Wall to Wall: Finding Majesty in the Intricacies of Egypt’s Past and Present

On my first day in Cairo, jetlagged and disoriented, I boarded a bus with 27 other intrepid Flying Longhorns and was shuttled off through the dusty, bustling streets of Egypt’s capital to the first stop of our 10-day adventure: the Egyptian Museum. Housed in a pink-hued, two-story building in the thick of downtown, the Egyptian Museum covers 5,000 years of antiquity, and, with over 100,000 items, is the world’s most comprehensive collection of Egyptian artifacts.

The darkly lit museum is practically overflowing with busts and figurines, and slates featuring ancient inscriptions line the hallways. There are royal mummies and funerary masks, including the famous gold mask of King Tutankhamun, which is exactly as stunning as you would expect. There’s an entire room dedicated to ancient jewelry, and another full of all the gilded, glittering treasures found in the tomb of the king. It’s a little like drinking from the firehose of ancient Egyptian history. Which is maybe why when I looked through my camera roll that evening, I was surprised to find I had captured only a handful of artifacts. Instead, my phone was full of pictures of … walls. The greenery against the cascading pink steps of the museum. A slate of hieroglyphics hanging on the faded and yellowing museum wall. Great shots for Instagram, sure, but not exactly representative of where I was, or the massive scale of the history I was taking in.

This odd habit of mine continued, intensifying across Cairo. On the day we visited the sole surviving and oldest monument of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, The Great Pyramid of Giza, I walked around the perimeter, craning my neck, overwhelmed by the engineering feat—around 2.3 million huge blocks of stone that were built for the pharaoh Khufu. I snapped a few photos of it and the iconic Sphinx, almost as an afterthought. But from the bus window on the way back, I found myself taking blurry photo after blurry photo, attempting to capture the dusty pink and lavender and yellow and clay-colored walls that make up the sides of the buildings and homes along the road between Cairo and Giza. The next day, I left a demonstration on the ancient art of handmade rice-paper with no evidence of the actual process, but plenty of photos of the mundane signs hanging in the studio (I loved the thick curve of the Arabic letters and the way the textured, handmade paper stuck on the slate gray wall) and the street art just outside its doors.

 

 

 

I’m a writer; I am not a photographer, and I am far from a color expert. I have no idea where my obsession with Egyptian walls came from. But I do know that Egypt—in its history and its beauty, but also because of its complicated geopolitics—felt harder to comprehend than anywhere I have ever visited. I felt this almost instantly, when we emerged from the museum that first day. Still fuzzy from travel and squinty-eyed in the sunlight, I was thinking about the incredible craftsmanship of a 5,000-year-old-tool when I looked around and realized where we were standing: Tahrir Square, the place where just seven years earlier, in 2011, tens of thousands of young protesters stood for 18 days for a revolution watched across the world. How could one place contain so much ancient and modern history all at once? And how could I possibly begin to understand the epic, sprawling stories contained in this country in under two weeks?

Maybe part of the reason I took hundreds of pictures of the sides of buildings was an attempt at narrowing down that daunting task. If I could capture as much as I could of ancient hieroglyphics, of the faded colors of crumbling stones—along with the lush vines growing up brightly-colored modern buildings and Arabic signs—then maybe I could begin to make a little sense of the narratives those walls housed, of the places inside and around them. Honing in on the small intricacies—the stories that Egyptians wrote, quite literally, on their own city walls—could perhaps give me clues about the bigger picture, the grand scale of Egypt’s past and present.

By the time we arrived in Luxor, my new obsession had aligned with the main attraction. On the Nile’s west bank, at the Valley of the Kings, we crouched down to descend into once-hidden tombs adorned with hieroglyphics so vibrant they seemed almost three-dimensional. The walls were painted 4,500 years ago but looked like they were only a decade old. “This makes me want to wallpaper my house,” one traveler said as she looked up at the ceiling of a tomb that was covered in a deep, rich blue with gold stars. I couldn’t stop taking pictures, of every scene, every angle.

A short trip down the road from the Valley of the Kings brought us to the Valley of the Queens and the tomb of Queen Nefertari. Called “The Sistine Chapel of Ancient Egypt,” the tomb is considered the best-preserved and most elaborate of any of the Egyptian burial sites. If tombs in the Valley of the Kings look as if they were painted a decade ago, the walls of Queen Nefertari’s tomb somehow managed to look as if they might have been painted last week. Nearly every single inch of each wall in the tomb is covered with splashes of deep color. There’s an entire world depicted: scenes of the queen playing a game, lines of poetry written by her husband, Ramesses, and thousands of tiny stars painted on the ceiling. Descending into the tomb feels like walking into a warm bath of color, and like a lot of things in Egypt, the experience is infinitely heightened when you consider just how ridiculously old the place is.

There’s no photography allowed inside the tomb of Queen Nefertari, but that’s just as well—no pictures of the walls would do it justice, or help me truly comprehend its grandness and its age. Sometimes the beauty of travel comes not just from making sense of the world around you, but in giving up on reason and fully succumbing to awe.

Photographs by Sofia Sokolove

 
 
 

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