The content and opinions expressed in this blog are mine. They do not represent the US Government or US Peace Corps - Jud Dolphin

Tuesday, January 18

Trains, Temples and Stars

Images of antiquity seem ubiquitous. They’re available in picture books or on our computers whenever we want them. Las Vegas gives us Pyramids and the Sphinx in miniature. It’s easy to think, “ We've seen that before,” and glibly move on.

But today, I’m surrounded by the real thing - a formal colonnade inside Luxor Temple. I’m impressed and stand in wonderment. I can only imagine the awe people felt 3500 years ago when they stood in the same place where I am standing now. They had no pictures, no miniatures and no buildings as tall as these towering structures. The sight must have shaped their thinking and conveyed a deeper meaning.

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 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.
Now I am here.

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?

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