Our holiday this fall to see the pyramids and temples of Egypt’s ancient civilization was the trip of a lifetime, but the journey really began several years ago on the high desert of the Four Corners area of the United States.
The mid-day sun blazed directly overhead and not a breath of wind stirred. The heat was stifling as I stood in the archaeological dig, but a chill ran down my spine as I learned of the ancient people who had once lived in this remote, high mountain valley in Colorado.
“The ancestors of today’s Native Americans lived in this valley off and on from 1,600 to 1,200 years ago,” said Doug Bowman, an archaeologist for the Ute Mountain Ute Indian Tribe. “The first group was from the Basketmaker II period from A.D. 200 to 500, followed by people from the Pueblo I period from A.D. 750 to 825.”
These ancient people dressed in animal skins, hunted with stone weapons, and stored their food in woven baskets and, later, crude pottery. During the later period they dug holes in the ground and made crude “pit houses” with adobe or stone-lined walls and earthen roofs. Archaeologists investigated 81 pit structures at 72 sites scattered over the Ridges Basin valley as part of a cultural resources survey for a water project that I worked on with the Ute Tribes for more than 10 years.
Bowman and I stood in one of their “pit houses” that archaeologists had excavated. He pointed out the earthen bench where the ancients had slept, the alcove where they stored their food, and the fire pit where they prepared their meals. It took my breath away to realize that an ancient people once walked this same ground more than a thousand years ago and lived out their lives on this very spot where we stood.
This experience, as much as it made an impression on me, did nothing to prepare me for our recent trip to Egypt. If a home dug in the ground by a prehistoric man in Colorado had such an effect on me then standing next to the great pyramid of Giza in Egypt was almost a religious experience!
The size and scale, the craftsmanship and the beauty of the temples, monuments and pyramids from Egypt’s long history were all magnificent! When you consider how long ago in antiquity the Egyptians did all this, it is hard to comprehend.
Recorded history there can be traced back 6,000 years to the beginning of Amratian period where early Egyptians cultivated crops, domesticated animals, made pottery and used flint tools and weapons. Later, an advanced society under a series of Pharaohs lasted for nearly 3,500 years and made amazing advancements in developing their civilization, including agriculture, art, sculpture, and the use of metals.
While North Americans were still wearing skins and using stone tools, Egyptians had developed a written language to record their history and erected massive building projects, including temples, monuments and pyramids as part of their religious beliefs. The first large-scale stone construction in mankind’s history, the step pyramid at Sakkara, was built for King Djoser during the “Old Kingdom’s” 3rd Dynasty around 2,650 B.C. This was nearly 3,000 years before the Basketmaker II people in Colorado.
Twenty years ago Penny and I were two of the thousands who flocked to see the treasures of Tutankhamen on display at the Boston Museum of Science. The golden artifacts from his tomb were spectacular, but taken out of their Egyptian context I thought that much of their impact was lost. So, when an opportunity came up to join a Grand Circle Travel tour to Egypt, Penny and I jumped at the chance. The Egyptian people were friendly and accommodating, the food was wonderful, and the weather (mid-upper 70’s, blue skies every day) couldn’t be beat. The main attraction, however, were the monuments of Ancient Egypt, and here are some of my impressions of that part of our trip.
The Pyramids of Giza
The outskirts of Cairo crowd to the edge of the plateau of Giza. Behind you are busy streets with hotels, homes and shops but in front loom the pyramids of Giza. Here the Pharaohs of the 4th Dynasty – Khufu (Cheops), Khafra and Menkaura – constructed their impressive pyramids of millions of blocks of cut stone, undertaking these Herculean tasks about 4,500 to 4,700 years ago. You feel puny just to stand next to them. They are truly one of the seven wonders of the ancient world!
Sharing this barren plateau of desert sand and rock with these three gigantic pyramids is the Sphinx, seven smaller pyramids, and seemingly as many tourists and tour buses as there are grains of sand in the desert. Following every move by tourists are persistent vendors selling all kinds of souvenirs – cheap Arab headdresses, small plaster statues of the pyramids and sphinx, postcards, plastic scarabs, fake papyrus made from sugar cane. You can go for a camel ride in the shadow of Cheops pyramid, rent a horse to ride out into the desert, or engage a horse and carriage for a tour of the pyramids. At night there is an impressive sound and light show viewed from seats set up in front of the Sphinx.
Despite the tourists these are amazing works of man that have survived the ravages of the ages and are nearly intact today. And all this was done by an organized, advanced civilization while our North American ancestors were still wearing skins and living in caves.
The Step Pyramid at Saqqara
South of Cairo, on the west bank of the Nile River, is the necropolis of Memphis, the capital of the Old Kingdom. The first known pyramid was built here at Saqqara (or Sakkara) about 4,700 years ago for King Djoser, the second king of the 3rd Dynasty, known to the ancient Egyptians as kbhw-ntrw (libation of the deities). Here limestone was first used on a large scale as a construction material, and this was the first time that a monumental royal tomb in the form of a pyramid was built. According to tradition, Imhotep, Egypt’s most famous architect, built it. Saqqara is a short drive south from Cairo and was not crowded while we were there. We were able to roam through the tombs and several pyramids at the site unhindered except for a few persistent vendors and their donkeys. As we were leaving, we experienced a sudden sand storm that swirled and raged around our bus for about 15 minutes, just enough to give us a taste of what desert life can be.
Just two weeks after we visited the site a team of archaeologists headed by Egypt's Secretary General of Antiques Zahi Hawass unearthed a new pyramid at Saqqara buried under sixty-five feet of sand. According to Hawass, the pyramid belongs to Queen Seshseshet, mother of King Teti, the first king of ancient Egypt's Sixth Dynasty. It was built 4,300 years ago, several hundred years after the Great Pyramids of Giza. To date, 118 pyramids have been discovered in Egypt.
The Temple at Luxor
Our Nile River boat tied up on the east bank of the river right next to the impressive temple at Luxor. This used to be Thebes, the capital of Egypt during the New Kingdom (3,000 to 3,600 years ago). North of the Luxor Temple is the huge Karnak Complex, and on the west bank are the Valley of the Kings, the Valley of the Queens, the colossi of Memnon, and several other temples. We were able to visit many of these.
According to Wael Khattab, our program director, many festivals were celebrated in Thebes. The Temple of Luxor was the center of the most important one, the festival of Opet (harem), held during the annual Nile inundation. During the reign of Ramesses III in the 20th Dynasty the festival lasted 27 days and included the distribution of over 11,000 loaves of bread, 85 cakes and 385 jars of beer. The procession of images of the current royal family began at Karnak by barge on the Nile River and ended at the temple of Luxor. Once at the temple, the king and his priests entered the back chambers. There, the king and his ka (the divine essence of each king, created at his birth) were merged, making the king a god, and confirming the Pharaoh’s right to rule.
In 1836 one of the two obelisks standing in front of the main gates, or pylons, was given to France where it now stands at the Place de la Concorde in Paris (In return the French government gave a large clock to Egypt, which we saw at the Mohammed Ali (Alabaster) Mosque in Cairo – the clock doesn’t work, as we learned.). There were also six massive statues of Ramesses II flanking the entrance. Today the obelisk and three statues remain as you enter the huge, impressive temple.
The Karnak Temple Complex
No site in Egypt is more impressive than Karnak. It is the largest temple complex ever built by man covering nearly 250 acres, and large enough to hold a dozen European cathedrals. It took 1,300 years to build and includes 3 main temples, smaller enclosed temples, and several outer temples. Its ancient name was Ipet-isut, meaning "The Most Select (or Sacred) of Places". We visited the Great Temple of Amun (Ammon) at Karnak through an entry way flanked by rows of ram-headed sphinxes, each one holding a statue of the king, Ramesses II, in its paws. The columns and the facade of the First Pylon are unfinished and left the mud-brick ramp where it was at which was a good illustration of how these massive structures were built from the bottom up and decorated from the top down, removing the mud-brick ramp as the work progressed. The entire complex is very impressive, but especially the columns and the hypostyle hall. Our short visit didn’t do it justice.
Valleys of the Kings and Queens
The temples at Karnak and Luxor are located on the east bank of the Nile in ancient Thebes, and the tombs of the kings, queens, and royalty of the Pharaohs are on the west bank. We saw royal tombs cut into the limestone of the Valley of the Kings, a remote dry place under the shadow of a massive pyramid-shaped peak. It is the site for at least 63 tombs that have been discovered so far. Most of the tombs had a similar patter of three corridors, an antechamber, and a sunken sarcophagus chamber. These catacombs were harder to rob and were more easily concealed.
Construction on the tomb and furnishings for the tomb began when a new king was crowned and continued until his death. By the time the Valley of the Kings was used, the pyramid style tombs were abandoned.
Egyptians believed that "To speak the name of the dead is to make him live again". The king's formal names and titles are inscribed in his tomb along with his images and statues. At different locations around Egypt we saw where a subsequent ruler had removed the images and names of his or her predecessor from temples.
The empty tombs are universally hot and the air inside is close, but they are still magnificent with their original paintings and carvings. The mummies have largely been removed to museums, along with the gold and treasures buried with the kings that weren’t looted by tomb raiders first.
The tomb of Tutankhamun is one of the most popular for tourists. Now it is a fairly small and unimpressive series of empty rooms with little wall decorations, but when first discovered it was filled with golden objects and treasures.
When Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, he said: "At first I could see nothing, the hot air escaping from the chamber causing the candle flames to flicker, but presently, as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues and gold - everywhere the glint of gold. For the moment - an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by - I was dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, 'Can you see anything?' it was all I could do to get out the words, ‘Yes, wonderful things.’"
Carter found the royal seal on the door intact. The first three chambers were unadorned, and the next chamber contained most of the funerary objects. The sarcophagus was four gilded wooden shrines, one inside the other, within which lay the stone sarcophagus, three mummiform coffins, the inner one being solid gold, and then the mummy. Tutankhamen was only 19 when he died following a brief reign. We saw his golden mask and other treasures from Tutankhamun’s tomb at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and can only imagine what other wealth must have been entombed with the other greater Pharaohs that ruled for many years during Egypt's golden age.
We also visited the Valley of the Queens with tombs of the Queens, princes and princesses, and other nobility. The mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut (Djeser Djeseru) dramatically dominates the head of a valley near the Valley of the Queens. The queen's architect, Senenmut, designed it and built it against a cliff overshadowed by the Peak of the Thebes, the "Lover of Silence". A tree lined avenue of sphinxes led up to the temple (two stumps of these ancient trees remain), and ramps led from terrace to terrace. Along the front of the upper terrace, a line of large, gently smiling Osirid statues of the queen looked out over the valley.
It is amazing to see the original colors on the carvings and statues from 3,500 years ago. Except for the image of Queen Hatshepsut in the inner sanctuary of the temple, the other images of her and hieroglyphs with her name have been chiseled from the walls. Legend has it that her stepson Thuthmose III was responsible once he ascended to the throne. I wonder if this is where the “evil stepmother” story began.
The Temple of Hathor at Dendera
The temple at Dendera is a later one with much of the temple built in the Ptolemaic era and the Roman period from 2,034 to 2,062 years ago. Hathor was worshiped as the mother-goddess of the whole world and was the goddess of music, dance and the arts. The entry hall is dominated by six rows of four columns, each crowned with four cow-eared heads of Hathor.
Although never completed, her temple is very well preserved and restoration of the original paintings was underway as we visited the temple.
Two noteworthy features of the temple are the only known depiction of Queen Cleopatra VII and Caesarion, her son by Julius Caesar on the outer rear wall, and a plaster cast of the famous 'Dendera Zodiac', representing the Osiris mysteries. The original is now in the Louvre in Paris.
Victorian artist David Roberts sketched the temple in 1838 when it was still largely covered by sand, but he was still able to observe the beauty of the temple. “Everywhere was literally covered with hieroglyphics from top to bottom and from one end of the ceiling to the other, inside and outside and right up to the narrow stairway where the light of day is unable to penetrate,” said Roberts.
The Temple at Kom Ombo
Our ship docked next to the Temple of Kom Ombo, with steps leading from the waterfront up to the entry of the temple. It was built during the Greco-Roman period about 2,400 years ago and was dedicated to the crocodile god Sobek (Seth) and the falcon-headed sky god Haroeris (Harer). The temple was located in the ancient city of Pa-Sebek, "the Domain of Sobek", who was the crocodile god worshipped since the Predynastic period. Crocodiles used to bask in the sun on the banks of Nile at the temple, and three of them have been mummified and are on display.
The structure is built of local sandstone from Gebel el-Silsila, an ancient quarry area we passed while cruising along the Nile. According to Mark Andrews in his article Kom Ombo and the Temple of Sobek and Haroeris, “Apparently, troops stationed at Kom Ombo (it was a training ground for African elephants used by the army during the Ptolemaic Period) built much of the temple. The use of elephants was actually a Ptolemaic innovation, as was the use of camels in Egypt.”
When Roberts visited Kom Ombo before excavation began in 1893 he saw only the tops of the original structure. Today it has been freed from the sands of the desert and is largely restored. One feature that stood out is the dispensary area where priests treated ill patients, and where a panel of hieroglyphs depicts surgical instruments used by ancient physicians.
The Temple at Philae
When the Aswan High dam began backing up water to create Lake Nasser, the temple on the island of Philae was threatened with inundation. It had been seasonally flooded after the lower Aswan Dam had been built, but the lake that would be created between the two dams threatened to completely submerge the temple and its island. As part of the international effort to rescue the antiquities from flooding, the entire Temple of Philae was relocated in the period 1972-1980 to the nearby island of Agilkia. Roberts saw and sketched the Philae Temple at its original location, and he, like the Victorian world, fell in love with the romance of the Temple.
The temple was dedicated to the god Isis and was built during the Ptolemaic period. Of several features at this temple is, according to our program director Wael Khattab, the last temple carving done at any temple in Egypt. According to legend the carver of this partially finished work was interrupted at the end of the Ptolemaic period by Roman conquerors and never finished.
Ramesses II built two huge temples far upstream on the Nile to mark the border between Egypt and the land that was then Nubia. To get there involved a plane ride 180 miles south of Aswan to the Sudanese border. Abu Simbel is significant both for the size of the four 60 foot statues and the skill in crafting them into a rock face, but also because the entire complex was moved when the original site was threatened with inundation from Lake Nasser.
J. L. Burckhardt first reported Abu Simbel in 1813. The impressive temple with its larger than life statues was partially covered with drifting desert sands. The two temples, that of Ramesses II primarily dedicated to Re-Harakhte, and that of his wife, Nefertari dedicated to Hathor, became a must see for Victorians visiting Egypt, even though it required a trip up the Nile. Roberts made the trip in 1838 and found them covered deeply in sand, as they were when Burckhardt found them.
An international salvage effort from 1964 until 1968 dismantled the two temples and raised them over 180 feet up the sandstone cliff where they had been built more than 3,000 years before. Here they were reassembled, in the exact same relationship to each other and the sun, and covered with an artificial mountain. At the summer and winter solstices the sunlight at dawn lights up the inner sanctuary of the Ramesses temple, illuminating three of the four statues seated therein.
The trip to Egypt overwhelmed my senses and left me with a sense of awe at what this civilization accomplished so many thousands of years ago. It is easy to see what mystical attraction this ancient land has on the traveler.
There are those who dedicated their lives to trying to unravel the mysteries of the past, like Jean-Phillippe Lauer, the French Egyptologist who spent 70 years of his life studying the Saqqara step pyramid site. Howard Carter, the discoverer of Tutankhamun’s tomb, was never formally trained as an Egyptologist, but became one of the most famous archaeologists ever known. Starting when he was only 17 years old he began recording the scenes and texts in tombs, he learned on the job and spent a good part of his life with Egyptian antiquities (albeit some of them embroiled in political controversy with the Egyptian government).
Artist David Roberts embarked on his Egyptian tour with the idea of filling a market demand for pictures of exotic locations, and became captivated by the scenes of ancient Egypt he saw. He, like so many, became seduced by this ancient land.
Our tour was both too much all at once, and, like all good travel experiences, not enough and left us wanting to return. Having now been introduced to ancient Egypt, there is so much more to learn, to see, and to try and understand.
Remember that old World War I song by Walter Donaldson (1918)? “How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm (after they’ve seen Paree)?” I wonder if the pit houses of the Pueblo II people will still bring shivers to my spine now that I’ve touched the Great Pyramid of Giza?
Last updated November 21, 2008
Copyright © 2008, Allen Crabtree
Copyright © 2008, Allen Crabtree