Journal: Saturday 9 December 1995
My first Egyptian dawn brought a view of the River Nile through the cabin’s open curtains, a flat calm expanse of jade water from which graceful white birds rose and soared through the mist, landing again on loose clumps of water hyacinths floating by. I later discovered that the birds were egrets, ubiquitous along the Nile and suggestive of the ibis, sacred to the ancient Egyptians who identified the bird with Thoth, the jackal-headed god of writing. On that first morning we had an early start, to be bussed back to Luxor on the same road we had taken the previous evening but where now small groups of children made their way to school and donkey carts or bicycle carts piled high with fresh produce made their way to market; all Egypt seemed to be out and about and determined to create an atmosphere of sheer chaos. It seemed to me that there were no rules laid down for drivers apart from the incessant use of the horn as the coach swerved around donkeys, goats and cows and hurtled down whichever side of the road was vacant.
Our first stop was Karnak Temple on the northern edge of Luxor town. Probably the most well-known of Egyptian monuments in the south and the largest temple complex in the world, Karnak covers an area of 100 hectares where much restoration has taken place during the last century and is still going on today. I had seen old black and white photographs of this temple taken when it was still a ruin, fallen columns lying in situ surrounded by great mounds of rubble and sand, but what a difference now. In ancient times, Karnak was known as Ipet-isut, ‘the most select of places’ and the town of Luxor, known by the Greek name of Thebes, was called Waset. I was awestruck at the colossal size of gateways and columns as our guide, Salah, took us on a tour of the monument, waiting for us to settle down and listen while he explained in his quiet and sensitive way, the meanings of walls populated by strangely drawn figures and magical picture-scripts of animals, birds and plants representing the whole of man’s natural environment. The colourful histories of kings long dead is recorded in deep relief on the warm stones. At that time I knew nothing about ancient Egypt apart from the little I had read as a child and more recently read (but hadn’t yet absorbed) from guidebooks. My whole being as I walked around those vast halls in a daze, felt like a limb which had gone to sleep, waiting to be reawakened in another era way back in time. It was here within the giant edifice of Karnak on my first day in Egypt that I realised that this was to be no ordinary holiday but that something inexplicable was happening to me which was to change my life. I was struck by a thirst for knowledge which even now is unquenchable and I knew I would have learn much more about this amazing ancient land.
Around four thousand years ago, during Dynasty XIII, local rulers built a shrine to their god on a mound in the centre of what is now called the Temple of Amun at Karnak. With every successive pharaoh the temple was enlarged, each king writing his name on the massive stones to be remembered throughout history, each king striving to emulate and surpass his predecessor with his grand designs. Without their forethought we would have little knowledge of their religion and exploits today. Egyptian temples were mostly built to an established plan with the most sacred part, the ‘Holy of Holies’ the shrine housing the cult statue in which the god resided, deep at its centre. The main part of this temple was dedicated to the Theban Triad of the god Amun, his consort Mut and Khonsu their child, a holy trinity which predated Christianity by more than fifteen hundred years. Over time new sanctuaries were constructed at Karnak and the temple grew outwards on an east-west axis and later a north-south axis. New kings added vast halls with gigantic warm brown sandstone columns carved in the form of papyrus plants, an emblem of ancient Egypt said to represent the swamp from which all life stemmed. New Kingdom rulers called Amenhotep, Tuthmose and the fascinating Queen Hatshepsut, Rameses and Seti, whose funerary temples lay on the other side of the Nile, were newly introduced characters in a play I would eventually become much more familiar with. Everywhere there were royal statues and obelisks and the whole structure, we were told, would have once been painted in an array of the bright gaudy colours still much admired by modern Egyptians. Karnak can be a confusing place, its buildings were the work of many rulers and its construction continued for over a thousand years. Most visitors on guided tours have only a very short time to gaze in wonder at the temple and come away with little idea of the complex as a whole. My first visit was no exception and although I could appreciate the grandeur and vastness of the place which so affected me, I took in very little detail of its history. One of my main interests is photography and I looked upon this trip to Egypt as a great ‘photo-opportunity’. But on that first visit to Karnak I didn’t take a single picture while other tourist’s cameras were whirring and flashing all around me among the massive columns. I knew I would be back.
Our next port of call, in the centre of Luxor south of the great Karnak Temple, was another temple dedicated to Amun, anciently known as Ipet-resyt, the ‘Southern Opet’. Luxor Temple, with its regal sun-bleached colonnades, open courts and massive statuary that forever guards an imposing Pylon, was built on the site of a shrine of Queen Hatshepsut, or perhaps an even earlier structure and enlarged by Amenhotep III and successive New Kingdom rulers including the exuberant Rameses the Great. Joined to Karnak by a long processional way, the remains of an avenue of sphinxes still point out the route. Here I began to learn about re-used blocks, from structures which were destroyed and rebuilt by later generations. Here also kings and gods lived out their exploits on the walls of the temple and Tutankhamun featured the Opet festival in stunningly fine detail. Opet was an important religious festival when the image of the god Amun sailed downriver from Karnak (or was taken overland during some periods) to be reunited with his consort Mut at Luxor Temple and to take part in a secret ritual within the heart of the temple. Amid the jubilations and drunken reveries of festival crowds encouraged by the priests, the god was reinvigorated and honoured and through the rituals the king’s reign was also strengthened. Here in a court at the head of Amenhotep III’s graceful colonnade, the pillars had been taken down and were in the process of reconstruction. In 1989 a superb cache of statuary had been found beneath the court’s foundations, statues I would later see in Luxor museum. During Roman times parts of the temple were used as a Christian church and remains of Roman military barracks can be seen surrounding the buildings. Perched incongruously high above the temple walls is a mosque dedicated to the Muslim saint Abu‘l Hagag, built when the images of pagan gods were covered by sand to be forgotten and today the mosque is also a protected monument in its own right. Unfortunately both Romans and Muslims helped to relieve the ancient temple of some of its stones.