The Temple of a Million Years

As a young archaeologist in the nineties, I sat studying Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs in the dusty basement of the British Institute for Archaeology in Amman, Jordan. Surrounded by newly unearthed pottery sherds, stone tools, bronze and flint from Jordan’s ancient history, it was hard to fit in my passion of Egypt before one of the directors shooed me off to catalogue medieval pottery instead. Eighteen years old and I could already decipher a fair number of glyphs using dusty eighteenth-century textbooks from a small library time seemed to have forgotten. One evening I found myself gazing at the inscription of a stele dedicated to Ramses the Second, a decree regarding the state of his memorial temple – his ‘House of millions of years’. As fate would have it the French author Christian Jacq had just that year stoked my imagination with his latest novel Ramses and the Temple of Eternity, a lavishly descriptive story accounting for this very temple. Built for Ramses the second during his fabled reign, the height of the New Kingdom lived every bit up to it’s golden heritage. Jacq’s novel and the stele inscription would stay with me until one afternoon in Asia, some fifteen years later.

Deep in southern China, enveloped in the clouds of an early afternoon thunderstorm just outside Dali, I remember Ramses and his magnificent memorial temple as I point a lens at southern China’s dynastic architecture. The majesty of these structures is breath-taking in itself but it’s the concept of constructing a temple to last for an eternity that rings in my ears and southern China does not disappoint. A momentary memory unearths from a university seminar, that the world is full of similarities – from Egypt to Mexico to China to India to Easter Island our ancestors strove to be remembered until the end of time, to etch their mark in this mortal world for all to witness in awe. To stand in the presence of the gateway to their heavens.

This particular temple sits towards the back of the Three Pillars complex in China’s Yunnan province. One would be forgiven if they missed it whilst visiting – the main thoroughfare takes you past the core attraction, three large pillars as expected, and then on to a larger temple to light some incense and buy the obligatory wrist bangle. Venture off the beaten track, however, and you’re rewarded with this majestic scene with not a soul in sight. Okay, maybe one.