Wednesday 23 September 2020

Chapter 7 - Luxor - the West Bank

The Nile is the main artery of Egypt, pumping its life-giving water to the towns and villages which huddle along its sides.  But it is also like the cut of a knife on the map, dividing the land from the delta to the depths of Africa.

The Nile's unswerving south-north passage heightened a perception the Ancient Egyptians already had of the difference between the east and the west.  The west for them was inextricably linked with idea of the setting sun, and hence death.  The long line of pyramids, all to the west of the Nile, began the tradition; the West Bank of Luxor is its culmination.

Although the graves, temples and mortuary complexes all speak obsessively of death, they do so in the most affirmative way.  For the Egyptians, they promised resurrection; for us they offer one of the greatest and most uplifting artistic experiences.

The astonishing concentration of royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings can be attributed to a number of factors.  First, from the establishment of Thebes as the undisputed capital of Egypt naturally grew a desire to be buried nearby.  Secondly, the widespread robbing of the pyramids and other visible tombs led to the use of hidden ones.  And thirdly, the limestone hills to the west of Thebes provided perfect material for the construction of deep and many-chambered tombs - strong enough to endure but easy to cut.

The result is a total of some sixty tombs, originally guarding the remains of all of the greatest kings from the height of Egypt's empire.  Despite their builders' best efforts, and the various tricks used to mislead potential thieves, the tombs were soon found by grave-robbers - some shortly after their construction.  As a result, the mummies of the greatest pharaohs were removed during this epoch to another hiding place, though far less glorious than the carefully carved tombs.  Fortunately for the modern archaeologist, these caches of kings - dumped somewhat unceremoniously in simple pits - escaped the further attention of the thieves, and have been discovered only in recent times.  Among those whose eternal rest was so rudely disturbed was the greatest pharaoh of them all, Ramses II.

There was, of course, one exception to this sad record of depredation: the tomb of Tutankhamun, found positioned slightly oddly under that of Ramses VI - which is probably why it was never discovered by the robbers.  Its tiny, cramped rooms form an odd contrast to the immense suites of chambers enjoyed by the great pharaohs.  But it does make us wonder at - and mourn for - the unimaginable quantities of treasure which have been lost from the latter.  Today the Valley of the Kings is a suitably bleak place, spurs running off hither and thither, with a warren of passages into the friable rock.  By noon the sun beats down upon it like a hammer on an anvil.

In addition to this principal cemetery, there are also two others worthy of note.  The Valley of the Queens, further to the south, has a number of similar graves, while the Tombs of the Nobles are interesting for the light they shed on less exalted personages.  Among the most beautiful of these is the Tomb of Nakht, royal astronomer, keeper of the king's vineyards and in charge of the granaries.  His wife was the chantress of the great god Amun.  Both are represented in his tomb, along with a famous relief of female musicians and dancing girls.

In addition to the hidden tombs, the pharaohs also built more visible monuments on the West Bank, temples where their name might be venerated for ever, and where offerings could be made for their souls.  One of the earliest of these is the unique mortuary complex of Queen Hatshepsut, herself one of the most extraordinary characters of a time not wanting in outstanding individuals.

Against all precedents, Hatshepsut declared herself Pharaoh - even down to the royal beard, and being the 'son' of Amun - and ruled jointly with her son, Tuthmosis III.  It was only at her death that he was able to assert his own power - which he did by creating the Egyptian Empire, almost as a demonstration of his independence.

At Hatshepsut's command, her architect Senenmut devised a temple built against the cliffs of the Theban hills in a stepped series of three colonnades with sweeping terraces which look down to the Nile and across to Thebes itself.

Perhaps inevitably, one of the grandest monuments on the West Bank is that of Ramses II.  His Ramesseum is now much ruined, but there remains sufficient for us to appreciate the grandeur of his vision.  Built with a series of pylons - the face of one depicting the Battle of Kadesh - the site is probably most famous for the fallen colossal statue of Ramses himself.  It was upon the arrival of the head of its twin at the British Museum that Shelley was moved to write his famous sonnet 'Ozymandias' - a Greek corruption of the original 'Usermare', one of Ramses II's names.  The lines 'My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:/Look on my works ye mighty and despair' are supposed by the poet to be written on the pedestal of the king's abandoned statue.

A better idea of the original glory of the Ramesseum can be obtained by visiting the Mortuary Temple of Rameses III nearby at Madinat Habu.  Based very largely on the design of his predecessor's temple, and borrowing extensively from its reliefs of victories over foreign enemies, this masterpiece of architecture is neither well-known nor much visited - which is strange, given its almost complete and perfect preservation.  Entering through its massive first pylon and gazing on the enormous series of inscriptions and reliefs - the most extensive that have come down to us - is to be confronted with the marvellous reality of the Egyptian achievement at the height of its glory.

On the way back, in contrast, the two so-called Colossi of Memnon are a salutary reminder of how much has been lost.  Originally part of a huge temple complex, like that of Ramses III, they are all that now remains - largely because of the theft by later Pharaohs of stone to build their own memorials.  During the Roman period one of the Colossi was famous for the high-pitched whistling noise it emitted, probably caused by the wind passing through cracks in the rock.  Sadly, a later restoration cured the statue of this habit.

Egyptian Romance - list of chapters

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