Thoughts on Thebes #RTW
I am relieved to discover that King Tut’s tomb is smaller than my apartment back home.
Now, when I return from this transcendent circumnavigation, I am less likely to suffer from any serious bouts of post-travel claustrophobia. After freely roaming around the gargantuan sphere of Earth, I expect my home in the city will seem small, but not as small and confining as the eternal home of poor undignified King Tut, laid to rest in a windowless underground studio apartment with the unromantic address KV62, dishonored daily by the noisy parade of uninvited sunburned guests.
As mummified humans go, King Tutenkhamen is quite small. Archeologists estimate that in life, Tut was 5’11” and standing next to him, my ballpark guess is that over the millennia, he’s shrunken at least a foot. I stare at his black raisin of a body, shriveled up and cloaked in a shroud, as if lying on a table, waiting for a massage.
The boy king could use a spot of moisturizer—as could I. The air is so dry, here, in the Valley of the Kings, at the edge of the great and sandy Sahara—my throat has turned to cotton. Back at the hotel, they’ve got industrial-strength humidifiers humming in the hallways, filling the air with scented, barely-moist air, so that our nostrils won’t chap.
Once or twice a day, the electricity cuts out for a few seconds, sending us all into silent blackness, then recovering with the buzz of appliances switching back on again. I wonder what would happen if the power stayed off and all the humidifiers died—would the super-dry air simply mummify me in my sleep so that come morning, I would look just like King Tut, with his twisted beef jerky limbs under the sheets?
Cameras have been disallowed inside the Valley of the Kings, on the grounds that the bright lights of flash photography will fade the splendiferous and colored paintings. And so I carry no camera—only my phone that happens to takes decent (if not grainy) pictures of the tomb’s stone-carved walls, every inch alive with important hieroglyphs—a billboard and instruction manual for the afterlife.
I accept that I am tempting fate by sneaking an iPhone into King Tut’s tomb. I know all about the curse of the pharaohs and the uncanny misfortunes that befall nosy explorers and Egyptologists past—any and all who disrupt the graves of Egypt’s dynastic kings.
Even so, I am compelled by the force of the internet to Instagram King Tut’s blurry body to the world. Howard Carter would have done the same thing, accompanied by a rapid tweet of the famous first words he spoke after discovering the tomb in 1922: “I see wonderful things.”
Oh, the inglorious afterlife that follows being discovered by a British lord! To have your gold stolen away to sterile museums to be studied by groups of children on mandatory field trips—and then, once stripped of your wealth and clothes, and after innumerable CT scans and poking and prodding and tabloid-like overexposure, to then have your naked body dumped back in that small hole in the ground so that some American can just tweet you out to the world.
I am relieved to discover that there is 3G in the afterlife—the signal reaches halfway down into the slanted tomb of King Tut, so that I can live-tweet my own visit to a place unknown for centuries and made famous by our very own National Geographic some 90 years ago. Themes of ancient Egypt have frequently graced the cover of our magazine—so that now, when I have finally traveled to the epicenter of the whole world’s very keen and fanatic focus, I can look at King Tut’s wincing face and whisper to him, “I’ve heard so much about you.”
We have all heard so much about King Tut, and yet to be perfectly honest, we known absolutely nothing about him. The few facts we do know—that he died at age 18, that was married to his half-sister, and that he ordered his own remodeling of the Temple of Karnak—offer very little to go on. Much of the rest of discussion around the boy king is nothing more than highly-educated conjecture.
But it is exactly this mystery that has driven us to stop here on our trip around the world now. This expedition by private jet highlights notable National Geographic discoveries around the world, and yet, I feel it is really a world tour of former capitals: In Cambodia, we toured Angkor but skipped Phnom Penh; in China, we went to Xi’an instead of Beijing; India’s Agra instead of Delhi—and now Luxor rather than Cairo.
Former capitals are more interesting than current capitals, perhaps because as travelers, we know how the story ends. Walking beneath the bulbous stone base of Karnak’s pillared halls is a minimizing experience—not only does Egypt’s huge temple make me feel physically small, it makes our whole present world seem insignificant, small and temporary. I consider the capital of my own civilization, a city that I call home, decorated with avenues and parks and marble halls—vestiges of power and pomp, yet so often covered in scaffolding for repairs, remodeling and reconstruction.
Will the 124-year old obelisk of the Washington Monument stand tall for as long as the 3,469-year old Hatsephut’s obelisk in Luxor? Staring up at the blue desert sky and scanning the hieroglyphic text on the pink granite block, I see the resemblance. The alabaster neo-classical monuments of Washington, DC were modeled after Rome, which was modeled after ancient Greece who colonized the ancient Egyptians.
My home is a current capital that mimics the former—to an extent. We have Constitution Avenue but we do not have an Avenue of Sphinxes. On August days, Washington, DC feels like the most humid place on Earth, but here in Luxor, I am inhaling the driest heat I have known.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Travel sparks our human nature to compare everything we encounter with all that we know from back home, and here in Luxor (or Thebes, as the Greeks called it), I keep a running tally between the living capital of home with the dead capital of Egypt. Washington, DC is barely two centuries old, while Luxor lasted as the capital of Egypt’s Middle Kingdom (2040 to 1750 BC) and its New Kingdom (1550 to 1070 BC). All of these tombs, temples and palaces remind me how juvenile is my own country and civilization.
And yet, the city where I live is a living descendant of Thebes, a nod to everything the ancient Egyptians got right.
If I have learned anything on this expedition around the world, it is that humans are obsessed with immortality—to the point of building something, anything, to outlast us when we die.
The drive to create physical memory is what lies behind all these colored hieroglyphics around me. I compare the Ancient Egyptian’s script with my writing on the internet today—a somewhat ephemeral form of writing that depends on electricity and technology, and which may or may not still be around tomorrow.
Haunting every human society is the reality of King Tut—that in the end, we dry up and lay forgotten underground in a very small box with few honors. Yet, this same reality is what drives us to record and remember, to live with purpose, and in my case, to travel around the world: the more story-worthy our lives, the more tomb walls and obelisks required to record these tales.
King Tut’s tomb is so small, but today, the internet offers infinite walls of blank stone. Given that I am so awkward with a chisel, I choose to blog.