Feature Articles 


The North-South Divide: the Mirror of Egypt

In the past decades, if not century, the brilliance of Egypt has been identified with the pyramids of Northern Egypt. But it is in Southern Egypt, in Luxor, that the heights of the ancient Egyptian civilisation become clear to all. Here rise the cathedrals of the ancient world, which are directly echoed in the Cathedrals of the Middle Ages. But it is also in Southern Egypt that the mysteries of the pyramids and the Pyramid Age are unveiled, and where a bridge to the modern age is most apparent.

Philip Coppens

The main airports in Egypt, along the river Nile, are Cairo and Luxor, with a third, smaller (though more modern) one, in Aswan. Since the dawn of the Egyptian civilisation, the areas around Cairo and Luxor have been the most important places of its great past – though Cairo itself never existed in ancient Egypt. Until today, they echo the division of Egypt into a Northern and a Southern part. The ankh-cross, the sign of life and eternity, is considered by some Egyptologists to have been a visual representation of the river Nile (including the delta), with the cross delimiting the division of North and South – located at the latitude of the Great Pyramid.

It is believed that “Dynastic Egypt” happened because of the unification of both Northern and Southern Egypt, under the mythical king Menes, who is credited with the foundation of the first capital, Memphis. This unification, in the middle to late 4th Millennium BC, started a line of kings that ruled Egypt. This line would only end in 1952, when Egypt became, for the first time, a Republic. Though by that time many foreigners had ruled the country, it was only in 1952 that the ruler was not a king.
Recently, Egyptologists have questioned the validity of the “unification” of the two lands. Egyptologist Stephen Quirke commented that “the dual nature of ancient Egypt probably reflects not history but a dualistic view of the world” and suggests that there is no archaeological evidence that a separate kingdom of Lower Egypt ever existed. Henry Frankfort, in 1948, had already accepted such thinking. The title of “Lord of the Two Lands” was an emphasis, he said, of the “universality of his power". “They embody the peculiarly Egyptian thought that a totality comprises opposites… A state dualistically conceived must have appeared to the Egyptians the manifestation of the order of creation in human society.” This goes back to the Egyptian concept of Ma’at, balance, which says that order has to control chaos. This concept has made it into various other religions, including Christianity, where St George or the Archangel Michael conquer – control – the dragon, the force of chaos – terror.

Whatever the scenario that led to the creation of Egypt, its first capital was Memphis. In the Old Kingdom, and therefore also during the time of the pyramids, the king ruled from Memphis. The first pyramid, Zoser’s, was erected on the western bank of the river Nile, opposite the capital Memphis. In the New Kingdom, the capital would move to Southern Egypt, to Luxor (or Thebes as it was called in Greek times), where it would remain until the final days of Egypt’s glory.
If the theory on the ankh-cross does indeed echo the layout of the river Nile, the cross ends in the modern city of Aswan. Whereas most of Egypt’s electrical energy today comes from Aswan and its electric installations that were built when the Aswan Dam and Lake Nasser were constructed, in ancient times, the granite for the pyramids, temples and statues of the kings was quarried from the Aswan stone-quarries. Here lies the “Unfinished Obelisk”. If quarried, it would have been the largest obelisk ever, measuring 43 metres and weighing an estimated 1168 ton. But it cracked before it could be fully quarried. It is clear reminder that the ancient Egyptians were masters, but they were not infallible. It is also clear evidence that somehow, the Egyptians were intending to move this 1168 ton object elsewhere… and you wonder what they were thinking… and how they would do that.
Situated on the first ‘cataract’ (a place where the natural flow of the river Nile is hindered by a large amount of rocks strewn across the river’s path), Aswan formed a natural border. To the South, currently under the billions of tons of water of Lake Nasser, lies Nubia. Its inhabitants, looking distinctly more Negroid than the average Arabs, are now relocated mostly around Aswan. It is believed that in the 3rd Millennium BC, a Nubian workforce was responsible for the erection of the pyramids.

Aswan, which is located almost on the Tropic of Cancer, the circle of our planet where the sun is in its zenith on the summer solstice, is very far away from what most consider Egypt’s major attractions: the pyramids. For more than one hundred years, it is to Cairo, in northern Egypt, and to Giza, now a suburb of Cairo, that most attention has been focused. There the biggest pyramid building project reached its climax, with the building of what is simplistically named “The Great Pyramid”. On the other side of the river Nile, underneath present Cairo, lies Heliopolis (not to be confused with the location of a modern district of the city), which was once where possibly the biggest temple ever was built. It was the home of the sun god Ra, in his form of Atum, who was believed to have created the world. Atum resided over an Ennead (a council of nine) of Gods, amongst them Osiris and Isis, two gods who are today no doubt the most well-known deities of Egypt. Atum, however, was never the chief deity of Egypt. For most of its history, the chief deity of Egypt was Amun. He is, like Atum in Heliopolis, connected to the sun god Ra. It is this god that is remembered in the closing words of Christian, Jewish and Muslim prayers: amen. According to Wallis Budge, the authors of the Pyramid Texts credited Amun not only with a most exalted position, but also with great antiquity. His name means “hidden one” and he is believed to have been the personification of an invisible life-giving force; invisible to the human eye that is. As such, like Atum, he was a creator god. The writer and traveller Plutarch went further and stated he was one with the universe.
Unlike Atum, Amun seldom seems to cause of much speculation. As many have emphasised the enigmas of Northern Egypt, particularly the Great Pyramid, which is considered by some to be a work of space gods or a lost civilisation, Southern Egypt is generally less “enigmatic”. Though many scholars will definitely not go as far as ET in their speculation, there is a general consensus that the Pyramid Age in general still has some enigmas that we cannot answer. This enigma, however, reflects a lack of surviving documents from the Pyramid Age, telling us how exactly the pyramids were built. For we know, of course, they were built.

By contrast, such speculation is apparently non-existing when it comes to the more recent buildings of Southern Egypt. The temples of Luxor and Karnak are both almost non-enigmatic and are rarely if at all mentioned when the mysteries of Egypt are tackled in books and articles. It is clear that these buildings speak less to the imagination than the pyramids of the North. This is somewhat of a sad situation, as it is in Luxor that Egypt’s capital was situated, from 2100 to 75 BC, and where the Egyptian civilisation – and building techniques – reached its true prime. Furthermore, as will be shown, these temples hold vital clues as to how the pyramids were built.
Though New Age authors as Robert Bauval and Graham Hancock have looked towards the Southern sky when they tried to explain the symbolism of the pyramids, they and many others did not pay much, if any, attention to Southern Egypt. Nevertheless, it is Luxor that would inspire the esoteric right-wing thinker Schwaller de Lubicz, whose daring theories on the non-African origins of the “Dynastic Kings” and the weathering patterns of the Sphinx led these authors and the tour guide John Anthony West to formulate an unsubstantiated theory that the carving of the Sphinx might date back to 10,000 BC.

The Sphinx is unique in Egypt. To some it seems to herald the rising of the Sun. But it also seems to be a protector. Perhaps it is the ancient deity Bes, who was depicted originally as a lion, but was later depicted as a dwarf, with a human head, but nevertheless still with a lion tail. He was the protector of the Egyptian kings, just like the Sphinx seems to be an impressive guardian. Luxor’s companion temple some kilometres South, Karnak, is considered by some to be the biggest temple in the entire world… it is definitely the largest temple in the Ancient World – as far as one can tell. Between Karnak and Luxor there are no less than two thousand sphinxes; or rather: were. The temples of Karnak and Luxor, both situated on the East Bank of the river Nile, were connected by a canal, lined on both sides by one thousand ram-headed and human sphinxes.
It was the temple of Karnak that was the residence of the chief deity of Egypt, Amun-Ra. Once per year, a sacred procession per boat brought him from the Karnak temple to his other sanctuary of Luxor, where Amun-Ra’s marriage with the goddess Mut was celebrated. The statues of the two gods remained together for one month in the Holiest of Hollies inside the temple at Luxor. It is this procession, known as the Opet or Apet festival, which is according to the author Graham Hancock in The Sign and The Seal the origins of the Ark of the Covenant story of the Bible. Though a definite possibility, very little remains of the canal and the sphinxes. However spectacular they might have been, they fail to impress against the size and majesty of the two temples, just like the Sphinx of Gizeh is overpowered by the three pyramids behind it.

The columns of the Luxor temple are, in the forecourt, based on the papyrus plant and, near the Holiest of Holies, on the lotus flower. Echoing ancient traditions that can be traced to the Sumerian city of Eridu (dating back to the 5th millennium BC), the builders tried to build out of gigantic stone blocks a structure that was to resemble a simple reed hut. This is the other contradiction of Egypt: rather than building a genuine reed hut, the ancient Egyptians quarried and built with gigantic stones, to create in stone what had once been created from reed. This, of course, is again testimony of the original culture of the Egyptians, which was a ‘shamanic’, tribal culture; no matter what level of technical expertise, they seemed unwilling to forget their origins.
Civilisation did not arrive through some distant culture-bringer teaching the ancient Egyptians foreign concepts. Civilisation meant that the local people worked in an organised manner, together. This is precisely why the ancient Egyptians considered the “unification of North and South Egypt” to be an important event. It was the start of something new, created out of chaos, two opposites, like freedom and rule, united, unified, that led to organisation, to balance, which would reveal to all Mankind ever afterwards what organised human efforts could accomplish. Whereas other cultures sought refuge in battle, i.e. opposition, for their survival, the ancient Egyptians discovered civilisation, i.e. co-operation, as a way to survive.
It seems a historical fact they made the right choice. It was this organisation that resulted in their brilliant architectural features, including the pyramids, the temples and so much more. It gave birth to a system of state that lasted for thousands of years, to a stability that is currently almost unimaginable. And that is probably why it is so hard, even today in a world that is in almost continuous battle, to understand what organisation and co-operation can and did accomplish in ancient Egypt. Civilisation to the Egyptians meant exactly the same as it does today: the organisation of the state allowed for resources and the possibility to construct massive structures, which were most often of a religious nature. They were now able to construct large-scale renderings in stone of their original sanctuaries, the small reed huts of the tribal society.

Both the Luxor temple and the original reed huts tried to shield out the sunlight, to create dark, sacred space. One can only wonder whether this approach dates back to the time of early mankind, when caves were used as sanctuaries. Today, we find in the caves of Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain, depictions of animals, men, etc. But there are also depictions of patterns seen during altered states of consciousness. Many recent findings suggest that the ancient Egyptians, like our and their early ancestors, used hallucinogenic plants to enter altered states. This is a direct parallel of techniques that were and still are in use by the shamanic tribal elders. The particular presence of bulls can not only be found in the cave paintings, of which some date back 30,000 years. In Egyptian times, the bull was still prominently revered and took on various guises, including the sacred Apis bull. These are all telling reminders of the shamanic origins of the people of ancient Egypt… and shed a light on the origins of their religion.
In the shamanic worldview, the heavens were the abode of the spirits, or the gods. It seems as if the ancients used the stars as signposts, maps on their travels to their deities, during their “shamanic trance”. Modern equivalents of the shamanic trance such as remote viewing or astral travel - literally travelling in the stars – sometimes use the stars, or constellations, as powerful helpers in their wanderings through “another world”. The constellation of Orion became the soul of Horus; Sirius and Canopus, the two brightest stars in the sky, measured the depths of the Abyss, symbolised by the constellation Eridanus, which is situated between Sirius and Canopus. The sky became the most impressive blackboard ever created for the ancient shamans and priests who explained to the students the mythology, using the stars as mnemonic tips… or “guides” during the “travel of soul” during the “shamanic trance”.
But at the same time, authors such as Paul Devereux have made it clear that the “shamanic priests” also deified the land and created sacred space. One major aspect of a “shamanic landscape” is that the myths of the people were transposed on the landscape, just like their myths were depicted in the constellations. It is therefore in Egypt that we find that the supreme deity is compared to the sun, and that the sun’s “actions” reflect the movements of the god – or humanity. How much more poetic can one become by linking a sunset with human death?

Devereux himself has listed several such examples around the megalithic monuments of Avebury and Stonehenge. Robert Bauval has tried to convey a similar pattern on the monuments of the Gizeh necropolis, though his conclusions have now been hotly contested by various scientists. The Dutch author Wim Zitman in “Egypt: Image of Heaven” has tried to portray a similar “shamanic worldview” on the constructions of the Pyramid Age.
Whereas Bauval’s astronomical orientation of the pyramid complexes have been hotly contested, no-one contests the fact that the Temple of Karnak in Luxor had solar orientations, to the midwinter sunrise. In an upper chamber of the complex, the “High Room of the Sun”, the event could be observed. There was a square altar of alabaster in front of a rectangular aperture in the wall. The roof temple was dedicated to Ra-Hor-Akhty, the sun god rising on the horizon. On the wall, there is a picture of the pharaoh facing the aperture, one knee to the ground, making a gesture of greeting to the risen sun…

The land of the dead is the West, where the sun sets. The West Bank of the Nile is the territory of death, whereas the living occurs on the East Bank, where the sun rises. The land of the dead was, in Egyptian mythology, also identified by geographical markers. And it will come as no surprise that Cairo and Luxor have important geographical markers on the western bank. In fact, one can argue that it is probably precisely of the presence of these geographical markers, that the ancient Egyptians decided to found their cities there. It would definitely be in line with other towns of other ancient civilisations, such as the Greeks, the Romans and the Megalith Builders of Western Europe. In Cairo, this structure in the West is the Giza plateau, heightened by the pyramids that rise as a twin-peaked mountain, as you approach them from the river Nile, along the old path that connected Heliopolis to Giza. It are these pyramids that rise as mountains, deep in which, like caves, rested the body of the deceased king. In Luxor, directly opposite the Luxor temple, on the West bank of the river Nile, rises another twin peaked mountain, though this time it is an entirely natural one. It is behind those mountains that lies the Valley of the Kings, the resting place for the souls of the deceased kings of Egypt. These tombs are literally caves, dug into the mountain flanks, rather than being hollows in a massive amount of artificially raised stones, such as is the case of the pyramids.
Where resided the geniuses of the ancient world? In Northern Egypt, the most famous priests annex scientists lived in Heliopolis. In Southern Egypt, the “ace priests”, those of Amun, resided in Karnak. And it is against this priesthood that the pharaoh Akhenaten rebelled, installing his new religion, which did not, however, long survive his own death. His successor, Tutankhamen, now famous as his tomb was the only one found largely intact, reinstated worship of the god Amun.
The temple of Karnak is no doubt the pearl of Southern Egypt. G.E. Kidder Smith in his history of architecture described it as “It is doubtful if any building yet designed has attained the dramatic power of the hypostyle hall of the Egyptian temple. The hypostyle of the Temple of Amun is the most prodigious ever erected”. Some refer to this temple as the “Temple of the Architects”, as it is here that several of the mysteries that trouble authors such as Graham Hancock and Robert Bauval are revealed. Its original name was Ipet-isut, “Most select of places”. It is an accurate rendering, for it was – and is – indeed the most select place of Egypt.
Karnak was for ancient Egypt, what the Vatican is the Catholic Church, what the Temple of Solomon is to the Jews, what Mecca is for the Muslims. Karnak is a city of temples, dedicated to the Theban triad of Amon, Mut and Khonsu, their son, the moon-god. It covers about 200 acres and measures 1.5 km by 0.8 km (1 mile by 0.5 mile). The area of the sacred enclosure of Amon alone is 61acres and would hold ten average European cathedrals. The great temple at the heart of Karnak is so big that St Peter’s, Milan and Notre Dame Cathedrals could be lost within its walls. It literally dwarfs everything else. The Hypostyle hall, at 54,000 square feet with 134 columns, is still the largest room of any religious building in the world. In addition to the main sanctuary, there are several smaller temples and a vast sacred lake, portraying on any visitor a sense of respect and vastness no single pyramid can ever offer. For one, one can be inside Karnak in a way one can only be in front of a pyramid. Also, here we are not confronted with the creation of one man; here rises the combined knowledge of the ancient Egyptian religion, here, in the home of the high priests of ancient Egypt.
It is, indeed, a true cathedral of the ancient world. It far surpasses the elementary form of the pyramid, who merely desired to be large and impressive, but did not excel in any real innovative techniques or detailed beauty. The Pyramid Age saw a gradual development of building techniques, ending in the Great Pyramid. But this pyramid is primarily that: extremely big. And that is what impresses the viewer, nothing else. Karnak, on the other hand, is not only big, it also has elegance, offers an intricate play of light and shadow. There are high windows that even today try to live up to an expectation to create a spectacular light show, even though the high ceilings have fallen victim to a giant earthquake in the first century BC. One can only wonder what the original would have felt like. The cathedrals of Europe are distant and direct echoes of this temple: high windows, long columns, but also ceilings decorated with stars and walls depicting scenes of the Egyptian religion, like the walls of the Renaissance churches would be decorated with scenes from the Bible.
The inner sanctuary of Amun-Ra in the Karnak temple is an architectural miracle. Here, more than three thousand years ago, the ancient Egyptians decided to install a ventilation system. The living conditions for the chief god of ancient Egypt had to be comfortable during the hot Egyptian summer months. Using massive stone slabs, they built a double ceiling, through which air could flow. It is a ventilation technique that is used to this very day in our modern buildings. Though time and earthquakes have destroyed portions of the system, to this day, the building is definitely colder than the surrounding area.
Finally, it is in this temple that answers the riddle of the pyramids can be found. Entering the temple in between a high wall on the left and right (so typical of the temples in Southern Egypt, such as Luxor, Edfu and Philae), to the right we find an unfinished column and a large pile of “rubble” heaped against the wall. Signs that construction of this part of the temple was hastily abandoned or never completed? Unlikely, it seems. Egyptologists are in general agreement that this corner of the temple seems to have been preserved as a school, where the problems of building high columns and high walls and pyramids were explained to the new priests of Amun-Ra. For architecture was a part of the religion, as the building of religious monuments had to reflect the nature of the religion itself.
Karnak shows that the Egyptian religion was bathing in a completely different atmosphere than our present religious perceptions. First of all, it was almost exclusive to the priests and the kings. Temples were off-limits for the lay-people. They were considered to be sacred space, which should only be entered by those who were able to behave in a certain manner, i.e. a priestly manner. It was also far more magical. In the temple of Kom Ombo, the high-priest replied to the questions of the king posed to the deity as if it was the god speaking himself. An underground passage connected the altar where the king resided to the statue of the god, so that the high priest could listen to the questions of the king and reply from below the statue of the god. Though bogus to the logical mind, to the poetic mind it created an impressive personal contact between the “gods” and the pharaohs. In Abu Simbel, the light of the rising sun hit the statue of Ramses II in the centre of holiest of holies, on October 21 and February 21, the birthday and coronation day of Ramses II. This visually magical occurrence (which can still be witnessed today, but one day later) should speak to our imagination, not to our technical minds. The Egyptian technical expertise was used to make people dream.
It should therefore not come as a surprise that so many of us try to grasp an understanding of the ancient Egyptian gods, but seldom can or do. From exploded planets to stars in the sky, all our modern explanations fail to capture the essence of their religion. In the Luxor museum, there is a depiction of a female deity gently embracing the pharaoh, patting him on the back. The scene is emotional, depicting the love of the goddess for the pharaoh, who is depicted as being guided, taught by the goddess herself in his task and role of pharaoh. The Egyptians considered their gods to be nearby, and living; they are not a distant god, unreachable by Mankind. They are gentle, guiding principles. The gods are on intimate terms with the priests and kings, and are treated in many aspects as living beings. Amun’s living quarters could not be too warm, hence the ancient Egyptians installed an elaborate ventilation system. Though this might sound absurd to the modern mind, it is obviously our own fault we can’t understand the ancient Egyptian mind. This is, perhaps, also the main reason why explanations of the Egyptian religion and its civilisation as a development of the shamanic religion, which also allowed for intimate contact between Man and the deities, is rarely done, and why theories of lost technological civilisation, which are literally untouchable and therefore far off, and ancient astronauts, whereby the gods are by default no longer present either, so popular these days. This is why when we look at an ancient Egyptian temple, we see one man using high technological utilities, rather than a group of men lovingly cutting away, to create something for their guiding principles.
Did it all die? And when? It is in Southern Egypt that one is confronted the most with how Christianity and the ancient Egyptian temples go hand in hand. Edfu, Kom Ombo, Philae, Luxor, certain tombs in the Valley of the Kings, all of these were used by the Christians as places of worship. In many, the visual traces of their presence can still be found, mostly in the form of crosses or scenes of the Last Supper. The central place of worship of the ancient Egyptian religion became the central place of worship for the new Christian religion. As this occurred so often throughout Southern Egypt, perhaps one should be inclined not to classify this as a mere coincidence but perhaps ponder the notion that Christianity indeed descended from Egyptian origins, as some scholars and authors now argue. In Philae the worship of Isis and Osiris continued until the 5th century AD. Less than a century later, Christian crosses were inscribed on the walls of that temple, the temple now inhabited by Christians and used for their rituals. It seems a very smooth transition from the one to the other religion, with Isis and Horus being replaced by the Virgin Mary and Jesus the Divine Child. Different names, but the same concept.

The Egyptian myths also echo the myths of Christianity. Wallis Budge refers to the original association between Seth and Horus. Horus means “he who is above” and by analogy, scholars have assumed Seth means “he who is below”. Though merely a suggestion as the true significance of his name is difficult to determine, the “guess” seems very telling: Horus would go on to become the divine child Jesus, who is in Heaven, whereas Seth would become cast in the role of “Satan”, the devil, living in the Underworld.
Interestingly, Seth was also identified with a strange animal, “with a head something like that of a camel, with curious pricked ears, and a straight tail, bifurcated at the end”. Resemblances of the “costume” the Christians gave to the devil? To quote once again from Wallis Budge: “In the absence of any facts on the subject we must assume that the animal which was the symbol of Set was one that prowled about by night in the deserts and in waste places of the towns and cities, and that his disposition was hostile to man, and wicked generally, and that owing to his evil reputation he was hunted and slain with such diligence that he became extinct in comparatively early times.”
The reputation of Seth as “the bad guy” is, however, a quite recent development. Intriguingly, it is in this development that Horus also became the “good guy” and it is in this new belief that we see the origins of some Christian mythology. But even if Christianity retained some of the mythology of the ancient Egyptian religion, it definitely lost it somewhere along its way.
It is in Horus and Seth that we again come across the division between North and South, Horus being the god of the North, Seth the one of the South. It is in Southern Egypt that ancient Egypt comes to live. It is here that it holds a direct hand towards that which would supplant the ancient Egyptian deities, but also towards mankind’s past. For it is here that answers, not mysteries, can be found. And the answers reveal themselves as pearls, like the river Nile can sparkle in the light of the rising or setting sun. It is here that the god Janus, looking both towards the past and the future, would have felt most at home. It is here where one can only wonder about Devereux’s speculation on the bicameral mind, one logical, one poetic, and how this was reflected in the ancient world in certain monuments. Perhaps modern man has added another dimension to the division of Egypt, whereby the North is the logical one, and the Southern one is the poetic one.

Thanks to Osama Petro for being a brilliant guide and man. Thanks also to Susan Dowson, Alison Tomes and Sue Barnett for being brilliant companions and giving new meaning to the mysteries of ancient Egypt, from “number 14” to “faxes BC” and much more. This could not have happened without you…

This article appeared in Frontier Magazine 6.3 (May-June 2000)