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Up The Nile With A Child: What the Sphinx had to say…

Artemis Pittas and Rafael Guzman take a trip through time and space on a boat.

“Tutankamun was nothing! Nothing! What did he do? Nothing!” The guide in the Archaeological Museum of Cairo was passionate and angry. An elderly American tourist couple looked genuinely saddened. It’s not what you expect to hear when you’ve come all the way to Egypt inspired by the ‘Tutankamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs’ exhibition currently touring the world. The guide was merciless: “He didn’t fight any wars, he didn’t build any temples, he was a boy when he became Pharaoh, and he died young. People think he was the most important Pharaoh because of lucky Mr Carter, but he wasn’t. He was nothing.”

Overhearing the guide’s outburst against the distortions of history confirmed my experience of visiting the Nile with my partner and six-year-old son – a trip I highly recommend to any parent concerned about how to explain the world we live in. Religion? War? Globalization? The desert hides the answers to questions it takes the eyes and ears of a child to discern.

We’d wanted to go to Egypt ever since the national outcry in Italy (where we live) against a proposal to reduce the teaching of ancient history in schools. Fired with parental passion to fill this gap in Romano’s education, we set off full of romantic visions of palm trees and pyramids. Romano was also clear about the purpose of the visit: “I’m going to talk to the Sphinx,” he kept saying with the self-assurance of the ‘Age of Mythology’ computer game generation. Little did we know he was right.

Like the sands of time, all tours to the Nile follow the same pattern – by boat between Luxor and Aswan, plus a few days in Cairo. Each day of the trip is numbered like the days of creation. Days One and Two were a hectic spin through the golden age of Pharaonic military, economic and political expansion. There was no need to worry about whether a six-year-old could cope with 7 am wake-up calls and long hours of siteseeing. There was Romano, jumping out of bed in the morning, ready for another day of getting in and out of mini-vans, riding fairground trains up to funerary complexes sculpted into sheer desert mountainsides, creeping and crawling deep into underground tombs, cricking his neck at giant stone statues, running through epic colonnades of lotus- and papyrus-shaped columns. Whether open-air or underground, the box-within-a-box-within-a-box design of Egypt’s tombs and temples are perfect playground labyrinths to explore. Having fun was not Romano’s problem. Something else was.

“I don’t understand when they say ‘B.C.E.’ and ‘C.E.’” he concluded at the end of Day Two.

By the time we’d reached Day Five, neither did we.

When you’re standing in the last ‘pagan’ temple of Mediterranean civilization, where Egyptian gods and goddesses, Greek monarchs, Roman emperors, and Coptic Christian altars share the same roof, nothing could be more artificial that an imaginary dividing line between the ancient and the modern, the past and the present, polytheism and monotheism, the bad and the good, the false and the true – as if you can really cut through history and change human nature in the same way as Aswan’s dams have stopped the Nile in its tracks, leaving the crocodiles on the other side and creating the magical lake in which the rescued and restored Temple of Philae stands like a jewel.

When it comes to putting the world into perspective, there’s nothing like winding gently up the Nile for three days at a hypnotic 10 miles an hour on a slow-motion Voyage of the Beagle, along a trail which leads from the power, wealth and elaborate death rites of the Pharaohs, through the Greek and Roman empires, all the way up to the power, wealth and elaborate death rites seen just a few years ago at the funeral of the Pope – the inheritor of the Egyptian, Greek and Roman empires, and the Pharaoh of our day. A management reshuffle, more central control, a few name changes here, a bit of redecoration there, and we’re still travelling along an uninterrupted course in religion-by-numbers which is delightful for a primary school child to follow. From Seth to Satan; from the 12 gods of Olympus to the 12 tribes of Israel to the 12 disciples; from Osiris, Isis and Horus, to Chronos, Rhea and Zeus, to Joseph, Mary and Jesus, to the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost – the examples of how little we’ve moved from our origins roll on and on. When you’re flowing with the timeless rhythm of the Nile, the clock never restarts on the fantastic world of threes, fours, sevens, tens and twelves which was born along these riverbanks some 9,000-plus years ago.

Reluctantly turning our backs on the oasis paradise of the Nile valley, on Day Six we were whisked to Aswan airport for our flight to Cairo. One anti-terrorist security scan after another, armed guards and soldiers all over the place, huddles of not-so-secret policemen scrutinizing North American, Latin American, Japanese, Indian and European tourists, while the news played on a radio – there was more bloodshed in Iraq and Afghanistan; there was more tension between Egypt and Israel and Israel and the Palestinians in the Middle East; there were more fears of global recession; but even more importantly, there were the top stories about the trial of a Muslim for converting to Christianity, and the scandal of Christians converting to Islam in order to divorce, and then converting back again. If religion really is the opium of the people, who’s to say we’re using a better drug than our forefathers?

Fastforwarded into the Tower of Babel of Cairo’s megalopolis of twenty million people, when staring at the faces of thousands of drivers, passengers and tourists from different countries, backgrounds and religions who are stuck in the infernal traffic just like you, the world looks just as chaotic, multi-cultural and polytheistic as it ever was. Judging by the evidence, of all the gods who still survive, the most popular is Hermes or Mercury, the god of commerce, without whose influence Mesopotamia’s nomadic desert tribes would never have crossed paths or grouped together to found the cities, civilizations and religions that formed the empires which still compete for control of the trade routes between Africa, the Middle East and Europe. To this day, no empire can exist, expand or survive without the driving force of the god who gave his Roman name to both merchants and mercenaries. Did the Greeks have globalization in mind when they gave Hermes his winged sandals and helmet so that he could defy time and space and cast his spell simultaneously anywhere and everywhere in the world?

Whatever you call him, there can’t be a better temple to the enduring worship of the god of trade than the great souk of Cairo – a bewildering, meandering, tentacled, permanently overcrowded bazaar which started life as the world’s first shopping mall 800 years ago. The free market is so mercurial here that buying or selling even the simplest object becomes a bizarre exercise in speculation requiring all of Hermes’ famous cunning, guile, deceit and charm. Like overexcited brokers in a trading room as big as a small town, the souk’s salesmen follow a negotiational logic which makes price fluctuations, currency exchanges, commodity cycles, derivatives and futures look sane. Running the gauntlet of baksheesh-begging hands, barefoot children, mangy cats and insistent tradesmen, Romano wasn’t happy. Of all the divinities we met, the god of the markets was without doubt the most disturbing for a child.

Relieved to be out of the market mayhem, we moved on to Cairo’s famous Archaeological Museum, only to discover that Hermes had arrived before us. The exhibits, including Tutankamun’s gold, are just the tip of the iceberg of the immeasurable treasure either plundered, sold or exchanged over the centuries by tomb raiders, European occupiers and Ottoman governors. In 1835 Abbas Pasha handed over the entire collection of the fledgling museum to the Archduke of Austria. But whether hidden abroad in private vaults, or proudly displayed in museums around the world, it’s misleading to pretend that spiriting away the majority of Egypt’s past has brought Western civilization closer to its origins.

“Zeus must be angry,” observed Romano on Day Seven. A thunderstorm darkened Cairo’s sky, black clouds racing over the city, and rain fell in the desert as we picked up the trail of the Nile temples, shuffling along with thousands of other tourists through the three shrines of monotheism – first the synagogue, then the church, then the mosque. Three times we heard that there was only one God; three times we were told that the same God spoke to three peoples; and three times we were asked to believe that only one of those three peoples actually understood what God had said. “I don’t understand,” said Romano.

How could he? Would the world really fall apart if we taught our children that there are just as many ways of believing, and just as many gods to believe in as there ever were; that Judaism is split into so many tribes that not even a planet-sized Promised Land can unite them; that Christianity is just as divided over the three-in-one or one-in-three nature-of-God-issue as it was 1,700 years ago at the Council of Nicaea, and that Islam is still arguing about who Mohammed’s real heir was.

Why shed so much blood and invent so many stories just to prove that each new monotheism’s story is true and divinely inspired, while the arguments on Mount Olympus are pure fantasy? How come, despite all efforts, the squabbles between the Greek gods and goddesses have lost none of their universal appeal? Maybe the best family saga of them all isn’t myth, legend or even soap-opera, but a divine reality show with at least three immortal messages for us all: man invented god; gods will interfere on earth for as long as man lets them; and where there’s one god, there’ll always be another to compete with them.

Living in Italy, where Catholicism is part of the curriculum from the first year of nursery school, you don’t need to have heard about The God Delusion to worry about why and how religion is taught to three-year-olds. While the Anglo-Saxon world rediscovers the word ‘indoctrination’, the Latin world has never stopped fighting the battle to separate the church and state – especially during election campaigns, where the Vatican continues to plays its role in making and breaking governments, and Italian political candidates don’t worry about accusing progressive Catholics of being ‘the cancer of the church’. When you’re a member of any religious caste employed on an open-ended, verbal contract which allows you to take advantage of all the wisdom of the past while dismissing it as heretical or idolatrous, and which also gives you carte blanche to think, say, write, teach or do anything you like in the name of God, you’re never going to give up that much freedom and power (with out-of-this-world profits) without a good fight.

“What will you ask the Sphinx?” our guide asked Romano.

“If he can count to infinity.” The numbers must have gone to Romano’s head; or maybe there’s something about being in the middle of another traffic-jam on your way to Giza that gets the mind going.

Standing like the tiniest of ants at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Cheops, staring far, far up into the sky, at the tip of the world’s greatest funerary monument as it points like an arrow into the eternity of the heavens above, Romano stated, “I don’t want to die.”

Who does? No matter how many fig-leaves or abstract figures we use to cover up the past; no matter whether the Messiah will appear, the Saviour reappear, or Allah is waiting in Paradise; no matter where we are or what we believe, it seems we’re just as troubled by the same fear of nature and of death as we ever were, as if man hasn’t always been the only creature who can’t accept he’s not omnipotent or immortal. It’s as if, like Osiris, we’d all been cut up into little pieces, and were unable to rest in peace until our scattered parts had been stuck together again.

“Guess what the Sphinx said!” shouted Romano as he rushed past us on the latest lap of a never-ending run round and round the Sphinx’s colossal body. “He can see infinity!”

Romano must have been right. Staring inscrutably, impassively and unblinkingly over our heads into the heart of the sun every day, contemplating time in splendid isolation, watching the world turn and Pharaohs, Philosophers, Emperors, Jews, Christians, Moslems and everyone else come and go, the mystery is not what the Sphinx is hiding, but why we can’t hear what he’s been saying for so long. When nothing is original and everything is an echo of something that’s already been said or done; when even the most advanced discoveries about the universe can only tell us that we live on a revolving oasis in a cosmic desert which might or might not contain other oases, it might even be true that the Sphinx is the only creature on earth who never lies. After all these centuries of listening to gods telling us how to behave, it takes a half-human, half-lion to remind us that just because no man is an island, it doesn’t necessarily mean he has to be part of the herd. No wonder the Arabs feared him, the Mamelukes cannonballed his nose, and the French took his Pharaonic beard to the Louvre.

Looked at from the Sphinx’s point of view, the real riddle is us, and why we continue to fog our vision by dividing the world into a kind of before-and-after advert for history which distorts the truth and confuses our understanding like a particularly abrupt jump in continuity. For our children’s sake, couldn’t we find a more accurate division of our reality – such as ‘behind current events’ and ‘current events’? Something which puts things back into context, and which alters our perspective by clarifying the relationship between the past and the present instead of obscuring it? It’s the difference between watching stories flash by on a news bulletin and getting stuck into an in-depth long-running documentary. That way we’d all know that the last 2,000 years of history don’t make sense without background knowledge of the preceding three, six or nine thousand years. We could even avoid the limitations, superficiality and indoctrination of a lot of boring lessons in nationalist history as well as religion, and refocus our attention on picking up the trail of a more universal route to our roots, without offending anyone, in heaven or on earth.

If we can’t change the fact that the Roman Empire pulled off history’s most impressive Director’s Cut when it reorganised its intellectual resources to impose a BC/AD chronology on the world which even the church admits is not strictly correct; if it’s too much trouble to change all our history books by going back to Before and After the Egyptians; if we can’t come up with a way of understanding our existence which goes round like a clock instead of straight ahead like a line – how will we ever know that if anyone is stumbling around in the desert following false gods, it’s not us?

© Artemis Pittas & Rafael Guzman 2009

Artemis and Rafael are freelance journalists based in Rome.

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