Sunday 23rd May
Today I went on a day trip to Luxor (in fact 3 main sites: the town itself; Karnak and the Theban necropolis) which was as awe-inspiring as its reputation suggests. It was an early start – 4am wake up call, and pick up from outside reception at 5am. There was four passengers including myself – and our driver, Samil. We took our ‘breakfast packs’ which looked like they had enough in for lunch as well – though a meal in a restaurant was included. We were lucky to have a private car with plenty of room – rather than be crammed in like sardines in a coach – for it was going to be a long hot drive.
We whizzed away in the dark before dawn, filling up at a surreal petrol station that looked like an art installation – neon wrapped around palm trees. Perhaps it was the hour, the setting, being half asleep – but it was all quite dreamlike. The wind howled around me as I popped to the forecourt shop to get some spoons for our yoghurts.
Driving on, we passed the countless unfinished buildings of Egypt – as though modern Egyptians were trying to emulate the ruins of the Pharoahs. The red orb of the sun emerged quietly to our left, like the red face of a baby emerging from between the legs of night. Ra reborn.
After heading south on the coast road for sometime, we turned inland, passing through a serious- looking checkpoint (guys with automatic rifles, metal barriers on wheels for shoot-outs) – one of many that lined the route. Heading east, we drove through the mountains – a dramatic road which cuts through the Red Sea range into the interior.
At a pitstop we grabbed a coffee and took in the spectacle – locals trying to make a buck. A couple of Bedouin women had a donkey with a goat on the back. Although ‘cute’ it was a sad symbol of what people have to do to earn a few (what are to us) pennies. Coach-loads of tourists pulled up, on their way to Luxor. The woman at the toilet asked for one (Egpytian pound) or one (US) dollar (a substantial difference!). Spending a penny has clearly gone up in price. It’s all about supply and demand – when you’re bursting they shove a hand in your face. These were clearly not polite Steigenberger staff and you had to be firm with them: ‘La shukran!’ became the phrase of the day.
On to Luxor – arriving there about four and half hours after setting off. We were met for our guide, Maria, a local.
Our first destination was the Colossi of Memmon, two huge statues of Amenophis, who once guarded his now vanished mortuary temple (although a German excavation is digging its site). Now 19.5 metres high they once sported crowns and were even higher. An earthquake in 27 BC shattered them, but they were repaired and there current state makes them look like cubist sculpture. Apparently the one on the right used to emit a musical note and dawn, which attracted some famous tourists including Hadrian in 130 AD. Today, they both stand in silent sentinel. At the feet of the left one his wife and mother can be seen – dwarfed – but there is a statue of Amenophis’ wife which is of equal size to him in Cairo, a rarity, showing an early equality between this couple at least. It was thrilling to see the petroglyphs carved into the sides of the statues – my first. A local man came over, grabbed me and wanted his photo taken next to me. Then he asked for money: ‘Baksheesh’ (share the wealth). Since he had practically forced me to do this, I refused. If you want to take a photo of someone, that’s different – ask first, then pay after.
We passed, all too fleetingly, the Ramesseum with its very phallic columns. Here Shelley came upon the ruins of Rameses II and penned his immortal poem, ‘Ozymandias’: ‘I met a traveller from an antique land who said: in the desert two vast and trunkless legs of stone now stand…’ The ironic inscription the Romantic poet imagines there has become the epitaph of all grandiose schemes: ‘Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ Basically, everything crumbles to dust in the end. Modern pharaohs take note.
Fortunately some survive when others tried there very best to wipe them from the face of the Earth. Such is the case dramatically illustrated by our next port of call – something we were all looking forward to – the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut, the only female pharaoh. Her stepson, Tuthmosis III, when he finally came to the throne after her death, spitefully defaced her effigies in an attempt to remove her from history (there’s a story of dysfunctional families). He managed a pretty good job – all but one of her images remain, but ironically she has remained famous, while he is confined to the shadows. All we know him for now is his pettiness. Seeing the scratched out faces on the walls of the terraces (exquisite murals, where I saw my first vibrantly-coloured hieroglyphs) reminded me of a sad photo album where all the faces of one of the partners are scribbled or cut out. Our guide brought the story alive – pointing out the details depicted in the heiroglyphs. It was thrilling to see images of Osiris, Anubis, Horus and Hathor – the latter being worshipped at the temple. The Goddess of life, of motherhood, of fecundity and music appropriate for a Queen. In one mural she is depicted suckling the teats of Hathor, and I pointed it was like the icon of Romulus and Remus, the twins who were said to have founded Rome, suckled by the she-wolf (there’s a statue of this near my home city, sculpted by an Italian POW to thank his captors).
Because we only had a short time,I wanted to just experience the place, rather than have everything explained – its good to have some information but not so much that it stops you from actually just fully ‘seeing’ the place. I tried to savour the sheer majesty of the place and tried to imagine it back in Hatshepsut’s time – no doubt it would have been equally busy with pilgrims at festive times, bringing offerings. No doubt there would have been many wanting to offer the goods they needed on the way also. An echo of this perhaps remained – we had to run the gauntlet of the bazaar on the way back to the lift – but I avoided eye contact and marched on. The last thing I wanted to do after standing in the withering heat, being overwhelmed by a mind-blowing place, is buy bits of tourist tat, but I guess they have to make their sheckles somehow.
Next we went onto Valley of the Kings. By now it was midday and the white gorge created an oven effect. We boarded the tourist train – being careful not to have any cameras on us, as photography is now banned (only a year). We visited 3 temples. I marvelled at the colours of the heiroglyphs – looking as though they had been painted a hundred years ago, not thousands. White is made from limestone; black from charcoal, green from turquoise, blue from expensive lapis lazuli, red from iron oxide – and the pigments are bound to the wall by egg-whites. The extreme aridity, coolness and low light has helped preserve them so perfectly. Even below ground the heat was intense, indeed it was even more stifling with no fresh air. Lord knows how the guards cope. They stood at the entrance, or actually inside like guardians of the dead – rangey Anubis types. In the first temple one shoved a torch into my hand – I thought everyone was given one, but it was just another tourist con. The beam was barely strong enough to reach the far wall, but it served to point out some details Maria had mentioned to us (she didn’t come in with us – outside guides are not allowed). I handed the torch back on the way out and gave him 5 LE, which made him give me a bad-toothed (sometimes you give baksheesh and they don’t even seem pleased). Locals descended from the mountain side wanting to sell us postcards (a sign read: Climbing the Mountains is not Allowed).
A real highlight was the third tomb we visited – the Tomb of the Harpist. I felt at home here. It was exciting to finally spot it in one of the ante-chambers (as no interpretation boards gave away its location). Sure enough, he looked like he was playing a full-sized harp. Clearly Pharaohs needed entertaining in the afterlife, and so musical instruments were included in the tomb, along with food, treasures, servants, furniture, etc. It was a relief to emerge into the light. I was starting to feel the effects of the sun (in the 40s) and needed cooling off.
Maria had managed to arranged a ferry (ours was called Omar Shariff) to take us across the Nile – this seemed a better option than getting back in the minibus. Four hundred metres wide, eight metres deep, 4151 miles long, discharging 300 million cubic metres per day, it is the longest river in the world, flowing through nine countries and providing the water of life for millions. Maria talked passionately about how countries upriver want to build more dams, reducing its flow. It is such a vital resource and a point of tension. Once again men want to control what flows freely – what Africa gives so generously.
We had a nice lunch at the St George’s Hotel – watching the obese sunbathers baking below (like a Grosz painting).
Our driver picked us up and we headed off for the grand finale – Karnak – which we had the rest of the afternoon to explore. This was needed as its so huge, covering hundreds of acres. Land around it is being cleared, as at one time houses clustered right up against it. Now there’s a wide terrace leading towards it, allowing you to get a sense of its scale, creating a sense of drama, restoring its sanctity (as at Stonehenge, where they are removing the roads that runs by it, cutting the site in two). However, it is terrible that local people were forced to move out, have their homes demolished, and there were not sufficiently compensated. More houses have been demolished to reveal the Avenue of the Sphinxes, which links the major sites. It has only just been revealed and will be open to the public next year. I like the way the sites have a ‘conversation’ with each other. Hatshepsut’s faces Amun Ra’s on the opposite side of the Nile – like the sun and moon facing each other across the sky.
Finally I came to the place I had seen in photoes and footage and was really looking forward to. It did not disappoint: the Hypostyle hall in the Temple of Amun. It was truly awe-inspiring to walk among those huge decorated columns. I wandered off from the group to savour this incredible place, walking amongst the forest of pillars. It is meant to symbolise the rushes of the riverbank where Horus was born. It took a long time and alot of effort to build, so it only seems right to ‘stand and stare’.
Beyond was the largest obelisk in Egypt – an incredible 29.5 m (one single piece of rock). Other wonders awaited. A Sacred Lake, where the priests ritually bathed every day before breaking open the sealed temple where offerings were given to the Gods. Next to this is a gigantic scarab dedicated to the rising sun. Our guide told us it was considered lucky to walk around this 7 times (other guides said 3 or 9) anti-clockwise, making a wish. So I did. Doing this in the midday sun felt like being one of those unfortunate bugs who schoolboys like to torment by tieing to a nail, watching it walk around and around. As at Mmemon there were ‘temple dogs’ – looking for the others, I found one lying in a small side chapel. It looked like it was expiring. I found some water and offered it. The dog weakly lifted its head, then started to drink, lapping from the plastic cup. Immediately it seemed to revive – uncurling like a Rose of Jericho, sitting up, a light returning to its eyes.
Sometimes a cup of kindness from a passing stranger is all it takes.
With relief we returned to the car, where ice cold water and air conditioning was waiting. Others are not so fortunate. We said farewell to Maria, thanking her for her excellent job, and headed off, out of the chaos of Luxor, and away from the Nile Valley, towards the golden mountains, illuminated by the setting sun. It was a full day, and by the time we got back around nine the back of my shirt was slick with sweat. Exhausted, I thanked Samil and said good night to the others. I retired to my room for a shower and an early night, my mind blazing with the incredible sights of the day.