Boomerang Hieroglyphics on the Nile
By Bruce Northam

The redefined English language noun–—once limited to persons, places and things–––now includes ideas. As English continues evolving, the ancient language of Egypt, hieroglyphics, remains set in stone … but not without a few remaining puzzles.

Hieroglyphics, a language with more than 2000 characters, are chiseled in rows or columns that can be read from left to right, right to left, or top to bottom. Try that, English or French. The key to reading hieroglyphics is noting which direction the animal or human characters face. If they face right, you read from right to left. If they face left, you read from left to right.

While musing over a hieroglyphic patch on a temple wall in Luxor—the Nile–side greatest open air museum on earth–––a sentence starting with a face looking to the right ended with a face looking left, returning the initial face's stare. Did that mean that this sentence could be read in both directions, or that it should at least be reread? Ancient, ten foot–long sentences whittled into rock have a way of drawing you in, so I stood beside the ruin wall and accosted every tour guide passing by. None of them could answer this question of intent—some guides can only reference from the prerecorded scripts banging around in their heads. Beyond that, they're as lost as us visitors.

In my left–right conundrum search, I learn something else. During the Pharaoh period, the east bank of the Nile was the domain for life, people, houses, and temples, while the west bank for cemeteries and funeral temples––including pyramids. Sunrise and the east equals birth, sunset and west equals death. (This facet of Egyptology might contribute to the lifestyle clash between folks from New York and Los Angeles.)

I abandoned my quest to solve the scripted face–off until I crawled deep inside the implausible Great Pyramid of Giza through a crude tunnel carved out by 8th century Arab looters. Rising 485 feet, it was the world's tallest building from 2570 BC until 1300 AD when it was surpassed by England's Lincoln Cathedral (which I'd recently visited with my father in the midst of our fourth coast–to–coast walk across Britain). The Great Pyramid consists of 2.5 million blocks weighing between two and seventy tons. The stones are cut so precisely that a credit card can't wedge between. Perfectly aligned with the cardinal points on the compass, its four sides point toward true East, West, North, and South–––quite a feat considering that the compass wasn't invented until 1500.

One of the three known chambers discovered inside the pyramid is the King's Chamber, a dorm–sized tomb room. Shimmying up the narrow, 200 yard–long, three foot–high passageway that ascends from the base of the pyramid into its core rouses mild claustrophobia, especially if the person crawling ahead of you panics and tries to turn back in a narrow section of the tunnel where it's impossible to bypass anything bigger than a rabbit.

As I sat in a corner of the dimly–lit sarcophagus, I entered a meditative state that was metaphysically sandwiched between a hand–holding, trance–moaning New Age couple and a gaggle of babbly, flash photo–snapping Frenchies. With a renewed appreciation for ventilation, I re–puzzled over the ancients' batty hieroglyphic face trick at Luxor. My ping–ponging contemplation jogged the breadth of the chicken/egg riddle, and then traveled deeper as the French holidaymakers left.

A Buddhist kōan is an anecdote, question, or statement that typically eludes rational understanding but is within reach of intuition. Kōan traditions try to shock the mind into awareness. In the Zen novel, The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac lampoons a few popular kōans:

"Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?" … "Woof".

"If you have ice cream I will give you some … If you have no ice cream I will take it away from you." (An ice cream kōan?)

Engaging a mindteaser within the vast, confined, geometric center of 6 million tons of limestone–––one that has a 13.5 acre footprint; same footprint as the Louisiana Superdome but twice as tall with comparable locker room odor–––The Great Pyramid's inner energy suggested that a long–gone prankster from Luxor might have chiseled a bit of backstory for Buddhism's noble truths. And, because the New Age couple didn't notice me behind the King's red granite coffin, they felt safe notching their cuddle up to the next chakra … naughty life force energy, Superdome finish/finale.

There's so much stone mass in the pyramid that the interior temperature is constant and equals the average earth temperature of 68 degrees F. After creeping out from within one of the world's greatest tourist attractions into a blazing sun, I squinted and wandered over to the definitive Catman. The half–human, half–lion Great Sphinx fronting the pyramids was an afterthought assembled with leftover pyramid building materials. Clever Egyptology, or the liberty of construction crews unaware of unions?

Just like a boomerang, which, by the way, was invented by Egyptians to hunt birds, particular hieroglyphics can loop one back to where they started, which is usually a humbling life lesson. My personal Rosetta Stone, a karmic brainteaser endorsing three enduring hobbies— rescuing overturned horseshoe crabs, pine tree climbing, and pre–nap contemplation–– recommends this:

Listen with a third ear to hear what is not said.

Bruce Northam's wandering continues on

Photos 3 and 4 © Bruce Northam.

For inspiration about everything Egypt visit

Related stories:

Do More With Less: Survival, Then Surviving Scotch by Bruce Northam
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Be Nice To Strangers by Bruce Northam
Think Outside the Fence by Bruce Northam

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