Into the pharaoh’s chamber | Daily News

Into the pharaoh’s chamber

They say there is something special about buying your first brand-new car, and this is particularly true if it happens in Egypt during a revolution. By the spring of 2014, my wife, Leslie, and I had lived in Cairo for more than two years, as American foreign correspondents, and we had reached a point of decision. The previous summer, Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president, had been removed in a military coup, and the security forces massacred more than 1,000 Morsi supporters in the capital, according to estimates by Human Rights Watch. At the time, our twin daughters, Ariel and Natasha, were three years old, and Leslie and I had the inevitable conversation: do we stay or do we go?

We had always intended to spend at least five years in Egypt. It seemed the minimum, given the richness of the country’s history and culture, and in the end we decided to stick to the plan. Purchasing the first new car that either of us had ever owned was part of that commitment – an act of determination, or maybe desperation.

Intimate experience

Initially, the normalcy of this routine seemed reassuring. At a dealership in eastern Cairo, a salesman in a dark suit gave us a firm handshake and a good price on a Honda City sedan. After that, we scheduled a meeting with an agent at the insurance company Allianz but, at the last minute, he called to cancel, because he had just destroyed his own car in an accident. Another agent stepped in. She mentioned that she no longer qualified for auto insurance from Allianz, because she had had multiple wrecks every year for three consecutive years. She handed us a glossy brochure that read: “Our own data shows that six out of every 10 cars purchased in Egypt will either be crashed, damaged, or stolen.”

By the time we finished the paperwork, I was so scared that I telephoned a car-owning friend. He drove over and guided me through rush-hour traffic, like a tugboat, to our home in Zamalek, a district on an island in the Nile. But it wasn’t long before I started exploring the city, and then I discovered the joy of driving to ancient sites. Even at the most imposing monuments, there was something intimate about the experience, because these places had been abandoned by tourists. When we made a family trip to the Red Pyramid at Dahshur, I parked the Honda City at the base of the structure, as if we had pulled up at a friend’s house. There wasn’t another vehicle in the car park; the guard at the entrance was so bored that he didn’t bother to accompany us inside. We descended alone into the pharaoh’s burial chamber, where the twins’ voices echoed off the high corbelled ceiling.

For a couple of years, I had researched archaeological digs in Upper Egypt, and now I made trips alone in the car. The hardest part of every journey was escaping Cairo. From Zamalek, I would head south along the Nile, past Tahrir Square and Garden City, the old district of the British colonialists. Then I reached Fustat, where, more than 1,000 years ago, Arab invaders founded the capital that eventually grew to become Cairo. The distance was only three-and-a-half miles; on a bad day it took an hour.

Whenever the traffic bogged down, I read the cars around me. Egyptians liked to post statements in white decal letters on their rear windows, and usually they were the standards: “masha’allah” (“this is what God has willed”) or “la ilaha ill’allah” (“there is no God but God”). But sometimes, a message had been designed for those godless moments when nothing moved. “Mafeesh faida” (“There’s no use”). “Ana T’aben” (“I’m Tired”). The most memorable were often in English: “Real Women Hunt.” “Love Story Jesus.” “If Your Life Is a Minute, Live It as a Man.” A Kia Cerato had “Try but Don’t Cry” on its back window. A Jumbo-brand bus had “That’s What Friendship Leads to, a Court Case.” A Lada sedan: “Police Is My Job, Crime Is My Game.”

South of the city, I passed the high walls of the notorious Tora prison, and from there it wasn’t far to the Cairo-Asyut desert highway. At the tollbooth, I paid the equivalent of about £1.50, the best money I ever spent in Egypt. To the east rose low flat mountains of brown and red. The highway skirted the lower flanks, and soon the hazy green of the river valley disappeared in the west.

High on the desert plateau, the road surface was excellent, and there were hardly any other cars. It never rained; the light couldn’t have been better. Thanks to government subsidies, gasoline was cheaper than bottled water. On some sections of road I drove for 50 miles without seeing any vegetation.

At 75mph, with air-conditioning, it was hard to imagine the desert journeys of old. In 1868, an Englishman named Edward Henry Palmer wrote in his diary: “Monday – walked six hours; saw two beetles and a crow.” Annie Quibell wrote in 1925: “It is not the heat, not the glare, nor the sandstorms, nor even the solitude, that become oppressive after a time; it is the utter deadness and the howling of the wind.”

Archaeological sites

For past travellers, the landscape was brutal, but desert solitude often clarified the mind. “There is something grand and sublime in the silence and loneliness of these burning plains,” Robert Curzon wrote in 1833. A century later, Robin Fedden compared the view to “the cleanliness of a country under snow”. Arthur Weigall, who excavated at archaeological sites in the early 20th century, wrote: “The desert is the breathing-space of the world, and therefore one truly breathes and lives.”

Such reactions were by no means limited to foreigners. In the late third century, after Christianity had swept across Egypt, there were two famous instances in which a wealthy young Egyptian left his comfortable Nile valley home for a life of prayer and loneliness in the desert. According to tradition, Paul became the first Christian hermit, and Anthony the first monk. In this narrow river valley, neither man had to travel far to reach a site of desolation. And their relative accessibility allowed for occasional visitors, who informed the rest of Christendom about these holy men. The Egyptian desert – that breathing space of the world – inspired the Christian tradition of monasticism.

About 1346 BC, in Upper Egypt, the pharaoh Akhenaten founded a new capital on a previously uninhabited shelf of desert above the river’s eastern bank. Major cities had always been situated in the river valley, and when kings built mortuary temples and monuments, they favoured desert sites that were already sanctified by graves of the ancients. But the young pharaoh wanted a landscape uncontaminated by history or ritual. He erected a stele that described his discovery of the site “when it did not belong to any god, nor to a goddess, when it did not belong to any male ruler, nor any female ruler, when it did not belong to any people to do their business with it”.

By that time, the Egyptian faith had changed remarkably little for nearly a millennium, despite the lack of a central religious text – no Qur’an, no Bible, no Tanakh. “It says much about the unchanging rhythm of life in the Nile valley,” writes the Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson, “dictated by the annual regime of the river itself, that the resulting belief system remained so stable for so long.” In a landscape of such simplicity and continuity, core beliefs didn’t have to be written down. The Nile was the book.

Egyptian texts

But Akhenaten wanted a home in the desert, and he wanted a key text. His long poem, now known as the Hymn to the Aten, celebrated the form of the god Ra that was called Aten – the disk of the sun. In all respects these words were revolutionary. They were written in a more colloquial language than traditional Egyptian texts, and they celebrated the natural world:

The entire land performs its work; all the flocks are content with their fodder, trees and plants grow, birds fly up to their nests.

The Hymn to the Aten has some parallels in imagery and concept to Psalm 104, and a number of scholars have theorised that the Israelite psalmists might have been influenced by Akhenaten’s poem. Most strikingly, the hymn emphasised the Aten alone. For the first time in recorded history, an individual took a step toward monotheism:

Sole god, without another beside you; you create the earth as you wish.

Within a few years, Akhenaten’s desert city became home to an estimated 30,000 people. Palaces, temples and government buildings were constructed at an astonishing pace. The scale was massive; one place of worship, the Great Aten Temple, was half a mile long. So many workshops produced crafts for the royal family that it resembled a factory town. “It is an overwhelming site to deal with,” wrote William Flinders Petrie, who, in the 1890s, excavated at the place that archaeologists came to call Amarna. “Imagine setting about exploring the ruins of Brighton, for that is about the size of the town.”

Akhenaten’s great hymn, and his other texts that described the site’s boundaries, failed to mention one key detail: there was no potable water. Crops couldn’t grow here. Traditional supply chains had never served this place. The Egyptologist Barry Kemp believes that local well water would have been too saline for drinking, and that residents were forced to haul water from the Nile. Kemp writes: “The danger of being an absolute ruler is that no one dares tell you that what you have just decreed is not a good idea.”

- The Guardian

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