Ozymandias Moments

8am. The city clamor has not yet found full amplitude, but sound still makes it through the balcony door. Aquarius wakes from anxious sleep. April 28, 2011. His fifth day in Cairo. The American writer showers, shaves his head, dresses. In the sparse lobby of his down-market hotel, he asks the woman behind the desk for breakfast. He waits, eats. He leaves, descending three flights of worn stairs. Aquarius is going to the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. He wants to see the Stele of Revealing.

In spring of 1904, Aleister Crowley, the one-time Wickedest Man in the World, was honeymooning in Cairo with his new wife, Rose Kelly. Crowley was a walking embodiment of the late British Empire: moneyed, educated, brimming with arrogance, and prone to foreign misadventure. A sometime poet, mountain climber, and raconteur, his true claim to fame is a lifetime spent practicing ceremonial magick.

In their honeymoon suite, Crowley and his wife performed a series of rituals invoking spirits of the air and ancient Egyptian deities. Kelly fell into a light trance and began speaking as if possessed by the god Horus, who she said desired communication with her husband. A lifelong doubter in the abilities of women, Crowley thought such contact beyond his wife. As a test, he brought her to the Bulaq Museum on the outskirts of Cairo and demanded that she show him an image of Horus. Ignoring several obvious representations, Kelly settled on an unostentatious wooden funeral stele with two stylized depictions of the god. Its catalogue number was 666. Crowley was convinced.

Weeks later, Kelly informed her husband that a messenger of Horus would soon appear. On April 8th, 9th, and 10th, Crowley transcribed words apparently dictated by this outside and invisible intelligence. The amanuentic text is split into three chapters, each narrated by a different Egyptian deity. It proclaims the end of an era dominated by Osiris — linked by Crowley with Christ — and the triumph of Horus, ushering in a new aeon of freedom and personal liberty.

Crowley titled his text The Book of the Law and used it as the foundational document of a new religious movement he called Thelema, which boasts practitioners into the present day. The Book of the Law gives prominence to Kelly’s stele, glorified as the Stele of Revealing. Every Thelemite temple must possess a copy. Thousands of replicas are now scattered across the globe. The stele itself was moved to the Egyptian Museum some time after Kelly’s fateful encounter, where it has been on display ever since.

Aquarius accepts, abstractly, the truth of The Book of the Law. He abandoned God long ago, but he believes in the gods. His heart is pagan.

The Museum has hung around the edges of his trip, the sun-bleached pink paint of its exterior visible whenever he nears Tahrir Square. He discovers now that the building boasts three rings of security. These checkpoints are no different from the others encountered in Egypt. People with skin like his, somewhat less pink than the museum, are barely inspected, waved through. Egyptian security seems solely concerned with keeping out certain kinds of Egyptians. In his few days on this soil, Aquarius has grown accustomed to such privilege, to the relics of colonialism.

In the museum’s outdoor courtyard is a long, man-made pond. A large number of state-licensed tour guides orbit this body of water. Some approach with vigor, others sulk in silence. He remembers a bit of 1950s Turkish slang that he learned from his father. Tirnakaçi.

As he nears the main entrance, Aquarius is stopped by a guide wearing a polo shirt and khaki shorts. On his hat, the Canadian maple leaf.

“Are you looking for a tour?” he asks.

“Not now. But I think I will be back in a little bit.”

“I am right here.”

Aquarius goes inside, drifting through the final wave of security. He stands before the open maw of the central concourse. Here is grand statuary, millennia old, unfathomable treasures. This could be his Ozymandias moment. He does not care. He wants to see a piece of painted wood.

Room 22, second floor. He climbs the stairs, dodges packs of bored teenagers, walks through rows of coffins and mummies. The Egyptian Museum is like the Platonic form of a museum, what he imagines American and European museums were like before their infection with Disneyland tech. There are no touch terminals, no 3D, no interactive displays, no air-conditioned climate control. Priceless objects are crammed into dull wooden cases, occupying every inch of available space. You can smell the dust.

Last night, he checked LAShTal.COM, a message board on all topics Crowley. What the internet said was this: two weeks earlier a Crowleyite visited the museum and was unable to locate the stele. The object, and its case, were gone. Now in Room 22 Aquarius sees that the internet, for once, was right. There are many stelae here, but not the one he seeks.

He goes downstairs and exits, forced onto a long march through the gift shop. Returning to the courtyard, he seeks the guide. He sees the maple leaf hat and approaches.

“Hello,” he says.

“Hello, sir.“

"I have come from California to see one piece,” he says. “But it is not on display. Do you think you can help me?”

He shows the guide a picture of the stele on a cellphone. “There many wonderful pieces in the museum,” the guide says. “Wouldn’t you like to see them?”

“No.” He explains more. “Who should I talk to about this?”

What fascinates Aquarius about The Book of the Law is the concept of a religious movement emerging entirely out of Orientalism. Crowley attempted a revival of Egyptian magick, but which Egypt? Not one recognizable by the Egyptians of the early 20th Century, nor those of the ancient world. An Egypt that never existed, an Egypt of the West’s imagining.

In 1909, Crowley returned to the Middle East. His companion was the poet Victor Neuberg. The two men began practicing sex magick in the Sahara, inaugurating the theme that would dominate the rest of Crowley’s Thelemic experience. Egyptian magick meets the solid British fuck, as if Crowley understood on a primal level that the colonial gaze was fundamentally erotic.

Aquarius is attracted by these faint hints of the absurd. He believes that each religion’s ridiculous aspects should be so easily identifiable.

The guide suggests speaking with someone inside the museum. “Would you like me to go with you?”

“Yes, please.”

He follows the guide through the entrance, again passing security. The guards recognize him, smile. The guide flashes his license and walks into a giant room just right of the entrance. More statuary, more stone. The guide speaks in Arabic with a man behind an elevated desk. The man gestures toward the right. The guide takes off. Aquarius races after him.

The guide moves to the far right corner of the museum, a crook nestled beside the stairs. A woman sits at a table. Two men dressed in the pure white summer uniform of the Tourism Police hover beside a metal detector. On the other side of the detector, down a hallway, are vague details of offices. A German film crew is walking through, all boom mics and cameras. The guide talks with the woman. The uniform reminds Aquarius, as ever, of the sailors in Kenneth Anger’s Fireworks. (A proper Thelemic reference.) And then his paranoiac-critical faculty does overtime: he decides that one police officer is the spitting image of the Bangladeshi film star and master criminal, Dipjol.

The guide starts yelling, “Mohamed Ali! Mohamed Ali! Mohamed Ali!”

A man on the other side of the metal detector runs down toward the offices.

“They are being difficult because some people are here to film,” says the guide.

More discussion. Aquarius avoids eye contact with Dipjol. At last, the woman says that they may enter. The guide rushes into the long hallway. Aquarius follows, wishing he had time to look inside the open doorways. The guide turns left into a corridor that bends down on a sharp incline and ends in another office.

“Come along,” he says, rushing into the office. Several women sit at desks, doing paperwork. The guide brushes past, moves to the right, approaches a small man in a green sports coat sitting at his desk, eating. The guide speaks in Arabic. Everyone shakes hands. The man speaks back.

The guide asks for the cellphone and the stele’s accession number. Aquarius tells him. The guide shows the man the stele’s image, repeats the number in Arabic. The man in the green sports coat stands, moves around the writer. The guide follows. Aquarius follows the guide, back into the long hallway. The man in the green sport coat talks with yet another man. He palms fifty pounds into the other man’s hand.

Another round of discussion. Again the guide asks for the accession number. Again he repeats it in Arabic. Again the cellphone. Aquarius becomes concerned someone will recognize the object for its outré associations. He worries there will be another moment in his life where he is obliged to explain that he does not, in fact, worship the devil.

Green sports coat moves further down the hallway. More discussion. Again the accession number. He takes off back toward his office, then left, down a set of stone steps into a sub-basement that Aquarius hadn’t noticed. At the bottom of the steep stairs, he calls out, again asking for the accession number. Again the guide repeats it in Arabic. The man disappears. Aquarius only sees hints of what is below.

A silence, standing with the guide. The discordance of another moment in which people are taking Aquarius far more seriously than he has ever taken himself. He is just another bozo writer, some half-Turkish dude born in the abattoir of Rhode Island. How the hell is he here? (Why is he calling himself Aquarius?) What is it about Egypt, about colonialism, and its subsequent metamorphosis into the tourism economy? He has come this far on little more than entitlement and bad manners. He tries not to think about it. The silence is punishing.

“You’re an excellent tour guide,” he says.

“Thank you,” says the guide. “It is my duty.”

They talk about how the guide entered his profession. The man in the green sports coat bounds up the stairs. By the man’s face, it’s clear it’s not going to happen. There is some discussion in Arabic. “They are making a new case for it,” the guide says. “The old case is damaged.” In the revolution? “Yes,” he says. “I think so.” Aquarius doesn’t believe this. He asks again. The guide asks the man in the green sport coat. “Yes, the case that held the stele was damaged in the revolution.” Where is the stele now? “Locked in a box.” Can they get the key? “There is a form for visiting archaeologists. You must be approved.” If only he knew how to bribe.

And that’s that. The man returns to his desk. The guide takes Aquarius back into the museum. He gives the writer his business card, which reads Mohamed Ali. In the frenzy, he never even bothered to ask for his guide’s name. Aquarius had foreknowledge that this might happen, but Mohamed Ali didn’t. He seems disappointed. He insists on showing him the statuette of the Pharaoh Khufu, the sole extant representation of the Great Pyramid’s builder, only ten centimeters tall. This is more the guide’s style. There is less frustration.

They argue about the tip. Ali doesn’t want one, doesn’t feel like he’s done anything. The American writer insists. It goes back and forth. He gets Mohamed Ali to take a hundred pounds. The guide takes his leave, wishing him a good day. Aquarius finds a bench and sits and stares, and he wonders.