The inspiration behind our trip to Greece and Egypt was to visit sites where the ancients had honoured the gods. Specifically, the gods we tracked in astrology, attached to planets and asteroids. And we did experience something like reverence as we wandered the hill of the acropolis, or the ancient agora, where I mouthed a prayer to Mars at the temple of Ares. Only sixteen columns of the Temple of Olympian Zeus remain standing, but they’re so magnificent, they exude an aura of might and divinity. (Jupiter rules my sun, so I spent some time here, blessing Hestia and Hermes statues for my altar.) I felt that same awe for the Great Sphinx of Giza (I’m a Leo rising, and I’ve always been a cat person), but I can’t say any of these spaces felt sacred beyond my own projection of myth and magic.
And why should they? Tourism accounts for 20% of Greece’s GDP and 11% of Egypt’s (a number that’s dropped since the Revolution). Who are we to seek something deeper from these spaces, which have not been magic or consecrated for thousands of years. Or rather: we can seek all we like, and certainly it is transporting to walk the same stone and sand of ancient worshippers. But your moment of quiet reverence be interrupted by streams of tour buses and vendors trying to sell you camel rides. To expect anything less would be naive, west-centric and ahistorical.
Jasmine and I didn’t consider this consciously at the time. We just found ourselves gravitating toward churches and mosques. In the mountains southwest of Chania, we found a vacant roadside chapel, painted with fourteenth century icons, smelling of black mould and catshit. A candle the height of my body leaned against the wall. Before long, I was lighting the wick to better view the icons and Greek prayer book on the altar. At first, I was just fucking around. Then a feeling of respect (even shame?) settled on me. I left a few Euro in the donation jar and burned a lump of Frankincense at the front.
In an orthodox church, one psalm that commonly accompanies the censing goes like this: “Let my prayer arise in Thy sight as incense, and let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice.” Is this so different from burning incense to invoke air, or the guardians of the East?
In Cairo, Jasmine and I both felt moved, even silenced, by the calls to prayer every morning. Visiting mosques inspired that same respect and quietness in us. Throughout our trip, we found ourselves visiting sites of present-day worship over the ancient temples we had come for. As if the charge of all those people still praying felt more aligned with what we were seeking, whatever your word for it: divinity, the mysteries, or simply a glimpse at the other side.