Tuesday, April 16, 2013

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.


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