Tribute to the Sands of Egypt

Dear Friends,

The tale of the Egyptian Prince Tutmosis III and his encounter with the Sphinx of Giza fascinates me. On a hunting trip in the Valley of the Gazelles some time before his reign, Tutmosis III decided to take a nap to escape the midday sun. He chose the shade below the head (the only visible section) of the Great Sphinx of Giza. While he slept, the Sphinx spoke to him and told him that, if he dug the Sphinx out of the sand that covered it, he would be assured the throne of Egypt. So Tutmosis III set to work and excavated the Sphinx, the very first restoration of this site, undertaken circa 1400 BCE. The story of this dream is recounted on the stelae at the Sphinx’s feet.

What captivates me about this story is the fact that, even in 1400 BCE, the Sphinx and the Pryamids of Giza were already ancient, having existed since 2650 BCE, and that the protective layers of desert sand had already buried all but the Sphinx’s head over the preceding 1200 years.

Egypt’s ancient wonders abound, but it is not until you stand within inches of the deeply carved cartouches of Ramses II in Karnak or the stunning turquoise of painted vulture wings on Hatshepsut’s Temple, or the intricate delicacy of King Tutankhamen’s jewelry, that the impossibility overwhelms you. How can such beauty have survived 2000, 3000, 4000 years?

Entering the imposing structure of Ramses III Temple, there is a series of chapels to the left. Little color remains, and the carvings seem simplified, unremarkable. It turns out, these chapels date to Alexander the Great’s time—circa 332 BCE. Modern, by Egyptian standards! Yet paling in comparison to the elaborate scenes of battle and power depicted on Ramses III’s own temple walls.

Deep in the Temple of Luxor (circa 1400 BCE), past the small area that once served as a chapel for Roman soldiers during the 3rd century CE, there is a shrine built by Alexander the Great, depicting the Greek king as a pharaoh. Here, you can stand between the outer wall built by Amenhotep III and the inner wall of the Greek shrine. Within a couple feet of each other, the contrast is sharp: over a 1000 years pass from the time the Egyptian outer wall was carved to the time the Greeks erect their shrine. Yet, Alexander the Great’s craftsmen lose this contest: their work appears amateurish at best.

It’s not often that Alexander the Great comes across as lacking accomplishment. Yet ancient Egypt puts many more modern cultures to shame. Even the Romans, who seemed to lack the respect and interest Alexander showed Egyptian culture, appear boorish and uncultured in comparison. The Roman chapel within the Temple of Luxor is made of scavenged temple stones, betrayed by the upside down body parts and images carved on their surfaces.

Reflecting on all the perfection that bears tribute to Egypt’s royal ancestors, I can’t help but wonder what we have lost over time in sophistication, technique, and ambition. And I rejoice in the protective benefits of the sands of Egypt—without them, what treasures would have been lost to humankind!

Kate Simpson
ATA President

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Ballooning over Egypt with Smithsonian Journeys

 

A view of where the desert meets the greens of the Nile basin.

A view of where the desert meets the greens of the Nile basin.

Last Sunday, I was on the Nile with the Smithsonian Journeys “Egyptian Odyssey” tour group. It had already been an exciting day since five of us started the morning with a hot air balloon ride over the Valley of the Kings. Delightful. Then the whole group toured Karnak Temple together, led by our guide Jihan Hussein. Magnificent!  This was my fourth time through Karnak and I never cease to be dazzled by it. Then we spent the afternoon cruising upstream on the Nile on the M/S Tamr Henna toward the Esna lock.

The tour is over now and I am relaxing with friends in Cairo. This latest Egyptian Odyssey group was, I have to say, quite wonderful. Despite being focused on Pharaonic Egypt, they were very curious about contemporary culture.   In the short couple weeks in this country, they started to really “get” modern Egypt. During the

Aloft over the Valley of the Kings

Aloft over the Valley of the Kings

 last few days of the tour, many of them expressed surprise, satisfaction, even joy at realizing how rich and varied is the culture of this crazy, gritty, delightful place.

When you first get under the surface a new culture, there is always a little bit of that feeling Howard Carter must have had when he first looked into the tomb of Tutankhamun.  “Yes,” he is reported to have replied to Lord Carnavon’s eager queries, “I see wonderful things.”

Andrew Simon
Tour Manager
Smithsonian Journeys Egyptian Odyssey

My Smithsonian Egyptian Odyssey Trip

September of 2007, I had the opportunity to go on Smithsonian Journeys’ Egyptian Odyssey trip.  It was truly an odyssey – a glimpse into a distant land, seeped in history and even an air of mystery.  When my fellow travelers were asked why they had chosen the trip, most of them responded with phrases like, “it has been a lifelong dream of mine” or “I have always been fascinated with Egypt.”  Both of which were also true for me. 

On our very first day, we approached the Great Pyramids of Giza, gazing skyward as the bright sun beat down on us.  Standing in the shadow of these monuments, one cannot imagine what a task it must have been to create such structures.  Being able to touch the huge blocks and to even climb on top of the stones was a dream come true.  Suddenly it hit me – “I’m actually in Egypt! Standing on a pyramid!” 

Throughout our journey, we learned about both ancient and modern Egypt, asking question after question of our wonderful guide and study leader.  In addition, since we were there during Ramadan, we were able to learn about and to experience this holiday firsthand.  We cruised the Nile in a felucca, rode camels, explored ancient tombs, spoke with modern Egyptian women, and marveled at the treasures in the Egyptian Museum.  We visited the Alabaster Mosque and the Hanging Church, saw the brand new library in Alexandria, danced with belly dancers, heard the call to prayer echo from minarets, and held our breath as we came upon Karnak at dawn. 

Would I go back?  In a heartbeat! Next time though, I want to make sure I make it to the Sinai Peninsula and over into Petra.      

-Annabelle Peake

Academic Travel Abroad

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