The Ancient Egyptian Time Machine

The ancient Egyptians believed that the essence of a deity could inhabit an image of that deity, or, in the case of mere mortals, part of that deceased human being’s soul could inhabit a statue inscribed for that particular person.

Edward Bleiberg: Curator of Egyptian, Classical and Near Eastern Art

Blame it on my love of adventure films such as Raiders of the Lost Arkย and Curse of the Mummy, but I actually got a bit spooked wandering alone deep inside the tomb of Pharaoh Ramses IV in Egypt’s legendary Valley of the Kings. Should I defy the tourist signs and take a photo of the 3,000 plus-year old sarcophagus, risking my own curse? I snapped a few. The temptation was simply too much to overcome.

The more than 3,000-year old carved stone sarcophagus of New Kingdom Pharaoh Ramses IV located within his burial chamber in the Valley of the Kings just outside present day Luxor, Egypt. Can you feel the vibe? Photo: Henry Lewis.

I recalled reading that Ramses IV had impatiently waited for his father to die in order to create his own historic legacy by building monumental structures that would bear witness to his greatness for millennia after his time. Unfortunately for him, Ramses III – whom scholars call the last great monarch of the New Kingdom – lived a long life, leaving his son only six years to rule before his own death. Perhaps the restless spirit of Ramses IV still inhabited the tomb, forever longing to fulfill his lost promise.

Standing in the crypt’s shadowed stillness, my attention was drawn upward to a row of hieroglyphs near the top of the stone wall. As my eyes carefully examined each detail, my mind drifted off in a sea of daydreams. Physical awareness slowly melted away until I was no longer conscious of my mind’s connection to an earthly body. Until, that is, I suddenly felt something grasp my left shoulder as I let out an audible scream.

I was greeted by a smiling Egyptian man dressed in a threadbare traditional tunic who now stood in the corridor beside me.ย  Unlike ancient tomb-raiders who went to great lengths to access buried treasure, he had merely walked past the guard in his quest for tourist dollars.

My initial reaction was one of annoyance, considering I’d just been unwillingly plucked from an extraordinary out-of-body experience in an ancient Pharaoh’s tomb. However, my emotions were soon calmed by the knowledge that I was extremely fortunate to have the resources to travel to such an amazing place. I let go of my attachment to what I saw as being lost, and instead made the most of chatting with my new friend as we both exited the tomb.

The local Egyptian man who ‘rescued’ me from the crypt of Ramses IV. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Photo: Henry Lewis via the tomb’s Guard.

Such are the common occurrences when traveling in a land so steeped in ancient monuments that ghosts both real and imagined seemingly lurk around every corner. Egypt truly is a living time machine, ready to transport even the most jaded traveler to unexpected adventure.

Great Pyramid of Giza

The three pyramids that make up the Giza pyramid complex, located on the edge of the city of Giza in greater Cairo, are the quintessential symbols of ancient Egyptian architectural mastery. However, as impressive as they are, these towering stacks of precisely cut blocks of stone are merely the doorway to a world of ancient architectural treasures. The tallest and oldest of the three, the Great Pyramid of Khufu, is the oldest and most intact of the original Seven Ancient Wonders of the World.

The token tourist photo snapped in front of the 146.5 metres (481 feet) high Great Pyramid of Khufu (also sometimes called the Pyramid of Cheops), the tallest of the three pyramids collectively known as the Great Pyramids of Giza which sit on a broad desert plain just outside Cairo. Should I be embarrassed by this bit of cultural appropriation? At the time it felt harmless and the vendor/photographer sure seemed desperate for some business. I visited the country in 2010 at a time when tourist visits were down significantly due to the perceived threat of terrorism. Photo: Henry Lewis via camel Vendor.

The Great Sphinx of Giza – believed to have been constructed during the reign of Pharaoh Khafre (c.โ€‰2558โ€“2532 BC) during the period of the Old Kingdom – stands on the Giza Plain just in front of (but facing away from) the Great Pyramid of Khafre. Scholars believe the mythical creature’s head features a likeness of Khafre. Photo: Henry Lewis.

Karnak Temples — Luxor (Ancient Thebes)

The Karnak Temple Complex, located along the Nile in present day Luxor, is approximately an 8-hour drive or 90-minute flight south from Cairo. Ancient Thebes was the capital of Egypt during the period of the New Kingdom (c.1570 – c.1069 BCE) and Karnak was the center for religious activity in the city, particularly owing to its dedication to the ‘King’ of Egyptian gods – Amun-Ra (also known as Amun-Re).

The Karnak Temples are set apart from others in Egypt due to the fact they were constructed over a period of approximately 2,000 years (c. 2,000 BCE – c. 30 BCE) by as many as 30 different Pharaohs. Such a long historical record has produced visible layers, punctuated by stories of palace intrigue as successive rulers tried to elevate their own historical legacy by undoing the carved-stone signatures of those who ruled before them.

Interior of Karnak Temples looking from the court of the Bubastites towards the Great Hypostyle Hall. Photo: Henry Lewis.

The massive stone columns of Karnak’s Great Hypostyle (stone columns covered by a roof) Hall. This section of the temple was intended to invoke a sense of awe just as Europe’s cavernous medieval cathedrals did thousand’s of years later. The hall has 134 immense sandstone columns with the center twelve columns standing at 69 feet. Like most of the temple decoration, the hall would have been brightly painted and some of this paint still exists on the upper portions of the columns and ceiling today. Photo: Henry Lewis via tour guide.

A small hypostyle hall inside Karnak Temples showing signs of the colorful paints that once adored the columns, walls and ceilings. Photo: Henry Lewis.

A falcon with spread wings and other carved inscriptions cover this sandstone wall on the interior of Karnak Temples. Other common hieroglyphic symbols such as the Eye of Horus, scarab (beetle) and ankh are clearly visible. Photo: Henry Lewis.

Note the varying depths of these relief carvings on the interior of Karnak Temples. When a new Pharaoh assumed power, they often instructed the stone masons to carve symbols of their rule ever deeper into the stones, thereby attempting to erase (and usurp) the stories set in stone by previous Pharaohs. Due to Karnak’s long history of construction by as many as 30 different rulers, the temples’ walls record a vast treasure trove of Egyptian history. Photo: Henry Lewis.

Luxor (Ancient Thebes) Temples

Although secondary in religious importance to Karnak Temples, the Luxor Temple Complex (c. 1400 BCE) was nonetheless an important part of daily ritual life in ancient Thebes. Situated on the Nile just two kilometres south of Karnak, religious festivals involved processions that flowed along the Avenue of the Sphinxes which connected the two temple complexes.

Unlike the other temples in Thebes, Luxor temple was not dedicated to a cult god or a deified version of the pharaoh in death, but was instead dedicated to the perpetuation of the line of Pharaohs. It may have been where many of the pharaohs of Egypt were crowned.

The north entrance to the Court of Ramses II at Luxor Temple Complex with the Abu Haggag Mosque seen here in the upper left. Photo: Henry Lewis.

Despite being constructed over a shorter time span than Karnak, there are still many layers of history that can be observed within the Luxor Temples Complex. The part of the Luxor Temple seen in the photo above was converted to a church by the Romans in 395 AD, and then to a mosque in 640. Seen here is the Abu Haggag Mosque which is still in use and was built on the original ancient temple walls as well as on the remnants of a Christian church. Photo: Henry Lewis.

Frescoes from the early Christian era can be seen on these interior walls of Luxor Temple. Photo: Henry Lewis.

Exterior sandstone columns of Luxor Temple as seen at dusk. Photo: Henry Lewis.

The Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut — Luxor (Ancient Thebes)

Hatshepsut was the 2nd historically confirmed female pharaoh and ruled Egypt from 1507โ€“1458 BC. Historians often note that she is the earliest example of a clearly documented female ruler of a major kingdom.

The perfectly symmetrical Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut sits beneath the cliffs at Deir el-Bahari on the west bank of the Nile near the Valley of the Kings. This temple is dedicated to Amun-Ra and Hatshepsut and is carved into the sandstone hillside.

Gazing at the vast complex from the front, I was astonished at the modern lines of the temple itself. Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple wouldn’t look out of place in one of today’s great world cities. This is further testimony to the great skill and extraordinary vision of ancient Egyptian architects.

Approaching the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut which sits under the cliffs of Deir el-Bahri, just outside present day Luxor in Egypt’s Upper Nile valley. Photo: Henry Lewis.

A wall in the interior of the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut is adorned with the image of the supreme Egyptian god Amun-Ra, depicted in the usual way with two plumes on his head. Photo: Henry Lewis.

Osirian (from the god Osiris) statues of Queen Hatshepsut once adorned the front of every column on the exterior of the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut. A few have been recreated to give visitors a feel of what was once quite an impressive display. Photo: Henry Lewis.

Close-up of a recreated stone statue of Pharaoh Hatshepsut holding the ‘crook and flail’, symbols of the pharaoh’s power borrowed from the Egyptian god Osiris. Photo: Henry Lewis.


Categories: Architecture, TravelTags: , , , , , , , ,


  1. Iโ€™m in awe just looking at the pictures.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Wonderful photos. Thanks for taking us on a splendid virtual sojourn. I read The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Egypt, By Kara Cooney a couple years back. Fascinating story!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Some of the best photographs I’ve ever seen and I’m so happy you were in a couple of them. It’ gives scale to those huge pillars. This post was wonderful and you showed everything in a way that made it very real. I love the color. Just beautiful. Thank you so much.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Thank you for the pictures. I lived in Cairo from 1998-2001. I loved it and got to see all those places. Though I got to see Karnak and the others on a cruise on the Nile. It was and is a magical place. I tell people to see Greece first and then Egypt. I did it backwards and Greece paled in comparison to the monuments in Egypt. I was in awe that the colors were so bright after so many thousands of years.

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  5. Wonderful stories and photos, Henry!
    Best, Kim

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Hatshepsut, and your introduction to her, makes me wonder if the Egyptian culture was as patriarchal as the Judeo Christian culture that followed it Henry? In other words, what was the origin of partriachy?

    Liked by 2 people

    • The origins of patriarchy? That’s quite a complicated topic and one upon which I’m not qualified to expound. As for Hatshepsut’s rise to power, I’d say it probably had a lot more to do with her high level of intelligence and ability to manipulate the hierarchical system of the time. It was sometimes the case that an older daughter would serve as a sort of regent ruler when the only male heir was too young. Building alliances with others in positions of power often allowed these females to maintain a high level of control until their deaths. As is still true today, I would venture to guess that females were always held to a higher standard than males. So I would again guess that Hatshepsut was probably much more clever than most of the males surrounding her.

      Thanks and take care Denzil!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m guessing it could have been when farmers turned into hunter gatherers. The latter needed to be the physically stronger ones of the tribe. Where this extended into tribal government though, who knows? Wishing you well in these difficult times, especially for the South American continent. Denzil

        Liked by 1 person

  7. What beautiful colours and images! They, along with your commentary took me back there again after all these years. Thanks Henry.

    And I agree with Denzil. Interesting that there should have been a female pharaoh as far back as that. What does that tell us about the culture of the time, and, equally interestingly, those more patriarchal ones that came later?

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Fantastic post. Your pictures really bring me to the site. And you’re right, the mortuary temple looks very modern. I guess today’s architecture isn’t that new!

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Amazing – its a place I have yet to visit, but I’m right on the edge of taking the plunge next time I go somewhere – great post!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Ogden,

      My only regret is that I didn’t allow enough time to see all the things I wanted. Since I was living in the Middle East at the time, I thought I would be able to return but that wasn’t the case. Save enough $$$ and allow enough time to be able to see the major sites around Cairo, Luxor and Aswan while you’re there. Thanks!


  10. How blessed that you’ve had the opportunity to visit the pyramids of Egypt! Of all the early civilizations, Ancient Egypt holds me in thrall to this day.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Rosaliene,

      Ancient Egypt has held me in thrall, too, ever since I was a small child. I was only there once and didn’t allow enough time due to having to rush back to work in Oman. There’s SO much more I’d like to explore in that amazing country.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Lifelong dream to get there …. STILL unrealized! (OK, I’ve been to Cairo, Giza, and Sharm El-Sheik but not the great temples.) Thank you for the mini-tour!

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Nice article Henry! Reminded me of my own trip there and makes me want to revisit that ancient country again sometime.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Wonderful picture and word story of your time in Egypt and the history of the area. I felt transported and could imagine what a vast depth of history Egypt holds. I am so grateful for the shadows of the great civilization that still exist. It almost feels like a time machine hearing about it and looking at your pictures. Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Incredible images! What an adventure.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. What a marvelous collection of photos, Henry. I can totally related to the reverie you experienced while in the tomb. I felt the same at Luxor and Petra – and you’re right, it must be the Indiana Jones factor.

    Although we visited Cairo, Luxor, and the Valley of the Kings several times while living in Khartoum, you’ve managed to capture some architectural elements that we missed. In particular, the Christian frescos are an interesting surprise.

    I was always fascinated with Hatshepsut – her unusual reign, portrayal as male, and quest for immortality that was nearly obliterated by Thutmose III. I’m so glad that she was not lost to the sands of time. Thanks for taking me back. ~Terri

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Terri,

      Thanks for your sharing some of your impressions from your travels around Egypt. I, too, am very pleased that Hatshepsut’s fascinating life was not lost to the sands of time.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Thanks for the opportunity to ‘armchair’ travel, Henry. So fascinating!

    Liked by 2 people

  17. Great post ! Pictures are amazing very interesting

    Liked by 2 people

  18. Henry, an exacting and exceptionally written piece that takes the reader back in time via your time machine. Brilliantly done!

    Liked by 1 person

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