Written By Richard Hodes
Most people have had this feeling of familiarity at some point in their lives. This is what we know as a Déjà vu. But what does it mean? I was about to find out as a trip to Egypt brought me not only half way around the world, but 3,000 years into the past.
Unlike other ancient civilizations, Egypt has not flashed brilliantly for a few brief seconds only to fade into the obscurity of the ages; it has enjoyed great prestige for 70 centuries and is indisputably recognized as the cradle of human civilization.While the rest of the world was still untouched by history, ancient Egyptians excelled in art, medicine, architecture, astronomy, philosophy, and the art of war. Their lives revolved around a complex religion, whose staunch belief in the immortality of the soul dominated every activity. It was this obsession with the afterlife that would captivate and change me.
Disembarking after a long flight to Cairo, we met our guide, a university teacher eager to share her incredible culture with tourists. At first glance, Cairo is like any other modern, overpopulated city. Its streets are clogged with cars; though when the traffic eases, watch out, there are no rules for driving here. People live in tiny, crowded apartments, and air pollution is a problem. But the real Cairo is hidden today, camouflaged by the façade of modern life. The true heart of a native Egyptian is unchanged since the golden days of the Pharaohs.
After checking into our hotel, which was a former Shah’s palace, our guide took us on an orientation city tour. This is where I experienced my first feeling of déjà vu. As we drove through the streets of Cairo, I knew I had been there before. Yet this was my first trip to Egypt. Could I have been there in a past life?
Anxious to immerse myself in anything ancient, we traveled to The Egyptian Museum in central Cairo. Except for the British Museum in London, which is filled with plundered Egyptian artifacts taken during the British occupation, this building is the most important depository of almost all the archeological discoveries from the last 100 years. The contents of the tomb of King Tutankhamon alone occupy an entire wing of the facility. Hoards of tourists flood the museum daily to view the spectacular Royal Mummy Room and the huge collection of remnants of a civilization that ruled the known world for thousands of years.
As we left the city and drove toward the Giza plateau to visit the Great Pyramids, my thoughts drifted to the past. In a way, the Pharaohs had achieved immortality. Over 3,000 years had passed and we still speak of them. Many of their achievements and monuments stand as a testimonial to their ongoing greatness.
Nothing speaks of monumental greatness more than the Giza Pyramids. Egyptians have a saying. “Everyone fears time, but time fears the Pyramids.” Built as tombs to house the immortal souls of the Pharaohs, these structures and the nearby Sphinx represent a temple complex recognized as one of the seven ancient wonders of the world. Visitors are permitted to enter the Great Pyramid through a long, narrow passage which leads to a vast gallery and smaller adjacent burial chamber in the center of the structure – an excursion not for the faint hearted. At night, lasers illuminate the area in a spectacular sound and light show that tells the story of the construction and purpose of the Pyramids.
Returning to the city, we visited the 12th century Citadel of Saladin, where the Mosque of Mohammed Ali is still in use today. The nearby Khan el-Khalili Bazaar is a huge labyrinth of shops where visitors can buy anything from a King Tut tee shirt to the finest gold jewelry.
After a short flight to Abu Simbel in the south, we visited the mighty Sun Temple built by Ramses II to impress travelers coming to Egypt. This astounding temple includes four massive stone statues of the king. When the Aswan Dam created a lake that threatened Abu Simbel, the Sun Temple was disassembled and reconstructed in present higher location.
Later that day, we returned to Aswan and boarded a Nile cruiser, which would be our home for the next few days The Nile River, “Stretching from the southern border of the Sudan, the Nile flows north and empties into the Mediterranean Sea.” DUO “Do Unto Others” Magazine 95 as we floated downriver toward Luxor. Though small by cruise ship standards, these riverboats transport tourists in luxury and comfort. Historians and archeologists agree that if they were to name one thing responsible for the rise and long-term success of the Egyptian civilization it would be the Nile River. Stretching from the southern border of the Sudan, the Nile flows north and empties into the Mediterranean Sea. In ancient times, each year the river would overflow its banks and deposit a rich layer of soil in the surrounding valley. This created a super-fertile plain where farmers could grow whatever was needed to feed the entire population. Today, the Aswan Dam controls the river. As we set sail that evening, we could see dozens of felucca sailboats silhouetted against the setting sun.
Sailing past tiny villages along the Nile, we witnessed the local people living as the ancients did 3,000 years ago. Women washed their clothes and their children in the river. Farmers worked the land with primitive tools. Shoppers bargained at crowded, open-air street markets. Of course, there were ruined temples at each stop with such names as Edfu, Kom Ombo and Philae. As we approached our final stop at Luxor, I experienced another strong feeling of déjà vu. This place called to me. Once named Thebes, the area boasts some of the most important sights in the entire country. With their religion as the focus of daily life, the Egyptians believed the daily ritual of sunset (in the west) and sunrise (in the east) represented the death and rebirth of the sun. With this in mind, they placed all of their tombs on the west bank of the Nile and the temples and cities on the east. The Valley of the Kings and Queens occupies an area spread across the western bank of the river. Dozens of Royal tombs have been discovered there along with the ruins of living quarters of the workers who constructed them. But nothing could have prepared me for what we would see on the east bank. The temple complex at Karnak is so vast it defies description. Constructed over the course of 2,000 years, each Pharaoh built his own addition until it became the largest temple in the world. The soaring columns were once painted with brightly colored hieroglyphics. Huge statues of various Pharaohs abound and the walls display carved frescoes of fierce battles where the Living God defeated his enemies. At night the temple comes alive with a wonderful sound and light show where the incredible history of Karnak is relived. Walking through the now silent halls, staring into the face of the Pharaoh’s statue, I heard the voice of the king and the soft chanting of the high priests. Imagination?
Moving on, we visited other monumental sights in the area including the Luxor temple, with its Avenue of Sphynxs, the Colossi of Memnon and the Temple of Amun, with its collection of obelisks, pylons, and courts. Walking among these ruins, I was certain I had been there before. I knew my way around and felt comfortable in what should have been a strange and exotic place. This feeling persisted throughout our stay in Luxor.
With our tour over, we disembarked the ship and returned to Cairo airport. Boarding our plane for the long flight home, I felt strange and sad. As if all that was comfortable and familiar was being left behind. Suddenly, the feelings of déjà vu made sense. I stared out the window as we lifted from the ground. The Pyramids reached to the sky—to me. I said goodbye. Again. I promised myself I would return some day. I would come home to Egypt. – DUO