Wednesday 7 October 2020

Chapter 2 - Cairo, Sunday 19 February, 1990

Breakfast - continental, even down to the 'La vache qui rit' cheese.  Hot strong coffee.  Unfortunately the decor rather spoils things - bright and antiseptic.  The waiters seem particularly surly this year, lounging around the bar, almost daring anyone to disturb them by asking for breakfast.

I let my lot sleep in this morning - some very long days coming up ahead.  I rose quite early to write up my journal.  I forgot to note exactly what I'm doing with these thoughts and reflections.  It seemed to me that the time is ripe for me finally to write 'Egyptian Romance' - God knows I've been thinking about it and planning it long enough.  I have therefore polished up the background texts I give my charges the night before the next round of sightseeing, and will stick them at the head of each day's notes which by contrast will try to capture something of the intangible feel of the places we visit.  Then when I get back I can use these two sources as the basis for this definitive travel book on Egypt - not that it will be just a travel book.  Because if I don't write it this year, I feel that I'll never manage it.

Bit worried by Janet last night.  I came back after my walk along the Nile and found her in what looked like a state of shock.  She took ages to open the door, and then when she did, just stood there.  Very odd.  I hope she hasn't caught something already.  The others seem OK.  No complaints about rooms, food, tiredness etc. yet - which is unusual.

To the Cairo Tower by taxis.  I find that it is always useful to get a sense of a place by rising above it, so I usually bring people here first.  The notice about the tower being entirely built by Egyptians fails to provoke the usual chuckle.  At the top the café looks as dingy as ever - everything seems so dusty, so even up here Cairo's combination of sun and dust is murder for contact lens wearers.  But there is one compensation: turning away from the great brown-grey sprawl that creeps up the hills to the distant, hazy mosques and minarets, facing west - the most 'Egyptian' direction - you can see them: the first sight of the pyramids.  They hover like alien spaceships through the smoggy blur.  They are magnificent, even from here - especially from here, perhaps, because they are already so improbable, just their presence so near to this huge conurbation.

On to the Egyptian Museum, our main event of the day.  I love this place - despite the hordes of ruthlessly methodical Kraut tourists which always seem to infect its halls.  It is such an immense treasure house - you could just look and look and look and still discover more.  I suppose in that respect it is a bit like Egypt: there are still thousands - millions perhaps? - of artefacts to be discovered, all patiently sleeping in the sand for some lucky archaeologist to wake them up like fairy princesses.  It is strange, we tend to think of such discoveries as coming into existence only when they are unearthed.  But, of course, things can only be found if they have first been lost.

I suppose this makes today's sprint through the collection all the more frustrating for me.  It is like taking a child through a sweet shop and refusing to buy anything.  So, as usual we go straight to the Tut stuff.  Not that I don't find this still amazing - I love all the photos showing the original discovery, the unsealing of the tomb, the way the treasures were almost literally stuffed into the tiny rooms allotted to this rather unimportant young pharaoh.

I also can't help thinking about the true story of the discovery.  How Carter and Caernarfon ostensibly waited until the Egyptian authorities, Uncle Tom Cobbley and all could come and watch the final unsealing, when in fact Carter had already sneaked in through a small hole and nicked some of the pieces beforehand.  Typical.  I suppose, when you come to think about it, it's what all foreign archaeologists have done when they carry all their stuff back home, but then somehow it's 'official'.  Like all the treasures in the British Museum - most of it war booty, nabbed by the British when they were carving out empires in various parts of the world.  Rather funny when you compare the origins of the collections with today's rather stuffy and self-righteous attitude to them as 'national treasures'.  Yes?  Which nation?

So, here we are, up with the boy-king himself.  Rather theatrical introduction, with two black and gold statues either side of the main entrance to 'his' halls.  I see his royal cartouche for the first time this trip - greetings Tut! - but not the last.  Cartouches always make me think of the Rosetta Stone in the BM - more war booty, pinched from Napoleon's lot after they had looted stuff on their Egyptian campaign.  And then someone - who was it? Must look it up sometime - made the inspired guess that the collection of hieroglyphs in the little ovals, the cartouches, were royal names - and looked for some royalty in the parallel Greek text, which was readily comprehensible.  And sure enough, who did he find but Cleopatra, and Ptolemy.

How that man must have felt when that inspiration came to him, when with shaking hands he rushed to his manuscripts and with mounting excitement compared the different names and signs and so worked out the letters for each hieroglyph, and then he realised that he had done it, he had cracked open the secret writing of the Pharaohs, that his name would live for ever.  Pity there aren't any more discoveries like that waiting to be made by some of us.

Some wonderful scimitars showing ostriches along with the Tutankhamun cartouche.  Horrible mummies of babies - foetuses even.  A coffin with a lock of hair from the queen's grandmother.  Everything - even the knobbly flails - has his cartouche on it, his name, proclaiming 'this is mine'.  A model of a granary - with real, three thousand year old grains in it - elsewhere in the museum I remember seeing desiccated figs, raisins etc.  I wonder what the past tastes like....

The serried ranks of models of the king - hundreds of them, all with his name on them.  They are like amplifiers of the soul, I suppose, helping him to make it through to the next life.  That glorious throne, the masterpiece moulding of the king and queen, its gold shining even today with a preternatural brightness - what man made this?  Was he pleased with his work?  Perhaps it was just a job - no grand notions of the Promethean artist here.  Bee and sedge on the sides.  A caseful of throwsticks, looking amazingly like boomerangs - which is what they are in most respects.  The craftsmanship of the alabaster - especially the lamp.  What patience to have carved it, what immense skill.  Three thousand years ago - what have we achieved since?

A case with the trumpets.  Nothing special to look at, but for me they will always be the instruments that sounded Egypt's clarion call to me.  I can still remember watching this archaeology programme on television about Ancient Egypt.  I must have been about 11 or 12.  There was the usual corny shot of the sun rising behind the dark mass of a pyramid - clichéd but effective.  And then - an experience I will never forget - they played these two trumpets - the very same ones found in Tut's tomb, placed there 3000 years ago.  I heard the sound of an ancient empire, as if a gramophone record from the period had been found.  Dusty, plaintive, infinitely moving.  I think I silently swore then to recapture that moment somehow.

Then when I visited the British Museum as a boy and wandered among the deserted Egyptian galleries upstairs - before they were spoilt by modernisation - I felt that call again, as if all the hieroglyphics on the walls were messages for me.  I had this sense of recognition.  And the more I went there, the more I began to feel that this was what the inside of tombs looked like: an empty room, glass cabinets filled with ancient statues and jewellery, and faded, enigmatic labels, thousands of years old....

So perhaps my return to this amazing land was inevitable, a return to that pivotal moment in my childhood, and a desire to see the real glass cases....  But whether in all my rich experiences here I have ever succeeded in equalling that timeless first encounter is another matter.  Perhaps we are only given such moments once; perhaps they only come to the innocent child.

At the end of the hall, round the corner, the stunning effect of seeing the main shrines one after another.  Putting one inside another must have been tricky.  But now, separated, they stand like huge glorious jewel cases.  An interesting effect: looking at the outer tomb, the first tomb can be seen reflected in the glass in just such a way that it appears to be inside it - as it was found.  Is this intentional on the part of the authorities, or just the gods looking after their own...?  We still have not seen the king himself downstairs, but my groups are worn out, so we'd better get some lunch.  Out to the café.

Where I sit now.  Food pretty awful, but the café quite an unusual design - up some stairs - and with a nice view out over the gardens in front of the museum.  The sun really pouring down now.  Glad I'm not in it - it has always struck me as a deep perversity of my genes that I am both (a) very auburn and (b) addicted to Egypt, one of the sunniest and hottest places one could reasonably go to.  These two facets of me do not mix: I can never get a decent suntan - I sometimes hope that my freckles will coalesce into something resembling one - passing from white to lobster pink and then peeling very painfully.  I clearly have very little Egyptian blood in me.

Reading through my trusty Blue Guide - undoubtedly the most thorough and detailed book about Egypt, but one that could be bettered in terms of catching the mystery and spirit of the place, as I hope that mine will do - I notice some of the marginal scribblings on the pages devoted to the Egyptian Museum.  Unfortunately - and inexplicably - until this year I didn't keep a journal as I am now doing - I thought I could remember everything I needed, what with my notes and the guide books.  Stupid really - all those wonderful initial experiences, now just fragile memories, being worn away by the years.

Things just don't endure if you don't get them written down - the Egyptians certainly knew that, desperately recording their autobiographies in tombs so that their identities would survive the passage from life to death - after all, what's the point of eternal life if you are no longer you?  And the profusion of hieroglyphs everywhere - every surface seems to be covered in them here, a nation afflicted by logorrhoea or the urge to graffiti, or like kids who have discovered how to talk and never stop.

Anyway, some things that I won't be seeing today thanks to my charges but which I need to write up more thoroughly sometime.  Going through the rooms.  Room 47: the amazing Menkhaure triad - so perfect and yet barely out of the mists of time - about 2700 BC (??).  The more you look at the crown, the more ridiculous it looks - why this very odd shape?  - But then the idea of putting something on your head to prove you're king is pretty odd in the first place.  While the rest of the sculpture is totally modern - by which I mean perfectly crafted, not 'primitive' - the crown is the giveaway: it says 'yes, we have all the skills that you have, but we also know things you will never even suspect, ancient things before words.'

Room 42 - a roomful of seated and standing statues, all 4-5000 years old.  The square-bearded Khafre in glorious diorite.  Also an amazing picture of the Giza Pyramids, taken from a plane directly overhead, turning them into weird abstract geometrical shapes.  Room 7 - a small, insignificant relief of a couple receiving offerings; for no apparent reason, every face has been mutilated.  Why?  Room 8: scenes of dancing and music - if only we knew what it sounded like - but not even the instruments survive to be played here.

Room 3 - Akhenaten.  Weird to be surrounded by his artefacts.  His face - long and thin - a serious young man.  Clearly a portrait, not a mere idealisation.  When he proclaimed his new faith, of the one god, of the ending of old beliefs, he must have been terrifying in his passionate evangelism.  A fleshy nose.  A small relief of Akhenaten and his wife Nefertiti - with faint grid lines on it - for copying?

Room 10: a curious, pondering figure of Ramses II, shielded by a wing of the falcon god Horus, a great lock of his hair to his right.  Green schist sculpture of Tiveni?? - as a pregnant hippo.  Room 35 - proto-semitic inscriptions: the smell of electricity leaping across cultures, the mystery of writing being passed on, so that a people could write its own history, a history that would one day become the Old Testament....

Thence to the central hall, which we shall go and see in a minute.  And there I shall at least revisit what for me is the most beautiful object in the whole museum: the Narmer Palette.  If I could steal just one thing....

Of course, even with the Blue Guide as a dependable leader, there are problems.  For example, how do you look at the object and read the description in the book?  Especially when there are 100,000 objects to look at, and thousands described?  It's a nightmare - and one made worse by the fact that I carry not one but three guides: the Blue Guide for its in-depth factual stuff, the Travelaid Guide to Egypt, which is one of the trade's better-kept secrets, offering solid factual information with a nice line in atmosphere - this Michael von Haag is obviously an interesting bloke, and with a deep love of Egypt - and finally I also have the Lonely Planet guide which is rather too superficial and throwaway for my liking as far as the sites and history are concerned, but which is brilliant for its practical information - restaurants, cafes, hotels, travel etc.  A nicely balanced trinity, but murder to carry around, and even worse trying to use them all at once.

Actually, it's interesting to note who brings which guides.  I suppose it's like anything you have - clothes, cars, houses, partners - what you choose says something about who you are.  Over the years of leading groups here I've developed my own classifications.  Thus you have the famous Baedeker's - there are now two varieties of this.  The old version in its characteristic red binding: this tends to be used by self-conscious traditionalists - probably wearing half-moon glasses and waistcoats - after all, what's the point of using a guide that's fifty years out of date?  There is also the new, updated version - which tellingly is a joint venture with the AA of all people.  This is your Volvo kind of guidebook, solidly middle class, very safe, rather boring.  

Then of course there are the Fodor guides.  Although these are American mainstream, I have a bit of a soft spot for them - perhaps because of the founder's cosmopolitan background, or - perhaps because of a good editor somewhere - they seem to have a bit of spirit, a bit of humour, and they're quite well-written for the most part.  Fodor users therefore may have a bit of spark in them, provided they are not rich Americans who take the guide book too seriously.  Anything else is just a bit odd, and suggests that the person who bought them either didn't take the job of buying a guide seriously - and it is a serious matter because it will help shape your view of the place - or that they took pot-luck, and neither is very satisfactory.

For the record, the elderly couple have the AA-Baedeker, the Greek - what's his name? Alexander - has Fodor - which is interesting, perhaps there is hope there - and Plain Jane - I think she's actually a doctor, which could be useful - has a Blue Guide - which is really annoying: I hate it when people start arguing facts with me.  A Blue Guide is like a precision weapon, and should only be placed in the hands of experts.  Perhaps she's some kind of Blue Stocking - perhaps she's not even a real doctor, but some snotty PhD.  God, no.

So, back to duty.  We go straight through the main atrium and up the stairs to finish off Tut by visiting the treasury at the back of the museum.  A queue, as usual.  But it is worth it.  The gold mask of Tutankhamun - well, words fail me.  It is so stunningly beautiful - almost too beautiful to believe.  In fact, at times it looks like some perfect robotic head from some hideously advanced civilisation on a different planet.  Perhaps that is what the Egyptians were: at times it seems hard to believe that they achieved so much so long ago.  The women in my party naturally drool over the jewels and brooches and ornaments here.  And they are truly fine.  And the inner coffin: solid gold, weighing 100 kg; I drool over that.  What the grave-robbers missed this time, the gods be praised.

You could stay in that room forever, trapped by beauty like a fly on a spider's web.  A happy death.  But we are tourists, we have our duty to do.  Down to the atrium once more, standing behind the massive double colossus of King Amenhotep and Queen Tiy, with three of their daughters, like pygmies huddling around the knees of giants.  We stop to look at the Israel stela, one of history's better jokes.  A great long boring proclamation about how wonderful the pharaoh Amenhotep III was, how he had crushed sundry rebellious tribes, one of them being this Israelite lot - pretty insignificant at the time.  But who knows how things will pan out?  How the mighty fall, and how the mammals move in to replace dinosaurs. It is noticeable on the stela how a certain spot has been rubbed - countless guides pointing out the word for Israelite - at least, so I guess.  Of course, if somebody got it wrong to begin with, we could all be gawping at a word meaning foot-soldier or something.  But it is curious this urge to be in touch - as literally as possible - with history, to enjoy that frisson of hindsight, of knowing something that the original writer could never have known.  Playing God I suppose.

Through the atrium to my favourite, the Narmer Palette.  So small, so fragile - thin stone - a miracle of survival.  And a masterpiece: the image of the king wearing the so-called White Crown of Upper Egypt smiting one of the sedge-dwellers, the northerners in the Nile delta - shown by the clump of papyrus.  The king's attendant behind him with his sandals.  On the other side, the king now wearing the Red Crown of his newly-acquired Lower Nile kingdom - a crown that would be combined with the White Crown to give the characteristic and deeply implausible-looking double crown of Egypt worn by all Pharaohs henceforth - inspects with his retinue - including his sandal-bearer - the dead bodies from the war.  At the bottom, below two fantastically lion-like beasts with long intertwined necks - creating a circular grinding depression, probably used for some sacred ritual - the king is depicted as a bull smashing into a fortified city, and trampling on another enemy.  Magnificent stuff, magnificently done.  To think that however stylised, this represents something that happened, something moreover that changed the course of history.  Something that was done by a man, Narmer, whose name and achievement of that day have come down to us to speak as directly as this.  I could stay here for hours, but my own retinue is getting restless.  

Along to Groppi's by taxi.  Personally I would have walked, but it's not my money, and people are beginning to look a bit frayed.  I don't know why I bother bringing them here, other than the fact that it's one of the 'sights' of Cairo, and the fact that much of tourism is actually about eating - I've noticed that every museum or monument leads inevitably to a café or a restaurant.  I suppose that and the hotels are what drive the tourism industry - which is hardly trivial these days.  In fact, I remember reading somewhere that it is now Britain's biggest single industry bar none.  So that is what we've come to: something for the newly rich nations to gawp at, just as we did when we were powerful, and the world's top tourists - they always seem to go together.

But this business about 'doing the sights' - the phrase itself suggests that we're vaguely unhappy with it.  So why have we come here, to the world-famous Groppi's?  Now it is world-famous simply because of all the tourists who come here, which means that it's in all the guide books, which means that all the tourists come....  It's certainly not for the food or the atmosphere.   I have in front of me a cake which looks as if someone has gobbed all over it.  There is a terrible draught and it's disgustingly smoky here.  I also had a run-in with the waiter when we dared to move tables - trying to get away from an even bigger draught by the door.  The waiter affects not to know what I want and threatens to bring me more cake.  Roll on this evening.

Which it now is, by one of these convenient compressions travel journals offer - they let you miss out all the boring bits of your trip, and concentrate on the interesting ones.  That's something I've never really understood about diaries: what do you write about if you're not doing anything interesting? - and let's face it, most of don't, most of the time.  That's what holidays are for: they are the interesting bits we save up for and look forward to, to keep us going during the rest of our grey existence.  That's why we have to believe in all the lies advertising feeds us about hols: that we will undergo unique experiences, see amazing sights, meet interesting people.  In fact all we mostly do is to see people like ourselves doing what we're doing, but with a different backdrop.  No, that's not fair, or I wouldn't be here.  Egypt is different - it's still not too touristy, or rather where there are tourists it is still quite easy to get away from them.

So, after Groppi's - and another argument with the waiter over the bill - back to the hotel, which is only a short walk away.  I leave Janet and the others to have a shower or sleep or whatever before dinner - Felfela's  again, boring but good and gastronomically safe - and decide to have a quick peek in the bookshop just across the way from Groppi's.  No intention to buy of course, just looking.  Quite small, but a good selection of books on Egypt.

I am very weak, and I buy Gardiner's great and definitive Egyptian Grammar.  It was very cheap - only about £11, seems to be some low-cost reprint.  The trouble is the weight - it's a real tome.  I expect Janet will nag me about wasting money on it.  But I couldn't resist possessing it - hitherto I've always borrowed a copy from the library - special request, of course.  But owning something is different.  I feel that I am halfway there to understanding hieroglyphs already - before I have even begun learning them, just by virtue of letting my fingers caress the pages, hugging this book to myself.  Silly, isn't it?

Egyptian Romance - list of chapters

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