The symbol in between these two birds is an ankh. In Ancient Egypt, the ankh symbolized eternal life and was often depicted in the hands of pharaohs and queens on their tombs. Touring the Karnak Temple today, the largest known worship space in the world, I saw many of these symbols carefully carved into granite and sandstone; it reminded me of the last time I studied Ancient Egyptian culture, in elementary school, delicately fastening ankhs from rolled-out strips of clay and painting them blue and silver.
Although my childhood renditions were much more haphazard, Egyptians also painted their ankhs blue, a color holding connotations of life. Today, the paint is still visible on some of the carved ankhs here. The Egyptians, it turns out, made their paints by pulverizing precious stones. Our culture is undoubtedly more advanced than that of Ancient Egypt, but I wonder: will any of our colors withstand 3500 years of sun, sand, rain and wind?
We learned one more surprising fact about the ankh: Egyptologists think it is a symbolic representation of the Nile, the life-giving blue river that has been the backbone of daily life here for thousands of years. A twisting trunk rises in Southern Egypt, a horizontal bar marks the separation of Upper and Lower Egypt (often home to separate kingdoms), and the river splits into two branches near the Mediterranean to form the Nile Delta, a land revered by Egyptians for its lasting fertility. These three elements make up every ankh we see adorning the walls at Karnak.