Summer Study Abroad, Kemet: Day Three

“Feelings came over me far different from those which I have felt when looking at the mighty works of European genius.  I felt that I had a peculiar heritage in the Great Pyramid built…by the enterprising sons of Ham, from which I descended. The blood seemed to flow faster through my veins.  I seemed to hear the echo of those illustrious Africans.  I seemed to feel the impulse from those stirring characters who sent civilization to Greece—the teachers of the father of poetry, history and mathematics—Homer, Herodotus, and Euclid.  I seemed to catch the sound of the “stately steppings” of Jupiter, as, with his brilliant celestial retinue, he perambulates the land on a visit to my ancestors, the ‘blameless Ethiopians.’  I felt lifted out of the commonplace grandeur of modern times; and, could my voice have reached every African in the world, I would have earnestly addressed him in the words of the Liberian poet Hillary Teague: “From Pyramidal Hall; From Thebes, they loudly call; Retake your Fame.”  

–      Edward Wilmot Blyden, From West Africa to Palestine (Freetown: T.J. Sawyer, 1873)

Like echoes of visitors in the limestone burial chambers of Maidum’s “Bent Pyramid” or Dashur’s “Red” (or North) Pyramid, Old Kingdom Kemetic cosmology and philosophy of governance is amplified by the expansive national program of monumental architecture of the world’s first nation-builders. The Red Pyramid, one of several constructed by the Master Builder of Antiquity, Per Uah [Pharaoh] Sneferu, is Kemet’s third largest, after his son Khufu’s “Great Pyramid” and grandson Khafre’s pyramid, both miles away in Giza. 

In the space of two days, we completed the taxing physical and rejuvenating spiritual work of traveling to, climbing and descending into burial chambers of five of them. Ahead lie processing what the so-called “Pyramid Age” meant in Egyptian and world history, the moment when the template for human architecture was forever advanced from rudimentary survival to soaring refashioning of nature to suit human purpose.

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Before entering Seneferu's pyramid at Maidum

Entering and exiting pyramids is no easy task. Over the years, however, I have seen very few Africans not be able to successfully complete it, regardless of age or physical condition. Whatever pulls them first down and then back up through the narrow passages, it is clear that one key to passing this momentary test of will and stamina is the company of fellow travelers of common mind and purpose. As I once again climbed down through the Red Pyramid’s narrow passage, our students had already descended, calling encouragements to each other as the single file string expanded, body by tentatively entering body. 

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Preparing to enter the Red Pyramid, Dashur

Midway down to Seneferu’s burial chamber, a man straining to return through the shaft to the surface drew closer on my left. Moving through the shafts of pyramids requires an average sized adult to approximate variations of a duck walk, gripping guide rails as she navigates the sharp descent angle of an escalator of thin wooden gangplank, punctuated by narrow metal strip “steps.” Even when Egypt was flush with visitors, Maidum and Dashur were not crowded, each requiring a journey of over an hour from Cairo and specific interest of those determined to trace the arc of Old Kingdom periodization. Now, as in recent post-revolution journeys, we had both sites virtually to ourselves, making anyone not from our group emerging from the beveled ceilinged burial chamber both a welcome sight and, given the shaft’s narrow dimensions, a quick and friendly blending of personal space as we squeezed past each other.

Though I couldn’t see his face, as the approaching man grew larger in the dim light I made out a familiar pattern on his t-shirt. It was a print in the pattern of Bogolanfini, the Malian cotton fabric commonly known as “Mud Cloth.” “You okay, brother?” I called to him as he ascended laboriously. “Yes, brother…” he said. As we got closer, I saw that he was another African. “Where are you from?” he asked?  “America,” I said. “Those are our students you passed on the way up!  And you?”  He said, “I live in Spain but I am from Sierra Leone!”  By then, we were within a few yards of each other. “Long live Africa!” he exclaimed, his sonorous tenor bouncing off the diorite in the shaft.  “Long live Africa, long live!” I replied, equally loudly, in a well-known reply among Pan Africanists, especially those from the days of solidarity anti-colonial struggles across the continent and in the African Diaspora. Moments later, we squeezed past each other in a brush of salutation, solidarity and brotherhood. 

The encounter gave me renewed purpose. After leaving Maidum and Dashur, we spent the early afternoon at a site devoted to the early administrative capital of Kemet, a place known to the ancients as Min Nefter (the beautiful place) and Hwt Ka Ptah (Place of the Soul of God (Ptah)). Min Nefer (or “Memphis”) so impressed the Greeks that visited it many centuries after its founding and rise to permanent importance in Kemetic governance that the awed visitors took to calling the entire country one of the names of this one city. Hwt Ka Ptah became “Aiguptios,” which, eventually, became “Egypt.” This name, of course, survives in the name of the modern country. The name “Memphis” marks a southern U.S. city that sits on the Mississippi river, a testament to the misinformed “Neo Greek Revival” dreams of a cobbled white southern aristocracy who invented a past as bogus as its slavery-fueled ambitions.

At the Memphis “open air” museum, we saw a partial statue of the New Kingdom empire-builder Ramses II, long ago toppled by nature and now the centerpiece of the site. New Kingdom rulers often evoked the rituals, sebaytand rulers of the Old Kingdom for inspiration and sanction. And, from Memphis and points south, re-unifiers of Kemet, from the Middle Kingdom’s Mentuhotep II to Late Period Nubians Piankhy, Taharqa and Shabaka, projected their power all the way down the Nile to the shores of the Mediterranean. Kemet always renewed itself by 

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With a fallen partial statue of Ramses II at Memphis.

Our students are cementing their learning with physical experiences, integrating new information in our nightly classes and life-long interests in the Nile Valley and guided study that they undertook in preparation for the journey. It is the collective undertaking that binds our learning to permanent memory and expanded horizons. 

Tomorrow, we will spend the day in the Cairo Museum fastening more sinew and muscle to the narrative skeleton of the Nile Valley’s three millennium history as a civilizational nation. Today, a great deal of our nightly class and debrief discussions was devoted to how Egyptian heads-of-state organized the sprawling nation. How Africans created, expanded and maintained a country of many different people over thousands of miles for three millennium remains one of the great stories of world history. Kemet is the primary society of the classical world, the fountainhead for much of what endures today in religion, science, government and culture.

Kemet's Africans carried ideas toward the Mediterranean from inner Africa and resemble their kin across the continent in how they viewed the world and how they articulated ideas of time, space and human relationships to each other and the cosmos. Our students's reactions to the monumental remains of the society so far have not been unlike that of Edward Blyden, an African son of St. Thomas in the Caribbean who spent a great deal of his life in Liberia and passed away in nearby Sierra Leone. We should join Blyden and the Liberian poet Hillary Teague in not only "retaking the fame" of African people, but renewing and extending the best contributions of human society that we have made. We must see and interact with the world on our terms.