The Garden of the Afterlife

The Garden of the Afterlife

Those poor unfortunate souls among you who read my last post may remember that I’m working as a research assistant for Professor Jamel Velji, a religionist who specializes in the apocalypse. Among my projects for the summer has been helping Prof. Velji design a new course called Mahdis and their Movements about Muslim messianic movements and helping him edit his existing course called The End of the World as We Know It to include a unit on Ancient Egyptian pseudo-apocalyptic. Between the two subjects I have noticed an interesting connection: the afterlife is visualized on earth as a garden. The image above is a photograph that Prof. Velji took in the British Museum in London; it comes from the tomb of the 18th-Dynasty (ca. 1350 BCE) scribe Nebamun in Thebes, Egypt. The descriptive plaque in the British Museum refers to this tomb painting as “Nebamun’s garden of the west”, explaining that “Nebamun’s garden in the afterlife is like the earthly gardens of the wealthy in ancient Egypt.” The ancient Egyptian conception of time was not linear but cyclical, based on the cycle of the sun: in the morning the sun-god Re is born in the east, in the evening he dies in the west, and overnight he returns underground to be reborn in the east. For this reason the Egyptians saw burials as actually moving closer to the sun: the deeper and darker a burial chamber, the closer it would be to Re during his nighttime travels. What this also meant was that the west, being the site of Re’s daily (re)death, was also the appropriate burial place for Egyptians.   The map above (sorry it’s...
What Do Professors Do All Day?

What Do Professors Do All Day?

By now more than a few of my professors have told me that ultimately I myself will be an academic; such a future is evidently inevitable. In order best to embrace my destiny, I’m spending the summer working as a Summer Research Assistant for Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion Jamel Velji, who specializes in Islamic apocalyptic. As such, I’m pretending to be a professor, getting a behind-the-scenes look at what takes up Prof. Velji’s time outside of the 6 hours a week spent teaching classes. So, what do professors do outside of the classroom? 1. They read. Above we see the cover to a recent major publication in the field of Islamic Studies, Messianic Beliefs & Imperial Politics in Medieval Islam: The ‘Abbasid Caliphate in the Early Ninth Century by Hayrettin Yucesoy. This is just one of many texts I’ve read (or, more accurately, skimmed) in order to determine if it would be appropriate reading for a 300-level seminar that professor Velji will be teaching next semester called Mahdis and their Movements. The Encyclopaedia of Islam defines “al-Mahdi” (which in English is “the rightly guided one”) as “the restorer of religion and justice who, according to a widely held Muslim belief, will rule before the end of the world”; the course centers on a number of historical personages who have claimed or applied the title of Mahdi. The course will have six case studies: the ‘Abbasid movement (Iraq and surrounding area, mid-8th century CE), the Fatimid movement (Egypt, early 10th-century), the Almohad movement (Morocco and Spain, early 12th century), Ibn al-Arabi (not himself a Mahdi claimant, but a prominent Sufi writer who used a lot of messianic imagery, 12th-13th centuries), the...

“What a feast for this age of restless curiosity”

I’ve been in London for a few days now and already I know it will be hard to leave this city. With a satisfyingly warm mug of tea in hand (Tetley’s, diluted to the color of wet sand by milk and made palatable by one—no, two—cubes of sugar that disappear in the warmth of the liquid: the distinguishing details of a perfect cuppa) and the full moon drifting higher and higher through the fog that has settled like a cosy blanket atop the flats across the way, I feel a little like life has sped forward and I’ve arrived in the future I’ve been dreaming of. I cannot begin to express my good fortune and gratitude for this opportunity. For someone who has braved the disorienting stacks of Cambridge’s University Library and who has cleared out entire call numbers from Magill’s shelves, I should not be intimidated by any library but the British Library (or BL), where I began my day today, is not a place to be trifled with. Nestled a mere block from the PA announcements, disoriented travellers, and commotion of King’s Cross Station, the modernist, red-brick building reminds me a bit of a formidable factory, churning out books like smoke against London’s surprisingly blue sky. During the Olympics, the library opens its doors at ten. Arriving early on my first day, I was surprised by the number of people milling about café tables or patiently queuing like good Brits, waiting for the library to throw open her arms and invite us inside. The BL holds regular exhibitions showcasing items in their collection resulting in a mottled...