Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Dude looks like a lady...

Our final stop
on our tour of Egyptian ruins is the funereal temple of Hatshepsut. Also on the west bank of the Nile over the Theban Hills opposite the Valley of the Kings. The west bank of the Nile is where the ancient Egyptians watched the sun disappear each night where the goddess of day Nut’s (pronounced Newt) head rests and swallows the giant yellow disc to pass through 12 stations in her body emerging again at her feet in the east with the dawn.

To say the population of the pharaonic eras were obsessed with the afterlife is a monumental understatement everything these cats did pointed to preparations for the hereafter. Pharaohs commissioned statues to be sculpted of themselves in the calm arms X’ed across the chest repose of the eternal sleep of their worldly bodies while they were still alive. Tombs were intricate affairs with antechambers and storage rooms branching off from the main passageway assigned provisions by utility, jewelry, armor, food, clothing, transportation etc. All of this was mapped out beforehand, intricate blueprints for these underground spirit world apartments have been found as have the roughed out sketches for the paintings and carvings on the walls of these repositories. First sketches were done in red then tightened up in black and finally the artisans would carve the artwork into the walls – death was big industry.

So you had your basic dichotomy, light and darkness, death and life, east and west. All the temples built on the East side of the Nile where the sun rose at Nut’s feet were the cult temples built to worship and make offerings to specific gods in order to garner their favor. The West is where one’s corporal body was laid to rest, mummified in anticipation of the soul’s return after a boat ride down the river Styx and the successful completion of a dozen tasks outlined in the book of the dead.

So, it makes nothing but sense that the Pharaoh Hatshepsut built a funereal temple in the west. The rest of this king’s story is a bit more convoluted – even by ancient Egyptian standards. Hatshepsut was a woman who ruled as a king. Not satisfied being a regent to her nephew/stepson the heir apparent, Tuhatmet III, she took on the trappings and authority of full pharaohood. Now it wasn’t unheard of for women to have positions of power in ancient Egypt, but declaring oneself king, donning the ceremonial squared off fake beard AND claiming to be the most beautiful woman in the empire at the same time was pushing things a bit.

Thus, as with any maverick hoping to ascend to the highest office in the land an inspiring narrative need be employed, whether all the facts line up as straight as the sphinxes outside of Karnac temple doesn’t really matter as long as the tale plays on the heartstrings of the populace. The story is a good one. One of the most famous examples of the legends about Hatshepsut is a myth about her birth.
(Pieced together from her Wikipedia page) In this myth, Amun (the god in charge of the Breath of Life) goes to Ahmose (Hatshepsut’s earthly mother) in the form of Thutmose I (her earthly father) and awakens her with pleasant odors. At this point Amun places the ankh, a symbol of life, to Ahmose's nose, and Hatshepsut is conceived by Ahmose. Khnum, the god who forms the bodies of human children, is then instructed to create a body and ka, or corporal presence/life force, for Hatshepsut. Heket, the goddess of life and fertility, and Khnum then lead Ahmose along to a lioness bed where she gives birth to Hatshepsut. Pretty cut and dry.

But, you need to disseminate this legend and here is where the funereal temple of Hatshepsut comes into play, the walls of the immense structure are covered with hieroglyphic and artist renderings of this story and her claim to the throne. The whole place is one giant propaganda billboard constructed from stone quarried a hundred miles away in Aswan – home of the unfinished obelisk where we began our trip. Ta Daa, everything comes full circle. There is a lot more to her story what with her nephew trying to erase her from the history books and all, destroying all her statues and citations in official history but you can go and look that up if you’re interested.

Now I would be totally remiss to not give a tip of my hat to our most excellent guide, fount of all things Egyptian ancient and otherwise on this tour, Magdi. I had the opportunity to chat with him a couple times as we trekked back to whatever mode of transportation we were using and I asked him if he liked his job. His eyes lit up, “I love it” he replied. “I even go and visit archeological sites when I am not working.” He did say he missed his wife and son when he was working – his schedule is two weeks on with the cruise ships and then two weeks at home - an antiquities fireman kind of schedule. I told him that we were sort of in the same business, travelling and teaching and we agreed it was a pretty good way to make a living.

Thanks Magdi.

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