Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Chapter 9 - Aswan airport, Sunday 26 February, 1990

Barely slept at all last night.  A bloody band playing deafening Arabic rock music until God knows when in the hall thing next door to our hotel.  It looked like some kind of wedding - I noticed that even here the men and the women were not only separated but even cordoned off.  So bloody primitive.

Anyway, able to lie in a little in the morning - our flight isn't until later.  But I'm a bit worried about getting back in time for our train to Cairo this evening.  These Egyptian timetables for planes are hardly reliable at the best of times.

I'm sitting now in the hard shade of the cafe in front of the airport.  Needless to say we got here far too early.  I'd rationalise it by saying that we needed to get here to ensure we got good seats - but for the fact that they don't allocate seats, so it's just one big fight when you get on.

It's good to be in the shade though - sun already hot as we drove out here past a forest of pylons carrying electricity from the dam striding away into the heat-shimmered distance.  God knows what it is going to be like at Abu Simbel.  I recall from when I was last there that the sun came down like boiling oil.  And with my fair skin....

Today's flight is an 'optional' - but of course everybody always takes the optionals, no matter how much they cost.  After all, if you've staggered out to some place thousands of miles from home, it'd be stupid not to seize every opportunity open to you.  I think I shall frame this as

The First Law of Tourism:

The cost on the ground of something is in direct proportion to the distance, time and effort expended to get to the place where it is sold.

For example, at home, we can take or leave things because we know we can come back; in Paris, we probably put up with a slight premium because of the hassle of getting there; a thousand miles up the Nile, we pay practically anything, since we may never return.

Hm, another one:

The Second Law of Tourism:

The amount of experience each day holds is in inverse proportion to the length of the holiday.

That is, if you spend only seven days in Egypt you pack a lot in; stay for seven months, and you pack even more in, but not 30 times more - you start to relax, take days off.  Perhaps the ultimate would be to glimpse a country for an infinitely intense instant.

And since laws always seem to go in threes - 

The Third Law of Tourism:

The real distance of a newly-visited place from home is measured not in miles, or even hours, but in the amount of discomfort endured to get there.

The word 'travel' comes from 'travail', that is, 'suffering'.  Originally all travel was travail - imagine what it was like for the first visitors to Egypt, suffering from diseases and hostile natives.  Recently it has become too easy: people have little sense of travelling.  

Travelling with organised tours represents the height of this painlessness, where someone - muggins here - takes all the pain out of it.  But the pain is the point.  My most intense memories of travelling in Egypt are when things go wrong - when trains are late and I miss connections, taxis break down, hotels are full, when I can't make people understand what I want.  Then I suddenly realise that I am a long way from home, that things could go really wrong - that I might die, even.  And it all becomes much more intense.  Like on that ride round the pyramids - perhaps my most profound travelling experience - I was certainly conscious of how far from Huddersfield I was then.

I suppose, come to think of it, that we live in the Golden Age of Tourism.  For now we can travel more or less anywhere - even places like Albania, Tibet, Mongolia: if you've got the money, you can get there.  But at the same time, there are still regions - these and one or two others - where the tourists are few and far between, where there is something to see other than fellow tourists - as I said above somewhere, before the tourists have destroyed what they came to see.  In a few years, decades, whatever, it will be even easier to travel - too easy in fact, and this sense of specialness of place will be lost.  Everywhere you go people will speak English, take credit cards, and offer you Coca Cola.  We will live in one big homogeneous world.  Finally there will be no new experiences to win, no new worlds to conquer.  And when that happens we will all go mad.  I know I will.  Or perhaps we will retreat into the past, or fantasy or whatever.

Be that as it may, it's my backside that must travel now - time to join the melee inside waiting for the doors to open so we can charge on to the plane.  Last time I went we were an hour late - an hour literally standing around.  Not this time, please God.

No, God was kind to us: no waiting, and some good seats on the plane - which I felt duty-bound to give to the others - Janet had one, the Blue Stocking the other.  The couple don't like flying apparently, and sat holding hands with their eyes closed for the whole flight.  The Greek between Janet and me.  Strange little terminal the other end, a simple room with various posters - almost as if it didn't know why it was there.  Outside to the waiting bus - laid on by Egyptian Airlines - where I now sit.  The sun is utterly scorching, even through the window.  Little around us.  

Why do I feel suddenly apprehensive - and yet I felt so good at the airport?  Was it Janet's comment as we came in to land?  I hope the sight of Ram will cheer me up.

A short walk from the coach-park, past the great swelling like a boil on the landscape, then round to the wonderful temples.  Since time is relatively short, to Nefertari for a quick look first, then on to Ram.

A striking facade with the striding statues of Ram and Nef - four for him and two for her.  Children beside them.  Talking of which, I cannot reconcile myself to the fact that Ram married his own daughter, definitely once, probably twice - to Bent-anat and Meritamon.  Not to mention his own sister, Hentmire.  I can just about cope with the latter - it seems to have been quite common among the pharaohs, and has a certain logic to it - keeping the power in the family, not weakening the line - although of course that is precisely what it did genetically - but his own daughters?  Is this what men do when they become gods?  Or was Ram just some pervert who exploited his unassailable power to do anything and everything?  He certainly seems to have been sexually insatiable, what with dozens of wives and concubines, and over a hundred known kids.  I must confess it is something that I have trouble squaring with my image of him as the great warrior king.  Perhaps this is just a failure of historical imagination on my part, a question of cultural relativism.

Inside Nefertari's temple, some nice Hathor heads on the pillars - such an enduring image, from Narmer's palette, through here to the Ptolemaic stuff at Denderah and elsewhere, an unchanging motif, a tradition, extending over 3000 years that we know of - and how much further back than that?  And that inevitable corollary: who was it, what man, where, first shaped it, first had the idea to use it?  Because he did most certainly exist....  Otherwise not much in the temple.  So on to the main attraction - and the only reason, apart from my group, of course, why I find myself in quite the hottest, sunniest place I have ever been.  What on earth drove the Egyptians to colonise this God-forsaken waste?

Anyway, what a stroke of genius, to carve out of the hillside the statues and the temple like this.  And the effort that must have gone into building this place, hundreds of miles from anywhere, just as a demonstration to the locals of the bloody-mindedness of the great pharaoh and his mighty people who could remake even the mountains.  The four great statues like guardians at the gate of the Empire, their huge chunky legs like those of an athlete, the calmness of the arms placed confidently on the knees.  And are those smiles on the faces?

The wives and daughters and sons crowding around the feet, dwarfed by them - but still far bigger than us.  The row of baboons along the top - one of Thoth's mascots.  But perhaps most striking aspect close-up is the extent to which the whole thing is covered in graffiti, some of it old, some modern, some small, some giant.  Unfortunately it looks as if somebody had spray-painted the whole thing, as if it were some faceless wall in a run-down part of London.  Somehow it detracts from the majesty of the thing.  The Hittite marriage stela practically indecipherable.

Still, the inside is powerful - especially the columns carved with the form of the king wearing a kilt.  Lively scenes of Ram attacking a Syrian fort - reminds you how far he travelled to extend his kingdom, and how far it is from here - deep inside Africa, up to the Asia.  I notice for the first time that the Syrians are shown as bearded - whereas the Egyptians never are - apart from the symbolic beard worn by all pharaohs - even Hatshepsut.  And come to think of it, I can't recall seeing any bearded modern Egyptians - is it something genetic?

Interesting side chambers.  Crudely lit - so they suddenly feel very old, unlike much in Egypt which is simply too well-preserved and well-presented.  That touristic perversity again, the desire for old things to look really old, that sentimental obsession with ruins....

The inner sanctum rather dull - typical that we miss by only a few days one of the twice-yearly times that the sun pours into here at dawn.  Not that we could get here at dawn.

And so to Kadesh - disconcertingly reversed from the others.  For once I can get really close to it, see it properly.  And I have brought Lichtheim with me so that I can actually read the poem with it in front of me.  What a privilege.  And that we know so much about an event which happened three thousand years ago.

I always find it hard to remember that things such as this poem were written by somebody.  That one day, doubtless at the king's command, the royal poet sat down with pen and ink and perhaps a few pieces of broken pot, and started writing down the first heroic poem of war ever written.  How did he start?  What was he thinking when he wrote it?  What did it mean to him?  Was he there at the battle?  If not, whom did he ask to find out?  And the miracle of creation: where do the words - these particular words and no others - come from?  Were they corrected by someone, improved by fellow scribes - or was this the first and only attempt at the poem?

I find it hard to remember that it was written, but part of the miracle of survival of this poem - there are eight full or partial copies of it in existence currently, and perhaps more will be discovered with time, Egypt is still so rich with its buried treasure - is that we actually have the names of the scribes involved, the Chief Archivist of the Royal Treasury, Amenemone, and the Scribe of the Royal Treasury, Amenemwia - and someone else whose name, by contrast and by some misfortune, has not come down to us, and so has been cheated of his immortality.  Poor him.

So we have these words, and the images of the king amidst a riot of enemy troops, and the town of Kadesh itself - but what was it like that day, sometime in the summer of 1300 BC, when the king nearly fell into that trap set by the Hittites, when he and his men battled their way out?  If I simply say or write that date '1300 BC' I feel a chill descend: how can I know anything of so long ago?  I feel a chill descend because I feel small in my life when measured against this immense span, I feel small and frightened because I have doubts about the success even of Ramses II, the greatest king who lived, in his struggle for immortality, his struggle for survival down through the ages.

That doubt has been growing within me as we have ascended the Nile.  It suddenly reared its head when Janet pointed out this temple from the air.  'Look!' she said, 'it's like a jelly mould in the desert' - referring to the artificial hill built up around the translated temple.  And ' - or a sand castle made by a child, with a some dolls leaning against it.'  And I suddenly saw the scene through her eyes, and she was right.  It was folly to move the temple, to construct this tourist make-believe.  Better for it to have drowned beneath the waters.  But even that would have been no solution.  Because from the moment it was built, the temple was a folly, a monument to the imperial madness of Ramses - which was itself a sham.  Ramses did not win the Battle of Kadesh, he merely survived it after blundering into a trap.  What he has won is the propaganda war about it, because his monuments have survived, whereas we have practically nothing from the Hittite's side.  History is written by the victors, they say: but to be more exact, it is victory that is written by history....

So, in that sense Ram was not such a fool.  His obsession with monuments, with inscriptions - it is almost as if he knew that the only thing that counts is history, and history is what survives.  All the huge empires, wonderful poems, great buildings that have been lost since time began, no matter how great or awe-inspiring - they are nothing, simply because we know nothing of them.  And that is why the remains of Ancient Egypt are so great - because there are so many of them, because the words were written in stone, that most enduring of media.

So, enough of this, back to the coach. A final glance across the waters of Lake Nasser, stretching away into the heart of Africa.  Weird.

Sitting in the coach once more, I try not to see the daft mound of stones and rubble that was built over the carved up temple.  I have more practical matters to attend to - like the train we must catch this afternoon.  And I'm feeling tired through not sleeping last night.  I think I may sleep on the plane.  Perhaps I'll feel better tomorrow after our journey back to Cairo on the luxurious train, back to the cool verdant, north away from all this wretched heat and emptiness.  Perhaps.

Egyptian Romance - list of chapters

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Egyptian Romance

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