By Chester Higgins Jr.
Inside it is cool and dark. Robust columns tower seven stories to support a rock slab roof through which shafts of sunlight brighten a time-marked stone floor. The scent of incense infuses a chapel; sistrums clang; chanting reverberates and echoes inside the cavernous space. Diaphanous white robes echo a time that was. Something spiritual is happening here.
Fourteen members of the Shrine of Ptah are in the ancient Temple of Seti I in Abydos, Egypt. The group has "returned to their sacred heritage, the spiritual home of all African people," says Heru Ankh Ra Semahj se Ptah, the Keeper (or Senur) of the Shrine of Ptah, a chapel decorated with paintings of Egyptian deities, located in the Smai Tawi Cultural and Wellness Center in Brooklyn, NY. Smai Tawi refers to the unity of Upper and Lower Egypt that is represented by a separate glyph in the language of Ancient Egypt or Kemet. Unity for the group also means combining "our ancient Eastern African experience and our present Western modern reality; we take the best of both worlds and move to the future with it," says Senur Semahj.
Every two years a dedicated band from the Shrine of Ptah makes a pilgrimage to the ancient holy sites of Kemet, purposely traveling during the heat of summer when many tourists avoid this desert land; as a result the pilgrims often find themselves alone in temples, tombs and other popular monuments and are thus able to practice their rites without causing interruption. In 2003 I was invited to document this experience. My many visits to Egypt have afforded me countless opportunities to capture the grandeur of stone monuments. On this trip I found myself in the midst of a synergistic drama in which the living of the 21st century embraced these sacred sites, and the ancient walls echoed their presence.
The group visited Giza, Sakkara, Luxor, Thebes, Kom Ombo, Philae, Abu Simbel, and the Temple of Seti I in Abydos, the principle place of worship for Asar (or Osiris to the Greeks), the world’s first Savior. Although he was killed by his brother Seth, Asar’s wife Ast embraced his resurrected body and conceived a child — the first recorded immaculate conception. On the walls inside seven chapels of the Temple of Seti I are exquisitely rendered scenes that depict ancient rites of daily worship and are thus of primary importance in the study of Egyptian liturgy.
Back in Brooklyn, Senur Semahj, together with the cofounder of the Center, his wife Queen Afua, Chief Priestess of the Temple of Nbthet and author of the popular book, Sacred Woman: A Guide to Healing the Feminine Body, Mind and Spirit, conduct their lives according to the ancient principles of Maat — a recognition that everything in the universe is in a state of complementary balance. There is no equivalent translation in the English language; the concept is so all encompassing, it requires several words, including Truth, Order, Balance, Reciprocity, Propriety, Sobriety, and Decency.
"We do not have a belief system, we have a knowledge system," Senur Semahj says. Although brought up on the Bible, he relies on knowledge, centuries older. The principles of Maat are found in what Egyptologists refer to as The Pyramid Texts, the most ancient Holy Scripture known in the world. The basis for seven of the Ten Commandments, given to Moses in Egypt, is in one of its chapters, called the 42 Negative Confessions, portions of which were chiseled 4,500 years ago on the walls of the Tomb of Pharaoh Unas in Sakkara, Egypt. The Negative Confessions are far more inclusive and conservative than today’s Ten Commandments; they include not causing others to weep, not robbing, not acting sullen, not being violent, or cursing, or being impatient. And Senur Semahj points out that practicing Maat means living the principles daily; the idea that we can atone for a life of sin on our deathbed is just not part of the ancient philosophy.
If this sounds like a religion, it’s not. "When people ask what is my religion?" says Senur Semahj, "I hold up the ankh (the ancient symbol for life) and say life is my religion." He has no quarrel with any belief and no interest in converting anyone. He simply wants "to serve those who are looking for the truth — the more light there is in the world, the better we all are for it." The couple’s teachings at their Brooklyn Center have inspired thousands through classes in the ancient Kemetic culture and spiritual teachings on the principles of Maat. In 1995, they moved to larger quarters to accommodate the increasing numbers of students participating in activities.
If the fundamental role of spirituality is to cut a path to the Holy Spirit, then the original African road to salvation has to be reconnected. Since 1969 Senur Semahj has been researching the most ancient Holy Scripture — reading scholars, both African and European, who have written about the origin of African people in the Nile Valley. Through his studies and lifestyle, he seeks "to tap into what our ancestors gave us and to rebuild our reality based on those standards."
"The Most High gave each people an instrument to play in the universal symphony," he says. "Our note has been missing, and we intend to put it back."
For further information on Smai Tawi, see Web site; www.staar.com