Pork Cheops and Applesauce.
I’ve ridden a camel through a sandstorm of biblical proportions on my way to Sahara City (which turned out to be heavenly) and even though it was pretty scary, it was much easier than passing said animal through the eye of a needle I’m imagining. I did end up getting there, and if I were a rich man, the exception to the famous maxim would’ve been just about perfect.
But I’m not. I am, however, wealthy, in a certain sense, and I’d like to share with you a few more of the treasures of my Miltonic mind. Ha. The Old’s Cool Education that we started last year initially with 10 Books (which you can find here is now going bigger-time and will encompass a total of 100 pearls of wisdom, all that is necessary, in our humble opinion, for a Goethe-esque knowledge of knowledge. Who? What do you mean? Well, I read somewhere once where Johan basically said that the measure of a man’s education is if everything and everyone in the world was destroyed, and you were the last man alive, how well could you recreate civilization solely from the contents of your head? And what kind of place would it be?
So, the next chapter will be “10 Wonders of the World” and they are, at least as of today: 1. Pyramids, 2. Gettysburg, 3. Cathedral at Chartres, 4. Auschwitz, 5. Times Square, 6. Middle of the Ocean, 7. Acropolis, 8. Nullarbor, 9. Vietnam Wall, and 10. The House I Grew Up In. The other Chapters will be: Sm(art)ist, Design, Heroes, Inventions, Movies, Poems, Music, and Theories.
I wanted to say that we’d start this article back at the beginning, even though the beginning is really Mesopotamia, not Egypt, but we will talk about that empire’s contribution to the world in our “10 Inventions” chapter. Mesopotamians invented the wheel, agriculture (the planting of the first cereal crops), and cursive script. Their gods are fascinating, too. But we’re not going to go that far back to the beginning – for now we’ll kind of fast-forward in history a bit to the Pyramids at Giza. Oh, wait, it was a horse in the first paragraph, not a camel, so never mind.
Let's begin this monograph with the appendix.
I was lying in my bed, feeling deathly, and wondering why there was an old woman with a fantastical face and worry beads sitting in the corner of my room, worrying. Was she one of the 3 fates of mythology albeit with a middle-eastern twist, spinning out my fate, so-to-speak? The room was damp and cool and smelled of wet plaster in the heat. And didn’t she see the rats scrounging around, looking for food? Maybe I was imagining the whole Hieronymus Bosch scene, but I don’t think I thought so. I closed my eyes. Last thing I really remember clearly was sailing down the river in a felucca eating falafel and tahina on flatbread. The mast fascinated me because it was raked so sharply forward, and the lateen sails wing and wing looked like some sort of prehistoric albino scissor bat. I was sick and the taxi trip I took to get here put me in mind of Hunter S. Thompson’s quip that Las Vegas would be what Saturday night was like if the Nazis won the war. Cairo was the Arab version of that ululating, post-apocalyptic nightmare.
The nurse came to fetch me. She said the doctor was ready. I asked her if she was a nun, which she looked like, but not in a smiling Sally Fields way. I was in my street clothes still: a burgundy Best of Bread sweatshirt, and lime green pants. I was wearing a nautical double-loop belt I had gotten on Martha’s Vineyard. I don’t remember if I still had my sneakers on. I walked up a flight of stairs and into the operating theatre, which looked and smelled like the dingy equipment room of a high school gym. Was this a dream? The nurse told me to lie down on the table. I asked her if I should take my clothes off. She said no, just unbuckle your pants. I did. The doctor came in. I didn’t see an anesthesiologist, and I was wondering if they were just going to give me a hit of whiskey and a wooden dowel to bite down on. It’s amazing what a sophomoric and petrified mind can think up, especially one filled with Clint Eastwood spaghetti. I had probably been watching too many movies. Maybe, but I was lying on a slab in my street clothes in a hospital on an island in the middle of the Nile about to get part of my insides yanked out by someone who didn’t really speak English all that well, I think. Don’t take out the wrong sausage, Doc, I said to myself, chuckling. Just kidding. Isn’t anyone even going to ask me to start counting backwards or anyt
I woke up and thankfully it was all not real. I was still swimming around in my own head juice though, and started softly singing ‘Row, row, row, your boat, gently down the stream, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is a but a dream’ but for some reason the woman was still sitting in the corner and the rats, or at least a rat, was still running around where the floor met the wall. And when I looked down panicked I still had on my clothes, but my sweatshirt was pulled up and there was a huge bandage over my stomach where the knockwurst or some other hotdog part of my guts had come out, I’m assuming. Moonlight like a God came into the room, and out of the window I could see, barely, three giant shadowy huge triangles framed in its milky glow. I had no idea the pyramids were so close. I fell back asleep.
Pyramids of Hierarchy.
You’ll find out later if you keep reading, that this wasn’t a dream, and that those were the real Pyramids. You can read all about them online, or watch any number of YouTube videos and/or documentaries that will awe you sufficiently, or give you enough of the facts and figures you need to be satisfied as to their grandeur and enduring worth. There are tons of theories as to how and why they were built, none of which really interest me, per se, since it has to be the blocks were quarried and transported and hauled up with enormous physical effort by thousands and thousands of sweating flunkeys, no matter what.
But I will give you my perspective from personal experience, for what it’s worth. Back when I saw the Pyramids, you could still climb them, and I struggled with my brothers about half way up Cheops. It was astounding to me when you actually start your climb, how absolutely massive the blocks are. My memory is that each one was the size of a Chevy Suburban, and weighed, I don’t know, 20 tons or so. Imagine trying to mount a steep staggered wall of stone SUVs stacked one on top of the other. It was exhausting, but the view, even from about 1/3 of the way up, was incredible, of course. But I just couldn’t get over the fit and precision of each and every one of these massive slabs– it was astounding.
The pyramid remained the tallest man-made structure in the world for over 3,800 years, unsurpassed until the 160-metre-tall (520 ft) spire of the Lincoln Cathedral was completed c. 1300. The accuracy of the pyramid's workmanship is such that the four sides of the base have an average error of only 58 millimeters in length. The base is horizontal and flat to within ±15 mm (0.6 in). The sides of the square base are closely aligned to the four cardinal compass points (within four minutes of arc based on true north, not magnetic north,and the finished base was squared to a mean corner error of only 12 seconds of arc.
Based on measurements taken on the northeastern casing stones, the mean opening of the joints is only 1/50 of an inch. Egyptologist Sir Finders Petrie related the precision of the casing stones as to being "equal to an optician’s work of the present day, but on a scale of acres" and "to place such stones in exact contact would be careful work; but to do so without cement in the joints seems almost impossible.
I built a kitchen table once out of solid cherry – I’m fairly handy, and have a pretty nice workshop with all the latest tools and technology. A tolerance of 1/16 of an inch was good enough for me, and the table looked and still looks heirloom quality. 1/50th of an inch for a 20-ton block is preposterous, especially when multiplied by 2.3 million. No, it’s not preposterous; it’s absolutely inconceivable.
Pyramids have always fascinated me, not only as perfect geometric shapes, but as representations of hierarchies of competence and symbols of authority, and consequently, power. I have studied the Egyptian gods and goddesses, who were the ancient attempts at deifying human characteristics like anger and infatuation in order to better understand themselves, and their ongoing struggle to figure out a transcendent concept of morality – basically how to live and why and what did it all mean.
Throughout history pantheistic cultures all had their own gods, and systems of gods, and when these cultures were eventually smashed together through war and conquest or migration and assimilation the various gods competed to become the one god that incarnated all of the best of each of the other gods, and was then the sole revered representative of that culture. Thus, roughly, and eventually monotheism came into existence, and the single dominance hierarchy that resulted was the best elements of the transcendent morality of each of the major religions/cultures, and came to be essentially the same across time and geography.
Egypt at this time was a typical pantheistic culture, and there were many, many gods, who changed and evolved over the years and generations, but we’re going to focus on the 4 defining deities who remained fairly representative and worshipped throughout: Osiris, Seth, Isis and Horus (pictured below).
Osiris was the patriarch, the benevolent Pharaoh/God who founded Egypt and made it into the great center of culture and learning that we know about today. He was brave and heroic when he was young, but he became old and willfully blind, because that’s what culture does and is – it’s made by the dead, and slowly grows unaware of the evil and envious and ungrateful always plotting to destroy it.
In the archetypal brother story, going all the way back (or forward depending on your reference point) to the Bible and Cain and Abel, Osiris had a sibling named Seth, which is a variation of Set, or Satan. He was the malevolent one, envious of his brother, and was always scheming and plotting some kind of overthrow so that he could grab power for himself.
One day Seth saw that his brother was weak or had let down his guard and he attacked and defeated him. He then chopped Osiris into pieces and scattered them around Egypt. Osiris was the embodiment of wisdom and culture, the benevolent king, but since he was also a god he couldn’t be destroyed. His scattered remains became the provinces of Egypt.
Isis, the third figure in our story, was Osiris’s wife, and Queen of the Underworld. When she saw what happened to her husband, she went all around Egypt searching for his phallus, and when she found it, she went back down into the underworld and impregnated herself. She gave birth to Horus, famously pictured as the Egyptian eye, with the wide-open pupil. The Egyptians knew that being able to see was crucial to the dominance hierarchy and one of the two absolutely necessary elements for a wise king to be able to rule: vision, and the brave embodiment of culture and wisdom.
Humans have the best vision of any animal besides birds of prey, which is why Horus is also represented as a falcon. Unlike all the other animals in the world whose survival instincts are based on smell, humans are the only ones that have a brain whose hard-wiring, biologically speaking, is based on vision. So the Egyptians realized that vision was what separated us from all others, and a king must have vision to climb his way to the top of the dominance hierarchy. Paying attention is different from seeing, and is also different from thinking.
The dominance hierarchy is a pyramid of value with the king at the top, but the actual crown is different from the rest of the pyramid, because it represents the highest attainable position, the peak of the pinnacle. It’s why there is the eye at the top of the pyramid on America currency.
This reminds me of the last time I visited the Washington Monument a few years ago. The first time I was there was during the riots in 1968 – no, I wasn’t throwing Molotov cocktails at the “pigs” – but I did speak with a hippy on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial who told me he was against the Vietnam War and was starving himself to death in protest. Never forgot it.
This first visit left me with a sense of awe: of the monument, and of Washington, the man, not the city. Ever since, whenever I (or one of my brothers) would see a digital clock that read 5:55 we’d say “Washington Monument” because that’s how tall it is, in feet.
But the second time I visited I was most struck by the odd, to my mind, capstone, a nine inch aluminum pyramid that actually sits atop the monument, the crowning achievement. It was made of aluminum because at the time aluminum was as precious as silver, since nobody had as yet discovered a method of extraction that was economical.
Unlike his father, Horus didn’t underestimate Seth’s malevolence, and he came up out of the underworld to fight him. During the battle, Seth took out one of Horus’s eyes, because even if you’re aware of the full extent of evil, it’s still incredibly dangerous to try to fight it. Reminds me of Lincoln’s quip about Grant: he was successful because he was able “to face the arithmetic.” Ultimately Horus won and banished Seth to the underworld. As I mentioned before in another blog post evil exists in this world, which I learned to my sorrow, and can never be killed or erased. We have to be ever vigilant and awake as to its destructive power and cunning, and live as much in truth as we can. The line between good and evil runs down our own hearts.
So you’d think Horus would just put his eye back and then rule the kingdom himself, but he didn’t. He went back down into the underworld and rescued his father Osiris, who was kind of like a dismembered ghost wandering around piteously. Horus, the Egyptians knew, had to revivify culture, which is what we all have to do, not destroy it, to make it relevant and real and give it new meaning and value. Pinocchio did the same thing when he went and rescued Geppetto from the belly of the whale. Y’up, rescue our fathers from the belly of the beast, metaphorically, and bring them back into the light, out of willful blindness, awake and present. Horus then gave Osiris his eye, and Osiris started to rule benevolently again, since he not only embodied the culture, he now had vision and awareness, which is another way of saying wisdom.
Through the Jews, the children of Egypt, and eventually into Christianity, this is more or less is the same story of Christ, God, Mary and Satan. Not including the dismembered penis impregnation part.
Beaucoup de grace.
I thought that this would be the end of my pyramid story, and it was for a long, long time. But then about 20 years later, and 20 years ago now, I went to see about a girl in Paris who’s last name was Hamilton. I called her Hardy. I actually just Googled her and y’up she’s still there, tri-lingual and beautiful as ever. Hamilton was the name of Lord Nelson’s mistress if you remember your history, and one of my heroes (Nelson, not the mistress), and every time I’d see her I’d quote his famous last words: “Kiss me, Hardy.” If you don’t know that story, it’s a doozy.
Anyway, we went to the Louvre together, which I hadn’t seen in 10 years, and right there smack dab in the way was the I.M. Pei pyramid, jarringly geometrical and out of time and place, although not altogether unbeautiful. It wasn’t my Paris or my Louvre anymore, not the one of my moveable feasty youth, anyway. I hated it immediately, because I had to. And then I took my time hating it, right then and there, and forever.
We went right in, and it was much better than waiting out in the barren courtyard in the heat, or the rain like I did many times as a student I had to admit. So there was at least some functional utility to the abomination. I had come to see the Michelangelo’s “Slaves” exhibit and it was so unbelievable to me that another human being could have that much talent and artistry and pound it so painfully out of stone with his eyes closed no less. I loved the Slaves because you didn’t just see the finished work, which was almost so deceptively perfect you couldn’t imagine the agony and ecstasy to quote a book title needed to realize the finished masterpiece. It was like seeing a tiny betraying bead or two of ballerina’s sweat run down her face.
As we were leaving I turned a corner into an open atrium and there it was – an antipodal sun god shining light on the treasures of the room. The “Inverted Pyramid” completely numbed and dumbfounded me – it was une folie, as the French themselves would say, but for me it was the coup de grace, the genius Chinese wink at the whole astounding undertaking. I never thought I’d love another architectural statement more than Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial, or that I’d think anything could rival the historical impact on western civilization as the Cheops Triptych, and maybe the reorienting of the Louvre doesn’t. But I do think that I. M. Pei’s Pyramid is unquestionably the singular modern masterpiece of Paris.
End of story.
Almost. Let’s go back to the sausage extraction fiasco for a moment, shall we? So I woke up jostled and sloshering around in the back of a taxi on the way to somewhere, I’m assuming the company apartment, from New Zamalek Hospital. My stomach muscles had been completely scalpled, so I’m flip-flopping ping-pong like a drunken harlequin monkey on a crappy Peugot 504 carnival ride. At a stoplight I look out the window and there is a long line of women with woks on their heads full of concrete marching orderly up a bamboo scaffolding on the outside of a building, up, up, up, barefoot and singing. Each load was maybe 25 pounds of slump sitting directly over the spine. Of course. I saw it all clearly, finally. This is exactly how the pyramids were made: one heavy painful relentless pound, one almost irrelevant inch, one evanescent breath at a time. Who needs technology or machines when you have millions and millions of miles of free, strong, silent but compliant sinew at your disposal?
We drive by a guy riding on a donkey, with one kid in front, one kid in back, and his poor wife on the way, way back carrying a propane gas tank in one hand and a sack of (live) chickens to balance it out in the other. She has a baby in a long scarf sling slung over her shoulder. He smiles as we pass and his teeth are all solid gold capped. I snap out of my dream. Yes, the whole operation was surreal (the appendix, not the pyramids), and hardly believable, even today. But the scar on my stomach is still so big and ugly it looks like a nincompoop with a Sawzall was renovating a kitchen and wanted to remove an old refrigerator I just happened to be standing in front of.