Monday, January 31
I have no great insights about the whys and wherefores of yet another world conflict. It just seems to me that the world churns onward with too many many reminders that we need more justice, understanding and compassion for the entire human family. Maybe it sounds corny, but surely it's needed.
As chance would have it and while I am doing research on an upcoming seminar on marketing for NGOs, I stumble upon a video and the Charter for Compassion. www.charterforcompassion.org
"What's this," I say to myself? With a click, I take a look. It's a remarkable video and an inspiring message. I think, "Maybe this message can infiltrate the human family in a new way and empower a little more justice, understanding and compassion. So I will pass it along and who knows where and what it will do."
Sure it's not solving desperate problems and maybe it's a little corny, but with a little more justice and understanding and compassion....
Tuesday, January 18
Fran and I travel to Luxor via a day train. We want to see the countryside and catch glimpses of ordinary life. The seats are comfortable and the windows are grimy giving my photos an antique look. The trip will take all day and then some. It’s about 450 miles following south along the Nile Valley.
Outside it’s lush green. The Nile through a series of canals certainly transforms the desert. It’s as if someone has drawn a dividing line - water and green vegetation on one side and dry desert on the other. It’s a remarkable to see how the Nile makes life possible.
Interestingly, the Aswan Damn, which is further up stream (south), now controls the periodic flooding. Water flow is carefully measured out. Peasants use gasoline powered pump to lift the water from canals. Their fields are laid out in 15’x20’ plots with raised walkways to contain the water. It creates a kind of green patchwork quilt.
Unfortunately, they no longer get the benefits of rich black soil that flooding had brought since the dawn of recorded time. Now they buy fertilizers from chemical companies.
I spy a family tending their field. They’re dressed traditionally like we use to imagine when we dressed up for the Christmas pageant. Long flowing robes called Gallibya cover from neck to ankles. A head wrap protects from the sun.
It’s a quaint picture for a westerner though I am sure it is anything but a quaint life. I know a little about rural life in Ukraine and this seems more severe.
I see no mechanization except the water pumps. The family works the field on their hands and knees. They are cutting what I believe is alfalfa. It's feed for their animals.
I see at least half dozen donkeys and a few horses, but mostly donkeys, for every car or truck on the road. They carry bundles on their backs, transport people and cluster in the shade of palm trees when not in use.
Small mud huts dot the landscape. I think these are shelters used when working a field and not permanent homes.
They are made from mud and straw bricks like those mentioned in biblical times. They look quite primitive, but no doubt a pleasant respite from the glaring sun. I’m enjoying my train ride so much. It’s like a living museum where life goes on from one generation to the next and change is measured in the millennium.
I start thinking about the two natural phenomena which dominate the landscape - the sun and the Nile water. No modern tourist can visit Egypt without awareness of the bright glaring ever-present sun. It rises in the east and falls in the west only to repeat itself every day. Likewise, the life-giving water of the Nile clearly transforms the dead desert into a living lushness.
It’s a small wonder that these natural phenomena influenced thought and religious development from earliest time. The sun evoked a god called Re, Atum, Horus and a host of other names as one aspect or another is emphasized. He becomes the king of gods.
The Nile becomes the domain of Osiris. His mythology follows the regeneration of life upon the desolate earth after flooding. He becomes identified with death, resurrection and the after-life. To learn more about the Osiris mythology and its interaction with the sun god mythology, go to http://www.touregypt.net/osiriscu.htm I think we still have shadowy remnants of these ideas when we look to the heavens for God and celebrate rebirth every spring.
Now I'm across the street from the Luxor Temple in a bookstore. As serendipity would have it, I find a most interesting book. It's entitled Development of Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt and is written by James Breasted , an esteemed Egyptologist.
The Great Pyramids of Gizeh were built from 2575 to 2150 BCE and stretch some 60 miles along the edge of the desert. They represent an incredible effort of an entire society through purely material means "to immortalize the king's physical body, enveloping it in a vast and impenetrable husk of masonry, there to preserve forever all that linked the spirit of the king to material life." (Breasted, p 178) I use to think of the Pyramids as a monument commemorating a Pharaoh when actually they are a material place for immortality.
After about 2100 BCE, Pyramids were no longer built and after another 1000 years, they were mostly forsaken, left desolate amidst the shifting sands of time. An age of political disintegration took hold of Egypt. Mournfully, they began to realize the futility of massive masonry to insure immortality. Skepticism ensued and with it, new ideas took root.
The afterlife which had been the sole domain of Pharaoh was democratized to nobles and eventually common people. Osiris and the sun god were redacted into a blended, if not always consistent, theology. By 1300 BCE a new religious order worshipping the sun god Atum was established. Thebes or modern day Luxor was at its center.
As I stand among colonnades of Luxor Temple or visit Karnak Temple or wander the Valley of the Kings, I feel linked with these places. I realize that the development of human thought once moved through here and now moves through my generations and one day will move into places not yet imagined.
Later that night, we join a group for an evening of star gazing under the desert sky. Climbing a sand dune, we watch the sun go down or is it dying in the west. I now understand how natural phenomena can be given mythological meaning.
We gather around tables to enjoy a delicious Egyptian meal with people from South Africa, France, Holland, England and our Egyptian hosts. We are a diverse human family and yet we come together under the stars.
We are shown the Milky Way, constellations and star clusters. One star, Aldebaran, or the Bull`s eye, is said to be 65 light years away. I gasp, “Yikes, this one started its light path to earth during the year of my birth.”
Of course, other stars are much further away. They say our galaxy is about 120,000 light years in diameter and it is one among billions of other known galaxies.
Gazing into the heavens puts perspective on my Egyptian trip. As ancient as Egypt is, it is but a recent moment in the life of the universe. We are just beginning to send our light to distant places.
Like ancient Egyptians before me, I look up at the colonnade and the stars and I can't help but wonder. What meaning? What stories are yet to be told? What will human life and thought and religion look like in another 5000 years and beyond?
Tuesday, January 11
Today is museum day. We are off to the the Egyptian Museum which is just across the street from our hostel. It was built at the turn of the 19th century and some have called it the "Warehouse of Antiquity" since it crams a lot of artifacts into its two floors without the more modern presentations.
I am eager to see for myself. After a day of surveying the Pyramids, I want to see what the Pharaohs took into the afterlife.
Fran and I queue-up in, not one but two, security lines. I am told later that Egypt has a number of make-work redundancies to keep people employed. We are thoroughly scanned and bags are properly searched.
Cameras are not allowed inside and must be checked. It's interesting to see the big tours companies filling baskets with their clients' cameras - thousands of dollars of digital hardware placed on a shelf with a coat-check token as collateral.
Sunday, January 9
What happened? Quickly we check for broken bones and scurry out of the way before more people tumble upon us. We are okay with more bruised egos than anything else. We look at each other and think, “How could we be so stupid?” Then uncontrollably, we begin laughing and laughing and laughing.
This incident becomes a metaphor for my trip. Egypt is all about shock and awe. I find myself in places I never thought possible. I experience the intensity and chaos of Cairo and then step into the stately antiquity of the Pyramids. I consciously try to learn to let go of control and just savor the experiences – good, bad or indifferent. It's about enjoying the ride for as long as I can and remembering to jump and not fall off the end.
Cairo is a densely compacted city of 7.8 million with as many as 10 million more people living in close proximity. Intense is an understatement.
Cars whiz along as if trying out for the Indy 500. Three lanes become 4 and sometimes 5 as cars swerve to gain an advantage of a few feet. I’m in the front seat and have to close my eyes more than a few times. Amazingly, I never see an accident although I certainly think one is about to happen. It’s as if cars become an extension of the people driving and they can calibrate the closeness to another within fractions. It’s uncanny.
Car horns beep and blare…constantly. It’s like they are talking to each other. Some taxis have special beepers. They emit a rapid high pitch and crescendo before ebbing in a wave of sound. The cacophony assaults the senses. I think maybe Cairo Egypt is where John Cage got his inspiration for his compositions of sound effects.
I try to cross the intersection to get to the Egyptian Museum which is directly across the street from our hostel. I walk a half a block to a traffic light, but quickly realize that lights are more ornamentation than traffic control. Egyptian drivers ignore them…yikes!
How to get across? At 9:30 am there is no break in the traffic and like I say, traffic lights don’t help. I watch other pedestrians. How do they do it? They boldly walk out in front of the speeding traffic. Of course, car horns blare, “Get out of the way.” The pedestrians extend an arm in a stop motion and then dodge between on-coming traffic. It’s magical. Cars mostly slow down.
I pick out a cluster of Egyptian pedestrians and decide to follow closely. Even though my blood pressure probably shoots up 30 points, I make it. I’m alive. By the end of the trip, I am doing it on-my-own. I just extend my arm in a stop motion and magically cross to the other side. Egypt is Pyramids and the Pyramids are everything you can imagine. However, getting to them is a challenge. We buy a tour from our hostel. It's a mistake. Our “English Speaking” driver has a limited vocabulary - very limited. Try as we do, there is no way to communicate. I now know the frustration my Ukrainian friends feel when they try to communicate with my limited Russian.
Our driver gets us to the Pyramids and then the tourist hustle begins. Everyone seems to have a scheme to help me spend money. It can be the shopkeeper who prices bottled water at 10 Egyptian Pounds when the local rate is 4 EP or it can be the dozens of long robed men trying to grab my attention with a deal not to be missed.
“Come with me....what is your name? This way please....where are you from? I have very good price. What you want…camel…horse…carriage? I get it for you,” they say. I feel like I’m being picked apart by the constant barrage of offers. I’m exhausted going a few hundred feet. It’s a hectic touristy craziness.
I fend off offers…although I am tempted a few times. I’m still a neophyte in the Egyptian bartering system. I don’t know a fair price and I don’t know what may lie ahead. Fran says she yearns for a shop with price tags. We buy tickets to get into the Pyramid area. At 60 EP (less than 12 USD) it's a deal and maybe the only one we will encounter today.
After going through a security scan, AD picks us up right out of the crowd. He is 61 and soft spoken. At first I think he is checking our tickets and then I think he is a part of our entrance fee. Silly me. He explains that he is not trying to sell us anything. Huge relief.
For about an hour he escorts us around the Pyramids. It’s a sunny day with a touch of dusty grayness or is it pollution hanging in the air? I feel like I have walked into a National Geographic layout. All my life I have seen pictures and now I am here gazing at mortuary monuments from Egypt’s Old Kingdom, some 4500 years ago.
The Giza complex includes three large Pyramids for the afterlife of the Pharaohs and three smaller ones for wives. A mortuary temple and complex is attached so that offerings can be made to the god-king and his resurrected life secured for perpetuity.. A causeway has been discovered that connects the colossal monuments and smaller tombs for nobles of the Pharaoh’s Court.
The volume of the largest Pyramid of Cheops is roughly 2,500,000 cubic meters. Based on these estimates and building over a 20 year period, workers (or were they slaves) would have installed about 800 tons of stone every day. Similarly, it means that of the 2.3 million blocks of stone, about 12 would have to be put into place every hour of every day for twenty years.
To learn even more go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Pyramid_of_Giza
The Pyramid area is so vast that even with many tourists, moments of calm reflection are possible. I realize that here ancient people have made an insistent and passionate protest against death.
The Pyramids are an affirmation to life and a supreme revolt against the darkness and silence from which no one returns. They evoke mystery and deep soulful thinking.AD brings me back to the present as he finally makes his pitch for a “tip.” I give him 100 EP and feel satisfied that he is getting a fair compensation and I have not been taken too badly. After all, I reflect, “In the face of 4500 years of antiquity what difference does $20 dollars make?" I smile to myself, "There are better things to occupy the mind - life and death and beyond the horizon.”