Sunday 3rd February 2008
It is now around 1 pm and I have a rare experience of turning up at a site when a significant number of tourists are already there. In the main, however, the people who are gathered in the covered area outside the tomb of Sennedjem are individual travellers and small groups of families and friends, since for much of the next hour the coach parties will still be taken up with lunch. I wait until a group emerges from the small door-like entrance to the tomb and make my way down the steep flight of steps.
As I descend I imagine the succession of generations who, all too frequently, would have left the family home just a few paces away from the tomb entrance and used this place to bury and honour their dead. There is something about the narrowness and darkness of the stairway and small antechamber that serves to heighten the impact of what comes next: a barrel-vaulted space not much larger than a bus shelter but with decoration that – as befits the tomb of a skilled artist – is quite simply gorgeous.
Thinking myself back to that cramped space I am no more able to describe the experience of being in these private tombs than I was able to fully take them in while I was there. Against a lustrous gold background emerge scenes which are almost outrageously vivid and yet intimate at the same time. Ahead, a bright white Osiris is flanked by piercing eyes and an Anubis-headed priest administers last rights to a prostrate masked mummy, while at one end mirror-image necropolis jackals sit dutifully like loyal family pets. What impresses more than anything is the extraordinary fluidity with which the mundane and the marvellous intermingle in the imaginative world of the New Kingdom: the tomb-owner and his wife harvest corn while Re-Horakhty-Atum sails by on his barque; then refresh themselves at a well-stocked table whilst enjoying the intimate company of Osiris and Horus.
Meanwhile the Guardians of the Gates of the Afterworld brandish knives against the giant snake Apep. To our generation the imagery is so surreal it is like being caught up in a drug-induced hallucinatory dream. To theirs, you suspect, it was simply a reflection of how life – life that endures beyond death – actually is.
The strange experience of attempting to comprehend dazzling arrays of imagery within the confines of a very small space means that my recollections of the nearby tomb of Inherkhau are similarly sketchy. The lingering impressions are of snatches of conversation with other visitors. It’s a bit like descending some steps and finding yourself in a cramped cellar with other guests at a student party; since nature abhors silence in a social situation you are obliged to talk, with the psycho-spiritual paintings on the walls being the obvious subject matter.
An English group debate whether the priest is approaching the tomb owner with a live snake, metaphorically with a snake-hieroglyph, or performing a magic trick like Aaron before Pharaoh in the Bible. “I think it’s a snake–stick” the most assertive member of the group suggests, provoking further discussion. Just as I am about to offer my own suggestion a thirty-something American approaches me from over my shoulder and begins to pose a series of questions in that unselfconscious way, like we are already friends, that comes naturally to Americans but makes most people of a British persuasion recoil in terror. “What dy-nasty is this tomb? What did this guy do?”
“Did he live here, was he like a foreman or something – I mean, he’d have had a significantly higher disposable income than the ordinary workers, right? Hey – check out the giant rabbit killing a snake!” I attempt to seize the moment: “Apparently it’s a cat, I think it represents….” “Yeah, right, big ears though!”
As I take leave of my new-found best buddy and make for the exit my eye is caught by a striking image of Inherkhau worshiping the benu bird. Yes, you find your mind saying to itself, that really is a man having an intimate experience with a heron wearing a crown. Then you squeeeze back up the steps and emerge once more into the piercing azure light of a Theban afternoon.
Adapted from Leaving Thebes (2009)