Sunset land

Published : Aug 15, 2008 00:00 IST

A journey through the necropolises of ancient Egypt. TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY SUDHA AND KAPILAN MAHALINGAM

ASCENDING the gateway to the other world is not, quite literally, for the weak-kneed. You have to bend in half and crawl your way first down and then up, groping the walls on the sides of the very narrow passageway. There is no stairwell, just a wooden board with slats on it to break your fall should you slip. Apart from your joints, your lungs also need to be in perfect condition to be able to draw in any oxygen molecules that might still be lingering in this alleyway. The passage is just every bit as eerie as you might have imagined dark, dingy and somewhat claustrophobic despite a diffuse light whose source is invisible. There is a faint musty smell that is mildly nauseating. The passage goes on and on, seemingly interminable, so much so that you come to believe that anytime now you will ascend to the heavens straightaway. No such luck. Eventually you reach a chamber, about 10 metre long and 5 metre wide.

We are inside Cheops, the largest of the three Great Pyramids of Giza, the only ancient wonder of the world still standing, defying the ravages of time and the devastation wrought by a quaking earth that might have dislodged structures less majestic. A diffuse light from an indeterminate source lights up the cell to reveal a damaged alabaster coffin. It is open and empty as if inviting you to step into it and lie down, the nearest you can come to being a pharaoh yourself. Should you venture to attempt this, you are bound to jump out of your skin not so much out of fright, but because the cold and clammy alabaster makes your skin crawl.

The cell is bare without any murals that embellish the tombs of pharaohs in the Valley of Kings near Luxor. There are two tiny square holes on the walls. Peering into them brings you face to face with discarded plastic water bottles. Actually, these holes stretch right up to the surface of the pyramid on either side. They have been built at a precise angle to capture the rays of two specific stars in the sky. Ancient Egyptians believed that the soul of the deceased king would ascend directly to these stars through this shaft.

The Cheops pyramid, or Khufu as it is known in Egypt, was completed around 2560 B.C. to house the mummy of King Khufu, who reigned for 23 years. Recorded Egyptian history dates back to 3000 B.C., and Khufu belonged to the fourth dynasty. Early history was first recorded in Greek by Manetho, an Egyptian priest, at the behest of King Ptolemy I. Manetho culled facts and figures out of funerary temples, monuments and other archaeological records. These have been corroborated by subsequent archaeologists and historians.

A staggering 137-metre-high Khufu was built with over two million limestone blocks, each weighing 4.5 tonnes and quarried from a nearby mine in Giza on the outskirts of todays Cairo. How on earth did they lug all these stones up in an age without Komatsu cranes? Your Egyptologist guide tells you how ancient Egyptians fashioned a ramp around the pyramid as it was being built and just rolled these blocks on pieces of wood. Of course, they employed an army of slaves to do that. Khufu and his two sons, who built the other two pyramids at Giza, virtually emptied the treasury for their grandiose funerary monuments and famines stalked their kingdom soon after. No wonder subsequent rulers abandoned building pyramids and settled for less extravagant mortuary structures.

Khufus pyramidal tomb was a departure from the usual box-shaped tombs of the earlier emperors. This is because Khufu, whose mothers mummy had been stolen by tomb-raiders, was paranoid about encountering a similar fate. In ancient Egyptian belief, perfect preservation of the mummy was critical to afterlife. Mummification of royal bodies is a recurring theme in Egyptian art, sculpture and mythology. Anubis the jackal god presides over mummification. The loss of a pharaonic mummy would be a fate worse than death itself. So, Khufu commissioned Hem Iwno, the royal architect who first designed the step-pyramids of Sakkara, to build him an impregnable stone fortress where his mummy would lie safely until escorted by god Osiris and goddess Isis to join them in paradise. (It was customary for royal tombs to be constructed and completed during the lifetime of the king, under his supervision.)

Where, then, was Khufus own mummy? Why was the sarcophagus empty? The guide tells you how Khufu contrived to dodge the tomb-raiders by building a secret passage deep into the entrails of the pyramid. The entrance to this chamber is in the adjacent Giza village, under the three smaller pyramids that were built beside Khufu to entomb his queen and sisters. Khufus real resting place was found accidentally in 1920 when the tripod of a photographer adjusting his camera for a shot of the Great Pyramid slipped right through the dirt and dropped 20 feet below with a faint thud. Khufus own coffin was in a crypt fortified with granite blocks, virtually impregnable except with dynamite.

There is a tiny statue of Khufu in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, which was brought there from the Temple of Osiris at Abydor in upper Egypt. King Khufu may have been eclipsed by the overwhelming allure of his own pyramid, but he was an eminent emperor. There are extensive records of his life and times from his own tomb as well as those of his family and courtiers buried in the vicinity of the great monument. Adjacent is the pyramid built by Khafre, Khufus son, standing on an elevated plane and wearing a shimmering limestone crown. Originally, all three pyramids were covered in limestone plaster, which gave them a brilliance visible for miles around. Perhaps they even sported a golden crown. But the plaster was chipped away and carted to embellish mosques and palaces that were built more than 2,000 years later. The third pyramid on the site is that of Menkaure, not inconsiderable in girth, but dwarfed by its neighbour, Khufu. The three pyramids belonged to the Old Kingdom, fourth dynasty that ruled from 2625-2500 BC. There are over 110 other pyramids in Egypt scattered over the Nile delta.

Our next stop is the inscrutable Sphinx, majestically overlooking the necropolis. Called Abu al Hol in Arabic, the Sphinx was so named by the ancient Greeks, who believed it resembled a mythical winged monster with a lions body and womans head, one that killed anyone unable to solve the riddles it set. Carved at the bedrock of the causeway to the Khafre pyramid, it is believed to resemble Khafre himself. Its nose has been blown away, though, and many stories abound on the provocation for the maiming. Framed by two pyramids on either side, the Sphinx is perhaps the single spectacular symbol of all that was grand and awe-inspiring in ancient Egypt.

Impressive as they are, the three Great Pyramids pale into insignificance beside the grandeur and opulence of the necropolis on the west bank of the Nile in Luxor, 679 kilometres upstream. Ancient Egyptians reserved the westerly direction for afterlife, associating death with sunset. Just as the sun reappears the next day, so would the interred monarch, albeit sapped of all his juices and desiccated to brittleness in his mummified form. Death seems to have been a pervasive theme in ancient Egypt. Exotic funerary practices and elaborate tombs painstakingly embellished may give the impression that ancient Egyptian civilisation was morbid and death-obsessed. On the contrary, this fascination with afterlife could be viewed as a life-affirming practice where death was viewed merely as a transitional state. Egyptian theology entails neither a rejection of earthly life nor a willing martyrdom in the name of an ideal paradise. Death is just another state where the social trappings of status and rank as well as material possessions continue to provide comfort and support. No other civilisation in recorded history is, perhaps, known to have celebrated death as ancient Egyptians did.

Approaching the Valley of Kings by road, we pass the massive Colossi of Memnon, the two statues believed to be those of the Ethiopian king and the son of the dawn goddess Eos. These statues are the only two things that remain of a flood plain that once supported a large temple complex. Not far away is the glorious Temple of Hatseshpsut, a pharaonic regent who crowned herself queen. Standing amidst a sandy wilderness, this temple is one of the finest examples of Egyptian architecture of the time.

You would be forgiven for dismissing the expansive Valley of Kings as yet another desolate stretch of desert. Not even a blade of grass grows on the barren hillsides. Had not Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter, British Egyptologists, unearthed the splendid tombs in this sprawling necropolis in the first quarter of the 20th century, humanity might not have known about this incredibly vivid and most ancient royal heritage. The valley is ringed by barren hills, one of which, al Qurn, is shaped like a pyramid.

The Valley of Kings has 62 tombs that have been excavated so far, albeit long after tomb-raiders had carried away everything portable and valuable. The only tomb that was found intact by Howard Carter in 1922 was that of young Tutenkhamun who, by the age of 19, had already been monarch for nine years and had died of a mysterious disease in 1327 B.C. Even modern archaeologists almost missed this tomb, buried as it was, under the rubble from an adjacent tomb. Its presence was revealed when a donkey in Carters excavation team just vanished through loose lands into the bowels of the earth.

Though he was a relatively insignificant pharaoh, King Tut had been buried with priceless treasures such as an exquisitely engraved golden mask and cartloads of dazzling gold jewellery encrusted with precious stones, an indication of what might have been buried in the tombs of the greater monarchs like Ramses II who had ruled for 63 years. Much of his reign is considered to be the golden years of ancient Egypt. Unfortunately, these seem to have been lost forever to humanity since no one knows when these tombs were raided by robbers and where they removed their priceless contents. Fortunately, the robbers have left the tombs intact without vandalising them.

The Tutenkhamun regalia is on display at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. In fact, King Tuts mummy had been encased in three sarcophagi, one inside the other, and these in turn contained three coffins. The first coffin was made of gilded wood; the second, of coloured glass and inlaid with precious stones; the third, made of solid gold. Archaeologists also found a treasury protected by Anubis the jackal god, and containing calcite Canopic jars that might have held the boy kings liver, lungs and kidneys. The tomb at Valley of Kings now has his mummy, fairly well-preserved for someone who died 4,000 years ago. The murals on the walls retain their bright colours.

Of the 62 royal tombs that have been unearthed, only 12 are open to visitors, and of these, your ticket entitles you to visit just three. Tombs of King Tut and Ramses VI require additional tickets. But, as you would find out, they are worth every Egyptian piastre. The tomb of Ramses VI is probably the most glamorous of the lot with dazzling murals and seemingly never-ending corridors. Most tombs follow a set pattern with four passages, each symbolising a specific stage on the journey to afterlife. You pass through long passages constructed east to west, to first the Hall of Waiting to the Chariot Hall and finally to the burial chamber situated at right angle.

The tombs were decorated with pictures from the Book of the Dead with colourful scenes to guide the pharaoh on his journey. Others have scenes from the Book of Caverns, Book of Gates, Book of Heavens and Book of Earth.

A visit to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo is indeed a chastening experience. From the fashionable footwear and garments on display to the furniture, vehicles and household objects, the stuff used in pharaonic times is not very different from what we use today in our modern homes. Only the pillow seems to have evolved from a curved wooden headrest to todays eiderdown-filled cushion. There is little doubt that the Egyptian civilisation was indeed a very advanced and refined one, on which subsequent generations spanning five millennia have improved little.

Our journey through Egypt takes us to other spectacular archaeological sites, too. The temples of Abu Simbel far in the Nubian desert, Philae Temple dedicated to goddess Isis in Aswan, Kom Ombo, Edfu, Karnak and Luxor, temples all on the banks of the Nile. Many of these temples bear the unmistakeable evidence of Greco-Roman influence in their architecture. You almost develop a crick in your neck, gazing at the towering columns of Karnak Temple in Luxor. Karnak is a spectacular complex of sanctuaries, pylons, pillars and obelisks, all engraved with scenes from Egyptian mythology interspersed with history and a wonderful place to get lost in the past!

Egypt has had its fair share of foreign rulers leaving their indelible mark on the lands customs, rituals, art and architecture through the ages. After a series of ethnic Egyptian and Saite kings spread over three kingdoms Old, Middle and New spanning over 2,000 years, Egypt fell to Nubian kings from 760 B.C. to 656 B.C. The Nubians were not ethnically very different from the Egyptians themselves. Persians ruled over Egypt from 525 B.C. The Macedonians led by Alexander the Great liberated Egypt from the Persians in 332 B.C. and went on to found Alexandria. The Macedonian Greeks, led by Alexanders general, Ptolemy I, invaded Egypt in 305 B.C. and held sway for three centuries, leaving their lasting mark on the architecture of the period even while assimilating Egyptian gods into the Greek pantheon. Queen Cleopatra was the last of the Ptolemies. As intelligent as she was beautiful, Cleopatra kept her hold over Egypt by marrying Julius Caesar, the Roman emperor who might otherwise have posed a threat to her kingdom. When Caesar was assassinated, she married Mark Antony. During this period, Alexandria became the centre of unparalleled scholarship and culture. Eventually, the Greeks made way for the Romans, who came in around 30 B.C. Islam came to Egypt in A.D. 640. The capital, accordingly, shifted from Memphis to Thebes (Luxor) to Alexandria to Cairo.

We wrap up our tour of Egypt with a visit to Abu Simbel on the banks of the Nile in Nubia. From Aswan, we speed through 280 kilometres of featureless desert to Lake Nasser, the largest man-made lake in the world created by the construction of Aswan High Dam. The dam was Gamal Abdel Nassers pet project to harness the Nile to feed his countrymen, conceived in an era when big dams had not yet become a bad word. Two majestic temples one for Ramses II and another for his queen Nefertari keep silent vigil over the turquoise blue expanse of the lake. The temples were relocated to the present location when the lake threatened to submerge the original temple site. At the entrance are four mammoth statues of Ramses II, one of them damaged, in a seated posture depicting him as king of this world.

After all, his reign of 66 years was perhaps the longest for any Egyptian monarch and was considered the golden era of ancient Egypt. As you enter, you find more of his statues in funerary posture hands crossed over chest and finally, in the pantheon, he is depicted as god, seated alongside Ra-Harakhti, Amun and Ptah. The sheer magnitude of the statues is stunning. Could a civilisation of such splendour and grandeur have left anything less dazzling for posterity to marvel at?

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