Wednesday, 30 September 2020

Chapter 4 - London, Saturday July 14, 1990

John, what can I say?  You surprise me - I thought I knew you so well, that you would never surprise me.  But what a stupid thing to do - nearly killed by your fear of losing face.  I honestly never expected that your travel journal would reveal such things - nor did I take it for that reason.  I thought if one thing was sure in this world it is my knowledge of you.  But I may need to revise that: what other surprises do you have in store for me?

I do remember that time you made me wash off that perfume.  I wept, bitter tears of rage and frustration.  If only you had explained to me, I would have understood.  Didn't you trust me, or was your pride too great to tell me what happened?  It is sad, John, that you didn't.  If you had, perhaps it would have led to other things, and, who knows?

Well, what is done, is done.  You were right, I was very moved by the pyramids.  As soon as I saw them, I recognised them.  Not in the trivial sense that I'd seen pictures of them, but that they struck a chord in me, that I felt as if a door had opened, a door that would lead to a better understanding of Egypt.

I couldn't help thinking of all those people - how many did you say: 10,000 or was it 100,000? - the mind cannot grasp these kinds of figures. 100,000 grains of sand I can hold (can I?  How big would it be?  I've no idea), but 100,000 people - it reduces them to just numbers, takes away their peopleness.  It must have been a city of them.  Were their wives and children with them?  Or were they left at home?  Were they even allowed to see the pyramids when they were finished, or was this another holy place for men only?

I have been trying to imagine what it would have been like to be a woman in those times.  The only women we really hear about are the queens - and even then we only seem to have their names.  What did they feel?  What was it like to be married to Cheops - Khufu, whatever his name is - a man who could order the pyramids to be built, who ruled 100,000 or perhaps 1,000,000 people absolutely?  Did they 'love' each other?  Or was it just duty, or orders?  Have people changed much in five thousand years?  It seems unlikely.  So what were their feelings, their hopes, their thoughts?  I should have asked you, you would probably know of some text or other which tells us at least something.

I found going into the pyramid quite eerie, perhaps because of all the other people clambering up that tiny shaft.  It looked like one of those old engravings of people in hell, pointlessly climbing up narrow spaces, tired, too cramped.  And once inside, at the centre, it felt very cold (not physically), very cheerless.  It was rock and rock everywhere.  There weren't even any hieroglyphs or paintings as in the other tombs we looked at.  It seemed to say this was it, death is the end.

Which is why I found your thoughts on death interesting.  But I can't agree with your ideas on photography, John.  Isn't it natural that people want to take photos of where they've been?  They want to remember the things they've seen, the people they met, all the good times they had.  Is that so terrible?  Otherwise they do lose them - I know I do.  Try as I might, I can't remember certain details about things which happened in the past.  What exactly was someone wearing?  Where did we sit?  What was the weather like?  Without pictures to remind you it is as if it never really happened, as if it was only some kind of waking dream or fantasy.  A least you admit that pictures of people you love can be precious.  It seems a shame to me that you took so few of me, and never really liked me taking any of you.  I regret that now.  I wonder if you do.

You were right about the Sphinx and the other sights: after the Great Pyramid it was all a bit of an anti-climax.  I mean it was still interesting - the boat of Re was beautiful - but it didn't really add anything to my understanding or love of what I'd already seen.  Nothing  surpassed that first impression.

I suppose too that if I were being honest, which is what I am trying to be in writing this, I would have to admit that I was increasingly distracted by the thought of that evening, impatient for midnight to come.  Would I really go, would he really come - and what, if anything, was going to happen?  So if at times I seemed bored or uninterested, it was probably just that - but obviously you weren't to know.  I wasn't even particularly annoyed that you wouldn't go on a camel ride with me when they others were all going.

Midnight did come eventually, and, yes, I did go.  I don't think you noticed - you certainly said nothing.  But then you rarely did.  You were very tired - rather depressed still, as you said in your journal - and were snoring soundly (yes, you do) when I crept out of bed, got dressed, and went down to front of the hotel.  The foyer was lit up, but the night-duty clerk was also snoring happily in his chair - do all men snore when they sleep?  I managed to slip out without disturbing him.

Parked just outside the hotel steps was huge gleaming opentop Mercedes.  The light outside the revolving door illuminated its cream-coloured paintwork.  Sitting at the wheel, his right arm resting easily along the back of the front seats, was Omar.  His face was turned towards the door in expectation.

"You came," he said with evident relief and pleasure as he got out of the car to open the door on the passenger's side.

"I came", I said as I got in.  Omar closed the door quietly, started up the engine, reversed out, turned, and drove on to the main road.

"Thank you," he said simply as we sped along the empty streets.  A few people walked slowly along the pavements, watching us mechanically as we passed.  The night air was fresh.

We drove down to the Nile, through an eerily empty Tahrir Square.  The  neon signs still flashed away, convincing no one.  As we crossed the Nile, the moon broke through the clouds and the sky began to clear.  There were odd spots of light in the hotels along the Nile, forming tiny patterns in the night.  To our right I could see the shape of the Cairo Tower, illuminated at the top.  We did not speak as we passed along the roads with their silent shops and blocks of flats.  Finally out of the darkness at the end of the road even darker shapes loomed.

"We are at the Great Pyramids.  - But I thought you wanted to show me something at Saqqarah, in the Serapeum?" I said.

"Yes and no, Janet.  I hope you will see what I mean - it is better this way."

Omar seemed rather subdued this evening.  Was it because of what I had said the last time we met, my slowness to catch his meaning?  Or did he think that I was being cool towards him?  Should I try and make conversation now?  I opened my mouth, but no sound came out: it was as if a spell had been cast on me.  I looked at Omar: he raised his right hand very slightly off the steering wheel as if to say 'it's not necessary.'

So we remained in silence as we drove up to where our group had come that morning.  I expected him to park the car in the car park - the road was blocked by a barrier.  But instead, he drove up to this.  A man emerged from a watchman's hut nearby: it was one of the tourist police.  What would happen now? I wondered.  He came up to us, and as he approached Omar, made a curious movement with his right hand - touching first his lips then his forehead, bowing slightly as he did so.  Words were spoken between them, quietly.  The policeman seemed to be assuring Omar about something.  What words I did catch sounded very unlike the other Arabic I had heard.

The man then lifted the barrier, and Omar drove through.  We turned right and went along the road by the side of the Great Pyramid which seemed even more majestic against the inky-blue sky, rearing up like some mountain.  We followed the road round behind it, then turned right again towards the second Great Pyramid.  We continued on the road round behind this in its turn, and drove towards the third, smaller pyramid.  

To our right was the desert.  In front of us, beyond this last pyramid, was more desert.  But I could see something else there too, moving towards us silently.  It was men on horses.  As they drew near I could see that there were three men and four horses.  Omar brought the car to a halt.  The men on horseback approached.  They all made the same gesture with the hand to the mouth and forehead.  They looked splendid in their long, flowing robes.

"Well, Janet, are you ready for a midnight ride?" Omar asked.

"I - I can't ride, Omar," I said with growing panic in my voice.

"That does not matter, I have brought my gentlest and most intelligent horse - a mare, naturally.  She will ride herself - you will not even know that you are riding.  Please, come, trust me."

I got out of the car, and approached gingerly the horse he indicated.  She certainly looked peaceful enough, but what did I know of horses?  But, I thought to myself, if you've come this far, you may as well proceed a little further.  One of the men held the animal, while another placed a small set of steps next to the horse.  I mounted the steps and nervously put one foot in the stirrups.  "Go on" said Omar.  I closed my eyes and swung my other leg over.  The horse snorted through its nostrils.  My heart was pounding.

"Well done, Janet.  See, I will have a leading rein at all times: nothing can possibly happen."  He held the rein in his hand as he sprung lightly into his own saddle.  Omar called softly to one of the men; the man approached, his head bowed.  I saw Omar give him the car keys and say something to him - it was definitely not Arabic, far too soft and melodic.  Then Omar led my horse to the sands.  The other two men followed on horseback a little way behind.

At first I clung on to the front of the saddle - frightened, like you were, John, that I would lose my balance and fall off.  Only I seem to have been more fortunate than you in my horse - and in my guide.  The mare truly did seem to ride herself, walking along easily.  So easily in fact that I barely noticed when Omar moved his horse into a canter.  Mine followed with such a gentle flowing movement that I felt that I was riding on air.  Omar looked back and smiled to see my smile of delight.

I don't know how long we rode for; I was too busy experiencing the cool desert air as it stroked my face.  Now we were deep in the desert.  There was nothing to be seen except sand.  In the distance I heard some kind of dog howling to the moon.  A delicious shiver of excitement passed over me.

A little later, we stopped.  I looked around, dumbfounded.  What was Omar going to do?  Were my worst fears to be realised?  I was alone with three men, two of them strangers, one of them almost so, in the desert miles from anywhere.  I suppose in retrospect what I did then was as foolish as your own ride by the pyramids, but in a different way.  Omar called the other two men to him, and pointed down at a small rock in front of us.  The men dismounted, and walked to the rock.  Omar pointed again, and the men dropped to their hands and knees in the sand.  They started sweeping the sand away as if looking for something.

Finally, one of them let out a cry.  The other man moved closer: they seemed to have found what they were looking for.  They began tugging at something.  Suddenly the desert floor seemed to come away in their hands: but no, it was a great hatch with a metal ring.  They opened it fully, pulling the hatch right back as the sand fell off it.

Omar had dismounted, and was standing next to me to help me from the saddle.  He put his hands round me waist and lifted me gently down.  Through the ease and grace of the movement I sensed the strength of his arms.  He led me to the edge of the square hole that had been opened up.  I could see stairs leading down into the darkness.  I hesitated.

"Janet," Omar said, "just once more, trust me."

Perhaps unreasonably, I did, and began to descend.

There were no torches or lamps this time.  But the steps seemed safe, and there was a rope along the side wall which I held on to tightly.  Omar walked the other side, holding my arm firmly but gently.  He walked down confidently, as if the way were familiar.

Then gradually I could make out what looked like lights at the bottom.  We continued to descend, and finally found ourselves in a chamber lit by flaming torches.  As we reached it, I heard the heavy clang of metal on stone as the hatch was closed at the top.  Perhaps I should have been frightened, but I was too interested in finding out where we were.  As my eyes grew accustomed to the light, I could see that the line of torches began descending again, but this time it was possible to follow the line of the passage.  I couldn't believe it: the row of torches seemed to continue down and down for hundreds of feet.  I turned and looked at Omar, he smiled, and nodded as if to say 'yes, we are going down there.'

And we did.  The air was pleasantly fresh, and not at all dank as caves often are.  We continued our descent for many minutes, and gradually I could hear a strange noise - a kind of booming, rushing sound.  The further down we went, the louder it got.  Finally I could see that the passageway flattened out and bent round to the right.  Just as we reached the bottom, and entered the right hand bend, the booming suddenly stopped.  I was frightened, but Omar continued to advance as if all this were expected.  And up ahead I could see bright lights - hundreds, thousands of them.

As we approached the end of the level tunnel, a huge shrieking and roaring started up.  An utterly amazing sight greeted us.  Hundreds of people, all carrying torches stood before us.  They were all clad in brilliant white garments, the men bare to the waist, the women in long flowing dresses.  They looked warm, friendly people, but respectful, deferential even.  To the side there were groups of musicians with long golden trumpets.  The trumpets' sounds echoed again and again, gradually growing fainter so that the combined effect was of hundreds of trumpets playing together, but spread out over an immense distance.  Above, I could see a roof of rock which bent up sharply into darkness.  And behind the crowd, slowly rocking, was a huge ship, made of dark brown wood, and adorned with flags and pennants and shields and flowers.

"Omar - what - ?" I asked, unable to take in the sight before me.

"My people bid you welcome," he said, smiling proudly.  He turned to them, and raised his hand.  At once, the crowd and the trumpets were silenced, leaving only the overlapping patterns of echoes which died away gradually.  The people fell back, clearing a path to the ship.  

"But how on earth - ?"

"All will be explained.  Janet, " - and I noticed that pronounced my name in a slightly odd fashion, as if his accent was changing. 

We boarded the ship by a broad gangplank, with rope rails.  Omar guided me over gently.  The water looked a dark, inky green by the shore, and pure black further out.  On board were more people - only men this time - some dressed with brilliant gold ornaments.  Omar led me to a kind of open pavilion in the middle of the ship - there was no mast.  After we had sat down amidst all the brightly coloured cushions there, oars to each side began pulling with huge rhythmic strokes.  Deep inside the ship I could hear the low beat of a drum.  The crowd on the bank broke into ecstatic cheers, the trumpets began their wild sounds again, and everything echoed round and round the vast, dark space.  Above us I could see tiny spots of light.

"Are they stars?"  I asked, confused.

"No stars here Janet: we are 500 feet below the desert floor."

"What?  What are they, then?"

"Glow-worms, specially bred over the centuries for their size and brightness."

Everything seemed so disconcertingly normal to Omar.  Here we were, according to him 500 feet below the desert, on a huge ship sailing across black waters in total darkness apart from the light our torches threw around us, the disappearing brightness of the crowd behind us, and the tiny flickering specks of glow-worms above us.  I could see nothing to the side.  What was happening?

Things were now so beyond comprehension I resigned myself to waiting for Omar to explain - as he had promised he would do.  I did not have to wait long.  Soon, in front of us, I saw a tiny blob of light.  As we approached it, it grew larger, and I could distinguish buildings - temples, courtyards, colonnades.  There was another crowd of people with torches there, but smaller than the one we had left behind.  As we approached another quay, the drum beat slowed beneath us, then stopped as we drifted in closer, turning the while.  With perfect precision the ship came to rest broadside on to the wharf.  Sailors jumped on to the shore with ropes to secure the vessel.  Omar nodded contentedly to see this performance.

Another broad gangplank was thrown across to us.  Omar took me by the hand and led me to land.  In front of us was a huge paved courtyard.  Behind, a great wall of huge stone slabs covered with reliefs of a man in chariot, and hieroglyphic inscriptions.  In the middle, dividing it in two, was a great opening.  Before the opening stood men in ornate costumes, gorgeously coloured and with gold and silver and lapis lazuli everywhere.  As we approached, they bowed in greeting.  Omar spoke some words in that strange tongue, and everyone's eyes turned to me.

"What language is that, Omar - and what did you say?"

"It is my native tongue, Coptic.  I said to them to admire their queen"

"Their queen?  What do you mean?"  I asked, although I felt only too sure that I knew what he meant.

"Do you remember in Zozer's Stepped Pyramid I showed you the list of kings, with mine as the last name of all?"  I said yes.

"What I did not have time to show you was the name underneath mine."

"Alas, it would have meant nothing to me in my ignorance."

"Behold it here," he showed me a huge frieze along the top of the great wall in front of us.  "Know, then, that the hieroglyphs spell out the name 'Djen-anet' - 'She-who-comes-from-the sky'."

"And you think...?"

"No, I know, that you are her."

"Omar, I am honoured, but, but it is just coincidence, I'm afraid.  I am just a tourist, I am no queen."

"No, Janet, it is not just your name.  The priests have a hundred other signs for the coming of the queen: you fit them all."

"But, Omar, even if as you say, the signs fit, it must still be a coincidence.  How can I become your queen?"

"It is ordained.  We must be married, then the struggle can begin in earnest."

"What struggle?"

"To regain my kingdom - our kingdom - from the usurpers, to rebuild the Egyptian greatness."

What could I say?  I understood now Omar's words of the previous days, where they all tended, what he wanted - from me, and from the world.

"Omar, I am already married, I cannot be your queen."

"How can you compare what you have now to what I offer?"

"Omar, I do not want to be a queen, to join your struggle, however right it is."

"So, you care nothing for my feelings, for the trust I have placed in you?" he said, with passion and pain.

"Omar, I do indeed care - why else would I have come tonight?  Ever since we met I have felt - an - attraction for you.  And I am deeply honoured by what you have shown me, by the trust you have placed in me.  But these things cannot be.  I am not this person.  Please, I must go now, it is near dawn."  We both stood silently, facing each other. 

"Very well, I realise this is of an enormity that is hard to grasp.  I have been too hasty.  I have been foolish to say so much so soon, to ask so much so soon.  Forgive me.  But at least you know that what I said, what I hinted at, was true."

"I do, Omar.  I will doubt nothing more.  But please, I must get back.  You would not compromise me by keeping me here would you?  You would not give me pain?"

"No, Janet, I will never do that."  He turned sadly to his attendants, spoke to them in his Coptic, and then turned back to me.  "Please come," he said.

I expected that we would return the way we came, but instead we passed through the opening in the wall, past rows of huge columns, and into a temple at the back.  Inside was a forest of columns with strange tops, half human, half animal.  Passing in deeper, we came to a small inner sanctuary.  At the rear of this was a door.  The priest there opened the door, bowing deeply.  We entered, and found ourselves in a kind of wooden cage.  As soon as the door was shut, the cage began to rise silently.  As we did so, I could see the layers of rock pass by.  After several minutes, another door appeared in front of us, and the cage stopped.  The door opened, and as it did so we found ourselves in another small chamber.  A priest stood by the door.

We passed through the chamber, and out through an exit.  We turned left, through a low arch, leading to some stairs.  Out of the corner of eye, to our right, I caught a glimpse of a huge city, built on a hill, lit by thousands, tens of thousands of torches, tiny flickering points of light, all apparently underground. Transfixed by this unbelievable sight, I hesitated.  

"Omar - " I said "your people - ?"

He simply nodded, and said only "I am afraid we must ascend a little way."

After what seemed an eternity of stairs - my legs were still tired from climbing inside the Great Pyramid - we reached another small chamber ending in another door.  This was much smaller than the others, and seemed little used.  Omar took out a key from his pocket, unlocked the door, and - with some difficulty - opened it.  

As we stepped through, Omar bringing a torch from the last chamber, I was amazed to find myself back in the Serapeum, at the end of the corridor where I had seen Omar the day before.  So this was what he had wanted to show me, the secret entrance to his hidden kingdom.  And it was certainly secret: even though I had just emerged through it, I was unable to find the door again in the rough wall.

We hurried through the brooding place of the bulls - now even more terrifying without the electric lamps, and with only the wavering light of the torch.  We reached the end, where there was a locked grille.  Omar called out softly, and I heard the footsteps of a man approaching.  He bowed as the others had done, and unlocked the grille.  We went up the rampway to the surface.  It was wonderful to see the real moon and stars again, and a relief not to feel the millions of tons of rock above me.  Amazingly, there in front of us was Omar's Mercedes, the keys in the ignition.  There was no one in sight - the keeper of the Serapeum had disappeared.

"Janet - ," Omar said, and took me in his arms.  Before I could say anything he was kissing me passionately on the lips.  I'm sorry, John, I'm sorry.  I don't know how long we stood there together - the kiss seemed eternal.  I had never been kissed like that before.  It was as if my soul was being drawn out of my body, and the body itself was fading away, irrelevant, an encumbrance.  But gradually I became aware of a lightening in the sky.

"Omar," I said softly, pulling away from him gently, "We must go."

We turned to the car, got in, and drove off through the desert.  The Stepped Pyramid was beginning to emerge from the darkness.  I don't remember much about that drive back.  My heart was too full, my mind racing wildly.  Somehow we got back to the hotel, somehow I got upstairs and to bed.  You were still sleeping soundly.  I rose late the next day.

Egyptian Romance - list of chapters

Tuesday, 29 September 2020

Chapter 5 - Intermediate Periods

Egypt seems to offer the visitor so many monuments that it is often hard to remember that for long periods only fragmentary inscriptions or scraps of papyrus have come down to us.  These are the dark ages that punctuated the more glorious years, when the unified nation of Egypt fell apart, and when foreign invaders ruled in its palaces.

The First Intermediate Period - as these troubled times are known - occurred fairly soon after the magnificent achievement of the pyramids.  Power had become increasingly decentralised as the benefits of a strong and stable society began to flow downwards from the king to the nobles who became more and more independent.  The final trigger for the collapse of the carefully ordered state seems to have been a series of catastrophically bad harvests, themselves apparently due to a series of low Niles - the result of large-scale climatic changes during this period.

As a consequence, the king's authority as the god who controlled the life-giving Nile was irrevocably undermined.  In the rapid turnover of pharaohs there are dark hints of kings being deposed - perhaps even killed - for failing to work their ancient magic.  Marauding bands of starving villagers and incursions by foreigners in the north of the country soon led to near-anarchy.

For a several hundred years, Egypt's hard-won unity was lost.  It was only under Mentuhotpe II - who took the additional name 'Sehertowy' - 'He-who-unites-the-Two-Lands' - that Egypt became a single state again.  Although this period of stability was short-lived - about 300 years - it did see two important developments.

The first was the rise of a secular literature.  Hitherto texts had been almost exclusively religious, particularly concerned with the passage to the next world.  Now there appeared didactic literature for the instruction of rulers; there were grand public inscriptions glorifying the king who set them up; and, perhaps most interestingly, for the first time we find detailed autobiographies in tombs, describing their occupants - priests, viziers and soldiers.  From this time too dates the first conscious fiction - travellers' tales of journeys to distant lands, some quite factual, others more fabulous.

The second change was related to this secularisation of literature, until then the preserve of the king and his ministering priests and scribes.  Partly as a result of the pharaohs' failure to control the Nile or stem the tide of invasions, the king was no longer regarded as certain to achieve immortality.  He too would be judged on the basis of his actions, by the increasingly important god Osiris, now ruler of the underworld, 'Foremost-of-the-Westerners'.  A corollary of this was that ordinary mortals might also gain eternal life on the basis of their past deeds.  The kingdom of heaven, as well as of earth, was becoming democratised with the aid of the right spells, now known as the Coffin Texts.

The Second Intermediate Period was also brought about by invasion, this time of an Asiatic group now known as the Hyksos - a corruption of a phrase meaning 'lords of the deserts' - who succeeded in founding a dynasty which ruled part of Egypt for two hundred years.  Although the later Egyptians looked back on this time as one of woe and shame, the Hyksos brought with them a number of innovations from Asia that were to prove crucial in the rise of Egyptian Empire a few centuries later.

Chief among these were new weapons: the horse-drawn chariot, scale armour, the composite bow, daggers, swords and scimitars.  Not all their legacy was so sanguinary: they also introduced spinning and weaving, and a host of musical instruments including the lyre, lute, oboe and tambourine.

The war of liberation from the Hyksos was begun by Kamose, the Prince of Thebes, present-day Luxor, which was emerging as the new centre of Egypt.  The re-conquest was completed by his successor, Amosis, who extended the southern boundary of the country into Nubia.  The dynasty that he founded went on to enlarge the Egyptian Empire to its greatest extent, and to enrich it with the astonishing series of temples and tombs, mostly centred around Thebes, that have survived to this day, and which are matched in grandeur only by the Great Pyramids themselves.

The process of conquest which Amosis began also ushered in a new era for the concept of kinghood.  The pharaoh had already lost much of his aura as a god, but the achievements of Amosis gave rise to the idea of king as national hero, the great conqueror and smiter of nations.  This self-image became increasingly important in the next three centuries, and culminated in the campaigns and battles of Ramses II, and in their glorification as temples, reliefs and inscriptions.  It is these which today are the splendour of Luxor. 

Egyptian Romance - list of chapters

Monday, 28 September 2020

Chapter 5 - Cairo, Wednesday, 22 February, 1990

At breakfast, on my own.  Janet still sleeping soundly when I got up.  A day of rest today, thank God - I need it.  I still feel a bit betwixt and between, probably from yesterday's thoughts.  And I'm tired.  I think I really work hard for the pittance I get paid doing this - I really must speak to Higgs about a rise when I get back.  But I suppose my position is rather weak only doing the tour once a year.  If only I could get this book written and published, and break out of this pattern, this drudgery.

Anyway it's a real pain having to worry about everything - and I'm a born worrier anyway.  I always have to make sure everything is happening as it should, to double-check everything - I sometimes find myself going back to ensure that I really did lock the front door ten seconds ago - is my memory going, or what?  The onset of senile dementia?  Running around looking after my party is totally draining - it's like having a group of big kids to watch over who are always in danger of falling down holes, or getting lost, or injuring themselves.

I tried phoning our hotel in Aswan, just to check; I've already confirmed our rooms at the Savoy in Luxor.  I can't get through, which is a pain.  I have bad memories of hotels and Aswan.  The first time I went there, it was without a reservation - a bad move.  I wanted to stay for three days.  Everywhere I went could only promised one day, or two at most.  Eventually I chose the Ramses Hotel - not just because of the name, I hope - because it was cheap, central, and could put me up for two days, and lo and behold, come the third day they 'found' a room.  How can you 'find' a room: you must either have it or not; I ask you.  Anyway we've always gone back there, and touch wood never really had any problems since.

Janet still not up yet - I hope she hasn't caught something - so far my party have been fine in that respect.  I've left a note saying that I've gone off to the station to check that our tickets for this evening are all right.  The others in the group seem to be amusing themselves.

Ramses Station is not too bad inside - not as mad as you might expect.  But getting here....  The traffic is just crazy - the way people cross the streets, standing between lanes of fast moving traffic.  When you have a two or three lane carriageway, with cars zooming along all the time, the accepted way to cross is in stages: to make a quick dash to a point between the first and second lanes, and then another dash to somewhere between the second and third.  The result is amazing to watch: you end up with two lines of people - ten or fifteen sometimes - standing between the streams of traffic, then all suddenly rushing across.  How more people aren't killed must be down to Allah.

As I enter the station a huge mournful cry of a train, like some enormous beast in extremis.  I notice that there are mosquitoes here.  Miracle - the tickets are ready, and even correct.  E£141 each - more than I expected, though dinner and breakfast are of course included.

Back at the station, this time with my group, waiting for our train to pull in.  Janet got up very late today, and still very quiet; I wonder if I've done something.  Don't recall anything.  We passed the rest of the day doing nothing - eating, sitting around reading.  Ditto the others.  A strange sort of day.  I settled the bill, checked they had our reservations for when we come back.  Then to here.  The train before ours arrives.  Lots of attendants hover, kitted out in a kind of blackcurrant mousse-coloured jacket.  Very fetching.

On our train, which leaves at 7pm, in about 20 minutes' time.  Janet has gone off to get something - I really do not know what's up with the girl today.  The compartment just as I remember it: beautiful.  It sleeps two, but has a roomy three seats.  There is a washbasin, table, mirror.  Perhaps inevitably, the train was built in Germany - Messerschmidt it says.

This is the best bit: when they serve supper - just like on an aeroplane, with the attendant and his little trays, the fold-down table, everything pre-wrapped - even down to the 'individual condiments' - all surprisingly well-organised for Egypt.  Unfortunately the food itself is less inspired.  But who cares?  We're off to Luxor!

Egyptian Romance - list of chapters

Sunday, 27 September 2020

Chapter 5 - London, Sunday 29 July, 1990

Yes, John, it was a very strange day.  We were all hanging around, as if waiting for something to happen.  Which of course, I was.

At least you know why I got up so late that day.  I was exhausted.  And I suppose in some way I wanted that next day to be over - I couldn't cope with all the possibilities that were going through my head.  As you said, I tried to read, but in the end I just found my eyes going over the words while other stories - of kings and queens, of underground lakes and cities, of the past and the future - unfolded behind them.

Time seemed to crawl by so slowly, just like when you are ill in bed, or perhaps waiting for a letter, or the phone to ring.  

Eventually, we went to the station.  It was a relief to be doing something.  In retrospect I have to admit too that I was glad to be getting away from Cairo - as you were, but for quite different reasons.  For you, Luxor clearly represented the real heart of the trip.  For me, it was just a name, one that I vaguely remembered you talking of.  I little suspected that I too would find cause to love it.  But I am getting ahead of myself.

Perhaps because I found the silence and stillness of the hotel more and more oppressive as the day wore on, the bustle and the noise of the station were a relief, like someone daring to say something that has been pent-up inside them for ages.  People were scurrying everywhere, carrying their cases and bundles.  And you were right: those strange low hoots of the trains were indeed like huge bellowing animals, raring to be let out of their pens, to roar down the tracks.

Our train had just come in, and we had found our compartment. I couldn't wait for dinner: I was thirsty, and went off to get a drink.  I walked through to the main concourse and bought a can of something from one of the newspaper stalls which also sold sweets and drinks.  As I was passing through to where our train was standing, my mind starting to relax pleasantly, and all the tensions of the previous day beginning to ease, I heard a familiar voice behind me.

"Janet - "  Omar.  I turned to face him. "Forgive me, I was not myself yesterday.  I was too excited by the occasion, of your meeting my...."  He glanced quickly about him.  "Please forgive me."

"There is nothing to forgive, Omar.  As I said yesterday, I am touched by the honour you do me - "

"Touched - "  He seemed to clutch at the word as if it were a lifeline.

"Deeply touched.  But, what I said yesterday has not changed today.  I am sorry."

"Janet, I realise now that I was foolish yesterday, that I was trying to impress with, with what you saw.  This was wrong, this was not what I meant to say.  Everything has been so rushed, it should not have happened in this way."

"It would have made no difference, Omar."  I said sadly.  

"I believe - I feel, know, that it would.  There is so much that I have not told you - no, not about - what you saw, but about me, and you.  After I left you at the hotel last night, I drove around aimlessly, going over again and again what I had said - and not said, cursing myself for my stupidity.  I see now that it was my foolish pride that prevented me from saying the things I should have.  But...you must understand, for too long I have been surrounded by people who have reflected back to me the things I wanted to hear, not that I should have heard."

Behind me, that low bellowing of the train.

"Omar - my train - I'm sorry, I must go, I - "

"My dear Janet, I must say something to you - it is only a moment's speech.  Janet, Janet, I love you.  Forget everything I said yesterday, everything you saw, just hear this: that I love you."

"But Omar, how can I forget what I saw - it is your life, your destiny?"

"You are my life and destiny - we are meant for each other, the stars say it, my eyes and my heart say it.  You shake your head - you do not believe me.  Very well, then, I will prove it: I will renounce my throne, deny my birth, my heritage, my past - for you Janet, if you will just be mine."  His eyes shone, his breaths were quick and shallow.  My heart felt as if it would burst - I felt so proud, so happy, so sad - so everything.

"Oh, Omar, I am not worth this."  What could I say, how could I match his generosity?  "You cannot renounce your past - it is you - you would die without it like a plant without roots."  I wanted to reach out, to touch him, to hold him again.

"Let me but prove it to you or perish in the attempt.  Without you I shall assuredly die, in any case - my whole world will come tumbling down."  He was becoming more and more agitated.  Passers-by began staring at us.  

"Forgive me Omar, this cannot be,"  I said with as much self-control as I could muster.  I was trembling violently.  "I should never have encouraged you, but I was weak, I was flattered, I was a stupid, vain woman.  It was wrong of me.  But now I know what I must do.  My train is leaving - please, let me go, Omar."  I started to move towards my train.

"Janet - "  He seized my hands, and pressed them to his lips.  "Janet - "  His eyes filled with tears.  He seemed to shrink before my eyes, no king-in-waiting now, but an unbearably hurt man.  My heart went out to him, I thought 'If only...' but I knew it could not be.

"I must go...goodbye, dear Omar, you must leave me now, please - I will never forget you."  I turned and walked with faltering steps to our carriage and got in.  I stood in the corridor, shaking away the tears, trying to regain my composure.  The train let out its huge mournful cry once more, doors slammed everywhere.  I saw Omar half-walking, half-staggering towards me.  With a jolt the train moved off.  Omar stopped as if struck by a blow.  His hands hung down by his side.  Tears rolled slowly down his cheeks.  Then he was gone.  I went back to our compartment.  You were working on your travel journal, John.  You looked up briefly, then went on writing.

Egyptian Romance - list of chapters

Saturday, 26 September 2020

Chapter 6 - Luxor

If the Great Pyramids at Giza are the most dramatic sight in Egypt, Luxor must be the most beautiful.  Set on east bank of the Nile, the ancient city of Luxor looks across to that rarity here in the endless, near-level desert - a majestic chain of mountains - amongst which many of the greatest kings and queens were buried, and against whose dramatic backdrop the mighty series of West Bank temples were built.

The modern name Luxor comes from the Arabic 'el qasr', meaning a castle or fortified camp, deriving in its turn from the Roman word 'castrum' found in so many English place names such as Lancaster, Leicester and Chester.  To the Greeks, the city was Thebes, and it was mentioned by Homer in his 'Iliad', probably written down some 500 years after the city became the country's capital.  The Ancient Egyptians knew it as 'Waset', or simply 'The City'.  Whatever the name, all who knew the place recognised it for a wonder of the world.

At the time of the Pyramids' construction it was little more than a small village.  Amid the anarchy of the First Intermediate Period, Thebes emerged as the dominant force in Upper Egypt, and eventually led the move to re-unite the country.  This pattern was repeated during the dark years of the Second Intermediate Period: first Thebes consolidated its local power, and then drove out the Hyksos invaders and established its hegemony over all Egypt.  In doing so, it ushered in not only its the most glorious period for the city itself, but for the nation and its empire too.

That glory was the result of the endeavours of an almost unbroken series of strong kings - and one queen - whose ambitions and power created the mightiest empire the world had ever seen, and the greatest architectural achievements for a millennium.  The empire has gone, long ago, but the temples and monuments remain to astound even the most jaded modern tourist.

The antiquities of Luxor are divided into those of the East Bank - the land of the rising sun and the living - and those of the West Bank - the land of the setting sun, the dead, and hence the natural choice for funerary complexes.  The East Bank has not one but two huge temples, the first at Luxor itself, and the second to the north at Karnak.  They were the principal sites for the state rituals associated with the god Amun, the main deity in the Theban pantheon, and one whose theological dominance rose with the city.  With him rose too the power of his priests - the more the kings glorified his name with grandiose buildings and offerings, the more the priesthood was able to tighten its grip on the country.  Less than a century after the death of Ramses II, the priests of Amun owned about ten percent of Egypt.  The power and independence of the king had been fatally weakened.

Although massive enough, the Temple of Luxor is much smaller than that of Karnak, and easier for mere mortals to grasp.  An avenue of sphinxes leads to the first pylon, or gate, of the temple.  In front stood originally four flagstaffs and six colossal figures of Ramses II, of which two survive.  The towering walls of the pylon are covered with a depiction of the Battle of Kadesh, the central event of the reign of Ramses II, together with an extensive epic poem describing the events and singing the king's praises.  Both the relief and the description are found in a number of other locations, and will be discussed further below.

The first pylon gives on to a number of open courts, all aligned except for the first, which sits oddly skewed.  Each is surrounded by a variety of pillars derived from local plants and trees, such as those with the characteristic lotus-bud or palm-leaf capitals.  At the end of these courts are the antechambers and sanctuary.  Throughout the temple, the walls are covered with carvings and inscriptions giving us valuable insights into the history and religious ceremonies of the time.

The greater part of the temple of Luxor was built by Amenophis III, who was largely responsible for introducing a taste for the gigantic which characterises the architecture and sculpture of this period.  That love finds its greatest expression in the Temple of Karnak, about one mile north of Luxor, and intimately connected with the earlier temple there through annual rituals, of which the most important was probably the Feast of Opet celebrating the journey of the god Amun of Karnak to his harem at Luxor, a visit symbolising the renewal of the country through the procreative force of the Nile's inundation.

The temple at Karnak was added to by many pharaohs, over a period of nearly 1300 years - far longer than any Christian cathedral's similar accretion of new elements.  The manner of doing so was typically Egyptian: since each pharaoh, being greater than his or her predecessor, wished to surpass their works, it was necessary for each addition to be larger and more impressive than what already stood.  The result is the curious effect of the mightiest pylons leading to smaller ones, until finally the inner sanctum is the smallest of all - the reverse of western traditions of building to a final climax.  The Egyptian approach also accorded well with their desire to secrete their god at the innermost heart of their shrine.

The temple of Amun at Karnak literally beggars description - numerous guide-books notwithstanding.  Like the Great Pyramids, it must simply be experienced in all its immensity and grandeur amid its splendid site near the Nile.  To give some idea of scale, it is worth noting that the main hypostyle hall - a covered hall of 134 columns - has an area of 66,000 square feet - larger than both St. Peter's in Rome and St. Paul's in London combined.  It was erected by Seti I around 1300 BC, and covered with decorations and enormous reliefs by his son Ramses II.

Other notable features of a site so crammed with incident that every stone seems to have bear the imprint of some historic event, or of some notable personage, include a magnificent obelisk of Queen Hatshepsut, the tallest completed obelisk remaining in Egypt - one taller now stands in Rome - and the Wall of Records of her son, Tuthmosis III.  This undistinguished-looking list of victories is of interest today because buried among all its details - of tribes and tributes and the temple's tithe - is a mention of the original Battle of Megiddo - better known to us as Armageddon.  Through battles such as these, insignificant perhaps to those that won them, but amplified along the echoing passage of time, Tuthmosis began the conscious construction of an empire of foreign peoples acknowledging his overlordship - yet another first for that remarkable Egyptian nation.

Egyptian Romance - list of chapters

Friday, 25 September 2020

Chapter 6 - Luxor, Thursday 23 February, 1990

I can never believe this, this fact of being somewhere like here, that I am really here, not looking at a picture, but actually on the spot where all those pictures which I have seen in the guide books and coffee table productions were taken.  I sit now on the terrace in front of the Savoy Hotel; the others are unpacking in the bungalows at the back and getting ready to go out.  It is cold - the sun is behind the hotel - but the view warms the cockles of my heart.  Luxor, the West Bank, the Valley of the Kings....

The train arrived on time, at 7 am , for the first time ever according to the man on the intercom - a portent?  Short taxi ride from the station to here.  Utterly, utterly beautiful day - bright sun, a sky so clear and blue it looks like a huge bowl of Wedgwood china upturned over us.  But no time to rest: we're off to the town's temple - a warm up for Karnak this afternoon.

A lovely stroll along the Corniche, past that strange battered hospital (?), past palm trees, the drivers of the hantours with their skinny, mangy horses constantly trying to inveigle us into their carriages.  Then, there it is, the great Pylon of Ramses.

Early morning is the perfect time to see it: the low sun from the east catches the edges of the relief and shows old Ram, charging at the enemy, smashing open Kadesh.  I could sit and look at this for hours - but I'm conscious that I'll see it more clearly down at Abu Simbel, so I'll save my thoughts until then.  More clearly, but not more dramatically.  This scene always makes me gulp.  The long avenue of Sphinxes behind me, soft sand.  No tourists except for us.  Now the muezzin, like a huge bluebottle sounding across the silent town, calling the faithful.  And talking of flies, they're already a bloody nuisance - what are they going to be like in the heat of the day?

To the pylon.  I'm very conscious of things missing here: only two seated statues, only one obelisk - the other was nicked by the French, and is in the Place de la Concorde now -  no flagpoles.  I seem to recall that there is a representation somewhere in the temple of what this place looked like in its glory.  Greek graffiti, presumably pretty ancient, abound.  In the first court you get a good idea of what this thing must have looked like when it was complete.  Beautiful papyrus columns with bulging buds at the top.

One amazing thing about so many objects here - statues, columns, temples - is how often they were 'usurped' as the guide-books put it.  That is, a later pharaoh rubbed out the cartouche of the original king, and substituted his own.  Ramses II did this a lot - but also had it done to him.  He was obviously aware this might happen: apparently, when they took down the other obelisk here, they found that he had sneaked in a cartouche underneath it - so that the gods at least would know whose it was.  The act of naming as an act of possessing.

Yes, here it is: that image of the pylon with the flags a-flying.  Strange to see a contemporary representation of somewhere now three thousand years old - and for it to be instantly recognisable.  Weird oxen with huge hooves - sacrificial animals, specially bred.  Images of an African head and Asiatic head fixed between horns of some of them - symbolic of the Egyptian rule over them.  Through to the colonnade - nice reliefs of the great Feast of Opet, with the procession from Karnak on its way here.  

Once again, to my eternal chagrin I cannot find Rimbaud's graffito which he is supposed to have left here - presumably en route to becoming a slave trader in darkest Africa - God knows how much time I have spent looking for this blasted thing.  But what a transition: brilliantly gifted young poet to a base trafficker in human souls - as if he had exhausted words, and could only turn to pure, cruel action.  Confirms my worst suspicions about poets and poetry.  So why do I set such great store on finding his mark?  To add to my collection - albeit superior - of touristic sights?  So that I've 'done' it?  

Entering the temple at the back.  Always feels strange to be inside an ancient Egyptian building - I suppose we tend to think of ruins as being open to the skies - they feel fake if they're not.  It's hard to feel the requisite awe.  For that you would need belief in the appropriate gods - and also the associated religious apparatus of exclusion.  Inner sancta are only sancta if they're well-guarded - another reason why tourism, which is predicated on the mutually exclusive aims of accessibility and mystique, is fundamentally and fatally flawed.

So, now at lunch on the terrace back at the hotel.  The wind quite strong - whipping along the tables, tugging at the cloths, sending serviettes flying.  If this is a goulash I'm a Chinaman.  I like Luxor temple - partly because of Ram.  It feels quite intimate - at least in comparison with Karnak where we are bound this afternoon.  Karnak - even the name sounds massive, ancient, awe-inspiring: Kar-nak.  Frightening even.  Perhaps I speak as a guide: Karnak must be one of the more daunting sites around - so much to see, to say, to convey.  I feel tired just at the thought of it.

By hantour to Karnak, lovely ride along the Nile - there, I've said it again - 'along the Nile': who, me?  Surely some mistake?  At Karnak, Janet makes a big fuss about not tipping the driver because he whipped his horse so mercilessly.  Life is tough, Janet, worse things happen at sea.  Anyway, I comply with her wishes - partly because at E£5 I think they've overcharged us anyway - it can't have gone up that much since last year.

So, here we are.  How can anyone formulate an adequate response to this sight?  The First Pylon - what on earth did people feel at the time to be greeted by this man-made mountain?  Clearly it would have to be the work of a god-man, an affirmation of the pharaoh's might.  Except, of course, for those who actually designed it, who knew that they, not the god-king, had done all the work.  That's the trouble with delegation: your underlings  save you the trouble of doing the work, but in the process they realise that they are just as powerful as you.

Across an echoing wooden bridge, into the forecourt.  The odd little three chapels to the left were apparently where the boats of the gods were kept for the Feast of Opet.  The Kiosk of Taharga - makes me think of British Rail and the grim station at Huddersfield.  But seriously, the kiosk is - or was - beautiful with its huge swooping columns.  It must have acted as a huge visual brake on entering the forecourt.  It is odd, but for once I really can reconstruct in my mind's eye what it must have looked like - something that normally eludes me: I am usually stuck with whatever has come down to us.  Perhaps that is why I love Egypt so much: for those of us with limited imaginations, it does all the work for you.  A fine pink colossal statue of Ram, just in case I'd forgotten about him - with an extra, his daughter-wife(!) Bent-anat.  To the right, the temple of Rameses III, and the famous scene commemorating the victory of one Sheshonq - Shishak of the Bible - over the Palestinians, led by the son of Solomon - that sudden frisson of synchronicity, of totally distant worlds and historical traditions reaching out and touching.

Well, talking of chronicity, here I am now on the terrace of the Savoy again, imbibing the most ambrosial Turkish coffee you could ever hope for; at least that barbarous and effete race - can you be both barbarous and effete? - gave the world something apart from the bastinado and Turkish Delight.  Very middle eastern, but not at all Egyptian.  Black sugary sludge.  Delicious.

Anyway, I write here because frankly there was just too much to see and show and say at Karnak - I just had no time to jot anything down.  This is a problem I frequently have with this travel journal: because I try to pack so much in to the days I find I barely have any time to write things up.  In this respect, I wonder how people ever manage to keep a diary: when do they find time?  Either their lives are so boring that they have plenty of time and nothing to write about, or else their lives are action-packed - and leave no moment spare for writing about it.  I suppose the secret is to have scribes running around after you, memorialising everything you do - just like the Pharaohs, in fact.

Anyway - again - distracted as I am by the late afternoon splendour before me - facing westwards, I hope to catch Re as his boat sinks down beneath the hills - I shall attempt to take up the story of our visit to Karnak where I left off - if I don't, I'll never be able to remember it in sufficient detail later - especially with yet more to write about - and so there will this horrible gap in my book, or else a pack of lies.  So, to duty....

After crossing the great temple's forecourt, you pass through the Second Pylon - smaller than the first, as if in perspective - and into what is for me the chief glory of this place: the great hypostyle hall.  Fortunately the first time I visited here I had read up on it - and knew that the best time to visit it was at dawn - and that it was open then, too, from about 7 am.

Arriving so early has two main advantages: it is refreshingly cool, and, even better, there are no other tourists, who hate leaving their comfy beds at such an hour for mere sightseeing.  So, there I was, wandering through this forest of mighty stone columns, the low sun casting great swathes of light and dark through it.  Every surface seemed covered with hieroglyphs and religious scenes.  It struck me that it is practically impossible for us - most of us, anyway - to see these buildings in the right way, as they were seen at the time.  Because these beautiful hieroglyphs, for us quintessential Egypt perhaps, but just ornamental, are words, they are paens of praise to the kings, hymns to the gods, warnings to men.  This is the ancient, sacred equivalent of Piccadilly Circus, or of neon-filled Tokyo perhaps.  This huge hall is shouting with a thousand voices like a mighty cathedral ringing out to the sound of a choir, a huge crowd of babbling voices.  And yet I found myself alone, trying to hear and feel all this when I was sadly deaf, or blind rather.

I wondered what it must have been like for the unlettered then to see all these signs.  Most they could recognise as representation of familiar objects from their world.  They could say the names - in a way that we cannot - and so half-pronounce the words, as a child might spell out the sounds.  But ultimately their ignorance would have affirmed the priests' arcane knowledge - as it was presumably meant to.

And I too felt like some pygmy stalking among a huge bed of papyrus stalks - aptly enough, since it was of course papyrus that was one of the great innovations in writing that the Egyptians discovered.  It made writing portable.  It allowed huge texts to be rolled up and placed in the coffins, granting power and - with luck - immortality even to mere nobles or even commoners.  So in a way papyrus triggered writing's long history of subversion.  Papyrus also meant that many texts left on old rubbish dumps, emptyings from scribal wastepaper baskets thousands of years old, survived because of favourable climatic conditions to form an unprecedentedly large and varied literature.

As I moved, the pillars lined up, then separated, a constantly shifting perspective, a vision of eternity and infinity.  And the colours, still visible, the blue of the sky above, the greens and the reds.  Which reminds us that the temple of Karnak would have been a huge technicolour feast - totally overwhelming.  And to think that this place was covered over - and therefore dark, not light as it is now - just as the Ptolemaic monument at Denderah is still.

But today, in the afternoon, there were the usual hordes of gawping, snapping tourists.  Impressed perhaps, but moving on at such a jog that it is hard to believe they actually saw anything.  Perhaps that is why they take photographs, so that they can see the places they have been to - once they get home.

On the south wall the inevitable reminder from Ram about his military successes - hitting the Hittites, pillaging the Palestinians, bullying the Libyans and, of course - just in case we hadn't heard - coshing Kadesh.

What do you do after something as astounding as that hall?  The answer, of course, is that you don't, because the hall was designed to overtrump what followed, not prepare for it.  And yet the heavenward-straining obelisks of Hatshepsut are appropriate.  The simple inscription - the Government health warning of 'I built this, O ye of the future'.  Some nice family squabbling made manifest here.  Unprecedentedly, Hatshepsut ruled even though her son, Tuthmosis III was old enough to be pharaoh.  When she eventually died, he went round effacing her cartouche and usurping her monuments, including this one.  And then the renegade Akhenaten came along, and generally erased anything referring to any god except Re, until he in his turn was rubbed out, leaving here a real royal palimpsest in stone.

The obelisk weighs 320 tons they reckon: how did they lift it - or carry it?  By boat they say, from Aswan of all places - but how did they get it to the boat?  The placing is perfect: never any suggestion of crowding or of ungainly gaps.

At the obelisks, there is a temptation to turn south, where later pylons were built as a kind of act of independence.  But we resist for the moment, continuing our way into the heart of the temple.  The plans of Karnak are remarkable in this respect: how the single line, hundreds of yards long, leads like an arrow into the sanctuary, squeezing you down like a funnel between its converging walls.  Beyond the Sixth Pylon, three beautiful carved lilies, and three papyrus plants - the emblems of Upper and Lower Egypts, but made with such love and grace of form that they stand as masterpieces of sculpture quite separate from their symbolism.

Near the sanctuary itself, the famous Wall of Records.  I wish I could recognise the word 'Megiddo': such a resonant name for us - Armageddon, universal destruction, 'The End'.  And yet for Tuthmosis III, just an opportunity to prove that he was better than his mother, a mere kink in the oldest Oedipal story around - older than Oedipus.  The personal and the imperial inextricably linked, as ever.  Why does anyone ever bother building an empire, except to prove to themselves - or someone else - that they are not inadequate?  

Unfortunately because things are smaller, and more damaged, to the modern visitor's eye the buildings rather peter out here.  Most tourists are pretty exhausted when they get here too, which means that you simply do not have the energy to be impressed - you just want to stagger back to your home from home.  But for the Egyptian, this would have been the goal of the pilgrimage - assuming they were ever allowed to approach the sanctum.  We unbelieving Westerners prefer to turn to the sacred lake and to think of the holy crocodiles, or to go further and visit the pylons to the south.  There is a rather desolate air to this area - partly because most tourists ignore it, partly because it is still being restored, and hence is closed off in places.

While we were exploring the sanctuary of the temple, something rather extraordinary happened.  We were inside one of the roofed-over sections, and somebody said: "What's that sound?"  It was a distant grumbling, like a huge dinosaur slithering towards us.  We stood still, and listened: it was definitely getting nearer.  We went outside; the sound by now had grown to a vast angry roar - directly above us.  We looked up, and to our amazement saw a huge shimmering blue hot-air balloon serenely passing overhead.  Each time it began to sink, a cord was pulled, and a great tongue of flame leapt up, shaking the air, and the balloon began to rise.  

It hovered over and around us for a while - the view must have been sensational, with the whole of the temple laid out before them, and the West Bank visible in the distance.  But on the other hand, it must all have seemed much more graspable than it did for us: we were nearer the truth as we stumbled among the legs of the giants.  And an odd effect: when the balloon moved off into the distance, its roar gradually diminishing, we could see the flame a good second before we heard it.  It was as if our hearing had gone wrong, and lost its synchronisation with the eyes.  You wanted to shake your head as you do when you have water in the ears.  Disconcerting.

So, that brings me up to date - except that while writing this I have been weak and ordered another Turkish coffee.  And that the sun - or Re to give him his proper title - is beginning to pack up shop.

Driving back from Karnak, with the sun already low in the sky, alongside the peaceful but strong-flowing Nile, the distant temple of Hatshepsut beginning to glow in the evening light - but that is for tomorrow - it was hard not to forget about the mere three thousand years that have passed since Thebes was at its peak.  And as I sit here, the low sun beginning to dazzle me, with only the odd taxi to break the spell, I feel myself drawn more and more into that time, as if I had lived then, that that was a reality.

Thinking back to the scenes depicted in Karnak's hypostyle hall of the great ceremony of Opet, I seem now to see that great procession as it wended its way along the Nile, with ineffable majesty.  According to the very full records we have of its enactment at the time of Ramses II, the feast took place in the first couple of weeks of October, before the Nile had sunk back from its fecundating flood of the land, and lasted from 24 to 27 days.  In origin, it was an ancient fertility rite, acted out to ensure that crops would grow and flourish, that the country would live.

It began at dawn in Karnak.  There, the king opened the secret chamber of Amun, the great Theban god kept at the heart of the temple, offering him food and garlands.  The sacred boats were removed, one each for the Theban trinity, one for Rameses himself. The boats were made of the finest cedar, fabulously enriched with gold and jewels.

The procession moved through the successively larger pylons, through the great hypostyle hall, and then emerged into the sunlight of the forecourt.  From there, passing through the last and mightiest gate, it moved out along the road to the Nile.  At its head was the king, dressed in a panther's skin; behind him were a warrior sounding his bugle, and a drummer to mark the pace.  At the Nile they boarded great vessels.  On the bank, a huge, joyful procession accompanied them: priests, soldiers, musicians with trumpets, tambourines and that characteristic Egyptian instrument, the cistre, as well as singers and dancers.  Ah! to have a few seconds of that music - to have been there....

On each side of the road to Thebes, there were small, ornate altars with offerings to the god.  The sacred bulls were slain, and their steaming meat conveyed to the temple.

There, the god's harem waited expectantly for the arrival of their lord Amun.  He came from the Nile, with his sacred boats which were placed in their sanctuary behind the first pylon at Luxor.  For eleven days the mysteries of rebirth and regeneration continued, until it was time for the god to return as he had come, back to his sanctuary at Karnak.

What a scene this must have been, at once frighteningly primitive with its harking back to the often bloody vegetation rites of renewal, and yet timelessly exciting in its mixture of ritual, spectacle, the secular and the sacred, music, singing and dance.  As I sit here, I try to grasp that those things happened here, probably visible from this very spot, that they had a reality which today lives on in the words on the walls of the temples, and in the mind of those seized, like me, with the miracle of both facts.

Egyptian Romance - list of chapters

Thursday, 24 September 2020

Chapter 6 - London, Saturday 1 September, 1990

So, John, your day ended with a sunset - and mine began with a sunrise.  I surprised myself by sleeping very deeply that night on the train - a stone-like, dreamless sleep.  I awoke early - and suddenly felt very excited.  Perhaps I had caught some of your own mood of anticipation.

I went out into the corridor, and watched the scenery go by.  I couldn't see the Nile, but everywhere there were dark green palm trees visible against the lightening horizon.  The sky turned into a rosy haze, then, like some huge, monstrous eye, the sun wheeled over the horizon - your god Re.  As it rose it soon turned first yellow and then bright white, its low rays cutting through the foliage.  It was beautiful.

As was our hotel.  You are definitely good as a guide: the hotels you chose for us all had atmosphere - they felt real, and lived-in - not like the concrete chicken coops passing for hotels which look as if they are carefully disinfected after each occupant has left, their traces eradicated.  The Savoy felt like a big home, happy to bear the traces of successive visitors.

Its situation was stunning - a stone's throw from the Nile.  Its reception area big and dark, with the helpful men behind the desk, the array of dangling keys, spartan otherwise.  And that long corridor to the right - past little bare offices where middle-aged men sat smoking all day, apparently doing nothing, their desks empty except for a heavy black telephone and a few pieces of paper.  The corridor past the souvenir shop, past tall dark rooms for storing luggage and whatever, out to the sudden sunlight.  Although it would have been nice to have a view over the Nile as you wanted, I liked our room.  It was spacious and yet not anonymous.  It had character - though you'd probably say it simply had lots of things which didn't work.

Breakfast on the terrace.  Cold - but we did not care.  What can I say? - except that you put your finger on it exactly: how is it possible to really feel that you are beside the Nile, when less than a week ago you were doing the shopping in Huddersfield?  Surely the two worlds cannot be connected by one person?  Of course they can and are, but I wonder whether you need years of training to bring them together.  It certainly felt strange to me.

And then began two days of incredible sights - and incredibly exhausting ones.  But before I start getting carried away too much, I must try to make amends.  Because so far, this has all been about me - and you, a little.  I am being very self-centred: I've said so little about the other people in our group.  And in fairness to them - and to you, because they played an important role in what happened - I want to tell you something about them.

I wonder how much you really saw them - your comments have not been very kind, John.  Perhaps you'll say more, and more pleasant things, later.  But in your thoughts and comments above, you seem far more interested in your King Ramses - and in the battles of thousands of years ago, and in the stones even - than in your group.  Perhaps they're just a job to you, to be forgotten about as soon as they've gone.  But they're still people, not packages you're being paid to carry around Egypt.

Well, I think it has to be Alekko - Alexandros to you - partly because he's so wonderful, and partly because there are reasons why the others should be saved to later.

Could you describe Alekko (I'm sorry, I have to call him that, Alexandros sounds so serious - and that's one thing he'd hate)?  I'm sure you couldn't.  I sometimes wonder whether you ever actually see people - in the way that you really can see things - some of your descriptions are so beautiful.  Perhaps that's why you never take photographs of the places you visit: because there are always people there to spoil the effect.

Anyway, I shall describe Alekko for myself if for no one else - I have my snaps in front of me as I write: what memories they bring back.  He is indeterminate in age - or, better, ageless: sixty, seventy, perhaps even eighty.  In short, he has reached a time in his life when years and age are irrelevant.  He is of medium height, a happy sort of shape, dressed in slightly baggy trousers, and always wearing a tie, a pullover and a dark jacket - informally smart, you could call it.  The heat never seemed to worry him, even dressed like this.  His roundish face is topped by thick grey hair, he has a bristly moustache and the brightest of black boot-button eyes you ever did see.  And yet no words can capture his laugh or the twinkle in those eyes.  I suppose I could sum him up by saying he is my vision of a perfect uncle.  No, he is more than that: if I am being honest, I would love to have had him for a father.

Is this a terrible thing to say, to want someone else to have been your father?  I do love Dad, but, well, it has been difficult sometimes.  He has always been so distant, so silent.  As a child I was always very afraid of him - he seemed so tall and stern.  And my mother was terrified of his quiet displeasure.  My poor mother.  I can remember so many times around the dinner table when not a word was said, just the clink of cutlery on plates, my mother and I staring at our food all the time, hardly daring to breathe.  Another thing: I was not allowed into our living room until I was ten and judged 'old enough'.  And yet he never once lost his temper, raised his voice - certainly not his hand.  Perhaps it would have been better if he had.  Even now, we never seem to have much to say - which may be my fault, but it is still hard.

But Alekko - what a father he would have made.  More childlike than any child, constantly laughing and joking, constantly talking and telling amazing stories.  I could listen to him forever.  I certainly found it hard to tear myself away from him at times - even to the point of forgetting where I was, so wrapped up was I in his stories, in his world, his life.  You will be shocked, John, that I missed such an opportunity to see the wonderful things around me.  I did see them, it is just that sometimes the siren call of Alekko's voice dragged me away.  I cannot believe that was so bad.

I am so annoyed with myself that I wasted those early days of our trip - I barely exchanged a word with him - even though I could see him chattering away to the others who listened to him as if entranced.  Stupidly, I felt shy to begin with, just a hanger-on tailing around after my husband, with no real right to be there, or to take part in the conversations.  So the first time I really talked with him was that day in Luxor.  The glorious morning lifted my spirits, I felt strangely re-born - whatever the reason, I was ready and able to talk to him.

I remember it was after breakfast, when we were strolling gently along the corniche towards the temple.  We were walking beside the Nile, and Alekko could barely take his eyes of the water, smiling to himself and shaking his head.  I walked alongside him.

"Is it not wonderful, this water?" he asked.

"It is certainly a beautiful sight - it looks so majestic."  I answered.

"But more, I mean the water, any water - is it not wonderful?" he asked with passion.

"Well, I suppose so, I've never really thought about it.  The rain in England is not so wonderful when you haven't got an umbrella."

"Ach, that is not water, that is rain.  I mean the big waters - like the rivers, the lakes, the seas.  You know, they have saved my life."

"Really?  How?"

"Well, when I was a boy - ah!, but lady," - he called all the women 'lady', but from him it did not sound quaint or wrong, just intriguingly foreign and gallant - "you must not begin me on this topic.  I am an old knitting - if you pull any thread it will all come and cannot stop itself."

"Alexandros - "

"Please, call me Alekko - the only people to use that other name are people who want to correct me or order me - please, Alekko is for friends," he said with some heat.

"Very well, Alekko - I would love to hear your story - if it won't tire you too much."

"Oh, lady, I am old - but I am not that old," and he laughed uproariously.

"So," he said, fixing his eye on the horizon as if trying to see where he came from, where to begin.

"You must know, then, that I am from Albania.  You smile - yes, the world smiles at poor Albania.  It is the joke of the world.  And yet I do not mind - for I am not Albanian.  How can this be?  Well, we have a saying in that country 'a man is not always where his boots are': yes, I was born in Albania, but I am not Albanian.  My name - Alexandros Papadakis - is not Albanian, as you hear.  Yes, I am Greek, and proud to the bone of it.  But it was my misfortune to be born in Albania.

Why misfortune, for my country is beautiful?  Because I was born a few miles in the wrong place.  I was born in a small village near Gjirokaster of the terrible castle," - I think this is what he said: it's what I found in the atlas - "a few miles from the crossing with Greece.  My family had been shepherds in the hills for centuries.  What did we know or care of the kings and their maps?  We raised sheep and that was enough.

But one day, it seems, we are on the wrong side of the map.  The Albanians then had a bad king - Zog, he was called, a good name for a bad king.  And there was a war coming or a revolution, I do not know.  But I was a young man - fifteen or sixteen - and they wanted to make me a soldier.  Me, Alekko Papadakis - to kill or be killed.  No thank you, I say to myself.  This is not me.  So, I think, I will escape.  But there are many soldiers guarding the hills and lands touching Greece.  I cannot go this way.  What can I do?

Well then, for years we would go down to fields near the sea with our flocks.  And there I would look across and see an island - it was Corfu, another country, my beloved Greece that I had never seen.  For me it was heaven - that was what heaven looked like, misty green hills across the sea.

So, one morning when they would make me a soldier, I went to my parents, and kissed them goodbye and wept.  But they knew I had to go.  I went down to the sea.  I looked out across to the island.  I was young, I was strong, I was foolish.  I had some clothes wrapped in a cloak, that was all.  I bound the cloak to me.  I ran to the sea, and I swam.  I swam and swam, and though it was night now, and cold, I swam because I was swimming to heaven.  I do not know how many hours, or how many boats I waited to pass, but I know that God was with me, for I swam to the island, I swam to heaven.

It was dawn when I came up on a beach.  I was cold and tired, but I must not rest.  Zog's men would be for me, I had to get away, keep on running.  I went inland, went up to the hills.  For there I would find shepherds, and I did.  And I told them why I was cold and hungry.  For you must know that Greek is the language of my heart, if the Albanians made me speak their tongue on the street.  The shepherds were good men.  They made me sit by their fires, eat their bread, drink their wine.  I rested a while, and then moved on down the island, down through the mountains, always with the shepherds who were good men and my friends.

But still I was not content, I wanted to be further from that bad Albania.  So I went down to the harbour.  There were fishermen there.  I talked to them, I told them about my life, and they helped me too.  They would take me to the next island, small, where Zog and his men could not find me.  And so they did, leaving me in a small harbour, there a place I will never forget for my life, a place that makes me young to think of it, where it all began.  But I have said enough, we must look at the church."

I wanted to ask him more, but by now we had arrived at the Luxor temple, and you were telling us about Ramses (again), about rituals and boats and cartouches and sacrificial bulls.  It was all interesting, and it was certainly amazing that we - you - knew so much about a time so long ago.  But it suddenly felt very dry and dead.  I was intensely conscious of Alekko standing there, listening humbly, this dear old man who had had such an incredible youth - and, I already suspected, had experienced much, much more in his long life.  I wanted to ask him a hundred questions, but I felt that it would be selfish of me to distract him from what he presumably came here for, to learn about Ancient Egypt - knowledge you were clearly well-equipped to supply.

I suddenly felt with him as I had felt with you when we started going out together.  Do you remember how we used to sit in the cafĂ© - and would you believe it, do you remember what it was called?  El Greco - now there's a coincidence, don't you think?  Anyway, I was totally enraptured as you held forth on some subject or other - I'd never known anyone who could talk like you - or who knew so much as you did.  And now I felt the same way about Alekko.  Except that it was of course different - not just in exactly how I felt about him, but also in what he was telling me.  You spoke of books - hundreds of them, thousands perhaps; Alekko speaks of just one book, so to speak: his life.

So I was like an excited schoolgirl again, waiting for an opportunity to talk to Alekko.  On the way back from the temple to the hotel he was talking to you, asking questions about the things we had seen.  So it was over lunch that I at last managed to speak to him again.

"What a magnificent church," he said like a child with a new toy.  "What people these Egyptians were - we are nothing, are we not?  And your John, he knows so much, no?"

"He does indeed," I agreed.  "But Alekko, do you mind if I ask you a question about what you said this morning?"

"Lady, please, ask away, whatever you like.  But, I beg of you, if I am a silly old man, talking and talking, tell me that I should stop."  I promised, but knew that would never happen.  "What is it that you wish to know?"

"You said you went to a small island, to a small harbour there...."

"Yes, it was a place - you have never heard of it - called Longgos, on the island of Paxos - may its name be ever blessed in my memory."

"You said that it was 'where it all began': may I ask what began?"  I felt that I might be obtruding on some deeply private area, but I also felt driven to ask.

"Ah, what could 'it' be but life itself, that is to say, love itself?"  He paused, with a gentle smile playing across his features.  I paused too, not wanting to probe further in case it were painful for him.  But he began again, unprompted.

"Yes, that beautiful place - if Corfu was heaven to my poor Albania, then Paxos was Corfu's heaven, and Longgos, well, heaven's heaven.  Words cannot say it.

I arrived there, then, early one spring morning, with the fishermen after their night's work.  As they pulled away, the sun was rising out to sea.  Dawn spread its rosy fingers over the sky and the white houses blushed.  Longgos is a tiny port, a tiny fishermen's village, very quiet, very tidy, a shop for this, a shop for that, very beautiful.  As I walked from the small quay, I could hear sounds from the bakery.  As I passed I could smell the warm wet smell of the bread.  I longed for some bread, but I had no money.  But as I always have, I trusted in God, and in men - and in women.  I decided to ask for some bread, and to give my work as money.

I went in.  The smell of fresh-baked bread hit me like the scent of a thousand flowers.  It was necessary that I closed my eyes and smelt.  It was a moment before I won myself again and could speak.  I opened my eyes, and saw before me an angel, smiling a tiny smile at me.

'It is a good smell, no?' the angel said.

'It is the best I have smelt ever,' I said, unable to take my eyes off her, my heart beating loudly.  'But it makes me sad.'

'Our bread makes you sad?  But how?' she said.

'Because I have no money and can buy no bread.'

She wiped her hands on her big apron, took a loaf, and handed it to me.

'Take it,' she said, 'it is right that anyone who loves bread as you do must have it.'

'But there is an old saying 'bread must be earned before it can be eaten' - I must pay you some way.'  I said.

'This is not a saying that I know.  Here, if you are given a gift of bread you may eat.  Where is this a saying?'

I told her about across the water.  She asked how I had got here, what I was doing, and the rest.  I told her the truth as I have told you.

'But what will become of you?' she said with concern.

'God has looked after me - did he not lead me here?'  I smiled and she smiled back, a bigger smile now.

And what a smile, like the sun on the water in the harbour.  But I see I am become old and forgetful - how could I not describe my Nafsika, who is before my eyes every day of my life?  Well then, she was of medium height - like you, lady - her hair was of the blackest - thick and long and curled like claws of a beautiful dragon, her eyes still blacker, pools of black water you could fall into and drown happily.  Her body - her body, O my good God - what a body she had, young and firm and strong and soft.  But I am losing my story.

'My father and brothers are away in Gaios' - it was the main town of the island - she said, 'but will return later today.  There is no work here that I can give you.  But I will help you.'  And that is what she did, the angel.

She told me to come back to her later that morning when she had sold her bread.  She would show me an old house, half ruined, up in the hills, where I could stay.   And that is where I lived, for three months of heaven."

Alekko paused, as if that were the end of his story - or perhaps just to make me ask him to go on.

"Yes?" I said rather rudely, "then what happened?"  I was shameless.

"But lady, what could we do but fall in love?  She was 17, as beautiful as life itself.  I was now 16, and well, young and handsome enough - I know, I know, it is hard to think now, but there were ladies once who found me good enough, ai, but yes....  We saw each other every day, soon every night too.  We walked in the cool pine forests, the smell deep on the air, we walked through the shivering olive trees with their growing fruit.  At night we walked out along tiny beaches, with no one else, listening to the sea whispering at us.  We watched the stars above, and the moon growing great and small.  We fell in love - how could we not?  We were young, the world was young for us, we were in paradise.  We wanted nothing more.  Would that it could have been always so...."

"What happened, Alekko, did something bad happen...?"  My mind was racing ahead, constructing wild romantic stories around this man's life, this man who I hardly knew, but who already seemed so real to me.

"Bad?  Was it bad?  I do not...I cannot say.  Perhaps what happened was bad because I am bad, but it was also good.  Why say more?  After a little time, one night when we lay together, my beautiful Nafsika burst into tears, and cried and cried and could not stop crying.  I tried everything I could to comfort her, but could not.  'What is it my dove?' I asked.  At first she would not - could not - say.  But at last, with great sobs she told me that she was with child.

I could not grasp this.  It was not part of this world that we had, it was not something that we had intended.  But we were young, foolish, we were happy - until then.  And even after then, we put it from our minds for a day, a week, a month, and lived together as before.  But it was not as before, it had changed.  And the time would come when all this would be faced.  But I did not know what to do.  I was so young, so foolish.  What did I know of children, of being a father?  What would happen?

And of course it happened.  I was sitting in my house, doing nothing, thinking about my lovely angel, when suddenly the door flew open and there she was.  As she stood there I could see that she was beginning to grow slightly.  

'You must flee!' she said breathless.  

'Never!  I will never leave you.'

'You must,' she said.  'My father knows everything - except where you are.  I told him you lived over the hill.  He is there now with my brothers.  They are mad with anger.  They will kill you if they find you.  You must flee.'

I felt a cold take my heart.  Why must it be like this?  Why must life lead to death?  I had seen this so often across the water, men mad with anger, hurting and killing, Zog's men in their poor ugliness.  But why here, in this heaven?

'Why are you standing there?' she was shaking with fear and sadness, crying and screaming at me.  'You must leave now, I beg of you, by your love for me - for our child - '

'But what will come of you, of - ' The words die in my mouth.  I felt like a fool, a child too.  

'I will look after it.  My father will not harm me or it.  He loves me but his love blinds him - his love and his stupid honour.  But he will harm you, I know it.  Please, promise me that you will leave and never return.'  She was imploring me on her knees.  Why?  Why was all this coming to us?  What had we done that we would now both suffer - me alone without her, her here with her father's anger?  I knew so little of this world - I was not ready for heaven.  I saw she had reason.

'I will go.'  I said, holding her to me.  But she pushed me off, pushed me out of the house. 

'Go, go, quickly, you must.'

And so for fear of hurting her, hurting our child, I went.  She pressed some money on me.  I refused, but again she screamed at my stupidity, my man's pride.  And she was right, right in all things.

And so I left her, left her.  I went to Gaios, found a stranger's ship - her father was known among the local fishermen - which was going back to the mainland Greece.  I was numb.  I did as she said, but I was numb.  I went."

Alekko stopped, finally now.  What could I say that would not be trivial?  It was so long ago - fifty years? - but for him it was eternally yesterday.

"Did you ever... hear from her, or go back?"

"No - how could I?  I could not write to her - my letters would have been destroyed, only made her father angrier.  She did not know where I was.  I could never go back, break her life again.  I had to go forever."

"Oh Alekko, I'm so sorry."

"Do not be - I am not.  It was perhaps the happiest time of my life.  I have loved her image ever since.  No one has taken what we had.  That is enough.  And my life has been good - much has happened that does not make them less, but more.  Do not be sad for me."

And I understood, or thought I did.  He had not wanted to leave, but had accepted leaving.  He had lived his life with these memories intact, while at the same time able to go on without being trapped in them.  Once again I had this urge to ask him to tell me more - I felt as if I had found a book with all the answers, and that would tell me all I needed to know.

I was wrong of course.  Alekko was just a man, but then he never claimed to be anything more.  He had his faults, as I found out, as he told me, but who has not?  Luckily, perhaps, during his retelling of these events, we had moved on from the hotel to Karnak.  He reached the end of his story, of his flight from paradise, as we arrived before that huge temple.  I think we were both glad that there was something outside us that we could look at, talk about.

But perhaps I'm wrong again.  I certainly needed that respite, but I think that I am underestimating the remarkable Mr Papadakis.  For me, his story had touched my heart, and left me shaken.  For him, though, this was something that had been with him for nearly all of his life.  It had lost its fire.  Perhaps he had a clarity of vision I lacked, a balance.  Perhaps, even, it was just a story for him, a beautiful one, no doubt, one that had been polished and polished in the re-telling - just like your notes, John, and just like all those inscriptions and histories - and as were all the others that he would relate to me in the next few days, and that I would devour just as hungrily as I had this one.

Egyptian Romance - list of chapters

Moody: the works

A list of links to all my non-tech writings: Essays Glanglish Travel writings Moody's Black Notebook Travels Walks with Lorenzetti A Par...