It was a beautiful summer day when we docked at Al Aqsar (City of Palaces) or Luxor as it is better known, after our Nile cruise. Some of us thought of seeing the town taking a leisurely ride on a horse carriage (or tonga). And as our 15 year old ‘driver’ Muhammad, took us into the labyrinthine bazaar, I swear we could have been in any North Indian city, surrounded by little shops selling colourful dresses and hookahs – the air redolent with the perfume of eastern spices. Ummm, magical!
Eventually Muhammad took us to this huge shop which sold everything from Egyptian cotton, to statuettes of Anubis (probably made in China) to a whole section of the most amazing papyri. The shop keeper explained that it was a training school for papyrus painters, and we would not get such intricate, hand-crafted specimens at that price (pretty steep) anywhere in Cairo or Alexandria. So along with a beautiful ‘convention of the goddesses’ (which I call the Ladies’ Club) I picked up something which caught my eye, because it had this electric blue background – not the natural cream – and seemed to be telling a story, and looked quite grand and different. And here it is:
But I couldn’t get away from the feeling that it was a famous piece of art… so imagine my pleasure and surprise when I came across the original trawling through (what else) the British Museum website. And this is their original.
It has the following explication: the Papyrus is from the Book of the Dead, belonging to Hunefer, who was “Scribe of Divine Offerings”, “Overseer of Royal Cattle”, and steward of Pharaoh Seti I, in the 19th Dynasty. (1290-1279 B C).
The scene depicts the ‘Judgment of Hunefer’ and reads from left to right. To the left, Anubis brings Hunefer into the judgment area. Anubis is also shown supervising the judgment scales. Hunefer’s heart, represented as a pot, is being weighed against a feather, the symbol of Maat, the established order of things, in this context meaning ‘what is right’. The ancient Egyptians believed that the heart was the seat of the emotions, the intellect and the character, and thus represented the good or bad aspects of a person’s life. If the heart did not balance with the feather, then the dead person was condemned to non-existence, and consumption by the ferocious ‘devourer’, the strange beast shown here which is part-crocodile, part-lion, and part-hippopotamus.
However, after passing the test successfully, Hunefer is shown to the right, brought into the presence of Osiris by his son Horus, having become ‘true of voice’ or ‘justified’. This was a standard epithet applied to dead individuals in their texts. Osiris is shown seated under a canopy, with his sisters Isis and Nephthys. At the top, Hunefer is shown adoring a row of deities who supervise the judgment.
Which left me thinking… Just how much of an influence was the ancient Egyptian religion on the Abrahamic religions?
Judaism has a day of judgment once a year… Catholics have a particular and general Day of Judgment… as do the Orthodox Churches and Protestantism… Islam has a final Day of Judgment… Even the Bahai’s ( a fairly recent break-off from Shi’ite Islam) believe in judgment every millennium or so, whenever a new prophet declares himself. Both the Ancient Egyptians and their Abrahamic successors apparently looked on a final reckoning in the afterlife as a means of assuring good behaviour and accountability in this one.
Despite these similarities, however, the one thing that the Egyptians could not and would not accept was the common denominator of these latter day faiths viz. monotheism – because without a God-Pharaoh on the throne and the very powerful priests behind that throne, the entire socio-economic- political fabric of that very hierarchical society would crumble.
Which is why they practically wiped out their Pharaoh Akhenaten and his wife Queen Nefertiti from the pages of history for the crime of declaring that there was only one God – the Sun God Ra.
Makes you wonder whether all religion is eventually about only one thing – POWER … and ways to justify why a chosen few have the monopoly of power in any society…