"Mankind is afraid of time, and time is afraid of the Pyramids." As the awe-inspiring voice loomed across the open-air auditorium, a feeling of being transported three thousand years back in time suddenly hit me. Sitting there, in front of the majestic Pyramids and Sphinx, I was watching a late-night light and sound show in Giza, Egypt. The narrator did a perfect job for creating an aura of mystery and intrigue and the lights complemented it perfectly. Hans Zimmer would have been proud of the background score that sent periodic chills down the spines of the enthralled audience. After my trip is over, I thought, I would go back home to a house that was built 10 years ago. That house was already showing signs of falling apart, and here stood the Pyramids, in an expansive image of fortitude, built around 4000 years ago, showing no signs of going anywhere in a hurry. Time, indeed, was afraid of the Pyramids.
As one of the foremost tourist destinations in the world, Egypt has about 14 million tourists visiting each year, and in the December of 2017, I was one of them. Barring a small hot air balloon crash, this trip consisted of all the typical tourist activities and included nothing exceptional that any of you who have or will visit Egypt will not do. So, describing my day to day activities, though enjoyable, seems redundant. What I intend to do here, instead, is narrate some interesting stories about Egypt that I picked up talking to some of the locals and some new friends that I made during the tour. They are all stories that are locally popular and may or may not be 100% accurate, but they are definitely enticing. "Quit your disclaimer and get to it!" her glaring eyes seem to be telling me, so let's get into it.
The Shape of You
So, why are the Pyramids shaped the way they are? One of the popular beliefs explains that the shape follows the way the rays of the sun reaches the surface of the Earth. The light starts from a point and diverge down to the land, bringing with it a symbol of life, power and positivity. This is congruent with the fact that one of the oldest and most powerful Gods in Egyptian mythology is the sun god "Ra", hailed as the creator of all things.
Another, lesser known, explanation is the concept of 'Mastaba'. In ancient times, when a person died, a hole was dug for him and his body was placed in it in the fetal position (It was thought that, since we enter this life in that position, it is only befitting that we leave life the same way). Then, a big stone was placed over the hole to cover the body. Over time, the more powerful or more important people in society had two stones placed on top of their grave, the one on top being a little smaller than the one at the bottom. Then, someone more powerful decided that he or she would like 3, and yet again, someone wanted four. As this tradition grew, there were, at a point, six stones placed on top of a grave, each stone on top being slightly smaller than the one beneath it, thus resembling a four-sided diverging conical structure from top to bottom. This was called the Mastaba. The Pharaoh then decided he would also like a similar Mastaba when he passed on to the afterlife, but, being a Pharaoh, he decided to use 2.3 million blocks instead of the traditional six, while preserving the diverging structure. Thus, The Pyramids came into being!
Roll Out the Red Carpet
Cleopatra VII, the last queen of Egypt, knew two things quite well: Strategy, and the fact that she was stunningly beautiful. When Julius Caesar came to Alexandria, Cleopatra was skeptical that this may be an attack instead of a harmless visit. To make sure that does not happen, she devised as ingenious strategy. When Caesar entered the palace, a red carpet was unrolled in front of him. As the carpet unfolded and reached it's end at Caesar's feet, it revealed the beautiful lady the carpet had been wrapped around, Cleopatra herself. Mesmerized by this beautiful lady emerging at his feet from the unwound carpet, all thoughts of attack, if there were any, quickly evaporated from Caesar's mind. The rest, as they say, is literally history.
Apocalypse, but an Aspirin first
Every culture and religion have their own interpretation on the Apocalypse, a day of reckoning, or a day when a cataclysmic event will wipe off all mankind from the face of the Earth. Modern interpretation believes that it will be a giant asteroid, while the bible talks about the great flood. The Egyptians had their own version of the Apocalypse.
It is believed that, a long time ago, the sun god Ra was angry with the human race and wanted them wiped off face of the Earth. This job was given to the God Hathor, the cow god, who was depicted in hieroglyphics as a pretty lady with cow ears. But when Hathor was travelling to Earth to carry out the killing, Ra had a change of heart. "Maybe killing every single human on the planet is a bit extreme." he may have thought to himself while having his morning coffee to clear his head.
But now, Hathor was already on her way to do exactly that, and since she wasn't carrying a cellphone, she was pretty much unreachable. So, Ra hatched a masterplan to stop Hathor and passed it on to the humans. When Hathor reached Earth, she was greeted by thousands of soldiers, all offering her their thick red blood in a cup to drink. And drink she did, because that was exactly what she had been sent to do, drink the blood of all humans. She found the red blood quite intoxicating, and she kept on drinking cup after cup, until finally, feeling quite drowsy, she slowly drifted off into a deep slumber. Of course, as you may have already guessed, it wasn't really human blood she was being offered, it was red wine! This is how the apocalypse was averted.
It is believed that, to this day, Hathor lies in deep sleep, waiting patiently till the day her slumber breaks to wreak havoc on all human kind, fulfilling her mission to bring about the apocalypse. That seems plausible because she probably won't be too happy when she learns of the deception. But before she goes about her business of killing mankind, she would probably want an aspirin or two to get rid of her 5000-years-in-the-making hangover. Also, human weaponry has come a long way since the age of spears and arrows, so Hathor may have her hands full this time around. How effective is modern weaponry against a god, we will just have to wait and see!
The God of Viagra
The Empire is under attack by powerful forces, and the Pharaoh needs all the soldiers he can get. So, every able-bodied male in the kingdom is rounded up, handed a sword and marched out into battle with the Pharaoh. Amongst all the women, only one man is left behind in the kingdom, a man named Amun. He was born with only one arm and one leg. The Pharaoh, deciding that this cripple would be quite useless on the battlefield, left him behind. On his return, the Pharaoh made a surprising discovery. Every woman in the kingdom was pregnant. Since there was only one man left in the kingdom, there was no need to guess who the father of all these children was. Clearly, with no television, internet or PlayStations, the forms of entertainment in ancient times were limited. Enraged, the Pharaoh sentenced Amun to the gallows. But Amun, it seems, had a strong PR team. They convinced the Pharaoh that this man had made sure the Pharaoh would have a new generation of soldiers to fight for him while he was away. So, instead of being condemned, this man should be worshipped! This is how Amun, a man born with only one arm and one leg, became a god, The God of Fertility and the God of Viagra.
Digging your own Grave
Ever heard the phrase "Digging your own grave?". Ardent believers in the after-life, this phase may have been originated by ancient Egyptians. Every time a new Pharaoh ascended the throne, his first act as the ruler would be to choose a spot for his final resting place, and start building his tomb. Be it a pyramid, a temple or a burial chamber under the mountains, the structure inside the tomb was always similar. A long corridor leading down to a burial chamber here the sarcophagus containing the king's mummy would eventually be placed. The walls of the corridor leading down to the chamber would contain hieroglyphics detailing all of the Pharaoh's achievements during his reign. Thus, the length of the corridor is inferred to be directly proportional to the length of time for which the Pharaoh reigned. So, immediately after ascending the throne, the Pharaoh would start digging his own grave for three reasons: To make sure his final resting place was one that he himself chose and deemed comfortable, so that he had a place to write down and immortalize his achievements as they came along, and to have place to store the treasures he came across during his reign to make sure he had them in the after-life.
The God of the Nile
Nile, the river flowing through the barren Sahara Desert, was considered to be the giver of life by the ancient Egyptians. Indeed, if it was not for this river that brought life water to the civilization, it would have never flourished as it did. So, the Egyptians had a god for the Nile, Habi. He was a God with depicted as one having both male and female parts on his/her body, depicting that the Nile was for both men and women. Habi is shown carrying both a lotus and papyrus twigs, again indicative of both genders, wrapped around the center line which represents the Nile. Near Habi's feet where the Nile ends, forms resembling human lungs are carved, indicating that the Nile gave life. It was thought that when a person died and faced the final judgement to decide whether he would go to heaven or hell, the first question Anubis, the god of death, asked him, was "Did you pollute the Nile?". Even though it was 4000 years ago, it seems the concept of gender equality and environmental conservation played strong with the Egyptians.
The Paradox of the Whip
This part is not a story, per se, but more of a philosophical epilogue. One thing that I realized while on this trip is that every part of every one of these ancient structures were brilliant in every way. Be it the builders who build the monuments, the sculptors who carved the gigantic statues, or the artists who etched on to walls and ceilings multi-colored hieroglyphics, every part was done with great intricacy and care. In the books I have read or the movies I have seen, it has always been portrayed that the Egyptians made slaves do all this work, as is made popular by the story of Moses and the ten commandments. But can it be really true? Can the fear of the whip alone have elicited such passion and utmost dedication to the work, a work done with such proficiency that it has survived 4000 years?
There are two popular stories about the culture of slaves in Egypt. One says that after the workers finished the tomb, they would be pushed inside the crypt and sealed alive within it, so that they may die inside and their restless souls would protect the treasures forever. Another story says that when the Pharaoh died, a few hundred slaves would be given poison, so that they may die with the Pharaoh. Then their bodies would be placed beside the Pharaoh in the burial chamber, so that they may serve him in the afterlife. But no evidence of any of these stories have been found. No skeletons or mummies of any other person other than that of the Pharaoh himself was ever found within any burial chamber.
So, what exactly were the cultural norms in dealing with slaves in ancient Egypt? Did it even
exist? Well, my time machine is almost complete. Give me another year or two, and I will
personally go back in time and bring back these answers!
Written by: Atriya Ghosh
Just your average laser scientist who loves adventure and lifts from time to time to justify a gym membership, Atriya is a Ph.D. student at The Pennsylvania State University and works with ultrafast optical holography. Be it chasing the Northern Lights or trying to survive a hot-air balloon crash, Atriya loves adventure and, apparently, staying in school while all his friends are getting married and raising children. While traveling, he loves talking to the local people and making new friends to gather insight into their culture and pick up stories that are locally popular, and then put them in writing in the form of small articles.