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What's That Noise Coming From Inside the Crypt?
As the sun climbed the sky over the frontier of the Egyptian desert, I hurried past the crumbled stone wall, through the large open courtyard and into the giant hall of tall columns. The sweet female faces that topped all of the enormous columns smiled down at me as I took refuge in their shade - I was in Hathor's domain. Hathor , the beautiful daughter of the Sun-God Ra, the goddess of joy and love....
"Hmmm. I hope Abeja, Monica, and Jasmine don't get mad at me for returning late back to Cairo," I thought to myself. But, I figured they would understand my delay. I had to stop on our behalf and pay homage to the mighty goddess that protects women and travelers! Four female trekkers traveling through Egypt would be crazy not to stop. We can use all the protection we can get!
Unlike the Temples at Luxor and Karnak, which have never-ending streams of tour groups flocking to take pictures, Dendara is rarely visited. It seemed like I had the huge place practically to myself. I wasn't quite decided how I felt about that. Could be cool, or it could be creepy...
As I stared up at the bats flying around Hathor's enormous face topping all 24 columns in the entrance hall, a haunting, deep drone started echoing through the temple's foundation. I walked through the empty hallways, barely noticing the incredibly preserved color reliefs on the walls, drawn to the sound as if Hathor was calling me deeper in to her temple. I reached the back wall of the cool, dark stone sanctuary, where there were reliefs of strange men making offerings to the mighty goddess, but still no sign of life.
"Where was that sound coming from?" I thought. It was so unlike anything I had ever heard before, and it seemed to be originating from the depths of the earth. The squeak of a bat in an adjacent room caught my attention and when I turned to walk towards it, I almost tripped and fell! I had stumbled upon a trap doorway with stairs leading down into a dark hallway. It appeared the sound was coming from deep within the crypt...
"No way! You are not wandering down a dark staircase into the unknown...you don't even have a flashlight!" thought my practical side. Well, you can't always be practical! I was already on my way down, entranced by the music and my own curiosity to see what was lurking below. As I entered the pitch blackness of the cool crypt, the sound increased tremendously and began echoing off the stone walls around me. I was afraid to step in any direction, for I had no idea at what was ahead of me.
Then there was a flash of light and I could make out a hand holding a lighter at the other end of a long narrow hallway. In between the small flame and I was another figure crouched with his or her back towards me, blowing into a long tube. It wasn't a sinister spirit luring me to the underworld; but merely a guy playing a didgeridoo, an instrument of the indigenous peoples of Australia! All of a sudden, as if fueled by my realization of the source of the sound, a row of lights went on lighting up the hallway of the crypt. A temple guard came down the stairs, apparently he too was curious about the strange sound. He was very surprised that three tourists had entered the crypt without any lights on!
With the soft lighting now on we could all get a look at each other and our surroundings. Everything that was scary and unknown revealed itself in all its beauty. There I was in the carved underground tunnel with three other people. We all introduced ourselves and got a good laugh over the situation. There we were, four strangers from vastly different backgrounds and places, standing between the beautifully carved stone walls of the underground crypt of Hathor. Among us was an Aussie who works in England, an Egyptian who just returned from living in Saudi Arabia, a Norwegian who plays an Aboriginal instrument, and an Indian-American who treks around the world. What an eclectic group of peoples and cultures! We had a wonderful time sharing ideas and observations about the temple and our time in Egypt. What an appropriate meeting at this age-old site that has always represented a melding of cultures.
Even though Dendara has been a sacred necropolis for ages and Pharaohs as far back as Cheops have built there at one time or another, the beautiful Hathor temple, as it stands today, was in actuality not built by Egyptians!
After over thirty dynasties, each lasting on average longer than the United State's entire existence as a nation, Egypt's great pharonic period was starting to get...old, to say the least! Disunity within Egypt lay it open to foreign rule for a number of years, but in 332 BC foreign rule of a new kind came into play. In the end those who were victorious over the great Egyptian empire would be those who came to it seeking more than just power and domination. The ultimate conquerors came with an openness to learn from the great Egyptian advancements, ready to don their fine clothes, adopt their ancient rituals, and bow to their mysterious gods.
The Greeks arrived in Egypt in 332 BC under Alexander the Great. After meeting up with the team in Cairo, Monica and I were going to continue further North to visit Alexandria, the famous port along the Mediterranean that Alexander had built to be his capital.
After walking through the great Temple of Hathor in Dendara, and seeing the way the Greek rulers really did meld with local beliefs and artistic traditions, I'm so excited to go to Alexandria and learn more about the 300 year period that brought together the philosophy and language of Greece with the mystery and religion of Egypt. In Dendara, the Greeks honored the sacred deity of beauty and light and associated her with their own Aphrodite. Our Egyptian guide explained to us that the strange looking men in all the beautiful reliefs on the temple's walls are actually Greek and Roman emperors dressed as Pharaohs making offerings to Hathor.
"So this temple was built by the Greeks? That's why it's so well preserved, it's only around 2000 years old!" exclaimed Max, the Australian.
"Only 2000 years old!" I exclaimed. "In the U.S. we consider battlegrounds from last century as being historic!" We all laughed at that little reminder of how long ago Egypt's great pharonic monuments really were built and how long the ancient empire actually did span. Most of the pyramids and tombs and temples we'd visited so far are between 3000-5000 years old.
The four of us spent the afternoon wandering through the temple enclosure; past the ruins of the Coptic Church that was built there 500 years later; and around the giant courtyard, sharing stories and laughing at our different points of view. It's amazing how much you can learn when different cultures come together.
Stay tuned next week to learn more about the amazing symbiosis between Greek and Egyptian cultures as we journey North to where the Nile meets the Mediterranean, where Africa meets Europe and Asia...to the ancient metropolis, Alexandria.
Jasmine - The A, B, C's of Ancient Egyptian Gods and Religion
Monica - Making a Difference: The News
Team - The Write Stuff - Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphics
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