Journal: Sunday 31 January 2010
Today is our last day in Egypt. Definitely a sun-worshipper, I’m not looking forward to going home to face the rest of the winter in a cold and snowy landscape. Sam didn’t want to visit any sites today so I decided to have a wander around Luxor on my own, having seen many changes while driving through the town in the car.
I began on the Corniche at the ferry dock, noting the flash new ferryboats done up in ancient Egyptian style. Although I hadn’t spent much time at Gezira on the West Bank this trip, my camera picked out the smart new Corniche being built there – such a change from a decade ago. It looks like there are many more new buildings at Gezira and Ramla. On the other side of the road I looked across at the ‘Pasha’s House’, one of the few old colonial buildings left in Luxor. The adjacent house has already been pulled down and I wanted to capture the Pasha’s House on camera before it too disappeared. Beside the house, digging is taking place on the land next to the demolition site, now within the precincts of Luxor Temple, where Egyptian archaeologists are excavating a tell. News about the excavations is very sparse, but the area is said to be revealing medieval material. I continued walking along the western side of Luxor Temple, taking pictures of the architecture and reliefs through my long lens – a different perspective to being up close inside the temple grounds. Around the corner there is a good view of the Roman parts of the temple, recently cleared and protected.
Back on the Corniche I went to have a look at where the glass and concrete tower block of the New Winter Palace Hotel used to stand and where I had stayed on my last visit. It is now just a green lawn, looking like there was never a building there at all. I took lots of pictures of the beautiful Old Winter Palace too, just in case that needs to be pulled down one day – who knows, the way things are going?
By early afternoon the temperature had risen to 30 degrees and searching for a little shade, I crossed the road to sit by the Nile with an iced coffee in el-Khabagy cafe for half an hour. It was nice to sit and watch the frantic activity on the river where cruiseboats were manoeuvring, feluccas were taking tourists out, motor boats criss-crossed the river like flying water-boatmen and police inflatable dinghies roared up and down. One of the graceful old wooden dahabeyas floated by, towed by a motorboat. Abdul had told me there were now eight or nine now working from Luxor.
Feeling refreshed, I set off walking up Sharia Karnak, following the line of excavated sphinxes now exposed right through the town. The new entrance to Luxor Temple is now on the eastern side where a vast and empty paved plaza opens out in front of the mosques. This used to be where shops lined the road, including my old haunt, the Amoun Restaurant where I had spent many happy hours people-watching. The Amoun and el-Hussein restaurants are now on an upper floor in the covered tourist bazaar which runs between el-Karnak Street and the Corniche, but I wasn’t tempted to go inside – the atmosphere was no longer the same.
Dodging down side-streets to look for newly exposed areas of ‘Sphinx Avenue’, I followed Sharia Karnak northwards and the further I walked the more the area became a demolition site. Even the quite smart and enlarged New Emilio Hotel is destined to be pulled down in the coming months. I photographed all the older buildings I could find, including several Christian churches and private schools, beautiful buildings left over from another age. It was a sad pilgrimage, knowing that by the time I return they could all be gone.
I finally arrived at the Airport Road, where the new Culture Centre, an impressively modern piece of architecture stands in stark contrast to the older buildings surrounding it. I have always loved Luxor for its diversity. Ancient temples and archaeology is the root of why I go there, but I have also loved to be part of the exuberant bustle of life in this southern town. Meeting locals, chatting with shopkeepers, sitting in the coffee-shops has been just as much a part of my holiday adventure as all the wonderful sites I have visited. Sadly it would seem that this Luxor is fast disappearing in favour of ‘enriching the tourist experience’. ‘Thebes of a Thousand Gates’ is becoming an archaeological theme park with no thought for the lives of the Egyptians who have lived here for generations.
On the opposite side of the road I noticed that the little foreigners’ cemetery has also now vanished. Years ago an English friend used to help to take care of the graves here and several times I had sat with him in the gardens and put the world to rights. He certainly would be turning in his own grave to see what had happened here. One of an increasing number of parks has replaced the cemetery and the graves have been relocated out into the desert. By this time the light was going, so I made my way back towards the Villa Mut.
Tonight was the final of the All Africa Cup and Egypt were playing against Ghana. Late in the evening I was on the roof trying to photograph the full moon when there was a tremendous uproar. Cruiseboats moored at the Corniche were all sounding their air horns and everyone in Luxor seemed to be shouting. Cars were honking their horns for the next hour or so and even the passing trains were hooting their way into the station. They would probably be hooting all the way to Cairo because, as I guessed, Egypt had won the game. Later we drove into Luxor for a final dinner at Maxim’s and the town was in chaos – flags and flashing lights everywhere. The Egyptians do take their football seriously. Even later still (at 1.00am to be precise), our landlord Rachid was sitting outside the villa in his car singing the Quran at the top of his voice. I realise he was happy but it would have been nice to get some sleep!