Monday, February 23, 2015

My January Pilgrimage to the Temple of Mereptah

I spoke recently about making pilgrimages this year, as a way of honoring my spirits and finding spiritual inspiration. I have completed two thus far -

In January, we traveled to the University of Penn archeological museum, to visit the palace of Merenptah. The palace was built for the New Kingdom pharaoh Merenptah (r. 1213-1204 BCE) at the city of Memphis in Lower Egypt.The museum has done an amazing job of exhibiting it, through dramatic lighting, big panels detailing it's excavation and explanations of all its decor. he palace, which housed the king during religious festivals, originally stood in the vicinity of the Memphite sanctuary of the god Ptah, the patron of this city. Merenptah’s palace was originally decorated floor to ceiling with painted, inlaid and gilded images and symbols proclaiming the power of the king and his associations with the divine. The palace of Merenptah contained not only public ceremonial rooms such as the throne room and vast columned hall, but also private areas for the king and royal family, including bedrooms and bathrooms.

The first time I ever walked by through this palace, I was overwhelmed by and with emotions. It felt very familiar to me, as if I had been there before. Not a true deja-vu, but close enough. I am a huge fan of Egypt, and I've visited many, many exhibits over the years. (I still have my pin from the 1976 Tut exhibit in New York City...) But nothing has ever moved me like this palace. I try every January to visit, and each time, my reaction is the same.

I walk slowly between the lotus columns, their color as crisp and clear as the day they were painted. They stand behind the Sphinx, serene as a pool of calm water. The columns are uplit, making their hieroglyphs pop from all sides. The top fans are gorgeous, and you can clearly see all the colors that they were painted. It amazes me to find that after nearly 4000 years, they are as fresh as if they were hand done last week. I remember the Tut show in 1976 struck the same cord with me. Not every column has its crown, but they are intact enough to give one the sense of how it must have looked centuries ago.

There are four window lintels, and a doorway as part of the exhibit.  They are situated in the gallery, to mimic their original position when the palace was intact.  I stand before each one, saluting the four directions, and imagining myself on the river's edge.  If I try hard enough (and the loud, obnoxious visitors leave), I can almost feel the Nile breeze and smell the lotus blossoms in the water.  I study each window, the names in cartouches and the various symbols, and it seems as if I had stood before them before - every time. I find myself weeping softly, not because of death or misfortune -- but the feeling that I was there/here in this palace, and I want to go back, to reunite with those I left behind. How strange to be here, but alone without the family I feel I was a part of. It is a familiar feeling. The holiday season is bittersweet for me.  Both my parents shared a Xmas/Solistice birthday. Standing in the temple, remembering my own parents and my possible Egyptian connection leaves me melancholy. It is nearly overwhelming at some of the windows, so I move to the middle of the exhibit to visit with the Sphinx, and find the energy surrounding the venerable statue less upsetting to me.

The Spinx originally sat outdoors in the museum garden.
It is carved of red granite, which originated at a quarry in Aswan at Egypt’s southern border. In an incredible feat of ancient engineering and transport, this single massive block of stone was shipped on the Nile River from Aswan to the Ptah Temple at Memphis, 600 miles north. During much of its post-pharaonic history, this statue was buried up to its shoulders; only the exposed head was attacked by windblown sand, which eroded the facial features and the royal false beard. The inscriptions on the chest and around the base give the five names of Ramesses II. His son and successor, Merenptah, added his own cartouches to the shoulders of the sphinx after his father’s death. The Sphinx sits center in the palace, and is the first thing you see as you enter the gallery. It's a stunning set up -- tall lotus columns seem to surround the statue; a single pin point of light illuminates the now blank face. Yet for its age and it's infirmities, the statue exudes a kind of ancient grace.  Like the creature it is named for, it still holds mysteries for me.  I pat its paws, sing a song to it and leave feeling I have done my work.

Before we exit, I offer a short prayer from the Christian Jacq's Living Wisdom of Egypt prayer book. This book is my favorite set of prayers, and I have turned to them time again, for funeral rites I have done.  I remember reading a selection from this book, on the beach in California for Oungan Steve's memorial service. Several strangers stopped to listen, and came up to me later to ask where I had gotten the material. This is the one I offered for the oungan, and again at the palace this day:

I have practiced and preached the justice of Ma'at,
I have told the truth, I have spoken just words.
I have acted with justice. to profit by the love of mankind.
I have dealt justly with those who challenge it.
I have saved the weak from the clutches of the strong as much as I could.
I have given bread to those who were hungry,
Water to those who were thirsty,
Clothes to those who have none.
I have allowed those without a boat to cross to the other bank.
And I have given an eternal dwelling place,
To those who have no sons to build them one. ~ Mastaba of Sheshi at Saqqara

Ashe. Amen. Ayibobo.

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