Egypt is an old soul in an old body that would not die. The idea of mummification is 3,100 years old, Egyptologist-archeologist Mohammed Abdel Aziz (not Arabian, not African, but proudly Egyptian) says, as he points up to the heavens to emphasize Eternity. In Saqqara, north of Memphis, there are 118 pyramids to house the sarcophagi of mummified pharaohs and noblemen. The Djoser pyramid capped with luminescent limestone to mimic the rays of the morning sun towers 62 meters (203 feet) but still the Khufu pyramid of Giza, the largest Egyptian pyramid and one of the seven Wonders of the Ancient World, reaches up an awesome 146.7 meters (481 feet). A narrow shaft that comes from the pinnacle to the burial chamber directs the sunlight to the deceased pharaoh’s mummified body and lifts his soul to the heavens and to the gods. It is the story of Resurrection and Eternal Life.
No, not slave labor as they show in movies about Egypt, but excavations unearthed organized communities of hired stoneworkers and masons who built the pyramids and the temples, Aziz says. Non-believers in the local gods would not be allowed to work there. But many did, as the government supported these some 10,000 workers who were rationed 30 cows and 300 sheep every quarter, and provided huge hospitals. But it was hard work. These workers chiseled some 2,300,000 blocks, each one weighing approximately 2 ½ tons from quarries to build Khufu’s great pyramid, for example. These stone blocks were moved on sledges up and down the Nile River — to the West bank, the place of the Dead for the pyramids and catacombs, and to the East bank, for the temples where the people honored the gods. Houses for the living on the East bank were made of brick, which were easy to repair in the destruction of the seasonal flooding of the Nile — symbolic of the impermanence of mortal life, while tombs were made of stone, symbolic of the permanence of Eternal Life.
Without the Nile River, there would be no Egypt, Aziz declares. In ancient times the Nile River would predictably rise and flood Egypt in mid-July. He describes how people would leave their houses go up the banks to avoid the flood for four months. But after the waters have receded, the silt deposited on the banks would be so rich that the harvest was guaranteed to be bountiful. The people developed a system of storing grain during years of prosperity to safeguard against the years when the floodwater did not rise high enough and they would experience a famine. And the state would determine by the “Nile-o-meter” (the chiseled-on notches on the stone flanks of the river) how high the floods rose that year, ergo how much the corresponding taxes would be imposed on the people.
The Nile flows from south to north, stretching 4,187 miles across the entire length of Egypt. It has three major tributaries: the White Nile from Lake Victoria weaving through Uganda and Sudan and intersecting with the Blue Nile from the highlands of Ethiopia, by Lake Tana. The final major tributary, the Atbara also comes from the Ethiopian highlands. Aziz counts six rapids called “cataracts” rolling from the Nile’s steep plunge into a natural canyon between Sudan and southern Egypt. Notice that North of Cairo, the Nile splits into two branches (or distributaries), the Rosetta Branch to the west and the Damietta to the east, Aziz says. Looking at the map upside down (as the Nile flows from south to north), he points out that this forms a “V”, symbolic of the pyramids and the final funneling into that sacred prism of life on earth fed from the Eternal Life.
Note, Aziz says, that Egyptians are direct descendants of Noah, survivors of the biblical Great Flood that first destroyed the world. From Shem’s brother Ham came Misraim, founder of the Egyptian race (the lighter-colored Egyptians) of the Northeast, or Lower Kingdom; from Kush came the descendants who settled in the Upper Kingdom (South) who founded the Nubian race (later Ethiopian), those with darker skin. There is no discrimination between white-colored and dark-colored skin in the highly-evolved Egyptian culture, before or now, Aziz says.
Talk of knowing about taming the floods — from the Noah experience. Early on, the pharaohs had already thought of evening out the flooding from the Nile River, to correspondingly even out the harvest. A system of canals and irrigation called “Shadouf” where gate valves distributed Nile water to the farms. This was the season of plenty, as recorded in the Bible (Genesis), with Joseph (later called Israel) son of Jacob and Rachel, rising from slavery to being the alter ego and adviser of the pharaoh — and the chief master planner of the harvest system dependent on the Nile.
Through invasions and colonizations after the time of Christ (A.D.) the glory of Egypt faded in the grasping hands of foreign rulers, Aziz laments. He particularly regrets the exploitation by the Romans, who carried off the bounty from the Nile — silently but emphatically protested by the native Egyptians, who surreptitiously imbedded the greed of Rome in the design of the Roman columns brought into Egyptian architecture. Look at the sheaves of wheat stalks carved onto these Roman columns in the temples for the Roman gods, Aziz says — Egypt was Rome’s wheat basket.
From the time of Rameses II the Suez Canal was already there to facilitate travel from the Nile River to the Red Sea. Centuries passed, with Egypt in control of the Canal, even through the 15th century, when European expeditions found the Suez Canal an easy short cut to new lands to conquer. Nearing the 19th century, the French won a concession from the Egyptians to build and operate the Suez Canal for 99 years. In the World Wars, the Canal became a strategic factor, with the British controlling it and the Egyptian government. Finally, the British ceded control (and hefty revenue!) of the Suez, until the new Egyptian hero, Egyptian President/General Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the canal and owned all revenues from it in 1956.
Perhaps the very nationalistic Aziz feels strongly against the British, and even the US because of their coveting the Suez Canal and damming the Nile River — two most critical elements to Egypt’s life and glory. The first attempt of building a dam near Aswan was in the 11th century by the Fatimid Caliph. It was only in 1898 that the British successfully built the Aswan “Low dam” that partially controlled the flooding of the Nile. The colonial exploitation of the agricultural bounty continued through the wars, Aziz says, until the overthrow of the King Farouk by General Nasser, considered the “new Saladin” reminiscent of the first sultan of Egypt and Syria, and mentor to the first attempts at Arab reunification. Nasser was the leader of the first “Arab League.”
No, Egypt did not flip-flop loyalty between the US and the USSR, nor was he “playing both sides” in the Cold War, Aziz clarifies. The USSR gave the best bid to build, operate and transfer the Aswan High Dam to completely control the flooding of the Nile to maximize agricultural production, especially for Egypt’s primary export, cotton. A reservoir, the gigantic man-made Lake Nasser can provide six years supply of water to Egypt, Aziz says, if suddenly there is no water at all. For this reason, the Aswan Dam is the most guarded facility in Egypt.
So, Aziz, why is today’s Egypt so haggardly old and dusty; there seem to be few nice-looking buildings even in Cairo. There are hardly any new cars on the main streets and many low rise buildings are unfinished, with brick walls that have open windows with no awning or frames, seemingly unlived-in, except for the ground and lower floors. The tax on new cars is 140%, Aziz says, and the houses are unfinished (upper storeys waiting for sons of families to live in when they get married), again to avoid high taxes on developed property.
From a touristy horse-driven calesh ride through the poor district, swarms of little children rushed out from the tenement housing to cry out “Money, money!” begging for doleouts. In the sand-floored Nubian homes, little children asked tourists for ballpens and pencils, for them to use in school. At a Nile River cruise, young boys dived for money thrown into the waters, and on the streets, frayed-robed men peddled cheap souvenirs, chanting “one dollah, one dollah.” Don’t worry about the poor in Egypt, Aziz says. A family of five gets about US$15-18 food ration of bread, sugar, oil and rice, on top of free housing and medical care.
Aziz, the true anthropologist, wanted to show Joy Roa’s small tour group what the real Egypt is: a phoenix, the “Bennu,” sacred bird of Heliopolis associated with the sun and representing the ba or soul of the sun god, Ra. Egypt will rise from the ashes and be great again, Aziz is sure. He is confident that the very popular President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, four years into his six-year term, and sure to be reelected for another six years, will carry Egypt through to new glory — like the Bennu.
Amelia H. C. Ylagan is a Doctor of Business Administration from the University of the Philippines.