Friday, March 19, 2010

Holy Land Trip, Thursday, March 18, 2010

Sorry I didn't get a report in yesterday.  Getting connected to the internet has been ridiculously difficult (and expensive).  In fact, nearly everything about our Cairo hotel has been problematic.  Le Meridien at the pyramids is supposed to be a five-star restaurant – it can't touch LaQuinta.  Simply awful. 

So I'm going to report tonight (Friday night) about Thursday.  I'll write about Friday tomorrow.  We've got the morning to sleep in (and write). 

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Thinking about the drive through the Sinai, I am awed by the difficulty that Moses and the Israelites must have faced living in such an extreme territory.  They would have been very dependent upon Moses' father-in-law Jethro, who I would suppose was a Bedouin, familiar with surviving in the desert.  The passages about the community's complaining about the food, the water, the vulnerability takes on a new reality.  I marvel that people live in this rugged land now, some of them not so differently from Moses and his refugees from Egypt.

This morning we got away early to see the great pyramids of Giza.  Out hotel is actually very close to them.  The desert is right on the edge of town.  The pyramids are burial sites for Egyptian royalty and their families.  The pharaoh would be interred alone in a single pyramid.  The Great Pyramid was built in 2600 BCE for Chufu, and his son and grandson (succeeding Pharoahs) are in smaller pyramids nearby, queens in much smaller pyramids next to his.  There are 114 pyramids in Egypt, 11 in Gaza. 

When a pharaoh was enthroned, he began work on his tomb.  The great pyramid took 100,000 workers 20 years to build, mounting 2.3 million blocks, each weighing 2 to 15 tons.  It is 148 meters high and at the base could easily house St Peter's Basilica.  If the stones of the Great Pyramid were turned into a fence, it could create a wall around France three feet high. 

The laborers were not slaves, but free men, farmers who were given work during the flood season – an ancient form of an economic stimulus package.  Workers were given food and housing for themselves and their families.  There were rewards for especially good workers.

The bottom section of the pyramid it is built of granite, which had to be shipped up the Nile during flood season from Aswan, 650 miles away.  I believe the rest of it was build with limestone from a nearby quarry, with a bright, smooth limestone on the top.

We visited the step pyramid in the complex of Zoser, an earlier structure from 2700, a less sophisticated engineering feat.  With the pyramids you can see them learning and becoming more accomplished in creating these marvels.  Then there is a dropping off of the quality of the building over several hundred years.  Because of economic problems they cut some corners, and the results show dramatically when you look at later pyramids that seem to be little more than a pile of stones.

We were the first group to go into the smaller pyramid this morning.  We entered a side tunnel that was so low we had to bend over almost to the waist.  The tunnel went about 40 steps down, then leveled and the ceiling was high enough for us to stand maybe twenty feet.  Then we went to the center of the structure through another low tunnel going up.  We emerged in the burial room that was about 40 feet by 20 feet.  We were the only people in there.  The room is empty, except for a sarcophagus that was large enough for five of us who were naughty enough to get in, with room enough that all fifteen might have squeezed in.

As we returned, again as the only people in the pyramid, we were so thankful not to have to be going slowly with a slow line of tourists going both directions through the narrow tunnels.  Beside the discomfort, I think some of us, maybe me, would have had some nasty claustrophobia.

Near the great pyramids is an ancient building called the Family Temple, which was the place were the bodies were embalmed.  All of the organs would be taken out, except the heart.  After embalming, the body is processed to the Mortuary for final prayers.  Then the mummy was taken down the shaft that we climbed through and placed in the room we visited and filled with treasures and needed things for the next life.

According to Egyptian mythology, the soul of the dead person would take two trips.  A boat is supplied for the journey.  For the first 12 hours, the soul goes with the Sun god Ra.  For the next 12 hours, it journeys in a night voyage.  At the last hour, the person faces the final judgment.  In front of a panel of judges, the person's heart is weighed.  On the other side of the balance scales there is a feather.  If the person has led and good life and not accumulated many sins upon the heart, it will be lighter than a feather, and the person will enter into paradise.  But if the person has sinned and has a heart heavier than a feather, the person must face punishment and banishment.  That puts a twist to the old saying, "light as a feather."

We visited the Sphinx and took lots of pictures of the whole area.  The word "Sphinx" means "living image," and as we left the precinct, we were greeted with hundreds of school aged children, the girls in their beautiful robes, all of them smiling, waving, giving the foreigners the peace sign and brightening up the whole morning.  For me, they were truly a living image.

We watched a demonstration of how papyrus was turned into the world's first paper.  Fascinating.  Then we looked at art painted on papyrus.  To me, one of the most interesting traditional designs was a drawing of the tree of life.  The tree has five birds, moving counter clockwise from the bottom of the tree – baby, child, youth, married, and old – the latter bird looking in a different direction from the other birds, looking toward eternity.    We also saw a design of the world's first calendar, a circle with people representing the four seasons, the four directions, and four something else, to make 12.  There are symbols for each day of the year and the corresponding zodiac signs around the circle.

We visited nearby Memphis, the first capital of Egypt, from 3200 BCE.  Our drive there was through a fertile, rich land, the Nile Delta.  In 32 BCE a devastating earthquake destroyed the ancient mud-brick city, which was not rebuilt until more recent times.  In the last few centuries archeologists have discovered a number of ancient statues, including two major images of Ramses II, the reputed pharaoh of Moses, and an alabaster Sphinx. 

Our final stop was to Sakkara, where we visited an amazing tomb of Edoup, a child princess who died at age 9.  The section we went to has been closed for 20 years and recently reopened.  We were able to walk into the tomb, to see and touch lightly the hieroglyphics, which are so well preserved that some of the color still remains.  It is part of the nearby complex of Zoser, from 2700 BCE. In the middle of that area is an arena where the pharaoh had to reassert his vitality in order to keep his reign.  The pharaoh would run eight laps, then he would fight a live bull.  If he killed the bull, he would be given another 30 years to reign.  The only witness would be the High Priest.  Rumor has it that the pharaoh succeeded, in no little measure thanks to a bribe to the High Priest.

A note about all of the unfinished buildings here.  It seems that nearly every building has signs of emptiness, shells of rooms, upper floors abandoned in mid-construction.  Building taxes are only collected when a building is completed.  Great incentive for not quite finishing that final floor or an adjacent set of rooms.  Makes for an abandoned look for many structures.



Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home