The Penises Of Ancient Egypt

The thousands and thousands of wall carvings in temples throughout Egypt kind of become a blur after a while. Don't get me wrong — they're beautiful and you kind of lose yourself in them as you walk through temple after temple — but there are a lot of them:

Kom Ombo Temple, Kom Ombo, Egypt

Luxor Temple, Luxor, Egypt

Most (all?) of the carvings were originally painted. Some still retain their colors, providing a perspective you don't usually associate with the carvings:

Medinet Habu/Temple of Ramesses III, West Bank, Luxor, Egypt

But the unpainted carvings are also striking in how modern they look — the bas reliefs of graceful figures look like art deco. I guess then I should say that art deco borrowed from the Egyptian temples. If so, I can see it for sure.

At one point I wondered if the carvings were overkill. The folks who did the Mortuary Temple of Ramesses III on the West Bank of modern-day Luxor kind of went to extremes to praise the Pharaoh's achievements. After a while it's like, we get it! With so many vanquished armies he's clearly the greatest of all time:

Medinet Habu/Temple of Ramesses III, West Bank, Luxor, Egypt

And then I wondered whether contemporary audiences thought of the carvings as a kind of endless text that they could probably just skim. Sort of like a boring Jenny Holzer installation.

"Mesmerizing" might be an apt way to put it, because you just get overwhelmed by the craftsmanship. If you're like me, you zone out after seeing so many of them. Until you get to the penises.

This carving from a wall in Kom Ombo Temple north of Aswan depicts, if memory serves, medical ailments. The intention — again, if memory serves (maybe someone can help me out here) — is that the lower penis is more aged than the upper penis, and less able to either ejaculate or urinate correctly — thus the impaired five drops versus the normal seven drops:

Kom Ombo Temple, Kom Ombo, Egypt

Kom Ombo Temple, Kom Ombo, Egypt

This image from the Luxor Temple shows a carving of the fertility god Min, whose penis is in danger of being rubbed away to the sands of time (no, for reals):

Luxor Temple, Luxor, Egypt

Luxor Temple, Luxor, Egypt

Finally, this carving from the Mortuary Temple of Ramesses III within the Medinet Habu complex on the West Bank of Luxor depicts Ramesses III's desire to see his enemies' penises, because for Ramesses III (we were told) it wasn't enough to merely see their dismembered hands — apparently there was a racket going on among his troops where they'd chop off the hands of any old person and present them as the real deal. A load of penises, on the other hand — well, what more proof do you need that an enemy army is truly vanquished?

Medinet Habu/Temple of Ramesses III, West Bank, Luxor, Egypt

I finally asked our guide whether his tours were always so penis focused.

"Simple," Tommy said without skipping a beat, "I can tell what you all are interested in."

And it's true! Nothing perks up a dry tour like several-thousand-year-old penis carvings. It's the perfect jumping off point to get across information about the history of this pharaoh or that.

Tommy was a great guide and spent as much time as we wanted answering every question we asked him. He made us call him "Tommy" because he said it was easier to pronounce than his real name, which I thought was something along the lines of "Tamir," though I'm not really sure because to us he was Tommy. And when he found out that I recently got my sightseeing license, he even made a special point to impart tips and wisdom about the field. He was very cool.

I think I also said before that we didn't really ask him about the political environment in Egypt. It wasn't that he wouldn't have answered but rather that — for me, at least — it just didn't seem germane; I guess I imagined he might be circumspect about answering a bunch of questions about Egyptian political life, especially for a busload of tourists he was carting around for less than a week.

And besides, something about all those images of Mubarak everywhere really puts a damper on things — not that political life isn't a legitimate point of inquiry, and one that guides must be asked about all the time, but how candid do you think he's going to be when those sunglasses peer at you from all corners of the country?

Hosni Mubarak Picture, Giza, Cairo, Egypt

And what exactly do you ask someone — "Hey, what's with all those creepy images of Mubarak?" A question like that easily sounds like you think they live in North Korea or something.

Today is the eighth day of protests in Egypt and they still don't seem like they're losing momentum. And if I've been glib about conveying my feelings, or if pictures of penises seem like they minimize the gravity of the moment, that's not my intention. We met so many nice people in our nine-plus days visiting Egypt and we've been thinking about all of them now that we're safe at home and following the news reports from afar. Even the creepy dude in Luxor — I hope they're all safe and hopeful that something truly remarkable might happen there.

See also the Big Map: Egypt/Jordan, December 27, 2010-January 11, 2011.

Posted: February 1st, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: National Geographical | Tags: , , , , , ,

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