Our trip to the Mediterranean region was originally conceived as the “Cradle of Civilization” tour and it was to have had us circumnavigate the Mediterranean. We wanted to visit the various lands from Western Europe to Morocco to Egypt where the earliest civilizations had formed and struggled against one another for supremacy and domination. Little did we know that we would be caught up in these continued struggles and that our plans would be shaped by them.
For the time being, we were thrilled at the prospect of visiting one of the earliest and most successful cultures in the west, and owing to its climate, one of the best preserved: Egypt. As we boarded our flight to Cairo, echoes of this grand culture reached down through the centuries in the form of the Egyptair logo, which is the god Horus, a falcon-headed deity that was ruler of the sky.
Nearly 5000 years ago, a ruler from the southern part of the Egyptian Nile, King Narmer, succeeded in uniting two kingdoms and began the First Dynasty of the Old Kingdom. This civilization would last through 31 Dynasties and into the 1st Century AD, though not without ebbs and flows and periods of near dissolution.
Our journey would take us up the Nile river, the life blood of this region and the anchor that secured the success of this mighty empire. Its annual cycle of flooding and withdrawal provided the fertile crop lands that fed the population and allowed it to thrive.
It is speculated that all the farm labor was put to use during the dry season constructing the massive monuments that are the symbol of this once great culture. It is these magnificent stone structures, constructed by the Ancient Egyptians throughout the 3000 years of their civilization, that have long sparked the tourist imagination and inspired people through the millennia to make the trek to northeast Africa. Even in its late period over 2000 years ago, travelers such as the ancient Greek historian Herodotus journeyed to see the Great Pyramids of Giza. The dry, desert climate helped these structures weather the passage of time and preserve one of the best intact pictures we have of an ancient civilization and the life of its inhabitants.
As we descended into Cairo, the view out the plane window was of a seemingly medium-sized city, which was disconcerting considering its population is estimated at 25 million, by far one of the largest cities we have ever visited. It looked like an elaborate sand structure since everything is a beige brown color. Our ride into town was swelteringly slow in the dense traffic, the vehicles all seemingly propelled by horn blasts. We arrived at our hotel to discover an air conditioned oasis whose location on a quiet side street belied its central location.
Some quick work on the internet had us booked for a tour of the ancient wonders that surround the city, Saqquara, Memphis, and Giza. Our driver and guide arrived promptly in the morning, whisking us out of the city and back in time several thousand years to the site of Memphis, the ancient capital of the Old Kingdom. On the way, our knowledgable guide, Zak (Ahmed Zaki), gave us a lesson in Ancient Egyptian history, art, politics, and theology, all of which are swirled together in the monuments left behind.
Having a good guide is worth consideration when visiting any cultural site, as their explanations of what you are seeing lend a depth of understanding that significantly enriches your experience.
Zak’s friendly, open nature and excellent English made him easy to befriend as did his patience with our many questions and poor memories. He has a personal interest in Egyptology, the study of Ancient Egypt, and is studying to become a professor of the subject. His enthusiasm for the material was apparent and infectious. He is an expert at providing an overview of a very detailed subject matter that was enough information to make our visit meaningful without getting lost in the endless details of a topic that has been studied extensively.
Little is left at Memphis, but it was a nice introduction to early Egyptian culture and our first glimpse of the enormous statues that it produced. We proceeded from there to Saqqara, a site whose structures provide a glimpse into the evolution of the pyramids as burial chambers. The original practice was to bury bodies in the sand in an upright type of coffin. However, desert jackals would disturb these so funerary practices and structures became more elaborate to protect the body for the afterlife and fell under the purview of the God Anubis, who has the head of a jackal. They began by building stone structures over the body, which evolved and became more elaborate eventually taking the shape of a stepped pyramid, similar to those in South America, and then evolving into the shape of a standard square-based pyramid.
The burial chambers also developed into multi-structure affairs for housing all the goods the person would need in the afterlife. An amazing aspect of these structures was the artwork that adorned the walls. As we walked through them, low relief carvings illustrating religious scenes, depictions of the deceased’s deeds, and accountings of all the goods contained within the walls emerged from the shadows. Row upon row of hieroglyphs were chiseled into the stone recording passages of religious texts as well as aspects of the life of the dead.
The scenes had all been painted with various pigments at one time, though much of this was gone, only the vaguest shades left in a few places. All the grave goods attracted robbers so structures morphed into the mountains of stone with chambers in the middle rather than underneath, which is form of the Great Pyramids of Giza that we all associate with Egypt. Interestingly, all this development took place before and during the Old Kingdom, which encompasses only 6 of the 31 dynasties. To explore the next chapter of this culture’s history, we boarded an overnight sleeper train to whisk us South to the next phase of Ancient Egyptian funerary practices.
Subsequent periods of Egyptian history saw the capital shift to the city of Thebes near present day Luxor. Here, rather than build a mountain of stone, the pharaohs chose a real mountain shaped like a pyramid for their tombs. The Valley of the Kings is located at the bottom of this mountain and contains 62 known tombs that have been carved into solid rock to house the remains of the dead kings and all their equipment for the afterlife. In the visitors center at the head of the valley, there is an amazing 3D diorama made from clear acrylic that shows the valley and the elaborate tunnel structures that make up the tombs. One can’t help but be amazed at the length and depth reached in some of the tombs. A short cart ride up the barren, nondescript valley brought us to a small portal in its side. Descending a short staircase, we are transported from the sun-scorched, washed out valley floor back to ancient Egypt.
Like an early graphic novel, the walls contained colorful religious scenes depicting aspects of the afterlife and the occupant’s journey to it. The same themes and depictions also appeared in the burial chambers of lesser nobles and government administrators, though on a much smaller scale. They consisted of a short descent to a single room, but the illustrations appeared as if they could have been done yesterday the colors were so vibrant. Color was an indicator of wealth and the more blue the chamber contained the wealthier the individual since blue pigment, made with the mineral Lapis lazuli, was hard to obtain and therefore more costly.
In contrast to the pyramids of Saqqara, much of the pigment used to decorate these carvings remains intact, making them vibrant and alive. Though there are many tombs in the valley, visitors are only allowed into the few that are open for visits, the others remaining off limits for preservation purposes and continued study.
The geographic position of the pyramids and burial chambers is a significant feature. Nearly all of them were built on the West bank of the Nile, while communities were located on the East bank. This orientation was based on the suns journey across the sky, which meant the after life would be in the West where the sun set. Present life would be lived in the East, hence all the communities were on this side of the river.
Having already seen the contents of Tutankhaman’s Tomb at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, it was easy to imagine what the contents of these elaborate mausoleums must have looked like. All the goods of daily life were buried with the noble or pharaoh, like some cross-life moving van employed for the deceased’s journey to take up residency in the Great Beyond. The ones that remained intact provided the perfect time capsule, a collection of objects that provided a glimpse into the everyday life of a culture that has not existed for thousands of years.
These elaborate mausoleums packed with treasure were for Kings and Queens, but the belief in the afterlife and the need for burial chambers pervaded the entire culture. This was apparent in other places where lesser nobility had much smaller, simpler tombs that still contained paintings of religious scenes down to the simple caves that contained multiple bodies of the peasants.
What I find odd about all this is the amount of time, energy, and resources that were focused on the after-life. Many of the great monuments of Egypt that survive revolve around life after death. What might they have accomplished if all that manpower had been focused on bettering the lives of the living?
We found one possible answer in Aswan where there are two huge dams that flood a large area reaching into northern Sudan with both positive and negative effects. While these projects ended the flooding cycle, stabilized the river banks, and provided power to the region, it also caused the loss of a large number of ancient sites from the Nubian culture and others that existed within the footprint of the newly created reservoir. Even a massive Egyptian monument, Abu Simbel might have been lost had it not been for an international effort to move it up the hillside 90 meters and reconstruct it above the new waterline. One wonders what other ancient treasures might be buried below the shifting sands that are now covered by water.
While not as extensive nor prosperous as the Ancient Egyptian culture, Nubian culture has a similar long history and is closely intertwined with that of Egypt. We discovered this fascinating and little known culture in a visit to the Nubian Museum located in Aswan. This award-winning institution houses an excellent collection of artifacts that conveys the story of the Nubian people from prehistory to the present, definitely a must-see if you venture south to Aswan.
Nearer in time to the present, the Ancient Romans also controlled this area for a time, and there are the remains of a fortified port on one of the islands in the Nile. It was interesting to see this after having seem so many other Roman ruins across the Mediterranean. There is a uniformity to Roman communities despite their occupation of a region that encompasses many different countries and cultures today. In contrast to the Egyptians and their focus on the after-life, the civic structures that remain from the Roman era are built for the living, theaters, coliseums, baths, aqueducts, governmental buildings and monuments to the accomplishments of its leaders.
Regardless of what you think of their priorities, the Ancient Egyptians were undeniably a mighty culture that lasted around 3,000 years, one of the longest in history. The monuments and artifacts they left behind are a window into the past that provides context when viewing your own and other cultures and their priorities. You can’t help but see our present world differently.
It will be interesting to see if the United States lasts as long. We only have 2750 years to wait.
-written by Aaron, photographed by Tammy