Mr. Don Knebel traveled with BAS to Egypt in 2007; subsequently Jordan and many other places in the world. In 2015 he wrote “Flushed with Curiosity; 101 Travel Tales with a Twist“, all of which were spearheaded by his travels. Don says “I have tried to find stories in the places we visit that exhibit not only our common humanity but the traditions and religious beliefs that both unite and divide us”. Don has graciously agreed to let us include some excerpts on our blog.
The Great Pyramid of Giza remains the most massive structure ever built. Its base covers 13 acres and it was the tallest thing made by man for almost 4.000 years, when it was temporarily eclipsed by the not-nearly-so-enduring spire of Lincoln Cathedral. A run around the Great Pyramid at full speed would take almost three minutes, not counting the time lost turning square corners. If its enormous stone blocks were laid out end to end they would stretch for more than 2,000 miles. By any standard, the Great Pyramid is extraordinary. And yet, so monumental and almost other worldly does the Great Pyramid loom in the common imagination that many visitors to Giza come away vaguely disappointed. It is a little like standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon and not being amazed that it could have been created by flowing water because, after all, there it is. But there are legitimate surprises for people who visit the Giza plateau to see the Great Pyramid and the smaller ones nearby, all built as tombs for Old Kingdom pharaohs or their wives and families.
For example, photographs of strategically placed visitors approaching the Giza pyramids on camels help maintain the romantic illusion that the pyramids are far out in the Egyptian desert. They are not. Giza is right next door to Cairo, a sprawling city of about 17 million people.
Another common misconception, fostered by late night movies, is that the pyramids were built by thousands of slaves led by bare-chested Egyptians wielding whips. That story was started by the Greeks, who apparently needed to justify their own subjugation of the Egyptians in 332 BC. The pyramids were almost certainly built by paid workers, perhaps including farmers during the off season. Among the archaeological evidence helping establish what may have been the largest public works project in history are the remains of homes that could have housed thousands of skilled workers and their families in relative comfort.
Finally, people visiting Egypt are surprised to learn that the art of building pyramids was at its pinnacle near the beginning and went downhill from there. The largest and most complex of the true pyramids, the Great Pyramid of Khufu completed in about 2560 BC, was also one of the first. The 100 or so pyramids of subsequent pharaohs were less and less impressive. The pyramid of King Teti, who died in about 2300 BC, is today little more than a pile of rubble. By the time of King Tut, Egyptians had stopped building pyramids entirely and carved underground tombs in the Valley of Kings, selected because a large pyramid-shaped rock overlooks it. As witnessed many times in history, continued progress of civilization is never guaranteed.
Egypt’s larger than life pyramids continue to generate speculation about their origins, ranging from the extraterrestrial to the supernatural. Even the Egyptians once posited a divine explanation. The stepped pyramid at Saqqara shows that the real story is closer to earth.
Believing that souls live on after death, Egyptians initially buried their important dead and their possessions in underground tombs covered by mastabas. Mastabas, made first of mud bricks and then of stones, were solid, flat-topped structures up to 30 feet high, having gradually sloping sides. A passage to a special chamber inside allowed priests and family members to bring offerings to the person buried below for use in the afterlife.
In about 2650 B.C., Imhotep, the palace architect of Pharaoh Djoser, came up with a new idea for his boss’s tomb at Saqqara, the burial ground serving the capital at Memphis. He covered the underground tomb with six stacked mastabas of increasingly smaller size, creating a stepped pyramid made entirely of stone. For designing what was then the largest stone structure ever built, Imhotep was later worshipped as a god.
Seeing the stepped pyramid, Pharaoh Snefru ordered that his pyramid would eliminate the steps and support his tomb above the ground so it would be closer to the sun god. About two thirds of the way to the apex, engineers had to reduce the angle of inclination from 55 degrees to 43 degrees to eliminate stability problems created by the internal tomb chamber. The result was the so-called “bent pyramid.” On the next try, Snefru’s engineers started with a 43-degree angle and succeeded in creating the first “true pyramid,” with smooth sides and a constant angle. This so-called “red pyramid” may contain still secret passages leading to the undiscovered mummy of Snefru. Using Snefru’s model, his son Khufu took the pyramid building art to its pinnacle in the Great Pyramid of Giza, still the most massive structure ever built.
No little green men, no magical powers, no unsolvable mysteries. Egypt’s pyramid builders drew on past successes, learned from earlier mistakes and achieved lasting greatness. That is the real secret of the pyramids.Abydos: Triads and Trinities
Abydos, the burial site of pharaohs as early as 3,000 B.C., later became associated with Osiris, a legendary pharaoh considered god of the afterlife. Popular stories told how Osiris had been killed and then miraculously fathered the falcon-faced god Horus with his sister/wife Isis. Pharaohs saw themselves as earthly manifestations of Horus and aspired to live on like Osiris after their deaths.
In about 1280 B.C., Pharaoh Seti I built a temple on the west bank of the Nile at Abydos to honor himself and the triad of Osiris, Isis and Horus. Reliefs show Seti I and the gods, with Osiris depicted with a curved beard reflecting his death, Isis crowned with the sun disk, and
Horus shown holding a cross-shaped ankh. Seti’s son Ramses II, often considered the pharaoh of the Exodus, expanded the temple, showing himself with the Abydos triad in similar, but less well-executed, scenes. The well-preserved temple walls also contain a unique list of earlier pharaohs, minus the female Hatshepsut and the short-lived Tutankhamen.
When the Greeks conquered Egypt, they took home from Abydos images and stories of Osiris, Isis and Horus. Isis became popular throughout the Greek and later Roman world as the “Queen of Heaven” and “Mother of God.” The Roman Catholic Church later adopted these titles for Mary, the mother of Jesus. Artists depicted Mary as Isis, with an Egyptian-style sun crown. Early paintings of Mary with Jesus on her lap mimicked temple scenes of Isis nurturing Horus. As a result of these titles and images, Muhammad mistakenly concluded that the Christian Trinity consists of God, Mary and Jesus, which he repudiated as a pagan idea. The Quran also denounces any trinity including Mary.
The carvings in the temple of Seti I, the finest remaining examples of Egyptian bas relief, are reason enough to visit Abydos. Seeing the bases for reconstructing the order of pharaohs and for confusion over the Holy Trinity is a bonus.
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