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

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