JOHN ANTHONY WEST'S RESEARCH
From his book
THE TRAVELER'S GUIDE TO ANCIENT EGYPT
Concerning Egypt I will now speak at length, because nowhere are there so many marvellous things, nor in the whole world beside are there to be seen so many things of unspeakable greatness.
Herodotus, FIFTH CENTURY B.C.
In the twenty-five centuries separating Herodotus from ourselves, nothing has happened to diminish or even qualify his judgment.
Today, we can fly to the moon, we can store libraries full of information on a single plastic chip, we can blow up the earth at the touch of a button. But we could not build a Great pyramid or a Temple of Luxor - or their artistic equivalent - even if we wanted to. A team of Japanese engineers tried, as an experiment, to erect a minipyramid just 35 feet (11 m) high using what they believed were ancient methods of quarrying, transport and construction. The experiment failed. Modern technology was called in to finish the job. Even that proved unequal to the task. The project was abandoned, dismantled and forgotten.
Ancient Egypt gave the impetus to the science that has become archeology. It was the first of the vanished civilizations to emerge from under the spades of the excavators - and it remains the most spectacular.
Other ancient races built upon a comparable scale, but their works have fallen prey both to time and man. In Egypt the matchless climate, the relative freedom from wholesale repeated plunder and, perhaps most important, the preservative quality of the drifting sand have all helped keep her most glorious achievements intact - in some cases so well that it takes but little imagination to conjure up the original in its pristine state.
In Egypt these ancient stones speak with resonant, clear voices. But it is a mistake to think they speak in familiar twentieth-century language. To understand the stones of Egypt we must listen attentively, and we must try to capture the spirit of the past as we listen through modern ears and interpret, as we must, through our modern idioms.
It is the spirit and the meaning, in addition to the historical facts, that will concern us here. The art and architecture of ancient Egypt was sacred art. It had a different purpose and a different motivation from virtually all art and architecture produced today. It was an art dedicated wholly to religion. Modern scholars regard this preoccupation with religious art as a testament to belief; to the hold that religion exercised (for better or worse) upon the minds of "primitive" people. The historian sees an Egyptian temple as, above all, a testament to faith. This is true. But it is only part of the truth. The sacred art and architecture of Egypt - indeed, the sacred art and architecture of all great civilizations of the past - are also a testament to knowledge.
Certain aspects of this knowledge are acknowledged and self-evident: the total mastery of building techniques and materials, the precision craftsmanship, the near-miraculous expertise of painters and especially sculptors. But there are other aspects of ancient knowledge that are less obvious. This knowledge, if ever it was written down, was never made public. Today, it must be deduced from the monu- ments themselves where it was put to work: in proportion, measure and harmony. Schiller once called architecture "frozen music; " This definition is not merely poetically true, it is technically true. The temples and pyramids of Egypt are symphonies in stone. Their power, the emotional effect they produce upon us, are the direct results of the precision of their measure and proportion, just as a Bach chorale is the direct result of a particular sequence of notes of different frequencies.
The knowledge that directed the sacred art of Egypt is not the same kind of knowledge as our own, and it serves a different function. The temples of Egypt are not meant to inform or instruct; they are meant to evoke a consciousness of divinity: to illuminate.
And so they do, even in ruins, thousands of years later. Though the mythology and symbolism of Egypt are alien and impenetrable to us, though the sacred hieroglyphs are, to us, a dead language, though we may, and often do, hold religious and philosophical beliefs diametrically opposed to those of the architects of Saqqara or Karnak, their prodigious art reaches out to us across the ages. From Herodotus on, travelers have come back from Egypt all insisting that words could not capture the splendors they had seen. Today, in the midst of our advanced, technological age, Egypt is no less awesome. Photography is no more capable than words of capturing its essence.
And yet, because the knowledge embodied in these ruins is so very different from our own; because it is never self- evident, and never explicit, even its existence is a matter of controversy. Here is one of the strangest paradoxes of modern scholarship.
Of all ancient civilizations, none has bequeathed us a comparable wealth of architectural, artistic, religious, scientific and literary evidence. At the same time, no other presents so many mysteries or leaves open so many crucial questions. Certainly no other has generated such heated or such voluminous controversy.
Writing back in 1907, an independent pyramid re- searcher, Louis B. McCarty, complained that the volume of serious material on the Great pyramid alone was already such that no single man could wade through it in a lifetime. At around the same time, the eminent Egyptologist, E.A. Wallis Budge, marveled that among his own academic colleagues, two equally eminent scholars studying identical material would often come to diametrically contrary conclusions. One saw a great, advanced civilization infused with wisdom and high science; the other saw technologically accomplished primitives barely a step out of fetishism, practicing a barbaric and incoherent religion, devoid of science or philosophy.
The situation is not very different today. The volume of material has increased exponentially. Certain questions of a technical nature have been solved, while new ones have surfaced. But the matter of interpretation looms as large as ever. To travel through Egypt unaware of the mysteries, conflicts, opposed interpretations and new or radical theories is to miss out on both the philosophical and scholarly excitement.
Because you are not an "expert" in the field, it does not mean you must be spoon-fed a single, homogenized version of the current official view (itself in a state of constant ferment and revision, though the outsider would never suspect it). Insofar as space allows, as we travel through Egypt temple by temple and tomb by tomb, we will be presenting the main issues and controversies as they apply to the site in question. With the evidence in front of you, you will be in an ideal position to serve as both juror and judge, deciding for yourself who may be right, who wrong. There are more challenging ways to see Egypt than as a passive spectator.
The questions raised by ancient Egypt are not simply academic quibbles; they resonate far beyond the confines of classroom or library and relate-once they are understood in their proper context-to crucial contemporary values and philosophy.
Egypt has been exercising its profound effect upon travelers for a very long time indeed; Egyptology is, by contrast, a newcomer on the scene. If there were no Egyptology, no controversies and no knowledge whatever of the civilization responsible for these ruins, the effect they produce would still be the same.
METHOD AND FORMAT
The material for this book grows out of many years' research into both orthodox and unorthodox areas of ancient and modern science, religion, and philosophy. The format has been devised after many trips to Egypt as guide and lecturer. It represents an attempt to make up what were felt to be shortcomings in the books normally available, particularly with regard to explaining and understanding of the sacred.
While no book can substitute for a live guide and lecturer who can explain and answer questions on the spot, The Traveler's Key touches upon large areas of original and controversial scholarship that most professional guides have never studied. The question of meaning and significance is one that professional Egyptologists tend to minimize or else consider satisfactorily answered.
It is exceedingly difficult to try to follow explanations and interpretations from a book while visiting a given temple or tomb, when you may well be in the company of a group and also short of time. On the other hand, to present the information in a separate chapter would be to destroy its immediacy. A degree of compromise is called for.
It is recommended that you read in advance-the night before, or on the bus taking you to your destination-the chapters pertaining to the day's sites. With a good idea beforehand of the issues involved, the chief points of interest can be spotted from the keyed diagrams and you will not find yourself trying to race through discussions that are sometimes quite detailed.
The sequence that we follow is a cross between the expedient and the chronological and represents a kind of "ideal" itinerary . In practice there is no hard and fast itinerary for visiting Egypt, though there are definitely better and worse approaches to the situation. Best is a tour that is at least two weeks long, that starts from Cairo, and that then travels up the Nile by boat, plane, bus or train to Luxor. This is both natural and artistically preferable to going straight to Aswan and heading downriver. It means that, in Giza (Cairo), you start off in the Old Kingdom, move to the Middle and New Kingdoms in Luxor, and then continue upstream to Aswan, visiting the Ptolemaic temples en route. Ptolemaic Dendera, and New Kingdom Abu Simbel in Nubia are exceptions to a plan that otherwise follows the chronology of ancient Egypt and that therefore allows the visitor to follow the sequence of its historical development - a much more satisfying esthetic experience than an arbitrary order imposed by scheduling or financial considerations.
Most trips to Egypt take two weeks or less. The vast majority of tourists have time to take in only one aspect of Egypt: ancient Egypt. So even though Egypt contains some of the finest Islamic art and architecture in the world, few visitors manage more than a token visit to one or two of the mosques. Since an adequate treatment of sacred Islamic art would occupy considerable space on its own, this aspect of Egypt has been eliminated altogether.
We have left out sites of Egyptological interest that lie totally outside normal itineraries, but have included a number that, though visited less often, are nonetheless accessible and well worth seeing if the option is available, particularly on a second trip to Egypt.
Our emphasis in The Traveler's Key is upon the meaning and significance of the sacred art and architecture of ancient Egypt, upon its past-but-still-potent splendor - which is of course what brings you here.
To order copies of this book, please go to John Anthony West's Web Site at: www.jawest.com