how hot they are. The stones that make up the temples absorb the unrelenting heat of the sun and radiate it back in almost palpable waves of heat. I hold my hand a few inches from the stone I’m resting my elbows on and it almost pulsates. One would not survive for very long in this climate without water or shade, especially not when you are of Northern European descent and consider 65 to be a nice comfortable temperature. I’m sure that 65 would be considered arctic by those who live here all the time. In fact, I don’t think the air conditioning in my hotel rooms goes that low, but then it is in Celsius and by the time we get to the hotel each night, my ability to convert Celsius to Fahrenheit is non-existent.

We clamber back on our bus, each of us pausing for a moment at the front to pull a cool bottle of water from the chest. We who live in a land of potable water take it so for granted. Here, it is something to be cherished, treasured and even hoarded. When there is water on the bus, we all take a bottle, just in case we might need it later on. I think I have two in my case, but I grab another one, feeling only slightly guilty at having more than my share. But I rationalize by telling myself that I don’t drink any of the soda on board; just the water.

The sky here is a remarkably clear blue but it is frequently marred by plumbs of dense black smoke pouring from molasses factories. It looks like the smoke from a forest fire dangling over the Nile or volcano shooting soot heavenward. Clearly pollution standards are not the same here.
I can’t smell it inside the bus, but something tells me that a molasses factory wouldn’t be the most aromatic of places; most food production plants aren't. I remember going through a chocolate factory and while I adore chocolate, the smell was almost nauseating. And I’m really not that fond of molasses.

Jostling along, the countryside begins to become a blend of fields and villages. I find myself nodding off a bit until Fadel comes on the microphone and tells us that we are passing near Nag Hammadi hills where the famous papyrus codices including the Gospel of Thomas were found. To be honest, the hills look like all the other hills we’ve been seeing in this part of Egypt and my only thought was, “Thank God we aren’t going to climb up there and look at the caves!” I am perfectly content to see them from the windows of the bus, thank you very much. I suspect some of our group are disappointed that they aren’t doing to be able to trek up there, but I’m sure they’ll have another chance to march endless miles in the heat before we are finished.

The last stop of the day is the Temple of Hathor at Dendara. Hathor, the cow-headed, is the goddess of love.
Fadel says that he called his wife his “Hathor” and she asked if he thought she was a cow. She has a point. I understand that the rationale for having a cow be the symbol of love is because of the tender care that the cow has for her calf, but I think I might have chosen a different image if it had been up to me. It’s the ears, I think. At any rate, Hathor is one of the most recognizable of the Egyptian gods. Once you’ve seen her, you’ll never mistake her for anyone else.

We arrive at her Temple in the late afternoon, as the sun is setting and the mosquitoes are coming out. I have sprayed my pant legs with poison everyday and finally it’s paying off. Either that or the mosquitoes don’t really like the taste of very hot, tired, middle-aged woman. In any event, I’m not getting bit.

The Temple is one of the more intact in Egypt and so it’s not hard to imagine the ceremonies that must have occurred here but confession time: the temples are starting to run together a bit. Of course, I can see and appreciate the differences, but it’s kind of like visiting churches in Rome. Eventually, they begin to blur, and even good notes and pictures at night don’t always sort them out. The things that stand out here for me are the zodiacs on the ceiling (Leo is always easy to spot) and the defaced images of the goddess. Throughout the country, many of the old temples were turned into Christian churches and images of the gods and the Pharaohs were defaced, the faces and limbs hacked out. To be fair, it seems to be the Egyptian way since the ancients were chiseling out each other’s images long before the Christians arrived. But I still cringe a little to see Hathor, traces of blue still on her headpiece, her face a ripple of blank stone. Why do we feel we have to destroy what we don’t accept? This defacement is hardly different than the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddha statues; it just happened much much longer ago. I really don’t know how to express what I feel when I see a great temple turned into a Christian shrine, its art destroyed in the process. I’m sure the people who did it acted out of what they believed were the highest motives, but it still makes me sad and leaves me with an empty, bitter feeling.

As for the zodiacs, they, too, were defaced,
only this time by the French who wrenched them from the ceiling and transported them to the Louvre. A rather poor plaster replacement which is chipped and fading was left in their place.

This is one of the few, maybe the only, temple that still has the second floor intact and so we climb well-worn stairs to the roof. So many feet have trod the stones, they are worn almost to a ramp. Fadel explains some of the rituals that took place here and how they related to other sites closer to Luxor, ancient Thebes, where we will visit tomorrow. I move to the side of the wall and look out over the countryside. The sun is beginning its descent and long shadows begin to shroud some of the enclosure walls. The mud brick takes on a slightly reddish hue and the distant hills look like cardboard cutouts against the endless, cloudless sky. Our guard joins me at the wall, staring deeply into the distance. I ask him if he has a family and he says, “Not yet,” with a bit of a smile. He will leave us tonight and go home since we will soon be out of Middle Egypt and into the tourist centers of Luxor and Aswan.

We descend from the roof via a different staircase, not nearly so worn and walk around to the back of the temple where we gaze at a relief of Cleopatra (yes, the Cleopatra) and her brother/husband Ptolemy. If we hadn’t been told it was Cleopatra, I’d never have known. Even the reliefs are beginning to look a bit alike at this point.

The sun is setting as we get back to the bus. The driver speeds up, our misadventure with the fan belt has made us a bit later than planned. As we skirt the Nile, water pipes lie on the banks like giant snakes and modern pumps gush water into the fields. It’s easy to see the difference between farms. Some are very tidy, with organized rows, carefully spaced and tended. Others are haphazard, with shaky lines and meandering trails. Clearly, personality emerges even in the way the land itself is tended. The fields and trees reflect in the calm water of the irrigation canals, like an Alice in Wonderland Through the Looking Glass world of upside down and reversed images. The light is fading and it is beginning to be difficult to see, but as we pause at a corner, I notice a duck, his head tucked under his wings, bedding down for the night. Soon we will be in Luxor and we too will be able to tuck our heads beneath our wings for one more Egyptian night.

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