Friday, October 08, 2010

It's all about the stones

Times Live, ZA (Andrew Unsworth)

IN no other country do you spend quite so much time gazing at stones as you do in Egypt. Yes, you can lounge on the deck of a cruise ship sailing up the Nile, wonder at the river's ancient majesty, and wave at peasants fishing or working the fields as they have done for thousands of years, but it's all on the way to the very next pile of stones.

And they are, surely, the most stimulating stones on the planet because you not only admire the buildings of which they are a part, as you might a Gothic cathedral, but you can also read them. You can read millennia of a civilisation's history carved, etched and painted on them. You don't even have to read the hieroglyphs - no one could before Jean-Francois Champollion deciphered them off the Rosetta Stone as recently as 1822. You can just look at the pictures they present, like ancient comic books: the scenes of pharoahs smiting their enemies, making offerings to gods and becoming one after death, the scenes of enemies cowering in bondage, the scenes of every single facet of life from hunting and fishing to farming, gardening and baking bread.

In a side chamber of the layered temple of the female Pharaoh Hatshepsut at Deir el-Bahri, west of Luxor, there is a beautiful painted fresco showing workers carrying myrrh trees in large baskets from the land of Punt (Somalia) to the temple - in all, 31 were imported and planted in an avenue, one long-dead stump remains.

At Kom Ombo, south of Edfu, the temple dedicated to healing has inscriptions of medical instruments used in 150BC, and they are remarkably familiar to any modern surgeon.

Walk into the fabulous Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo and you face a vast collection of carved stones filling the entire ground floor: so many more fill the basement that they are building a new Grand Egyptian Museum to house them and more recent discoveries from tombs, at Giza, opening in 2013.

Even at the familiar pyramids of Giza, it's the size of the stones that hits you first - 2.3 million of them in the great pyramid of Cheops (2585BC), weighing between 1.3 and 10 tons each. The rose granite rocks in the king's burial chamber weigh between 40 and 50 tons each, and came from Aswan, 900km up the Nile.

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