Thursday 10 September 2020

Chapter 11 - Alexandria, Tuesday 28 February, 1990

In the Roman amphitheatre.  More a heap of rubble around a hole in the ground really.  Sky overcast.  I awoke this morning feeling very disconnected from things.  I cannot join this place with the Egypt I know and love.  The longer I stay here, the more Alexandria feels alien, as if it is an island off the coast of Egypt.  Typically, my group seem to be flourishing here - even Janet, who is almost annoyingly perky.  I say annoying because it contrasts so strongly with what I feel.  At least she's enjoying herself, though I do find it increasingly hard to understand her moods.  But then the ways of womenkind have generally been all Greek to me anyway.

Now at the fort.  A long taxi ride here past endless seafront villas.  Hard to believe that this is all that remains of the mighty Pharos.  The fort is pleasant enough to look at, but when I try to imagine how things were two thousand years ago - when something the height of a skyscraper stood here....  And that word again, 'here': how can we grasp that it really was at this spot that such a thing existed?  We say it, but do we really know it in our hearts?  It is like at school, when I could work out the answers in maths, but I never understood how or why.  It was just superficial knowledge, knowledge of the tongue.  Inside the fort rather bare, not much to see.

Now at lunch, at the Mustafa Darwish Restaurant on the Corniche.  I thought I'd take them somewhere quintessentially Egyptian.  Quiet here too - I wonder how busy it gets in summer.  Lashings of food, but sadly I'm not in the mood to enjoy it.  Yet more Arabic music noodles in the background.

On to Pompey's Pillar - which of course isn't.  Another rubbish dump with a few antiquities.  The whole of Alexandria feels this way, as if it represents the detritus of ages - which the whole of Egypt is too.  But because the monuments of Upper Egypt are so stunningly well-preserved, and because there is little around them, they seem more alive.  This stuff here is just junk.  The Serapeum a mere shadow of the one in Saqqarah.  And to think that around here was that library, that wonderful amazing library - burnt down not once, but twice, by the Romans, and then the Christians.

It sends shivers down my spine when I think of the books burning, the pages of papyrus and vellum darkening, the words and images so lovingly inscribed on them vanishing for ever.  Tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of books lost.  Imagine what must have been there: works of the Ancient Greeks, perhaps another Iliad or Odyssey, perhaps works of secret knowledge.  This terrible fear by the ignorant of books, and their frightening fragility in the face of this fear.  And frightening because  what is civilisation but knowledge laboriously garnered?  And how else but through words and books is knowledge transmitted?  The hieroglyphs prove that, those enduring books in stone which have given immortality to those distant millennia.

From Pompey's pillar we went along to the catacombs in the Kom al-Shuqqafah.  The name means 'Mound of Shards' and refers to the piles of broken plates which accumulated after the banquets held in the tombs - there is a special banqueting hall - to celebrate the dead.  Weird.

But not as weird as the catacombs at Hermopolis - one of the trips I made using Assyut as a base.  I'm not really sure how I should use all this stuff for my Egyptian Romance since it is all a bit off the beaten track, which is why I don't take my groups there, and few tourist see these places.  And yet they represent some of the most amazing experiences Egypt has to offer.  In any case I'll try and get down some of my memories from that time since I am now back in my world-watching chair at the hotel.

I hired a taxi for the day at Assyut, and we drove north alongside the Nile.  Crazy driving as usual from the taxi-driver.  The car a battered old Peugeot 504 which seems to be the standard car out here - a vestige of an old French influence perhaps?  The milometer looked as if it had been round a few times, and the speedometer didn't work at all.  But we fair belted along.  Most of the knobs on the doors were missing - just bits of wire and metal sticking out.  During the journey the driver played mournful tapes which kept on jamming.  When he wasn't thumping the unit he was trying to wedge the tape in with old cigarette packets.  He smoked like a chimney.

A beautiful drive, the Nile to our right, a railway line also, as I recall, occasional villages, some towns.  People walking along the road with animals, and on bikes.  Good fields on either side.  

Before going up to Hermopolis, we called in at Al Amarna.  Actually, that makes it sound like some casual stop-off at a roadside cafe.  It was a little more involved than that.  For a start, Al Amarna was on the other side of the Nile.  I had originally intended to leave the taxi on the West bank, and travel around on the other side on my own.  It was a good job that the taxi driver insisted on coming with me.

This meant squeezing the car on to the narrow and battered ferry which plied between the two banks every couple of hours or so.  Mayhem as it approached, everyone jumping off while it was still a few feet out - couldn't they wait those extra couple of seconds?

The Nile very swiftly flowing here - with great branches and fronds of lilies rush past.  The ferry had to aim upstream some way to allow for its docking the other side.  It was a wonderful feeling being in the middle of the mighty Nile, sitting in a taxi surrounded by dusty old lorries and bicycles - the only Westerner, needless to say - with the locals gawping at me as if I were some exhibit in a museum.  Which I was to them.

The other side of the Nile was quite different.  The West bank had the road and the railway, and so was in touch with the outside world.  Here you felt as if you were stepping back three thousand years - apart from the odd lorry and tanker delivering water.  We came off the ferry - somewhat dangerously it seemed to me, though the driver appeared unworried by the gaps between the deck and the quay that he pushed his car over - and drove along a rough road through incredibly verdant fields with irrigation channels everywhere - that magic combination of sun and water.

Then we came to a village - Al Amarna itself - with its narrow roads impassable if you met oncoming traffic - which we did, as it headed towards the newly arrived ferry.  But we eventually got through - and found ourselves in the desert.

Al Amarna was a small and insignificant village; but nearby was Akhetaten, the capital of the Pharaoh Akhnaten.  Living at the height of the Egyptian civilisation, between Queen Hatshepsut and the Ramessid dynasty, this young ruler turned the ancient world upside down with his profession of monotheism, breaking with the complicated pantheon of Amun, Atum, Ptah, Osiris and the rest.  Instead, he maintained that there was only one god, Aten - also known as Re - the sun-god.  In an attempt to wrest control from the priests of Amun at Karnak, he moved his capital many miles upriver to this empty site at Akhetaten.  His revolutionary experiment in theology was short-lived.  After his reign of only 17 years, the court moved back to Luxor, and the old gods were restored.

I wanted to see what remained of this heretic's achievement, one who had dared to challenge the religious empire of Amun, the lesser gods and goddesses, and the priests at Karnak.  Finding the remains of what had once been an enormous city proved difficult.  In front of us was a sandy plain, lying still and lifeless under the scorching sun - and this was in winter, too.  Eventually we passed someone on the road who said he would help us - for the inevitable baksheesh, of course.  He directed us to the nearby police station, got out, and went of in search of information there.  He came back and directed us across the desert to the hills.

We began driving across a barely-visible road, a sandy track, nothing but desert on either side of us.  High cirrus clouds, a hazy veil of them to the north.  Amidst the sheer barren emptiness of it all, it suddenly felt absurd to be in this clapped-out Peugeot miles from anywhere, looking for - what? - ancient footsteps in the sand.

The road led to a small cliff of white stone.  The car stopped, and we all got out.  Above us I could see some doors in the side of the hill; these were the southern tomb chapels, built for the high officials who had followed Akhnaten here, and died during his reign.  Now all we had to do was to find a key.  Our man went off to a group of workmen a little way off.  By some miracle they had the key.  So a party of about eight of us - and just this one westerner - finally entered one of the tombs, the tomb of Ay, who was the brother of queen Tiy - whose giant statue is in the Egyptian Museum - the uncle of Akhetaten, his fan-bearer, and eventually a pharaoh in his own right, succeeding the short-lived Tutankhamun.  His tomb was unfinished, and throws interesting light on exactly how they were built.  Had it been completed, it would have been the finest at Akhetaten.

It was like some adventure film as the great metal door swung open with a heavy clang, its hinges groaning at this rude disturbance of their long sleep.  Again the contrast between the blinding sunshine outside, and the deep darkness within.  No lighting, but I had my torch which cast a rather weak and melancholy beam.  On each side of the door, the great Hymn to Aten on both sides - I have a translation of it in my Lichtheim.  A moving work, worthy to stand beside any later religious poems.  Images of the king and his queen - the famous Nefertiti - but with their faces scratched out, that desecration again.  A depiction of the king and queen and their three daughters on a balcony receiving Ay.  Dancing girls.  Such joy in the scenes, and now reduced to this lost and lonely isolation.

Strange to see the stone-cut pillars petering out where the stone-masons abandoned their work for whatever reason.  The pillars are progressively more and more finished as you move to the left, as if they were plants growing and maturing slowly.  In one corner, there were steps down to the burial chamber.  Two of the men insisted on leading me down there - in the total darkness - each holding my elbows as if I were some old woman.  The whole experience was so surreal, so alien to my life back home, that I felt no fear, just a constant amazement - and gratitude that these things were really happening to me.

Out again into the light, then back across the sands - after parting with suitable amounts of baksheesh, that indispensable lubricant in Egypt.  Now we were looking for the royal palace, which still stood relatively intact.  When we got there, it was something of a shock.  For it was built entirely of mud and wood - timeless rock was reserved for religious buildings.  But again because of the miracle of Egypt's climate, even the mud bricks had survived, as had some of the wooden lintels, and with them the plan of almost all the palace.

There were no guards, no entrance fee.  Just a gate and long-ago vandalised map of the site.  And in truth not much to see, just low mud-brick walls, bleached grey after their three thousand years of existence.  In some ways these mud buildings were even more immediate than the stone ones, even though the latter were obviously better preserved, perhaps because these bricks had once been shaped by someone from mere mud.  Salutary to think that all the palaces - of even the greatest pharaohs - were nothing more than these glorified mud huts.  The urge to chip away a little history was incredibly strong there: I'm ashamed to say that even I was seized by it as I broke off a small piece of mud, helping to destroy history, to make my own pitiful mark on it.

The royal palace at Akhetaten is notable for two things: the so-called 'Foreign Office' where correspondence from foreign princes was found, and the house of the master sculptor Dhutmose, where by some miracle a bust of Queen Nefertiti was found three thousand years after the house was abandoned.  The bust is now in Berlin.  With her stately bearing and calm chiselled beauty, it is one of the most famous images of Ancient Egypt.

It was a fascinating place there at Akhetaten, that place of brief heresy, that blip in Egypt's past.  Amazingly, even the villagers next to it barely knew of its existence.  I felt strangely alone there - not just because I was the only tourist for miles around - perhaps the only tourist for days or weeks even - but because of its tremendous isolation - physical, temporal, spiritual.  It was a rare privilege to have achieved this place, to have experienced that feeling.  God knows how this might fit into my book; and yet I feel I have to write this down.

From Akhetaten we went back to the bank to await the Nile ferry.  As I sat in the car, I remember seeing old men fishing for great fat fish that swam around in the fast-flowing waters of the Nile.  Women were beating washing against riverside rocks following a timeless and universal tradition.  Nothing much had changed here in three thousand years, nothing was out of place - except this tourist and his hired taxi.  Distant mountains around us on three sides.  When the ferry arrived, the same battle to get on and off.  A curious sight: boys carrying fern-like plants in plastic pots.

Once on the other bank we followed the track west, waited at a closed level-crossing - unlike all the pedestrians who scrambled under the barrier, apparently oblivious to any danger or practised enough to avoid it - and rejoined the main road.  We continued further north towards Al Ashmuneyn, the ancient city the Greeks called Hermopolis, the city of Hermes - their name for Thoth, the god of writing and of the moon.  Originally the place was known as Khmun, and according to the primitive creation myth of the region was thought to have been the site of the original hill from which the sun first rose above the waters.  In an amazing continuity which must stretch back over five or six thousand years, the current place-name - Ashmuneyn - is directly derived from that first name, Khmun, passing through the intermediate stage of the Coptic Shmun.  Could this be the oldest known named place on earth, the first hill to rise above the anonymous waters of prehistory?

Unfortunately the reality is less romantic than the history.  Today all you have are a few Ptolemaic remains - Corinthian columns, admittedly picturesquely situated amid outcrops of palm trees and scrubby heath - and a pair of Thoth's baboons.  The god Thoth had two sacred animals: the ibis, with whose head he is sometimes represented, and the baboon.  These two were all that remained of a temple of Thoth, which originally had six of them.  They looked totally ridiculous: a pair of 15 feet high stone baboons sitting there in the middle of nowhere like some old, unfunny joke.

Even more isolated was the associated necropolis near Tunah al-Gabal.  The guide books airily called this a few miles away, but that's not the way my taxi driver saw it.  We passed through tinier and tinier villages, and at each he would turn round to me as if to say 'what? you want to go even further?'  And I would indicate that yes, we were going even further into the desert - for by now we were right on the margin of the fertile Nile plain; beyond lay the Libyan desert for hundreds of miles.  

After a while, even I began to doubt: just where were we going?  Villagers stood and gawped at us as we drove past - it was probably the first taxi they'd seen for months.  I suddenly became very conscious of how foolish, how very superfluous my journey was.  No wonder taxi drivers thought tourists were mad and/or stupid - there to be gulled.  What was the point of this pilgrimage to the middle of nowhere, to look at a few ruins - if we found them?  Of course the point for him was the money - I had agreed about E£200, that is about £50, for the day.  For me it was amazing value - wild trips to places that few tourists ever visited.  But then I thought about paying £200 for a taxi ride in England - and what an immense sum that would be, and how contemptuous I would be of any ignorant tourist stupid enough to spend that amount.  So I began to understand how the taxi driver must feel.

Finally, when we had almost run out of road, and had started driving across blank desert, I saw a group of buildings with a couple of clumps of palm trees.  'There!' I said, but without really knowing why.  Thank God this was the place.  And what a place.

At first there seemed to be nothing there except a few small temples.  One of these was the Tomb of Petosiris, in appearance a bit like a mini Denderah.  Petosiris was the High Priest of Thoth, and his tomb was built for his father and his splendidly-named elder brother Zed-Thoth-ef-Ankh - which sounds like something some uninspired and/or desperate Hollywood screenwriter might have come up with, but which no one would have believed.  In the entrance there was a beautifully simple altar with odd horn-like points.  A 25 foot shaft led to the burial chambers.

Nearby was the tomb-chapel of poor Isadora, who drowned in the Nile in the second century AD and became the basis of a local cult.  Unfortunately this honour had not protected her from the indignity of being exhibited shamelessly to the world, her desiccated nakedness horribly exposed.  And I too could only see her as a curious exhibit, a minor footnote for a tourist book, rather than as someone had once been a living, breathing young woman with hopes and fears.  I was looking death in the face, but refused to see it.

The main attraction of the place was the underground galleries which were originally extensions of temples above them.  When I arrived there, they were locked up - clearly not many visitors - and had to be opened by a sleepy guard, who must have an extremely quiet job.  These long and spooky halls, which are reached by stone steps down to a chapel, extend for over a mile, and may even extend all the way back to Hermopolis - an immense network running for many miles, deep under the sands.

Both of Thoth's sacred animals were mummified here: baboons and ibises.  Strange little trapezoidal coffins were used for the latter.  There were also statues of baboons, their eyes painted a haunting blue.  All the while I was down there, the guard lounged around, bored, indifferent to this crazy tourist.  Apparently the chapel here was dedicated to Alexander the Great and his queen Roxanne, which is an interesting if inexplicable connection.

As we drove back from those mad constructions, I happened to look out of the taxi window at the low hills to my left.  There seemed to be a sort of lean-to shelter built in the middle of nowhere.  I remembered reading about one of Akhnaten's boundary stelae - a proclamation in stone defining the extent of his royal city Akhetaten.  I asked the by-now exasperated driver to take me nearer.  We left the road and started driving across the sands themselves, until finally the taxi-driver announced that we could go no further because the sand was becoming too soft, and we would be stuck if we went on.

So, determined to see this final memorial to Akhnaten's failed experiment, I got out of the car and started walking - slowly and with difficulty - across the soft, shifting sands.  When I finally got to the simple shelter, built to provide some protection for the ancient hieroglyphs, I saw the same image of the Pharaoh, his queen and family worshipping the sun-god Aten - whose rays ended in little hands.  By now the real sun-god was low in the sky, and casting huge shadows in front of me as I walked back to the taxi.  This last monument, almost all that was left of Akhetaten's great city in this area, seemed a fitting end to a day which had been filled with a sense of failure, of time passing and of time conquering man's works.

Perhaps that melancholy which I felt as I drove back past the Nile in the dusk, is similar to what I feel now, writing this, as I sit at the front of the Metropole, watching the busy Alexandrian scene pass by outside.  This city too has a sense of the past being swept away, of looking forward, rather than just back.  In Upper Egypt the past is a living presence; in Akhetaten it was dead; here it is simply absent.

For once I am glad that we are going back to Cairo tomorrow; there, at least, is little sense of the past or its absence.  There it is all modern bustle.  And I am even, terrible thing to say, glad to be going home soon.  This has not been a good trip; I have been descending into a deeper and deeper depression as it has gone on.  Whether it is to do with the chemistry of the group I have with me this time, and the fact that people dropped out, messing up my arrangements and generally making the tour a bit small - but normally I'm not really affected by such details at all - or whether it is because Janet came along, partly to fill up one of the places I had booked, at a cheap rate - but it's been quite nice having her as company - and it's not as if she's hated it, well, not all of it - and she certainly seems to be enjoying things the longer she stays here - the reverse of me.

I don't know, perhaps things we will be better tomorrow.  I'm doing something new then, going out to Suez, not somewhere I've been before.  I thought it might be a good idea to add it to my collection of places for the old book.  Don't really know what it will be like.  I just hope it will do something to buck me up.  We shall see.  Dinner-time soon, and then we'll go out for a last evening stroll along the corniche.  If the traffic isn't too bad....

Egyptian Romance - list of chapters

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