A Land as Old as Time Itself
No land fires the imagination quite like the land of the pharaohs. Like all of us, I watched The Ten Commandments with Yul Brenner and Charlton Heston clashing as Ramesses and Moses against the backdrop of Egypt’s monumental might. I ached to go to Egypt.It was the number one destination in the field of my daydreams. My mother used to read Bible stories to my sisters and me when we were young. We had a coffee table in the front room and I would lie underneath it, try to shut out the modern world, and see what I was hearing. I would paint it with all the details I could create, the colors, the sounds, the feel of the stones and the movement of the air.
You can imagine how thrilling it has been to see in reality so many of those places colored by my boyhood imagination. The stories of Genesis and Exodus were particularly inviting because so much took place in Egypt and the very name brought with it images of mystery. It was old, as old as the Bible, as old as time itself. Then one day the imagination became reality. I was in Egypt! I could feel the uninhibited rays of the Egyptian sun warming the morning air as its light reflected across the expanse of the Nile.
Back in time I went for this was the river where an anxious mother accompanied by her daughter lovingly placed a basket in the reeds and watched it float into scriptural destiny for it was filled with more than her baby son. Upon this tiny floating sanctuary breathed the defender of slaves, the messenger of God, the giver of the law. In the distance, sky pointing pyramids reigned supreme over both desert and fertile flood plain and the Sphinx continued his solitary watch as he had done so for more than four thousand years.
What is time and history in such a world? Though stripped of their casing of polished limestone and golden tip, the skeletal stone remains of the pyramids still draw the breath in, these wonders of the Wonders of the World. Abraham had seen them, Jacob lived for seventeen years under their shadow, Joseph knew them from his youth, and Moses from his birth. What were their thoughts as they pondered the achievements of the Egyptian race, for the pyramids were a thousand years old when the patriarchs knew them in their glory?
We boarded our cruise ship and floated down the Nile. In the stillness of dawn, fishers standing on their tiny boats threw their nets like their ancestors had done through countless generations. In the bright morning light farmers walked through their fields of grain testing the harvest. Cattle grazed along the river then rested under the date palms silhouetted against the rising sun. "This is Joseph's world," I thought. Here were his dreams being played out before my eyes, and pharaoh's dreams too - the years of feast and of famine, fat cattle and bowing sheaves of grain. Somewhere along this river brothers were united by tears of forgiveness and reconciliation.
We sailed past temples which surpassed everything I imagined as a boy. Philae, Kom Ombo, Edfu, Luxor, and the mighty Karnak overpower the senses. The Valley of the Kings invited us to explore underground chambers of painted hieroglyphic secrecy. All robbed but one. When it was discovered and Howard Carter peeked for the first time through a tiny hole revealing what had lay hidden for thirty five hundred years, he could only say when asked what he saw, "Wonderful things!" I saw those same wonderful things in Cairo, more wealth than the mind can wrap itself around - chariots of gold, inlaid jewelry crafted by the most skilled of artisans, decorated thrones and footstools, alabaster vessels of every shape and design, and the nesting golden shrines and coffins of Tutankhamen himself. Here, as elsewhere, my mind was drawn to the great lessons of the Bible, for we read Moses walked away from it all, "esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt." Moments later I stared into the face of mummified kings, the great Ramesses II, himself, and pondered the glory they so demandingly desired be preserved.
Egypt is everything I could have wanted it to be. I thought of a vision God granted Moses from the height of an unnamed mountain when He said, "Look, and I will show thee the workmanship of mine hands," and spread before his wondering eyes all the varied lands, nations, and peoples of the earth, then beyond unto "worlds without number." In amazed reflection Moses pondered the grandeur of the Egyptian court he had known from his youth and concluded, "Now for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed." For the first time I began to comprehend these words, for how could one not think man was powerful in the shadow of red granite obelisks - the needles of the pharaohs - hundreds of tons lifting delicately over towering pylons deeply etched with images of the great kings driving their chariots triumphantly into the scattering masses of their fleeing enemies.
I walked into the Hypostyle Hall of the great temple of Karnak, cooled by the shade of over a hundred massive columns, thinking of Moses on his mountaintop being prepared by God for that moment when he would stand before the mighty pharaoh and speak those immortal words, "Let my people go!"
Piled against the back of a lofty pylon sat the decaying remains of a mud brick ramp. It was as old as the Bible, and I was drawn to it by the un-resisted force of a collected memory that awlays guards the heritage of the children of Israel - "their lives made bitter with hard bondage, in mortar, and in brick." It is a different kind of monument, but one just as compelling.
Moses would teach the Egyptians something of his God, a God whose majesty was beyond chiseled tombs and soaring temples, beyond pyramidal splendor, beyond golden coffins and hoarded treasure, for this God had seen the affliction of the mud-brick makers, the despised ones, whose children could so casually be tossed into the Nile. "I know their sorrows," He said. "I have heard their cry."
"Who is the Lord, that I should obey his voice?" taunted pharaoh. Ah! He is the One who can command worlds without number yet hear the cry of slaves. How could we expect the pharaohs to understand such a God? Yet Moses came to understand. I suppose that awareness began the day "when Moses . . . went out unto his brethren, and looked upon their burdens." Something happens to our souls when we contemplate the mystery of human suffering and the burdens of our brethren. We are never the same again, the old comfort zones no longer satisfy.
And so, amidst the wonders of Egypt - the soaring obelisks and pylons, the secretive tombs and towering columns, the massive pyramids with their millions of stones, the ashen mummies and embellished coffins - it is the mud bricks that penetrate so deeply into the recesses of my thought. To see them again, I return year after year to this land of unforgettable memories, this land which seems to know no limit of time, this land that teaches us of the God we worship, the God of the cosmos, the God of prophets and patriarchs, and yet, the God of slaves, the God of the disinherited, whose cries He will always hear until their deliverer appears.
--- S. Michael Wilcox recently retired as an instructor at the institute of religion adjacent to the University of Utah. A frequent speaker at Brigham Young University Education Week, Michael also conducts tours with Fun for Less Travel, tours of the Holy Land, Church history sites, Europe, China, and Central and South America. Find out more about these tours.