Every morning at our hotel by the Red Sea the guy making eggs would hum a little song. It was a happy song, though I had never heard the tune. It was always the same. He was always happy, cooking eggs, humming a song of Egypt.
I would never have chosen to travel to Egypt on my own, yet luckily I have friends who see the world differently. Our French friend Cat heard from her friends that Egypt was a great vacation experience and that the fear of terrorist attacks that had seriously affected tourism had subsided. She pushed for us to go there on a winter vacation, and thus it came to pass.
Egypt is so old. Go back a thousand years in our history to the beginnings of France and England. Continue back another thousand to the beginning of Christianity. Keep going back 300 more years, to the end of the Greeks and also the end of the Egyptian Pharaohs. Finally go back 2700 more years to the beginning of recorded Egyptian history (3000 BC), though the culture had no doubt been preparing itself for several hundred years before that time. The reign of Egyptian Pharaohs endured far longer than has our western culture.
Yet there is a modern day Egypt. 100 million people live there, 90% Muslim, 10% Coptic Christian (Coptic is a Greek word meaning Egyptian). The population is poor by western standards, yet richer than you would think in terms of material possessions, health care, infant survival, and many other measures of the quality of life (see the short video clip below). Tourism is the largest component of their economy. Despite perceptions, our guide told us that Christians and Muslims get along, that the culture is centered on the family and is traditional to a far greater extent than we accept today in the west. Another guide talked about the principles of Islam, the difficulty of remaining celibate until marriage, which typically for men is in their 30s and for women in their mid 20s. Religious law still prescribes death for the woman who becomes pregnant before marriage. Very unsettling for westerners.
Travel to Egypt
Travel to Egypt was harsh. Our flight on FlyEgypt Air was spartan – they serve free water, and the seats do not recline. People were packed in like sardines. Our flight from Paris to Hurghada, halfway down the country along the Red Sea, was delayed 3 hours, resulting in our spending a night in a hotel on the Red Sea coast before arriving at our Nile cruise boat. We were late to bed and set out early the next morning by bus for the Nile. All slack was removed from our tour schedule because of that delay.
Still, once aboard our boat on the Nile, everything was sublime. It was a fine hotel. The weather was mid 70s (25°C) and sunny. There was a gentle breeze. We spent a week cruising down the Nile, starting at Luxor (Thebes in ancient times), going to Aswan (where Egypt twice has built a dam to contain the flooding of the Nile), and then returning to Luxor. We went on a number of tours along the way to see the temples at Kom Ombo, the Temple of Isis on the Island of Philae, Abu Simbel, Esna, Karnak, Luxor, some tombs at the Valley of the Kings, and other tourist activities.
When we weren’t on tour, the boat was underway, and we were enjoying the sun and perfect weather while watching and listening to the sounds on the banks of the Nile as we passed by. While at Aswan, we ventured further south by bus to near the border of Sudan to see the ancient temples at Abu Simbel. These were moved in a giant engineering project of the ’60s to prevent permanent immersion beneath Lake Nasser when the High Aswan dam was built.
Our tour guide, Mina, was terrific. He spoke slow and grammatically correct French, which was perfect for us amateurs. Did I mention that only French and German were spoken on our boat? We fell in with our French group (18 total) and benefited from a concentrated course in French conversation. By the end of the trip we were all friends. We had mostly late nights and early mornings to make our tour schedule, and after a week of cruising and touring Egyptian antiquities, most of us were tired.
To get over being worn out from touring, we spent a second week in a quiet all-inclusive hotel along the Red Sea at Safaga. This area primarily attracts diving enthusiasts because of the ample sea life in the off shore reefs. For us it was a chance to relax and enjoy the sunny winter weather. Starting in 2008 there was a push to develop the Red Sea coast for tourism, but unfortunately an economic downturn in 2011 stopped many of these projects, leaving half finished buildings along the way.
Touring out in town – security concerns
Security is still a concern. One day we ventured to the busier tourist area of Hurghada to the north. The city sprawls with hotels and unfinished development. We visited a mosque, a Coptic Christian church, and a mall with various shops selling Egyptian goods that might appeal to tourists. The mosque was fenced and guarded at the boundaries. Women had to don chadors, the body and head coverings traditional for muslim women. The street in front of the Coptic church was barricaded, and there was security at the entry. We could not visit the local marketplace, the souq, because there had been too many problems with theft and pickpocketing. Our boat and hotel had tight security and armed guards. A couple times we had an armed guard on the bus with us.
One morning in Luxor Brenda and I escaped our net of tourist security and went into the town unguided. We set out to walk from our boat to the Luxor Museum, about 5 kilometers (3 miles) to the north. As with every trip into the public, even with guides, we were immediately accosted by people wanting to sell us stuff – scarves, taxi rides, carriage rides. First they greet you – “hello, where are you from? Parlez vous français?” After establishing a language, they make low price offers. As we walked along a man was trotting in his carriage beside me, offering a ride at various prices. “Non merci”, I kept saying to him and to the many others who approached. One always must negotiate price; nothing is ever as first announced. It’s a tricky game that we don’t play well.
Finally, after perhaps 4 kilometers we were approached by a man in bluejeans and a blue working shirt. He said his name was Mr Sisi and that he worked at the Tourist Bureau, that no one would bother us when he was around. Mr Sisi spoke the best English of anyone we met in our travel to Egypt. He told us he met his wife in Minnesota when he lived in the US, and that he spoke 6 different languages. Then he told us what a rip off it is to go to tourist shops with our guide, who probably gets a portion of whatever is sold, adding that he knew of a market where the prices were fair and a portion of the proceeds would go to benefit the children.
I asked if he wasn’t actually the President of Egypt (whose name is el-Sisi). He said no, he didn’t have time for that. He mentioned that the Luxor Museum only takes Egyptian pounds for entry fees. We only had Euros and a credit card.
He led us over to see his market, and eventually we found ourselves sitting in front of Mr George, who was a jeweler. He showed us movies of himself and his son making jewelry in their family business. Brenda found a piece she liked, and he told us the story of it. He quoted an enormous price, which we did not agree to. He kept talking about it. Since we were friends of Mr Sisi, he could reduce the price by 40%. Because we were his first customer of the day, he could reduce by another amount. Since he liked us, he could come down some more. Eventually he offered a price that was about 20% of the original price. We agreed to this amount and paid.
I’m sure we still overpaid, but it was quite an adventure. We lost interest in going to the museum and decided to head back to the boat. Mr Sisi, true to his every word, made all arrangements for us. I gave him a tip for all his hard work.
Learning to Appreciate Egyptian Art and History
On vacation I had the sense that what was in my guide book plus what I learned about ancient Egypt during our tours didn’t prepare me to appreciate the scope of what we had seen. Entering a tomb or temple with hundreds of hieroglyphs and art works provides an overwhelming experience of the very ancient art and the enormity of effort to construct these monumental works. I found myself asking what all this was about and why. So I bought a book on Egyptian Art. Though I still don’t know much, here’s a little more.
The Great Pyramids, the Sphinx, and the wonderful Cairo museum, as well as many ruins, are in the heavily populated north of the country. However, the temples and tombs of the New Kingdom at Thebes (1500 – 1100 BC) and further south are better preserved and offer a better way to appreciate how the tombs and temples were arranged in relation to the settlements, not to mention the opportunity of cruising the Nile, seeing the Aswan Dam developments, several later temples built under control of the Greeks, and the magnificent restoration of Abu Simbel almost at the border of Sudan.
What is most striking is that the mythology, the artwork, the design of temples and tombs, and the basic organization of society hardly changed over the entire 3000 years of ancient Egypt. The temples and tombs and gods and goddesses of the Old Kingdom (3100 to 2100 BC) and the Middle Kingdom (2000 to 1650 BC) were like those of the New Kingdom and even like the temples built under Greek rule after 331 BC. Admittedly the tombs changed from pyramid design to underground structures, but the elements of design, the gods represented in typical art works, and the traditions of burial were not significantly different.
Two elements assisted in maintaining this incredibly stable society. One was the agricultural wonder of the Nile valley, where spring rains overflowed the banks and revitalized the desert soil every year, making crop production much easier than in other parts of the world. The second was a creation myth that explained that even before there was humanity, fundamental principles governed our world, not just principles of physics and mathematics but also of authority and morality. Everything a person might seek or need in his life had already been given.
Before humanity, the Creator had made Osiris along with his brother Seth and sister Isis. Osiris was created as the first king and the first mortal. Seth, a force of chaos and rebellion, murdered Osiris and cut his body into pieces, distributing them all over Egypt. Isis, the mother figure, put the pieces of Osiris back together, wrapping his body in linen, and brought him back to life, the first to be mummified and then reborn into the next life. She also bore Osiris’s son, named Horus, who became the successor as king. Horus defeated Seth and his powers of disruption, and the stable Egypt was born. Every king is a descendant of Horus with authority that was spiritual and universal rather than political. Each new king buried his predecessor in a tomb, a monumental interpretation of his palace, and provided offerings for the late king as if for a god. 1
The Creator-given fundamental principles of authority, morality, mathematics, and physics created the fate of not only the pharaoh, but also every Egyptian. Every Egyptian was to seek to bring his life and expectations in line with the truth of what had been given by the Creator. In doing so, each could assure his or her perfect rebirth into life after death.2
Unlike anywhere else in that era (Mesopotamia excepted), Egypt could produce enough food so that a portion of society didn’t need to farm. Egyptians organized society to use the crops as the taxes paid to the pharaoh, who in turn used the taxes to support an enormous cultural effort to honor the gods, the kings as they passed to the next life, and to a lesser extent other officials deserving recognition for their contributions in helping society honor the Truth.
This was an enormous collective effort, farming, harvesting, moving the crops to storage, building communities and training artists to build temples and tombs, providing the resources to feed and house them, gathering and transporting the materials of construction, designing and building the structures, and planning and accounting for the materials and resources to accomplish the goals of the pharaoh. 3
The king must have spent much of his time traveling from temple to temple celebrating festival after festival away from his grand residence. The New Kingdom pharaoh was, as with the earliest of pharaohs, as much a figure in social and religious ceremonies as he was the central figure of government. Thebes was designed to accommodate the festival routes of Amun-Ra. North and South there were the temples of Karnak and Luxor, and between them was a sphinx-lined causeway running parallel to the river. Karnak also had a second axis east and west to celebrate the dry season through a festival from Karnak to the king’s mortuary temples near the Valley of the Kings. The Temple of Hatshepsut remains mostly intact, the lone remaining mortuary temple.
Ancient Egyptian art belongs in sacred, contemplative contexts, especially in temples and tombs that became places of offering. The act of making the art was an important part of Egyptian culture. Much of what was created was never intended to be seen. The art seeks to illustrate the perpetual and eternal. Egyptian art is intended to seem clear, familiar, and human. At the same time it is quite abstract and symbolic. It expresses abstract ideas in many different ways through iconography, relative size of figures, and texts. 4
The artist puts more stock in presenting recognizable characters and their interaction than in creating realistic representations of the world as it appears to the eye. The artist gives the gods human characteristics and the power of speech. He employs standard forms and poses with stock clothes and regalia. The artist organizes and divides the composition into distinct areas of information. The arrangements are acceptable to the eye and seem real-world at first glance. 5
Hieroglyphs state identities and details. They are a device for writing the sounds of ancient Egyptian to add information that enhances visual attractiveness while clarifying meaning. 6
The human form of Egyptian art in two dimensions is so iconic that we lampoon it, witness the 80’s sketch by Steve Martin. This style of art is not from lack of skill. The Egyptians maintained this form across dozens of centuries. Art often depicts shoulders square to the canvas, but shows the hips and feet and head turned 90 degrees. There is no unified viewpoint for the body as a whole, rather, the artist maintains a single distinctive view for each part of the body. The eyes are often over sized and looking at you even if the head itself is turned. 7
“The art of ancient Egypt represents a committed attempt throughout the centuries to illustrate human lives in a context that does not move on or pass away.”8 For nearly 3000 years Egypt remained this beehive of human activity responding to the Truth, the unchanging fundamental principles of its very creation.
Imagine how much different that is from our worldview of progress, scientific revolution, and individual attempts to achieve freedom, equality, nirvana, agelessness, peak experiences, etc. In our society we seek progress towards perfection. In ancient Egypt, perfection was already there, and the challenge was to accept the Truth and adore what was already perfect and present from the creation.
To see more photos of our travel to Egypt, including more about our time on the Red Sea, follow this link to a Photo Tour.
- Manley, Bill. Egyptian Art. World of Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2017. Ch2 loc 465 ↩︎
- Manley, Bill. Egyptian Art. World of Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2017. Ch3 loc 544 ↩︎
- Manley, Bill. Egyptian Art. World of Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2017. Ch 4 loc 935 ↩︎
- Manley, Bill. Egyptian Art. World of Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2017. Ch 8 loc 1661 ↩︎
- Manley, Bill. Egyptian Art. World of Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2017. Ch 1 loc 156 ↩︎
- Manley, Bill. Egyptian Art. World of Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2017. Ch 6 loc 1282 ↩︎
- Manley, Bill. Egyptian Art. World of Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2017. Ch 7 loc 1371 ↩︎
- Manley, Bill. Egyptian Art. World of Art. London: Thames & Hudson, 2017. Ch 15 loc 4307 ↩︎