Memphis and Saqqara

The cities of Memphis and Saqqara were the last stops on our trip to Egypt. We didn’t really spend much time at either site, so I’m combing the two into one entry.

There wasn’t much to see in Memphis other than a small sphinx statue and a gigantic (fallen) statue of Ramses II. I think the only reason we actually went to Memphis was the fact that it was the capital city of Egypt when Abraham and Sarah made their trip down south. This is where Abraham lied about his relationship with Sarah to the Pharaoh. Interesting story, not a very interesting place these days, though. Ironically, there are no huge pyramids in Memphis, Egypt, unlike Memphis, Tennessee, which has that obnoxious Pyramid right on the Mississippi River.

The main feature in Saqqara was the Step Pyramid of Pharaoh Zoser, which was the first burial pyramid ever built. To quote my friend Jon, “It’s not a full blooded pyramid. It’s just a step-pyramid…”

Egyptian Archaelogical Museum

We were told before we went in that if you were to spend one minute at each display in the Archaeological museum, it would take you nine months to get through it all, and I believe it. This huge building is packed with statues, pottery, jewelry, etc. from all periods of ancient Egyptian history. For time’s sake, I will only tell about three main highlights for me.

First, we had an opportunity to enter the royal mummy room. It was incredible to stare into the face of Ramses II and Queen Hatshepsut. Their bodies have been preserved so well that most of the mummies still have hair, teeth, fingernails, etc. One thing I noticed was that most of the Pharaohs on display died in their early to mid 40s, yet Ramses II lived to the grand age of 65 (granted, he suffered from numerous health problems). I couldn’t help but wonder what these rulers would think if they knew that their mummified bodies were now on display thousands of years after they died for hundreds of thousands of foreiners to gawk at? I know I would not be happy at all if that many strangers were staring at my 3000 year old body.

Second, we got to see the Stella of Meremptah, a huge stone in which the life and times of this Pharaoh are chronicled. The most interesting part about this discovery is the fact that the Pharaoh records, “There is no seed left of the Hebrews in all of Egypt.” This is one of the key archaeological finds supporting and setting a limit on the date of the Exodus.

Finally, one of the main attractions of the museum is the wing dedicated to all the assortment of stuff found in the tomb of King Tutankhamun, everything from pottery, to bed frames, to hockey sticks, to chariots, to the gold mask of his coffin. It was truely impressive to see how many treasures this short-lived Pharaoh was buried with. We’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars worth of gold, silver, fine jewels, and other assets. Scholars have found out as much about Egyptian culture from the discoveries in Tut’s tomb than just about any other single discovery. I can’t even fathom how much more stuff would have been buried with the more important Pharaohs, like Ramses II or Thutmosis III.

Again, there is so much more I could write about, but these were the highlights of the museum.

Old City Cairo

The Old City part of Cairo, also known as Heliopolis or On, has been around from the time of Joseph and is built on the main road connecting Egypt with Palestine. This is the place where many Jews would have fled in the Babylonian conquest, and logically this is the part of Egypt where Joseph and Mary would have come to flee the wrath of King Herod.

Two of the places we visited in the Old City were the Jewish Synagogue and the Abu Serga Church. The synagogue in the Old City is where the Geniza documents were discovered. They were the oldest copies of the Hebrew Bible until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Abu Serga Church is the oldest (or second oldest) Coptic church in Egypt, and according to the Coptic tradition is built directly over the place where Joseph, Mary, and Jesus lived for a couple years when they fled to Egypt. It is very possible, but I have never been one to put much stock in the place. It was still cool, though, because this is the first place we have visited where Jesus once was.

I wonder if Jesus was actually old enough to remember seeing the Pyramids…

The Alabaster Mosque of Muhammad Ali

This is one of the more impressive “modern” structures I saw in Egypt, dating back to 1815. This mosque was built in honor of Muhammad Ali and is constructed entirely out of alabaster, hence the name…

The design is based off the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, except way smaller. It’s actually built inside an ancient citadel built by Salahadin in 1187 on the only road leading from Canaan to Egypt. The mosque is no longer used as a place of worship or prayer, its main function is a monument, actually, to Muhammad Ali (not the boxer), a man who liberated Egypt from the oppressive Ottoman Empire and was crowned King of Egypt in 1840. His tomb is inside the mosque and thousands of Musilms make a pilgrimage to this mosque in Cairo to pay homage to one of the greatest Islamic leaders ever. There is also a monument to Muhammad Ali in Kavala, Greece, in honor of the help he and his army provided to Greece against the Ottoman Empire.

Temple of Luxor

This was one of the highlights of the trip for me. During the time of Moses, Luxor was the capital city of Egypt, and subsequently the Temple of Luxor was both the religious and educational center of Southern Egypt where Moses grew up and received his education. We know for a fact that if the story of Moses is accurately recorded in Exodus (as most believe it is) then this Moses spent the first 40 years of his life in and around this Temple, both worshipping and receiving a top-quality Egyptian education.

We visited the temple during at night when it was illuminated, and the yellow lights playing off the statues and columns with the clear night sky overhead was beautiful. In front of the temple are two gigantic statues of, who else?, Ramses II, followed by more gigantic statues of Ramses II and others inside the main courtyard area. All Egyptian temples are laid out in the same basic format: large front gates (called pylons) followed by an open courtyard where commoners would come and offer sacrifices and worship; then comes a half-open pillared/roofed section where only priests can enter; then comes a vestibule area reserved for the maintainence of the god (washing, feeding, etc.); then the holy of holies where the idol is kept. What makes the Temple at Luxor different is that beyond the first enclosed area for the priests comes another open courtyard area. This is where the royal family’s children would have come to receive an education, and this is where we know Moses spent most of his childhood. We were able to sit around the very place where Moses was and have a short singing devotional. For me, this was the climax of the entire trip. Everything had led up to this moment where we we sitting in the place Moses had sat some 3000+ years ago.

Temple of Karnak

When ancient Egyptian authors talk about “The Temple”, they are most likely making a reference to the Temple at Karnak, which is the largest temple complex in the world. This temple complex, dedicated to “Amen” (the head creator god) was built over the span of 2,ooo years by multiple Pharaohs and covers 102 acres (not including the large garden areas). That’s 26 times the size of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. It has 6 gigantic gates, each one built by a different Pharoah. The last gate was built by Pharaoh Niku, the ruler who killed King Josiah in a battle against Israel. In front of the temple is a long “Ram Avenue” built by Ramses II which stretches all the way to the Luxor Temple complex, about a mile and a half away. Inside the temple are 134 gigantic columns, many of which are well over 60 feet tall (the number of columns in a temple represents the number of priests serving in it). Also inside the Temple are (or were) 6 giant obelisks (think Washington Monument), each carved from one huge piece of granite. This place is impressive now, and I can only imagine how much more so it would have been 2500 years ago.

One of the coolest parts about the Temple, for me at least, was the fact that some of the carvings in the stones help us to set a biblical timeline, especially for the Old Testament era. The Pharaoh Shishank, who marched on Jerusalem, made a list of all the peoples and regions which he defeated or brought under his rule. This was during the reign of Rehaboam. In the Temple of Karnak we find inscriptions of both “Hebrews” and “Galilee”. It was really awesome to see those inscriptions which were thousands of years old.

This Temple also has on its complex an “Absolution Lake”, which is basically a large artificial pond used for ceremonial cleansing. There was also a large scarab statue which people walk around a certain number of times for wealth, fertility, etc. I thought it was a bit silly, but we walked around it anyway (for wealth, not fertility).

Valley of the Workers

On the other side of the mountains from the Valley of the Kings lies the Valley of the Workers which is the best preserved working-class village in all of Egypt. Down in the valley are the ruins of about 73 houses and some other structures, even one of the earliest paved roads in the world. This village dates back to ca. 1450BC or earlier and gives us the earliest clues as to what life was like for the working class citizens of Egypt.

Up on the hill beside the village is a series of tombs which the workers prepared for themselves. We were able to enter 2 of the better preserved tombs which both had frescoes painted on the walls which are much more well-preserved than any paintings in ancient Egypt.

With as much fame as the Pharaohs receive because of their massive building projects, the workers who actually built those structures also built some impressive, smaller structures, like smaller pyramids on top of some tombs, paved roads, and vaulted ceilings dating back to at least 1450BC. It was nice to see how normal people lived in ancient Egypt, especially after spending so much time around gigantic temples and palaces.

Valley of the Kings

The Valley of the Kings is really the most visited site in all of Egypt, surpassing even the Great Pyramids in tourism. I find it interesting that the two most visited sites in the country have to deal with death and human efforts to preserve whatever they could.

The days of the Pyramids had long since passed by the time the tombs in the Valley of the Kings were dug. The Pharaohs of the Pyramid era (Old Kingdom, before the time of Abraham) were believed to be the full manifestation of the gods on earth, so their tombs were much more elaborate, much more magnificent, and much more a target for grave robbers. By the time the Middle Kingdom rolled around, the Pharaohs only considered themselves as half-gods, or demi-gods, yet it is clear from reliefs and tomb paintings that the Pharaohs held a lower position to the gods of the Egyptian pantheon. The Valley of the Kings contains 64 known graves of Pharaohs from the Middle Kingdom period, and interestingly enough, the first ruler to be buried in the Valley of the Kings was Queen Hatshepsut.

Everyone probably knows the “famous” King Tut, whose tomb was found in this valley still completely stocked with gold and all sorts of possessions. Yet King Tut, who was only about 18 when he died, had the least elaborate tomb in the entire valley, so it is theorized. Of the rulers buried in the valley, there are at least 4 different dynasties, including around 11 or 12 tombs of rulers bearing the name “Ramses”, including Ramses the Great (the II). It’s hard for me to even fathom how much more elegant and elaborate Ramses II’s tomb must have been compared to King Tut’s.

We did get to go down into three of the tombs (some people paid extra to go into Tut’s tomb). Of the three tombs, one belonged to a ruler named Thutmosis III who actually became Egypt’s most powerful Pharaoh ever and could likely have been the Pharaoh under whose rule the harsh persecution of the Hebrews and Semitic peoples began. If it is the case that Thutmosis III was the Pharaoh of the persecution, then it is likely that Queen Hatshepsut was the princess who drew Moses out from the Nile.

I know that the discoveries and excavations of these tombs have contibuted quite a bit to our understanding of Egyptian theology, ideology, and every day life, but it is at the same time (for me) a bit depressing to realize that these men and women went to such extreme measures in search for eternal life. I guess they have pretty well toward achieving that goal beacuse now they are lying peacefully, forever enshrined within glass cases for thousands of people to stare at.

Of Boats and Falcons

Edfu Temple:
I doubt you have ever heard of this temple before, yet it is one of the best-preserved of the ancient world’s temple. The temple is dedicated to the falcon-headed god Horus, who is the god of protection and healing. According to Egyptian mythology, Horus battled with Set, the evil brother of Osiris, (the name for “Satan” was derived from “Set”). During this epic grudge match, Set gouged out one of Horus’ eyes, and since then (for some reason), the “Eye of Horus” has been a symbol of protection and healing. Displaying the Eye was believed to safegaurd against evil spirits and the like. This temple is also home to one of the best-preserved statues of Horus in falcon form.

One of the most intriguing things about this temple is that archaeologists discovered the remains of an ancient Egyptian ark. There are also reliefs on the wall depicting the priests of Horus carrying the Ark in the same manner as the Levitical Priests were commanded: poles slid through rings on the sides of the ark, carried over the shoulders. This ark (and presumably all Egyptian gods had an ark) was designed like one of the Egyptian sun-boats, only scaled down. Its long, slender hull carried a shrine in the middle in which would be placed an idol of the god along with a set of the 14 Egyptian commandments (and possibly other “relics” of sorts). It would not be too far-fetched to assume that when God told Moses to build him an Ark of the Covenant for him and the 10 Commandments that Moses would have built something very similar to the Egyptian ark (and not some sort of box or treasure chest).

We also learned at Edfu that the Egytians believed the ground to be holy wherever their gods were. No one was alowed to wear sandals inside the temple, and the priests would transport the ark barefoot. The only exception to this was in times of war, when everyone needed to be prepared for fight or flight. This Egyptian practice manifests itself in the stories in Exodus as well. First, God told Moses to remove his sandals for he was standing on Holy Ground. Second, God commanded the Hebrews to partake of the Passover (a holy feast) with their sandals strapped so they would be ready to flee.

It was about this point in the trip that the entire story of Joseph through Moses started to really click. I began to realize just how much of a connection the Hebrews would have had to the culture and religion of Egypt. Regardless of this, God used what they knew in order to establish his covenant with them. He had no problem taking something from one culture and using it to his glory. This is one reason I know that God is awesome.

Tic-toc, Tic-toc, Hook’s afraid of a Big Bad Croc

Mummified Crocodile

Ancient Egyptian Calendar

Kom-Ombo Temple:

Our next stop was up the Nile a way. We arrived at the Kom-Ombo Temple complex as the sun was going down (about 5pm or so). Egyptian temples are beautiful at night when they are all lit up.

Kom-Ombo Temple is a temple dedicated to the god Sobek (crocodile-headed god) who is one of the gods of the Nile. The Egyptias believed that by worshiping Sobek he would grant them protection from crocodiles in the River. Interestingly enough, over 300 mumified crocodiles were found next to this temple. A few of them were on display, and they didn’t look too happy about it.

A couple other interesting things about this temple – it was also used as a hospital in ancient Egypt. Archaeologists have discovered numerous medical utensils in the temple, as well as reliefs and inscriptions depicting medicinal processes. In several reliefs, there are depictions of the gods pouring out “life” onto the Pharaoh.

Also, this temple is the location of one of the earliest calendars in the world. From it we learned that the ancient Egyptians once observed a 10 day week – 9 days of work, one day of rest. It wasn’t until the Semetic peoples from Palestine came to Egypt that they began observing a 7 day week. It also helps us to understand that when the Bible says Joseph lived 110 years, it means a literal 110 years by our reasoning.