Sometimes the anticipation of seeing ruins in well-documented places like Egypt makes the actual event of seeing them seem somewhat unreal. With mind-boggling statistics to accompany each temple, tomb or ancient Egyptian structure, it’s pretty difficult to take it all in. After seeing some of these incredible monuments on various TV documentaries, in books and in the photos of our travellers, Egypt was just as amazing as I thought it would be; and oddly familiar at the same time.
Something else that struck me while exploring these ancient sites is the sheer power of religion. The ancient Egyptian religion held sway for over 2000 years, tumbling to irrelevance after occupation by the Romans and the introduction of Christianity. Temples were defaced and damaged in a show of defiance – the old order had passed away and it was time for the new. Ordinary people were suddenly granted access to spaces in the temple traditionally reserved for the head priest and the Pharaoh himself. These were places where the god to whom the temple was dedicated actually lived, a place that had always been forbidden to everyone else.
Imagine the utter fury the Egyptians must have felt as they discovered that the Holy of Holies was a normal room; no more likely to house a god than their own bedrooms might have. And imagine finding the secret passage alongside the Holy of Holies in the temple of Kom Ombo – a place where priests hid and answered questions posed to the ‘god’, invariably demanding offerings to sustain the priests’ lavish lifestyles.
While visiting Luxor Temple by night I noticed a modern place of worship just across the road. It was somewhat difficult to ignore certain similarities between the two – both worshipped omnipotent, omniscient gods. Both were considered sacred places (though one is now a ruin, albeit an impressive one). Both had a distinctive manner of calling the faithful to worship. And most importantly, both demanded absolute allegiance and commitment, with the promise of eternal life in paradise as a final reward. The only difference was that one temple had allowed ordinary people to see what their religion actually amounted to – the other had not yet done so. What will happen when we get into our own Holy of the Holies? What will people think when they look on our derelict places of worship 2000 years from now?
Importantly, Egypt enjoyed prosperity under the pharaohs, building an astounding number of jaw-dropping monuments, and creating an incredibly literate society. When pharaonic rule ended, so did a large part of an important, globally influential culture.
But for all of that (which is a bit sad) Egypt is undeniably an amazing place to visit, its temples, tombs and monuments testament to the amazing things that mankind is capable of. I can’t wait to go back!