Blog

The Enduring Lure of Egypt (Part 2)

Published
March 20, 2019

This post was composed before the massacre in Christchurch, to the victims of which I pay my respects.

From the Valley of the Kings to Abu Simbel

WELL south of Cairo and Alexandria and Giza there lies another complex of archaeological sites: The Valley of the Kings, Luxor, Karnak, Edfu, Aswan and on south to a site close to the Sudanese border, at Abu Simbel.

The Valley of the Kings is so-called because it is where many of the later rulers of ancient Egypt, were interred. The pyramids were built by some of the very first Egyptian rulers, known as the rulers of the Old Kingdom. After several centuries the Old Kingdom fell and Egypt suffered a sort of dark age known as the First Intermediate Period, a time of turmoil and Viking-like raids, after which there arose the New Kingdom.

During the dark age the pyramids turned into magnets for robbers who started with the gold at the top and worked down, and worked their way inside as well.

I mean let’s face it, there was always going to be somebody who didn’t believe all that old stuff about the Pharaoh’s curse! The fact that the pyramids had been designed to stick out was now a liability.

And so, New Kingdom rulers were interred in the Valley of the Kings, in underground funeral complexes that were much harder to find.

There were so many dynasties in ancient Egypt that modern archaeologists gave them numbers. This is a tomb of the nineteenth dynasty.
Exploring yet another royal tomb! Note the colorful heiroglyphics.

The New Kingdom is the period in many of the most high-level artistic achievements of ancient-Egyptian culture were made. It’s also only under the New Kingdom that the title of Pharaoh came into use.

The southern part of Egypt, from the Valley of the Kings southward, is studded with New Kingdom temple complexes and monuments. The most impressive are the temples at Luxor and Karnak and the temple of Hatshepsut, ancient Egypt’s second confirmed female ruler, who reigned from 1478 to 1458 BCE, nearly two thousand years after Narmer.

Rams’ Head Sphinxes at Luxor

Luxor Temple Obelisk and Road of the Sphinxes, with explanation

A Temple in the Valley of the Kings

There was one female ruler before Hatshepsut, and there would be others later (e.g. no less than seven Cleopatras). But even so, Hatshepsut was insecure about her position as a female ruler, only the second after all in nearly two thousand years, and put it about that she had been immaculately conceived by the great god Amun-Re, or Amun-Ra, who had held the sacred, cross-like symbol of the ankh to her mother’s nostrils and allowed her to breathe in his spirit, the result being Hatshepsut.

The Ankh. Image by Inowen, CC-BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The story of an immaculate conception didn’t originate with the followers of Jesus, in other words. It seems to be yet another Egyptian invention, if we dare to use that word. There were also a few other aspects of ancient Egyptian belief that made their way into early Christianity such as the use of the ankh-symbol instead of the cross in the early days, and the belief that worshippers should confess their sins. To this day the ankh is the preferred symbol of the cross in Coptic Christianity. On the other hand none of the Christian denominations borrowed anything that bore a resemblance to the scandalous god Min of whom I have an image below (be warned!).

After Hatshepsut died, the evidence of her rule was systematically smashed and defaced, perhaps for reasons that had something to do with her being a woman, though she might have had other reasons for being insecure. It wasn’t until the 1890s that archaeologists specialising in ancient Egypt, or ‘egyptologists’, realised that she had existed as a female Pharaoh.

The Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, to give it its full title, is also of interest because it anticipated the classical style of architecture of the Greeks and Romans, roughly a thousand years ahead of time. So, there’s another thing that was made in Egypt to begin with.

A photograph taken before the restoration of the upper levels of the temple of Hatshepsut
At the temple of Hatshepsut
Statues on the upper level of the temple of Hatshepsut

Though people say the temple of Hatshepsut anticipates classical architecture, to my mind it also has a Chinese look. Anyhow, it’s mind-boggling to see something so large and perfect still there after about three thousand years.

All those sites are close together, on a great bend in the river in the middle of Egypt. My tour then took me to Aswan, a third centre for ancient-Egyptian explorations after the Cairo-Alexandria area and the Valley of the Kings-Luxor-Karnak area. Aswan is one of the southernmost cities in Egypt and the spot where the Egyptian Nile now gives way to Lake Nasser. Aswan is another great base for archaeological rambles. Within the city limits itself you can see the unfinished obelisk, a 1200-ton obelisk carved in place at the command of Hatshepsut and then abandoned after a lot of the work had been done because it developed cracks (oops).

Also near Aswan is the temple of Kom Ombo, constructed very late in the history of ancient Egypt, around 150 BCE, but still very much in the authentic Egyptian style. Kom Ombo includes a musem where there are a large numbers of mummified crocodiles. Its carvings include carvings of surgical instruments.

There are a whole lot of islands in the Nile next to Aswan; the Temple of Isis from Philae is on an island in a lake created by the Aswan Low Dam, just north of the Aswan High Dam. It was flooded by the Low Dam in 1902, left partially underwater for more than sixty years, and the relocated to the island at the same time as other antiquities threatened by the High Dam were removed.

The Temple of Isis from Philae, photo by Ivan Marcialis, CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Outside the Temple complex at Kom Ombo, near Aswan
Modern Papyrus Artwork in ancient style at Aswan

Other sights at Aswan are the El-Tabia mosque that overlooks the city, the ruined 7th-century monastery of St Simeon, the Mausoleum of the Third Aga Khan, and the Aswan Botanical Garden on El-Nabatat Island, established by Lord Kitchener shortly before World War I.

My guide at this point was named Michael. He worked as a teacher but only earned US $25 a month, pathetic. So he worked as a guide as well and earned more money doing that. Michael was great; he spoke about how the temples were not just periodic places of worship but actually the centres of community life.

The Aga Khan Mausoleum was close to the St Simeon Monastery, where I was with Michael, and I decided to wander over to the Mausoleum on my own in 45 degrees Celsius (115 F) heat. It took 30 minutes to walk to the Mausoleum, but then I found I could not get in. You have to email to make a booking to see inside the Mauseolum, and I had left it too late. On my way back to Michael’s car, I came across other tombs. Funnily enough, I felt as though as if I was in a Harrison Ford movie. The effect of the heat, no doubt.

Aswan was hot, but it had amazing sunsets over the desert.

From Aswan I joined a boat tour, on a boat called Rameses 3, which took about a hundred people and only cost US $50 a night (‘only’ to a Westerner). The Rameses 3 sailed for three nights and it was actually on this that I went to Luxor and the other sites near the Valley of the Kings. So I visited them after Aswan, but it makes more sense to write as though going from north to south.

This far south, Egypt blends into a region known in ancient times as the land of the Nubians: people who are still there, just like the Egyptians themselves.

Singing in Nubian on a boat on the Nile

The Nubians were hard done by, culturally, by the Aswan High Dam, which submerged many of their cultural sites under Lake Nasser. The relocated temple of Abu Simbel, an Egyptian temple, is the most significant temple to have been saved. I was going to see it, but I fell ill again and couldn’t make it.

Some peculiarities of the ancient Egyptian religion

Unlike later religions, which tend to be austere, the ancient Egyptian religion was partly a fertility cult. There was all sorts of emphasis on making things grow and begetting children, and it wasn’t puritanical at all. You may wish to avert your eyes from the usual portrayal of the male fertility god, Min, who seems to be having his, er, vital essence collected in a small cup held by the Pharaoh.

Min had a great fondness for lettuce, which the ancient Egyptians regarded as an aphrodisiac. In another legend, the goddess Isis encourages the god Horus to deposit some of his semen on some lettuce in place of mayonnaise — oh, it just gets worse.

Why is there terrorism in Egypt today? Living in the shadow of Nasser, and his nemesis

I mentioned Colonel Gaddafi before. The nearest counterpart to Col. Gaddafi in Egyptian history was Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, who tried to secularise Egypt and to make the country into a modern state.

Actually, instead of comparing Nasser to Gaddafi, a better comparison might be to Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Like Atatürk, Nasser led an essentially secular national revolution which, over the course of tow years in 1952 and 1953, edged out Egypt’s decadent, materialistic and Western-backed King Farouk, who is now known to have been the owner of one of the world’s largest collections of pornography, along with all the other things he possessed such as his two thousand silk shirts (shades of the Great Gatsby, here, or Imelda Marcos.)

Nasser then went on to face down Britain, France and Israel in the Suez Crisisof 1956, his greatest triumph. This gave the Egyptians pride in themselves. Imagine going from Farouk to Suez in only four years!

It has also been said that Nasser was the first leader who seriously tried to develop Egypt in in economic terms in almost two millennia; that is to say, since the days of the Pharaohs. The Aswan High Dam, which regulates the Nile floods and generates abundant hydroelectric power into the bargain, is one of his achievements.

But Nasser is also seen as the architect of a humiliating defeat by Israel in the war of 1967, a war he provoked even though the Egyptian armed forces were weak at the time. His health was failing by then, and it might have affected his judgement.

Nasser offers a job to a homeless man found sleeping under the stage where he was due to give a speech, 1959. Public domain image on Wikimedia Commons, from Al-Ahram.

Like Atatürk, Nasser opposed Islamist groups who thought it more important to lead an Islamic cultural revival against the West, than to proclaim a secular form of national independence against the West.

Nasser was a Muslim himself, devout enough to make the pilgrimage to Mecca twice. But he thought the state should be secular, all the same. And perhaps all the more so in a country as divided as Egypt. In that respect Nasser was also like Yugoslavia’s Marshal Tito, who wanted the communities of a divided nation to stop looking at each other and look to the future instead.

All the same, in the early stages of the revolution, Nasser worked with the Islamists to overthrow the degenerate Farouk, about whom they both felt the same.

In those days, as today, the main Islamist faction in Egypt was called the Muslim Brotherhood. At the time of the revolution, the leader of the Brotherhood was a man named Sayyid Qutb, a monk-like figure who was a highly perceptive critic of the trashiness of a lot of Western commercial and popular culture, those aspects that are based on the principle that ‘sex and sensation sell’.

But some of Qutb’s other opinions didn’t reflect so well on his judgement. Nasser was opposed to Israel on the grounds that the Jewish state was a colonial project; Qutb seems to have been more actually anti-Semitic, blaming Jewish cultural influences for the West’s slide into decadent commercialism. His observations about American blacks and Jazz weren’t too flattering either. Basically, Qutb was a bit of a fascist; albeit with home-grown, Islamic characteristics.

After it became clear that the Nasserites and the Brotherhood were irreconcilably divided, Qutb became a problem for the regime: a local equivalent of Renaissance Florence’s Girolamo Savonarola perhaps, a monk known as the ‘Righteous Savonarola’ who preached against the corruptions of the ruling class until they had him executed.

It would also be just as accurate to say that if Nasser could be compared to Elizabeth the First, Qutb would have been his Mary Queen of Scots.

Nasser himself was just as incorruptible as Qutb, and the two had once been friends.

All the same, Qutb thought that Nasser’s secular and Westernising vision of progress would lead to the gutter, and kept saying so and urging others on to complete the revolution in Islamic terms and in terms that were consistent with his prejudices, which also included some rather old-fashioned views about women. Nasser for his part came to view Qutb as a well-intentioned but dangerous fanatic whose preachings would only stir up trouble between Muslims, Christians and Jews at the community level, precisely the sort of thing the Middle East didn’t need any more of.

Much as the Florentines did with the Righteous Savonarola, or Elizabeth with Mary Queen of Scots, Nasser kept Qutb in prison for a long time, released him, re-arrested him, and finally arranged for his trial and eventual execution on the appropriately Shakespearean charge of planning the ruler’s assassination.

Sayyid Qutb behind bars, his usual residence in later years. Public domain image, full details https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sayyid_Qutb.jpg

If the Nasserites thought that the execution of Qutb was going to make the Muslim Brotherhood shut up shop, they were wrong.

There is another historical parallel here. Just as things were starting to settle down after the French Revolution of 1789 and its subsequent Reign of Terror, Napoleon had one of the most senor surviving relatives of the late King of France kidnapped on foreign soil, taken to France, and shot, all basically in order to show that nobody was safe and that Napoleonic France could reach out and touch anyone if it wanted to. Thereafter, the crowned heads of other European countries became implacable in their hostility to Napoleon’s regime. Someone with a dark sense of humour — nobody knows for sure who it was — said of the shooting that “It is worse than a crime, it is a mistake.” Perhaps the same could be said of Qutb’s fate.

A lot of the trouble in Egypt — indeed a lot of the trouble in the Middle East as a whole — dates back to the Nasser/Qutb split and to Qutb’s martyrdom, as it is widely seen. That is, on top of the Israel / Palestine question, there is this further level of bad blood between secularists and Islamists, with the Taliban, al-Qaeda and ISIS all claiming to take up where Qutb left off. Indeed, perhaps, a long way beyond the point where Qutb left off.

After Nasser died in 1970, the wider shortcomings of a system based on his personal rule became more apparent. Nasser’s shoes were hard to fill. His equally authoritarian successors were not so incorruptible, and seemed to like a bit of bling in ways that reminded people of Farouk, thus making them vulnerable to a Muslim Brotherhood comeback.

My guides didn’t think much of Nasser: whether because of his failure to prepare a proper succession plan or maybe because of the way Egypt got thrashed by the Israelis in 1967, still a sore point.

Or, perhaps, because they were among the many Egyptians who think that Qutb was unreasonably martyred, and the short-lived, legally-elected Muslim Brotherhood government that succeeded General Mubarak in 2011, also unreasonably overthrown by General al-Sisi.

The 2013 coup d’etat that brought the latest military officer to rule Egypt to power was no doubt rationalised as the answer to the question “what would Nasser have done?” However, the literally hundreds of death sentences imposed on Muslim Brotherhood members under al-Sisi, even on the elected President Mohamed Morsi, seem to greatly exceed what Nasser would have done.

After years of Elizabeth I-like dithering, Nasser created one prominent martyr for the Islamists to spend the next half-century avenging. It seems that al-Sisi has got stuck in straightaway into creating hundreds. So, the level of extremism has been stepped up on both sides since the days of Nasser and Qutb.

Things have become culturally stricter in recent years. My guides told me that in the past women used to wear mini-skirts and other more or less revealing Western attire, but that this isn’t a good idea any more.

Across the Red Land to the Red Sea

After exploring the Nile, I travelled across the desert — an ancient Egyptian word meaning ‘red land’, as I’ve found out — from Cairo, by bus, to Dahab on the Red Sea’s Gulf of Aqaba.

There are lots of theories as to why the Red Sea is called the Red Sea. For my money, the most convincing one is that it is surrounded by red desert. Uniquely among the seas of the world, the Red Sea does not have one single permanent river draining into it. It’s just red hills all the way from Suez to Aden.

As any diver will tell you, the lack of rivers makes for clear water. Like several others towns on the sea’s parched shore, Dahab’s is a really popular beach and diving resort.

Or at least it would be if it wasn’t for the fact that the Sinai has been something of an Al-Qaeda stronghold in recent years. My bus was stopped thirteen times at security checkpoints as it trundled from Cairo to Dahab, just to make sure we hadn’t all been done in since the last checkpoint I suppose.

The Sinai is going to be down the list of places that Mr and Mrs Average are planning to take the kids for some time to come, I think, even if tourists are willing to return to the rest of Egypt. Which is a pity.

Another plus for diving is that the Red Sea has coral reefs. At Dahab, the reefs divide shallow lagoons next to the beach from much deeper and bluer water beyond.

So Dahab’s a little bit of the South Pacific or the Australian Great Barrier Reef, in the Middle East! Date palms of the kind that you see everywhere in the Nile Valley serve to complete the illusion; though I suspect the palm trees wouldn’t last too long here if someone didn’t keep watering them.

The lagoon at Dahab, with board-sailing kites in the background. The blue line is the much deeper open sea, beyond the coral reef on which waves are constantly breaking.
Mountains and the sun at Dahab
A beach that is turning red as the sun goes down.

I went snorkelling in the lagoons three times, when I wasn’t on the beach.

Divers with aqualungs like to explore a natural feature in one of the lagoons at Dahab called the Blue Hole. The Blue Hole leads down into an ice-age cave complex formed when the sea level was much lower. Sometime between then and now, the roof caved in. Above the former cave, you go abruptly from the coastal shallows to water that is more than 100 metres deep, whence the name. It’s very dangerous because the water is sucked in and out through the cave system by the tides. That sort of thing’s not for me, and I stuck firmly to the shallows!

Recent Blog Posts

April 24, 2019

Kars and Ani

Continue reading
April 10, 2019

Climbing Mount Ararat: Borders, bears and rockets

Continue reading
March 12, 2019

The Enduring Lure of Egypt (Part 1)

Continue reading