Journal: Sunday 23 January 2011
We woke in our Ramla apartment to a beautiful Luxor morning, the River Nile sparkling in the early morning sunlight just beyond our little garden. Fiona, Malcolm and I decided to go for a walk and have breakfast in the little café down the lane on the river bank. Very quickly a wonderful breakfast was produced – orange juice, coffee, rolls with butter and fig jam, omelettes – what more could we ask.
As we ate, we sat and watched the nearby activity. Camels were lazing on the banks waiting for their daily quota of tourists, at which time they would stumble up to amble along the bank at their own slow pace, accompanied by boys whose job it was to lead the laden animals a couple of kilometres along the track and back again. Next to us some men had laid out a huge felucca sail and were busy repairing small tears. All was peaceful.
I suggested we cross the river and take a walk along Sphinx Avenue to see how the excavation was coming along. Fiona and Malcolm were keen to do this and we crossed the river on the ferry, going up to the upper deck to get a good view of the river traffic. I love approaching Luxor by river, with the pylon and columns of Luxor Temple getting ever nearer and the whole stately expanse of the Old Winter Palace gleaming ochre in the sunlight. In just a few minutes it was time for the scramble to get off.
We walked along by the temple and around the corner onto Sharia el-Karnak, the road that leads all the way to Karnak Temple and the route that the avenue of sphinxes follows. I had walked along this route last January and was appalled by how much destruction of shops and homes there was, but first we stopped to look into the block field behind the temple that is now very well organized. I remember a few years ago when it was just a jumbled heap of stones. The Roman remains at the back of the temple have been extended too.
Luxor has been ‘prettified’ in recent years, all in the name of tourism and as we began our trail at the new entrance to the temple in the big empty paved plaza, I wasn’t sure that I like the so-called improvements. Nectanebo I of Dynasty XXX constructed his processional avenue of sphinxes on top of an older route which was used at certain periods to carry the sacred barque of Amun from the Karnak Temples to Luxor Temple at festival times . An inscription of Nectanebo reads “I have built a beautiful road for my father Amun-Re surrounded by walls and decorated with flowers for the journey to the temple of Luxor”. Another inscription bears a cartouche for Queen Cleopatra, possibly to mark a visit by the queen to Luxor. Was she the first ‘tourist?’
We followed the sphinxes from the temple pylon, more paving work has been done here and this part of the row has been extended and further cleared. I remembered the lovely old mosque, a landmark that used to be here, now gone. We stood on the road that at present still crosses the avenue and looked along the line of sphinxes towards Luxor Temple and then looked to the other side of the road, which is still a demolition site. Nothing much seems to have been done here in the past year and mounds of rubbish have collected in the sandy trenches, though big diggers look busy today. I noticed a man who looked like he was in charge, sitting beneath a sun shade dangerously close to the falling mounds of earth.
Further along past the big Christian church another section of paving began and this is where several new structures have been uncovered recently. Nearer the Airport Road and behind the modern Culture Centre a huge containing wall has been constructed and access points will allow visitors into certain parts of the avenue. Someone waved for us to come down into the avenue, but we preferred to continue walking along the outside to get an overall view.
On the other side of Airport Road a lot more clearance and paving work has been done. This area is near the villa we stayed in last year and where many houses were being demolished at that time. It has now been mostly cleared but it looks as though more houses will be torn down before very long. I only hope that the people who lose their homes will be properly compensated. We carried on along the road towards Karnak’s Khonsu Gate past the dog-leg that joins the avenue leading to the Temple of Mut. More excavation here too with a grid of mudbrick walls newly uncovered.
In front of the Khonsu Gate and behind the oldest of the sphinxes, we came upon a large curved excavation which I later found out is thought to be part of the original Nile embankment, increasing archaeological evidence that Karnak Temple, as depicted in reliefs, was indeed on the banks of the river. This was an exciting find.
We were all feeling hot and fairly tired by this point so we decided to walk around to the new entrance to Karnak Temple, which Fiona and Malcolm hadn’t yet seen – it was further than we thought! They too, as I was last year, were pretty amazed by the spectacle of a wide open plaza, modern tourist bazaar and new visitor centre built in front of Karnak’s first pylon since they were last here. I don’t think they were overly impressed, especially when we came to pay for the over-priced glass of fruit juice in one of the cafés. I guess that’s progress. We also went into the visitor centre that can be accessed without paying for a temple ticket. There is a large wooden model of the Karnak Temples here now which is quite impressive. The things I liked most were the old black and white and sepia photographs of temple excavation that line the walls, and a little train built in 1934 and used by Henri Chevrier in his Karnak excavations around that time.
After we left Karnak we decided to walk the quickest route back to the ferry – not an easy task because we had forgotten that part of the Corniche was closed to all traffic, with barriers across its northern end. We had to take a long detour, back to Sharia el-Karnak and down onto the Corniche near the Etap Mercure Hotel and I was quite shocked to see a whole stretch of the Corniche torn up.
Back at the apartment we went up onto the roof to watch the sun setting over the Theban Hills on this, our last evening in Luxor. As the sun went down I could see farmers and their wives and children on their way home from the fields, everything was bathed in a warm golden light which slowly turned a vivid deep red before darkness descended.
Later in the evening Fiona, Malcolm, Sam, Abdul and I had a farewell meal at the Italian restaurant in the Iberotel (the old Novotel). The Iberotel, despite it’s name-change a few years ago, hasn’t changed much at all I’m happy to say, apart from the price of its rooms. This has always been my favourite Luxor hotel. We sat on the terrace in the gardens long into the evening listening to the familiar noises from the town and the river. Tomorrow we fly back to England.