Home > Uncategorized > Imagined faiths II: ancient Egypt

Imagined faiths II: ancient Egypt

A hot courtyard of stone south of Cairo must feature as the oldest Jubilee venue on earth. And the oddest, for here it was the monarch who did the work; sprinting, or perhaps striding nobly, around an open courtyard on the 30th anniversary of his coming to power. His audience? A great crowd of gods, each inhabiting a little kiosk. No Sophie Raworth here, then. Instead, the ritual death and birth of a single man, followed by his ritual sprint.  To add to the distance from Windsor-land, Djoser, who built this courtyard in about 2600BCE. didn’t expect to use it until after he died. And while I’m sure our Jubilee will echo the ages for its grandeur – I mean it, maaan – it can’t wipe the floor with the structure Djoser built to ensure he could do this. Not only does it include the first of the pyramids, it is the oldest building on the planet to have been constructed entirely of cut stone.

Ancient Egyptians lived in the crosshairs of their geography. Running north-south, the Nile, creator and washer-away of all life, nourisher of an ancient civilisation which depended utterly on the annual inundation in which, thanks to the volume of rain falling far to the south, the river rose like a tide. This river is the entirety of the earth for them, and also a place of risk, teeming with life, some of it — the crocodiles, the hippopotami — potentially lethal. And running east-west across their universe, the sun, too runs in circuits, this time daily, on which life equally seems to depend. As a result, their entire country can seem like a huge map of their own cosmology, in which time is always cyclical; in which night and the end of inundations are potential crises of mythic proportions, in which darkness and the uncreated flood will return us all to prelapsarian chaos. Cities and temples of the living are on the east bank, on the side of life; necropoli, tombs, pyramids are on the west bank, equally certain of the status of death. What goes around, comes around: as long as the pharaoh does it right. Including a 30-th anniversary run that must be continued after his own demise. This is total kingship, but also kingship-as-burden, at once son of a divinity and garantor of humanity’s future.

Except this culture had other ways of negotiating with the invisible, with the dead, with the divine: through art. Egypt had several writing systems; only hieroglyphs, at once drawings and words and images of ideas, could be used in its temples and tombs. To us writing is a category apart from art, but Egyptian images are only another way of encoding ideas, and just as with their writing they have to be done correctly if they are to function at all. For their function is not for our eyes; it is to crystallise as glyph and grapheme the ideas that will please the gods; and these images, mummies included, will if correctly done literally be inhabited by the powers they evoke. Even architecture is an image, the great hypostyle halls the grove of the swamps from which creation emerged, the inner sanctuary of the temple the literal house of a deity. And it is such thinking that drove Djoser, or his architect Imhotep, to think at all of making a palace, a burial place, a temple, and a jubilee venue out of stone, magically making permanent everthing the people of Egypt needed to know their king would have after his death.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. June 7, 2012 at 11:22 am

    Wonderful piece, thank you, Jon. And how refreshing to know that there was no reporter from Nile TV shouting, ‘There’s my dad!’

  2. June 7, 2012 at 4:22 pm

    I would have liked to see the ancient version of the Sex Pistols (The Prefab Messiahs?) floating past on a barge…

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