Saturday, February 12, 2011

A New Day in a Very Old Land

Sunrise from the Great Sphinx at Giza

The Great Sphinx at Dawn.

I have no idea how all of this will turn out. Who knows what will happen in the end. But for the moment, the Great Sphinx watches the sun rise for the first time ever on an Egypt without an absolute ruler. While optimism is way too strong a word for Egypt's future, there are plenty of grounds for hope. Who would have imagined, even a few weeks ago, that the autocratic ruler of the largest Arab country could be brought down by a mass, leaderless, unorganized, non-ideological, non-theological, largely peaceful revolution? This was the sort of revolution we are used to seeing in Eastern Europe, in places like the Czech Republic, Poland, and in Ukraine; and in Asia in countries like the Philippines and Indonesia. But in the Middle East? It's hard for anyone who doesn't live there or isn't from there to imagine politics in that region as anything other than brutal and cynical. Apparently the Egyptians, and lots of them, imagined just such a thing, and (so far) made it happen. I think this is a tremendous accomplishment, and that the Egyptians deserve their celebrations.

Recorded history began in Egypt. The first event in recorded history is King Narmer's conquest of the Nile Delta (Lower Egypt) and his unification of Egypt under his rule about 3100 BC. He is the first recorded Pharaoh of a united Egypt. Egypt was history's first nation state, and its longest lasting. Egypt ended as an independent state only in 30 BC with the death of Cleopatra. It became part of the Roman Empire and would not be a fully independent state again until the 20th century.

The ancient Egyptians were keenly aware of the antiquity of their country and deeply proud of it. We can see how they thought about their history at what was once the holy city of Abydos (the name given by Greek historians to Abdju), today a site on the Nile several miles north of Luxor. Abydos was the sanctuary of the god Osiris, god of the dead, of regeneration, and of green plants. Osiris was the most popular and widely revered of all of Egypt's gods. Huge mounds of ancient pottery in the surrounding desert are what remain of the offerings of many generations of pious pilgrims to the place. There is so much broken pottery around the place that the locals call it Um el Qa'ab, "Mother of Pots."

The Egyptians remembered their dead and their history at Abydos. In the temples to Osiris built by Pharaohs Seti and by his son, Ramses II, there are the famous king lists. Seti's is the most complete. It is a list of Egypt's kings beginning with Seti and going backward all the way to Narmer, then to the Creation and the gods.

The Temple built by Pharaoh Seti I at Abydos, built ca. 1290 BC.

The columned hall of Seti's Temple at Abydos

The Osiris Chapel in Seti's Temple at Abydos

The Osireon behind Seti's Temple at Abydos; a mysterious structure that was once underground, under a high earthen mound planted with trees.

The King List in Seti's Temple at Abydos showing the king and the then Crown Prince Ramses II worshiping their predecessors.

A detail of Seti's King List; for scholars, this list is a far greater treasure than any gold from Tutankhamun's Tomb. This is the most complete list of Egypt's kings to survive from ancient times showing them in order of succession.

A drawing of the complete King List of Seti; the List is carved on the wall of a narrow passage making it difficult, if not impossible to photograph in its entirety.

A surviving fragment of the King List of Ramses II from Abydos, now in the British Museum.

The lists show an unbroken succession of kings going all the way back to the beginning. That's how the Egyptians saw their history, or wanted to see it anyway. In that sense, the lists are misleading. They are not unabridged lists. They are selective. Certain kings (like Akhenaten and Hatshepsut) were left off the lists deliberately. The lists create the illusion that Egyptian history was a long uninterrupted orderly succession. It certainly was not. Egypt's history was as filled with upheaval and turmoil as any other country's. But that's not what they wanted us to remember. What the Egyptians saw fit to record were not the great transformative events of their past, but what continued, what didn't change over time. The ancient Egyptians hated change. To them, change threatened chaos. At best, change was a necessary adaptation to new circumstances, but it was not to be sought out for its own sake. The Egyptians had only to look over at their Mesopotamian neighbors whose kingdoms and city states were always at war with each other or with successive waves of foreign invaders to see what change meant. Change to the Egyptians was a gamble that never paid off. The ancient Egyptians saw the continuity of their state as its greatest success.

I'm not so sure that we are all that different, or that the ancient Egyptians were entirely wrong to see things that way. Change is a gamble, for nations and individuals. I remember our own leaders in this country (born in revolution and itself a creation of momentous change) fretting about "instability" as waves of "People Power" revolutions swept through Eastern Europe from 1989 to 1992. The ancient Egyptians proclaimed "stability" in huge stone monuments that buried the memory of past turmoil. Seti's temple at Abydos was just such a monument, proclaiming the triumphant return to tradition after the long recovery from the traumatic disruption of Pharaoh Akhenaten's heresy. The ancient Egyptians, just like ourselves, tried to control history, to minimize risk, and to eliminate the element of chance.

When it comes to History with a capital "H," I must confess to being a complete atheist. Sorry Herr Doctor Hegel, I just don't see history as anything so tidy as "thesis"+"antithesis" = "crisis" which leads to "synthesis." I don't see those over arching reasons and laws behind the "workings" of history. I don't believe in "cycles" of history. I believe in the zeitgeist like I believe in the tooth fairy. As far as I'm concerned, history is always a roll of the dice. The future is always a big blank "not yet" in which anything can happen. I think that "historical inevitability" is an illusion of memory. Nothing was ever "inevitable." There are countless occasions when things as absurd as a sudden illness, a lost letter, or a missed phone call have completely altered the course of history. History is not a machine that imprisons us all in its great impersonal workings. History is ours to make or break. Nothing is inevitable and nothing is forever.

Perhaps the element of chance is not only a cause for anxiety, but for hope. The Egyptians are taking a chance and may well teach us another lesson in history, that anything can happen.


JCF said...

Great post.

After all those millenia of Egyptian history (I confess, when I saw the pharaohs worshipping their ancestors I thought "So, they were Episcopalians?" ;-p), it's now all about that little girl (in the 2nd to the last photo).

You GO, grrl! :-)

Counterlight said...

That's right.
The future is hers.

June Butler said...

The kings who were left out of the lists are like the skeletons in the family closet, the embarrassments. That detail made me smile.

I agree with you about history - no to cycles and overarching themes.

Your post, text and pictures, is well put together and timely.