All foreign lands are my subjects, He placed my border at the limits of heaven. What Aten encircles labors for me. He gave it to him who came from him. Knowing I would rule it for him. I am his daughter in very truth, Who serves him who knows what he ordains. My reward from my father is life-stability-rule. On the Horus throne of all the living, eternally like Re.
Saturday, August 15, 2009
Reaching the Higher Ground
“I’m so glad that he let me try it again/Cause my last time on earth I lived a whole world of sin/I’m so glad that I know more than I knew then/Gonna keep on trying/Till I reach the Highest Ground”
---Stevie Wonder, "Higher Ground" (1973)
Dr. Williams and I are sitting in the Sekhmet conference room at the Sonestra St. George Hotel in Luxor, listening to the easy laughter and light conversation of the students as we ease into our final class work day in Kemet. Over the last two days, these young people have written and recorded a mini-documentary of their journey, adding another layer to the long-standing engagement of Howard students with the study of classical Africa. We are both tired but energized by the enthusiasm and unflagging effort of each member of this remarkable band. They have kept on pushing, each question and comment linking them more definitely to the numerous bands of scholars who preceded them. We’ve a story to tell that the blog only scratches the surface of.
This afternoon, we will visit the Luxor Museum, opened in the 1980s and recently refurbished and infused with additional treasures from the endless Kemetic cache. It is an under-visited crown jewel, and we will use the experience to sum up much of what we have seen and discussed to date. The core of the Luxor Museum collection consists of pieces buried for centuries by the priests of Ipet-Isut (“The Most Select of Places,” known to the Greeks as Karnak) to hide them from robbers whose contemporary counterparts have heisted booty that now adorns collections in Berlin, London, Paris, New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago. As Dr. Williams wrote earlier, Ipet Isut was the spiritual center for Kemetic life for at least two millennia. When they were discovered in the 1960s, the statuary, stelae and assorted artifacts buried at Ipet Isut were in such pristine states of preservation that, when treated and prepared for display, they seemed to reconstruct Kemet as a living civilization.
At the Luxor Museum, we will be greeted by a massive head of Amenhotep III, Husband of Tiye, Father of Akhenaten and legendary New Kingdom link between the Hatsheptsut-Djehutymes III era and the Akhenaten-Horemheb-Seti-Rameses eras. The first thing you notice about all the Amenhotep III statuary in the Luxor Museum—and there is a lot of it—is the lips. This man was unmistakably African. Four days ago, we visited the “house the Amenhotep III built,” the companion temple complex to Ipet Isut known as Southern Opet (The Place of Seclusion), or Luxor. We lingered at the massive twin statues that front what remains of his morturary temple, two pieces known as “The Colossi of Memnon” in a gesture toward the Greek king made famous in the Iliad, five centuries later.
We will wind around the various pieces of limestone, pink and black granite, and malachite, the pristine glyphs, astonishing detail and serene visages pulling us into deeper and deeper reflection on the many places we have visited in the last two weeks. These students have drilled into a deep well of Classical Africana, nestled along the Nile, and mined gems that they have prepared over the last several days to present on this website in the next days and weeks.
As with the story of Hatshepsut, we have aspired to strengthen that which has been strong and to do right by the great legacy we have inherited. Though she was schemed against by the forces of her day, this great Per Uah managed to extend the authority of Kemet as a diplomat and visionary, in the tradition of her predecessors and as the custodian of the legacy of her ancestors. As we stood at her morturary temple, we reflected on what she wrote on her Tekken (Obelisk) at Ipet Isut:
When we enter the sakhu (mummy) room at the Luxor Museum, we will see Ahmose, laying there, with the golden fly-shaped amulets signifying the battle citations awarded his Mother, the Theban Queen Tetisheri: HIS MOTHER!!—for her helping to lead Kemet’s armies against invaders. These amulets lie under glass a few feet from Ahmose and next to his own battle dagger. Ahmose, a petit man who had commanded the respect and admiration of first his troops, then a nation. Ahmose, whose Black skin and African features are indistinguishable from those we viewed when looking down on Seti I and the Djehutymeses in the Cairo Museum.
We will see statues of Horemheb, the once-general under Tutankhamun who was considered the first legitimate Per Uah since Amenhotep III and who rose to lead Kemet into the transition between the 18th and 19th Dynasties and the era of Ramseses. Three days ago, we visited Horemheb’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings, as well as that of Tawosret, mother of Seti I and the Ramses line, a Per Uah in her own right before being succeeded by Setnakht. As we scrutinized these tombs in the Valley, the guides allowed us the freedom to comment on the various texts inscribed therein: The Book of Days and The Book of Nights; The Book of the Earth, The Litanies of Re and The book of Amduat. They re-christened us “Egyptian Negroes,” to hearty laughter all around that rang the limestone shafts cut deep in the earth. Like the nondescript piano movers, train station wayfarers and pedestrians described by Ralph Ellison in his essay The Little Man at Cheraw Station, these guards know more about the contents of the tombs than many who profess to be experts. As African-Americans, we have learned to meet people in our common humanity and take them at their lived experience rather than at the social rank or status that is often used to separate person from person. Because of this, we have been afforded particular warmth everywhere we have sojourned so far.
At the Luxor Museum we will see statues of Seti I, master builder and the moving force behind the temple he built at Abydos, described according to David O’Connor as being set “in the province which he loved, his heart’s desire ever since he had been on earth, the sacred soil of Wennefer (Osiris)” At Abydos two days ago, we examined the site with the richest untapped potential to yield traces that connect all periods of the Kemetic state. The area served as the burial site for the first rulers of Kemet (including Narmer the Unifier) and was venerated since at least 2,000 b.c.e. as the burial place of Wosir (Osiris). It is almost entirely un-excavated, and most of its temples and tombs were razed millennia ago so their materials could be re-used for other structures. Visitors to Abydos come to walk, meditate and absorb the unparalleled carvings in the astonishing temple of Seti I, completed by his son, Ramses II during the 19th Dynasty. The official name of the temple is The Noble Mansion of Millions of Years of the King Men-Ma’at-Ra who Rests in Abydos.
As significant as Abydos is, however, many tourists do not visit. According to the tour guides, Abydos is not on the standard tour package: It lies three hours from Luxor by bus. In visiting there, as well as Memphis and the Tombs of the Nobles in both Aswan and Deir el Medina, we have followed a generation of African-American tours of Kemet that were built by women and men who knew their importance to the intellectual genealogy of the Nile Valley, of African people, and of humanity.
Due to the focused and informed nature of our discussions as we visit the sites, other tour groups have been pausing to take note of how much our group knows about each place; the temple and tomb guards have been referring to us as “professors”; African-American tourists in the hotels have come up to us to ask how we have acquired so much information, and a couple from Eritrea brought her teenaged sons to class yesterday to exchange experiences. When we visited Dendera after leaving Abydos, we were able to discuss the particulars of Kemetic notions of time and space. The classical Africans gave the world the calendar it still uses; the concept of the 365 day year, the 24 hour day and the progression of the constellations in the star-strewn sky, inscribed in the famous "Dendera Zodiac." Our tour guide has been duly impressed with the level of hard work and preparation we have undertaken. She can, of course,only glimpse the passion that lies behind that type of effort.
Ours is a passion born of a sense of urgency. The world changes, but that which can be recovered of human memory that can save us from making the same mistakes of the past must be retrieved. Stevie Wonder had a premonition of his demise near his 23rd birthday and awoke from the vision to write and record"Higher Ground" in three hours in May, 1973. Three months later, he was in a coma because of an automobile accident. His road manager and friend, Ira Tucker, Jr., sat by his bedside as his vital signs ebbed. Finally, Tucker "got right down in his ear and sang 'Higher Ground." As he sang, Wonder's fingers, resting on Tucker's arm, started moving in time with the song. Tucker remembers saying "Yeah! This dude's gonna make it!"
I think of the fact that the lyrics of "Higher Ground" speak to the fact that our lives do not begin with our physical births, but rather have access to all the memories that previous lives provide to be retrieved. As we restore our memories, we give ourselves the means for our salvation, no matter what immediate tragedies or crises we encounter. Moment by moment, we have watched Ernest, Angi, Brittani, Sawdayah, Miriah, Jazelle, Shacrai, Clarice, Marcy, Nijeul, Dana, Havian, Robert and Jalena move as individuals and in concert to reach the highest ground. As Dana, Toria, Shelley, Gussie, Maria, Brittany my mother and I have worked alongside them, learning every moment of the way. I'm so glad that we have been able to do this again. Our last time here we did it well. Next time, should we be allowed, we will do it differently and differently better. For now, as we begin to reflect on our journey, we stand firmly on the highest ground.