Journal: Thursday 21 November 1996
‘Come to the festival’, Abdu said one evening.
Well, that was the magic word. How could we resist? We could also do with some light relief. My friends and I had spent the day in Luxor Temple, especially studying the Opet reliefs of Tutankhamun in the Amenhotep Court. These reliefs depict the most important of the ancient festivals of Thebes – and there were many. Opet was celebrated every year with great revelry, a festival in which the image of the god Amun was taken from Karnak to Luxor Temple in his sacred barque to meet with his consort, the goddess Mut and consummate their marriage in a festival of regeneration and renewal. It also symbolised the necessary annual regeneration of the ruling pharaoh. At some periods Amun was taken to Luxor overland, on a route between the avenue of sphinxes which once stretched all the way from Karnak to Luxor. At other times the god travelled by river in a procession of ceremonial boats. The festival took place in the second month of Akhet (inundation, or spring), and lasted for between ten days and a month, depending on the period. Tutankhamun’s delicately carved reliefs give a lot detail about the Opet festival procession, with it’s lines of ceremonial boats leaving Karnak, it’s offering tables piled with produce, vintners and butchers, musicians, clappers, dancing girls, acrobats and soldiers with horses and chariots. The reliefs are very well preserved because for centuries Luxor Temple was completely buried by sand.
As the level of the ground above Luxor Temple was high, a mosque was built on top of the temple for the patron of Luxor, Sheikh Sidi Youssef Abu l’Haggag. When later, the houses were cleared away and the temple was excavated out of the silt and accumulated sand of a millennia, the mosque was allowed to remain, where it still stands precariously overhanging the temple walls. I was impressed by how many layers Luxor is composed from, both architecturally and spiritually. This mosque, built in the 11th century, symbolises perfectly the transition from ancient pharaonic to Islamic Egypt and more recently to the ‘touristic era’. Egypt is a land where everything is preserved in some form or other. The mosque’s western door may now open into thin air, high above the temple, but it is still considered to be the most important place of worship in the town.
Every year there is a moulid, a celebration of the birthday of Sheikh Abu l’Haggag. It is a carnival lasting for two days when natives of Luxor will travel from all over Egypt to be there. There are many street stalls selling snacks, children’s toys and a special sort of doll made from bright pink solid sugar. The dolls come in the form of either horsemen or ladies with large breasts and conical skirts which look like ancient fertility symbols. There are horse races with spectacular gleaming Arabian horses and a procession of carnival floats populated by men, women and children in outrageous costumes. I have seen different parts of the festival during my various stays in Luxor, but the part which impresses me most is the procession of large wooden boats with square sails, carried high on poles above the crowds. This is surely left over from Opet in an unconscious folk memory, an instance when the thin veneer of history is dissolved.
The night we went to Karnak with Abdu, I knew nothing of the Abu l’Haggag moulid and I’m still not sure if what we saw was part of this festival or another moulid for a different holy man. Every town and village has it’s own celebrations of local sheikhs and saints. We walked up Karnak Temple Street all the way to the bridge which crosses over the excavations of the avenue of sphinxes near the Temple of Mut. Beyond the bridge the street was closed off and stalls lined either side of the crowded road below criss-crossed strings of brightly coloured light bulbs and banners. We walked along looking at the stalls, trying to avoid the snake of children we were attracting like a pied piper. Suddenly I was aware of a deep rhythmic beat of drums, melodic reedy notes of a pipe and deep male voices chanting Koranic verses. To my left a tent had been constructed from poles draped with colourfully dyed sheeting and someone had just come out and had left a gap in it’s doorway. Inside I could see men dancing, shaking their heads and bowing their bodies in a frenzied trance of religious fervour. I was strongly aware that as a foreign tourist I should not be standing gawping at this scene, felt that I shouldn’t be there, but I was rooted to the spot. The drum-beat and the chanting was flowing through my body and I was entranced. It had a great affect on me. All the frantic movement I was seeing seemed to create a stillness deep within me. After a few moments I realised that the others had carried on up the street and there was a bit of a commotion going on. Apparently we had been asked to leave – this was a private religious festival and not a spectacle for tourists.
Abdu was very quiet on the way back. When I asked about the dancing he would say nothing. I think he realised it had been his mistake to take us there and he had been reprimanded for doing so. I could not get the image of the worshippers out of my head, the thud of the drum and the hypnotic chanting. What I had seen, I later saw carved on the walls of the Theban tombs, the ritual dancing of ancient Egypt. What I believe it actually was, after later research, was a Sufi ritual. I have tried to find out more about this in Egypt, but many Muslims I have asked tell me that it is haram, or forbidden, and I have never been able to get beyond the whirling dervish performances like the one I saw on my cruise boat, which are an entertainment-based form of Sufism.