Monday, September 24, 2012

Pharoahs Alive

Last week, the AMIDEAST Egypt study abroad group and I took a Nile cruise travelling against the currents to Upper Nile. For those unaware of Egyptian geography, the Nile flows from the south to the north of Egypt, emptying into the ocean north of Cairo and forming the Nile River Delta. 

We began our journey with an over-night train to Luxor. I did not know what to expect. While laying down in our sleeper-train bunk beds, my roommate Kathleen and I, while rocking with the train, excitedly whispered about what we might see, hear, and who we might meet. I am aware of my hopeless romanticism of antiquities and all things ancient that has been kindled from years of watching National Geographic and Discovery Chanel specials with my father.

 These shows, rich with dramatic Oriental music, flowery superlatives, and charismatic experts like Dr. Zaki Hawass, the former Minister of Antiquities, inspired me to study cultures- dead and alive.  

When we arrived in Luxor it was 5 in the morning. The sun was peeping out between temple walls, and that is when I fell in love. The sheer size of Karnak temple dumbfounded me. To imagine that these temples have been standing for a few thousand years leaves me numb. Coming from the United States, I cannot even fathom something that is so old. The history of what we call the United States is young and we have little connection of civilizations before the settlers of Pilgrim Rock. Egypt is a whole different story.

I pressed my hands to the stone walls (our secret because we technically aren’t supposed to) It was cool and sturdy. It was real. Walking through the ancient halls made me feel so small. I was towered by columns the width of six of me and a height of eight of me.

Above, I could still see rich blues, yellows, and terra-cottas which have stood the test of time and never faded. In those moments, I was sad. When I was a kid, my father and I promised we would go here together one day. A history buff, Baba always told me fabulous stories of strong kings and glorious kingdoms. He used to travel the world in the comfort of his La-Z Boy recliner by flipping through travel books, planning trips he would never be able to live out. Here I was across the Nile experiencing what he had always wanted to do.

But it was Baba who sent me here with warm wishes. He was the one who encouraged me to study abroad wherever I wanted to go. He gave me his marked up Lonely Planet with places he would want to see. He was the one who told me that once I drink from the Nile, I would always go back.  When I return to Egypt, Baba and I will walk the halls of Karnak together.

Romance prevails, reality intrudes. While I was walking parallel to the outside walls of the temple, I noticed a perfectly shaped crescent indent in the stone fa├žade. It was as if someone had carefully and consistently taken a rock to the stone temple for what reason I did not know. 

“Fascinating, isn’t it?” my anthropology professor Dr. Nicole Hansen approached me from behind. I was supposed to go on her tour but I went off by myself first. I blushed profusely because I was expected to have gone with her and I was afraid she would call me out on it. An Egyptologist by trade, Dr. Hansen studies the connections between ancient and modern Egyptian societies. Dr. Hansen told me that these bizarre incisions have been made by women who in villages around Luxor. These women crumble the stone into finely grinded powder to mix with water and drink to increase their fertility. We kept walking.

We kept talking until out of the corner of my eye, I saw something that looked oddly familiar. On the wall ahead of me was a hieroglyph that I recognized from my anthropology class with Dr. Hansen. It was a glyph with three lines that were tied together at the top. I got on my knees just to make sure, and I could not believe it. The night before when I was riding the train to Luxor, I was reading an academic article for class about birth rituals in Upper Egypt found in villages today. When a woman is soon to conceive, her family ties three foxtails to the front door to shoo away evil spirits and to symbolize the birth of a new child. The same symbol can be found in etched in rock thousands of years ago on the face of a temple. Five days after Karnak, while visiting a Nubian village, I saw three fox tails hanging above a door.

My moment of academic bliss was interrupted as the tourists began to pour in. We had been an hour early at the temple so I had had the luxury of having Karnak all to myself. But now, hundreds of tourists dressed rather immodestly (for Egyptian standards) gawked and photographed away.  I watched a woman in a tank top and a short skirt take the hand of her toddler whose little bikini top kept sliding off her shoulders. I watched sunburned men in shorts furiously clicking photos of their sunburned family walking like an Egyptian next to ram statues of Ra. I saw and Egyptian man in a gallabiya (traditional Egyptian clock especially worn in Upper Egypt) approach an old Japanese couple by greeting and bowing with a Konichiwa, his Japanese heavily peppered with a deep Egyptian accent full of rrrrr’s and kha’s. I even saw a woman (British. I could tell by her accent), with dark kohl outlining her eyes dramatically, just like Ancient Egyptian royalty did. Everyone wants to be a pharaoh, it seems.

Crammed at the entrance/ exit of the temple, I could not help laughing. These temples are very much alive. They are not empty. They are not a history lesson. They are spaces adapted through time- whether a ritual of birth, good luck, or for consumerism, Karnak still has a pulse. 

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