The Arcanus Project
by Pedro Blas González
Having visited the ancient sites of Mesopotamia while a young man, that splendid land between the two great life-affirming rivers, I vowed to return one day. My recent unforeseen adventure occurred in the spring of 1958, while on an excursion to some of the ancient archaeological sites of the Middle East. This trip turned out to be a greater education than any university ever offered me. I once again quickly found myself awed by the prospect of imagining men in ancient times treading the very soil I now walked on.
Unlike Dante Alighieri, I was not lost in a dark forest. The state of my soul remained intact. Though, I must admit, my disorientation, as is evident from the events that I am about to tell, rattled my mind and nerves. I can only attribute my existential confusion to the mysteries inherent in space and time. What else can I say?
Our trip took us across portions of modern-day Iraq. From the land of Sumer and Babylon we trekked west, across the present-day border with Jordan. From there, we made our way into Israel. Our objective was to conclude our trip in the area directly across the West Bank of the river Nile.
I say we, given that I was in the company of my dear friend, Professor Charles Remington, and two guides from that region.
Our means of transport were rather varied, and at times also proved to be exhausting. Still, we were prepared to encounter untold difficulties.
We first flew into Turkey. We then traveled by train across vast stretches of that lovely country until we reached the majestic Tigris. There we boarded a reed boat, the same type that is constructed and still used today by the marsh Arabs of southern Iraq. The boats are made using the reeds that are abundant in the marshes of that region. We visited the enchanting city of Baghdad. Afterwards, we boarded our small boat and proceeded down the gentle river; interrupting our sailing to visit sites in Nineveh, Uruk and Ur.
Several days later we found ourselves on the Shatt-al-Arab, a river which is formed where the two great rivers meet, and which flows into the Persian Gulf or the Arabian Gulf, depending on who one talks to in that part of the world.
After several days of traveling on the gentle Tigris, the shipping traffic on the Persian Gulf unnerved me. Frankly, the immensity of that body of water frightened me. The massive oil tankers jangled my nerves.
Our guides assured us that they knew that body of water well. They told us they travelled that route many times a year. Their words hardly soothed my agitated condition. The oil tankers were an ominous reminder of the fragility of human life. I was scared. I don’t think they ever saw us.
On our first moonless night aboard, we anchored the little vessel after finding ourselves caught in that colossal shipping thoroughfare, the playground of those megalithic symbols of modernity, with only a small gas lamp. We were about four thousand years behind the times.
The night was clear and cool. I could easily make out the nebulous and colorful nucleus of the Orion Nebula. I remained awake while the others slept, bewitched by the gentle breeze that caressed my skin. I was excited to spend a night in that region, the home of Hammurabi, King Uperi of Dilmun, and the great Sumerian astronomers. At my age, I knew I would never come this way again.
With my feet dipped into the dark water, I tried to imagine Gilgamesh’s inner turmoil on his travels seeking immortality. In the quiet darkness, I thought about what the Sumerians and Babylonians called the lower sea, or the sea of the rising sun. It was on the Modern-day Island nation of Bahrain, Dilmun in ancient times, that Ziuzusdra and his wife settled after the great flood. On that small island, not very far from where we were anchored, immortality was bestowed to both of them by the god Ea.
I sat in the darkness thinking of Gilgamesh’s sorrow and his fruitless appeal to the Gods for immortality. The story goes that he was granted immortality, but that it was stolen from him by a serpent that dove deep below the surface of the sea, where the sun rises. Gilgamesh briefly tasted the flower of immortality. Though he remained a mere mortal, he kept the wisdom that he earned.
I finally dozed off.
The following morning, we left the small boat with our guides. We were taken to Kuwait City by car, where we were to remain in the downtown district and showered with modern accommodations. I needed the rest. After touring Kuwait City, we spent the next three days making our way through central Saudi Arabia. Getting permission to do so was a minor miracle.
We then took a train west to the capital city, Riyadh. We hoped to get to the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt. Our final destination was Cairo. In Riyadh, I was introduced to a friend of Professor Remington’s who introduced us to a few of his colleagues at the university. It was Remington who planned the trip, and who, with his many connections, facilitated the never-ending request for visas.
Dr. Sayyid Nasser received a doctorate in archaeology from the University of Notre Dame, where Charles taught. Charles was his advisor. Sayyid’s family is part of the Saudi royal family. Returning to his country, he works as an archaeologist at one of the national universities. He joined us on our trip to Cairo.
Our next immediate challenge was to find a manner of transportation that would link the territory between Riyadh and Medina. We hired a trucker to drive us the roughly 500-mile distance. In Medina, Sayyid took us to visit the mosque and tomb of the prophet Mohammed.
From Medina, we took another truck over the western mountains. From atop of mound Jabal Radwa, with its Red sandstone and black lava peaks, I could faintly make out the outline of the Red Sea. Once we had descended into the Tihoma coastline, I felt more energetic. The long trek up the mountains made me light-headed.
The shore of the Red Sea revived me. Moving north, we rode a combination of camels and donkeys along the coast. At cape Ra’s Abu Madd, we hired a boat that took us across the Red Sea, and into the Ra’s Banas, in Egypt.
I welcomed the rest.
Not being used to riding these animals took a toll on my back. I frequently found myself out of breath. We then spent some time visiting the Berenice ruins. We continued up the Nile to Thebes and the Valley of the Kings.
A few men came to help us dock the boat, and one of them, an aristocratic-looking Egyptian archaeologist friend of Sayyid’s, I was later told, greeted us by saying, “gentlemen welcome to the country of the Kemet.” Sayyid had already informed me that this is the Egyptian name for their land. The word Egypt, he informed us, comes to us from the Greek word Aigyptos. The Greek historian, Herodotus, called Egypt the gift of the Nile.
I was excited to be in Egypt.
We visited the temple of Amon-Re in Karnak, which with its 79-foot high and 12-foot wide columns baffles the imagination. The diameter of these columns is so wide that it takes roughly nine men with outstretched arms to completely encircle them.
We rode north with the help of the Nile’s current and disembarked in several places, undertook segments of the trip on foot, by donkey or car. The four of us made our way through the archaeological sites of Deir el-Bahri, Abydos, Thimis, Assiut, Tell el-Amarna, Hermopolis, and in this manner reached middle Egypt. We continued north to Cairo, with stops at Herakleolis, Lisht, Memphis, Troia, and Sakkarah before finally arriving at Giza.
Little could I have imagined that my real adventure was yet to begin.
What I am now about to tell you has taken a great deal of thought on my behalf. I pledged to my very helpful guides and Sayyid that I would never reveal what I am now about to reveal. I am torn by my allegiance to loyal friends who opened up an entirely new reality of ideas and wisdom for me. On the other hand, I know of no spiritually sounder human beings with whom to share what I have witnessed.
Copyright © 2012 by Pedro Blas González