Sunday 4 October 2020

Chapter 3 - Saqqarah, Monday 20 February, 1990

Up early, and then after breakfast by taxi - E£50 each for the day - out to Saqqarah.  South along a busy road parallel to Nile.  The English road signs which you find in Cairo, and give the place a deceptive air of being easy to find your way around, disappear suddenly, to be replaced by meaningless squiggles.  I'm glad I'm not driving - and don't.  Cool day, sun breaking through the clouds.

Saqqarah is magic - Saqqarah, from Sokkar, the god of the dead in nearby Memphis.  Unlike the Great Pyramids, which are much too near Cairo, here you feel away from things, nearer to the real Egypt.  When you get to the site it seems all sand and rubble.  The pyramids set on a plateau.  A cool breeze blows, the sun occluded.  As we get out of the taxis, to leave the drivers to chat, have a kip, there is a strange disembodied ringing tintinnabulation.  Stonebreakers(?) out of sight, metal hammers on stone like the cries of prehistoric birds. 

The long impressive causeway to the entrance in what was once a huge girdling wall.  The stone beautifully dressed.  Walking through a colonnaded corridor, some of it reconstructed, but already I get a sense of what lies ahead for us in Luxor.

By the South Tomb.  The Stepped Pyramid of Zozer.  It is hard to respond adequately to this building.  Today it looks a little woe-begone, its steps crumbling, covered in sand.  But it is still magnificent, a tremendous affirmation of man's power, of his ability to create something enduring.  I try to imagine what it must have been like when Imhotep suddenly had the idea: why not put another mastaba on top of the first?  Had he intended to stop there, but was so struck by the success that he went further, adding another then another?  Or had he intended from the start to see how high the gods would let him build before they struck his wonder down?   Because he was voyaging into the unknown, testing the strength of stone with each added layer.  With this pyramid the Egyptians discovered the essence of what architecture is about: it is about 'up', the struggle of a building to lift itself off the earth, to be taller than mere men, to impose, to impress.  I suppose in that respect it represents man's aspiration to the heavens, to reach the gods.  Appropriate enough for the tomb of a god.

Interesting that the equivalent Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel - another impious exercise in building a stairway to God - ended in disaster, and in the loss of linguistic unity, and in the creation of a babble - Babel - of tongues.  By contrast, Zozer's tower stood - and stands - and the Ancient Egyptian speech consolidated its power, rather than being dissipated.  Which reminds me: I was reading Gardiner last night - bliss! - and came across his fascinating speculation on the origin of the language.  It seems it has elements of Semitic - like Arabic and Hebrew - but also of Hamitic, the group of North African languages from which modern-day Berber derives.  So, Gardiner suggests, what we have in Ancient Egyptian is the fusion of two languages - two peoples - to form an amalgam.  In the process much of the structure of both was simplified, leaving only a kind of watered-down Semitic tongue.

In fact this is just like Modern English: it too derives from the battle of two languages - Anglo-Saxon and Norman French - and came about after the invasion of 1066.  The Normans were assimilated, but greatly changed English in the process, simplifying its structure to only a shadow of its Germanic roots.  An amazing thought that something similar must have happened in Egypt.  But when?  Perhaps 6,000, 7,000 years ago.  Staggering that we can still detect the linguistic shockwaves of that conquest of one people by another so long after the event - like light reaching us from stars which exploded millions of years ago.  But I have sat here too long.

Down to these frightening relics of something incredibly ancient: the 'B'-shaped objects in the courtyard.  Supposedly part of a race that the king had to run after 30 years, somehow symbolising the union of Upper and Lower Egypt.  But this 30 years business, the king's race, it all seems to hark back to those anthropologically murky times when the king was killed as his strength began to fail, or when the crops were bad.  Not so much fun being a king then when you were literally responsible for everything - from the sun rising to the rain falling.  Ancient Egypt feels paradoxically modern most of the time - everything is so well-preserved, so functionally perfect - it is only when you get odd leftovers like these strange race markers that you realise how close they were to the dawn of mankind, and all the mysteries that lurked there.

Saqqarah is a rather awkward site to visit in any sensible order - everything is so spread out.  Since we can't enter the Stepped Pyramid, we go to that of Unas instead.  It is one of my favourites, even though from the outside it looks like a heap of rubble.  Apparently it was excavated at the expense of Thomas Cook and Son with the express purpose of becoming  a tourist attraction for that company's visitors.  No wonder I feel at home here.

It is a very odd experience descending steeply into the heart of the earth like this.  The passageway is very low, quite claustrophobic.  Once in here, you are hit by the sudden warmth - and the smell of tobacco - from the little Egyptian man, waiting to 'explain' everything.  Eventually he takes the hint and goes away.  After I have done my explanation, the others look around for a bit, then wander out into the fresh air, leaving me here alone.

I love it, just being here in this strange little wendy-house shaped room, covered in the ultimate wallpaper - hieroglyphics.  The first such mortuary texts that we have.  Again, I find it hard to grasp that these beautiful shapes around me were written there some 4,500 years ago, that somebody composed them, thought them, felt them.  That these are some of the oldest writings in existence.

And this time I have a new delight in store: Lichtheim.  Discovering this two-volume collection of translations from Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics - all the most famous texts - was one of my chief excitements this year.  I couldn't believe it when I came across them in Foyles - and quite cheap too.  They were exactly what I had been looking for, a key to unlock all these texts.  It has become my Bible, almost - I've read and re-read it so much that it's quite dog-eared.

So now I sit here, with these chants hovering around me, the cartouche of Unas himself- a rather fetching rabbit, a wavy line, a chopper and a kind of shepherd's crook - I  must check in Gardiner to find out what exactly they are - repeated again and again like a hypnotic chant, a call to attention, an echo.  On the north wall at one point I can count 56 of them.  Directly above, another row, but not so many.  Interestingly, the cartouche is reversed between the north and south walls - presumably all the texts are.  One worrying thing: according to Lichtheim some of the text goes on about 'eating' the gods, and is thought to be a throwback to those dark times again when human sacrifices and cannibalism took place.  Ugh, sends a shudder through me.

Out into the sunshine, the air suddenly cool by contrast with the pyramid's staleness.  Before rejoining the others, a quick look at the Persian tombs.  Locked again - with a padlock made in China....

I climb a dune, and am confronted by sands stretching away to the horizon.  In the far distance I can see the Bent Pyramid: I think of that day, thousands of years ago when there was a warning shout, then a huge explosion of dust and stone, when the pyramid at Meidum collapsed.  A messenger runs across to the chief supervisor at this other pyramid, tells him of the disaster, of the danger.  The latter calls a halt to the works, consults with his masons.  And this is the result, a testament to one of those great swerves in history, and an ever-present warning against hubris.

Turning back I see hieroglyphs on the outside of Unas' tomb: an Ancient Egyptian billboard.

To the House of the South - a smaller building east of the Stepped Pyramid.  This really is getting ridiculous: what we have come to see - what all tourists come here to gawp at - is graffiti left by other tourists.  Admittedly these are the first tourist graffiti in history, dating from around 1000 BC, and left by a group who had travelled up from Thebes - modern-day Luxor -  further up the Nile.  As well as saying the usual 'John was here', there are others extolling the beauties of the place - at least they had good taste - and saying what a fine man this Zozer must have been.  But it is amazing this urge to leave your mark, to colonise the past in this way.  It is as if by doing so we become as old and as rooted as the thing we scribble on.  But does that mean that these Thebans had any sense of us one day coming along to admire their marks?

A long trek across the dunes - good to get the feel of honest sand beneath your feet - to the mastaba of Ptah-hotep and Akhet-hotep, possibly his father.  Ptah was apparently a 'priest of Maat' - Maat being the goddess of balance, very important in those early turbulent days.  From the outside the long, low building is nothing to look at, but inside is a revelation.

The interior walls are covered with delicately carved reliefs, most of them still brilliantly coloured.  It is probably the nearest thing to family snaps we are ever likely to get from four and half thousand years ago.  The colours are so vivid - but surely damaged by the careless visitors pushing in and against them.  I can't help feeling that fairly soon it will all be shut off to protect it - another instance of this being the Golden Age of Tourism.  We should feel privileged that we can get so close to - touch, even, if we are selfish enough - these ancient masterpieces.  

Once again, I stay in here long after I have explained all the sights to the others - I've told them how to get to the refreshments tent, so I hope they don't get lost and end up as wind-whitened bones in some abandoned excavation pit somewhere.

No gods, no cartouches, that royal vanity which gave us the secret of its mysterious signs.  Even to my unpractised eyes I can see that the hieroglyphs here are early, lacking the easy, more conventional flow of later texts.

Passing through the slightly eerie pillared hall into first the vestibule and then Ptah's tomb chamber, the best room of all.  The musicians over the door: flute, singer, harpist, clapper.  A long low flute - and that silent music again.  Ptah undergoing a complete manicure and pedicure, huge feasts before him everywhere, everyone running around entertaining him - life's obviously been pretty much the same at the top for the last 5,000 years.  The ochres, greens, blues, blacks.  The details: the calf's birth, wrestling youths, acrobats, the simulated palm trunks of the ceiling.  Standing here, looking and looking and looking I feel as if it were all painted yesterday, that Ptah the priest might come in at any moment to inspect with a satisfied smile the lists of all his possessions.  Nowhere else has this tremendous sense of the past in the present - born of the unparalleled condition of so much that has come down to us, born of the perfection and vigour it offers us.

With the others in the refreshment tent.  I rather like it here.  It reminds me of something from school - athletics days? prize days? - lazy, hazy days of eternal summer, that dusty, slightly choking smell of canvas beaten by the sun, the cool sense of being inside.  Unfortunately the food is rather less impressive than I remembered, and we are reduced to eating curry-flavoured crisps washed down with Sport cola.  My group resign themselves to this with only the odd murmur.  I think they're too tired to argue.  They're just glad to sit down out of the heat.  I hope the old couple are going to be all right - they seem to be clinging to each other as if one or both are about to fall down.  I'll have to watch.  Nice view from the table at the edge of the tent, looking back across the mastaba to the Stepped Pyramid.

So a short walk from the resthouse to the totally weird Serapeum.  Lots of horses around, ready to be hired out to tourists, but business looks quiet.  Janet seems half-attracted to the idea, but when I ask whether she wants a quick spin around the site she says no.

Brilliant entrance, sinking down and down into the earth, into the cool and the dark.  Turning left and then left again leads to a dead-end and a huge bright puce sarcophagus - the first of the tombs.  That first pink granite sarcophagus looks vaguely ornamental; it is not threatening or frightening - not in the way that the others will be.  To reach them, you turn around and begin one of the oddest journeys in Egypt.  My party were visibly quailing the deeper we entered this set from a Hammer horror film.

The corridor is long - about 500 feet - and illuminated poorly, with only odd pools of light, some lamps missing, leading to long stretches of near darkness.  Your spirits are not helped by the huge but rickety scaffoldings erected to shore up what is obviously a deeply unsafe roof.  The air is disturbingly warm again.  A dead silence, except when somebody speaks - or one of the tunnel's birds twitters suddenly - strange to find them this far in - I wonder where they came from.

As you go deeper and deeper into this hall of madness, there are recesses alternating to the right and to the left.  In each of them is a huge sarcophagus, this time of the deepest black granite, looking like tombs for some giant race, long since vanished.  Moving closer you see crude hieroglyphics scratched in the beautiful stone - the Egyptians seem to have had a real feeling for stone, perhaps because of their early successes with it.  You see that the stone of the coffin is one foot thick, and that the massive lid is two feet thick - imagine the weight of these things.  But in fact these were not coffins for gods or giants, but for huge bulls, the bulls of the god Apis.

This was a kind of bastard cult, bringing together many different religious strands - Egyptian and Greek - in an attempt by the last Pharaohs - the Ptolemies - to unite their fragmenting nation of Greek and Egyptian speaking peoples.  To our eyes it defies any original logic, and seems instead just madness.  To bury one sacred bull, yes, perhaps, but more than twenty of them, each with its own colossal coffin?  The sheer effort involved in getting them to the end of this long tunnel - a tunnel which ends so abruptly, so unsatisfyingly, as if it should go on further and further under the sands....

Just how much of a struggle getting the sarcophagus down can been seen on the way back.  Taking the side passage you come across one of the huge coffins abandoned there, almost blocking the way.  There is no room for manoeuvre.  You feel that they must have used black magic, not human means.  And that is one of the worrying things about this place.  In its hugeness, the implicit power required to effect it, its audacity - and particularly with the bulls themselves - there is a feeling once again of plugging into something older, stronger than ourselves, something terribly pagan.  It is good to get out into the warm sun again.

To lift my spirits I have come to Teti's pyramid.  Visually this is not so impressive as the interior of the pyramid of Unas because apart from the beautiful pale blue ceiling with its five-pointed stars, the wall-paintings are very damaged.  However what has survived is one of the most poignant of the early Egyptian texts.  I have just read it out to everyone and they seemed genuinely moved.  In fact I like it so much that I think I'll copy out from Lichtheim now as a reminder to use it in The Book:

'O great strider/who sows greenstone, malachite, turquoise - stars!/As you are green so may Teti be green,/Green as a living reed!'

I sit here with these words in my head, in my mouth, and in my eyes, stars! above me.

I felt it pointless to write any more after that at the site, it seemed the perfect way to end.  So here I am now, back at the hotel, with an exhausted tour group, and pretty exhausted myself.

On the way back, as on the way out, we passed through Memphis, but didn't bother stopping.  Such an evocative name - though I keep on wanting to add 'Tennessee' after it, the modern site usurping the ancient one - so charged with history, yet such a disappointment in reality - a dusty lay-by on the road to Cairo.  A sphinx, a few stelae - all that's left of what was once the capital of that first great king of Egypt, Narmer.  Except of course for the ultimate insult - poor old Ramses II, a huge prostrate form lying flat on his back, the weakest position.  Massive  - and impotent.  He can't even see Memphis.  Typically, he is covered - shoulders, chest, girdle, wrists, the sticks in his hands - with his cartouche, like labels on an enormous parcel left in lost property.  In fact he was indeed abandoned: apparently the Egyptian government gave him to the British Museum who couldn't be bothered taking him away.  I prefer to remember Ram in some of his more glorious forms.  My other memory of Memphis is of being offered some tourist souvenir by a hawker there with the memorable words 'real papyrus - no bananas!'.

The journey back to Cairo long and hot - the sun burning my neck - I just know I'll get sunburn - the same tape of wailing Arab music played endlessly.  As soon as we got to the centre of Cairo, the traffic coagulated, barely moving.  Ramses Square outside the station particularly bad - traffic coming from everywhere, everybody working on the 'Just Me More' principle that one more won't hurt however small the space, or however much it will add to the gridlock.  I see there one of the saddest sights on this earth: a traffic policeman with his thick chequered sleeves vainly attempting to control this lot, and being ignored - or even mocked - for his pains.  What a job - even worse than mine back home.  But what will Cairo be like in a few year's time?  Terminal gridlock from dusk to dawn.  Finally back to hotel where everyone collapses and I grab a much needed coffee and biscuits down in the cafe - and write this.  One thing I must add: the whole site of Saqqarah cost but E£3 per person - about 75p.  Surely the best value on this planet...?

After coffee and before dinner, three of us - the Greek and the Blue Stocking - go out for an evening stroll - the others seem to need more rest - tomorrow is another early rise.  We go out to Al-Azbakiyyah Garden which, inevitably, is closed.  The others seem fairly quiet, not really saying much.  We pass by the busy stalls - clothes, shoes, music cassettes, books.  We watch the sunset, picturesque in its colours, my mood shaped by the evening bustle around me - something I have always found melancholy, perhaps from memories of coming home from school in winter through the market in Huddersfield, so lively, the air so cold.

Then back to the hotel, and out to the usual Felfela - full, so once round the block to listen to the crazy clock near Groppi's which insists on playing the chimes of Big Ben horribly amplified through a ropey speaker before it strikes, then back to the restaurant where they have a table for us.  Everyone really pleased - it's amazing how quickly you can establish a routine in foreign parts, a sense of a place being 'yours' that you return with relief as if to home.  Felfela is definitely 'ours' - everyone seems to feel it, which is good.  The menu, the waiters, the cats, the turtles, the buzz - they are all part of our happy family.

Now waiting for the crowning moment of Om Ali - all this and the Great Pyramids to come...!

Egyptian Romance - list of chapters

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