Writing Is on the Wall About Early Egyptian Life

Our cruise down the Nile was pleasant. I am quite at home on boats. I like water better than deserts. From the top deck I watched the Egyptian land go by.

As everyone knows, Egypt is a desert transversed by the Nile, whose annual overflow creates the country’s only cultivable soil. For us who live in the Northern Hemisphere, it is hard to understand that upper Egypt is south, and lower Egypt is north.

As we sailed north, downriver, we were enchanted by the life on the banks of the Nile. For long patches it was Eden: nothing but green; palm trees, banana trees, avocado trees; people swimming and fishing, living close to the river. Children waved to us, as if communicating with another world.

Now and then we passed gray factories belching great plumes of black smoke into the cloudless sky. Obviously, Egypt’s industrialization has not yet felt environmental restraints.


We docked here and there to visit temples, but I decided to pass. I had begun to feel that one temple was very much like another. The walls of all were decorated with a multiplicity of gods and Pharaohs in one guise or another, and the hieroglyphics were incomprehensible.

But I went to Luxor. Because my feet hurt, I elected not to walk through the great temple, but found an empty stone outside the entrance pylon and sat there while my wife trooped along with our group. From there I could see the great obelisk whose mate now stands in the Place de la Concorde, in Paris. To my left I looked down an avenue of sphinxes. Every tour group stopped beside me. I heard Luxor eulogized in at least five languages, only one of which I understood.

I was beginning to see that ancient Egypt was essentially religious. The hieroglyphics tell us no facts of life except that of the gods. The ancient Egyptians left no history. They also left nothing but tombs and temples. No arenas, no coliseums, no baths. Their marvelous bas-reliefs show the Pharaohs as gods, or appeasing the gods, or defeating their enemies, or beating their captives. I don’t think I would have liked to live then.

Some Egyptologists say the ancient Egyptians were not polytheistic. They insist the Egyptians believed one god was supreme and that all the other gods they worshiped were merely manifestations of the one god. Some of those lesser gods were jackals, crocodiles and birds. I find the theory of monotheism doubtful.

Of course, my conclusions are based merely on reflection, not scholarship. But I am reminded that when a young French linguist deciphered the hieroglyphics, which had remained unintelligible for thousands of years, the leading Egyptologists of the time denounced him because his findings controverted theirs.

I declined to visit the temple of Karnak, said to be the most spectacular of all with 134 columns standing in its great hall. I suppose it was insensitive of me to pass Karnak, but I enjoyed the rest.

The next day we visited the Valley of the Kings, where the tomb of King Tutankhamen lies just below the Valley of the Kings Rest House, which sells beer, soft drinks and souvenirs. Tut’s tomb, opened in 1922 by a British archeologist, was the only Egyptian tomb ever discovered that had not been pillaged by grave robbers. Its discovery, with its treasure of ancient objects, electrified the world. The Egyptian influence was reflected in Los Angeles by Egyptian real estate offices and houses, and Hollywood’s Egyptian Theater.

A tunnel led to Tut’s tomb. I elected to have a soft drink in the Rest House while my wife entered the tomb. I was gratified by her report that it wasn’t much, most everything worth seeing having been removed to the Cairo Museum. Once again, I had avoided claustrophobia and made a wise decision.

We both had a Coke in the Rest House. Then one of our group told me we had made a mistake. The Coke was not bottled. It had come from a bulk dispenser. “Hey,” our friend said, “these guys are going to do it the cheapest way. They buy Coke syrup and mix it with tap water. You’re going to get sick.”

I was dismayed. What a foolish mistake. I had been eating nothing but potatoes and bread and drinking nothing but beer and bottled water. Meanwhile, most of our fellow travelers had fallen. Some had dropped of heat exhaustion, but most were victims of Cleopatra’s revenge. Before we disembarked, I believe almost everyone had had a touch of it. Except me.