Ankh

Published in Aerie International – Spring 2017

            Ankh—life, eternity. A cross-like figure that strangely resembles an angel—if angels were faceless and had simple, outstretched wings instead of the fluffy, shimmering feathers of Victoria’s Secret models. I catch only bits and phrases of the tour guide’s lecture as I stand there, mesmerized by the endless walls built like a maze.

            “Ramses II reached the great age of ninety-six—highly unusual during his time.” The guide gestures towards an intricately painted scene of battle on the wall, rich in color despite the erosion over the centuries. A toffee-skinned man stands regally in a chariot, his dark catlike eyes staring stoically ahead. He nocks a bow, his long arms parallel to the golden arrow. “He had over two hundred wives and concubines, ninety-six sons and sixty daughters...” My sister’s muffled giggles echo in the temple. I roll my eyes.

            Each engraving tells a story, depicting scenes of warriors valiantly fighting in battle and the lavish parades of pharaohs to the toiling labor of peasants and slaves. Every meticulously chiseled symbol has meaning, is part of this massive slate of perfectly aligned hieroglyphics. How fascinating it would be to decipher them all, I think as I examine the intricate etchings.

            The dusty, smooth surface soothes me as my fingertips trace the curves and lines in the letters. These towering walls have a way of making my problems seem insignificant, and I take comfort in the feeling. I try to imagine the painstaking process of etching each mark under the scalding Egyptian sun and the capricious winds of the desert. For some reason I cannot picture actual people working away at these walls. I can only see these engraved characters, all who are two-dimensional and contorted in an eerily beautiful way, and are perhaps happily using their other halves in the afterlife.

            I remember the tour guide’s words earlier in the museum when I asked him why the Egyptians always drew in profiles. “The Egyptians,” the guide had answered, ignoring the couple taking a selfie with the cat mummy behind him, “strived to depict everything important in their paintings. They drew the head, for example, in side profile, for it was the most recognizable that way; they sketched the eyes from a front view since that is how most eyes are seen. They simply portrayed the body parts in how they are best remembered.”

            The museum had been quite dark and undecorated, with dust collecting in the corners of the exhibitions--a stark contrast from the Smithsonian museum I had visited a few years ago. I recall the sparkling display lights blinding me as I squinted at a mammoth elephant caught in motion. I had stared in awe at the great planes suspended on the ceiling, afraid of them falling and flattening me beneath them. The museum here in Cairo, however, was more modest but more real; its dust and dimly lit displays were more akin to the silky sand dunes in the desert and the dark hallways of the pyramids.

            My eyes refocus on the vast stone canvases before me. Thousands of darkly outlined eyes stare back, their gazes not unkind, but simply sharp and observant. Each one holds a secret, not only from their time but of all the beings they have watched set foot in this temple over millions of years. 

             A distinct click of a phone camera echoes in the walls, piercing the solemn quietude. A transition to my reality, I follow the clicks. I find the middle-aged woman who had worn high heels in the sand dunes snapping a photo with her husband.

            The tour guide explains about the horse carriage rides happening soon, and we are all ushered out of the temple. The impassive statues say their farewells with their identical, stoic countenance.

            The carriages, of course, are not elegantly designed with groomed horses and velvet cushions. But they are fairly comfortable, and once I let my eyes drift away from the horse’s swaying tail I can ignore the rattling bumps on the road and sit upright on the tattered cushions. For a while there is nothing much surprising, or at least anything I haven’t already seen from my hotel room window. It is only when the bustle of honking cars and hurried merchants die down that I feel an urge to look away.

            The streets become increasingly barren and quiet. Many of the houses are roofless, with garbage bags and small pieces of litter strewn across the street. The brick walls, which have eroded away from the rain, are soiled and discolored with piles of dust and rubble lining the corners. The villagers look at us with mild interest, and small barefoot children dash closer to the horses.

            A small girl in a pink hijab scurries up to our carriage and thrusts out a fistful of plastic bookmarks, of which the edges are caked with dirt and the images unidentifiable. “One dollar!” she cries, her small feet struggling to keep up with the carriage. The bookmarks are almost stale, the plastic a dark green on the edges. The one I can see from my view shows the pyramids, the walls discolored and shabby.

            Other children also come carrying rusted trinkets and milky water bottles, with frowns decorating their foreheads and light streaks of dirt lining their cheeks. They soon drift away from the carriages, and we leave them in the dust as the horses keep trotting along the pathway.

            This interlude is fairly brief, and we soon find ourselves in the more pristine streets of Cairo. The buildings have roofs, children are wearing shoes, and the roads are cleaner, more presentable. But I can still see the grimy streets and the girl in the pink hijab, and they are seared into my mind as we head to our hotel. I try to recall the captivating temple and its endless walls of chiseled hieroglyphics, and all I can remember is the angel-like figure of eternity, with its hollow face and outstretched wings.