I was finishing some last minute payment releases, ready to head-off on a 12 days vacation when a friend walked-in. “Oh! Cairo is so dirty! You wouldn’t feel you were abroad. It is worse than India. Nothing much to see either… Of course the pyramids are there but that is just half a day. You can kill some time on the Nile cruise but not really a great vacation spot. It’s just tombs every where…the land of the dead!” He shrugged, writing off my long awaited twelve days in under a minute. I simply, smiled and said –“I’m off with my family”. I guess that conveyed my message for he too smiled & said – “Then it should be fun!”
I love traveling with my parents. Having taken my three nieces on a vacation to Singapore a few years ago, they were thrilled last year when we vacationed with my parents. They saw me transform from the, ‘Aunt-in-charge’ to the ‘Leader-of-the-gang’! It’s lovely to be ‘not-in-charge’. Traveling with my dad is always the right mix of information, experience & perspective. My super-efficient mom is a blessing any seasoned traveler would want. My husband & daughter were going with me to share my joy of traveling. What more could I ask!
Egypt, with perhaps the oldest evidence of human civilisation, is a land for those who appreciate poetry. If poetic words that reveal more in what is not expressly said cannot inspire you, then Egypt would be wasted on you. To the unimaginative, Egypt is the land of tombs, the land of the dead. But to those whose hearts soar, who can fly without wings and speak without words, Egypt is the land of eternal life! Yes! It is true that the tombs of the dead are far more decorative and creative than perhaps their living homes ever were. So many a tomb and pyramid we visited, never a palace or fortress! But the significance of these tombs revealed a spirit far more open than the closed minds of today.
The Great pyramid of Giza (right most) stands at 146 meters with a base of 230 sq meters, is 4000 years old and remains an engineering marvel to the constructions experts of the 21st century. Each block of stone (estimated total of 2.5 million blocks of stone!!) weighing about 2.5 tones (each) was hauled into this magnificent structure that has stood all the tests of time for over four millennia proclaiming to human kind that perhaps the womb of all civilization is a secret mother earth has yet to reveal to us. Contrary to the Hollywood image of Egyptian slaves being whipped to build the pyramids, the fact revealed by locals is that the river Nile flooding every 6 months prompted the Pharaohs to give alternative employment to their subjects. In the whole country of Egypt only 4% of the land is inhabited, along the banks of the river Nile. As my husband rightly said “The presence of this river in the great Sahara desert is indeed true godliness! Just divine grace!”
Cruising along the river Nile, we visited several ancient temples to Egyptian Gods & Goddesses. My favorite was to the temple of Moon Ra, the Sun God. The huge pillars and the mammoth structures humble your superior intellect. To the ancient Egyptian, the sun was the beginning of life and so the Eastern banks of the river Nile is filled with various temples. To match the symbolism of the setting Sun, all the tombs are on the western banks of the river. Not every ruler built pyramids for his tomb. In the middle of the Sahara, among the dessert sand, lies several ‘valleys’ that are the resting places of the dead. The valley of kings & valley of queens have revealed enormous treasures of ancient Egypt – many stolen by tomb robbers, but enough to give us the feel of the era. The most commonly seen image of Egyptian Pharaoh belongs to that of Tutankhamun – a fairly insignificant Pharaoh whose claim to fame today is the sheer luck of his tomb being the first to be found absolutely intact and untouched. The female figure is Cleopatra – born in Egypt, famed by Rome.
If the sight of the pyramid was unbelievable (my niece Kamini insisted that it couldn’t be man-made!), the sight of ‘Valley of Kings’ made me loose all significance of time. Those desert sands looked untouched, unmoved – with the same quality with which they were born! A 360 degree turn revealed nothing but sand. With the hot sun shining down my neck, I could easily believe nothing else existed. My daughter Meenakshi snapped me out of that nothingness to walk me into the tomb of Ramases the VII. Amazingly beautiful, painted, carved, cut-out…. Our guide revealed to us that the length of each tomb depended on the period of reign of the Pharaoh, for the minute he ascended to the throne he began caving his tomb and the minute he died, his successor’s interest would shift to his own tomb! Another interesting visit was to the temple of Hatshepsut – a Queen who all those thousands of years ago managed to rule Egypt for 35 years.
Not all our time was spent in old temples & tombs. We visited the modern engineering marvel of the Suez Canal, driving across from Africa to Asia through the underground tunnel with ships weighing hundred of tones sailing above us! A swim in the Red Sea at Hurghudda; a visit to Alexandria along the Mediterranean sea which was the capital of Alexander the Great and today houses the world’s largest library; trinket shopping in modern Cairo; crossing the great Sahara in a convoy of 200 cars with desert police for escort to ensure we didn’t get lost – WOW! A whole lot of things in mere 10 days! Meenakshi returned home with the feeling history is not always boring!
Egypt, like India, is seeped in traditions, superstitions & mythology. However, while India has a living tradition, the Pharonic age at Egypt was long forgotten and remains today a tourist attraction or a researcher’s passion. When the first ‘Mummy’ was discovered by British archeologists, several incidents happened to many of them associated with the find, giving credence to the rumor of the Pharaoh’s curse. However, today several scholars believe that perhaps the ‘embalming’ or ‘mummification’ process of the Pharonic age, used a kind of radioactive material that managed to keep these ‘Mummies’ intact for 3000 odd years and when exposed to living humans caused them harmful radiation confirming a curse. While Madam Curie remains the ‘discoverer’ of radioactivity in early 19th century, perhaps the civilization of 2000 BC knew certain uses and properties that defy our claim to superior intelligence. While the sight of the ‘Mummies’ in the Egyptian museum was in no way ‘pleasant’, they nevertheless set me thinking. If the peoples of a land as ancient as 2000 BC could device ways to keep a body without its spirit intact for 4000 years, why do we find it so hard to believe that a body with its spirit could very much remain in the Himalayas or else where as an embodied master ? The importance given by the ancient Egyptians to the dead can prompt a modern traveler to call it life negative. But in many ways, the Egyptians buried all the personal belongings and several more with the dead body, for they believed in life after death or rather eternal life. Each insight into the ancient way of life reiterated two things to me. First, how deep rooted and significant each of their beliefs must have been to them and second, how far we have come from then!
Today’s scientists believe that the rate at which our universe is growing, the static which we believe is evidence of the Big Bang, may completely disappear a few thousand years from now. The ‘human’ of that period in time, if exposed to the ‘Big Bang’ belief of today, may laugh at our ‘imagination’ and lack of concrete evidence! To him, we may seem over-imaginative and un-scientific. Paradoxically these pyramids and tombs that we today call the land of the dead, was to the ancient Egyptians bridges to eternal life. Who knows, may be this is the life after!