Centenary World Cruise Day 21: Egypt (Part 2)

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.

Tombs outside Valley of the Kings – just a few of the incredible number of tombs in the area

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.

This is all propaganda telling why Ramses IV should get into heaven

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.

On the left, the original wall of Karnak Temple, and on the right, a Roman wall built hundreds of years later. They just don’t build them like they used to.

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.”

The Pirate and me in front of two of the zillion ram’s head statues, each with a little guy in front of it. They seemed to say “This is my tiny guy. There are many like him, but this one is mine.”

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.

Centenary World Cruise Day 21: Egypt (Part 1)

Today, we traveled by bus from Safaga to the Valley of Kings. Because we were up at dark o’clock, I had hoped to catch some sleep on the 3 ½ hour bus ride, but that wasn’t going to happen. Our guide wanted to give us a very full picture of Egyptian history, culture, and politics, and since she would not be able to enter the tombs at the Valley of Kings with us, she wanted to talk about what we’d see inside the tombs.

We went through Qena and Luxor, and I was surprised by the lack of infrastructure. There are canals that channel the Nile out to water the small-scale agriculture that looked like about half of it was commercial, and the other half the household gardens of the people who lived there.

Other than the main road we were on, there were very few paved roads. While there were a few private cars, most people were on motorcycles, donkey carts, or bicycles. In fact, donkey carts were about half the traffic.

About two-thirds of the houses were concrete blocks or bricks, but a third were mud bricks with porches shaded with what looked like chaff from sugar cane, which is the largest commercial crop in the area. A lot of the houses looked as though they had been built as one-story structures, then later they added a second story while still living on the first floor, and then later added another floor. In the picture below, you can see rebar sticking up from the roof where they will add another floor. About half the concrete structures were like that.

The banks of the canal were full of garbage in a way that made it clear that it was the main method of waste disposal. I was surprised that I didn’t see a single large shop of any kind on the way there. I saw the kind of tiny stalls that sold a little of everything, but no large shops offering clothing, pharmaceuticals, hardware, or anything else one might expect to see in such a large population center. Mosques are the tallest buildings in the landscape. The minarets of these mosques can be seen from anywhere in the town, and all had loudspeakers on them.

On the way back, the town looked entirely different. It was dark by the time we drove back through Qena, although it was only about 6pm. Now the road seemed to be lined with small shops and restaurants. There were lots of people in the streets shopping, talking, walking home or waiting or a bus. The neighborhoods we’d seen during the day that had no paved roads also seemed to be largely without electricity, with one notable exception: the tall tower on every mosque bore several rings of bright-green neon. In neighborhoods with many mosques, it looked almost like Las Vegas.

I’ll post about Valley of Kings and Karnak Temple separately.

Film #1: The Square

The Square (Al Midan) tracked five Egyptian revolutionaries from immediately before the fall of Hosni Mubarek until December of 2012.

Overall rating: 2 out of 4

Early in the film, we are introduced to five different people – real Egyptians, really involved in the struggle for a truly democratic government. One was a woman whose occupation and/or qualifications weren’t clear (we were only ever given her name, and only once). One was an actor whose father appeared to also be involved in Egyptian media (although not 100% certain it was his father, although there was a strong resemblance). One was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. One appeared to be a student, although again, his occupation wasn’t given. One was a soldier who did nothing but toe the party line.

The film followed these people from the day that Mubarek stepped down and many Egyptians thought their revolution was over, to the realization that, although Mubarek was gone, they had not achieved their aims of democracy and freedom. The military took over and began issuing orders to the civilian population, restricting their freedoms and occasionally clashing with them, then, when elections were finally held, many people felt that the results of those elections weren’t indicative of the actual wishes of the people.

The filmmakers literally risked their lives, as much of the footage was taken from sites where the military was attacking civilians. Several of the subjects of the film were wounded in the 2 years of filming during various encounters with the military. The action was certainly dramatic.

The film really fell down because there was no cohesive narrative to tie it all together. We began at a very high point – the deposition of Mubarek, when all the subjects celebrated their first victory and felt that the country had come together to achieve something great. Over the next two hours, though, we went from the emotionally high point of Mubarek’s defeat to the realization that the military leaders were lying to the people and curtailing their freedoms, then to the realization that the revolution had lost its coherent center, then to the point where the Muslim Brotherhood took advantage of the political chaos created by the revolution to step in and seize power. By the end of the film, the people we were following seemed confused and defeated.

I feel that, even in a documentary where you’re filming things that are actually happening and where you may need to film a great deal before you can get a sense of what the “what” really is, you have to have some kind of narrative. Humans, as my own research keep saying, love a pattern. Sadly, war is precisely a breakdown of established patterns, so filming and making sense of warlike events is a special talent. One that, I’m afraid, this director is still perfecting.

Great for understanding what’s going on in Egypt. Certainly thought-provoking for me personally as I equate a lot of what Egyptians are fighting for with a lot of what the Occupy movement is fighting for. We’ll see how it stands up to tomorrow’s offering about Occupy Wall Street.