Monday, May 28, 2012

Pyramidal Structures

Trying to remain standing long enough for the picture to be taken, in front of a structure that has remained standing for 4500 years, and has probably been photographed more than any other pile of rocks on earth.

The events, experiences, and encounters are coming faster than I can coherently record them, but the posts will keep coming.  This is a real challenge for study abroad courses, in which you are trying to learn and teach and travel all at the same time, and are absorbing so much new information all at once, it is almost impossible to process it all at once.  We're working on striking a good balance between having the experiences and having time to reflect and write about them--both of which are very important.  Fortunately, I have my health back and feel that mild euphoria that comes from being over an illness but still remembering how unpleasant it was to have it.  More posts on the election post-mortem, water politics, tourism, and the Nubian community are in note form.  I'm posting now what we did a few days ago.  We're now in Aswan and have been here two and a half days already, leaving tomorrow for Luxor.  This is high tourist country, and also about as hot as I've ever experienced (a balmy 115 degrees in the shade).  But for now, here is the account of our day at the pyramids, which begins from the overnight train we took that night from Giza to Aswan:

The train pulls out of Edfu, the “city of revenge” in Egyptian lore where their version of the Cain and Abel story (Set and Horus) ended.  Being mostly focused on the plight of the people and the planet today, I can't say I've had a great interest in ancient Egypt, but it is a fascinating part of traveling here. And my historian friends will be glad to know that we are finding all sorts of very relevant lessons and modern parallels to what we learning about the ancient rulers.  

At the train stations, men in galabeyas and turbans wait on the other track, where the 2nd and 3rd class trains are packed with commuters and workers.  We travel in sleeper cars that are at least supposed to be air conditioned, but didn't turn out to be.  But we are clearly part of a very privileged elite here and the gaps between our wealth and theirs are enormous.  The air is thick and hot, and the land heavily cultivated—I recognize the bananas, mangos, sugar cane, date palms, and alfalfa (I think).  I’ve only seen one tractor so far, and the rest is all donkeys, goats, water buffalo, and men and young boys working the land and harvesting the crops by hand.  Clearly it is a good idea to get a very early start to the work day here, as the heat in mid-day is formidable.

Yesterday we visited the pyramid of Sakkara and Giza with our guide Sammir, and I was sick as a dog.  I managed to make it through the tour, but my immune system and stomach were completely overwhelmed (it reminded me of how I felt when I had walked around with a burst appendix for a week).  The fever has broken this morning and it looks like I’m on the mend, but will need to take it easy on the stomach and stay hydrated.  The challenge of providing clean water is clearly evident here, and the problems that result from failing in that regard are dire.

The oldest pyramid--Sakkara--built as a "stairway to heaven" or an earlier version of Jacob's ladder. We saw similarly shaped rock formations in Upper Egypt that we speculate might have served as inspiration for this and the other pyramids. 
The pyramids were amazing in their massiveness and ancientness, in the degree of informality about the visiting arrangements, and the absolutely brutal buskers there, who managed to empty the pockets of several of our students within the first hour, despite us having very clearly advised them not to have any interaction with the vendors (who are all just selling trinkets made in China).  There is a certain amount of regulation of the place, especially when it comes to the white-uniformed tourist police, but other than that it is sort of like just stumbling upon the place out in the wild.  This was clearly the case for lots of earlier visitors who plundered or defaced or carved their initials in the stones at various times over the course of the last 4000 years.  There is no water erosion here, but there is human erosion.  We entered one of the tombs of a lesser official in which the 3,400 (or was it 4,300?) year old reliefs were brightly colored with ochre, and black, without a single sign, barrier, minder, or anything to keep someone from defacing it.  One of the students, without thinking, casually leaned up against the ancient art, before we quickly reminded him that probably wasn’t the best idea to lean on something crafted out of delicate materials by a craftsman three millennia ago.  Our guide Sammir is very knowledgeable about the sites and gives us interesting observations about the pharaonic cosmology and symbolism of the various structures, most of which have something to do with letting people know how important the head of state was.  Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.  As Shafiq or Morsy (or Obama or Romney) head to office as the likely next president, we can look forward to an updated and marginally more sophisticated form of the same.

The crowd at Giza: we are easily outnumbered by salesmen (no women) and camels.  The guy in the suit on the left is our "tourist police" who accompanies us everywhere with that bulge of a machine gun on his right hip.  He was a very nice guy, who actually helped us with some other rude police we encountered later that day.

The shape of the pyramid was supposed to symbolize the connection to the sun, and I do get that the sun is really powerful here (although I don't think I'd need a pyramid to figure out that).  It points to the heavens and indicates the ruler’s divinity and was part of a complex structure meant to facilitate the Pharaoh's passage to the afterlife.  But to me the pyramid is better seen as a representation of social structure of the day—one which largely continues up to the present. It is interesting this human (or perhaps more specifically male) infatuation with height, with impressing people, saying you are the greatest ruler.  It certainly hasn’t stopped—with the Burj Dubai and the new “Freedom Tower” in New York that we visited earlier this year, and so on.  It is the wealthiest societies and institutions that produce the tallest buildings as symbols of their egomania lack of concern for the welfare of the people.  In ancient Egypt it was the god-kings, in medieval Europe it was the churches, and now in the modern age, it is the corporation, trade, commerce, and oil.  Next up the Google tower or something like that (as I write this on a Google blogging platform . . . )

Clambering around at Giza.  The world's tallest manmade structures until the Eiffel Tower.  

Living in a place that was once great, but now in such a shambles leaves its mark on the people.  Sammir has the great pride in his homeland that I have experienced frequently from Egyptians.  He points out the great accomplishments of Hotep, and is quick to correct the mistaken presumptions of the Greek historian Herodotus or the string of other colonial scholars who have imposed their Orientalist outside views.  But at present the country is really struggling.  There is this great contrast between the splendor of the past and the abject poverty, squalor, empty buildings, and garbage strewn everywhere today.  Around the base of the great pyramid (which Sammir informed us is actually referred to as the “Eternal Pyramid”) it is littered with rubble, garbage, disgruntled police, desperate vendors, and a general sense of neglect.  It really does seem that it would be better to focus less on the past, and more on the future, as the Pyramids can only generate so much tourism income (as it is based on "rent" rather than real productivity and so can only produce so many jobs).  The future should include a new kind of sun worship, consisting of massive solar energy production.  There are some other big plans in the works, but more on that later.

The Sphynx that greeted vistors at the branch of the Nile that ran by here a few thousand years ago.  It certainly would have been amazing to show up at the dock.

I have such mixed feelings about the pyramids and temples themselves.  They are certainly glorious, and impressive, which was their intent, but they represent such a hierarchical and extractive social order.  Most of the temples and ruins have been defaced or ruined in some form or another, as dynasties have passed and looters, rabid early Christians, and imperial colonizers have taken their toll on the place.  I find it almost inconceivable how someone could show up at a place like that and decide that destroying, stealing, or submerging that art would be a good idea, but humans have no lack of disrespect, greed, narrow-mindedness, and lack of concern for the future.  That would go for the British as well, whose Aswan dam submerged the temple, or Nasser, whose high dam submerged 20 Nubian villages.  In ways they were the Tahriris of their day, challenging the powers that be, attempting to question and challenge the legitimacy of the particular oppressive regime of the day.  In these cases though the oppressive regimes produce some amazing art, architecture, and statuary, and it would have been nice if the protestors (let alone the vandals) would have found some other form of protest.  But perhaps this is asking too much.

My favorite discovery:  the oldest wooden boat in the world. Khufu (Cheops') Solar Barge buried next to the pyramids for his use in the afterlife.  

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