Almost thirty years ago I slid over a crumbling mudbrick wall into forbidden territory. My caleche driver Khaled, a handful of Baksheesh and an obliging policeman took me into a mysterious land where lion heads peered out of the sand dunes and a reed-shrouded lake enfolded the remnants of an ancient birth temple. I’ve been there many times since as the archaeologists slowly revealed what lay beneath.
In December 2014 it is very different. Temple Mut, home of the Great Mother, has been excavated, reconstructed and reborn. This time we go in through the front gate. I do a small dance of triumph on the way in. Finally I’m legit. Reclaiming my right of entry. The sand dunes are gone.
The stone blocks with their midwifery scenes neatly stacked into walls. The courtyards with imperious rows of Sekhmet statutes are officially open. And a huge statue of My Lady dominates the main square. This is Sekhmet in her role of the fiercely compassionate one. I want to fall to my knees in reverence. My Lady has been restored. It is a job well done.
But a shocking sight greets me when we reach Isheru, the sacred lake. In a land where women are increasingly being pressured to cover themselves from head to foot, the womb of the goddess has been scarified. Ravaged. Every trace of the encircling reeds eradicated. Violated. Opened to public gaze. My head wonders, has it been given a Brazillian or is it FGM? (more on that below). My heart feels its desanctified pain.
The sacred lake at adjoining Karnak Temple is square and stone walled. Befitting the male-energy of the daily solar barque ceremony.
But the Mut is different. Its shape is the crescent – or the goddess’s womb – where Khonsu, Mut’s moon-god son, glides past in the lunar boat. This temple contains the only known example of rituals performed exclusively by women. My memories are of priestesses stepping naked through the reeds into moonlit water (see Torn Clouds). Phosphorescence making their bodies shine. The ancient Egyptian were not prudish. Bodies – and sexuality – were celebrated here as was creation itself. Before the Aswan dam was built, Isheru was renewed annually by rising ground water during the Nile flood. The sacred lake itself was continually reborn.
It is to be hoped that the authorities will give the lake back its dignity – restore its mystique so that it reveals itself slowly. Make it once again sacred – set aside and holy.
The Mut has a uniquely feminine aspect. Dedicated to the Great Mother Goddess who was created by parthogenesis (virgin birth), it was rebuilt by Pharaoh Hatshepsut, one of the very few female pharaohs to rule Egypt. Hatshepshut claimed to be descended from Mut. She also identified strongly with Mut’s more aggressive aspect Sekhmet, who was both warrior and healer (there’s more to say about Sekhmet in a later blog). Hence the hundreds of statues of the goddess. So it’s not surprising perhaps that the early excavation of the Mut was by two remarkable Victorian women: Margaret Benson and Janet Gourlay. (The 1889 account of their excavations has been scanned in by Heidelberg University http://digi.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/diglit/benson1899/0087?sid=20afdb083f0aca4fe402071a114cc066).
You can catch a glimpse in the extracts below why Margaret Benson, who had no archaeological training, pushed hard to be allowed to excavate. She was seduced by the charm of the landscape. Her description is remarkably similar to what I saw a hundred years later. But when her team had excavated the lake, they carefully restored its shape. They showed it the honour that was due. I can only hope modern archaeologists do the same.
Having been so horrified by the sight of the Isheru lake laid bare, it was no surprise to me to return home to hear Leyla Hussein from Daughters of Eve (http://www.dofeve.org/) speaking on Woman’s Hour about her work to stop female genital mutilation (FGM). It reminded me that Egypt has the highest number of cases in the world despite it now being, theoretically, illegal there. It felt like a very significant synchronicity. This barbaric abuse is not an original tenet of Islam, although it has become a cultural practice. (You can read Egyptian activist Nawal-el-Saadawi’s personal account on http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/nawal-el-saadawi-i-am-going-to-carry-on-this-fight-for-ever-2371378.html.) Nawal-el-Saadawi says that we have to unveil people’s minds to bring about change. Maybe this is why the Mut lake has been so exposed. It mirrors bringing FGM out from the dark secrecy of the home and into the light.
You may think that it is something that does not affect you but, having worked with women who’ve undergone this assault on their sexuality, I know that it is. What affects one, affects all. When I looked up the statistics over 66,000 women in the UK have already undergone FGM and more than 24,000 girls are currently at risk. Over 140 million women worldwide are victims and an estimated two million girls are at risk each year. May I urge you in Mut’s name to sign petitions, support the work of Daughters of Eve and similar organisations, and to do all you can to change the hearts and minds of those who practise this abomination. It’s time female sexuality was restored to its rightful place across the world. Something to be celebrated not feared. That’s exactly what my new novel will be doing when it’s published.
You’ll find a FGM resources list on http://www.dofeve.org/resources-and-links.html
I would be delighted to welcome you to the new members' community section of my website and to have the opportunity of sharing my many passions with you.