I’ve mentioned that many monuments and famous sights are a letdown — smaller, less colorful, less impressive than their hype would suggest. The sights we saw in Egypt were an incredible exception. If anything, they were larger and more impressive than I could ever have given them credit for.
We started at the Valley of Kings. Our guide, who was not allowed to enter the tombs with us, talked a lot about what we’d see. The most interesting thing was that she talked about the Egyptian visions of an afterlife where one will be judged according to their good and bad deeds. Christians believe the same thing, but the Christian God is omniscient, and therefore knows even before you die, all the things you’ve done.
Egyptian gods are less efficient. Much of the writing on the tomb walls was a long list of all the entombed person’s good deeds, which was supposed to persuade the relevant gods that the person was worthy. Like Christians, Egyptians believed in a day of judgement when all the dead will be called to account, and that nobody knew when that day might come. Egyptians didn’t believe in reincarnation – they believed in resurrection. They preserved all the bodily bits because after judgement, worthies would be re-installed into their earthly bodies and allowed to live again for eternity. I’ll be honest, that sounds like kind of a crummy deal to me. If I’m going to spend eternity in a fleshly body, I’d like one a little younger, healthier, and better-looking.
Another fascinating thing was the amount of ancient graffiti, left by people as early as the first Greeks to come to Egypt. I’ve read about ancient graffiti in other sites, and it’s apparently very much the same as graffiti nowadays – “Bobacles was here,” “Joeacles is a jerk,” “For a good time, call Shirlyacles.” Tourists are only allowed to venture a few yards into each tomb, as most of them are still being excavated.
Onto Karnak Temple, which was awe-inspiring. First, we drove by Luxor Temple, about a mile away. Most of it has been lost, but what remains is still impressive. Monumental, in every sense of the word – built to the glory of kings that styled themselves as gods, on a scale that would ensure that no one would ever doubt their significance.
Leading away from Luxor Temple toward Karnak Temple is an avenue of small-ish sphinxes (maybe 5 feet tall, including their pedestals) that originally stretched the entire distance, but much of which was destroyed to make room for more modern development. I was surprised to learn that most Egyptian antiquities didn’t have any kind of meaningful governmental protection until the 1960s or 70s.
Karnak Temple is an experience that comes in waves. First, there’s a pair of 30-ish foot towers, each stone several tons, and all fitted together perfectly. The towers were built without any kind of mortar, and the stones were cut before they were put into place, meaning that everything had to be precisely calculated and measured prior to being placed – perhaps the saying “measure twice, cut once” originated with the Egyptians? Outside the temple wall was another wall of slightly more modern Roman origin – built hundreds of years after the temple, but in much worse repair.
Inside the first towers was a courtyard with ram-headed statues lining either side, and 15-foot statues of Ramses II. Actually, the theme of the entire temple was “Ramses II is the most amazing guy ever,” even though much of it was built during his father’s reign. Apparently, Ramses II had a tendency to carve his name into statues of his predecessors, and carve them deeply enough that they couldn’t be carved over, which led to him being known as “the thief of history.”
After another pair of towers is an extraordinary area that used to be two rows of 30-foot columns with two rows of 20-foot columns on each side. The two rows of shorter columns originally supported a roof, which has been lost, and there are the remains of stone-framed windows on top of them. The tops of the shorter columns resemble closed flower buds, and the tops of the larger columns resemble open flowers, highlighting the centrality of the sun to Egyptian spiritual life. Back when it was entire, the side arcades would have been sheltered from the sun and heat, but the central arcade would have been flooded with sunlight, highlighting the friezes carved on the columns. Standing in the middle of it, I felt the same sort of smallness and humility in the face of grandeur that I felt in Sagrada Familia, which similarly uses themes of organic life and light to express appreciation for the sacred.
But incised into every surface of that inner colonnade was writing that extolled the virtues and triumphs of Ramses II – lists of tribes he’d conquered, friezes showing him acting as high priest (one of the king’s responsibilities) in various ceremonies, friezes highlighting his godly lineage. The inside was covered in religious imagery, but the outside was covered in friezes showing him in his military aspect. Scenes of him in battle, slaying his enemies; scenes of him leading captives back to Karnak to be sacrificed; scenes of his enemies begging for mercy and making offerings to him. One entire wall is covered with a peace treaty between Ramses II and the Hittites.
I left the temple knowing that I’d need some time to process all that I’d seen. I want to go back, just to spend a lot more time understanding what I saw.