Pharaohs and Pyramids
Pharaohs and Pyramids
The Nile slashes through the eastern Sahara Desert like an arrow, a stalk of green amid some of the most arid landscape on earth. Each summer, floodwaters from deep in tropical Africa inundate the floodplain, depositing fertile silt and nourishing growing crops, enabling an Egyptian civilization to endure for five thousand years. Along the river’s banks, pharaohs, considered to be living gods, created a palimpsest of pyramids, rock-cut tombs, and temples that have fascinated the traveler since Herodotus’s day. Egypt was the land of Ra, the sun god, whose golden rays shone day after day in an unchanging chronicle of human existence and immortality— birth, life, and death. Ra’s rays shine between the serried pillars of Karnak’s Hypostyle Hall, darken the jagged contours of the Valley of Kings in deep shadow, project the steep slopes of the pyramids of Giza over the surrounding desert. Ancient Egyptian ruins cast a profound spell over the visitor, especially in the days before Egyptologists measured the ruins and recorded their secrets. They were desolate, unfamiliar, their gods irrevocably gone, the hieroglyphs on the walls unintelligible except to a privileged few—and that only after about 1830, when Jean François Champollion’s decipherment came into common use. But the sense of time and history these monuments conveyed was, and still is, pervasive. The figures on temple and tomb walls expose the habits, fantasies, and beliefs of thirty dynasties. Even today, there is an underlying sense of permanence along the Nile. The pharaohs have vanished, succeeded by caliphs, pashas, colonial overlords, and presidents, but life along the Nile still follows a timeless routine of planting and harvest, of life and death. The traveler has been part of this timeless landscape for more than two thousand years. We have already encountered Roman tourists at the Colossi of Memnon. Christian pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem passed through, too, although travel was difficult for the faithful in what was now Islamic territory. The founding in London of the Levant Company in 1581, originally to foster trade with Turkey—among other things, trade in coffee—brought more visitors, some of them in search of mumiya, pounded-up Egyptian mummy, considered to be a powerful aphrodisiac.
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