Did you know that the ancient Egyptians actually had a real valley of death??? They believed that when their soul departed this world it would basically have to run a gauntlet of tests placed before them by the gods and goddesses to determine if they were worthy of continuing in the afterlife. If they succeeded then their heart was weighed against the feather of justice. Should their heart be balanced with the symbol of righteousness they would be allowed to continue to the beautiful land of plenty.
The entrance to this beautiful afterworld was up a path through a valley that is located directly behind the house that I am living in as I work here. So this past weekend my colleagues and I hiked into this valley, which strangely enough did not bespeak of bounty and heavenly bliss. Rather, there were a fair amount of curse words uttered on the occasion as we struggled up massive windswept sand dunes and through the twists and turns of the looooooooooong pathway between the craggy stone mountains.
While climate change or cultural perceptions could both account for the difference, it was quite an experience walking in the footsteps of so many ancient souls. To reach the entrance of the valley we passed through (or over really) the graves of Egypt’s first kings who felt it their prerogative to rest their bones within sight of the heavenly gateway. It was impossible not to wonder what the spirits of those royals are thinking now. I have to admit that what was on my mind much of the time was a tall cool beverage! Don’t let the long-sleeves and scarf fool ya. It was HOT out there. The strong winds probably brought the wind-chill factor to about 104 degrees F.
We were accompanied on our journey by a handful of security guards so we could be kept safe from…….well, we’re still trying to figure that out. I’d like to think that they were joining us to enjoy the spectacular views from the mountaintops or to explore the nooks and crannies of such a famous pathway. This was not likely however as throughout the trip they continued to pepper us with questions like, “Why are you doing this?” and “Are you ready to turn around now?” and “How long is this going to take?” My personal favorite was actually a comment I overheard one of them make when he radioed back to his supervisor to say, “I don’t understand. They’re just looking at rocks!”
Yes, we were looking at the rocks, which were quite wild. But it was our imaginations that were running rampant with us. It’s not often that one can place themselves exactly at the crossroads of the past and the present: a place that was so holy for so many for such a long time and that can still be traversed in much the same condition as it once was. Nature was a powerful force in the lives of the ancients. Geography and theology mixed intimately.
The ancient sense of awe was easy to understand. As we made our way back down and out from the valley towards our dig house we gave the Egyptians thanks for one of their great inventions and we hoped desperately that a modern one was working. We were in luck that day as the beers in our house refrigerator were ice cold.