There’s a trapdoor in the sun…immortality.
A pale streak of sunlight pierces the dark hall of Horus’s temple in Edfu. It cradles the motes of dust and sand, rising and falling through the hole in the chamber. There are other lights, and other sounds, the clicks and flashes of pocket cameras, the monotonous droning of tour guides, the cooing and exasperated whispers of tourists; they all begin an elegant blending into background static, pulled into the halo of that rectangular, daylight shard of hieroglyphics. I wonder if the original pilgrims to this site read through them, from top to bottom or left to right, the same way I read the Gettysburg Address on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial.
To cover rooms, from floor to ceiling, with incantations designed to discover immortality is the providence Hollywood has reserved for mad men. Yet the Hieroglyphics in Edfu, and all the discovered and undiscovered temples of these civilizations devote themselves to that same thing. The ancient Egyptians accomplished impossible feats of engineering. The level of craft and sophistication they employed was unparalleled in the ancient world. Archeological teams armed with lasers scanning in micrometers and infrared cameras still cannot agree on the methods of construction of the pyramids. Yet for all their engineering artistry, the ancients created awe inspiring masses of stone dedicated entirely to gods that today’s children of the Nile laugh at.
History is often little more than the art of paraphrasing. The lives of, as has been said, the gone, growing in number, have been carefully filtered into mass. They are religions, civilizations, and battle statistics. They are the white space between words. For every invention, theory, and quote there are ten thousand thoughtless; dead before they ever lived, the greatest apes forgotten, when even starfish have left fossils. In Egypt nothing is left but the re-arrangement of rocks, and we tourists, who appropriately move in echoes, always fading into the dark.
The light remains, and the wall’s carvings reveal the struggle of its creation, of its heroic stand against the entropy of the desert, but the story is meaningless. Even if I devoted myself to learning this dead language, the nuances of a bird’s beak pointed left or right, the scythe of an underworld guardian raised or across a lap, it would make no difference. The walls will eventually crumble, though masons will repair them, remake them, try to stay true to the character of the dead, but like wine laid down in the cellar by the deceased, once drunk, the vintage will never return.
Each relic reinforces a gnawing feeling of nihilism, of the futility of all endeavors in the face of the worst evil of time, irrelevance. Ideas are no more immortal than flesh; they simply live longer, like the decaying orbit of a comet, circling suns for a hundred million years, before plummeting into the molten core. They aggregate, like symbols on the flags of revolutions, and dissipate back to their origins, but ultimately they will be discarded, like the golden funereal masks discovered in pharaohs’ tombs, melted down into wine goblets, snuff boxes, or bedposts in the chamber where the next king will expire.
Against the backdrop of this perpetual forgetting is a people remembering for the first time. The distant relatives of those who tinkered with the timeless have finally accepted that their time is short. So they surge Friday after Friday into Tahrir Square, where they raise their banners and shout into loudspeakers. A man stands on a light post waving Egyptian flags. College kids construct stages and podiums. Shopkeepers lay twenty feet of newspapers proclaiming Arab Spring across the sidewalks while minibuses disgorge men and women from all over the sagging, brick tenement districts into the open chapter of this new history. They dip their shoes in black ink, and march from page to page, hoping that the story will end before the empty inkwells fill with blood. We’ve seen it all before, and we haven’t. We know how it will end, and we don’t.
They come in lines, in waves, in song, in light, sweeping past the Egyptian museum, the warehouse of all the accumulated works of a people who have nothing left to teach, into a square where nothing will be left unsaid. On the battleground of ideas new heroes will emerge, some here will become great, lead parliaments, trumpet calls for war, and see themselves as statues looming over the next generation of anger. Some will lose hope or lose interest when discovering that authority gnaws away at the future like a cancer of compromise. Some may become architects, working in glass and steel, stamping the next great geometric symbols across the sands, where they will wait for a thousand years to impress the people who have dismissed them.
And then, when all the glorious, magnificent structures have been forgotten, overwhelmed by the smell of wheat wafting across the green, alluvial fields of the Nile, there is a new turn in the quest for immortality. Where all the mad artifice of architects’ dreams had failed, the simplest acts of life persevere. Here, across the badlands of dusty streets and crumbling brick apartments, farmers beat their mules, till the soil, sew the same seeds and reap the same harvests century after century. All those unnamed men and women, in unmarked graves, leading unremarkable lives, have never left us after all. If history has never noticed them, it is because they never left. The wealthy, the heroic, the brilliant, all of the creatures of ego, who strive toward the timeless, will never ascend past the colloquial, because immortality will always be found in poverty.
In the long, unbroken chain of our daily bread, in the never ending quest for our most basic needs, you will find that which has escaped time. In the rice fields of central China, the terraced tea plantations of southern India, the mountain villages of Chile, and the flood plains of the Nile River you can find them. They are the same men and women who fed the Pharaohs, who fed the Greeks and the Romans, who fed the Caliphs and the Mamluks and Turks, who fed the last king and the last dictator, and who will feed the next. You could paint them every year for 5,000 years and find that after the paint has peeled, and the photos have faded, they will still be standing over the same fields, under the baking sun.