Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Grace, Gratefulness, and Connectedness

By the way, there was something else that happened to me in Yosemite that I thought was worthy of its own separate post.

We were on the way to Mirror Lake, and, being the introvert that I am, I had put in my earbuds and was listening to my Ipod, tuning out my friends for a while, just looking at the scenery and musing about things. I don't know how to explain the feeling that overwhelmed me as I walked, seeing the sun starting to peek out from behind the sheer cliff faces. I could smell the earth and pine trees. I got that feeling--you know that feeling--where you feel connected to everything and it feels like your own heart is beating along with the pulses of the earth and if you wept, the rivers and rocks and trees would weep with you.

And then I had to marvel that I was able to feel this feeling at all.

There was a time going to Yosemite was more like this: "Wow, cool, great hike! It's beautiful here! Now let's go get a beer." And it would be two beers at Curry Village on the patio, then a hop over to the Ahwahnee bar for another cocktail or two, then a walk to Yosemite Village at Degnan's to pick up a bottle of wine and pouring it into a Yosemite closed container and walking around more while drinking that. Then back to Curry Village or a campsite or out of the park to Groveland to spend the night and drink some more. Sleep was more like passing out than it was lying in bed, listening to the night noises and critters running around (well, and the screaming toddler in the next tent cabin).

This September, I'll have been sober for four years. And I still think it's a miracle, that God or Cosmic Consciousness or whatever you wish to call it, intervened in my small world and reminded me that life is about so much more than staring anxiously into the bottom of an empty shot glass. Every morning I face east and am grateful for a new day. My senses are no longer so dulled that I'm incapable of epiphanies.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Weekend Trip into Yosemite National Park

I have only one problem with Yosemite National Park: leaving! This trip was the earliest in the year I've visited yet. I figured the Valley wouldn't be as crowded, but I figured wrong. The weekend forecast was for mid to high 70s, and the waterfalls were all booming full blast, so it seemed like everybody plus their brothers and cousins decided to come see. We had to stay in Curry Village because Yosemite Lodge was fully booked, but that was okay (well, all except for the neighbor's screaming temper tantrum toddler who went off both nights around 3am, but that's why it's always smart to pack earplugs).

Anyway, Yosemite Valley was just gorgeous. Dogwoods were blooming, deer were roaming about, and we got a lot of good hiking in. Here's Chelle and me on the trail on the way back from Vernal Fall. Here, too, is video of Vernal Fall and the Merced River (although I mistakenly say it's May when it's not). The cables to Half Dome were not yet up, and on Sunday, we tried to go up to Glacier Point, but the road was still closed. So I guess there's still snow, or rockfalls, or who knows why the road was closed. Curry Village was under construction as well--the Signature cabins that had the nesting mice carrying hantavirus last year have all been torn down and replaced. And, of course, the back of Curry Village where a rockfall off Glacier Point took out about fifty cabins is still being reconstructed. As it was, the tent cabin we stayed in was brand new.

We stopped for a snack at the bridge at Vernal Fall, and though you are not supposed to feed the animals, there was one squirrel who simply would not take "no" for an answer.  Naturally, we called our friend Lisa "the squirrel whisperer" for the remainder of the weekend.

The next morning, we struck out early for Mirror Lake before all the hordes of people could get there, where we stumbled across the "found art" cairns (see yesterday's post). The reason it's called Mirror Lake should be pretty obvious from the photo below.

Next up was a walk to the Ahwahnee for an early lunch, and from there we caught the shuttle to Lower Yosemite Fall. In all the times I've visited Yosemite, I'd never actually walked that trail. I've climbed the 3500 feet to the top of Upper Yosemite Fall, but that's a day's commitment. I've backpacked from Glacier Point to Little Yosemite Valley and then hiked to Half Dome (though, alas, my fear of heights kept me from going the final 400 feet--too exposed for me, and somebody dies on those cables every year, either from simply slipping or from being hit by lightning). Yeah, I'm a chicken.

But below is video of Lower Yosemite Fall.

It was quite windy, as you can tell, and mist was flying far enough from the fall to spray us on the bridge. I had to keep wiping my glasses!

Now, together, Lower Yosemite Fall and Upper Yosemite Fall comprise Yosemite Falls, which, at 2,425 feet, makes it the highest waterfall in North America and the sixth highest in the entire world. Here's a shot of the whole thing:

Hard to believe that by late August/early September, the falls are gone. Nary a trickle. Dry as a bone. Keep that in mind if you ever want to visit Yosemite National Park.

After this, we headed back to Curry Village, where I snapped from the parking lot this classic shot of Half Dome.

As I said, the next day, our final day, we wanted to go up to Glacier Point but got stymied, so we simply headed back down into the Valley and checked out Bridalveil Fall, then, on our way out of the park, swung by Valley View to snap some photos. (Tunnel View in the morning is awful, by the way. The light is way too bright to get a good photo. That shot is best taken in the late afternoon or at sunset.) Still, I managed to get "the money shot" at Valley View. I took the photo because I liked the way the sun was shining at the top of Bridalveil Fall, lighting up the water so that it looked white against the granite faces of the surrounding rock. I couldn't see the sun's rays at all because of the glare. So imagine my surprise when, later on, I was looking through all the photos I'd taken on my iPhone and saw this:

It's truly extraordinary. Then again, Yosemite is an extraordinary place.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Found Art

We were hiking in Yosemite Valley over the weekend and naturally did the easy hike up to Mirror Lake. Suddenly, to the left, was a surprise! I actually wanted to clap my hands when I saw this fabulous garden of little rock cairns. One is nothing--typically someone might stack one up as a trail marker for someone following if the way to go isn't clear--but a horde of thirty or more? It was marvelous! I was also reminded of how Jewish people often remember the dead by stacking stones at a gravesite. Now, this was no gravesite, but still, for me, they added a sense of awe and human reverence for this place. In fact, I'd remarked earlier to the people with me, waving my hand at the surroundings of Yosemite, "This is a true cathedral."

I was moved to add my own little cairn to the collection. How I managed to get those top two rocks to balance was an exercise in defying gravity (hint: the top stone needed help from a small stick).

Now, let me make something clear. I understand that when in nature, "Leave no trace" is Rule Number One. And if I had been way in the backcountry, I would perhaps have felt differently about this rock garden. But we were clearly in a place that is a high traffic area. One, the trail to Mirror Lake is mostly paved. Two, there is all kinds of park signage describing the lake, the story of Half Dome, and so forth. Three, there is an outdoor latrine. Four, as you can see in the video, there are steps leading to the area where people have added their cairns--the place they're occupying, in fact, used to be a parking lot many years ago. So this area is anything but wilderness. And five, the next time a storm blows through, these will all come tumbling down on their own. I just don't see the harm.

What I see is something beautiful, something playful, something spontaneous--what I see is found art.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

What He Said

Before sleep, a nightly review of my day helps me--a practice I learned in AA and one that is also encouraged in the mystical tradition I'm presently studying. How could I have done anything better? Do I owe an apology or a clarification to anyone? Was I truthful with everyone (including myself)? If I said anything harsh, was it necessary to say and was it meant kindly? Was I too hard on myself or others? What can I do to bring more joy to others? What can I do to help?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Ancient Egyptian Music

This piece, in the Sa'ed style associated with Luxor or ancient Thebes, utilizes a variety of instruments and may take some acclimatization for the Western ear. Watch it on Youtube to expand the window and get the full effect. Be sure also to read the description accompanying the video (Grateful Dead fans will appreciate the bit about Mickey Hart). The described sistrum was indeed an important instrument sort of like a tambourine--you turned it back and forth, twisting your wrist, to produce the sound--in religious celebrations. Here is a photo of one:

 They are said to have been played mostly by women and were associated with the cult of Hathor, although the one pictured appears to have a cat decorating it, which might associate this particular instrument with Bastet.

Sunday, April 21, 2013


I will not be blogging in protest of this attack on our civil liberties and right to privacy.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Enya: "Only Time"

People make fun of Enya. I don't care. She's one of my guilty pleasures.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Preparing for Egypt, Part Thirteen

Well, there they are: the pyramids of Giza. How awesome it will be to stand there and look at them, live and in person! This has been on my bucket list for oh, so long. I mean, think about it: the Great Pyramid is the last of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World that is still standing.

The thing about the pyramids is, we are still asking the same questions of them today as were asked in antiquity. Who built them? How did they build them? What were they for?

There is the standard accepted Egyptologists' view: they were built by Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure around 2500 BCE (subtract a hundred years or less for completion of all three) and they were tombs.

Then there are the other theories. Disregarding the loopiest (like, they were built by aliens), some of these theories offer food for thought. Let's take the Great Pyramid of Khufu (or Cheops). There was absolutely no mummy ever found in the pyramid. Okay, so maybe the mummy was stolen or later moved. Fine, but it was typical of the Egyptians to leave all kinds of grave goods for the Pharoah's use in the afterlife. The pyramid doesn't have any place for such goods. As for the sarcophagus in the King's Chamber, there is no lid and it appears to have never been used. And, there are no hieroglyphs anywhere to be found. Other pyramids, such as the earlier ones at Saqqara, were covered with glyphs and spells to assist the king in his journey to the afterlife. Finally, we know from the Osireion and the Tomb of Osiris discovered below the plains of Giza that sometimes the ancient Egyptians did place a sarcophagus for ritualistic purposes and never put a real body in them. So... perhaps the Great Pyramid was not a tomb at all, but some sort of ancient temple, a place where rituals of the mystery schools were reenacted? Mortuary temples were all originally associated with each pyramid, but the Eygptians didn't bury people in those. (Take Hatshepsut's famous, and simply gorgeous, mortuary temple on the West Bank near then-Thebes. She wasn't buried in it. No, she was buried miles away in the Valley of the Queens.) There are graves all over the Giza necropolis, but no bodies of kings appear to be in them. The closest to royalty that's been found are wives, sons, and daughters of kings from later dynasties.

Another interesting theory is that the Great Pyramid was actually an energy-producing machine, but honestly I don't know enough about engineering and physics and such to comment on how plausible that one is. If you're interested in chasing that theory down, there's a video about it here on Youtube.

There doesn't seem to be much argument about the dates of their construction other than to wonder how on earth they could have all been built so quickly. The rapidity with which they were constructed would be difficult to accomplish even today, with all our technology and machinery. Every last theory--the ramp theory, the wrap-around ramp theory, and the lever-lifting machine theory has its holes. More than likely, some combination of ramps, levers, ropes, and sheer manpower enabled them to be built, but we are talking a 480 foot pyramid consisting of some 2.3 million blocks that each weighed about two tons. Then the whole thing was encased in dressed limestone. We're also talking serious perfection: inside the pyramid, where blocks meet, you can't even place a razor blade in the gaps. It truly does boggle the mind.  How'd they pull all of that off in a mere twenty years?

And yet they did. It doesn't appear that slaves were used to construct them, either, although old black and white films about ancient Egypt show overseers mercilessly whipping teams of slaves pulling the stones up ramps to place them. This is a stereotype. Actually, it appears there was an entire community of pyramid builders who lived (and died) near the site of the construction, and their tombs have been uncovered. (Guess what? Mummies and hieroglyphs all over, just sayin'.) A bakery has been unearthed, along with a brewery, a fish-processing "plant," so to speak, and even a hospital. There are even records of workers having to ask for a day off for sickness or to visit a family member and mundane everyday things like that. It's theorized that there were standard teams of workers who worked there year-round, and during the "down seasons" before the Nile inundation and then before the harvest, farmers would come up to work as well so they could earn a wage. We know from Herodotus (450BC) that Egyptian priests reportedly told him the Great Pyramid was built by 400,000 men working in 3-month shifts 100,000 men at a time over twenty years. Evidence suggests it was more like thirty years, but even thirty years is fast.

In short, what we have is a bunch of theories and nobody knows for sure. Like I said, we're still asking the same questions that were asked in antiquity.

Here's another interesting, and little known, thing about the Great Pyramid. It actually has 8 sides, not four. Have a look:

 J.P. Lepre writes in his book The Egyptian Pyramids: A Comprehensive, Illustrated Reference, that:

One very unusual feature of the Great Pyramid is a concavity of the core that makes the monument an eight-sided figure, rather than four-sided like every other Egyptian pyramid. That is to say, that its four sides are hollowed in or indented along their central lines, from base to peak. This concavity divides each of the apparent four sides in half, creating a very special and unusual eight-sided pyramid; and it is executed to such an extraordinary degree of precision as to enter the realm of the uncanny. For, viewed from any ground position or distance, this concavity is quite invisible to the naked eye. The hollowing-in can be noticed only from the air, and only at certain times of the day. This explains why virtually every available photograph of the Great Pyramid does not show the hollowing-in phenomenon, and why the concavity was never discovered until the age of aviation. It was discovered quite by accident in 1940, when a British Air Force pilot, P. Groves, was flying over the pyramid. He happened to notice the concavity and captured it in the now-famous photograph. [p. 65]
Finally, there is more math associated with the Great Pyramid than my poor mind can comprehend. And, of course, there are astrological correlations. (I'm sure everyone is familiar with Robert Bauval's Orion theory.) You can read about those here.

The bottom line for me is this: there's enough different about the Great Pyramid when compared to other pyramids in Egypt that this one may have had a very special significance beyond "it's just a tomb."

Well, this about does it for my "Preparing for Egypt" series of posts. Perhaps my friends in recovery are happy to hear this news and would like for me to get back on point! But I'll be bringing an iPad mini with me on my trip which will serve as both camera and, if I get the opportunity, to post photos and blog a bit while I'm there. For now, it's back to the grind. I'll have papers coming out of my ears to grade starting on Monday pretty much non-stop until the end of the semester. Onwards and upwards! Salam.

Preparing for Egypt, Part Twelve

While we're spending a couple days in Cairo checking out the Giza Plateau and a nearby lake, we'll also be visiting the world-famous Cairo Museum and spending an afternoon walking around Old Cairo. So today I'll be talking about them and saving the Pyramids--the grand finale!--for last.

The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities (as it's more properly known) has over 120,000 items, many of which are in storage and are brought out on a rotating basis. Sometimes, of course, the museum lends pieces out for "traveling shows"--a few years ago, I saw an exhibit of relics from Tut's tomb and other pieces from the Armana Period and pieces from his father's (Amenhotep III's) reign. I'm pretty sure the coffin of Queen Tiye was included in that exhibit, and it was an extraordinarily beautiful thing. I can only imagine how many times my breath will be taken away during a walk-through of this museum.

The museum is divided into sections, of course, one of which is the Royal Mummies, and of course there's a section on Tut, which features what is probably the most well-known piece from his tomb: the death mask:

Other sections of the Museum focus on art from the specific time periods, such as Predynastic and Old Kingdom, Middle Kingdom, New Kingdom, late period, and so on. There's a section on papyri and coins. Pieces I'm particularly curious to see are the Narmer Palette (the first recorded depiction of ancient Egypt, both Upper and Lower kingdoms, being united); the tiny statue of Khufu (only 4 inches, and the only statue ever found of the man who built the Great Pyramid; all of the Armana art; and of the mummies, Ramses the Great, Seti I, and Hatshepsut (now that her mummy has been identified, she's on display).

As for Old Cairo, it is called such because it is the most ancient part of the city (parts of old cities on the site that existed before the present, larger, sprawling city of Cairo). It is largely made up of the Coptic Christian community, but there is also the Amr Ibn Al A'as Mosque (Egypt's oldest mosque) and the Ben Ezra Synagogue (said to be on the very site Moses was found in the reeds as a baby). There's also a Coptic Museum. And, obviously SHOPPING! (Note in the photo on the right hand side that Visa is accepted--don't leave home without it, ha.)

Which reminds me of an interesting habit regarding tipping in Egypt. The basic rule of thumb is this: anybody who does any sort of service for you should get baksheesh. The word carries with it the connotation of "bribe," "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours,"and so on--which is gross when it comes to political favors--but the polite thing for tourists to do is to remember that the average person in Egypt makes in a year what the average American makes in a single month. So, even, say, a guy sweeping the sidewalk in front of a store you pass by might put out his hand for baksheesh. It's typical to give people asking for random requests such as this a one-pound note (that's about .16 cents in American money), so we've been advised to bring along lots of ones and fives for tipping. But, just like in America, the amount of the tip should depend on the difficulty of the service provided, so a waiter or the man at the mosque keeping an eye on your shoes would get more, and a tour guide would get considerably even more baksheesh, especially if he is a very accommodating one. Beyond having on hand money for tips and souvenirs, we've basically been told (since our accommodations, food, flights, admission tickets, etc, are all pre-paid) to bring only about half the amount of money we think we should bring. Besides, the ubiquitous ATM is all over Egypt. Items in Egypt are simply not that expensive, and in the bazaars, you are expected to haggle.

Haggling. Gulp. Should be interesting for an introvert like me.

"Heck if I know..."

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Mysteries of the Sphinx

Finally our trip ends where it began: in Cairo. There is so much to say about the Giza plateau and Cairo itself (although really we will only be visiting Old Cairo and the famous Cairo Museum), and so much to say about both the Sphinx and the Pyramids that I'll be splitting all of the information into several posts after I gather it together into some kind of coherent form.

For now, let's just consider the standard view of Egyptologists: the Sphinx was erected by the Pharoah Khafre (Khufu's son, Khufu who built the Great Pyramid) and that's Khafre's head on the Sphinx. (Khafre is also known as Chefren.) This would put the date of the Sphinx's construction to be around 2500 BCE.

But, that date is being challenged. The video above (which won an Emmy) highlights the work of "rogue Egyptologist" John Anthony West, whom I've referred to several times over the past weeks in various posts. West, inspired by the works of Schwaller de Lubicz, made note of water weathering on the Sphinx, then called in a geologist to confirm what he was seeing. Yup, no doubt about it, that is WATER weathering (not flying sand or wind) on the Sphinx itself and the Sphinx enclosure. The question is, how did it get there? Since this video aired and more information has been published on the problem, other geologists have confirmed that it is indeed water erosion, and the problem is, without years and years of rain and/or flooding, it shouldn't be there. The conclusion can only be that the Sphinx is much older than Egyptologists think. So, there's a fight in academia over it. Note in the video from yesterday that Zahi Hawass is very careful (cunning fellow that he is) to point out that the pottery shards he found in the Osiris Tomb underneath the Giza Plateau date to 2500 BCE. So, we know what side he's on: that of the standard thinking about the dating of the Sphinx. But if you accept that the weathering on the Sphinx is from water, you have to accept that the Sphinx had to have been constructed when the Sahara was not desert but was lush, green land--that is, around 10,000 BCE or earlier.

Maybe, just maybe, there is some sort of link between the Sphinx and the Osirieon (the original one, not Seti I's duplicate). Perhaps the earliest Egyptians were way, way more advanced a civilization than we have always thought. Perhaps--and not to get all "ancient aliens" on you again--but perhaps the history of human civilization really does run in cycles and there are rises and falls in knowledge and technology. Perhaps sometimes we don't progress but we regress.

I'll throw one example at you: after the fall of the Roman Empire and early Greek civilization (which took many of their ideas from the ancient Egyptians), Western civilization plunged into the Dark Ages, a barbaric time of much superstition and persecution for heresy. If it weren't for the Persians, Ottomans, and early Muslims, whose scholars diligently copied ancient Greek texts and so on, all of that information would have been lost to us. We now know that Archimedes understood calculus. In short, we took a big step backwards. Western civilization did not start progressing again until the Renaissance.

We may be "smart" today, but how civilized are we, truly?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Tomb of Osiris 100 Feet Below the Sphinx

Well, I found this shortened and rather shaky version of the video I mentioned in my last post. Too bad it's from one of those Maury Povich specials, which reduces the whole thing to "woo woo wackadoo" nonsense, but nevertheless, facts are facts and Hawass (at the time this was made, he was Egypt's Director of Antiquities and lead archaeologist) clearly found something.

Preparing for Egypt, Part Eleven (Nag Hammadi/Abydos/Osireon)

There's nothing to actually see at Nag Hammadi, Egypt... we're just blowing past the site on our bus. But, oh, just to be near where the Gnostic Gospels were found will be an amazing feeling. I've been interested in the Gnostic Gospels since I majored in religious studies in college (along with English), when Elaine Pagels' first book on them was new. These ancient texts, from about the 2nd century CE, were found in 1945 by a farmer digging around for--if memory serves--sod that could be burned for fuel, and instead he found a buried earthenware jar containing thirteen such books sewn together, known as codices. Not realizing what they had, the mother of one farmer burned one of the codices for fuel (arrgh!) and part of another, so what was rescued are twelve codices, one of which is missing its cover and some pages.

The Gnostic Gospels, such as the Gospels of James, Thomas, Judas, and Mary, among other writings, were often read aloud and studied during the early Jesus Movement, before Christianity became firmly established as a hierarchical, patriarchal religion. The Gnostics believed, among other things, that a person didn't need a priest or a church to gain divine knowledge, that one could have his or her own direct relationship with God. Well, the early Church, trying to establish itself, didn't like that idea so much, so when the "official Bible" was finally put together at the request of Emperor Constantine, the Gnostic Gospels were left out, deemed heretical, and ordered destroyed. Some scholars now believe that the Gospel of Thomas, which is really just a list of Jesus's sayings, is probably historically the very first Gospel, earlier than Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. In any case, these codices have opened a floodgate of new information about the early Jesus Movement. They're written in Coptic, likely translated from Greek, and since near Nag Hammadi there was a Coptic Christian monastery, it's believed the good monks could not bear to destroy the texts and chose to hide them instead.

These have now all been translated and are online here at the Gnostic Society Library if you ever get curious and want to read them.

The highlight of the day, though, will be visiting Abydos and seeing what was thought to be the burial site of the god Osiris. Well, let me back up. Foremost it is a doubly ancient site since tombs of the kings of the First and Second Dynasty were found there, and even some royal tombs from before: Dynasty Zero. We really have no idea how long "Egypt" existed prior to the earliest structures found, and the Zep Tepi (creation myths) have Egypt and its gods existing as real men and women, the first leaders of Egypt. Prior to Osiris being worshiped at this site, an earlier "god of the dead," Khentamentui, was worshiped here. There was an earlier temple that is all but gone (having been made of mudbrick), and as we've seen to be the custom, newer temples were built upon older temple sites as time passed. It seems that eventually--by the time of the First and Second Dynasties--Osiris, god the underworld, was being worshiped here, which is why kings wanted to be associated with the necropolis. But it wasn't just a temple to Osiris. The site was said to be the actual burial place of Osiris. (Or, perhaps, just one of his burial places, since, after all, the myth holds that he was dismembered into fourteen pieces. This one held his head. I wonder if there are other unknown burial sites of Osiris, since I'm pretty sure I remember watching a tv special not that long ago with Zahi Hawass excitedly announcing the discovery of another burial place of Osiris about 100 feet beneath the ground under the Great Sphinx at Giza. If I can find video for that, I'll be sure to post it. To reach it, the excavators had to pump out all kinds of water.)

Which brings me back to the Osireion. It was built entirely underground when originally constructed. There's a hall filled with water. There are pillars and staircases and something resembling a sarcophagus, and since this was built (or found?) right next to the Temple of Seti I, today's archaeologists are of the opinion that Seti merely duplicated the original tomb--we're looking at an ancient copy of the original, and the original is impossible to date. 

I actually found a decent video on Youtube that somebody posted while she was visiting the site with a friend and a single guide; otherwise the place was deserted. She got some great close-up footage. Check it out.

Preparing for Egypt, Part Ten (Temple of Hathor at Dendera)

We're going to see more than just this temple on this particular day of our journey, but there's enough to say about the Temple of Hathor at Dendera and enough to say about Nag Hammadi and the Osirieon that I've decided to split these into two posts.

Hathor first.

She is the goddess of music, joy, feminine love, and fertility. The ancient Greeks conflated her with Aphrodite and the Romans with Venus. As pictured in the columns of her temple above, she was often shown with a cow's head--cows gave life-giving milk, and she had other associations with the Milky Way and the constellations--but take note of her below and tell me what you see:

What I see is the female reproductive system. Her face is the uterus; upper forehead and ears the fallopian tubes and ovaries; and her neck is the vaginal canal. (This isn't my brilliant idea, by the way; I get this from John Anthony West discussing Egyptian symbology in his Magical Egypt series.)

The Egyptian New Year, which logically coincided with the annual inundation of the Nile River, was also celebrated at the Temple of Hathor at Dendera, so followers of her cult would make offerings to her and then carry her statue up to the roof of the temple. Yup. This is the only temple in Egypt in which you can walk around on the roof. There's even a shrine to Osiris on the roof. But the best, most awesome thing is--well, it's a plaster cast of the original, since the original is in the Louvre--a disc known as the Zodiac of Dendera. This is the first known representation of the stars in the Zodiac in ancient Egypt. Here's what it looks like:

The original's up top and a drawing of the signs below. Interestingly, Virgo appears to be Isis and the crab for Cancer is a scarab beetle.

Now, there's one more thing about the Temple of Hathor that I want to mention and that I have read is closed off to the public.Whether that's true we shall see. But it's a crypt featuring the famous "Dendera Light." Here's a photo of it:

Now, I can't say what that really is--and there are plenty of theories, the usual one being that it's a lotus plant with a serpent inside, or it's a lotus plant surrounded by a bubble of air, representing its fragrance, so it held religious meaning--but ... well, not to get all "ancient aliens" on you or anything, but they sure do look like two large light bulbs. Is that beyond the realm of possibility? Maybe, maybe not. We do know about the Baghdad Battery and that yes, it worked (not amazingly well, but it did produce electricity.) Since the Temple of Hathor at Dendera was also added to during the reign of the Ptolemies (one wall has a relief of Cleopatra and her son by Caesar), there's no reason to think the Persians could have had such technology at that time and the Egyptians not. Of course, these "light bulbs" look nothing like the Baghdad Battery, which basically looked like a jar. Then again, these could be big "jars" and the snake (representing light) be a filament of some sort. I don't know--I'm just throwing it out there. Perhaps, if we're able to see it, our guide will have something to say about it.

And then we'll get back on the bus and keep on rolling north towards Abydos.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Preparing for Egypt, Part Nine (Temple of Karnak, Valley of the Kings)

The Temple of Karnak is, behind the Giza plateau, the second-most visited tourist site in Egypt. It’s huge, a sort of “everything goes” kind of temple to which, over a period of some 1,300 years, every different Pharoah seeking glory or to please a god added sections, whereas other Pharoahs knocked down sections belonging to kings they didn’t like.  So it morphed over the generations. What remains is a huge, fabulous, yet haphazard Winchester Mystery House of a ruin. The basic rule of thumb is this: entering from the western side, the farther you go into the labyrinth that is the temple, the older your surroundings will be. Problem is, not all parts of the temple are open as sections remain under restoration.
Amenhotep III planned the Hypostyle Hall, but it was Seti I who actually built it.  It’s a massive hall, over 5000 meters, with 134 enormous columns set up in rows of 16. Ramses II added reliefs and decorations to these.  Even Queen Hatshepsut got into the act by adding obelisks and a red chapel, though one of the obelisks broke. A third was being constructed to replace it when that job got interrupted due to a fracture in the rock being quarried—and hence visitors to Aswan, if they have the time, can take a side trip to the quarrying site and see how obelisks were carved out of the rock. Beating them out with harder stone was a process that took far too long, so it’s theorized that fire was used to heat the rock around natural fissures, then quickly cooled, and the expansion and contraction made it easier to chip away at the rock.
The temple of Karnak is largely seen as being dedicated to Amun-Ra, but since at least thirty different pharaohs modified it, there are sections dedicated to others gods and goddesses as well, including Mut, Sekhmet, and Monbu. And let’s not forget the Avenue of the Sphinxes that led to Luxor Temple.
Amenhotep IV (Ahkenaton) also built a new section of temple to the east of the main complex, but it was destroyed after his reign. This is the section of temple that the Canadian archaeologist was attempting to excavate pieces of in the video on Ahkenaton I posted about a week ago here.
The same day we visit the Temple of Karnak, we also head across the Nile to the West Bank to see The Valley of the Kings. This, of course, is where Howard Carter famously discovered the untouched tomb of King Tut. The riches that tomb surrendered—for such a minor king—can only give us a sense of what the tombs of the more important Pharaohs must have been like, but their tombs were all broken into and robbed during ancient times. To date, about 63 tombs in the Valley have been discovered and excavated, yet because tourists disturbing the air (we do have to breathe) does, over time, damage some of the inner artwork, the tombs are open or closed on a rotating basis. At any given time, about twelve are open to be viewed. You pick three. Tut’s is always open, as is Ramses VI’s, and will set you back a little more money, as they are not allowed to be included in your three choices. I guess I will find out when I get there which tombs are open at present.
 Additionally, it’s worth mentioning that a rather remarkable 3D mapping project of the Valley of the Kings has been going on—and in so doing, it was discovered that the KV 5 tomb was way larger than originally thought (the tomb for the many sons of Ramses the Great). The following video is as excellent an introduction to the Valley of Kings as anything I’ve seen. (The first part is here; it's in six parts on Youtube.)

On the way back to Luxor, we’ll also take a brief stop at the Colossi of Memnon. They’re all that remains of Amenhotep III’s mortuary temple. The reason they got dubbed “Memnon” is that the northern statue used to “talk” (well, it made a low wailing noise in the morning, it’s said), which made the Greeks associate the statues with the Homeric character Memnon, whose mother was the goddess of the dawn. Of course, the moaning was a totally natural and serendipitous event: later, a Roman emperor repaired a crack in the wailing statue, and the wailing stopped. Oh, well. Sometimes broken things don’t need fixing.


May the God of Your Hearts....

.... love you, bless you, and keep you, holding you and those you love near and dear.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Luxor Temple: The Temple in Man

Worth watching for a symbologist's interpretation of Schwaller de Lubicz's work (and of John Anthony West, if you're familiar with his The Serpent in the Sky.)

Preparing for Egypt, Part Eight (Temple of Luxor)

Here is a photo of the Temple of Luxor (Thebes), floodlit at night, which is how it will look when we see it. Originally there were two obelisks here at the entrance, but the second one was moved and is now in Paris. (That's nothing; the obelisk that now sets in St. Peter's Square in the Vatican was originally moved from Egypt by none other than that most vicious of Roman Emperors, Caligula. Such irony.)

This temple was originally built by Amenhotep III (Akhenaton's father) and then expanded later on by Rameses II. Of note are its avenue of Sphinxes, which in its heyday actually lined the road all the way (like, for two miles) to Karnak Temple. I recall reading somewhere that it was the habit of some Pharoahs to add his (or her) own Sphinx to the avenue of Sphinxes, so if you can read the hieroglyphs in the cartouches, Cleopatra's can even be found. (Or, at the very least, she was involved in renovating the avenue of Sphinxes and had her name added to one that was already there.) Anyway, the two colossal statues in the photo at the front of the temple are of Rameses, and the first pylon is probably the most famous part of the temple because of its relief that shows Ramses slaying the Hittites at the battle of Kadesh.

Now this is a funny story worth telling, because the last thing Ramses the Great actually did was destroy all the Hittites single-handedly at the battle of Kadesh. A remarkable chariot battle, at best that fight was a draw. But what is of note is that it resulted in the world's first recorded peace treaty between nations that still survives to this day, both Hittite (modern day Turkey) and Egypt versions.

The Temple of Luxor also manages to house a mosque with a minaret that dates back to the 11th century, a colonnade of papyrus-like columns that are 62 feet high, a sun court and hypostyle hall, and then other later additions by Roman Emperor Hadrian and then, at the very end, the Barque Shrine of Alexander the Great.

If you'd like to see a fun documentary (in three parts) on the Battle of Kadesh, one from The History Channel can be seen on Youtube here.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Friday, April 12, 2013

Preparing for Egypt, Part Seven (Temple of Kom Ombo/Temple of Horus at Edfu)

Look at the photo above and tell me what you see. Spoons, scissors, knives (one is clearly a scalpel), scales, forceps, a sponge, a container for grinding herbs into medicines, perhaps even dental instruments. These are carved into a rear wall at the Temple of Kom Ombo.

Like the Temple of Isis, this temple was constructed during the dynasty of the Ptolemies, and is also of interest because it is a "mirror image" temple dedicated to two sets of gods--the southern side is for the crocodile god Sobek, and the northern side is for the falcon god Horus. Everything in the temple is perfectly symmetrical along the main axis. Egypt's Crocodile Museum displays some of the 300 crocodile mummies that were found there, and it is said that crocodiles basked there and young ones were even raised in a small pool at the site. The twinned sanctuary of the temple shows Ptolemy XII in reliefs participating in various religious ceremonies. Ptolemy XII, of course, was Cleopatra VII's father (yes, THAT Cleopatra).

The temple was also considered to be a place of healing, where everyday folk came to have their various ailments tended to (this explains, I would suppose, the wall of surgical instruments).

The same day we visit this temple, we'll also be visiting the more famous Temple of Horus at Edfu. Since it was also built by the Ptolemies (ie, late in Ancient Egyptian history) and was well away from the Nile and thus not subjected to continual flooding, it is probably the best preserved temple in all of Egypt. The temple itself is dedicated to the triumph of light over darkness. Depicted in the temple's Passage of Victory are reliefs showing the triumph of Horus over Set (see the Osiris/Isis story below), who is depicted as a hippo that Horus harpoons. Then the temple priests devour him.

Ana 'agebni dah yummy.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Preparing for Egypt, Part Six (Nile Cruise)

Oh yeah, baby! After visiting the Temple of Isis, we are boarding a cruise ship and heading up the Nile, hitting various sites along the way. I actually have no idea if our cruise ship will look anything like this one, but it will be one of our only chances to chill a little bit in shorts or bathing suits, enjoying the pool. Otherwise, for women, travel in Egypt means not sticking out like a sore thumb by wearing shorts and sleeveless shirts. That is generally frowned upon and might result in unwanted catcalls from males who think scantily clad women are "loose." I may disagree for feminist reasons, but on the other hand, I'm going to be in a foreign country, so one does try to respect the cultural norms of that country. So mostly I'm packing convertible pants and linen shirts or other material that is light and wicks away sweat, and I'll probably wear my Teva sandals a lot. For visits to mosques, I have a kaffiyeh to cover my head with.

Believe it or not, I'm also going to have to be grading final essays and exams while I'm on this trip. Crazy, right? But the first week of the trip falls smack in the middle of our exam week, so my literature class will be writing their final as a take-home exam and emailing them to me by end of day on their day their final would have been. So I have a feeling some of my time on the ship and some time in the evenings will be spent grading papers. I'd try grading on the bus as well, except that I have a tendency to get carsick. Ugh!

We depart on our cruise ship from Aswan and are going up the Nile, stopping at the Temples of Kom Ombo and Horus (at Edfu), then passing through the Esna locks, and ultimately disembarking for good at Luxor. (More on these two temples tomorrow.) There are some photos of the locks here and a description of what it's like going through them. Sounds like bazaar bartering carries over even onto the Nile.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Preparing for Egypt, Part Five (Temple of Isis at Philae)

I've been thinking about the goddess Isis for several days now, because another stop we'll be making in Egypt is to the island of Philae to see the Temple of Isis. This temple is interesting because it is one of the later temples in Egypt, built during the reign of the Ptolemies (ie, after Alexander the Great had conquered--or rescued, in the eyes of many Eygptians of the time--that great land.) The temple remained active even after the Romans conquered Egypt and the last dynasty of Pharoahs ended, because Isis was such a beloved goddess--so she was given a new Roman consort, Serapis, instead of Osiris, and later the Isis mysteries were conflated with the Eleusian mystery schools and worshiped by the Greeks as well. To greatly oversimplify matters, I'll just say that Isis wound up representing to many the Great Mother goddess, a protector, nurturer, and healer. The Temple at Philae was the last pagan Egyptian temple as such until the Roman Emperor Justinian I shut it down in 540 CE (he ruled from 527-565 CE) and converted the Temple to a Church of the Virgin Mary. There are still crosses and a Christian altar there. You would not be wrong to see parallels between the adulation of Mary to the worship of Isis. Both were mothers to gods and were/are often depicted with baby upon knee, suckling at the mother's breast.

Later, in the 7th century, when Egypt became largely Muslim, the Church of Mary was also shut down and now it simply stands as an ancient monument and tourist attraction.

The Egyptian story of Isis isn't quite consistent: she was sister to Osiris and his wife (establishing the long-entrenched matriarchal practice of marrying within a royal family to a royal female in order to be king or Pharoah, though the practice did not normally extend to everyday folk). Osiris' evil brother, Set, jealous of Osiris, concocted a plan to trap and kill Osiris, but Isis rescues Osiris. Set, displeased, then dismembers Osiris into fourteen pieces and scatters him all across the country of Egypt. Isis sets out on a journey to find each of the pieces of Osiris and put him back together so he can be properly buried. In one version, she is unable to recover his penis because it had been swallowed by a fish, and so she fashions an artificial one for him. She then impregnates herself with Osiris' penis and the fruit of this union is the falcon god Horus. So in Egyptian mythology, the dead Osiris is the god of the underworld, and the living king is the incarnation of the god Horus. In other versions of the story, Horus is already born before Osiris is dismembered.

Regardless, the myth describes a loving wife and mother with great powers of healing, and other myths (most notably the Roman Lucius Apuleius' The Golden Ass) attribute to her divine powers of transformation--she turns him from donkey back into human. Many pagans continue to worship Isis even to this day, adoring her as The Great Mother. And heck, I can remember as a child a tv show that came on Saturday mornings, alternating stories of Shazam and Isis. Of course, this television version of Isis presented her as a sort of female Superman, flying around and fighting crime, but even then she made an impression on me as the empowered feminine. (Then again, so did The Bionic Woman and Wonder Woman. Hey, you take what role models you can.)

"Oh Mighty Isis!"

Sunday, April 7, 2013

I Say Mountains, You Say Hills

Part of getting ready for Egypt is getting in better shape, of course. We're going to be doing lots of walking. Heck, even walking through a museum can be taxing on a 50 year-old gal! Walk, walk, stop, stand, stare, examine. Walk, walk, walk, stop, stand, examine. Etc. After three hours of that, my lower back and hips scream at me and call me all sorts of names that I dare not repeat here!

So, my friend Lisa and I have been training (me on my treadmill, she on her Wii) and going on weekend hikes. Today we hiked Coyote Hills Regional Park in the East Bay. We saw lots of geese, one heron, and many multi-colored birds; turns out, as we read on a marker, the park is situated along the Pacific Flyway (actually, pretty much the entire San Francisco Bay Area is). But since there are many isolated ponds off the actual Bay in the park, birds like to gather there.

Anyway, we kept for a mile or so to the paved trail skirting the ponds and then circling around the Bay, then decided to hike up a hill to the top. From there we could see all over the Bay Area, and certainly both the Dumbarton and San Mateo Bridges. Then we kept along the ridgeline, going up and down, hitting another huge hill (I'd guess the incline at 12% or more; it was pretty steep), then came down to the paved trail and returned to our car. Here is video and me flexing my stuff atop one of the hills:

I've lost between 8-10 pounds so far and would love to lose another 10 before the trip.  That's right, mofo. I'm a bad ass. I also have a sore ass, but better now than later, right?

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Preparing for Egypt, Part Four (Elephantine Island)

A not-to-be-missed experience in Egypt is to take a felucca ride (basically it's a sailboat) on the Nile, and so while we're in Aswan, we'll be doing just that--to see Elephantine Island. Now, I'm not sure how the island came about its name, but the shapes of the rocks look... well, kind of like elephants. It's also said that, from the air, the island is shaped like an elephant's tusk, and this island--right near the First Cataract--was the hopping off point for excursions into Nubia to get ivory, gold, oils, perfumes, and so on.

I'm not sure if we're just sailing around the island or if we'll stop and go exploring on it a bit, but there are ruins of old temples there, many of which were built over older temples. One of the earliest was for the goddess Satet, joined later by the deities Khnum and Anuket, all of whom were seen as guardians of the Cataract.

And then there was a Jewish temple. There's quite a story behind it, too. After the Babylonian Exile, in which the First Temple was destroyed and the Jews were scattered, a small community of Jews settled here and built a small temple. We know this from a cache of papyri written in Aramaic (there was some quarreling back and forth between the Jews and the priests of the Temple of Khnum), and from them we also know that some of the Jews were soldiers, the rabbis Levites, and that actually they had set up a small military fortress. I point this out because it's said the Ark of the Covenant was actually hidden in this temple fortress for a time, prior to be taken to Ethiopia. You can read about this here.

Intriguing theory.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Preparing for Egypt, Part Three (Abu Simbel)

Ah, Rameses II, better known as Rameses the Great. He was pretty great, living to age 96 when the average life expectancy of an Egyptian during his reign was around 40 years. He had 200 wives and concubines and fathered 96 sons and 60 daughters. He even outlived 13 of his heirs. And, he was a builder. His image is all over Egypt (usually showing him whacking enemies over the head with a mace-like weapon), and expand the empire he did, holding control of Nubia (and its gold). The Temple at Abu Simbel (pictured) is on the Nile on the border of then-Nubia, sort of as a reminder to anyone entering the territory from the south that they were now on Egyptian land, so they'd better watch their manners.

This temple is particularly interesting because it was actually carved into the mountain. There are four colossal statues of Rameses in the front, then you enter and it goes all the way back into the mountain some 800 feet, all decorated with more statues, reliefs, and tales of Rameses' might. The sanctuary at the very end was originally lit up by the rising sun on only two days of the year: Rameses' coronation day and birthday. The sunlight hit the gods enthroned there: Rameses himself, Amun-Re (Amun of Thebes), Re-Horakhty (Ra of Heliopolis), and Ptah (of Memphis). There is another nearby temple dedicated to Rameses' favorite wife, Nefertari.

The big story here, though, is that the temple had to be moved by UNESCO when it was threatened to be flooded by the Aswan Dam that created Lake Nasser. (Other temples had to be relocated as well.) With the Abu Simbel temple, UNESCO ended up having to slice the entire mountain apart, piece by piece, sculptures and all, move each piece to safety on higher ground, and then reassemble the entire thing. So now the sunlight hits the Sanctuary a day earlier in the year, on Feb. 21 and Oct. 21, illuminating just Rameses and Amun. Not too bad, considering the difficulty of the project.

The story of moving the Abu Simbel temple is so astounding that it's worth watching the following video about how they did it.  This is just the first part; you'll have to go to Youtube to watch the whole show if you wish.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Lost Pharoah: The Search for Akhenaten

(Note: this video was made in 1980, so it's a bit dated (albeit still interesting). Akhenaten's mummy has since been located in the Valley of the Kings and DNA confirms he was King Tut's father. There was also no genetic deformity identified, so the Armana art seems to be be highly stylized. Egyptologists now speculate that Ahkenaten chose to be portrayed with both male and female characteristics because the Aten contained both masculine and feminine principles.) Recent study of Tut's mummy, by the way, shows he was not murdered and that he likely died of an infection resulting from a horrendous leg fracture.


Preparing for Egypt, Part Two (Akehaten/Armana)

Our next stop in Egypt will be the ruins of the city Akhetaten, more commonly known as Tell-el-Armana. It's particularly interesting because it was the city founded by Pharoah Aknenaten to worship his one god, the Aten, or the sun disk. I've written a little about this "heretic" Pharoah here, but I'd like to revise what I wrote a bit. I think (and of course I don't really know) that Aknenaten wasn't really worshiping a Sun God--he was worshiping the conception of one god, the creator god, who embodied the entire pantheon of Egyptian gods, and the sun disk was merely the symbolic representation of this one god. It's a huge leap forward in spiritual evolution, the idea of an "All in One" or, as the Emerald Tablet might put it, "The One Thing." Since Egyptian Pharoahs typically were seen as gods on earth, I don't think Aknenaten went as far as to suggest that all peoples possess the god within--and evidence suggests he did not think this, requiring others to bow to him and himself serving as, well, sort of a Pope, God's emissary on earth, speaking for the Aten--but it still represents a leap forward.

Of course, the people of Egypt, accustomed to many gods, didn't exactly rush to hop on this Pharoah's train, and the Amun priests in Luxor thought he was crazy, so ultimately Aknenaten's idea did not take hold, and after the Pharoah died, the city of Akhetaten was abandoned and fell into ruin. It's not the most well preserved site in Egypt since the city was hastily constructed and the structures built of mudbrick. But the boundaries of the city and the plans for it were laid out on fourteen stelae, so we have a sense of what it looked like. The temples were open-air (naturally, to let in lots of sun), and tombs were dug out in the cliffs surrounding the city.

Another interesting thing about Akhenaten is that some scholars have suggested that he was actually Moses, or if not Moses, then he knew Moses, and that's where Moses got the idea of a single god from. Before you scoff, Sigmund Freud even put forth this idea. The thinking goes something like this: we know from the Bible that Joseph rose to a high position as Pharoah's vizier in Egypt, marrying into the royal family, so on the contrary, the Jews weren't exactly slaves. (This is naturally disputed by those who take the story of the Exodus literally and who believe Ramses the Great was the Pharoah of the Exodus). But take Joseph's family a few generations down, and you arrive at the time of Akhenaten. Suppose the Pharoah knew his monotheism was unpopular and he wanted Moses (which, by the way, is an Egyptian name--Ahmose was common) to leave the country and keep to the idea. Moses gathered up his people and exited. It's also true that the 10 Commandments are reminiscent of the commandments of Ma'at, with which Moses certainly would have been familiar, being raised in Pharaoh's court. So.... it's something worth ruminating about, in any case.

Excavations at Akhetaten continue.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Preparing for Egypt, Part One (Step Pyramid/Saqqara)

It's Spring Break for me, so I have a week off to catch my breath and do some reading and blogging (and, well... and I do have a stack of literature essays to grade as well... a teacher's work is never done!), so I thought it might be fun to post a little about some of the sights in Egypt that my tour group is going to be visiting at the end of May. This will get me researching the various temples and sites so I can better appreciate what we'll be seeing while I'm there.

The first stop is Saqqara (alternate spelling is Sakkara) where some of the Old Kingdom pyramids are. The most famous of these (pictured) is the Step Pyramid of Djozer, the world's oldest freestanding structure. It's about 4000 years old and constructed of limestone instead of mudbrick. The area is basically a necropolis that was near the then-capital of Memphis, so there are several pyramids, mastabas, and also the Serapeum, where the Apis bulls were buried. That's right, mummified bulls. They were considered to be living representations of the god Ptah (the creator god).

The step pyramid may have originated as a simple mastaba (a single-level stone "mound" built over a tomb), but when walls were erected around the necropolis, they hid the mastaba from view. It's theorized that Djozer's vizier, Imhotep, dealt with the problem by adding another mastaba on top of the first, and then another, and then another, each one smaller than the one under, thus creating a series of steps--and thus the birth of the first pyramid structure in Egypt. Others say the intent was to create a kind of "stairway to heaven" for the resurrected Pharoah. But it was also surrounded by courts, temples, and other important buildings. There are also two boundary markers in the large court to the south of the pyramid--the Hed-Sed Court, a representation of where the Pharoah showed off his athleticism in Memphis during the Hed-Sed Festival (also called the heb sed run). The court itself represented the four corners of Egypt and celebrated Djozer's recrowning after he had ruled Egypt for 30 years.

Also of interest at Saqqara is the Pyramid of Unas, which contains the Pyramid Texts that were solely for the king. These later morphed into the Egyptian Book of the Dead, funerary texts inscribed on papyrus and left in tombs of anybody wealthy enough to afford one (prices ranged from cheap versions to carefully illustrated, expensive ones). They are said to be collections of spells or "utterances" to protect the deceased and to help him or her pass through the various obstacles or challenges they'd be faced with after death on their journey through the afterlife. (An interesting comparison is to the Tibetan Book of the Dead.)

Now, there is some argument about the Pyramid Texts or Egyptian funerary texts and all of the spells in them. I'm not going to quibble about that here, but alternative views of the texts see them as more shamanistic in nature than funerary, in much the same way that alternative views of the Great Pyramid see it not as a tomb for Pharoah Khufu at all but a ceremonial chamber or temple. But one thing's for sure: they are some of the oldest religious writing that we know of. You can read more about the Pyramid Texts here. If you're feeling really adventuresome, you can see the layout of the Pyramid of Unas and look at some of the actual texts here.