SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Beyond the Sphinx

DESTINATION

A wall of hieroglyphics ... a newly discovered tomb near Sakkara.

A wall of hieroglyphics ... a newly discovered tomb near Sakkara.  

TO those of us nurtured on the legends and lore of the once fabulous Egyptian civilisation, Cairo airport is somewhat of an anti-climax. Strips of chlorophenical are thrust at us by health officers and the general disorganised bustle has the effect of detaching us from the conventional responses to Egypt. But the sense of other worldiness soon catches up, as one is whisked down the busy thoroughfares under an illuminated Egyptian sky. Al-Azhar and Al-Rifa's mosques, statues of ancient emperors rub shoulders with modern structures and shopping arcades. The drive to Giza seems longwinded but serves to give visitors an orientation to the forthcoming delights.

Egypt has been always, in the words of the great Greek historian Herodotus, "the gift of the Nile". Between 3100 and 32 B.C. approximately, one of the oldest and richest civilisations of the ancient world had flourished in this Nile valley. Even after thousands of years, the surviving monuments still speak eloquently of the powers of the pharaohs who were more or less demi-gods for their subjects.

The tourist on a whirlwind tour of the land, gets acquainted with their distinctive cultural past through paintings, writings on papyrus and of course the great monumental structures, their houses of eternity, better known as pyramids. To some of us who can recall moments in history classrooms, Egypt has always been shrouded by an aura of enchantment. Visions of exotic beauties like Nefertiti, legends of mummified pharaohs and the towering presence of the pyramids have made Egypt a fantasy place. To extricate historical facts from all the legends as well as the sentimental assumptions that have grown around the place, provided to be an enjoyable exercise.

Even after 4,000 years the great pyramids of Giza are an awesome sight. In the stark sands of Giza the three pyramids thrust upwards their sharp contours, blazing against a clear desert sky. They, together with the Sphinx, are the only remaining among the seven wonders of the world, exalted by the ancient Greeks. If you can ignore the jostling peddlers at your elbow trying to sell his wares, claiming acquaintance with the people from the land of Amitabh Bachchan, the magic still remains.

The positioning of the three pyramids are such that they lie along a diagonal running from northeast to southwest so that none of them ever hide the sun from the others. The sound and light show, where the narrator is none other than the Sphinx, the legendary guardian of the pyramids, can be quite a sublime experience, as it highlights the historical context in which the monument should be viewed. In a solemn voice we hear the various stages of civilisation as it came to pass beneath shadow of the pyramids. Although the Sphinx has the likeness of king Khafre, the temple dedicated to the Sphinx, in material and construction technique, differs and seems to be older, belonging to the first dynasty. This gigantic human headed lion was repeatedly buried in sand and had to be restored periodically. The most famous restoration was done by Thutmosis IV to whom God Horus appeared in a dream, and urged him to undertake the task!

It seems the ancient Egyptians were preoccupied to the point of obsession about their lives after death. Their earthly life, particularly in the case of royalty, seems to be an endless preparation for the next one. The arduous climb inside the pyramid led to the burial chamber of king Cheops, excavated in the rock set, almost in the centre of the monument. Each one of these pyramids have had a monumental complex, complete with a mortuary temple, a causeway and a valley temple. While that of Khafre is still intact, that of Khufu or Cheops has been totally destroyed. Originally 146m high it now measures 137m; while gazing at the pyramids one gets a feeling of looking upon the gateway to infinity. The sheer size of the blocks used for these marvellous structures, leads one to wonder at the engineering feat accomplished by this early civilisation.

CHOOSING the route for travel is always crucial and its most important aspect. The best way to get a feel of this ancient land is to course down its main artery, the Nile, which has sustained it in the past. Luxor, from which the cruise originated, is the modern version of the ancient capital Thebes. Before the cruise, a visit to the monumental complexes in the valley of the queens and kings, gave an idea of the art treasures of the pharaohs belonging to the 19th and 20th dynasties. The guardians to these valleys are the two immense colossi of memnon — the original guards of the mortuary temple of Amenophis III, built 3,000 years ago. The arrangement of the funerary complexes differed from the period of the pyramids. The tomb, instead of being the focal point, had become an imposint mortuary temple for the Theban kinds, at the edge of the desert. The tomb now also had become a temple, hidden in the heart of the desert.

A VISIT to the these tombs particularly those belonging to Ramses VII and IX was an amazing experience. The glow of colours in the paintings depicting the pharaohs, demigods and goddesses in vivid yellow ochre, blue and orange was breathtaking. The emphasis of the iconography here is on the continuity of life of the pharaoh in contact with the Gods and his victory over death, acquiring divinity in the process. Here one gets acquainted with Anubis the jackal headed guardian god, Hathor the gentle cow Goddess, Horus with his falcon crown, son of Osiris and Isis, Thoth the Ibis, and Sobek the crocodile.

The modern evidence that has unlocked the secrets of the past has revealed considerable information about the culture of the land. The most famous discovery, the tomb belonging to Tutankhamen was made here in 1900. Tutankhamen belonging to troubled years following the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten (who favoured monotheism) died very young; but his tomb despite frequent visits by vandals, had yielded immense treasures, now carefully displayed in the Cairo museum.

In Luxor, which was once the legendary Thebes, the focal point is the temple built by Amenophis III (390 B.C.), with additions of Thytmosis III and Ramses II. A visit in twilight when the obelisks are lit up gives an ethereal quality to the avenue of the sphinxes seen through the entrance of the great pylon. The detailing comes off better at night with illumination, and time stands still, as two colossal statues of the pharaoh Ramses II come alive under a vibrant Egyptian sky. The next day at Karnak unfolded further treasures of art and the architecture. Situated north of the Luxor temple Karnak sanctuaries were dedicated to the Gods Amon, Montu and Mut.

The majestic avenue of ram headed sphinxes intrigue the visitor who cannot but marvel at the conception and execution of such magnificence. The sacred lake used for ritual ablutions recalls our temple tanks. The giant scarab erected by the pharaoh is said to bring luck to childless couples! The best preserved temple in Egypt is located further up the Nile at Edfu, where the engraving of the last Ptolemy, in the fa�ade claims attention. This as well as the temple at KomOmbo (dedicated to Horus and Sobek the crocodile) proved to be a haven for shopping enthusiasts. Casting a hasty look at the mummified crocodile diety, tourist flocked to the wayside markets.

To bargain over a damask table cloth or a string of tourquoise beads was every bit thrilling as unearthing the sarcophagus of a departed pharaoh. Our friendly guide had warned us about the kind of wild bargaining that went on it in the market; hawkers came to sell their wares in small row boats near the cruise boats sometimes tossing up a garment to the deck to clinch a quick deal. Soon Aswan was sighted and the high dam was photographed from the best vantage point.

THERE was an ancient Egyptian belief that the source of the Nile was in the neighbourhood of the first cataract. A strange and beautiful calm pervades the Nile at this point. The boat trip to the temple of Isis at Philae was easily the piece de resistance of the cruise. The temple, once submerged by the waters of the Nile following the building of the dam has been rebuilt piece by piece on an another island Agilkia where Isis and Osiris are once more reunited. Having heard the tender love story of how the winged Isis breathed life back into Osiris, murdered by his brother Seth, the excursion had the feel of a pilgrimage. Here was an altar to the Goddess of love which has eventually proved more enduring than the grandeur of kings. The sound and light show is unbelievable says our guide Magdy, when the voice of goddess Isis reverberates against the rocky shores, promising eternal love as the only salvation to mankind. This temple called the "pearl of Egypt" represents a perfect synthesis of the Egyptian, Roman, and Greek civilisations.

No trip to this antique land would be complete without a visit to Alexandria. This port city rose into prominence after the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great. The lighhouse once ranked among the ancient wonders of the world may have been destroyed and rebuilt, but memories of Cleopatra's (48 B.C.) royal barge is still very vivid on the beach front. Here the great Roman triumvirs, while conquering Egypt, were ensnared by the dusky charms of the Egyptian queen, daughter of Ptolemy the seventh. Here Anthony, lost the battle of Actium, "kissed away kingdoms and provinces" at the bidding of Cleopatra. Pompeii's column, and catacombs, places of refuge for early Christians, recalled Roman presence.

However the catacombs had beautifully engraved walls depicting Egyptian gods, proclaiming an earlier existence. When Egypt became a Roman province, Alexandria became the second city of the empire, a charming winder resort. The famous library once burnt down by Caesar, is today a beautiful modern structure housing ancient manuscripts and valuable scrolls.

To absorb 5,000 years of a country's rich cultural past within the compass of seven days, was like delving into a honeypot and emerging in a daze. We were left with a pot pourri of impressions — a tapestry of images from antiquity rather like the carpets displayed in the shops of Cairo.

A passion for religion seems to have permeated this land and had bonded the Egyptian society for thousands of years. Any attempt to unravel the past, is not just a fascinating journey back in time but also a recall of timeless folk memory which lends substance to the myths surrounding ancient Egypt.

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