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Ancient Egypt 
Tour with Ruth Shilling -- Feb. 19 - Mar. 5, 2000
by Marie F., February 2000 Tour

After an overnight flight from JFK and a plane change in Cairo, our tour began in the city of Luxor, something over 300 miles up river from Cairo. Our first visit was to Luxor Temple, built in the 14th-13th centuries BCE, during the New Kingdom. This was the most coherent and beautiful of all the temples we visited. You approach through an avenue of human-headed sphinxes (the face is Amenhotep III), leading to a great two-towered pylon (gate), one of what was a pair of obelisks, and colossal seated statues of Ramesses II. Within is an open court, surrounded by striding colossi, many with their heads, adorned with the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt, placed neatly at their feet. Beyond are further colonnades, the capitals of the great pillars adorned with lotus and papyrus flowers, the symbols of the two Egypts, and also budded papyrus. Walking among them is supposed to give you a feeling of rebirth. I felt awe at the size of the place. Our first meditation, on our second morning in Luxor, took place in the inner sanctuary of this temple, and when I tired of sitting I walked around this inner room, along a passage between its outer walls and the walls of the next rooms, all covered with reliefs showing religious processions, offerings, and gods and pharaohs in various relationships. The Luxor Museum has an outstanding collection of recently discovered statues in near perfect condition.

The Temple of Karnak is a couple of miles down river from Luxor temple. During an annual festival a sacred barque carried the god back and forth between them. This temple is a massive heap covering many acres of ground and constructed and reconstructed over the course of a good 1000 years. Here, the avenue is lined with ram-headed sphinxes, there is a truly overpowering hypostyle hall where the pillars tower above you, and then the temple goes on and on through other halls and rooms, many rather tumbled down, around a sacred lake, and to a slight rise in the rear, from which you can see back over the whole mess. There is also an "open air" museum, where I met an interesting archeology student from France, patiently fitting together tiny bits of broken panels and where our guide Muhammad read and translated hieroglyphics for us. Muhammad, I should say, is a perfectly splendid Egyptologist and a very nice man; he accompanied us on the entire trip—from meditation at 6 in the morning until bed late in the evening—detailing Egyptian history and religion, adding fascinating tidbits, and patiently answering endless questions. His thorough knowledge and infinite good humor really made the trip.

The most surprising thing I found in Egypt was the very lively and realistic scenes carved in relief and painted on temple and tomb walls. They show many religious ceremonies, but also fishing and herding and snaring of birds, boat makers, leather workers, goldsmiths, farmers, and all the varied activities of everyday life. They even include detailed portrayals of many species (some now extinct) of birds, fish, and animals. We tend to think of Egyptian art as stiff and formal--that’s what we often see in Western museums--but not the way it is there. The tombs on the West bank at Luxor were my first introduction to the extent and artistry of Egyptian painting. The most outstanding were the tombs of Sennedjem, an "artist," painted uniquely with wet fresco, the lively colors wonderfully preserved; and of queen Nefertari, in which the paint has been restored fleck by fleck. We also visited the temple or Hatshepsut, set in a fold of the hills with imposing cliffs as a backdrop

After Luxor, we relaxed on a Nile cruise south (up river), stopping along the way at several later, Greek-era temples, sitting on deck watching the little strip of greenery between the river and the desert, and eating a lot, especially at our final party—all of us in our galabeyas. Our destination was Aswan, where we had a lovely morning sail in a felluca, took an excursion to the Isis temple on an island at Philae, gaped down the lake at the High Dam in the distance, and spent an afternoon at the bazaar. This temple has been completely moved, stone by stone, to raise it above the water. But you know, 3-4,000 years ago, the Egyptians would go to a quarry, mark and number the stones as they quarried them, and then haul them back and fit them together into the already designed-temple. So they probably know how to do that. Philae was also the last place services of the old religion were held, until banned by Justinian in 600 CE; after that knowledge of the language and hieroglyphics were lost.

Egypt had the longest lasting, most stable civilization in the history of the world. It began prior to 3000 BCE; independence ended with conquest by the Greeks in 300 BCE., but, as I said, remnants of the culture continued until the 7th century CE. I’ve just visited the Chinese archeological exhibit, and have been trying to compare the two societies. China had more Neolithic artifacts than I saw anywhere in Egypt, but their great unified dynasties began a thousand years later. If you consider their dynastic civilizations continuous—China 1500 BCE-1911 CE (but that includes their Warring States period), and Egypt 3000-300 BCE, China would win by a nose, at 3,400 years. The Roman Empire lasted about 700 years.

Egyptian society was completely theocratic; there was no distinction between sacred and secular, and it was completely stratified. The ruler was a god, the bureaucrats were priests, the architects, artists, and artisans all served their religion, and presumably the common people did too. But the fertility of the soil, constantly renewed by the Nile, the massive building programs, usually benign rulers, and general lack of involvement in foreign wars kept the country prosperous throughout this vast time. That the arts flourished is obvious to any casual visitor. And apparently, in spite of its excessive funerary cultism, the religion satisfied the people. When the Greeks came, they reported that the land was not only prosperous, but happy.

The strenuous part came when we finally got to Giza, after a short but delayed flight from Aswan. The first day there, we were in line when the ticket booth opened at 8, to be first into the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops). We climbed a very long, steep stone ramp, thankfully provided with some little crossbars to help us, and then sat in the burial chamber, there on the stone floor, all morning, extending our regular morning meditation in recognition of the special sacredness of the place. After lunch (which was also breakfast), the others climbed up into the smallest of the 3 pyramids--a relative term, they're all enormous,--but, feeling claustrophobic, I stayed outside trying to find a corner out of the wind. Giza is not a nice place. It's like one of our Western mesas, but hotter and drier and windier. I had one of those Egyptian white scarves, which I wrapped around me to keep the sun from burning my head, the wind from freezing my ears, and the blowing sand from choking me.

After thoroughly inspecting the Valley Temple of Khafre (Chefren) and the Sphinx, which are at the foot of the Giza plateau, we spent the rest of the next day in the Cairo Museum, which was fabulous and no more strenuous than spending a whole day in a big museum. Muhammad was in his element, and all of us just chased after him, gawking and quizzing him, and trying to take it all in. We ended with a fine Egyptian dinner—not hotel-style—at a restaurant in Cairo.

And the next day, off to the real desert. "See that row of trees. That's where the Sahara (Arabic for desert) starts. It goes to the Atlantic Ocean." The sand is deep. It's like walking on a beach, except there's no water. And our van parked a long way away from things. And hot! God knows what it's like in the summer. So we hiked off to see another pyramid from that era (about 2600 BCE), then the Sun Temple of Ra, and finally, earliest of all, the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, designed by the architect Imhotep, who was later deified. On the last day of all, the others went off to climb up into yet another pyramid, reached by a long hike across sand, while I stayed in Giza, lollygagging around our first class hotel, the Mena House, and resting up for our farewell dinner. Next morning, faithful Muhammad was at the airport at 8 to see us off, and 24 hours later I was with my granddaughter in Washington D.C.

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