The Sea Above


A few days ago, I visited the Step Pyramid of Sakkara, which was once accompanied by a kilometer-long covered arcade. A portion of this walkway has been reassembled, and you look up to see stone ceiling panels covered with stars, representing both stars in the sky and the starfish (or “fishstars,” as our guide called them) in the sea above the sky.

The ancient Egyptian cosmos was a bubble in a great sea, land floating on water, waters flowing above the dome of the sky, land life dependent on the one river that flowed across the earth. The starfish suggest that the sea above, like the sea below, was crowded with life, great schools of creatures passing over our heads.

In spots, a little blue paint still clings to the spaces between the stars.

Yesterday, after a few days of teasing with drizzles one could mistake for imaginary, Cairo saw its first real rainstorm since I arrived in August. It lasted maybe 10 minutes, but drenched Downtown, leaving wide puddles in the rutted, gutterless streets. Came complete with thunder.

The rain came to the AUC campus today. My typing was just interrupted by a thundercrack directly overhead. A student just came into my office sopping. I can hear excited whoops from the quad.

When you live in a narrow valley alongside the nation’s only river, when you can walk to the desert, it’s possible to see something as simple as the rain as a source of wonder. The rumbling overhead reminds me of Melville’s account of the Nantucketer in Moby Dick, who, “at nightfall…out of sight of land, furls his sails, and lays him to his rest, while under his very pillow rush herds of walruses and whales.” Even in the desert, the sea is here. In Fayyoum Oasis, southwest of Cairo, the fossilized bones of prehistoric whales bleach in the sun, memorials of the sea that was, and will, in the long arc of geologic time, be again.

whale fossils

The ocean overhead, the ocean underneath, ready to flow over us as it likes.


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