Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Touring Luxor Part 2: Why Everyone is Fascinated by Ancient Egypt

Nobody goes to the Eiffel Tower or the Empire State Building hoping to be the only visitor. But for some reason, in Egypt, the remains of thousands of years ago seem to ask for quiet contemplation. Many have described the experience of seeing the monuments, surrounded by hundreds of sunburned figures with foreign tongues as somehow lacking. “Even Idfu, the most unspoiled of the temples,” lamented writer Alan Moorehead in 1961, “becomes a bit mundane when it is beset by crowds in straw hats and colored shirts.”

I understood what Morehouse meant as I walked around the Valley of the Kings. Here was my first lesson in why everyone is fascinated by ancient Egypt. By looking at relics and communing with times long past, we can meditate on human universals. There is war, love, spirituality, subjugation, exaltation, and nature. There are stars twinkling overhead on a sea of dark blue paint, armies of conquered Nubians with their hands bound. There are suns, birds, chronicles of military victory and meetings with gods. There are Ancient Egyptians wind surfing the Nile’s small waves.

On the walls of each tomb, we encounter a record of a human life, albeit the most powerful human life at the time, and we see a highly stylized rendition of living that persists today. There are still wars, still beliefs in higher deities, still exaltation of leadership, still stars twinkling overhead. We are fascinated by Ancient Egypt because, even for its distance, it is still a little bit familiar. Today, we render the lives of the powerful in newspapers, and we have no pretension that the records they create will last forever. We print our victories and failures on degradable paper and ink, rather than line the walls of our tombs for the infinite afterlife.

But in order to really meditate on human universals, you have to be alone, and in Luxor this is nearly impossible. There are only so many places to see, and even at tourist low tide they are engulfed. Hundreds hop daily into what Aladdin (see part one) calls “Disney World Cars,” wagons hitched to golf carts, and head off for the Valley of the Kings.

Once you enter a tomb, you immediately feel the presence of hundreds of others who have been before. At first it looks like your eyes are playing tricks, but then as the sun sets momentarily behind the entrance, you see it: graffiti. Explorers, robbers, tourists of bygone eras have etched their names into the walls. Religious believers, like the Victorians who covered David’s loins, have hacked away the etchings of genitalia and, where they can reach, many of the faces. Some of the older graffiti, written in Greek, or featuring faces of Jesus, only offends the most diehard ancient-o-philes, for it too feels like a relic of times long past. “BECKY” in big, dumb block letters, doesn’t have the same romance.

Contemplating the graffiti, I came to my second lesson in why everyone is fascinated by ancient Egypt. Visitors want to feel like they have participated, at least vicariously and perhaps with a great deal of suspended cynicism, like they are participating in an ongoing process of discovering something very precious.

There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. But when you actually get there and see the graffiti and realize that this stuff has been ‘discovered’ not once, not twice, but continuously and unendingly since it was first laid to rest and some enterprising Ancient thieves found the location—it’s under the biggest mountain, after all—there is inevitably a touch of disappointment.

Onward to the Temple of ­ Ramses III, commonly called Medinet Habu. This is clearly Aladdin’s favorite. He can’t contain his grin. Why? Because he gets to tell us about incest and piles of genitalia. ‘Now I am going to take you to see the benis,” he says.

It’s been established that the Pharaohs married their sisters. It is telling that my initial Google search for ‘Ancient Egypt Incest’ pulled up a Daily Mail article. “Incest was rife among the boy king's family,” says the article on King Tut, “because pharaohs were believed to be descended from the gods.” Tut’s wife was his half-sister, and they were married when he was ten years old.

As a result of the inbreeding, Aladdin tells us, many of the Pharaohs had strangely shaped heads, with big, bulbous tops. Later Pharaohs would try to mimic the look by squeezing the heads of their newborn children between two rocks.

It gets weirder. Upon conquering a foreign army, the (inbred!) Pharaohs would order their armies to cut off the hands and loins of the vanquished. Aladdin gestures to massive chiseled portraits of hand and penis piles.

And here I learn my third lesson in why everyone is fascinated by ancient Egypt. Since it is no longer fashionable to gawk at contemporary tribal cultures, and no longer common to visit Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not museums, we must find our fascination with the weird, the grotesque, the hopelessly foreign in Ancient relics. Aladdin loves it too.

Back in air-conditioned van, we drive back to our hotels, past the hotel rep’s and carriage drivers offering pedestrian tourists anything for at least a chance to make their case. Aladdin asks if we liked the driver, and leads us in applause. Then he asks if we liked the tour, and leads us in applause. “Big tip for the tour guide?” More applause. 

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