When Herodotus visited Egypt in 5BC, he left one of the most remarkable comments on Egyptian art:
Concerning Egypt itself I shall extend my remarks to a great length, because there is no country that possesses so many wonders, nor any that has such a number of works which defy description.
He would have had to live another 2300 years for the discovery of Amarna culture, even long if he had wanted to see the golden mask of Tutankhamum and his buried treasure. But on the other hand, what he saw was still an ancient Egypt, a nation of antiquity in si tu. Coming from the Mediterranean Greek culture , he found only particularity in Egypt: the strange and alien nature contrasting the grand scale and numerous quantity of monuments and temples.
He also commented that the Egyptians were the most religious nation than any other he had known. To this, I have my own reservation. Although there were no single god that Egyptians worship and polytheism can be both used to describe Greeks and Egyptians, the roles of religions in the two cultures are not the same. For Greeks, gods have virtues and vice. They believe instead something called fate which cannot be controlled. The fallen of gods in front of threats, lure and rumors make them more human and accessible. It was no accidental that Democracy was introduced in Greece.
On the contrary, Egyptians faced the most strict totalitarian rulers who raised themselves as incarnation of the God. To understand the passion of Egyptians toward religions through numerous monuments and grand temples is as hard as to grasp the under meaning of notes of a spy. Egyptians were anything but realistic with respect to art or writing. The inscription of the temple walls are required by the pharaohs and fulfilled by ordinary people. They did not say that they didn’t’t believe in pharaoh’s rightness of governing and spending gold and human flesh as if both were dust, but it didn’t mean they didn’t have such thoughts perhaps. It is like people in North Korea sing and listen to the propaganda songs every day, not by choice, but as a consequence. The blindness of worship toward Amum-Re in New Kingdom is basically from a group of elite class whose voices can be heard the most. The regular people, the soldiers, the artisans, and the peasants, who trotted through desert, carved the stones with bare hands or bended their body plowing seasonally, were the silent majority whose own views of religion were outshone by the transcendental architecture which they contributed directly or indirectly.
The existing documents from ordinary people, however, show that they seeked their strength more from moral standpoints or humanity. After all, in the life-long fight with harsh living, eternity was not something they considered the first.
In a soldier’s diary during the reign of Tuthmosis, he wrote: “The tree I lie under at night have nothing to eat on them. Sand flies keep biting me and sucking my veins dry. I’m hobbling about like a cripple because I have to go everywhere on foot. ”
In Deir el-Medineh where Ramesses II built the royal tombs, the villagers recorded their daily happening without glorification of what they were doing: creation of the after life for the greatest king. They criticized stinginess or laziness. “If, God forbid. I was the type who couldn’t hold their drink, then you’d be right not to invite me, but I’m just someone who’s a bit short of beer in his own house.” ” Well, you told me to give him a job. I did exactly that, but he takes ages to bring a jug of water.” They also had a strong sense of moral standard who didn’t differ that much from that of today. “You’ve been arguing with my mother and threatening to throw her out. Your mother never does anything for you.”
But nothing can say more about the religious belief of common Egyptians than the fact that when the empire declined, the same people who built the royal tombs plundered and desecrated them. Some of them may still have a fear of being denounced by the deceased spirit sso that they intentionally defaced the statues or the names. But the fear didn’t amount big enough to quench their thirst for gold, amulets and jewelery. In the final act, the priests had to carried the 40 royal mummies from the toms to secret locations where they might rest peacefully. Among them, Ramesses II’s body were piled in caves with no offerings, decorations at all for another 3000 thousand years before they were discovered. The Ramesseum, thus becomes the biggest ridicule on earth to taunt the immortality of gods and their incarnation.