I spend a lot of time–too much time, according to my wife—reading and writing about heroes. The heroes I write about are the fictional kind. They wear bright capes and costumes. Bullets bounce off their chest. If they are killed, they can rise again at a later time so long as the story permits.
But recently I had a chance to see a different kind of hero, face-to-face. They wore bright capes too, but their capes were the flag of their country. Bullets didn’t bounce off of their chests. Bullets did exactly what bullets are supposed to do to a human body: left them lying bloody and wounded on the streets. Or dead. And when they died, there was no editor or writer able to magic them back to life with a good hook and a press push.
From January 26th to February 10th. my wife and I took our dream vacation to Egypt. We had been planning the trip for over a year and had no intentions other than to see the pyramids and the Sphinx and wander through the fantasy land of giant monuments.
Our timing could not have been worse. The Egyptian Revolution had begun the day before our flight, on January 25th, and it was far too late to cancel or change our travel plans. At the time, there was no real indications that the demonstrations would last beyond the 25th–National Police Day on the Egyptian calendar–or that the demonstrations would turn into a full-blown revolution. Even then, I wasn’t too worried. I had been through the WTO riots in Seattle, and I wasn’t going to be turned away by a little bit of civil unrest.
Egypt and the Comics
Like many of my interests–too many, according to my wife–my lifelong desire to travel to Egypt can be traced directly back to comics. The Nile Valley has always been fertile soil for costumed adventurers. The 1922 discover of Tutankhamen tomb by Howard Carter had sparked an Egypt boom that was still lively when comic writers went looking for origin stories in the 1930s and 40s. Magic was waiting to be discovered beneath the dusty, shifting sands.
Archeologist Kent Nelson discovered the tomb of the ancient wizard Nabu and took on his golden helmet to become Dr. Fate. Ibis the Invincible was an actual revived mummy, originally named Amentep. His magical Ibis Stick, given to him by the god Thoth, allowed him to do practically anything. Egypt gave birth to villains too. Back in ancient times, Black Adam was known by a different name, Teth-Adam, when he was granted his powers by the wizard Shazam. Hawkman and Hawkgirl. Blue Beetle. Metamorpho. Has any other country outside of the US inspired so many American superheroes and villains?
Of course, later writers also found inspiration in Egypt. When Alan Moore wrote his magnum opus The Watchmen, he drew inspiration from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous poem to create the character Ozymandias. Moore took the Egyptian references even farther, naming Adrian Viedt’s Antarctic retreat Karnak after the real-life Ozymandias’ magnificent temple to his own ego, the Temple of Karnak in the city of Luxor.
Ozymandias and Luxor
All of this was on my mind when I walked through the Temple of Karnak on February 3rd. It was easy to see why Egypt inspired so many superheroes. That the monuments are huge goes without saying. As French Egyptologist Jean Francois Champollion said that Egyptians of old must have designed their buildings for men one hundred feet tall. Ozymandias–the Greek name for 12th century pharaoh Ramses II–himself stood sixty feet tall. Or at least that is the height of his fallen statue at the Ramesseum in Luxor that was said to have inspired Shelley’s poem and later Alan Moore. The statue doesn’t quite live up to Shelley’s poetic license. The “vast and trunkless legs of stone” are really just a pair of feet, and there isn’t much left of the face, much less a “wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command.”
The monuments of Egypt are filled with perceptible magic. The pharaohs were eager to establish their divinity, and the temple walls are filled with scenes of kings and gods in daily discourse, taking bread, defeating armies, giving water to the people. Amongst the ruins, it is easy to believe that there was a time when hundred-foot tall men walked with crocodile-headed gods and lived forever wrapped in linen in subterranean tombs.
The Heroes of Tahrir Square
The men and women running head-on into tanks and heavily-armed police were neither crocodile-headed nor a hundred-foot tall, but they surely carried something of that magnificence of old. In one of the scariest moments of my life, when my wife and I were fleeing a burning Cairo under gunfire and rage, ordinary men and women were racing in the opposite direction, into the heart of the chaos. I was reminded of what people said about the firemen and police heading into the two towers on 9/11. “While I was running out, they were running in.”
But these were not trained professionals. They had no equipment, no training for revolution. They were shopkeepers and waiters, computer programmers, and front desk clerks. Seeing them, moving face-forward against tanks and riot gear-armed police men, I was reminded of another quote, by Gilbert Keith Chesterton from his book Heretics (which I read for the first time in the comic The Sacred and the Profane by Dean Motter and Ken Stacey, serialized in Marvel’s fantastic Epic Illustrated…comic book education trumps again!):
“The strong cannot be brave. Only the weak can be brave; and only those who can be brave can be trusted in time of doubt, to be strong.”
The Egyptians I saw were both strong and brave. And in a rare combination, also kind. People often ask us why we didn’t leave when the country went to chaos, why we stayed and kept traveling around the country while the other million or so tourists hopped embassy flights back to their home countries. I can sum it up in a single moment.
On the night we were running from Cairo, when everything had gone to hell, and no one knew what would happen next, a young Egyptian man came running by us. He was covered in blood, and had a make-shift bandage wrapped under his hear and up over one eye. In his hand was a make-shift club; it looked like a piece of torn-off fence post or something. When he saw my wife and I making our way to the train station, giant tourist backpacks on our backs and looking absolutely terrified, he stopped, gave us a huge shit-eating grin, and said simply:
“Welcome to Egypt!”
How could you give up on a people like that?
To read more about my trip to Egypt during the revolution, you can read my travel blog The Last Tourists in Egypt.