I admit it, I’m a History Channel, National Geographic, Travel Channel junkie…so when I saw an opportunity to take a cruise on the Nile, I forwarded the email to my husband, asking “Can we go? Please! Please! Please!” To my shock and amazement, he said yes! So, we packed our bags with 45 SPF sunscreen, insect repellant, and good walking shoes and prepared for nine days in Egypt.
After hours of watching TV shows on the wonders of Egypt and exploring the current Egyptian exhibitions at the High Museum of Art and the Michael C. Carlos Museum, I thought that I knew all there was to know about Ancient Egypt. I was wrong. You could spend a lifetime there and never run out of new discoveries! Our first day, we took a tour of Cairo and Giza. Gazing out at the great pyramids was a dream come true. I had to touch one of the massive rocks just to say I did. I rode the obligatory camel and had the postcard-perfect picture taken. I even conquered my claustrophobia long enough to crawl through the narrow passage and into the tomb of the third pyramid.
Although my main reason to come to Egypt was to see the pyramids, they were soon overshadowed with wonders that I had never learned about in any TV show or museum exhibition. My new discovery began when the guide took us to Old Cairo to tour the site where the Holy Family is claimed to have hidden after they fled Herod’s wrath against the Baby Jesus, “King of the Jews”.
We visited a magnificent Coptic Church. The Coptic Christians of Egypt broke with the Catholic Church (in Rome) mainly due to a disagreement over whether Christ was fully God or God and Man. I found the Coptic Church very similar to Eastern Orthodox Christian religions with an emphasis on iconography and symbolism. The Coptic cross has three points on each side of the cross, symbolizing the Trinity. If each point on all four sides is added together, it equals twelve, the number of Christ’s original disciples. Each side of the cross represents the four corners of the Earth to which Christians are called to spread the gospel. In a country known for a strong Islamic majority, I was amazed to see so many cross-topped steeples and so much openness about its Christian roots.
As we left Cairo and flew to the southern city of Aswan to begin a cruise down the Nile (which is actually going north towards Cairo since the Nile flows south to north), we traveled back centuries to the time of pharaohs, gods, and mummies. We did not leave the ancient Christians behind though; I was amazed to find almost every temple had a story of early Christians associated with it.
At the temple of Philae, situated on an island in the Nile (and moved in the 1960s when the Aswan Dam was constructed to save it from flooding), I learned that the temple dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis was converted into a church in the first centuries.
The ancient Egyptian symbol for life, the ankh, carved throughout the temple was cleverly manipulated into a Coptic cross. The engraved images of pharaohs and gods were scratched out to challenge their power and prove that the Christians’ god was mightier.
The same story is repeated at the Temple of Karnak and Luxor Temple, where actual altars were constructed and added to the ancient temple design.
One interesting note, though, to return to Egypt’s contemporary Muslim focus, is that Luxor Temple shares its space (and walls) with a mosque. Centuries after the mosque was built, archeologists discovered the ancient temple beneath the sands. As both are considered historical monuments, neither was destroyed and now the minaret shares the skyline with an obelisk built by Ramses II.
Even the Valley of the Kings could not escape the Christians who often took refuge in the ancient tombs. The tomb of Pharaoh Ramses IV contains the following graffiti, “I beseech thee, Jesus Christ, my Lord, suffer me not to follow after my desire; let not my thoughts have dominion over me, let me not die in my sins, but accept Thy servant for good.”
The 18th dynasty Pharaoh Akhenaten, best known as the husband to the beautiful Nefertiti, could be considered a forerunner to the Christians, as he led the country to a controversial removal of their pantheon of gods and chose to worship the one and only ‘true’ god, Aten.
He moved his capital to Amarna and poems have been found there that are almost identical to David’s psalms in the Bible. After his death, though, Egyptians rejected Akhenaten’s religion, destroyed Amarna, and restored the capital to Thebes (now Luxor) and returned to their previous spiritual beliefs, worshipping in the temples of Amen, Isis, Osiris and Horus, to name a few.
We went to Egypt to learn more about Egyptology and expected to learn about modern Islam as well. Everywhere we looked, we did see the mosques, the people, and the footprints of a strong nation, rooted in its past and its present. But we also walked away with a little more knowledge about our own Christian faith and a rejuvenated belief that just as an ancient temple can peacefully coexist with a Christian altar and an active mosque, we too can love, respect and live with those of different beliefs and faiths.
About the author: Julie Braley is the owner of ArtVoyage in Atlanta, GA. She specializes in art and cultural vacations. She would be happy to answer questions about her Egyptian experience or other travel itineraries at 770-367-1287, firstname.lastname@example.org or www.art-voyage.com.