Finally, I made it to Kemet! Ehh … wait, I mean Egypt … I guess?
It's hard to accept that only remnants and distant memories of Kemet, the ancient civilization now called the Arab Republic of Egypt, remain. (The original people called their country Kemet, a word literally meaning "nation of the black people.")
Participating in an African-centered study tour led by cultural historian, author and ASA Restoration Project Director Anthony Browder was a spiritually and culturally enriching experience for me. This journey evoked pride, anger, wonder and anguish.
Reading about ancient Kemetic history and culture is one thing, but traveling there, seeing and touching artifacts, and learning about this civilization when it was at the pinnacle of its creativity allowed me to reach a previously unattainable level of cultural awareness.
My stay in Egypt lasted three weeks, and I spent most of my time in Cairo and Luxor. During week 1, I participated in a study tour sponsored by IKG. As an American African — I reverse the order deliberately — visiting Kemet likely meant much more to me than it did to most of its traditional European or European American visitors. I traveled the Nile as a pilgrim to witness the greatness of my ancient ancestors and to learn to use newfound insight to enrich my life.
There, I walked through ancient pyramids, sites and temples that our ancestors built thousands of years ago using technology that we can't identify or replicate today. I saw the pyramids in and around Giza, the Sphinx, the temples of Abydos and Dendera, as well as temples and tombs in and around Luxor. There is great debate about what some of these ancient sites were used for and how they were built. For example, there is evidence to suggest that the pyramids had many uses, such as (but not limited to) a tomb, an almanac, a sacred place of spiritual initiation and even a geodetic marker.
For some, thinking about Egypt as a place for a pilgrimage may seem odd, but consider that the people of the Nile Valley civilizations of Kemet and Nubia considered it the holy land, the way many today view Jerusalem.
The late Dr. Asa Hilliard III, a psychologist and cultural historian, noted that Kemites (people of Kemet) and Nubians migrated across central and northern Africa thousands of years ago and influenced the diverse cultures of western Africa, from which most American Africans descend.
Civilization and humankind came from Africa. Paleontologists have proved that the first homo sapien sapiens emerged out of Africa more than 250,000 years ago; geneticists have proved that every human being on earth is genetically related to the African progenitors of the human race. So going to Africa could be considered a pilgrimage for all people. As Nas and Damien Marley point out in their latest album, Distant Relatives, "We're all African."
The first stop on our study tour was the Giza plateau, where we saw the three most famous pyramids and the Sphinx, which are two of the oldest examples of architecture and art known to man. No description can do these majestic structures justice. Sphinx is a Greek word, but the Kemites called this statue "Her-em-akhet," meaning "Heru-on-the-horizon." Her-em-akhet is 240 feet long, 66 feet high and carved from a single block of stone. The Great Pyramid of Khufu is 481 feet high, and each side of its base is 754 feet long and was once encased in a polished limestone cover. Both were designed and constructed with an almost supernatural sense of mathematical and scientific precision.
Despite their magnificence, it is sobering to witness in person the damage done to these structures by Middle Eastern and European invaders. In the 12th century, Arabs removed the limestone covering the pyramids to build bridges, mosques and palaces throughout Cairo. It is theorized that when Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt at the end of the 18th century, his soldiers shot off the nose and lips of the sphinx in order to hide its African features. The ignorance and arrogance of invaders over the years have left their presence.
Unfortunately, visiting these sites was a bittersweet experience for other reasons as well. In The Traveler's Key to Ancient Egypt, Egyptologist John Anthony West warns that those with a serious interest in ancient Egypt might be put off when visiting the overcrowded sites of Giza because of the aggressive locals pushing cheap souvenirs and the obnoxious tourists, some of whom come with little respect for the sites. He was right.
It's like a Muslim who finally makes the pilgrimage to Mecca and finds the mosques there have been overrun by opportunists selling hajj paraphernalia.
Visiting less frequented pyramids, such as the Step Pyramid at Saqqara (the first manmade stone building in the world!), and the pyramids at Meidum and Dahshur, which were all predecessors to the Great Pyramid of Khufu (and constructed by this pharoah's father and grandfather), was much more enjoyable.
My idealism has diminished somewhat; Kemet is not, and will never be, what it once was.