Proskynema – eternal adoration carved in stone
Throughout the ancient landscape of Egypt, incorporating not only temples and sacred sites, but also tombs and mountain rock faces as well as private letters and other tokens of devotion, is visible still today inscriptions made by pious visitors in honor of the divine world. While such inscriptions cover a great span of textual and pictorial graffiti, ranging from prehistoric rock art to Byzantine saints, to proskynema stands out as a symbol not only of religious piety, but more importantly as a symbol of cultural assimilation, religious tolerance and an acceptance of the coming together of eastern and western knowledge. As such it makes a perfect symbol for ancient illumination, a symbol of true Hellenistic philosophy in the spirit of Alexander the Great.
|To proskynema inscription at Abydos|
The art historian within very much appreciate each visit to an Egyptian temple, partially enjoying the relief work and architectural elements for their artistic beauty, while the other part continuously analyze those images on display in order to comprehend a deeper message which the original creator once hoped to communicate. The archaeologist is incorporating also the state of preservation, the combination of pottery scattered on the floor, and at multileveled places for sure recording with the bare eye the layers of deposits, the stratigraphy, while playing a sequence of optional historical outlines like a film before the third eye. However, there is a third component to the experience of working with ancient material which so often is dismissed or disregarded, although it is one of the most important factors we have got in order to approach an understanding of the ancient world which we study. This component is that of visualization, allowing ourselves to step into the world of the ancients by painting before our eyes an image of how it could have been. This is what makes it possible for us to at least try to connect with the material we study, and as a part of it, the very core of it, is the respect that follows. Without respect for the ancient material there is no need to study it! Is there?
|to proskymena at Kalabsha Temple|
So, returning to to proskynema and how these inscriptions have a deep impact on us personally, we have to admit the third component of the process. Thus, when standing in an ancient Egyptian temple, admiring its decoration and analyzing its various components, and there documenting an ancient Greek inscription carved in stone with the intention of lasting for eternity, one has to allow those feelings of a more esoteric nature, the connection between us as modern viewers and the ancient creator who once stood at the very same place carefully carving the words of gratefulness and piety.
|Adoration inscriptions at Gebel el-Silsila|
‘To proskynema’ literarily translates ‘to make obeisance’, to fall down on your knees and show your respect to the divine world, although an inscription in itself could symbolize the entire act. Such an act of religious devotion was far from limited to the Graeco-Roman period, as it was a frequent feature in traditional pharaonic times too. For example, it was required when standing before the pharaoh himself. The Greek formula, though, appears on Egyptian monuments and sacred sites primarily from the time of the introduction of Sarapis, thus early Ptolemaic Period, and continues in the form of adoration before the ancient deities until the official closing down of the temples in favor of Christianity.
|To proskynema at Philae Temple|
As upcoming blog posts will show, to proskynema is often placed on specific areas within the structure or natural surroundings on which it is carved. As an example we can document a clear connection with so called pilgrim gouges, marks left by visitors who scraped the surface of the sacred stone in order to bring with them a piece of the divine in the form of a powder, either consumed as a magical potion or placed upon an altar closer to the visitor’s home. This is another feature of ancient Egyptian religious life which unfortunately is too often disregarded and left without comments, and those who do mention these gouges agree in a magical application created by pilgrims, no one is taking it any further to analyze it in depth. As we will discuss with you later, we take a stand point of regarding the possibility of a more shaman oriented position of the person responsible, a spiritual practitioner unattached to the traditional priesthood and more of a naturalistic function, but again, this is a topic which we will have to return to later on. Returning to to proskynema we consider such inscriptions as a key to a greater understanding of a more general religious application. They are the witness put forward by common men and women, often but far from always soldiers, such as in the Temple of Kalabsha. To be honest, these inscriptions have lasted for thousands of years and are in that respect no different from the sculptured hieroglyphic texts covering the walls of the same sacred landscape. Thus, we bow ourselves in respect for those who in their turn bowed in adoration before the ancient deities who once were considered to protect and guide us humans.
|"Pilgrim gouges" at Deir el-Cheluit|