Sunday, August 23, 2009

70 Pounds and a ticket to view immortality

The Cairo trip did happen and most of you had asked for photographs and updates. In normal circumstances I would have forwarded some cheap, cheesy and touristy photographs with the usual slick photo-captions.

But Egypt was different. I still cannot stop the tingle that shoots up my spine every now and then when I think about it. Egypt is not history ! I don't know what term to coin a trip to an era that existed 5,000 years back (about 3,000 years B.C).

I went with the typical part- professional-at-work and part-tourist mind-set, with limited knowledge and routine objectives of "sight-seeing" and "shopping". As part of a larger group, we were herded here and there like groups of tourists, flocking together and pausing here and there to listen to the tidbits of information, passionately doled out by the ill-informed, thickly accented guides, pretending to be the guardians of ancient Egypt.

So when Egypt began to unravel herself, the impact has been so great, that it hit me only after I came back to India.

I saw the first ever Pyramids built in Saqqara by King Zoser about 2700 years B.C. Even though not as magnificent in size, shape and geometry as the 3 great Pyramids of Giza, Saqqara still has its revered place in history for being the first Pyramids.

The emotions were very mixed - awestruck on the one hand and tremendous despair on the other - the grave robbers of the Pyramids looted the treasures that were buried, leaving nothing for posterity. And then, the fantastic excavation and discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamen (boy king who died at the age of 19) by Howard Carter as recently as 1922, fuels the juxtaposition of emotions even more.

I saw, with my own eyes, the treasures recovered from the near-intact tomb of Tutankhamen, now proudly displayed at the Museum of Cairo. My eyes were dazzled by the famous Sarcophagus that held the mummy of King Tut. Made of 450 pounds of solid Gold, Lapis Lazuli, Turquoise and Jade, this and other such artefacts are today among the greatest, rarest treasures of mankind. If such were the treasures that were buried along with the body of a relatively unknown and insignificant king, one thinks with despair what we have lost, and what could have been, if the tombs and treasures of the other great Pharaohs like Ramses I & II had not been plundered.

Perhaps that is the will of God. Leave symbols and let mankind understand the rest.

The most profound realization dawns when one sees the mummies – the embalmed bodies of the great Pharaohs, now shrunk and disheveled, bandaged in layers of muslin cloth, arms crossed over their breasts. They lie there, pitifully, waiting for the next tourist who can afford 70 pounds to come and gape at them.

They did so much for immortality…by preserving their bodies, they thought that their souls would re-enter them and that they would rise from their Necropolis to come back and rule Egypt.

Today, after thirty centuries, it looks like fate has afforded them their immortality. Not through life or re-birth. But immortality - through death.

One cannot but stop to think with wonderment the kind of talent, skill and vision these people possessed. The Pharaohs had such tremendous vision that they have left behind masterful proofs of their talent and skills. Strangely, the modern city of Cairo gives no hint of this. It is a shabby, bustling city with average infrastructure and poor civic infrastructure. Unless one is actually at Giza or Saqqara, or at Luxor (ancient Thebes), it is difficult to imagine that this was the place that gave birth to such a great civilisation.

Today's average Egyptian seems to be an easy-going, cheerful, ruddy fella. Pleasant, warm, very hospitable, very difficult to displease. Although an Islamic state with 90% of the population being Muslims, Egypt's cultural life is colorful and vibrant. We see beautiful, fair-skinned, doe-eyed women demurely dressed with headscarves on the one hand and gorgeous belly dancers on the other, with full, porcelain breasts ensconced in their sequined cups, swaying gaily to mesmerizing Arabic music.

Their quaint markets are like any other markets of Beijing, Shanghai, Old Delhi and Aminabad of Lucknow – long, narrow and filled with shoppers – bargaining and buying Egyptian wares for friends and family. Hookahs, papyrus paintings, King Tut’s and Nefertiti’s souvenirs, carpets and spices vie for attention in the little shops. Yes. And Cleopatra is not among these. How little we know again….we went with the mind-set that Egypt is equal to Cleopatra. In reality, Nefertiti is the only revered Queen of Egypt.

Truly a 5-day touristy visit is unfair voyage to soak in the glorious history of this country. This visit triggered a deeper interest go back in time to experience and unravel more meanings and secrets of life.

Until then, I guess we still have to be happy to have a 70-pound museum visit and come back with the photographs and souvenirs - albeit cheap and cheesy.

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