Saturday, February 24, 2018

The gods of ancient Egypt

I thought it was a crocodile on our bed on a cruise boat on the Nile.  It turned out to be Sobek, the god of Nile crocodiles.  But let me start from the beginning. 

As soon as our plane landed in Cairo, we were confronted with a golden status of Isis in the arrival hall.  Isis is, of course, the goddess who resurrected her husband the divine king Osiris after he was murdered, and produce the son Horus, the falcon-headed god.  

Horus, with a falcon’s head and a man’s body, is everywhere.  He had either morphed into different forms, or perhaps they were actually different gods.  Horus had been said to be a brother of Isis and Osiris and then later their son.  Horus often wears the double crown of both upper (southern) and lower (northern) Egypt. 

Horus was later merged with the sun god Ra to become Ra-Horakhty. He was believed a great god who rule over the sky, earth and underworld. 

Horus has a consort, the popular goddess Hathor.  She is a goddess of music, dance, fertility, … assists in childbirth, and welcomes the dead into the next life. 

Anubis is the jackal-headed god who assist in the passing of the dead into afterlife, which is another intriguing story too long to repeat here.  More about that later. 

Hathor is sometimes represented as a cow, with the sun disk on her head.  

One myth says Ra sends Hathor as the blood-thirsty warrior lioness-headed goddess Sekhmet to destroy mortals who conspired against him.  She ended up killing almost all of humanity.  Ra had to drug her with blood-coloured beer to calm her down to return to Ra. 

Nut is the goddess of the sky. She is the mother of Osiris, Isis, Set (who murdered Osiris) and (one version of) Horus.  Ra was said to be jealous of her and forced her to be separated from her brother and husband the god of the earth, Geb.  She is often depicted as a naked women covered with stars, arching over the earth.  

Another great god who came later is Amun.  Amun is often merged with Ra and depicted with feathers on his head.  I found him receiving goodies on the walls at the Temple of Hatshepsut in the Valley of the Queen.  

The god of the crocodiles of the Nile is Sobek, naturally depicted as a crocodile-headed man.  At some point Sobek was merged with Ra, to become even more powerful.  He has his own temple in Kom Ombo. 

One day my wife and I returned to our room on a cruise boat on the Nile to find Sobek lying on our bed. 

The whole thing is so confusing.  But also so much fun.  

Friday, February 23, 2018

River Nile and Aswan Dam

It has often been said that without the Nile there is no Egypt.  The Nile carries nutrients from the upper reaches of the Nile in the heart of Africa (in the south) to the lower reaches (in the north), towards the Mediterranean Sea. 

The Nile floods each year around June, depositing the nutrient rich mud on the banks of the river.  But the unpredictability of the flood causes much loss of property and lives.  Hence the Low (older) and High (newer) Dams were built to control the flow of water, and to generate electricity.  We flew south from Cairo to Aswan to see the dams.   

The High Dam backed the water up the river, and created a lake 550 kilometres long, longer than the distance between Hong Kong and Guilin 桂林.   Our flight to Aswan was delayed for more than 2 hours because of a dust storm.   We were told dust storms are common because we are in the middle of the desert.  

Looking south into the man-made Lake Nassat, we saw nothing but water and the horizon.  The source of the Nile is said to be actually in Rwanda, with which I am fairly familiar, having been going there for service-learning projects every year since 2013.  But one could not see Rwanda from Aswan.

Looking north, we could see the Nile flowing towards Cairo.  We could not see Cairo, either.  

We did see the high voltage power transmission system of towers, cables, … that carry the power to the users.  At one point, we were told, that the power stations here generate half of the electricity of Egypt.  

The dams eliminated un-controlled flooding.  Instead, they provide flooding on demand.  We took one of the 4-storey cruise boats from Aswan to Luxor.  On the way, we see hotels, hundreds of cruise boats, sailing boats, …

We were able to feed the seagulls with small morsels of bread that we pilfered from the dining room.  Birds seem to occupy a special place in Egyptian culture.  There are numerous birds of all kinds in the hieroglyphs at the tombs and temples from ancient Egypt. 

More importantly, perhaps, we also saw some of the cattle munching on grass on the flood plains.

Narrow strips of green fields growing all kinds of crops. 

Right behind those narrow strips of green rose the sands of the desert. All are Egypt. 

It was said that the dam prevented much of the fertile soil from the upper reaches of the Nile to reach the flood plains of Egypt, lowering the fertility of the land.  It was also said that the reduction in nutrients that reach the Mediterranean Sea reduced the catch of fish such as the sardines at the mouth of the Nile.  There is also the silting up of the man-made lake, and myriad other problems.  

But, by and large, the feared downsides do not seem to be as bad as the worse that was predicted before the dams were built.  While the upsides: the electricity, the control of water, the tourism, etc., seem to be quite real.  The Egyptians are immensely proud of Aswan.  

Monday, February 19, 2018

Valley of the Kings

Other than the great pyramids at Giza, the Valley of the Kings is probably the most famous among the many archeological sites of Egypt.  King Tutankhamen of the golden death mask fame, for one, was buried here.  The earlier pharaohs, from ~2,600 BC, were buried in the pyramids at Giza.  But they were soon broken into by grave robbers, with the pyramids making tempting targets.  Later, from ~1,600 to ~1,000 BC, the pharaohs were buried here, in a valley under a mountain that looks somewhat like a natural pyramid.  

There were no pyramids to mark the tombs, which were dug deep into the mountains at secret sites.  

more than 100 meters slanting down into the ground.  

We were not allowed to take photographs without buying expensive photograph permits, which, in any case, give permission to only some of the tombs.  

62 tombs had been discovered here so far.  It appeared that the efforts to hide them were not successful in protecting them.  All but one had been broken into.  Much of the mummies, coffins, and other treasures buried with the pharaohs had been stolen.  What remained were removed to Egyptian Museum in Cairo or other museums.  Many ended up in the British Museum in London, the Louvre in Paris, and others.  King Tut’s golden death mask is not the only one.  There are many others.  Some of which are probably in private hands, whose owners would probably not prefer to be known.

What is left in the tombs is lots and lots of hieroglyphs, similar to those found in the many Egyptian temples.  Many were very intricate, colourful and fun to watch.  For example, there appeared to be many different kinds of birds and relatively fewer mammals and fishes in the hieroglyphs. Unfortunately, I do not have photographs to illustrate.  

King Tut’s tomb was fortunate, or unfortunate - depending on your perspective, to have been dug underneath another tomb, which was broken into.  It laid undiscovered for more than 3,000 years until the last century.  He reigned for only a short time, didn’t do much in comparison to some of his more illustrations fellow pharaohs, and died young.  Now he is the most famous of the many pharaohs.  Who would have bought so at the time?

Some speculate that more tombs are there, yet to be discovered.  Who knows?

These tombs remind me of the tombs of the emperors in ancient China, such as the Chin Dynasty and Han Dynasty.  Many were similarly dug deep in the ground, with elaborate efforts to hide their locations.  Much also turned out to be futile.  

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Ramses II's Temple at Abu Simbel

We went to see a couple of temples at Abu Simbel.  One was dedicated to Ramses II, or Ramses the Great, one of the greatest pharaohs in Egyptian history.  The other, smaller but no less significant, was dedicated to his queen Nefertari.  These temples became very well known when they were about to be flooded by the building of the high dam at Aswan.  The United Nations put up some serious money to dismantle the 2 temples and to reconstruct them at higher ground.  
Ramses II had many temples.  This one was built to commemorate Ramses II’s victory over the Hittites at Kadesh.  But the Hittites lived in modern day Turkey, to the northeast of Egypt.  Why was the temple built here in southern Egypt, between ancient Egypt and Nubia?  Obviously it was to impress the Nubians, who lived to the south of Egypt, in modern day Sudan, who often fought the Egyptians.  

The most recognisable features were 4 colossal statues of Ramses II at the front of the temple, each of them 20 meters tall. Each is accompanied by a much smaller statue of his beautiful queen, Nefetari.  More about his beautiful queen later. 

In the centre, above the entrance, 2 much smaller images of the pharaoh was seen worshipping the falcon headed god Ra-Harakhti.  

One the walls were carved many scenes depicting the pharaoh vanquishing his enemies. 

There are scenes of the many peoples that Ramses had defeated and captures.  Some, with special hairstyle and noses,  looked like Assyrians. 

Some, with their broad noses and thick libs, were obviously Nubians.  

Deep inside the temple, Ramses was seen seated second from the right, among 3 three other gods.  It is said that Ramses II was the first pharaoh to place himself sitting and equal in size with the gods, essentially making himself a god, rather than merely a son of the gods.  

A friend asked for my thoughts upon visiting the temple.  The temple has many impressive features, many of which I don’t have time to elaborate in this post.  What struck me the most was the enormous amount of power that the ancient pharaohs held.  How much labour went into building these temples?  All the captives of war were either killed or made into slaves.  Were they forced to help built the temple?  It was said that the people who built the temple were not slaves, but were hired to do the job.  Did they have a choice?  If not, this was at best forced labour, or a form of heavy tax.  Was it really different from slavery?  Ramses II is being remembered partly because of the temple.  What about all those who actually built the temple?  

Friday, February 16, 2018

Morden Day Egyptians

A lady was lowering something from the first floor balcony in a bucket, to a couple of kids at the front door on the ground floor. It turned out to be a key - for the kids to open the door.  Perhaps she is the mother of those kids?  Do people still do that in Cairo?  How quaint! And how endearing!

A man driving a horse-drawn cart - it is obvious that this is a really common scene in Cairo.  I was hoping to see that even before I came - but am still surprised to see it so often.  

Men smoking a water-pipe or having tea on the roadside - an iconic scene.  They are always men, and never women.  Is that never going to change?

The women that I can see on the street seem to be always working.  Is that not going to change either?

When I went out running on Monday morning, many people greeted me, nodded, or even gave me the thumbs-up.  They seemed are so friendly.  

Many people are going to work, on foot, taking the bus, …  But some are fishing on the Nile.  

And some are watching the goings-on on the Nile, from the shore. 

Five young ladies were having fun on the sidewalks, perhaps waiting for the bus.  And two young men were amused watching them.  That is probably not going to change anytime soon.  

A pretty young face from the window of a bus.  Just a glimpse that left a deep impression. 

I have heard that there are more than 10 million Coptic Christians in Egypt, with almost 90 million Muslims.  We passed by St Mark’s Coptic Cathedral, the seat of the Coptic Pope.  What I did not realise at the time was that it was very close to a mosque.  From the people that i have talked to, the Christians and Muslims have been living side by side in Egypt largely peacefully for many many centuries.  Why is mutual respect so hard for some people?

People.  They are so fascinating.  

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Egyptian Museum

The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities is a real treasure trove.  It is at the northern end of Tahir Square. 

There are, of course, mummies.  But also a worktable on which mummies are prepared.  The blood was drained. Key internal organs were taken out.  The brain was scrambled and pulled out through the nose.  

There are many human-shaped sarcophagi where the mummies are placed.  They are huge, and very heavy.  Certainly durable.  

There are many statues of Anubis, the god associated with mummification. 

Golden death masks of pharaohs.  How many pharaohs had there been?  How many golden masks had been made? 

Golden chairs belonging to pharaohs.

A beautiful chair decorated with intimate scenes with pharaoh and his queen. 

Royal games that look quite modern.  

Extremely intricate golden jewellery.  The equal of which in workmanship is rare, even today. 

Mummies of cats.  And many other animals. 

Crocodiles. Big ones and small ones.  

Jars for the mummies of animals. 

Sarcophagi for cats. 

The ancient Egyptians seemed to pay more attention to afterlife then real life.  At least, it appears that way if we consider what remains from the antiquities.  For example, many  graves and temples remain, but few palaces do.  Some said it is partially because of the relative durability of the material used.