So the original plan was to write a post about the graffiti, mostly left by nineteenth century travellers/vandals, gracing/defacing the Egyptian Temple of Dendur–which dates to 15 BC, and was donated by the Egyptian Government to the Metropolitan Museum of New York in the seventies.
The graffiti are mostly names and initials, so the original plan was for me to start with the results of my detective work trying to find who the people were behind the names. I would tell you about Luther Bradish, who fought pirates in Costantinople for President Monroe in the 1820s (indirectly, by attempting to form a treaty between Turkey and the US), and, who, having moved back to New York in 1826, would never have imagined that one day his act of youthful vandalism would almost literally follow him all the way back home. I would tell you about Bernardino Drovetti, pioneer Egyptologist (or, depending on your point of view, high-end looter), and the man who was responsible for both eradicating smallpox from Egypt and ensuring that the first giraffe to ever visit Europe since 1486 arrived safely in Paris (he arranged for a hole to be cut through ship for the giraffe, named Zarafa, to poke her head through it; he also arranged for the giraffe to be accompanied by three dairy cows, so it could receive an abundant supply of milk, as well as a number of antelopes and gazelles, perhaps for company.) And I would tell you about the Belmores, an family of adventurous Irish aristocrats who had their servants, James Livingston and John Patterson, carve their names on the temple for them.
I would then briefly examine the possible motives for these acts of vandalism–maybe a sort of imperialistic territoriality thing (that is, rich white men making an arrogant claim on another country’s heritage, because the latter was to spectacular to be left to that country’s “backwards” inhabitants), or maybe a tourist fad, or a simple expression of pride at having made it through a fairly arduous journey, or maybe an attempt at gaining immortality by latching their own names, parasite-like, to a structure whose unspeakable age was proof of its resilience in the face of time and the elements.
Finally, I would say that, whatever the motivation, I’ve always found these graffiti profoundly affecting, because here was a person who, like me, had been on a long journey to see something amazing, and had spent a long time observing this something in utter awe at how incredibly ancient and beautiful it was. And because, even without knowing their stories, the fact that they left their names means that it is much easier to connect with them as people in one’s mind–more so, for example, than the temple’s anonymous stonemasons.
But then I realised that there is something else, another reason why these graffiti have such a hold on me: I am slightly envious of their authors. Specifically, I am envious of the fact that they experienced a smidgen of what it was like, for the authors of the Temple’s hieroglyphs, to carve something on the surface of the building’s soft sandstone. This is where the post became about the way we experience ancient ruins, how we wrap our heads around them.
I don’t condone vandalism, of course. But, sometimes, I grow extremely frustrated that, most of the time, the only way I can experience a lot of amazing things–and, particularly, ruins–is through my eyes. I actually get a little claustrophobic thinking about it. Almost always, I tell myself to look harder–but how does that actually translate into an action that is easy to perform? Looking closer? There’s a risk there in getting lost in the details, and forgetting about the bigger picture. Taking photos? Maybe, but that often feels like I’m adding a filter between myself and the thing I’m observing, and/or I often end up becoming too preoccupied with the quality of the pictures and the originality of the angles, or whatever, to fully appreciate what I’m looking at. Basically, often I feel like I’m trying to use my eyes as sponges–and obviously failing, because I can’t literally take them out of their sockets and press them against Inka walls or Neolithic monoliths. In fact, even if I could, that would accomplish nothing.
Learning all the facts about a place–what they think this structure was used for, or how many mummies were found and where–is awesome, of course, but often I have trouble squaring that information with what I’m seeing. For example, when I went to Machu Picchu this summer, by the end I felt as if I’d visited two places: the place my guide had described and disclosed fun facts about, and the one I’d walked through and gawked at.
Now, taking apart Machu Picchu and putting it back together again, with all the difficulties that that would entail–that, I feel, would be the proper way of understanding a site, as it would involve re-experiencing all that went into building it, which would give you a practical understanding of why things are where they are, and how they are. Carving your name on the Temple of Dendur is kind of like a very minor version of that–as I said, you’re experiencing a shadow of what the artists experienced who carved hieroglyphs of gods and pharaohs on the temple’s walls two thousand years ago. Although, I suppose that, really, who I should envy here is not so much Drovetti and his contemporaries, but the masons who, in the sixties and seventies, where in charge of taking the temple apart block by block in Egypt, and putting it back together again in New York. (I wonder, at this point, if any are still around, and if they would be available for interviews…)
As I said, I’m not encouraging anyone here to carve their names on ancient ruins. But I find the way in which we tend to experience the latter nowadays extremely frustrating. I wonder, perhaps, if the solution might lie in gaming: something like Prison Architect, maybe, in which you have to build a maximum-security jail while inmates and guards are already in it, but with ancient structures and design conventions instead. Like, again, building Machu Picchu, or a generic “Inka royal court”, around the Emperor, his family and retainers, and his priests–dealing with raw material problems, and trying to align things correctly with important landscape features, and exploiting laws of acoustics, and dealing with people–things like that. Perhaps it wouldn’t give you a tactile experience of the place, but at least it would give you a practical idea of how the place works.
I don’t know though. I have comparatively little experience of gaming, so I don’t feel entirely comfortable going into much more detail than this. Maybe I’ll think about it some more and write another post as a sequel to this. Meanwhile, if there’s anyone out there who does have any ideas about how an ancient architecture game could work (or, indeed, if one exists already), I’d be very happy to talk about it, in the comments section below or however else you want. Or, if you think gaming is not the answer, and something else is, I would love to hear about that too.
Suggestions for further reading:
For more on Prison Architect, check out the video-trailer here.
This article on Luther Bradish, President Monroe’s spy in Constantinople, is short and lovely.
People have been scratching their names on ancient things for millennia–there’s nothing special about the Temple of Dendur per se. For cool photos of other graffiti on ancient monuments, have a look at this article. For Viking aficionados out there, and fans of ancient swearing, I’ve also come across some cool stuff on the Maeshowe graffiti.
For more on Zarafa, the first giraffe to visit Europe since 1486, here’s an excerpt from a book written about her journey.
If you speak Italian and want to know more about Drovetti the looting-smallpox-giraffe man, here’s a charmingly biased video made by Italian teenagers.
And for more on the Belmores, you can read most of this chapter on their journey through the Middle East, including an encounter with an Italian strongman, an unpleasant bath in a snake-infested river, and gout.
Last but not least, if you’re curious about the Temple of Dendur and its travels, you can download a PDF version of an excellent booklet on the subject, written by Cyril Aldred, at the bottom of this page.
Finally, for anyone who thinks I’m a bit too obsessed with trying to find a connection with people from a very long time ago, I’ve casually just come across this wonderful cartoon by Tom Gauld (http://tinyurl.com/pfdaxur):