Journal: Thursday 16 March 2000
I had forgotten that today was the beginning of the three-day Muslim feast of Eid el-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice that commemorates the prophet Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac to God and the conclusion of the pilgrimage to Mecca for those lucky or devout enough to go on Haj. Last year I was present at this feast in Abydos with my friend Robin, when both the surroundings and the occasion had been a very special and memorable time for me.
Jenny and I realised what day it was as soon as we were out on Sharia el-Mahatta (Station Street) this morning. The street was strewn with colourful bunting and banners in green, red and blue, criss-crossing haphazardly over the road like Buddhist prayer flags fluttering in the strong breeze. Traffic was at a standstill with crowds of people milling everywhere on the street; women and children in their best clothes dressed for this holiday which is the most important feast of the Islamic calendar. Food and juice stalls lined the road and barrows full of holiday toys and trinkets attracted crowds of children like bees to honey. Horse races and parades through the streets of Luxor are a special feature of the Feast. In front of the Railway station there were many beautiful horses, standing proud in their elaborately decorated saddles, with plaited manes and brushed tails. There were donkeys loaded up with children parading up and down, looking like seaside donkey rides on an English beach. Everyone seemed to be having a great time.
Loud music was coming from every shop doorway. As we reached the end of Sharia el-Mahatta we met ‘Mr Happy T-shirt’ (our nick-name for this character) who is usually only at his post near the old Luxor Hotel in the evening. Every night when we pass him he rushes up with a handful of T-shirts for sale and starts talking excitedly in broken English, a patter so fast that it’s difficult to keep up with him. We often stop to chat and I’ve never known him to stop grinning. The fact that he was here this morning is an indication of how important this day must be for the street traders. We called in to say hello to Ibrahim who was looking after his brother’s jewellery shop today and were invited to help him eat the massive special lunch his mother had sent to the shop from his home. It was just like Christmas Day without the snow and I had the feeling of being caught up in the moment, like when you go to a fairground and catch the distant echoes of a long-forgotten childhood excitement.
Later in the afternoon we caught the ferry over to the West Bank. Salah had offered to take us to Malqata to watch the sun setting behind the Theban Mountain and witness the desert turning gold. I love Malqata, especially in the evening and try to visit it at least once while I’m in Luxor. This is the site of the palace and town of Amenhotep III. Jenny, Salah and I walked from Medinet Habu, through the back-lanes and fields and out into the desert to the French excavation house. When we arrived there was still enough light to take a few photographs of the palace area before walking a little way out into the desert towards the mountains, but the khamseen wind had grown stronger and there was a lot of sand in the air. The French archaeologists were not in residence at present so we went and had mint tea with the French-house gafir, who remembers me from previous visits and is always very welcoming. As the darkness crept in, it was hard to remember that we were only a short distance from Medinet Habu and the village of Kom Lolla. It feels so isolated and remote at Malqata in the evening, with only the swishing sound of the wind in the bushes around the courtyard garden and the distant lonely barking of a dog in a far-off cluster of houses to disturb the peace. And above us as always, the first sprinkling of stars in a deep deep velvet sky.
It was quite a shock arriving back in Luxor late at night with the crowds still wandering up and down the Corniche and the town just as noisy as when we had left it. I am writing this back in our room at the New Radwan Hotel and looking out from our balcony onto the minaret of the little mosque next door. The tall tower is floodlit and the mosque is decorated with strings of lights, prettily lit up like a Christmas tree for the holiday. At midnight the noise is still going on with music and car-horns piercing the night and it looks like we will get little sleep. Quite a contrast to the peace and solitude of the West Bank where there was little evidence of the Feast at all.