BYUH professor inspects ancient Egyptian sites

[Story and photos by Mike Foley, originally published online in the BYU-Hawaii Newsroom, March 10, 2005]

Kerry Muhlestein, 2005BYU-Hawaii Religion and history professor Dr. Kerry Muhlestein recently returned from a three-week tour with the prestigious American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE) that enhances his ability to teach Old Testament, the Pearl of Great Price, world civilization and ancient Egyptian history.

Muhlestein, who earned his Ph.D. in Egyptology from UCLA and has been teaching at BYU-Hawaii since Fall 2003, explained he had previously been to Egypt, but had never gone south of Cairo to the historically significant sites of Karnak and Luxor.

“We went to all the major sites. They’re doing conservation work on many of them, but since I was with ARCE, we were able to get into these, work with the conservators, and learn about the latest developments, which is great for me because I’m teaching a historiography class on ancient Egypt in the Spring term,” Muhlestein said. “We also met twice with the secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, who was a teacher of mine at UCLA.”

Muhlestein explained while growing up in Sandy, Utah, he felt “drawn to Egypt. I was drawn to ancient history in general, and that which spoke to me most was ancient Egypt — probably because symbolism speaks to me; and I think if we really want to understand the scriptures, we have to understand ancient symbolism.”

“No culture used symbolism as much as Egypt. That world of symbols drew me in, and I knew I wouldn’t be happy teaching if I didn’t do everything I could to be as good as I could.”

“While sometimes we fall into a trap that if we understand the ancient work, we automatically understand the gospel better,” he continued. “We need to be discriminating, but it’s true that understanding the language of symbolism unlocks the Old Testament. Every other scripture we have relies on Old Testament symbolism, so in a way it unlocks all the scriptures. That doesn’t mean everyone in the Church needs to study ancient history all the time; but I do think everyone who can [arrange it] would love a trip to Egypt. It’s a safe and wonderful place to go. Given the opportunity and means, I can’ t think of anyone who wouldn’t be grateful they went.”

Muhlestein is actually a philologist — “I work with the text and the icons — which means as part of his formal education he has passed exams in ancient Egyptian, Hebrew, Aramaic, Phoenician, Moabite, German, French, “and I took classes in Akkadian, Ugaritic. These are languages that are more closely related to Egyptian. I also took a class in Coptic. These are things that help you understand the ancient language of Egypt.”

He said seeing the ancient symbolism and text in their original contexts was a boon to his understanding. “For example, I was once working on a project built by Seti I for Osiris: There’s this very interesting collection of text on the walls. All the publications having to do with it are about 100 years old, and they’re not complete. It’s crucial to see how the characters interact with each other, and the site has been inundated with waters for years. They’ve been working on draining it, but it’s not safe enough for public tours, and no more recent publications were available.

“I was able to get permission to go in, wade through some muck, and see the passage I wanted to see with a telephoto lens. The way the text and the artwork interact in Egyptian culture is very important,” Muhlestein said. “That’s a project I had to shelve five years ago now I can work on again, and for an article I’ve already submitted for publication. Now I’ve been there, I saw them, I took pictures, and it changed some of my conclusions.”

Muhlestein added that the field trip “also really enhances my ability to teach: Some of the really important text for books on the Egyptian afterlife first appeared during the time of Seti I. Some of these were used in his tomb, which has been closed for quite a while. As ARCE, we were able to get access to it. Because I’ve seen pictures of all these texts, you can only see what fits on a page, so to actually get into the passageway and see the whole thing together was amazing.”

Part of the Madient Hapu Temple of Ramses III at Luxor, Egypt,
with its 60-foot pylons and one of the infinity doors

“These are texts about going through gates and the afterlife, and I realized physically you’re going through passageways and doorways. You go through doorways and down a few steps. This was something I didn’t realize, because the publications can’t portray it, and I hadn’t been there before. Even if I had gone before, I wouldn’t have been able to get into the tomb.”

He said he developed similar impressions about the scale of the temple at Luxor and the great temple of Karnak. Of the latter, he noted, “I’ve studied it, read all about it, gone through a publication that has large photos of every part — it’s a giant temple that makes Luxor look small — and I still didn’t understand really how impressive it was until I got into the Great Hypostyle Hall, which means it’s full of columns, and looked at those columns and roofs. No matter how many pictures you’ve seen, it is jaw dropping. It really takes your breath away, and you stand in awe, which was its intent.”

“There’s something about being in the place that you’re actually studying that’s crucial,” Muhlestein continued, adding he couldn’t be in Cairo — “one of the largest cities in the world, for the most part of a different faith — and see their devotion, and not realize that these are children God loves.”

“It really causes you to think about the great work that God has for his children in the globalization of the Church. You meet some many wonderful friends who have such a different life than you do.”

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