Egypt: Temples and Tombs
We idolize and idealize people and places, and are frequently let down when in crashes reality. But there are those rare instances where reality exceeds our fantasies and expectations. Such was the case of Egypt.
For as far back as I can remember I have wanted to go to Egypt. Walk in the footsteps of pharaohs. Marvel at the macabre beauty of a civilization fascinated by death and the afterlife. Experience the grandeur of a Nile cruise ala Death on the Nile, sans murder.
It would be nearly impossible to replicate my experience in Egypt, because of COVID most places were empty or nearly empty. This gave a very other worldly experience. Instead of being jostled by hordes of tourists and their cameras, I was able to wander through the tombs in the Valley of the Kings and Saqqara, meander through temples at Karnak, Esna and Edfu. All the while traveling with my Mom and our personal retinue: an Egyptologist, a driver (sometimes two), a plain clothes policeman and a tour manager (when travelling by air or have complex travel days).
This must have been what European explorers felt like in the 19th and 20th century. However, I was not looking to loot the Egyptian treasures, but to gaze at them in awe.
Explored Saqqara, the oldest pyramid complex in Egypt and some of the oldest stone structures in the world. The step pyramid, which is 60 meters high and designed by Imhotep, dates to the 27th century BC for the pharaoh Djoser. There are hundreds – and potentially thousands – of tombs around Saqqara, as it was used for more than 3000 years. Above ground and underground tombs are open for exploration. One of the first large tombs, topped with a mastaba can also be found at the site. Interestingly, ancient Egyptians were using the arch millennia before the Romans, though I’d say the Romans perfected it. There is active restoration and excavation happening at the site.
Toured the Giza Pyramids, including climbing into the tomb chamber of the Khufu Pyramid and rambling around the Sphinx. It took the Egyptians more than 300 years of trial and error to achieve a perfect pyramid. Each pyramid had a cap of stone (or potentially gold), and some research suggests that they may have once been painted. In regards to the Sphinx, since the head is so small relative to the size of the body, which is in complete opposition of Egyptian artistic standards/requirements, most Egyptologists believe the head was carved from a previous carving. In front of the Sphinx is the mummification temple, where the pharaoh’s body went through 70 days of preparation. It was discovered in the past decade, as well as multiple chambers between the Sphinx and the pyramids. And yes, I rode another camel… Mickey Mouse!
Explored Karnak in the relatively early morning hours. This temple complex was added on and modified over a 2000-year period with last formal changes made by the Romans in 1st century AD. There are items from Ramses II, Hatshepsut and many more. Original windows are still visible, as well as the sacred lake, Hatshepsut’s obelisk, Ramses II colonnade.
Spent a morning rambling around Luxor with my Egyptologist. It was started by Ahmenhotep III in 1400 BC but was expanded by Ramses II (the open courtyard) and then used by Greeks (Ptolemaic pharaohs) and the Romans, who added/modified parts (including putting frescoes over hieroglyphics). Plus, Christians and Muslims built over parts of the temple. The Avenue of Sphinxes was designed to connect Luxor with Karnak by Ramses II around 1200 BC; however, full excavation and connection is hampered by a 100-year-old church that was built on top of it.
Hatshepsut Mortuary Temple
Rambled around the reconstructed mortuary temple of Hatshepsut. She was the second confirmed female pharaoh, who ruled from 1470-1458 BC. Her name was largely erased from history by her stepson and his son (destruction of her cartouche/name, her face in the tomb and attempted destruction of other physical history…ugh, men!). She was the daughter, sister and wife of a pharaoh, and is considered one of the greatest Egyptian pharaohs. Because she was Queen before being Pharaoh, she has tombs in both Valley of the Queens and Valley of the Kings. Her mummy was found in the Valley of the Kings.
Valley of the Kings
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the tomb of Sethi I…the most extraordinary, extravagant and extra tomb you could imagine! And only recently opened to the public. He ruled for 11-16 years and his tomb was never finished. There are rooms filled with outline drawings (prep before carving) that were WIP before he died around age 44 in 1279 BC. Dark blue is made with crushed lapis and light blue crushed turquoise. Each of these chambers would have been filled with treasure. Sethi’s tomb is at least 40x the size of Tutankhamun’s tomb (I’m guessing).
After a 3.5 hour drive across the Sarhara with the entourage and stopping at the one man-made oasis, it was time to explore Abu Simbel, a temple from 1265 BC dedicated to the gods Amun, Ra-Horakhty, and Ptah, and turns Rameses II into a god. Next to Abu Simbel is a temple for Nefatari, Rameses II’s primary wife (though he had numerous concubines, resulting in 100+ children). Her temple has more statues and images of Ramses than of her (ugh, men…again!). The two have different artistic stylings. Unfortunately, she died about 40 years before he did. He lived to be about 90 and is considered one of the greatest of a pharaoh. Note: his father was Sethi I (of the amazing tomb!). This temple was previously about 40 meters lower, but it was raised in the 1960s to accommodate the new Aswan High Dam. It now overlooks the man-made Lake Nasser.
Took a quick trip to Esna to visit the Temple of Khnum (creator of children), which was built under the Ptolemaic period (Greek pharaohs after Alexander the Great came to Egyptian in 330-320s BC) and updated through the Roman times with some hieroglyphics dating to late 3rd century AD. This definitely did not follow the ancient Egyptian rules of art, as the bodies are much more detailed (noticeable muscles and other body shapes, including dancing), proportions are off, each column cap is different, quality is poorer and there is greater focus on the look vs the story.
The most complete Pharaonic temple in Egypt is the Temple of Horus Edfu on the Nile. It was a Ptolemaic (Greek pharaohs) temple built from 237 – 57 BC. Similar to the Esna temple, it does not strictly adhere to Egyptian design rules. There is heavy ornamentation and varying column capitals. However, it is the only temple with its roof intact, so it provides a good view of how awesome the structure was. Unfortunately, most of the color is gone due to 19th century cleaning techniques. They were trying to remove smoke stains (from when people lived in the structure or when it was a stable), but they also removed the colors. As it is a temple to Horus there is a large depiction of Horus’s defeat of his uncle Seth, who killed Horus’s father – Osiris. Horus is supported by his mother, Isis.
Kom Ombo is unique in that it is a double temple that honors two sets of gods within the same spot. It was built during the Ptolemaic period, specifically 180-47 BC. One of the honored gods was Sobek, the crocodile god, and more than 300 crocodile mummies were found. These crocodiles were not sacrificed, but died of natural causes and their bodies underwent the same process as the pharaoh. Additionally, this was by far the busiest/most crowded site we saw in Egypt. Almost all the tourists were Egyptians in local tour groups.
Explored the island Temple of Philae, which was built in the he first century AD by the Romans. It was dedicated to Isis and the layout is more Roman vs Egyptian. It was never painted and construction was not fully completed. Early Christians chiseled off several images throughout the temple and created an altar in one of the entrance areas, as well put several Maltese crosses around the structure. However, they co-opted the image of Isis and her son, Horus to represent Mary and Jesus, which saved the inner images from desecration. This was not the original location if the temple. It previously sat on another island, but, UNESCO and the Metropolitan Museum of Art stepped into to relocate it to another island about 100 meters away. Even in the mid-20th century most of the temple was underwater and you can see the water stains (dark black lines).
These are just a smattering of what is available to explore and experience in Egypt. Fair warning though, once you go to Egypt, you are spoiled for any other ancient archeological site!