The Tomb of Ramses VI: Heaven Underground

Light years away from our daily sorrows and fears, there are unperceived moments which always last.

The most incredible tomb in Luxor’s famed Valley of the Kings is neither that of Tutankhamen nor that of Horemheb, but rather a tomb usurped by the XX dynasty pharaoh, Ramses VI.

An otherwise insignificant pharaoh, Ramses VI will always be remembered for this unearthly tomb where one comes face to face with one awe-inspiring corridor after another, all adorned with fantastic depictions of scenes from the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Day, Book of the Night, Book of the Caverns and Book of the Gates. Then comes the burial chamber with its unique astronomical ceiling showing the constellations, the decans and the daily journey of the solar disc through the body of the goddess Nut: the Netherworld was never so serene; the sky was never so vivid, even if it is a motionless starry sky. Is it any surprise we are made of star-stuff?

There were no other visitors; I had the place for myself. Alone in the burial chamber, I spent an eternity contemplating the celestial splendor at the heart of an underground tomb: a true theatre of heavenly delight, where the mortal and the divine are in perfect harmony, and where my light is the shadow of Ra’s might.

Ramses VI Tomb 1

Astronomical Ceiling of Ramses VI Tomb

Ramses VI Tomb 2

Panoramic View of Ramses VI Tomb

Ramses VI Tomb 4

Tomb of Ramses VI – 1

Ramses VI Tomb 5

Tomb of Ramses VI – 3

Ramses VI Tomb 3

Tomb of Ramses VI – 2

Sun sets over Luxor Temple

Sun sets over Luxor

Relief of Thutmose III at Luxor Museum

Thutmose III

Medinet Habu: Splendor of the Pharaohs

Having contemplated the ‘House-of-Millions-of-Years’ (mortuary temple) of Ramses III from a hot-air balloon earlier today, it was time to explore it on foot. As I approached the temple, walking through the migdol (Asian-style fortress-gateway), I finally came face to face with the warrior-king: Ramses III –in the fashion of his predecessors- grabs his enemies by the hair as he raises the other hand to smite them with a club, to the satisfied look of Amon-Ra and Ra-Horakhty. Such is the iconographic program of the first pylon at the Temple of Medinet Habu, but it gets much more interesting at the second pylon.

Having confronted the Nubians to the South and the Libyan to the West, the real threat came from the North and the East: the Bronze Age Vikings of the Eastern Mediterranean, known as the Sea Peoples (a heterogeneous coalition of Aegean populations), swarmed Egypt during the reign of the XIX Dynasty Pharaoh, Ramses III. The clash was so intense that the walls of the second pylon of the Temple of Medinet Habu still echo the carnage. Picasso should have found inspiration here for his cubist style: the captives depicted are shown with the feathered helmets typical of the Sea Peoples, with arms bound over heads and behind their backs in a rather ‘modern’ composition reminiscent of Picasso’s ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’, only thousands of years older. The images are exceptional in both their quality and their style, as some of the captives (Peleset and Tjeker) are shown frontally, an anomaly in Ancient Egyptian art.

Elsewhere, the walls of the peristyle halls are covered with horrific reliefs showing intense battles, scattered bodies, mutilated captives and severed hands and genitals; a grim reminder of the fate that awaited the enemies of Egypt. This, obviously, is not why Medinet Habu, the best-persevered mortuary temple on the west bank of Thebes, is also the most impressive. Why then?
The second court’s portico holds the answer: winged cobras and solar discs adorn ceilings and doorframes, while colored columns and pillars present a radical aesthetic shift from the rest of the scenes in the Temple. The colors glow as the continuous interplay between light and shadow lends this portico a sense of serenity rarely seen anywhere else in old Thebes; art for eternity, eternity in the memory of stone.

Following a quick stop to greet the seated statues of the XVIII dynasty Pharaoh Amenhotep III (Colossi of Memnon), we proceeded to visit the incredible Theban Tombs of Sennedjem and Ramose at Deir el-Medina. The best was yet to come at Valley of the Kings, but that is another story.

Medinet Habu Temple 5

Medinet Habu Temple 3

Enemies of Egypt - Sea Peoples

The Sea Peoples on Second Pylon

Medinet Habu Temple 7

Medinet Habu Temple 5

Medinet Habu seen from Hot-Air Balloon

Medinet Habu seen from Hot-Air Balloon

Medinet Habu Temple 3

Medinet Habu Temple 2

Medinet Habu Temple 1

Medinet Habu Temple 1

Medinet Habu Temple 2

Medinet Habu Temple 4

Enemies of Egypt

The Enemies of Egypt on First Pylon

Heading to the Colossi of Memnon

Colossi of Memnon

Medinet Habu Temple 6

Medinet Habu Temple 6

Karnak: Epitome of Cosmic Harmony

Like a good son of the Nile, I headed to Luxor to visit the ‘Hidden One’ and to pay tribute to the immortal Theban Triad. The attendants of stars had explained to me how the Temple of Karnak, being a solar temple, was aligned with the winter solstice sunrise; they had explained all about the heliacal rising of Sopdet (the name given by the Ancient Egyptians to the star Sirius), but I had to see it for myself. I had to come and meet Amun, Mut and Khonsu.  

I walked into the Temple of Karnak as a pilgrim of passion, just like many other times when I sleepwalked into Karnak in some of my dreams. Ancient Egyptian temples were more than just symbols of power or places of worship; they represented a microcosm, a realm of order in an ocean of chaos embodied by the outside world. The pylons (entrance gateways) marked the transition from chaos to order, but it does not end here. The monumental gateway is reminiscent of the hill that emerged from the primordial lake; the one on which the ancestral god Atum created himself. And because one layer of meaning is never enough, you can also think of the two flat towers flanking the gate as symbols of the two hills between which the sun first rose. How many pylons have I walked through in Karnak? I lost count, but I knew I was walking right into a time machine, as the innermost pylons are the oldest.

Then came the most splendid part of the temple, charged with cosmological symbolism: the Great Hypostyle Hall. A forest of 134 pillars, this mammoth structure commissioned by the XIX Dynasty Pharaoh Seti I utilized a New Kingdom signature element: the papyriform columns, all with closed-bud capitals except for the two central rows which, standing higher than the other columns, end in open-umbel capitals at a height of 21 meters. Closer to the sun, they are blessed with the gift of Ra, and the buds are no longer closed, but are rather open to embrace the sunlight. The papyrus plant must have grown around the primordial pond, the way they still grew along the shores of the Nile.

Architecturally, the difference in height between the two central rows of columns and the rest allows for opening clerestory windows that let in just the right amount of light that would respect the mystery of the temple’s interior, off limits to the public. Whatever happened inside the temple was the priests’ business and theirs alone (and the Pharaoh’s). Is it any wonder that the name of Amun means ‘the occult’?

Long gone is the roof that the columns once supported, but fortunately, some of the architraves are still there, giving us an idea of how the roof was once supported. What was once the most sacred part of the Temple (Holy of Holies) is now empty; the god no longer resides here.

Another clear solar symbol in Karnak are the obelisks of Thutmose I and Hatshepsut (the later weighing over 300 tons!). These are ‘petrified sunrays’ that adorned Ancient Egyptian temples, usually staged in pairs.

Rows of ram-headed sphinxes mark the processional avenues outside the temple. How many devout followers must have petitioned these rams (representations of Amun) to convey their prayers to the great Amun? How many times must have these rams witnessed the procession of the sacred barque carrying the statue of Amun during the annual Opet Festival?

Many are the Pharaohs that embellished this complex, each leaving his/her mark on this eternal and sacred cult centre from the XI Dynasty onward: Seti I, Ramses II, Ramses III, Merenptah, Nectanebo I, and the list goes on. Only during the reign of Ramses III, the Pharaoh dedicated 240,000 hectares to the cult of Amun, as well as 32 tons of gold, 1000 tons of silver and 2400 tons of copper to the Temple of Karnak.

Returning to the Temple at night for the Sound and Light Spectacle, one wonders whether this Temple was built or whether it had descended from heaven. On a clear night, the priests must have been able to observe the night sky reflected on the still surface of the Sacred Lake. I thought nothing would impress me more in Luxor. Luckily, I was wrong.
Ram-Headed Sphinxes at KarnakAvenue of the Ram-Headed SphinxesKarnak 2Karnak 6Karnak 4Karnak 1Karnak 3 The Mammoth Central Columns
Sun sets over Karnak