Saturday, January 24, 2004

We've settled in Luxor for a three-day rest before returning to the big city of Cairo for a last day at the Egyptian Museum. Then, we go to the airport for a short, commuter flight to Athens. I keep saying to myself that now is the time to begin thinking about what this part of the trip has meant.

Ancient Egypt. Massive temple complexes. Serenity beyond belief reflected in the statues' faces long, long since gone. What a mix of history. Here, for example, in Luxor, the former religious capital of the Middle and New Kingdoms, a major temple complex at Karnak is roughly equivalent in size to about 350 full football fields. Imagine a giant religious center where each leader adds on something new to attest to his greatness. Yes, temples, obelisks, giant commemorative statues. Ramses II set a record for adding over 350 giant columns in a massive hypostyle hall. At the very edges of walls and ceilings some colors remain from 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, vivid blue, green and some yellow. In the interiors of sanctuaries these colors glow faintly from corners.

My favorite story about Karnak is of the female pharaoh, Hatsepshut, who through a series of intrigues and deaths (some planned?) led Egypt for 20 years. She built several temples and several large obelisks. Her successor built a 70 foot wall to hide it from successive generations, but today it is recognized as the largest obelisk in all of Egypt, glowing in pink granite. She was, according to historians, the first to claim direct descendancy from the gods to support her rule -- but not the last!

I hope to come away with the essential understanding of the character of the three major kingdoms -- old, middle and new -- but i begin to see Egypt as more about its military achievements than its religious or cultural identity, that without the strong and on-the-offensive military leadership that kept its enemies on all directions as vassals, that Egypt would not have survived so many years.

After a while of stomping through the temples, a common story begins to emerge. What a close relationship with the gods and goddesses the pharaohs -- and later the nobility, the priests, and everyone else -- experienced. The reliefs and murals show the gods and goddesses very protective of the pharaoh. So, one story might show at the outside of the temple the typical war history of the pharaoh successfully smiting his enemies, but once you begin to move inside the sanctuary, sandals are removed and the pharaoh is taken on a journey -- either through the special rituals that led him to kingship, or the journey to the unknown land of the dead through specific preparations, rituals and prayers. Over and over again, the hieroglyps seem to say, this is how our rituals are completed, this is our pharaoh who will live on eternally.

Of course, the stones tumble, worn down by desert wind, the tomb robbers have stolen much riches, and the poor people take stones one by one to build houses, mixing stone with mud brick. It doesn't rain here. The Nile is the only constant. That and the tourists who come to take pictures and try to understand this ancient culture, superimposed by a Third World culture struggling with unemployment, illiteracy, and a growing birth rate. Half the population is under the age of 18.

I almost enjoy walking through the crowded bazaars (called souqs) to see the wealth of craft built around the theme of ancient Egypt. You can buy any artifact fabricated, authenticated. Spices call out: frankenscense, myrr, surprisingly bright blue indigo, cinnebar, dried figs and dates, mint for tea, hibiscus. Bright colors catch the eye, reds, greens, blue, purple, edged with gold and silver for long robes for men and women. Married women wear all black and nearly all wear scarves to cover their heads. In smaller towns, the donkey is the key transport ridden in the Biblical way or pulling a cart, heavy with sugar cane and several people.

As we rode in the train up to Luxor from Aswan, we passed small fields, too small, we read, to support any one family; most in the cities work a government job and drive a taxi to make up the difference. We are not talking about two income families here in the sense of two incomes in the US, as here it is the husband who works two jobs. Women stay home, responsible for the children. Such a melange of facts -- military service is compulsory for men but waived for university graduates.

Yet there remains a beauty here, people are extraordinarily friendly. They welcome conversations and then want to sell something, and then hug you as if you were a long lost family member. I suppose that is what I will remember the most, that and the Mona Lisa smile of the pharaohs.

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