Egyptian history is often divided into eras: The Pharaonic, the Greek, the Coptic, the Islamic. What such divisions fail to convey are the strong currents of continuity linking the ancient to the modern.
On the day that my father completed his life’s journey, he lay on his bed both present and not present. The relatives came to look upon him for the last time and the eldest of them approached him, bent down, bringing his mouth close to his ear, which could no longer hear, and, despite this, uttered moving words, calling him by his name as though he were alive and then asking him not to feel lonely and telling him that all these people had come for him, because he was a righteous man who had carried out his mission in life as he ought and that he would therefore meet no perils along the way, though should he do so, he should recite some verses from the Noble Quran.
Even though the sentences he used were from the Quran, that is to say from the Islamic tradition, the rite performed by my eldest relative harks back to Ancient Egyptian beliefs, to a buried Egyptian culture practiced by Egyptians of all creeds, unaware that they are continuing the culture of their forefathers. In just the same way, they use a wide variety of words in the their language of daily intercourse that they do not realize to be Ancient Egyptian words, words to be found in special constructions that lend a particularity to the Egyptian dialect and give it its distinct character within the framework of the classical Arabic language.
On occasion, when in the Egyptian countryside, and especially in the south where I was born close to Luxor and Abydos, I halt before a certain scene — of a village, a farm, a bird ﬂuttering its wings, the disc of the sun at sunset or sunrise, the return of peasants from the fields to their houses — I mentally exclude certain manifestations of this day and age, such as lighting poles and cars, should any be present, and I find no contradiction between the scenes of daily life painted on the walls of the tombs and what I see before me.
I smell the aroma of bread rising from the houses, especially that ancient Egyptian form known as ‘sun bread’, made using a method of baking whereby the dough is put out by day to suckle from the universe, from the rays of the sun. I inhale the smell of life when it is done and emerges from the oven, and I am convinced that it is the same smell that our ancient ancestors knew thousands of years ago. To this day, the Turin Museum preserves eight loaves, in the Tomb of Ka; they are of the very same bread that I saw when I first opened my eyes in Upper Egypt. I observe the methods used to preserve food, starting with the cheeses, the liquid culture known as mish, the cured fish (muluha and fisikh), and the dry Jews’ mallow (mulukhiya). All these are made using the same methods that were followed then. Indeed, even the way in which people sit around the low round table (tabliya) and the etiquette of eating do not differ greatly from the scenes depicted on the walls of the tombs.
One morning, I was on my way to the printer’s at the newspaper publishing house Akhbar al-Yawm, which is located in one of Cairo’s oldest quarters, Boulaq. Suddenly, I beheld a group of women emerge from a side alley, all of them swathed in black, one a young woman of imposing height. She occupied the middle of the first row and her face was daubed with blue indigo, the Ancient Egyptian symbol of mourning.
She was making movements reminiscent of a dance, but an agonized, grief-stricken dance. As she moved her hands upward, I saw the same celebrated scene of mourning women that is depicted in the Tomb of Ramose on the West Bank at Luxor, a scene repeated many times in the tombs that have survived to our day.
It is the human expression of eternal sorrow, that cruelest sorrow that is the result of loss, which made the Ancient Egyptians reject death and view it as the start of a new life, which they termed ’emergence into day’, since man, on dying, becomes one with the light of the stars. In Upper Egypt, when people see a shooting star falling at night, they say that it is a soul with whom God is angry and that has been expelled from eternal rest, or that it is the soul of a man that has just been released. There is a connection between the vast spaces of the universe and their phenomena and man, between the tiniest minutiae of human life and all other natural phenomena.
The rite performed by my eldest relative harks back to Ancient Egyptian beliefs, to a buried Egyptian culture practiced by Egyptians of all creeds, unaware that they are continuing the culture of their forefathers.
In the course of my migrations between the life I live and the past of which I read, I have become acquainted with the two fundamental elements that govern Egyptian life and culture. These are continuity and change — two contradictory, interconnected, interacting elements that form the essence of the condition that led to the foundation of the first and oldest vocabularies of human civilization.
The River Nile is, without a doubt, the main artery of that life that made its way to its banks. It was man who drained the swamps and arrived at one of the greatest of human discoveries, agriculture, through the mastery of the river, that river which constitutes a devastating peril should the ﬂood be either too great or too meager. As I became acquainted with the detailed operations related to agriculture, with the placing of the seed, the cleaning of the soil, its watering, the combating of its pests, I asked myself, how many years did it take man to achieve this knowledge, and why did it happen in that area that lies between the cataracts at Aswan and our northern borders, where they meet the waves of the sea, that area that we call Egypt, or, in ancient times, Kemet, meaning ‘the Black Land’? Over how many aeons did man need to travel to discover the secret of agriculture and to invent letters for writing, the representation of reality?
Why did this civilization not appear in other areas along the river, such as at its origins in Ethiopia or between the Great Lakes and the cataracts? The issue is related to the people who lived in that area, and they were the Egyptians who lived on that land. They carefully observed the movement of the universe from east to west, the ﬂow of the river’s waters, the descent of ‘the drop’ — the first drop of water signaling the ﬂood — and its coincidence with the summer arrival of the star Sothis. The descent of this drop may be regarded as the start of the spiritual and cultural formation of the people. I am not concerned here with their most distant roots or the hypotheses put forward by experts about the areas from which they came to the valley. What concern me are their human achievements, which were fundamentally cultural and spiritual — cultural in the sense that they were attempts to understand the universe, to adopt a position on life.
Just as the waters of the Nile ﬂow on, at times devastating with their ﬂood all that lies in their path, at others yielding only a meager trickle, so it is with man. The waters have never been cut off from their channel and man’s occupation has never ceased. This is the continuity of existence. The Egyptians have never ceased to exist. Others have made their way to them. Assimilation and change have taken place, change that took place on occasion peacefully and on other occasions with violence and pain, change that, at one stage, affected the language, creed, and system that had been in place for thousands of years.
The Egyptians were defeated, materially and spiritually, when they accepted Alexander the Great as the son of the god Amun and the priests enthroned him Pharaoh in the oasis of Siwa; the pharaohs had never come from beyond the borders of Kemet. The Ptolemaic era began but in no time Egypt absorbed the new rulers, who embraced its vision totally. When we approach the temple of Hathor at Dendera, or of Horus at Edfu, we will never doubt that these are pharaonic temples in all their aspects, visible and invisible. If the visitor does not know the hieroglyphic script, he will never realize that those who built the temples were the Ptolemies, with their foreign roots. Egypt also suffered the invasions of the Persians, the Assyrians, and the Bedouin tribes of the surrounding deserts. At another stage, Egypt became a dependency of the Roman Empire. A profound spiritual change occurred when Egypt embraced Christianity, which I view as a reformulation of the original Egyptian religion. But when the Egyptians embraced this incoming religion, they brought to it their own vision, which continued to prevail unshakeably despite the persecutions of the Roman era.
Each seemingly deep change that occurs touches only the surface. A small part of it may be implemented, but, by a variety of means, the people take steps to preserve the ancient hidden essence. There, beyond the reach of any new invaders to uproot, this substance survives in the details of daily life: In food, its vocabulary and the ways in which it is cooked and presented, and the etiquette associated with it; in music; in building; in popular literature; and in the in beliefs passed down, especially by women, and which the mother imparts to her children as she feeds them.
A moment on which I dwell at length and that I wish I could have witnessed is that which occurred on one particular night at the temple of Isis on the island of Philae, in the deepest south. This was the last temple in which the rites of the worship of motherhood, femininity, and sacrifice were practiced, the temple of the goddess Isis, who became to the Egyptians later ‘the Virgin’, and then ‘al-Sayyida Zaynab’, sister of the Imam Husayn. The Roman Empire had issued its orders for the abolition of the ancient rites in every part of Egypt. On that night, the prayers to the goddess Isis were recited, the hymns were chanted, and the temple locked.
But . . . did the worship of Isis really come to an end? Did the symbol of motherhood and sacrifce, of the mother, sister, and loving wife, disappear? Or did it assume a more legitimized and less definite shape?
When the Arabs entered Egypt in the seventh century of the Christian era, the country was in ruins, exhausted by its wounds, but it was not a void. The Egyptians practiced Christianity according to the vision of the Coptic Egyptian church. The distant past was obscure, mysterious. The meanings of the first writing system in history, the sacred hieroglyphics, had been lost, though the language continued in the form of Coptic, which became mixed with a little Greek and adopted the latter’s alphabet. The significance of the awe-inspiring buildings, such as the temples, the military installations, and the tombs, had also been lost and these buildings had fallen into ruin. Indeed, they had been transformed into ruins at the hands of the Egyptians themselves in the strangest manifestation of continuity and change to come to my attention.
When the Egyptians embraced the newly arrived Christianity, they considered the ancient religion a hostile force. Some of them began to destroy its symbols, as we see in the lower parts of the temple of Abydos, for example, where we may observe that the reliefs, and especially the eyes and noses, have been disfigured. This is an Ancient Egyptian belief, for when an Egyptian drew someone and then gouged out or disfigured his eyes or nose, this meant to him that he was depriving that person of his sight and smell, which is to say his ability to see or breathe; in other words, that he was taking his life. Thus, using the same culture that the believers of the new religion had inherited, they destroyed the heritage of their forefathers, whom they regarded as unbelieving infidels. Then the new believers would write, beneath what they had done, that they had carried this out in order to gain favor with the Lord.
When the Arabs invaded Egypt, despite the fact that they came to spread the new religion Islam, which forbade the drawing and sculpting of images, they did no great damage to the existing ancient monuments even while regarding these as pagan idols. Why? Perhaps because, at first , they wanted to gain favor with the people of the country, or perhaps because of the continued currency and strength of the legends.
When I was a small child in my village of Juhayna in southern Egypt, the people of the village used to describe the Ancient Egyptian statues that were to be found in the desert as ‘the metamorphosized’, meaning that these statues were originally human beings and that God had turned them to stone as a punishment for sins they had committed. Others said that these statues had talismans, that is to say guardians from the other world to protect them and hurt any who approached them or offered them harm. This is a survival of an Ancient Egyptian belief, for a statue of Anubis used to be placed in front of a tomb, at the entrance, in order to protect it. Drawings and amulets were used in the same way.
Nowadays, Ancient Egypt is presented as though it belonged to others, some academic syllabi speaking of a Pharaonic period, a separate, Coptic, period and a third, Islamic, period. In my opinion, this is a mistaken notion. Egyptian history is one, though it has different stages. Its essence survives in the deep, buried, human culture of the country. True, this culture has changed in the various periods but these have been superfcial changes that have not affected the core. This is the dialectic, the heart of the problem of the culture of the Egyptians.
There is a further problem: the Hebraic view of the Egyptians was transferred to Christianity, and thence to Islam. In this, according to the holy text, whether that be the Old Testament or the Noble Quran, Pharaoh becomes symbolic of tyranny. At the same time, the Egyptians take pride in being the descendents of the creators of all those wonders of architecture, art, and literature. This is the contradiction that has existed in the consciousness of the majority of Egyptians, since the seventies of the last century and starting with the rise of a hard-line Islam derived from Wahhabite teachings coming from the desert. During the 1919 Great National Revolution against the British occupation, the Egyptians were not aware of this contradiction. The revival of Ancient Egyptian traditions in architecture, in art, and in creative literature was a significant spur to the Renaissance Movement (al-Nahda).
The Egyptians have always rediscovered their distant roots when seeking rebirth during the periods when they were ignorant of the details of their ancient history. This is what we find in the Mameluke era, especially with regard to architecture. The Egyptian mosques that were erected during the Mameluke era, up to the defeat of the Mamelukes by the Ottoman Turks in 1517, are simply a return to the traditions of Ancient Egyptian architecture. Following the discovery of the secrets of the Ancient Egyptian language by Champollion and the start of an Egyptian awareness of the details of their history, Ancient Egypt became a rich source of inspiration.
This vision has been affected negatively by two political currents. The first was Arab Nationalism, during the period of its expansion in the 1950s and 1960s, since its thinkers regarded Pharaonic Egypt as incompatible with the Arab Idea. And in recent decades, certain hard-line religious currents have adopted opposed visions. To see the historical phases of an ancient nation such as Egypt placed in opposition to one another is indeed a cause of sadness, but these are, in my estimation, passing errors. Many a wind has blown over the Nile, sometimes to the detriment of the river, the valley, and its people, but their essence, at a profound level, has remained inviolate. All we need is to make the effort to see it and observe it. When we do this, we will discover the profound achievement of Egyptian culture, namely, that of continuity with change.
That this discovery be made is essential for the soul of the nation and for the spiritual equilibrium of the Egyptians. To do so will require long-term academic work and cultural efforts at a number of levels. I consider the appearance of a publication of this high standard, devoted to Egypt’s cultural substance, whether present or past, to be a very significant step on that path.
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