In The Lap Of Ancient Civilization
I am just back from Egypt -- a land of thousand contradictions, where ancient traditions and modern technologies live together. Our journey through Cairo , Aswan , Luxor and Hurgadha proved to be a mixture of discovery and pleasure. Time got into reverse and the senses reeled under inexplicable influences. It was difficult not to be overwhelmed.
Our first stop was Cairo . Incidentally we arrived there on 4th of June, the same day when the President of the U.S.A. also landed. I had read somewhere that ‘if you have not seen Cairo , you have not seen the world.’ Cairo is situated on the east bank of the River Nile, which the Egyptians call the mother of the world. I remember our history books referring to Egypt as the ‘Gift of the Nile ’.
We were put up at Hotel Pyramid Park in Giza , which is perhaps the second largest town in Egypt . So we were already close to one of the wonders of the world -- the famous pyramids. Most of the sign boards in Cairo were in Arabic and so it was difficult to recognize any building on its own. I found the words ‘kahira’ and ‘misr’ written at some places ( urdu equivalents of Cairo and Egypt ). What really struck the eyes was the mud and earth coloured exteriors of most of the buildings and houses. Many houses seemed to be incomplete (though one could see air conditioners fitted in the windows). Our guide informed us that people often resort to this to avoid paying taxes to the government, which they have to, once the house is completed.
The Pyramids of Giza
The Arabic word for pyramid is ‘ahramat’, which means group of tombs. The bright sunny morning of 5th June found our group in front of three massive stone structures, built on a rocky desert plateau, close to the Nile and near the then capital city of Memphis. They once housed the remains of the fourth dynasty kings Khufu (Chiopse to the Greeks), Khafre (Chephren), and Menkaure, who ruled through 2589 to 2506 B.C. This was also the peak time of prosperity of the old kingdom of Egypt .
The pyramid of Pharaoh Khufu has a base covering 9 acres and was originally 146 metres high, until it was robbed of its outer casing and capstone, decreasing its height by 9 meters. More than 2 million limestone pieces were used to construct it. Surely, to build such a gigantic structure the ancient Egyptians must have had access to some modern technology (which perhaps now lies buried deep in the sands).
The second pyramid is of Pharaoh Khafre (Chephren), the son of Khufu. It is 3 metres less in height, perhaps in deference to the elder king. The 3rd of the trio of this ‘pyramid plateau’ is of the grandson Khopho (Menkaure), which is incomplete as the king died before he could complete its construction.. There are three other smaller pyramids of the wives of these three Pharaohs.
Coming face to face with the Sphinx was a moment I had always dreamt of. And now here it was in front of the pyramid of Khafre, presiding and guarding over the Giza nechropolis. Carved from a single piece of stone, it has a lion’s body with a man’s head ( presumably that of Khafre).
Unfortunately the pyramids were plundered long ago of their belongings and bodies, by tomb robbers. Pyramid building also stopped as the power/prosperity of the pharaohs weakened. Yet these marvelous structures represent more than mere tombs. The mysteries surrounding their symbolism, design and the mathematical precision with which they were built will continue to inspire passionate debates.
The Egyptian Museum
How could we leave Cairo without taking a peek at the treasure trove of artifacts (no replicas, mind you) in The Egyptian Museum, located in Tahrir Square . It was impossible to see the entire museum (consisting of more than 100 halls), keeping in mind the time constraints of a tourist, who wishes to see so much in so little a time. So we confined ourselves to the section of jewellery and the hieroglyphic paintings of ancient Egypt . And none could miss the dazzling collection of more than 3000 antiques found intact in the tomb of the famous Boy King Tutankhamun (who died at the young age of 19 years after ruling for 9 years). His tomb was discovered in 1922 in the valley of kings at Luxor , by Howard Carter. Carter believed that although the tomb was robbed twice after the funeral of Tutankhamun, yet it remains the only tomb where at least the burial chamber was untouched, perhaps because it was built under the tomb of Pharaoh Rameses V. In the tomb, Carter found four gilded shrines nested inside each other. The innermost shrine covered a stone sarcophagus, which hid three more coffins. The innermost of these, made of 110 kg of pure gold, housed the mummy of the king. His spectacular crown of gold weighed 11 kilograms. There are exquisite jewellery pieces in pure gold. Most of his other belongings like his bed, his throne (with a foot stool on which are carved his enemies faces) with the statues of his wife and himself, his carriage etc. are made of gilded sycamore wood. Everything, including the vivid colours of the paintings, are so well preserved that they seem to be marvelously new.
The smallest statue in the museum was that of King Khofu, who was supposed to be very ugly. An embalming table still had drops of blood preserved on it.
Photography is prohibited inside the museum for lesser mortals like us.
Temple of Philae
We took the night train from Cairo to Aswan , which is famous for its great dam (111 meters) high, built on Lake Nasser , the largest man made lake at 6000 square km. Our next stop was the Temple of Philae , which is dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis, wife of Osiris and mother of the falcon god Horus. These three characters dominate the ancient Egyptian culture and religion. Its construction was started by Ptolemy II in Greco- Egyptian style, and continued by Roman emperors. The temple was originally built on the island of Philae (hence its name) on the Nile . But it was totally submerged when the high dam was completed in 1960. So the temple was completely dismantled and reassembled on its present location on Aglika island, 550 m away, over a period of 10 years.
Cruise on the river Nile
Another dream come true! We boarded the ship Adonis at Aswan , for a three night leisurely and luxurious cruise on the mother of all rivers. We stopped at the temple of Kom (group) Ombo (gold), meaning lots of gold. In ancient times Kom Ombo stood on an important crossroad on the caravan route from Nubia to the gold mines in the eastern desert. The temple, dating from 200 B.C., was built during the Plotemaic era. The temple is unique in the sense that it is a double temple – the right side of it is dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek, and the left side honours Haroeris, a form of the falcon headed god Horus. It was built basically to propitiate the crocodiles, which infested this bank of the river. Our guide Ahmed told us that the temple housed 5 mummies of crocodiles (nowhere else have animals been mummified), which had been removed to the British Museum just a few days ago. The outer hypostyle Hall of the temple has 15 columns topped with lotus capitals and the bases bear the papyrus symbol. The walls of the temple are full of carvings and hieroglyphic paintings. One wall has the etchings of medical tools of that era (but still in use in today’s times). Of great significance are two carvings of women in labour, delivering a baby, in the sitting posture. Gynaecologists, please note!
Next morning, we watched in awe as our ship approached and slid past the Esna Lock into lower waters.
Valley of Kings
Next day we disembarked at Luxor to visit the royal necropolis on the western bank, with the mountain of Thebes providing a natural pyramid background. Tombs of 62 kings are located here. We took mini trams to reach the walkways of the three tombs of Ramases I, IV and IX, which we visited. The deepest tomb is of Ramases II, which is 185m into the mountain, another engineering marvel. The walls of the tombs are decorated with coloured paintings, in natural earth tones of blue, rust, yellow and black. Our guide told us that the walls were polished, painted and then covered with egg white, to preserve the paintings. Here again we were not allowed to click our cameras.
But the star attraction was the mummy of Tutankhamun, which is the only mummy still preserved in his tomb, which is the smallest tomb in the valley, as the king died very young. The blackened mummy had the face and the feet uncovered and each contour was clearly visible, the third toe finger of the left foot slightly broken/damaged. The rest of the body was covered with a gauze like sheet.
Temple of Del El Bahri built by Queen Hatshepsut (foremost of noble ladies)
After visiting an alabaster factory we found ourselves in front of the temple built by queen Hatshesput. A very tall structure, it took 20 years to complete and 10,000 workers are said to have died during its construction. The queen was the 5th pharaoh of the 18th dynasty and ruled for 22 years from 1479 to 1458 B.C. She was a prolific builder, commissioning several projects throughout Egypt . She built this temple around 1450 B.C. to commemorate her achievements and to serve as a funerary temple for her; as well as a sanctuary for god Amon Re. It consists of three elegant colonnaded terraces set against the high cliff. We accessed the second terrace by a ramp having 51 steps.
The Karnak Temples
This is the largest temple complex, spread over 700 acres and built and enlarged over a period of 1300 years. Although ruined partially, it is still an impressive site dedicated to gods Amon Ra, Mut and Khonsu.
The main hall has 134 columns, each 75 m high. The last façade/pylon was built in 335 B.C. but could not be completed due to attack by Alexander the Great.
Queen Hatshesput built two huge obelisks (symbolS of eternity and of the house of Amon Ra) here, one of them being 97 feet high. Rameses II added generously to the splendour of the temples. In several paintings etched on the walls, he is shown with the gods (and not shown making an offering to the gods). The entrance is adorned by two statues of him.
The complex also has a sacred lake which was purportedly dug by Isis to save humankind. Near the lake is a huge stone scarab – the Egyptian god of luck and magic.
The heat was mind boggling, but so were the carvings and paintings on the temple walls.
This was the last stop on our itinerary. On the way from Luxor to this famous beach resort, we passed through mud brick houses, as our bus ran over mountain and desert roads. At Safaga, I had the first glimpse of the pristine blue of the Red Sea (so called because of its red coral reefs).
Hurgadha is a modern city, about 55 years old. Tourism is its mainstay and it boasts of more than 300 hotels and an international airport. The quaint structures of this place reminded me of Arabian Nights’ Tales. We stayed at the Sonesta Pharaoh Beach Resort.
The experience at the beach was nothing short of exhilarating, as we floated, swam, walked, and snorkeled in the deep blue waters of the Red Sea .
In between, our very hectic schedule we found time to ramble through the Khalili Bazaars at Cairo and Luxor; saw how papyrus paper was made from the stems of the plant, which is sacred to Egypt, may be because of its pyramidical crossection; inhaled the aromas of wild, sensuos scents at a perfumery; enjoyed the exuberance of the famous Nubian Tanoura dance; lunched at the Indian restaurant Massala at Hotel Karvin in Cairo (run by an Indian Kaval Nain Oberoi and his beautiful Egyptian wife).
This was no mean feat when seven of us teachers had 50 energetic and ebullient Loreto Convent students to look after on their first international educational tour. Apart from getting a peep into the most famous and ancient civilization, this trip taught them the important lesson of conserving water. We had to buy water all through our journey at Rs.40 (or more) a bottle. No hotel/eatery in Egypt serves free water with meals. And no roadside restaurant allows free usage of its washrooms – one has to pay Rs.8 per person.
By the grace of God, we returned to Lucknow after 9 dreamy days, tired but refreshed.
(The author is the Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS) and also teaches Physics at India's prestigious Loreto Convent. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, website: www.citizen-news.org)
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