Friday, June 1, 2012

Welcome to Antarctica

Among the constant catcalls, badgering and general harassment, both playful and offensive, the occasional wit will see us westerners perspiring under the unblinking eye of Ra and crow, "Welcome to Antarctica!" (Yes, har har. As it happens, the temperature in Luxor is not a single degree higher than the summer climate in Tucson-in fact today it was actually hotter in Tucson, which I have tried to explain to more cheeky Egytpian faces than I wish to recall). But walking home from dinner one night (Perhaps last night? It is impossible to tell, time is odd here, it passes too slowly and indistinctly), the rocky bastion surrounding the Valley of the Kings was bathed with cool blue lights, making the outcrop look almost glacial.
(i've been playing with my camera for hours trying to capture an image that is representative of what I saw, and am seeing. Unfortunately my camera has perfect vision, while mine admittedly is faulty, so the ghostly specter looming on my hazy horizon is rendered with brilliant clarity and little emotional impact). 

While the east bank was hot and full of life and music, the west bank seemed cold and ethereal, the hard reality of the soft white rock made nebulous like a celestial cloud of cosmic dust and ionized gas. It drifted weightless against the empty black desert, where neither light nor life could penetrate. The lights shone out from and illuminated crevices and hollows, gently flooding the vacant immortal houses for the souls of the dead. The Egyptians believed that the winged Ba (the soul and essence of a person) departed from the deceased body each day to partake in a version of life after death, returning to the body shell each evening. It was thus imperative that the bodies of the deceased remained whole and recognizable to their Ba's, or else the souls would be lost eternally, unable to find their corporeal cradles. With the existing sarcophagi and bodies of the pharaohs and royals all removed, many destroyed, with the identifying names etched in stone defaced by time, malice and apathy, with their homes plundered and bare, are the Ba's of all those dead still flitting around the valley at night, untethered and endlessly searching in vain?

Later (earlier?) I imported the few photos that I had taken of the scant remnants of Amenhotep III's temple while we were ambling rather aimlessly down the road (the presence of the U.S. ambassador usurped our priority both in the ARCE office-forcing us to leave without the monument passes on which our plans for the day depended--and incidentally on the road, when the cavalcade of blue, white and silver Chevy suburbans plowed by us but a few feet from the Colossi). Because of my great fear of losing photos (on my first trip to Egypt, I lost over 600), I had still retained on this CF card the pictures I took at the Italian excavation last summer. Image after image from the various museums of serene white marble, the most famous and praised sculptures of those cultures in graceful repose among the baroque galleries and staid halls. Despite what I know about the zestful reality of ancient Greece and Rome (the garish colors, the bawdy humor), the sensation associated with those cultures will always for me be imbued with the contemporary stylings and reverence that pervade our modern nostalgia (and by modern I'm including such recent human periods as the Renaissance forwards). Austere and elegant they posses a certain glory and majesty. But Egypt, Egypt is magic. As a scientist, I know fully well never to romanticize the past in one's analysis and investigation, but frankly I think to completely devoid oneself of romance is a foolish and empty preoccupation. I do not ever want to enter a tomb and not feel a shudder of awe, I never want to weave through a hypostyle hall and not feel anything but clinical intrigue. There's just not enough magic in the world, not enough mysticism and wonder, at least not in my life. As someone inclined towards cynicism and detachment, I can't afford to smother the warm embers of fantasy and sentimental passion, I'm afraid it would leave me too cold.  

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