Tuesday 22 September 2020

Chapter 7 - Luxor, West Bank, Friday 24 February, 1990

Up at 5.30 am this morning - luckily they sensibly serve breakfast from 6 am here.  We've a lot to see today - and before the sun comes thundering down.  On the ferry - a cold, cold crossing - I can barely hold my pen.  Morning glorious: the Nile misty, the sky a clear, pale blue.

I really don't like doing it this way - the 'tourist' ferry, rather than the real, public one; along to get the tickets - what a fight - then to the coach to take us out to Hatshepsut.  As I see all these beloved landscapes go past me, my heart aches for what was, how I did it when I first came here on my own, for what was simply one of happiest times of my life, one of those rare peak experiences you know you'll never achieve again.

As today, I got up very early, then down to the public ferry - further south along the Corniche.  E£1 for the crossing.  A crossing with Egypt - people crammed in, with their fruit and vegetables, their chickens, their snivelling kids.  A man selling cakes in the middle of the covered area.  Battered old boat, as ancient as the monuments.  Then, when we get to the other side, everyone tried to jump off before landing - and everyone waiting to get on jumped on too.  Mayhem, but good fun.

Then, for the princely sum of E£8, I hired an equally rickety old bike.  The public ferry is quite a way south of the tourist ferry - where the ticket office is.  I encounter this ruck for the first time - and made the mistake of waiting my turn.  And so was promptly ignored and sniggered at by a chorus of loud and none too clean Egyptians who were buying tickets for their tours.  A great cavalcade of buses waiting for their human cargo.  But me, I was off on my bike again, cycling serenely through the dark green fields - everything seemed to grow so effortlessly here - praying that I didn't get knocked off by some clanking lorry as it stormed past.

Up to the cross-roads where the road goes over the canal and the railway - a local line.  A small village, kids running everywhere, staring at the funny foreigner wobbling along on his bike in his funny hat.  Another long straight road, past the lonely Colossi of Memnon, then right along the main road, past the Ramesseum - which I left for the moment - and then on to the amazing and glorious Temple of Hatshepsut.

Where I sit now, with a couple of horrible tourist coaches - one of them ours - spoiling the view down to the Nile.  But that first time, when I came on bike, I took a crazy short-cut past a couple of villages.  It was like some moonscape: piles of stones and vertiginous holes everywhere, poor single-room dwellings.  I wondered whether my tyres would hold out.  Then it all began to hove into view: the huge yellow-grey curtain of rock.  Below, the strata of rocks clearly visible, then some rubble.  Then the tomb itself.

Even allowing for the fact that it has been restored, it still looks shockingly modern in design - it could easily have been yesterday that it was built, its lines are so clean.  What a stroke of genius, the use of the third dimension, the great stepped structure.  Though pyramids and temples necessarily are three dimensional, they do not play with that third dimension: it is merely a statistic - height - to impress peasants like us who come to gawp.  Hatshepsut, brilliant woman that she was, teases us with subtle variations in height, cumulatively leading our eyes to a climax.

The first colonnade - nice picture of Hatshepsut's obelisk that we saw yesterday being transported by boat - a big boat.  I still want to know how they got it to the boat....  Unexpectedly, but perhaps inevitably, the cheeky cartouche of old Ram, laying claim to everything as usual.

Up the ramp.  Nice to see on the right Anubis getting his own chapel for a change.  And - what!  I do not bloody believe it.  How can the moron do it?  These bloody Frogs.  What does he do, but goes up to this wall covered in coloured hieroglyphs, and starts to rub one of them, just to see whether the paint comes off.  When it doesn't, he licks his bloody finger and rubs harder until some does come off.  The bastard.  Four thousand years that endured, and then some nit tourist comes along and destroys.  This is one of the problems with Egypt: everything is so open, you can touch and destroy so easily.  And yet that is also its glory: it is not nannified, cocooned with museumitis.

I feel quite upset - and annoyed with myself for being too stunned to stop him.

Along to the temple of Hathor, the cow-faced goddess.  Such an old look, as it was on the Narmer tablet.  These ancient religious hangovers - worshipping animals.  

So, back in the coach, and once again we cheat, taking the boring tourist road round to the Valley of the Kings.  The memories come flooding back of how it was for me the first time I came here.

But before I write about that, some notes on the tombs themselves, in no particular order, as we visit them.

Ramses I: simple design, down steps into the ground, well-decorated.  I find Osiris, judge of the dead, his skin an eerie green/blue - the colour of death, wrapped up in a mummy's shrouds.  Most affecting.

Tuthmosis III: weird.  At the end of a long, high gully, deep in cold shadow, up steep, rickety steps - avoiding hordes of yabbering Italian schoolchildren, who obviously care nothing for all this stuff, and would rather be on a beach somewhere - why bring them then?  An amazing warren - and quite tricky to negotiate - hope my party are managing all right.  Narrow winding design.  In the antechamber - strange, rapidly drawn images - a list of hundreds of gods - just to be on the safe side, presumably.  Then more steps into the final burial chamber.  Total silence.  Again that sudden fear comes upon me: what am I doing here, deep inside a mountain, disturbing the last resting places of ancient kings?  More line drawings, rather than full-blown paintings.  Eerie.  Some of the text slants oddly.

Seti I.  One of the biggest, as befits the founder of the great Ramessid dynasty.  Beautiful bas reliefs and hieroglyphs - including rough sketches, still waiting for the chisel, a chisel that never came.  Why?  Did the carver die?  Was there a war?  Who knows what stories lie behind such apparently trivial facts?  An unknown mummy, dried to a crisp.  This white stone just begs to be carved - or touched.  It looks almost edible.  A worrying note in the Blue Guide about lack of ventilation.  It is certainly oppressively hot and fetid inside some of the innermost chambers of these tombs - again, think of the damage we are doing just being here.  One day, it must stop....  Outside, into the literally blinding sunshine - I cannot look at the dazzling rock around me.  Glancing back into the tomb - strange, this black maw of death.

Horemheb: not a name you meet much.  Unbelievable tomb: very long, and very, very, very deep.  Just down all the way.  What made them go along or down?  The kind of rock they met?  But this is seriously weird.  Great scene with Maat, the jackal-god Anubis, Hathor with the cow's head, falcon-headed Horus and a mummified Osiris.  On the other side, Osiris' sister and wife Isis - with a throne on her head for some reason.  But beautiful in her white dress stopping just below her breasts.  Very sensual, even here among the dead.

Amenhotep II: another deepy - 90 steps no less.  A number of royal mummies were found here - probably after their own tombs were robbed.  Sad end for all that greatness.

Ramses VI: one of the longest, and best decorated - and most crowded now.  Lots of very strange drawings on its walls - that occult stuff again.  Apparently they show how in death the soul becomes strong enough to be reborn.

Tutankhamun: a good one to finish with, just when everyone is dying of heat/thirst/tiredness.  Apart from the fact that we have to queue to get in.  And there is so little to see - such a footling king.  And ironically so important to us, and probably the best-known of them all.  That's history for you.

Now in the nearby rest-house.  Squat concrete building - but blissfully cool.  Looking out at the valley roasting in the midday sin - even though the air is still cold - I am blinded by the reflected light.

This is a strange place.  So much thought and energy - and unimaginable wealth - put into these zigzagging holes in the ground.  And inside them - real horror movie stuff: narrow corridors, bridges across deep pits, twisting turns, sudden drops.  The half-finished charms on the wall, the watching eyes of the gods, waiting to be discovered, or perhaps annoyed at being disturbed.

Unlike some other monuments the tombs feel frighteningly fresh and new - partly because they were hidden for thousands of years, like time capsules, and partly because there is no distracting, distancing modernity that you often find at other sites - except the odd light bulb.  If you stand here, within a hill, absent from the world, it seems just as likely that you will step out to find yourself transported back 3,000 years as to regain what we call the present - which, as every schoolboy knows, does not exist except as a hinge between what will be and what was.  Perhaps this feeling of uncertainty, this frisson, is bound up with the fact that they are tombs, not just rooms: their future inhabitants, before entering for the last time in death, could not be certain where - or if - they would emerge.  Religion might offer vague hopes, but no more.  So a tomb stands as a reminder to everyone - a warning, a threat....

Before we get on the coach for a deeply unsuitable exit from this place, I must just jot down some of my memories of the first time I came here.

I left my bike propped up against a wall by the parking area in front of Hatshepsut's temple.  I then took one of the well-worn paths - rather too well-worn for someone as unathletic as me - paths which led up the ridge behind the temple.  Over the ridge there was another track which led down to the valley here - about an hour's climb and descent.

On the way back, instead of descending immediately, I turned right, and walked along the ridge for a way.  At one of the points which command a stunning view over both the Valley of the Kings and of the Nile Valley, I sat down and drank it all in.  The warm afternoon sun poured down on me; the cooling wind refreshed me.  Behind was the lunar landscape, bare of vegetation, the Land of the Dead.  In front of me was the plain down to the Nile, with the great temples of Ramses II and III clearly visible - but looking like child's building bricks, the Colossi of Memnon mere dolls -  and the more recent villages which had sprung up among them.  Further away I could see the various roads leading to the ferries.  And beyond that the Nile, which stretched away like an enormous band in both directions for what - twenty, fifty miles?  The town of Luxor, the temples; and I remember that as I sat there, a tiny toy aeroplane landed at Luxor airport beyond the town, coming down in front of the chain of hills which echoed the ones I was sitting on.

And I thought then of how little changed this scene was in essentials from one that someone at the height of the Egyptian kingdom might have seen - from this very spot: the temples, complete, the town of Thebes, the mountains - and of course the Nile.  And I could imagine the Pharaoh Ramses II at his peak - his dark, powerful, body shining like polished metal from the thin veil of sweat brought on by the intense heat, by the pace of the march, by the memory of battle - returning with his army after a great conquest, a huge cloud of dust rising up behind them, moving over the plains in numbers almost unimaginable for the time - tens of thousands of men, the greatest army in the world, led by the greatest king alive.  And I would happily have swapped places with that person sitting here then, to have experienced that peak of history.

Because everywhere, it was a truly amazing time, as if something was abroad.  For example, it is highly likely that the pharaoh under whom Moses and the Jews suffered was Ramses II.  It is almost certain that the Fall of Troy took place at around this time - and indeed, the Egyptian records refer to some of those pesky Greeks turning up in the Nile delta on their way back.

And it was a true pivot in history, though none could have known it.  Those same Greeks, or rather various tribes of them, were marauding around the whole of this end of the Mediterranean.  The ancient civilisations of Egypt and the Sumerians and the Hittites would all be conquered in time by the newly powerful Assyrians - until they in their turn were defeated by the Medes, then the Persians, met and matched by Greeks at the Battle of Marathon - and finally conquered by Alexander the Great, who would also add Egypt to his huge if short-lived empire.  And this great and mighty Thebes, known to Homer, the wonder of the world, would fall into decay, abandoned to a few villagers, its monuments covered up with sand, or robbed for stone, or built over.  And yet enough survived that I could sit on that ridge and wonder at it all.

As I do now, sitting in the shade of the Ramesseum, next to the fallen man himself, Ramses II.  I cannot agree with Shelley's spiteful irony: apocryphal though the inscription was, had it been there we would indeed despair in looking at all these works, huge giants' works which have survived for three millennia.  The boast of Ramses - Usermare Sotpenre - Ozymandias - would not have been in vain.

It was to the Ramesseum that I went after I came down from the ridge that time.  During the descent the cliff wall behind Hatshepsut's tomb was clearly visible: it looked like a curtain with folds, frozen in stone.  I could also pick out what seemed to be countless squirming figures struggling to emerge.  I remember the bicycle ride from the Queen's mortuary complex along to the Ramesseum as a ride from hell, grit in my eyes, grit in my mouth, tears streaming down my face, unable to see anything.  I can still feel the grit in my eyes.

But the sights at the Ramesseum were worth it - in retrospect.  That Battle of Kadesh, together with another, the story of Dapur.  These scenes of walled cities being stormed: this must have been a very disturbing idea for the ancients.  Cities were, after all, still quite a recent invention, certainly these huge fortified ones.  They must have seemed impregnable - until someone like Ram came along and took them.  Then a new fear must have entered the hearts of the city-dwellers, a new sense of insecurity, a feeling that civilisation - literally born of the civil, the city - was something fragile and easily lost back to chaos.  

Apparently the two colossal statues of Ram would have weighed about 1000 tons originally: how did they move them?  I mean, how would we move anything that big and bulky today?

Nice with the vegetation growing amidst the ruins - junipers? - looks quite English-like.  Delicate fragrance.  I am sitting by the throne that the Italian Belzoni inscribed with his name and the date - 1816 - one of the earlier excavators-cum-tourists.  I really like the Ramesseum.  For all its attempted grandeur, it has paradoxically a very personal feel about it, all those cartouches of Ram.  And the scale of everything fits.  The papyrus columns are elegant, as are the pillars.  Good to see the hypostyle hall covered, as it would have been at Karnak.  And the setting helps, with the natural amphitheatre of the hills behind.  Interesting mud-brick structures behind, crumbling even as we walk through it, as we touch it and break bits off - why do we feel this urge? - a reminder of how much we have lost that was built in this material.

On previous occasions I visited the Tombs of the Nobles, and the Valley of the Queens, but we don't have the time today.  Pity, because the situation of the Nobles' tombs is striking.  To get to them, you go through the village of Abd al Qurnah - a poor dry place, with squat houses higgledy-piggledy.  And then the fun begins as you try to find the tombs - because many of the houses are built over them.  And the entrances to the tombs are little more than a small quarry-type pit, a door and then a plunge into darkness.  They are like smaller - often very small - and more intimate versions of the royal tombs.  My favourite still remains that of Nakht and his wife, with the stunning and mouth-watering painting of the beautiful girl musicians and dancers.  I was a little startled to see this image in our hotel bedroom - on the curtains.  But it does make you wonder what the everyday reality of life in Ancient Egypt was like - rather than for the kings and queens.  A good view, I remember, from the top of the village.  But hard work clambering around.

And so now to the end of our day, and to one of the most amazing masterpieces of the West Bank - but I am getting tired writing here, and there is too much to tell people.  Later, on the terrace - with that Turkish coffee.

Which by magic, I now have in front of me - oh! the power of words.  So here I am, sitting in my accustomed seat, watching the sun sink down again - and hoping for a better sunset than yesterday.  It is amazing how quickly we fall into set habits when travelling abroad.  As soon as we stop in one place for a few days, we establish our routines as an army might set up a camp.  We return to those routines eagerly, and feel secure with them - and are annoyed if they are disrupted.  I suppose what we are trying to do is establish a little island of security amidst an ocean of uncertainty - for that is what travel is normally about, confronting - and often trying to tame - the new and the threatening.  Which is also why people like going on tours - the company and the guide act as an insulating factor around the tourists, sealing off the foreignness, or at least only letting it past the gates in controlled and manageable quantities.

So, to this afternoon.  [The sun has turned a glorious gold - Re is on his way down.]  After the Ramesseum, we went along to the temple of Rameses III at Madinat Habu.  This seems to be one of Egypt's better-kept secrets.  Although it has everything that the Ramesseum has, and is complete, rather than in a ruinous condition, and in its sheer extent is on a par with the Great Pyramids, most tourists miss it out - which is bliss for me and my groups, since we generally have the place to ourselves.

But it does pose a bit of problem for me when I write 'Egyptian Romance'.  Since it is one of the most fascinating places in Egypt, I must write about it - particularly because other writers have failed to trumpet it enough.  But if I do write about it, it will just become another tourist trap - and lose much of its attraction.  This is the paradox of all travel writing: we want to describe places that retain a unique, unspoilt beauty - and in doing so, we destroy that beauty, and the whole point of writing about them.  In that sense, it is like tourism generally: we want to go to places which are different from where we are, and which do not have all the same people we meet every day, who are just like us.  And yet when we get there, we inevitably change the place we visit just by virtue of visiting it.  And who do we find there but hordes of other tourists - people just like us and those we know at home.  Perhaps the only people who can win in this situation are those that get there early enough to write about it before it is spoilt - and who move on insouciantly to new conquests as it becomes spoilt as a result of their descriptions.  Sounds a bit unsatisfactory to me. [Fragrances in the air, the birds' dusk chorus.]

The approach to the temple of Ram III is a bit deceptive: you go through this undistinguished-looking gate - actually ancient and architecturally interesting for its crenellations which were copied from some Asiatic fortress - walk on a bit - and 'pow!' - it hits you.  This amazing giant pylon, in perfect condition, about 60 feet high and 200 feet long.  It is covered with an immense representation of Ram III with Amun slaying sundry foreigners.  Unlike Ram II and his beloved Battle of Kadesh, the images here are a bit of a sham: Ram III never really fought any big battles himself - but by now the mythology of the pharaoh as hero was fixed.  [Liquid yellow now].

Stepping through the first pylon, you enter a court, again in almost perfect condition.  More depictions of sundry bloodthirsty deeds - including an extraordinary one of priests tallying up the number of enemies' willies they had in a mound.  Very odd - and disturbing: it makes me want to walk past it with my legs crossed.  There is so much colour left in this court, it is hard to remember that it is over 3,000 years old.  [An orange tincture now - and in the after-image of looking at the sun, I have a hundred swirling Re's in my eye.]

Up a ramp through to the next court, apparently smaller but actually bigger in area - the extra columns crowd in to deceive.  Up another ramp into the hypostyle hall - unfortunately open to the skies and much damaged.  A few rooms at the back - but all looking a bit unimpressive because of the missing hypostyle hall.  The outer walls covered with hieroglyphics - the longest inscription we have, apparently.  Also interesting are some strange deep gougings visible: the temple was such a holy place that dust scraped from its stones was regarded as efficacious against many ills.  The faithful came here and wore away the stones - just like tourists, really.  [The mountains of the West Bank have turned to some incredible chocolate flake confection - I'm sorry, but they have.]

Then after this rousing finale, a quick glance at the disappointing Colossi of Memnon - one of which is wrapped up in plastic as if for Christmas.  To the ferry, and then back to here. [The first pinks in the air, the birds going nuts.]

Rather different from the first time I visited Ram III.  It was of course, totally awe-inspiring - I was just so unprepared - it was as it must have been for the original archaeologists.  I rode my bike back, the sun sinking behind me, casting long shadows everywhere.  To the public ferry, where hordes were waiting to jump on.  A few other westerners whom I ignored.  [Perhaps peach-coloured now.]

The ferry came, and we got on - some quicker than others.  Once we had all clambered aboard I saw this girl sitting opposite me with a friend.  She had blood all down her - and great dusty gashes on her arm and leg.  A bright red patch ran down her calf.  I presume she must have taken a corner too fast on a bike - the gravelly roads are treacherous here - come off, and slid along on the sandpaper-like surface.  But the thing was, I felt incredibly impotent in the face of her injuries.  What should I have done?  Going up to her and asking if she was all right was plainly daft; what help could I have given her?  So I decided that it would be best not to trouble her - she was with someone who was obviously taking care of her.  A trivial incident, perhaps, and yet the memory of the look of pain on her face, of the dried blood darkening on her leg, has stayed with me.  I don't really know why.  [Re is slipping behind the hills, changing boats for his nightly voyage - as Thoth? - it's all so confusing.]

And here we are, the past catching up with the present - today's past, that is.  [Red leaking out along the horizon, a tiny, unlookable-at segment still above the hills.]

I hope that bloody hotel is all right in Aswan tomorrow - I still haven't got through.  [Feluccas serene on the Nile, a falcon hovering - Horus the god.]

The coffee was good.  [Re dead now, the darkness descends even as I sit here.  Chilly.]

Egyptian Romance - list of chapters

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