Friday, September 4, 2015

LET ANTINOUS GUIDE YOU
THROUGH THE CATACOMBS OF THOTH

By Priest Hernestus



COME with me on a trip up the Nile to the Sacred City of Hermopolis. Hadrian and Antinous visited this city in 130 AD … indeed it was the last city Antinous saw before he died in the Nile.

The thing you have to remember about Hermopolis, the Sacred City of Thoth, god of writing, is that it is located in the very middle of Egypt. Thoth officiated at the weighing of the soul before the throne of Osiris.

Appropriately, his sacred city is at the fulcrum of the scales, as it were, midway between the Lower Kingdom capital of Memphis and the Upper Kingdom capital of Thebes.

It is no coincidence that, when Akhenaten sought a site midway between Upper and Lower Egypt, he chose a site only about 20 kilometres south of Hermopolis for his city of Akhetaten (Tel El Amarna).

It is at this very point, at the fulcrum of Egypt, at the center of the Egyptian world, just across the river from Hermopolis and a few miles north of Akhetaten, that Antinous plunged into the Nile.

The Greeks called the town Hermopolis, the City of Hermes, because they associated Thoth with their own Hermes. The Egyptians, however, have always called it Shmunu, a name whose meaning is lost in the mists of time. They still call it that: Al Ashmunein. Like so many things in Egypt, the spelling has changed but the essence has remained the same.

There is little in the modern town of Al Ashmunein to indicate what ancient Shmunu looked like because it has continued to be lived in and built upon for generation after generation. 

In a way, we are lucky that Antinoopolis was abandoned many centuries ago. At least we can still see where the ancient streets were. At Hermopolis/Ashmunein, as at Thebes/Luxor, centuries of building has been going on and there is no way to see what is underneath without ripping out half the town.

Even so, there are still some truly spectacular monuments ... monuments that Hadrian and Antinous most definitely must have seen during their trip to Hermopolis in the last week or so of October in the year 130.

Most impressively, there are still a number of Doric columns of an ancient temple which is nowadays called the "Basilica" because it served as a Christian church after the fall of paganism.


It is very moving to stand among these towering columns and to think that Hadrian and Antinous must have stood here as well and marvelled at this structure when it was still in its glory.

There are also some splendid statues, most notably a monumental statue of Thoth in his guise as the "dog-faced" (cynocephalic) baboon, a primate whose mischievous intelligence was associated by with Thoth, lord of learning and magic.

When you stand amongst the ruins and look around yourself, you notice what appear to be odd-shaped mounds and hillocks. As so often in Egypt, these are not natural geological formations at all. They are the remnants of walls and buttresses and other structures.

Hadrian and Antinous must have seen all this. And they must have been taken on a tour of the City of the Dead which lies to the west of Hermopolis at the point where the irrigated valley gives way to the desert. You take a few steps past the irrigated gardens and orchards and suddenly find yourself stumbling around in the sandy desert. It is the contrast between life and death. The place is now the site of the village of Tuna al Gebel.

It is here that some spectacular tombs were built, tombs that undoubtedly were visited by Hadrian and Antinous. They couldn't help but have seen the Tomb of Isadora (right), for example.

Isadora was a prominent young woman who drowned in the Nile early in the 2nd Century. Her drowning death caused her to be venerated by the Egyptians. Antinous undoubtedly saw her tomb, which was brand new at the time. He heard about her death and her subsequent veneration.

Possibly he saw her mummified body, which is still on view in the tomb.

He and Hadrian would also have seen the beautiful Greco-Egyptian tomb of the Priest Petosiris.

It was quite a tourist attraction even back then. The Imperial Entourage gathered in front of the tomb like modern tourists.

Petosiris was High Priest of Thoth and his tomb features some lovely reliefs honoring Thoth and showing scenes of Greco-Egyptian life.

There is also a stele nearby marking the northern boundary of the city of Akhetaten. I doubt very much that Hadrian and Antinous would have been shown that "heretic's" boundary stone, located high in a cliff. 

But it demonstrates just how close these two sites are. Hermopolis was practically within the city limits of Akhetaten.

Today there is a flight of steps that enables you to get up close to it.

And then, of course, there are the catacombs. No tourist who visits Hermopolis can resist climbing down into the catacombs, where hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of mummified ibis birds and mummified baboons were buried over thousands of years. 

I'm sure Hadrian and Antinous were no different and were taken on a tour of the catacombs, where they peered into the cubby-holes which formed the last resting place for all those baboon and ibis mummies.

The catacombs are a labyrinth of corridors leading off into inky blackness. 

The only light, then as now, is from torches placed in holders along the way. 

Nowadays, of course, they are electric torches and flood-lights. Back then, they were flickering flame torches.

Occasionally you come across a baboon or ibis that was given special treatment and which has its own little chapel with a votive offering stone out front.

I've been to the Hermopolis catacombs and I can tell you it is one of the spookiest and yet one of the most wonderful places in all of Egypt. Generally, I don't condone public display of mummies. 

But in this case, in these catacombs, I felt strangely right at home. It was the home of Hermes/Thoth, a place sacred to him.

So I trailed along with an Egyptian guide holding an electric torch flashlight and directing about 20 of us tourists through the labyrinth, right down to a tiny room at the very end ... after about a 15-minute walk.

It allegedly had been a chief scribe's study, if legend is correct.

I doubt that seriously since I can't imagine why any scribe would want to sit in a dusty, stuffy, pitch-black cubicle hundreds of meters down a tunnel when he could sit on a cushion on the cool paved floor of a temple annex with birds chirping in the sycamore outside instead.

I can't explain why, exactly, but I felt refreshed in those catacombs.

There were mummified ibis birds and baboons everywhere I looked, shoved into terracotta tubes like plastic plumbing pipes, all stacked in row upon row along all the walls. 

The guide explained that many of them didn't actually contain ibises or baboons. Some contained perhaps only one ibis bone and the rest was filled with chicken carcass or sparrows.

I felt that that didn't matter. They were all "virtual ibises" as far as the priests of Thoth were concerned, I have no doubt. The same for dog skeletons in place of baboon mummies.

They were meant to constitute a powerhouse of Thothian energy. And they did that by magical association with each other. I wanted to sense that energy, so I stayed behind as the group worked its way back to the entrance.

You should do that in Egypt. I highly recommend it. I stayed behind in the Burial Chamber of the Great Pyramid, and in
the Osireion at Abydos and enjoyed just being alone there.

Eventually, however, I realized it was time to leave because the guide had warned that he would turn out the lights upon leaving and anyone left inside would be sealed inside in perfect inky blackness.

So I hurried back along the tunnel to where the guide met me with shocked surprise. You can't blame him for being upset. If I'd been sealed in or if I'd set fire to the place or something, HE would have been held responsible. 

He gets paid a few lousy piasters a day and yet gets in trouble if the tourists get into trouble. I gave him some baksheesh money on the way out and felt deliciously guilty with the thrill of it all.

I wonder if Antinous stayed behind to be alone in the catacombs? What boy or young man wouldn't want to do that, just for the eeriness of it all?

It was the climax of a journey through Egypt that had taken Hadrian and Antinous to many very strange places. They had possibly seen the Tomb of Alexander in Alexandria. In Memphis, they had stood on the cliffs overlooking the vast City of the Dead. They had seen the pyramids. They had seen fabulous temples and palaces.

What was going through the mind of Antinous? What happened here, in the very center of Egypt itself, to prompt him to take his life? Assuming he committed suicide, and was not the victim of accident or foul play, just what was it here in Hermopolis, the sacred city of Hermes/Thoth, that convinced him it was time to end it all?

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