Memento Mori

Part 10 of the Egypt trip. Part 9 here

After I cried in the car over a dead street dog, Slava noted our Egyptian vacation was all about death, since we were there to see the remains, corporeal and otherwise, of an ancient civilization. But Slava, when do I plan a trip that does *not* include at least one trip to visit the dead? Remains of ancient civilizations, cemeteries, tombs…these are standard fare for a tour planed by Ms Liz.

But truly, Slava was right, we were drawn to Egypt by the dead.

These days, many people don’t have a particularly healthy relationship with death. We don’t plan for it because we don’t want it to happen. We work instead on prolonging our lives, although I find it hard to believe that many people enjoy being wicked old. Some people, it’s true, buy a burial plot before they need one, but most of us don’t. We’re lucky if we tell our loved ones what they should do when we shuffle off this mortal coil, unusual if we write down our internet passwords in case someone else needs to use them in our absence. In fact, this blog will simply stop getting updated when I go – I’ll probably forget to include it on the list of internet things to use to announce to my adoring fans that my voice has been silenced by the inevitable.

Anyway, the ancient Egyptians spent their adult lives preparing for their deaths, and they did not live long – most were dead by their mid-30s (modern Egyptians live to 70 on average). That is not to say, they did not enjoy their lives, but they did not deny that they would die. Their death was only a change, not an end, as they would join their ancestors and gods in the afterworld. Those who could afford it had fancy tombs made for them, with beautiful paintings depicting themselves, their loved ones, their gods. People with fewer resources had less magnificent graves, but were still mummified. Experts estimate there are millions of mummies in Egypt, human and animal.

Naturally, Slava & I visited some tombs in the West Bank at Luxor, also known as the Theban Necropolis. They are the main reason we visited Luxor. We had been to a few tombs at Saqqara, but the ones in Thebes are different. There are four main sites, and at each only a few tombs are open at any one time. There is no way to look it up, you just have to go to the ticket office and see what’s on offer. This cuts down on the wear and tear that living visitors bring with them.

Our first stop, The Valley of the Kings, is where the pharaohs were buried in elaborate tombs, most of which were plundered of their treasure not long after they were buried. We visited 4 tombs here, including the most elaborate (and outrageously expensive) tomb of Seti I, which has been closed to the public for decades. It was fantastic – huge, wonderfully painted from floor to ceiling, and empty of people. The high ticket price kept the other tourists away, with the exception of a group of wealthy young Americans who turned up near the end of our visit, who were probably pop stars or actors or something, at least they sounded like they might be. I tried not to look at them, actually, as they were interrupting my communing with the dead.

The great granite sarcophagi, made of stone quarried in far off Aswan and brought down the Nile to Luxor, remain in the pharaohs’ tombs, emptied of their mummies. The Egyptian Museum has a special room displaying the Royal Mummies, which, of course, we visited in Cairo. It was surprisingly touching to see them. They are nicely displayed and look comfortable, their linen wrappings are in good shape, but it is hard not to feel bad for them, displayed practically naked, without their grave goods or paintings, so far from their tombs…. Still, they look well cared for. I was glad we saw them because in Luxor we saw their tombs and temples.

photo of Ramses II not by me – you’re not supposed to photograph the dead.

Next, Valley of the Queens, where we actually only saw tombs of princes. They were also wonderfully painted, but not quite as elaborate as those of the kings. The Tombs of the Nobles (known to my mother, as, I believe, the Tombs of the Officials) were great. These had remained open after the nobles’ deaths, so their families could visit them. Since they were not full of golden treasures, why not?

When you visit the tombs, there is not generally a hushed air of respect. There is almost always a living, pestering Egyptian guard who follows you around relentlessly, despite your protests, and gives you a whirlwind tour of what is usually a pretty small space. It’s like having a bellboy who won’t leave. Sometimes you like him, sometimes you really don’t. He points out characters and scenes, perhaps some of which you wouldn’t have focused on without him, but after a day or so in Egypt, everyone can identify Osiris and Anubis – you don’t need the guard to repeatedly point them out (and they appear multiple times in each tomb). The constant presence of the guard, the knowledge that we would have to pay him something, that we probably didn’t have the appropriate bill, that it would be a hassle, made it difficult for me to fully enjoy the tombs. Next time we go, I’ll have this experience under my belt, and it will be a little easier.

Naturally, my favorite tombs were those of the workers at Deir el-Medina, which is an incredible place I hope to return to. The tombs here are smaller, but just as vibrantly and evocatively painted as the pharaohs’ tombs. These people were professional tomb-builders, after all! There are wonderfully preserved paintings of grape arbors, “paradise,” Anubis, a man and woman working the fields together, and a family standing around the parents who are seated, a cat under their chair. The workers’ tombs are built into the hill directly next to the workers’ town, which is undergoing too much restoration by the French at the moment, who have built a dig house on the hill above the tombs.

We visited the site with Tayeb, an Egyptian worker who is helping the French archaeologists on the digs there. It was a nice circle, visiting the homes and tombs of the people who built the tombs, with a companion who was working to unearth the homes and tombs of the workers, whose home we later visited.

Workers’ tomb, topped by a small (presumably much-restored) pyramid at Deir el-Medina

I didn’t manage to take a photo of Anubis preparing the body, even though it was my favorite image. You’re not supposed to photograph in the tombs, although the guards encourage it and then demand big baksheesh. Here is one we saw, but the photo is not mine. Click link in caption to find the photographer.

Screen Shot 2017-01-28 at 12.26.32 AM.png
from the tomb of Sennedjem, Deir el-Medina

I love this picture, repeated in every tomb. It makes me feel good that a god is there to see to our mortal remains, to prepare them for the next life, to revive us once we have crossed over, to take care of us. The image reminds me of getting a massage – not the sexy kind but the kind that makes you feel like your masseuse is putting you back together, the human touch that grounds you again. It’s a comforting scene.

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