Crouching over to fit within the narrow passageway, I climbed the steps to the “King’s Chamber” while chanting. In the chamber, I prayed as I had prayed many times before that moment. The hem ntchr tepi (high priest) of Kera neith Amen Ra (Shrine of Amen-Ra) initiated me into the priesthood when I was sixteen. Almost thirty years later, I entered the merkhut (pyramid) of Suten Khufu, commissioner and longtime occupant of the Great Pyramid of Giza.
I am accustomed to feeling ntchr (Divine Spirit) and shepsu (ancestors) when I call them forth as I learned to do many years ago. I truly love the relationship I have with spirit worlds and find ecstasy in the ways they physically manifest. I can be just about anywhere and draw forth a connection between worlds.
And yet, I felt nothing inside the merkhut. The nothingness was deeply and profoundly concerning. How could spirit be so palpable in some many other places, places that were not Africa, places that were in the United States of America—the birthplace of my ancestors enslavement—and yet not in the thousands of years old beacon of so much spiritual energy? I came to Egypt for a spiritual pilgrimage and ended up confronting a spiritual crisis.
Not a crisis of faith, because spirituality, for me, is not about faith. Spirituality is the knowledge of one’s relationship to the universe. I practice the spiritual traditions and techniques that I do because I experience their efficacy. I don’t have faith they will work. I know that they work. My crisis is in confronting the reality that the merkhut did not have a tangible material impact upon my knowledge of my relationship with the universe and everything that I have learned in the priesthood told me that it would.
So why wasn’t I affected by the energy of the site? I don’t believe the power that was once here is located here any more. After thousands of years of invasion, colonization, theft, neglect, abuse, and study, the site no longer holds the power of the ancient Nile Valley Civilization. Being in Giza and visiting the merkhutu and neb hu “the Great Sphinx” feels like rummaging through the peels of fruit that have long since been eaten. The peels are wondrous and inspire great admiration but they are still merely the remains of thing that were once alive with energy.Ironically, modern day Giza and Cairo could also be called the cities of peels. There are so many apartment buildings-finished and unfinished—on so many streets that look abandoned. Anyone who has seen the films Inception, but has never been to Egypt can approximate the sense of the two cities by imagining the locations in the film in different shades of brown and worn by sand, dust, and industrial carbon emissions.
There is a large poor and working class segment of the population. Tourism is one way for some folks to make a living. There are tons of micro-business entrepreneurs who crowd around the various remnants of ancient Kemet, each with a hunger to get international tourists to buy what they are selling—even if the product/service is the ability to take a picture alongside the neb hu or a merkhut. The tourists bring their own hungers—to attach themselves to the power of antiquity—even if it means treating a site as though it is an amusement park rather than a sacred site of burial and national culture.
As I watched tourists take pictures next to the neb hu that gave the illusion of them kissing the neb hu in the mouth, my mind travelled back to my experience of Kara Walker’s A Subtlety in New York City. The neb hu was one of Walker’s inspirations for the work—a critical meditation on the role of Black woman in the sugar industry from plantation to processing plant. I remembered the tourists-audience, mainly of European descent, posing in humorous, cheeky ways with the main structure and its smaller satellites. I remembered the outrage many Black folks experienced at witnessing these performances. And I wondered, “What am I doing here? In what am I participating?”