21.2.98

Egypt 98, p6

The Cairo Museum and Giza

February 20
The day started with a visit to the Cairo Museum. I was shocked. This crammed, almost shabby (but I say this in an affectionate way) little museum guards some of the greatest wonders of all time. I didn't stick to the group, as I had already studied what Umeyma was explaining: I was way too busy filling my memory and sketchbook with pictures. I couldn't get enough, and every piece called to me.

I was awed for instance by the diorite statue of Chephren (at left). This stone is impossibly hard. How was it carved so finely? How could it be carved at all? It has never been explained, nor has any other civilization attempted the feat. One detail, apart from the wonderful smiling expression of stout Chephren, arouses my enthusisasm: the falcon standing behind his head, wings stretched on both sides of it. This representation of Horus was meant to protect the Pharaoh, and it truly did: When, at the end of the Old Kingdom, the people rebelled against the government, the priests feared that during the wave of destruction of kingly images they would damage the image of the god as well. They hid the statue in a pit of the temple where it originally stood, on the plateau of Giza under the pyramid of Chephren. There it was found, intact, thousands of years later.



Many people wonder why Egyptian art looks the way it does: 4000 years and they couldn't improve to the level of say the Greek? The answer is, the Egyptians never meant their art to be pure aesthetics. It is the way it is because it packs a great deal of information. The distortions inflicted to the human body (head and legs from side view, torso in frontal view, front leg longer so that both feet rest on the base line) are designed to be the most explicit possible. Egyptian art is a two-dimensional informative tool that works according to a pre-established formula. Volumes could be written on what every detail (shape, size, colour...) means in a fresco. It would be wrong to think that it made the art rigid and dull. The Egyptians were, as they still are now, a happy, light-hearted people that valued laughter. They were in love with word games and puns. Humoristic scenes abound, such as this one where a shepherd doesn't notice that someone is milking his goats behind his back. Or the apes stealing fruit under the nose of the tree-owner. They even have a mock story of the battle between Horus and Set, where we can see the two gods suing each other in court and resorting to every dirty trick in the book.

Another frequently asked question: Why do men's loincloths look so stiff in representations? Very simply, they were starched...

Artists had a limited palette of pigments, which they could mix at will, but they usually preferred to use the pure, bold colours of which little is left. The colours would have resisted time, if it weren't for the desert winds (facades), the smoke of narguiles when Arabs took camp in the temples (ceilings), and thousands of curious hands when tourism started (walls). The craftsmen used calcite for white, copper oxyde for green, lapis or turquoise powder (later heated copper) for blue, heated iron for red, and coal for black. Egg yolk was applied to maintain the colours fresh.

None of the exhibited pieces (save one, to which I will return later) were as compelling to me as the lonely colossus of Akhenaton in the small room dedicated to his reign. The contents of this room are almost all that remains from him and his.

The colossus gives Akhenaton strange features, in the Amarna tradition of caricature. Do not think this is the way he really looked -- it's a misconception rising from the belief that all his representations agree on his looks. But there exists a more realistic portrait that shows him as a fine, mature-faced young man.

Across the room from Akhenaton, as if the museum personnel had meant the two to be able to gaze at each other for eternity, is the bust of Nefertiti. It is not the famous crowned portrait which is located in Germany, but a lesser-know, less advanced and softer one. The head is shaped much like the head of today's Playmobil toys, prepared to be fitted with a crown. Nefertiti means "Behold! the beautiful woman is coming" or "Beautiful among the beautiful".

It is not a widely known fact that Tutankhamon was a close parent to Akhenaton and Nefertiti -- perhaps a younger half-brother of the Pharaoh. The gods of Egypt have spectacularly set the balance right by making this little family, the memory of which suffered deliberate and thorough obliteration under the orders of Horemheb, one of the most famous in Antiquity. I have evoked already the fantastic discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamon. Its contents was kept, in its entirety, in the Cairo Museum, and we have French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette to thank for preventing it from being split and distributed all over Europe. It takes several rooms to exhibit it fully. I particularly fell in love with the proud statue of Anubis, carved in wood and painted black with gold sheet.

I found there a pair of sandals with black and white soles: these two colours represent the enemies of Egypt, the Lybians and African tribes, and by wearing these the pharaoh would symbolically be treading upon them. This is also the reason why enemies were often painted on the floor. There are also walking sticks with handles sculpted as Lybians et al, in such a way that holding these staves smothers them. Given the lifespan of the Egyptian civilization (4000 years that we know of, and a lot more than we can guess at), we can muse upon the efficiency of this kind of sympathetic magic!

Art under the reign of Akhenaton and Nefertiti had been characterized by its human side and its love of showing the private life of the royal couple, playing with their children or sitting together. One scene shows Nefertiti, then 15, being bounced on the knees of her royal husband of 16. This touch did not vanish immediately with their disappearance, it is still visible in scenes from the tomb of Tutankhamon. A famous article illustrating this is his throne, where his wife Ankhsenamon can be seen applying perfume to his body. If one looks closer at the throne, however, one will notice that the two of them share a single pair of sandals. This always gives me goosebumps.

Now for the other compelling piece of work I hinted at earlier. As I entered the main room of the child-king's treasury, luck was with me. The mass of other visitors had just left it. I was alone in front of the Mask.

 For over 10 real minutes, I was able to admire its perfection with no interruptions, under every angle. It is impossible to tire of it. It is really too perfect. We are used to seeing it flattened in pictures, but to have it in front of one's eyes, with the gold glittering as it should and the deep blue bands managing to look like immortal fabric, and above all, Tutankhamon's face smiling with shiny eyes as if his soul had projected into the inert metal to make it alive... It is not a smile, it is almost a grin. It is, at any rate, the expression of a happy 18-year-old who is not trying to look older than he is -- the Egyptians valued their youth and kept it alive.

Eyeliner, such as is beautifully clear on the mask, was a protection against the sun and illnesses of the eyes as much as it was an aesthetic practice. Even now, in the Egyptian countryside, it is applied to newborns a few days after birth. I think the blue color serves against the evil eye, as well.

Because everyone forgot about his existence, Tutankhamon was left undisturbed even by the priests who gathered all the remaining mummies to put them to safety. Having noticed that tombs were pillaged no matter what, they wanted to move the bodies of their kings to a safer location where they could rest in peace. They temporarily stocked them in a well near the temple of Hatshepsut, now known as the Cache of Deir-el-Bahri. Something must have happened because they never came back for them. In 1881 a mummy-dealer was caught by the police. He was forced to confess and led them to this cache that had been his golden goose for several years. It is horrifying to think of all the mummies and treasures that disappeared this way for ever. Fortunately, among the 23 royal bodies found in the cache, were those of Ramses II and his father Sethi I. They lay now side by side right here in the Cairo museum. Leaving aside the problematic of displaying the dead this way, I was amazed at their resemblance with their portraits. Their are both exactly how I had imagined them, only the mummification makes them look older. There is something staggering in gazing upon the faces of people whose exploits have been told for almost 3000 years. I've already mentioned that Ramses' lineage was one of redheads, but did you know Akhenaton's mother Tiy was a blue-eyed blonde? The study of Egyptian society BC is full of surprises...

After the Museum, we returned to our bus to have lunch in a restaurant on the outskirts of the city. As I was gazing at the landscape on the left, I suddenly saw... a pyramid. What on earth?? I expected the famous monuments to be at some distance in the desert, so having them rise on the side of the road this way was a shock. The fact is, the urbanization is so intense that within a few years the pyramids will be in the middle of the city. An appalling fact.

No matter how much you're prepared for them, the Pyramids remain deeply impressive. One needs to move around the plateau to get the full impact of their mass, precisely because they're so huge. Entering them is also a good idea. I was lucky, because the pyramid currently open for visit was Khufu's, the largest of them all. I don't think any other monument has been the source of so much fantasies as this one, especially in regards to its construction. Every few years or so, someone claims they have solved the mystery of how it was built, but all these theories present weaknesses, often unresolvable, and the veil has yet to be lifted. This has been said before, but I wish to insist on it: these massive blocks of granite are fitted so snugly that one cannot slip a credit card between them. This is impossible to do today despite all our technology. The men who worked on these construction sites were not slaves, but paid workers, and they invented strikes, so forget about the popular notion of thousands of men working to death. The same goes with the myth that the walls of the Great Pyramid are carved with mysterious inscriptions and curses. If there was ever a naked monument, it is this one. The only thing it contained was an empty sarcophagus that may never even have been used.


I braved the climb with a few others up the single corridor inside the construction (there goes as well the silly notion that pyramids are mazes. I'd get lost in my own house much more easily). It can get difficult as people are coming down at the same time, and as you can see most of it is not particularly wide.

The Great Gallery
 The Great Gallery, however, is not only large but impressive (here we were heading back down). It seems it was deemed more proper to have such a hallway right before the king's chamber.
We reached the room and found what was left of the coffin. Its heavy cover was never found: another mystery. The room hasn't changed in eons -- even the crack on the ceiling, apparently, was contemporary with the building.

I came across a fascinating theory that would explain many details such as the crack, the missing coffin lid, and the reason why the finished pyramid doesn't exactly correspond to the original project (the funerary chamber was meant to be centered, but the corridor is longer than planned and so the room is off-center). Architect-geologist Wieslaw Kozinski suggested this:
The funerary chamber and corridor leading to it are lined with red granite, brought from Aswan. It must have been very hard to import it regularly, for it also had to be polished. It is possible that at the moment where the red granite needed to be set in place, the cargo was late. Work could not be stopped just to wait for it: in a building of this magnitude, even today once work starts it cannot pause lest all the coordination crumble at once. So they continued working on the Great Gallery, longer than they had intended, hence the deviation in the axis of the central funerary chamber. When the granite was finally available, an effort was made to redistribute the weight of what would come over the chamber (hence the 5 spaces above it). It was not enough, however, and when construction was completed the enormous mass of stone exerted too much pressure on the ceiling of the room. Granite cracks with a terrific noise. It must have been heard all around on the construction site. No need to be Egyptian and to live in 3000 BC to see a bad omen in that. There is no way on earth the Pharaoh's body would have been laid there to rest after this. The lid of the sarcophagus was therefore never brought to the chamber in the first place...

At the foot of the Pyramids is a small museum built around the delicate solar bark found in that very spot. It is 42 meters long and mostly built in cedar wood, with some sycomore, but also, surprise, some types of wood that are found today in India and South America. Hmmm again.

Last but not least...
The Sphinx is as unavoidable as the Pyramids, and its image just as misused. It is quite small but fascinating. The Sphinx was known to the Egyptians as Heru-Khuti: Horus of the Horizon, and was given his own face by Pharaoh Menkara (owner of the third pyramid of Giza). It is much, much older though, predynastic to be exact. It used to bear the pharaonic fake beard, but the latter, found in two pieces in the sand between its feet, is now in the British and Cairo Museums. As for the nose, it was the victims of the Mamluks or maybe the Arabs who used it for target practice -- for Muslim of the austere Fatimid period, this giant head issuing from the sand must have been utterly blasphemous.

Presently we visited the papyrus gallery where artists exhibit their work painted on this material, prepared in the traditional way:
1. The bark is removed, and serves to make sandals, baskets, bags...
2. The heart is finely sliced.
3. It is hammered on a piece of wood, to crush the fibers, then flattened with a roller. That gives flexibility.
4. They are dipped in water for a few days.
5. The slices are disposed on a water-absorbing fabric (such as cotton), in a weaving pattern: one layer of horizontal slices, then one of vertical slices, etc.
6. The whole thing is put under pressure for 6 days, with the cotton changed every day.

February 21

Mamie and I parted with our group and joined up with my mom again for our last day in Egypt, which we spent in the Cairo Museum again. We also walked around the hotels nearby, shopping for t-shirts: shirts made of Egyptian cotton are wonderful. And then, even though I was torn inside, it was time to go...