A quick trek to ancient Egypt during lockdown

It’s been months. Months of being shut up in the house thanks to Corona. The claustrophobia is unbearable. My chest feels like it is about to explode. The repetition of everything is excruciating. I’m used to travelling a lot. Maybe it’s healthy, maybe it’s an escapist crutch, but the seeing of new things has always kept me going. And now I’m stuck. Stuck in my house.  

The sound of the vacuum cleaner. The sound of the dishwasher. The sound of the Xbox that has kept my son sane. The sound of the dogs that have kept me sane. The endless cooking. The endless drone of CNN experts. 

Our brains are different and some brains haven’t found lockdown as hard. They’ve quite liked the solitude. Their Medulla Oblongata hasn’t raged and pounded against the bars like a gorilla inside a much-too-small cage. 

Even while I’m writing this, the sound of the kettle boiling, the sound of the washing machine, the sound of the Great Dane scratching his eczema, all slowly push me further to the edge that I’ve spent the last months studiously avoiding. 

It’s feeling psychologically essential that I get out, that I travel.


But I can’t. One can’t even really leave the house.

The Germans have a wonderful word for this feeling. It is “fernweh” and it is formed from the root words “fern” which means “far” and “wehe” that means “sickness”. It is a sort of extreme form of “wanderlust” and the exact opposite of “homesickness”. 

I appear to be suffering from a very, very serious case of this “far sickness”.

I need to see something new. My mind needs it, the way a body needs oxygen. 

Crazed, I get into the car and drive.

Because it’s the only thing I can think of, I drive towards the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria. It’s old, it’s weird, I haven’t really seen it before. It’s perfect.

Best of all, I can see it without getting out of the car. I’m on a sort of historical game drive while observing all the corona rules and being sensible. I feel elated, like some kind of genius. 

I hurtle up the N1, through Midrand to Pretoria. 

Free!

Sort of.

The GPS directs me. It’s surreal to hear a very proper English home-counties lady voice confidently telling me to “Proceed to Paul Kruger Street” and then turn to head towards “Eeufees Road” and “Proclamation Hill”. Surely she is the wrong voice to be reeling off this liturgy of high-Afrikaner nationalism? This irony peaks when she tells me to “Drive straight towards Valhalla”. 

Valhalla? The Nordic warrior heaven? That would be handy if one were a dead Viking warrior looking for a nice banquet and some sex, but I’m unclear why I would want to go there…

It turns out that the Voortrekker Monument is built on a ridge that is, according to the signposts, called Valhalla Ridge. Clearly there was some very serious stuff going on here during the 1960s when the apartheid racial project was at its peak and things were being named.

Naming convention

Everything is named after a Voortrekker leader, a battle, a murdered president,  a 100-year-old blood oath between God and the Boers. Roads, buildings, hills, everything has spooky nationalist names. It is a heady Aryan word soup or perhaps a potjiekos of ethnic fantasy, possibly involving masks and sex parties of some kind. 

The tiny settlement of Valhalla is a rundown collection of 1960s modernist buildings centred on an unlovely and tiny strip mall. Despite Covid-19 regulations, a bottle store is open and doing brisk business. I’m very, very tempted to go inside and buy 1960’s booze like Castle Lager, Mainstay Rum, Klipdrift and maybe some ice-cold Coke in a glass bottle. But I don’t. Which is probably a mistake. 

Among the twin-cabs and battered small cars of Valhalla, one stands out. A brand new Lamborghini. It is parked at the petrol station. The owner and three young women are taking photos of themselves next to it. It is hard not to think that the Lamborghini is the fruit of some very productive business being done with the South African army up on Valhalla Ridge. Corruption inside the military is obviously nothing new. All South Africans know that our huge airport is built on a patch of land uniquely unsuited for being an airport. It is marshy. It is afflicted by dangerous mists. What made it perfect for building South Africa’s biggest airport, as the rumours go, was that it was owned by a cousin of the then minister of defence. Nothing changes.

On the highway below Valhalla, the beneficiaries of the first state capture project race along to their houses in the wealthy Afrikaans areas of Waterkloof. In the 1930s when the construction of the Voortrekker Monument began, about 80% of Afrikaans children did not attend secondary school. A well-planned, and generously resourced project to solve “the poor white” problem through affirmative action and the giving of contracts to one’s cousins transformed this. Yet in large Waterkloof houses with swimming pools, I imagine dark, angry conversations are now had about the evils of affirmative action, state capture and corruption. 

Turning left towards Proclamation Hill (named after another secret deal between God and the Boers), I see the University of South African (Unisa) building spread out in front of me. It has always looked to me like a set built 60 years ago for a big-budget science fiction film. 

This is one of the largest distance learning institutions in the world. It can’t be a coincidence that it was built here in the heart of the apartheid military complex. Doubtless this was another modernist machine built to lift poor whites out of poverty using education? Its purpose is very different now that it is charged with a broader educational brief.

Regimental signage

On one side of the road the grass is burned black from one of the fires that refresh the veld with green shoots in spring, it is smooth and tightly cropped, like a skull. On the other side, the grass is long and blonde and dances carelessly in the highveld wind.

Beside me, on the other side of a mesh fence, is rusty, spikey, Tyrannosaurus radar equipment seemingly unused now. They are like something left behind when East Germany collapsed into a sea of Levi’s, Coca-Cola and chicken nuggets. 

Regimental badges are everywhere. On gates, sun-faded signs, high walls topped with razor wire. The badges contain overtly European imagery: Unicorns. Falcons. Dragons. Bears. Snowy mountains. Knights in armour.

This was the hilltop fortress of apartheid’s elite Praetorian Guard

The monument itself thrusts up out of a very ordinary koppie. But it still has a dark, heavy magic that can be felt  as one approaches. 

Because this is Corona Tourism, I park the car close to the monument and don’t get out at first, even though it is deserted. The monument is closed, so the internet will be my guide. 

Sitting in my car, in the warm winter sun, I begin a digital tour. I see the statues, the cenotaph, the Hall of Heroes, the friezes portraying the Trek in intricate modernist detail. Frozen in stone, Boers in slouch hats and women in high-waisted dresses grapple to the death with muscular Zulus and wild animals. Their bodies, alive and dead, locked in strange and intimate embraces. 

Dozens of articles about the monument jump up. Although most of them are between 10 and 20 years old. 

Build like an Egyptian

The first thing that grips one’s attention is the controversy over the design of the monument itself. 

Considering the fact that it is fundamentally a tomb built to celebrate white, Calvinist, Afrikaans nationalism, it is somewhat surprising that its inspiration and design used by its architect Gerard Moerdyk was publicly stated to be Egyptian. “I was inspired by the temples of Luxor and Edfu,” he said.

This seems a little odd, given that the Afrikaner racial agenda and the monument itself was whole-heartedly dedicated to celebrating the superiority of white people in their victory over people who were, like the Egyptians, African. 

Moerdyk’s original design for the monument was so obviously Egyptian in nature, that there was a public uproar about this wacky and apparently inappropriate design language. The uproar was such that he was forced to tone down some of the more overtly Egyptian elements, ditching his plan for two great obelisks which would flank the monument overlooking the capital city of Pretoria.

How did an overtly Egyptian design get approved by the government during the white-hot shit show that was early apartheid?

This may be partially explained by the close and sweaty links between Afrikaner nationalism and Nazi German nationalism. The Ossewa Brandwag and their unlovely fellow travellers in the National Party enthusiastically drank the white supremacist Kool Aid of that era, glorying in their imagined Aryan superiority. Moerdyk and his peers had close links with the emerging Nazi regime, travelling back and forth regularly to exchange ideas. What was popular in Berlin was popular in Pretoria. 

And Germany of that era was scarily obsessed with all things Egyptian and occult-ish. 

German society was highly superstitious during this period. The power of the church was waning as their society modernised during and after the Victorian period, and the stresses imposed by the catastrophic defeat in World War I created a society that wanted spiritual answers. Fortune tellers, mediums, mystics and theosophers (yes, that’s as bogus as it sounds) flourished. And whenever people get really mystic-ish, they tend to develop a keen interest in that highly superstitious and ancient world of Egypt. Pyramids? Hidden tombs? Coded writing? Strange beliefs we don’t understand? There’s a lot to like in Egyptian history if you are looking for vague mystical stuff …

And shit, those Egyptians really knew how to build an impressive monument.

As the Nazis cast aside Christianity, they started to rummage around in the attic of religion for things they could use to underpin their belief system. They recycled things as diverse as Hindu philosophy, reincarnation, astrology or anything else that took their fancy. Including many things Egyptian. 

Especially when it came to architecture. 

Hitler-esque

Hitler himself said that his new capital Germania would be inspired by ancient Rome and Egypt. Perhaps because the design language of tombs and monuments used at the time in Northern Europe was heavily Christian in nature, with an upsetting emphasis on stuff about God rather than the Volk.

The marriage between Christianity and nationalism has always been a tricky one. 

Christianity was used very successfully to justify all kinds of unspeakable acts by allegedly Christian nations, but when it comes to architecture, it tends to place emphasis on glorious cathedrals built with the profits of looting and on heroic statues of dying soldiers being heroic and going to heaven. Take any town square in any English city for example. 

The overt celebration of one’s ethnic group doesn’t seem to sit well in this Christian-dominated approach. Religion is often a proxy for nationalism, the racism is cloaked in other cloaks, and it is pretended that everything is all about God and fighting the good fight against evil, rather than fighting other people just ’cause they look a bit different and wear funny hats. 

For the Germans who had totally rejected Christianity, this design language wasn’t an option.

And it didn’t work particularly well for the Afrikaners for whom God was very important, but not nearly as important as Die Volk. 

So the commonly used European language for a monument was out and, when it comes to tombs, it’s pretty hard to out-tomb the pyramids, which may explain why Moerdyk so enthusiastically got on the pyramid band-wagon. 

At the centre of the monument was an actual sarcophagus (which he described as such) that was to contain the bones of Piet Retief and his comrades who were murdered by the Zulus in 1838. Just like the pyramids were to physically house and enable the spirit of the pharaohs to live on, the same thing would be achieved with the spirit of the Voortrekkers. 

Let the sun shine in

The tradition of building a tomb around the rays of the sun to allow a ray of light on one specific day to penetrate a narrow shaft is something that pharaonic architects were very enthusiastic about, incorporating it in multiple pyramids and temples. 

So it makes sense that on December 16, the anniversary of the Battle of Blood River, a ray of light shines down a specifically constructed shaft in this temple of Afrikanerdom to shine on to the following words of their national anthem, Die Stem:

Ons sal antwoord op jou roepstem (We will answer to your calling),
Ons sal offer wat jy vra, (We will offer what you ask)
Ons sal lewe, ons sal sterwe, (We will live, we will die)
Ons vir jou, Suid-Afrika (We for thee South Africa).

No mention of God. It’s not needed. Here the Volk is God. 

Egyptian symbols and imagery are everywhere. They include references to the sun god Ra and use of frescos like those used in the open-air temples of Akhenaten, but perhaps the most telling clue is one around which the monument is built — when one looks upwards at midnoon on December 16, the sun reveals a dot within a circle, the ancient African-Egyptian hieroglyph for the monotheistic creator god Aten

Apparently Moerdyk’s trip to Egypt in the 1930s was time well-spent.

Given that the monument is entirely deserted, I think it’s safe to put on my face mask and walk up the steps to the locked gates that surround it.

Through the steel gate made of assegais (isn’t that a bit odd?) I can see the famous green-copper statue of a svelte Boer mother who is comforting two children while standing on top of a dead wildebeest. I feel that every house should contain at least one statue like this.

The most recent addition to the monument is the Koeksister Sculpture Bench created by a prominent South African artist of Afrikaans ancestry. It seems very out of place in this temple of blood, death and sacrifice. I can’t imagine that Verwoerd would have allowed a quirky sculpture celebrating a sweet, deep-fried snack to be placed here. Apparently times have changed…

One of the more surprising things about the monument is how many other smaller ancillary monuments and walls of remembrance cluster around that enormous Egyptian monolith. 

There are about a dozen. Generally they tend to be unattractive marble or face brick things covered in plaques to the deceased. Soldiers, doctors, clergymen are everywhere, celebrated on tiny plaques. 

Further down the hill there are a series of signs for the “Afrikaner Boekwinkel” and “Afrikaner Kultuursentrum” and “Afrikaner Taalsentrum”. All are square-ish and face-brick-ish. All shut because of the lockdown. Silent, they look a bit like an old-age home in Rustenburg.

I sanitise my hands thoroughly before and after signing the exit form that the security guard hands me. I have to write down my phone number and answer questions about everything from recent travels to friends who may be ill. After ticking the NO box 15-20 times, I hand the security guard his pen back. We both then sanitise our hands thoroughly, concerned that all this corona-prevention may have, in fact, given us both corona.

As I leave the monument, I see a huge and oddly moving green-copper statue of a man with an Afrikaner bull. 

He is trying to restrain the bull, but seems to be struggling. 

The bull has giant testicles. 

The man’s muscles are taut. 

He is struggling to control the bull, just as surely as anyone struggles to control nationalism once those particular bollocks have been let out of Pandora’s box.

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John Davenport
John Davenport is the chief creative officer of Havas Southern Africa.

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