The Egyptian officer, Hassan, took a deep drag on the stub of his cigarette and ground it into the desert sand. “Make it quick,” he said to me. “Take your pictures and get out. We can’t guarantee the security of this site with the fighting so close by.”
His troops, a dozen or so, had fanned out across the site, the first on that day’s tour. They laughed and joked in Arabic, but there was no mistaking their slung Maadi rifles or the digital camouflage they were wearing. This wasn’t a sightseeing trip to the ruins of Amarna; it was a diagnosis.
The site had largely been flattened aboveground by years of depredations from a conga line of conquerors, a veritable who’s who of emperors, caliphs, and kings. Only dusty foundations and the remaining bases of long-toppled pillars stood out in the desert moonscape below the looming mesas in the distance. Well, only foundations, pillar bases, and shell holes. It had only been two days since the site had been wrested back from the ISIS-aligned fighters who’d occupied it for months, and in that time they’d wasted a disproportionate amount of time and ammunition in an attempt to level the site’s “idols” and finish what time had begun.
Adjusting the aperture of my camera and its monopod, I ducked through the wooden door that Hassan held open for me. Belowground, the temples had been rather well-preserved and even cleaned out back when Mubarak had sought to promote the site as a new tourist destination in his desert despotism. I’d been hired by the UNESCO office out of Cairo to document any damage to the site, and since the pay was good and I was between freelancing gigs, I’d taken them up on it.
Shafts of bitter sunlight penetrated only a small way into the interior of the subterranean temple–or maybe it was a tomb, I’m not an Egyptologist. A clip-on flashlight thrust at my by Hassan in the bumpy ride over provided weak illumination; my flash would have to do the rest. It wasn’t normally kosher to use a strong flash on something close to four thousand years old, but my guess was that a few Swiss photons would do a lot less damage than the few rocket-propelled grenades that the fighters had been chucking at it.
I hadn’t been to Egypt since before the revolution and even then only to the pyramids at Giza like every other tourist from Augustus to Napoleon. But I’d read up on Amarna in a battered Lonely Planet on the way down, a Cairo bookstore special with browning covers curled and blossoming like spring tulips. It had been built from the ground up by the pharaoh Akhetaten, who’d moved the capital there from Thebes. As my light played over the interior I saw him there, carved in stone with what looked like vuvuzelas in his hands (but were more likely flowers) offering them up to a luxuriantly carved sun. The sun, in turn, was reaching out with its rays to embrace Akhetaten and his family–not in a metaphorical sense, either, as each ray of light was tipped with an outstretched hand.
The flashbulb popped as I snapped a shot. It didn’t look too bad, but then as I drew closer I saw that the carving had been seriously damaged. The pharaoh’s face had been chipped off, as had many of the hieroglyphs surrounding him, presumably the ones with his name. The sun disc had a hieroglyph of its own, crudely cut in with something about as brutal as a latter-day ice pick.
“Trying to erase your name from history, huh?” I asked Akhetaten. He didn’t say anything–his mouth had, after all, been chipped off–but thanks to Lonely Planet I knew the story anyway. Akhetaten had dismissed the pantheon of Egyptian gods, the whole gang of Ra, Horus, Osiris, and the non-terrorist Isis, in favor of a single deity. That was it with the reaching and embracing sun rays; he’d called it the Aten, and it might just have been the first flicker of monotheism in the ancient world. Naturally, that hadn’t sat well with adherents of the old religion, and as soon as a pharaoh croaked his son and successor had presided over a return to the old ways and the kind of defacing I saw on those walls. You might have heard of him; the kid’s name was Tutankhamun, though his dad had called him Tutankhaten, swapping out the old god Amun for the Aten.
The next panel had originally depicted two seated figures under the Aten’s rays, but it had also been defaced. Not just with King Tut’s latter-day chipping out his dad’s memory, but with classical block capitals: CASSIVM ADERAT. I supposed, as I snapped the shot, that was Latin for “Cassius was here,” probably left by the Romans who’d held the area longer than any pharaoh. There were others, too, carved in over Pharaoh Akhenaten’s chipped-out name: IVPITER REX, MATER IVNO, and more. The Romans, it seemed, didn’t like the Aten any more than the Egyptians had, and their graffiti and extolling of their gods was even worse than what I’d seen before.
One of the soldiers protecting me was a Copt, an Egyptian Christian. We’d chatted while filling the troop transport with diesel at Deir Mawas, and he’d showed me the small Coptic Bible he kept in a breast pocket–“just enough to stop a handgun bullet” he’d laughed ruefully. His people, about 10% of the population, had been having a rough time of it lately now that there was no despot to keep the mobs at bay. I recognized the script from the Copt’s Bible on the wall, overriding and defiling the Latin. Several sun discs representing the Aten had been altered to bear Coptic crosses, which were kind of like an old ankh with a cross in its loop. Indeed, many of the ankhs carved on the walls had been so altered through chipping or painting.
Snapping photo after photo, I worked my way around the chamber. Arabic inscriptions began to appear in places, and I recognized the shahada from the flags of Saudi Arabia and ISIS. The human figures bore the brunt of those carvings, with nearly every human figure, including both Akhenaten and every member of his family, chipped away. And that was just the graffiti; the final snapshots I took were of the carvings nearest the door, which were in ruins, illegible and all but annihilated by what looked like an anti-tank mine.
There, in Akhenaten’s temple, those who had occupied the site after the last four thousand years had left their contemptuous marks. There, in his temple, there has been no attempts at understanding or appreciation of beauty. There, in his temple, I knew hate. A mature and insidious hate that knew no understanding, and whose only reaction was destruction.
I clambered back up the steps. “Did you learn anything?” Hassan asked flatly.
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s time to go.”
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