Body image lessons from a mummy

And other revelations from my adventures in Egypt

Steeped in history and mystery, Egypt is purely magical. Below are highlights from my G Adventures tour in February 2019 that included Cairo, Aswan, and Luxor, and some of the lessons that this particular trip taught me.

The Great Pyramids of Giza are the last remaining wonders of the ancient world and are an obvious must-do. I also visited the pyramids at Saqqara, featuring the Step Pyramid, Bent Pyramid and Red Pyramid. While Giza wasn’t nearly as crowded as I anticipated, there were even fewer people in Saqqara. Unlike Giza, which sits close to Cairo against the background of a vast, hazy city with fast food joints a few steps away, Saqqara is about an hour’s drive from Cairo. The pyramids are buffered from the city by miles of date palm farms and sit among the seemingly endless desert and open skies, transporting visitors not just to another place, but back in time as well.

I ventured inside the Red Pyramid, which involved descending a steep, narrow incline backwards into darkness. I went several steps, trying to push past the discomfort, but it wasn’t the right challenge for me on that particular day. I accepted it, climbed back up, and spent the time instead gazing out at the pyramids in the distance and chatting with other tourists. While this “defeat” would have crushed and shamed me years ago, I’ve learned when to push myself and when to simply let it go. Other pyramids were much less daunting, and later I enjoyed the experience of entering the much smaller pyramids of Teti in Saqqara and the Queen of Cheops at Giza, descending again backwards but through shorter and better lit passages.

How to describe Karnak Temple? Imagine dozens of people erecting their own Lego creations based on their own beliefs and values – buildings, towers, statues large and small. Imagine this Lego creation spans an area the size of two basketball courts and the tallest piece is nearly 2 ½ feet off the ground. Now imagine you’re the little Lego figurine walking among it. That’s how BIG Karnak is* – St. Peter’s, Milan and Notre Dame cathedrals would fit within it. It attracts a lot of tourists, but like most places, tourists stick to the main thoroughfare and dwindle in size the deeper into the temple that you venture. Roaming between the 134 columns of the Hypostle I even felt like I had the place to myself.

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Walking among the 134 columns of the Hypostle at Karnak

Abu Simbel is magnificent and definitely worth the trip. The three-hour journey gave me pause, but I went anyway and am so glad that I did! The site overlooks Lake Nasser and includes temples built by Ramses II (Ramses the Great). It features heroic depictions of Ramses prowess in battle, four imposing statues of him at the entrance, and the most interior chamber shows Ramses’s godliness, with him positioned amongst Ra, Amun and Ptah.

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Abu Simbel

The Temple of Hatshepsut, built by one of Egypt’s only female Pharaohs, is located against a backdrop of cliffs around Luxor – it’s not feminine but emerges from the mountain in a most elegant way. Hatshepsut was perhaps the first feminist – she ruled Egypt successfully for more than two decades, creating obelisks and roads, and commissioned vast trading expeditions.

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The temple of Hatshepsut

Valley of the Kings: Buy the extra ticket to visit the tomb of King Tut and get there early; three of us had the tomb entirely to ourselves. I thought seeing Tut’s burial mask in the Egyptian Museum was cool, but even more impressive is seeing his mummified body as I entered his tomb. Photos aren’t allowed in the tomb, but I did photograph a re-creation of the tomb at the nearby home of Howard Carter.

These spaces and objects have survived thousands of years; the art that the ancient Egyptians left behind is how we even know about this culture at all. Towering statues are carved from rough rock, sculpted and refined into realistic masterpieces. Bold architecture defies imagination and physics, inscribed with hieroglyphics, etched by artists’ steady hands and painted with colorful brush strokes both bold and delicate. What will survive of our own legacy when arts education and funding are so rapidly dwindling?

Perhaps my favorite experience in Egypt was walking through the mummy room at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. It was well worth the extra ticket even though I couldn’t take photos in there. I anticipated the room to be dark and creepy, the result of too many Scooby Doo cartoons as a child I suppose (Zoiks!). In reality, the room is bright and sterile, with each mummy neatly encased in a climate controlled glass box. Their heads and feet are exposed with the rest wrapped in linen. Some have hair remaining, and I could make out facial features and envision their expressions while alive.

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A mummy in the main part of the museum where I could take pictures

On one-hand, I was mesmerized by looking at the bodies of leaders like Ramses the Great and Hatshepsut, among others who walked the Earth thousands of years ago. Here were their actual physical bodies that led dynasties, commanded armies, reigned over generations of Egyptians, and commissioned great testaments to their lives and to the gods they worshiped. At the same time that I marveled at seeing these preserved corpses, I also felt a sense of disappointment that looking at their bodies didn’t tell me the story of their lives. There was nothing of those remains that gave any indication of their wisdom, their strength, how they felt about their families, what they accomplished – their bodies were just… well, bodies.

In those moments I thought about how I struggle with negative body image, like so many of us do. The mummy room was perhaps the strangest of places to acknowledge that bodies are indeed instruments, not ornaments. What those bodies achieved was the magic of Egypt, not what they looked like. A lifetime of media messages, diet ads, beauty images, and jokes that built my perception wasn’t undone the minute I saw those mummies. But it was a moment, a personal milestone among several lately that have begun to chip away at long-held “truths,” and a reminder that sometimes what we learn from travel is so much deeper and more personal than we expect.

*Math is not my forte so this calculation could be completely off, but trust me, Karnak is BIG

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