November 1996

November 1996 – Going Solo 

For a whole year all I could think about was getting back to Egypt. Meanwhile, I had begun to take a course in Egyptology in order to understand more of what I had seen. To be honest, I’d never really left the country, or at least, I felt as though I’d left my heart there on my previous visit. For that year I became totally immersed in the history of the monuments, the various sites I had visited and the ancient language as well as the culture of modern Egypt. There were not enough hours in the day to read the dozens of books I was finding by scouring the local second-hand bookshops, and to write assignments for my course. My poor long-suffering husband could hardly have a sensible conversation with me unless it was in some way Egypt-related. I am told there is no cure for Egyptomania.

I decided that the easiest way to re-visit the monuments of Upper Egypt was to take another cruise, so I booked the flight and cruise as a package and booked a week in Luxor afterwards, in the Isis Hotel, where two friends would join me for the last few days of my trip. Landing at Luxor airport was a joy, when I stepped off the plane the evening breeze took me in its full embrace but didn’t cool the temperature at all, a lovely 93 degrees F. The smells of the desert and the town engulfed me and I felt again that I had come home.

Even though my visit was a month earlier than last year, the lock at Esna was closed again for maintenance and so we were transferred from Luxor to Esna by coach to meet the cruise boat there. It was late and dinner was served immediately, with a little entertainment from some of the waiters who played drums and sang ‘Happy Birthday’ – with an Egyptian flavour – to one of the passengers who was celebrating. My single cabin was small but beautifully clean and within a few minutes of me being there my room boy, Hassan, came to introduce himself and see that I had everything I needed. I looked around. Thick white towels folded in the shape of swans sat in a pool of flower petals on the bed, the covers were invitingly turned down for the night. Yes, I thought I would be very happy here for a week in my temporary floating home.

I had not travelled alone abroad before without going to meet someone at my destination, so this was a new experience for me. I had new people to meet, new friends to make and a whole week to look forward to, re-visiting the monuments of my  beloved Egypt. I was a little apprehensive but very excited as I drifted off to sleep and the boat drifted upriver towards Edfu.

Edfu and Kom Ombo Re-visited

My morning began with me wrapped in a blanket and sitting up on deck at dawn to watch the sun rise. I had at first been a little disappointed to learn that we were not going to Luxor at the beginning of the cruise, as I was eager to see Karnak again. But a cruise, if nothing else, teaches you patience. The guys sweeping the upper deck early in the morning must have thought I was a little strange and kept asking me if I was OK. Well, I was more than OK as I sat and watched the golden sunrise before me. It was very cold at this time of the morning – hence the blanket! Every now and then I could see men and women and children on the riverbanks beginning their daily tasks, moving their animals or riding donkey carts filled with produce destined for the nearest markets. The bird-life on the river was spectacular, the birds in glowing colours putting on a carnival show just for me.

Nile Sunrise

After breakfast we set off from the dock in a coach to Edfu Temple. The figure of the pharaoh still had his hand raised to strike down his enemies on the front pylon and the huge granite falcons still graced the entrance. I clutched my notebook filled with things I wanted to look at in each place I visited and flicked through it to Edfu, ticking off each item as I made notes and took photographs. Our Egyptian guide, Michael, was very good and very knowledgeable. I soon discovered that he taught Egyptology in a university and this was just his ’vacation job’. The inside of Edfu Temple is not easy to photograph. At that time I was using an SLR with ‘real’ film so in the darker areas the results were not great. But I had particularly wanted to look at the ‘Feast of the Beautiful Meeting’, carved on the back of the first pylon. These reliefs depict the annual festival where Horus of Edfu, the falcon god of this temple, met with his consort Hathor, who is brought from Dendera for the occasion. I also sprinted up to the Mammisi, the colonnaded Graeco-Roman birth-house, constructed to honour the divine birth of Horus and where there were scenes of Horus and Hathor with their baby son Ihy. Unfortunately, being part of a tour group means that you don’t get a lot of time at each site, so before very long it was already time to leave. Oh well, another place I need to come back to.

When we arrived back on the boat, the engines began to rumble and very soon we were out on the river again heading towards Aswan. The journey by road from Luxor to Aswan takes three or four hours, but we had much more leisurely journey on the cruise. After an enormous buffet lunch (with pastries to die for) I sat on deck with some of the other passengers, who were all first-timers to Egypt. As they learned that I had done this trip before they were all full of questions for me. I soon had to enlighten them that I was no expert. Fortunately Michael joined the group and we spent a pleasant afternoon discussing many different topics.

With the fiery back-drop of another beautiful sunset to our left, we glided around the bend in the river and docked at Kom Ombo. I walked around the temple with Michael our guide, all the while ticking off items in my notebook. Thwarted again – the sun had set so conditions were not ideal for photography. The bazaar hadn’t changed and stall-holders still clamoured for our attention, but this time there was a line painted down the centre of the road and the men from each side were not supposed to cross the line to get to potential customers. I found this very amusing as they just shouted all the louder – ‘Welcome to Alska’ and a new one to me, ‘Come on down, the price is right!’.

Cruiseboats at Kom Ombo

I had made friends with a couple of ladies travelling together, Kim and Diane and as we had quite a lot of time in Kom Ombo, the three of us set off walking down the road through the green cultivated fields towards a village. Several men on donkeys passed by and waved a greeting as they slowly rode towards home at the end of their working day. Before long we had attracted a crowd of little boys from the village, each dressed in long galabeyas, who wanted to know where we were going (tourists didn’t usually venture this far away from the dock). As they became more boisterous and demanding we decided to turn back towards the boat. By this time it was really dark and the temple before us was now floodlit and looked glorious, standing proud on its promontory as we pulled away back into the river.

The Myth of Osiris and Seth

Each Nile cruise I’ve been on has had some sort of entertainment in the evening. Tonight was the weekly ‘galabeya party’, when we passengers were expected to dress up in newly purchased ‘Egyptian dress’  – galabeyas and head-gear – and generally make fools of ourselves – all in the spirit of good fun. After dinner Michael organised a play, enacting the myth of Osiris and Seth which we had seen depicted on the walls at Edfu, earlier that day. Of course the play’s main actors were the most outgoing and outrageous of our group.

The story, loosely taken from the creation myth of Heliopolis, goes very briefly as follows:

Horus spears the hippopotamus SethGeb, god of the Earth and Nut, goddess of the sky, produced four children, Isis, Osiris, Seth and Nephthys. Osiris, as the firstborn son, was given the right to govern the land of Egypt. He married his sister Isis. Their brother Seth however, known as a bit of a rebel, was jealous of the success of King Osiris of Egypt and set about plotting his assassination. Seth constructed a fine chest and at a banquet he tricked Osiris into lying in the box, which he quickly nailed down and threw into the Nile. When Isis heard of her husband’s death (while she was in the town now known as Coptos), she set about looking for the chest and the body of Osiris, eventually hearing that it had been washed ashore in the land of Byblos. The coffin landed in a tamarisk tree which grew around it and was eventually cut down and made into a pillar for the palace of the king (this later became the origin of the djed pillar, symbol of strength). Isis travelled to Byblos and gained a reputation with the ladies of the court for being a great healer and was given the pillar as a gift in return for her services. Isis had the chest containing the body of Osiris hewn out of the tree trunk and she sailed with it back to Egypt. When she arrived in the Delta, Isis opened the coffin and she and her sister Nephthys tried to revive the body. Egyptian legend tells that the goddesses breathed life and warmth into the body of Osiris enough for him to be able to impregnate Isis with their son, Horus, who she hid for protection in the northern papyrus marshes until he was grown.

Meanwhile Seth was still worried that Osiris would return again to disrupt his own assumed rule of Egypt. He found the embalmed body and had it cut into fourteen pieces, which he scattered throughout Egypt. Once more Isis set out to find the scattered parts of her husband’s body, sailing up and down the Nile attended by the birds and beasts, who loved her. Eventually Isis found all but one of the parts of Osiris’s body. The goddess pretended to bury each part of her husband’s body where she found it, explaining the many shrines to Osiris found throughout Egypt. What she actually did was to take the body to Horus who, with the help of Thoth and Anubis, reassembled it, except for his ‘manhood’ which had been eaten by a fish. The body of the god Osiris was buried at Abydos, where he became once more immortal.

Horus spent his life avenging his father Osiris, in the pursuit of his enemy Seth and there were many battles fought. Seth took many guises, especially the crocodile and hippopotamus. He could call up violent storms at will and had a great voice like thunder. One of these battles was fought at Elephantine Island (Aswan) when Seth took the form of a red hippopotamus and used his storms as a terrible weapon. In the last battle, Seth was overcome by the young god Horus, who killed him with a harpoon, avenging the humiliation of his father and bringing peace at last to his mother. At Edfu, the tradition of Horus’s triumph over Seth can be seen in the ‘Edfu Drama’ reliefs on the ambulatory wall. The drama is a universal myth of kingship and resonates throughout the world in many different cultures. It also explains many of the traditions of ancient Egypt seen in different temples up and down the Nile.

My group’s very irreverent recreation of the drama was hilarious and we all went off to our cabins having had a hearty laugh. It may have been a mere coincidence, but there was a violent thunderstorm during that night, the waves rocking the boat on the once-calm waters of the river, lightning flashing through our curtains and rain lashing our windows. We were told earlier that there had been no rain in Aswan for at least a decade. I now have a great respect for the god Seth……

Philae Sound and Light

The storm of the previous night had cleared by morning and we had had a fine day. I went to Philae Temple with my group, my second visit there, and saw much more than I had last year, with a slightly greater knowledge of what I was looking at. The sheer magnificence of the setting still took my breath away.

Having enjoyed the Sound and Light show at Karnak so much last year, I decided to go to Philae again in the evening to see the Sound and Light with a small group from the boat. The motor boat crossing to Agilika Island was quite magical in the darkness with twinkling lanterns bobbing and swinging as the boat rocked towards the jetty. It was difficult to remember that Philae temples were rescued from the rising waters between the Old and New Dams as recently as 1980 and reconstructed on this island. An Egyptian poet, Ahmed Shawki, had called for the rescuing of the temples in the early years of the 20th century and was saddened enough to write a poem about its plight:
Philae Temple
O palaces passing away
Tears are shed
As demise is your fate.
You are a line
While Egypt is a book
How could such a book be blurred?
I the spokesman of history,
Safeguards Egypt’s glory.
That is Egypt’s honour.

We climbed up the steps from the jetty and assembled between the columns in the courtyard before the first pylon in the Temple of Isis. The lights dimmed and the voices in the night began, hailing the gods of the Nile, calling on Hapi to ‘Come forth from your cavern…’.  Another voice implored ‘O Nile, raise your voice, let it thunder forth!’ Suddenly there was a huge flash of lightning behind the pylon followed quickly by a terrific roll of thunder. We all looked at each other, wondering at the amazing special effects. But this was not part of the show – the storm was for real! It carried on for the next half hour as the dialogue between Isis and the Nile unfolded. A chorus of female voices were almost drowned out by the rumbling of thunder as they hailed Isis, ‘Mistress of Nubia…. reigning over fire, wind and lightning‘. This was becoming spooky and I found it difficult to follow the story as I was so busy watching this incredible impromptu light show. I cannot describe how magical the temple looked lit up by forks of lightning bouncing off its columns and gateways. As we walked through the pylon into the temple the voice of the Nile spoke, ‘And you who hear my voice, you who have come from the four corners of the earth to admire Egypt’s treasure, come, you too may enter the Temple of Isis, the immortal goddess’.

Act two told us the legend of Isis, Osiris and Seth (I had a feeling this was another of Seth’s storms!). As we moved on through the hypostyle hall and past the Temple of Hathor, the storm too gradually moved on and away across the lake. The coloured lights of the show took over and we took our places on seats in front of the Kiosk of Trajan. Luckily we had no rain and the night was still mild as we sat and listened to the final act of the show, describing the original building begun by Nectanebo, the last Egyptian pharaoh and the later re-use by Christians. From early Islamic times we were told the tale of Anas el-Wagud who fell in love with Zahrat, daughter of the Vizier. Her father imprisoned her on Philae Island to keep the lovers apart, but all was well in the end as she escaped and the couple were married. A sheikh’s tomb was constructed in the middle of old Philae Island. We heard of Napoleon, who visited here, of Champollion who played his part in deciphering the history on the temple walls and of the feat of saving the temple from the waters of the Nile. To finish we heard the voice of the poet Shawki:
‘At the edge of the desert, Philae is born again, comes to life in its eternal beauty, like a fabulous mirage…’

The Old Cataract Hotel

Named after the first Nile cataract, the rocky un-navigable part of the river, the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan is probably most famous to the English as the place which is said to have inspired Agatha Christie to write her novel ‘Death on the Nile’ in the 1930s. Later the early scenes from the movie starring Peter Ustinov were filmed here. We had been told that having tea on the terrace overlooking the Nile is a must-do when in Aswan, so I decided to visit it with a couple from the cruise boat. We took a caleche along the Corniche and arrived at the palm-lined drive of the hotel, to be greeted by a doorman wearing an elaborate embroidered red uniform and a fez. The extensive gardens were very beautiful and the long curved building itself is a colourful pinkish-orange decorated with white contrasting paintwork. Stepping into the hotel was like walking back in time to an Edwardian era where I felt like a colonial traveller entering a sultan’s palace.

The Old Cataract seen from Elephantine

The hotel was constructed for Thomas Cook, who had recently introduced his grand Nile cruises. Opening in 1899 at the heyday of British imperialism, with a ceremony attended by the Khedive of Egypt, Winston Churchill and Lord and Lady Cromer, it quickly became a favourite of British and  European upper classes, royal families and other world dignitaries. Over the next two centuries many important people have spent their leisure time at the Old Cataract, including the Egyptian King Farouk and some even have suites named after them. Howard Carter also stayed here after the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. We were given a brief tour of the hotel, stopping at the suite where Agatha Christie had stayed, and peeping into the legendary ‘1902 Restaurant’, a former domed ballroom decorated in Moorish style. I preferred the foyer however, with its marble floors, key-shaped arched doorways, velvet drapes and antique furniture. It was almost like visiting a museum, the old-world atmosphere seeped from every corner, though I have to say it didn‘t feel quite Egyptian, rather an Englishman‘s idea of oriental décor. Though dressed reasonably smartly, I felt I should have worn a tea-gown as we stepped out onto the terrace at last. To one side a small band of musicians played soft Egyptian music to the accompaniment of the water lapping against the rounded boulders below the terrace. It was such a perfect and romantic setting. We sat and watched the large white-sailed feluccas tacking in the strong breeze backwards and forwards between the hotel and Elephantine Island, which is directly opposite the hotel. I felt I could almost reach out and touch the ruins on opposite bank. We drank our tea, served in white china cups and lingered to watch the sun slide down towards the golden dunes on the West Bank. The granite boulders of Elephantine had begun to turn red and the feluccas were heading homewards as we left the hotel to walk back to our boat. I felt as though I had stepped out of time for those couple of hours of pampered luxury. An experience I will not forget.

Esna Lock

Riverside hamlet near EsnaSailing between Edfu and Esna is always a joy. It is a peaceful countryside where little mud brick hamlets crouch beside the river, hardly changed since pharaonic times. Straw or fodder for animals is stacked on the roofs, along with peppers or whatever herbs and vegetables are suitable for drying. Most of these tiny villages belong to extended families which portion the cultivated strips of land between them, sharing the produce so that they are fairly self-sufficient. The only sign of a modern world is the occasional roof-top satellite dish sparkling in the sun. Some villages have no running water and still use the Nile for many of their daily tasks. Children are naked or bare-footed as they scamper between the houses and old ladies look after babies in the shade of the courtyards. It could be almost anywhere in Africa.

Before long we arrived in Esna and walked from the dock up the main street of the bazaar to the Temple of Khnum. All that remains of the temple is the Roman columned entrance hall with its inscriptions recording the affairs of the last of the pharaohs up to the time of the Roman Emperor Decius. I particularly wanted to have another look at the ‘cryptograms’ I had read about – rows of carved crocodiles and rams. This was not my favourite temple but it did have many interesting things to look at, now that I knew a little more about the carved reliefs.

When we began this cruise the lock at Esna was closed for maintenance, but now, a week later it had re-opened and we could pass through on our way to Luxor. This meant that each boat went into the lock, the water was pumped out, the lock gates opened and they could go on their way. There was quite a big queue waiting and another forming behind us, so it was not until about two and a half hours later that it was almost our turn to sail into position. Suddenly it got very windy and within fiveWaiting at Esna lock minutes a kind of hurricane had blown up. Palm trees on the opposite bank were bent double and quickly the dust and sand blew so high into the air so that I could see nothing beyond the boat decks. Everyone on our boat was cowering in the main salon for cover as, on deck, it was impossible to stand up straight. Within minutes the conditions had worsened and a fierce electrical storm blew in from nowhere, with huge bullets of rain lashing the windows. These storms seem to be following me around on this trip! It was gone as quickly as it had arrived and within half an hour of it beginning, the storm had passed over and all was calm again. We sailed into the lock and were lowered down into the next level of the river. Onwards to Luxor. It was not until later in the evening that I learned that a cruise boat in the queue behind us had overturned in the storm, with twenty passengers killed as well as four crew members. It was a terrible thing to happen and everyone was very sad for the families of those who had been killed. Cruise boats have flat bottoms and must carry a certain amount of ballast to balance the heavy upper decks. Apparently the boat that sank had insufficient weight at the bottom, and it was unfortunate that this freak weather had caught it. That evening we were all very anxious to telephone home to reassure our families that we were OK, but luckily the news hadn’t reached there yet.

Back in Luxor

The Temple of PtahIt felt very good to be here in Luxor again after waiting for almost a year to come back. Our first visit today was to Karnak Temple, at that time my favourite place. I did the tour with my group and as we had time to ourselves afterwards I followed the walls around to the north to the Temple of Ptah, which I had not visited before. The original three sanctuaries were constructed by Tuthmose III and dedicated to the Memphite god, Ptah. It was restored by the Nubian king Shabaqo and later much added to by the Ptolemies and Romans. The north and centre sanctuaries were dedicated to Ptah and the southern one to his consort, the lion-headed goddess, Sekhmet (as well as to Hathor). Each one had it’s cult statue, although Ptah is now unfortunately headless. The southern shrine was usually kept locked, and inside there was a restored statue of Sekhmet, which I went to see after giving the guard a little baksheesh. The statue is in complete darkness except for a shaft of light coming down from an opening in the roof which made it very dramatic and powerful standing there alone as the guard opened the door. There is a tale of how local village women would, even in recent times, pray to this statue in order to conceive. She obviously commanded a great deal of respect.

We moved on to Luxor Temple, which was very crowded in the late morning as many of the tour groups arrive at that time. I have since discovered that early afternoon is the best time to see the temple as it is least likely to be busy then.

Luxor museum ticketWe had a brief visit to Luxor museum. The cachette exhibition had been recently opened and I especially wanted to see the collection of statues which had been found in the ‘Luxor Cachette’. These beautiful sculptures were unearthed when a colonnade at Luxor Temple was dismantled for reconstruction in 1989. They had been buried (for reasons unknown) in the floor of the courtyard where they lay forgotten for over 2000 years. Many of these statues today look as though they have just come out of a sculptor’s workshop. Later in the afternoon I visited Gaddi’s Dervish Dancerbookshop – perhaps a mistake as it contained dozens of Egyptology books and I could see myself spending a lot of money here. But for now I restrained myself and just browsed.

Back on the cruise boat in the evening we were treated to a display of Egyptian music and dancing. There was a band of traditional musicians, a belly-dancer and a Nubian folk dance troupe. The evening’s entertainment also included a wonderful Dervish dancer who whirled and whirled around with his dazzlingly colourful skirts in the air. I could have watched him all night but couldn’t help wondering how he didn’t get dizzy and fall over!

King’s Valley and Other Wonders

Although we had been in Luxor for two days, I was still staying on the cruise boat and on our last day aboard as part of a tour group, we had a lot to get through. At 7.00am we were already on board the tourist ferry bound for the West Bank, with its towering rose-tinted backdrop, magnificent in a mantle of mist. A tingle of anticipation hit me as the Theban Hills drew nearer and the secrets of immortality were about to be revealed again, the pharaohs immortalised in painted tombs buried deep in the limestone slopes of the Valley of the Kings.

Looking over the King's Valley

We were soon on a coach hurtling along the road at the edge of the cultivation, veering past trucks and donkey-carts with horn blaring, before taking the sharp left bend which leads into the barren wadi of the King’s Valley. In 1996 the entrance to the valley contained a small row of souvenir stalls, which could easily be bypassed, and a rather run-down rest house which sold warm fizzy drinks and rather dubious looking chocolate bars and biscuits of uncertain age. There was also a toilet – but the less said about that the better! We bought our tickets and walked up the road into the tomb area. I went into two tombs with the group and then decided to visit the tomb of Tuthmose III, the earliest open tomb in the valley. It was right at the southern end of the valley in an almost inaccessible cleft, its entrance reached by a steep climb up an iron ladder. Having almost worn myself out on the climb up, I found that there were now two steep flights of steps descending down into the tomb. My legs felt like jelly. At the bottom I crossed a well shaft (the first example of this structure in a royal tomb) and into a vestibule decorated with lists of divinities from scenes in the Amduat, one of the sacred ‘Books of the Underworld’. Down another wooden staircase and I was in the cartouche-shaped burial chamber, its walls covered with yellow stick-like figures and scenes from the Amduat depicting the sun’s journey through the twelve hours of the night. The tomb had been heavily plundered before the modern excavation but the beautiful cartouche-shaped sarcophagus could still be seen standing on its plinth at the far end of the burial chamber. The underside of the lid shows an incised relief of the sky-goddess Nut who is also seen on the base of the sarcophagus. Two square columns in the burial chamber are decorated with scenes from the ‘Litany of Re’, another first in tomb decoration, which shows the king’s union with the sun god. The face of one of the pillars depicts a unique rough drawing of the king being suckled by a goddess named as Isis in the form of a tree. Since then it has been my favourite tomb in the King’s Valley.

Back on the coach, we were soon heading towards Deir el-Bahri, to visit the mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut. I had been looking forward to coming here again with my little notebook of things to see and pictures to take. I had hoped that the third terrace might be open by now, but that visit would have to wait a little longer. One thing I wanted to have a look at was the temple of Mentuhotep which is on a platform next to Hatshepsut’s temple and although it was not open to the public, I was able to lean over the second terrace to take some pictures. Afterwards, on the coach, we had a quiz, but I was quickly disqualified as I had been doing too much homework! I did win a little alabaster head of Nefertiti though, which I still have (somewhere) today.

Alabaster workerAnother visit to the obligatory alabaster factory was next on the agenda, with a demonstration of carving the translucent stone into a paper-thin vase. This was at a large colourfully painted building near Deir el-Bahri, where many tour coaches stop. While the demonstration was fascinating the shop itself did not hold my attention for very long. I knew the routine by now! And I also knew that most of the objects for sale were not made in Luxor at all and could be bought for less in the Luxor bazaar. Am I sounding a little disillusioned? Well, it’s the way Egypt is – and I still love it! On the way back to the ferry we stopped at the Colossi of Memnon, this time still in daylight, so we were able to have a good look at the huge statues of Amenhotep III which once graced the entrance to his mortuary temple.

We were back in Luxor and on the cruise boat and it was only lunchtime! I felt like we had crammed a whole day’s visits into only a few hours. At least the afternoon meant time to relax and write up notes.

The Tuesday Market

The cruise was over, I had said my farewells to new friends and the excellent crew and I was now staying in the Isis Hotel – I’m a creature of habit, but at that time it was one of the best hotels. I had a couple of days on my own before my two friends arrived from England, the friends I’d made on the boat having all gone home or off to Cairo. After the storms we’d been having, the weather was murky. The sky was overcast and dark – it didn’t feel at all like Egypt. Spending my time wandering around Luxor, I eventually came to hear about the Tuesday Market, so I got up very early on Tuesday morning to go and take a look. It Selling vegetables at the Tuesday Markettook some finding but after about an hour wandering around the back streets and alleys and asking for directions I arrived at the right street and the market was already in full flow. I could have simply followed the crowds of black-clad ladies with huge packages balanced on their heads had I known this was where they were headed. The street was packed, mostly with women, who seem to be in charge here. It was a noisy and dizzying scene, everyone yelling at the same time, calling out the prices of their wares and gossiping with each other. Huge pyramids of colourful fruit and vegetables were stacked on rugs on the ground, the traders sitting cross-legged behind their old-fashioned cast iron scales. Trays of eggs and mountains of butter or goat’s cheese were laid out on paper on the ground or in small bowls, brought in from the villages as each householder sells small quantities of their homemade produce. It was all very colourful and fascinating. It is mostly food which is sold at the Tuesday Market, but there were a few barrows selling popcorn, various household goods, flip-flops (known in Luxor as ship-ships) and gaudy hair bands or nail polish – these stalls surrounded by young girls. Radios blasted Egyptian pop music, competing with the general hubbub of voices and it was all very vibrant and lively. I had some strange looks as I walked along the street – tourists were rare here, and a foreign woman on her own was unusual. In Egypt, especially the country areas, it is often the men who do the food shopping. I attracted a string of little children who were keen to practice their English and who constantly asked for sweets and pens. Halfway along the street I became more aware of the palm-leaf crates containing animals of all kinds, from kittens to turkeys. Pigeons and chickens were stacked up in baskets, sometimes with no room to move, and all flapping and squalking frantically. I was just watching these baskets when the stallholder reached into one and pulled out a fat brown hen and quickly rung its neck. I know that this is where fresh poultry is bought, but being a vegetarian I decided that I had seen enough of the market and decided to head back to the hotel for a breakfast of coffee and rolls – if I had the stomach for it.

The Workman’s Village

My friends Robin and Lucy, who had been in Egypt with me the previous year, had arrived at last and we decided we would try to get to Abydos. In 1996 this was not an easy journey and we were told that we would need special permission from the Antiquities Office in Luxor because the temple was officially closed. We spent a whole morning going from office to office, having some difficulty because nobody was able to understand what we wanted as they didn’t speak English. We eventually found someone who made a call to the antiquities office on the West Bank and we were told that we didn’t need a permit but would have to get permission from the tourist police. Off on our rounds again, sitting in an office waiting around until someone finally dealt with our request, only to be told that the road between Qena and Balyana was closed. The only alternative was to take the train. Well, so be it – by this time we were even more determined to get to Abydos.

By lunchtime we were in the vicinity of the local ferry so we decided not to waste any more of the day and crossed the river to the West Bank. It was on this occasion that I met Tayib, a West Bank taxi driver, who I have continued to use frequently in the decade since then. Today, I rarely use taxis, but Tayib will always stop for me when I’m out on the West Bank and give me a lift, always very friendly and a delightful person to know. On the day we first met Tayib, he took us to Deir el-Medina, the village of the ancient artisans who had worked on the construction and decoration of the tombs in the Valley of the Kings.

The Workmens Village

Deir el-Medina is a rare site in Egypt. One of the few discoveries of a community of common people, it has yielded a tremendous amount of archaeological knowledge and textural material detailing everyday life in ancient Egypt, about families and relationships, disputes and social organisation in the new Kingdom.

The village, which dates to the beginning of the New Kingdom, probably from the time of Tuthmose I, consisted of the houses of the families of workers and craftsmen who were employed in the King’s Valley. They probably led quite an insular life and had their own local deities, the deified Queen Ahmose-Nefertari and her son Amenhotep I, as well as Ptah, god of craftsmen and Meretseger, goddess of the Theban necropolis. The village occupied an area of around two hectares, with a total of one hundred and twenty dwellings. The walls of many of these buildings have been preserved, or restored and show that they were all built from mud bricks to a similar plan, usually with four small rooms, a staircase leading to a terrace or upper room and sometimes a cellar. The flat roofs were made from planks of palm trees, internal walls were plastered with gypsum and painted white and floors were of stone. There was a large brick structure in the corner of the entrance hall, entered by a short flight of steps – thought to be either a domestic shrine or a bed-platform used in childbirth (or perhaps both combined). The platform would often be decorated with depictions of the god Bes, who was associated with childbirth as well as being a household god. The main room was lit by windows high in the walls and this room had a low raised platform and stelae dedicated to ancestor cults and to Meretseger. A storage area was also used as sleeping quarters and a kitchen with an oven was in an open area at the rear of the house. The dwellings were not unlike some of the traditional houses on the West Bank today.

Robin, Lucy and I walked along the main street, admiring the houses on either side and trying to picture what life would have been like for the inhabitants. At the northern end of the village there was a temple, originally a cult temple for Amenhotep I, which was later replaced by other pharaohs until the Ptolemaic structure which remains there today. It is well preserved and the beautiful Hathor-headed columns and softly painted wall-reliefs inside are well worth a special visit. We were very pleased to have ‘discovered’ it.

Our tickets included entrance to the two tombs which were open at that time, the first belonging to Sennedjem of the nineteenth dynasty, whose title was ‘Servant in the Place of Truth’. This tomb had a very steep stone staircase descending a long way down into the hillside and was very hot and cramped inside, but felt very intimate and so unlike the bigger private tombs I had seen. The second tomb we entered belonged to Inherkau, who lived during the twentieth dynasty and was ‘Foreman of the Two Lands in the Place of Truth’ – in other words, a foreman of the King’s Valley workmen. A staircase led down into the burial chamber, which still contained colourful paintings, though not as well preserved as those in Sennedjen‘s tomb.

When we had finished at Deir el-Medina, Tayib took us round into the Valley of the Queens, which is close by. Here we saw the tomb of Khaemwaset, a young son of Rameses III, which was very beautifully painted. Next was the colourful tomb of Amunherkhopshep, also a son of Rameses III. He is depicted throughout wearing the side-lock of youth and accompanied by his father. Lastly we visited the tomb of Queen Titi, a small and damaged tomb but also beautifully painted.

It was late in the afternoon when Tayib took us back in his taxi to the ferry. The whole afternoon’s excursion of five hours had cost us only LE40, which worked out at less that £3 each at the exchange rate as it was then, which was only LE5 to £1. We decided then that it was certainly better to do things on our own than to take organised, expensive (and very rushed) tours. And the spirit of discovery was much more fun!

A Lazy Day in Luxor

Robin, Lucy and I were all set to go to Abydos today – on the local train. At breakfast we mentioned this to our tour rep, Gillian, and she was horrified, strongly advising us not to attempt the trip. She gave us all the reasons we shouldn’t go and pointed out that neither the tour company or the British Embassy would help us if we got into difficulties as it was a restricted zone and tourists were strongly discouraged from going there. We had to think carefully about this and in the end decided to take the advice we had been given, giving up on the trip. We all spent the rest of the day feeling wimpish! We had also wanted to visit the tombs at el-Kab, which is to the south between Edfu and Esna, but were told the town was cut off after the rain, with no water or electricity and the army was having to take in food supplies.

Making excuses to ourselves – we’d all had shaky stomachs for the past couple of days anyway – we went into Luxor and bought Antinal from the pharmacy (the best cure for pharaoh’s revenge!). We walked through the bazaar and did some serious shopping, gifts to take home and the sort of souvenirs everyone buys on early trips Egypt.

In the evening we went to Luxor Museum and spent a couple of hours having a good look around. There are some beautiful objects and I took lots of pictures (unfortunately when they were developed they were all fuzzy because of the dark conditions).
Statues at Luxor Museum

The museum is very modern and the artefacts are well displayed with good spot-lighting. My favourite piece in the whole museum is a black granite statue of Amehotep, son of Hapu, Advisor to Amenhotep III, Scribe, Architect and Director of all the Royal Works. After his death he was deified and worshipped as a god of medicine. The statue represents Amenhotep as a scribe sitting cross-legged, his left hand unrolling a papyrus scroll. This statue is so beautiful that whenever I go to visit him in the museum I feel I want to reach out and touch him (which of course is not allowed). I also love the statue dyad of Amenhotep III with the crocodile god, Sobek, from the Temple of Sobek at Dahamsha. Sobek has his arm around the king’s shoulder in such a protective and affectionate way. It was later usurped by Rameses II who carved his own name on the statue. I particularly liked the Akhenaten heads which had been found in his temple at Karnak. I was standing in front of one of the wonderful elongated stylized heads, wondering if the king really did have some strange medical condition, when a young Egyptian guy came and stood beside the head, pointing to it and then to his own face. He grinned and said ‘This is my Grandfather!’. I had to admit that the likeness was astonishing – the elongated face, the almond eyes and the full lips were just the same when you really looked and I realised that these facial characteristics were seen in many Upper Egyptian men. From that time on I have believed that the strange statues were not showing any abnormal deformity, but were merely stylized versions of the king, a modern form of art of the time.  At closing time I went into the museum book shop and saw a large fabulous statue of Sekhmet, which I just had to buy. These replicas were made by a local village cooperative from a kind of resin. They looked exactly like others I had seen carved from stone, but when I picked one up it was very lightweight. Great for taking back on the plane! She was a perfect copy of the statue of the goddess I had seen in the Temple of Ptah at Karnak. I was so pleased with my purchase, it really made my day. Unfortunately I’ve never found any more of these light resin statues since that time, though I’ve looked everywhere. Guess they stopped producing them.

Our next port of call was to Gaddis bookshop, but by the time we got there it was closed. What a pity…. I couldn’t spend any more money today!

Banana Island

My friends and I had arranged to spend this morning on a felucca trip. We’d met Abdu a couple of days before and we had promised we’d go sailing sometime on his felucca, Titi, so today was the day. Everyone visiting Egypt should experience a felucca trip. The felucca is a sailing boat, traditionally made of wood, with a very tall mast and huge lateen sail to catch the smallest breeze, but they are also light enough to be rowed when no wind is available. In Aswan the boats are often large and take a dozen or more passengers, but the smaller ones in Luxor can be hired by individuals for short trips. They have a heavy centre plate, used as the keel, which can be raised or lowered depending on the depth of the water. This means that they can drift into the shallows close to the river banks or more easily negotiate sand banks. On board there are benches along the sides of the boat, usually spread with flowered cushions and an awning overhead to keep off the sun in the hottest part of the day.

This morning there was very little wind, so we had to wait to be towed 4 km upriver against the current, by a motor boat. We Bananaswere going to Banana Island, perhaps the only island in Egypt which is attached to the land! Banana Island, or Gezira el-Mozh, was a small, lush plantation of fruit trees (mostly banana) and sugar cane. The owner, Mr Lovely, made a landing charge of LE5 each person and ran a shaded café and bazaar in the middle of the peninsular. He was obviously an entrepreneur, subsidising his agricultural enterprise with tourism, but the fee did include a bunch of the small delicious bananas grown on the island. Stepping off the felucca into the trees was like stepping into a hot and humid jungle – complete with mosquitoes! The track wound around through the trees and shrubs, vibrant with colour, huge wide banana leaves forming a canopy overhead and creating a tunnel effect. We took a tour of the plantation, accompanied by several indigent dogs, the guide pointing out the bright pendants of banana flowers as well as fat clumps of ripening bunches. There were also many colourful birds I hadn’t seen before in Egypt. The trail ended at a café in a clearing and we all had a cold drink while we were fed endless bananas by the staff. We met Mr Lovely himself, who insisted we went into his bazaar – which was actually quite interesting with lots of more unusual crafts and all rather dusty and neglected. There was a ‘no hassle’ policy and as we were told, it was all ‘Asda price’.

Back on the felucca an hour or so later and we were able to sail back downriver towards Luxor. It is so peaceful to sail the river with no noise except the wind in the sails and the gently lapping water against the bow. We reclined on the cushions and I trailed my hand in the water. The traditional boats have largely been replaced by faster, reliable, motor boats – even some of the feluccas have engines now, but that morning, lying relaxing in the sun and drifting slowly down river, I thought it was the perfect way to travel. I became hooked on felucca sailing. The three hour trip had cost us LE15 each.

Village Children

At the end of our felucca trip, Abdu invited myself, Robin and Lucy to visit his home in the West Bank village of Esba. We were keen to see more of ‘the real Egypt’. The felucca pulled up against the riverbank and we all climbed down the precarious wooden plank onto the shore, a reedy muddy patch of ground leading to a dirt track across the fields. Esba was about a mile from the river and as we followed our guide Abdu between the green rows of crops and irrigation ditches, we hoped we would not be abandoned here as we had no idea of where we were.

Esba ChidrenEventually arriving at the village we saw a picture-book image of the sort of place you imagine in bible stories, small flat-roofed mud brick houses in narrow, winding streets, barefoot children rushing to meet us, yelling in delight while narrowly avoiding donkeys loaded with fodder and tradesmen with hand carts selling unrecognisable items. Women in colourful galabeyas stood in the shadows of doorways watching us curiously, shouting at their children to stay close, they obviously didn’t get many foreigners here. As Abdu invited us into his house to meet his mother, chickens in the courtyard clucked and scattered and I could smell the wonderful aroma of newly baked bread. Abdu appeared to have many brothers and sisters and we must have been introduced to half a dozen of the elder siblings, while the little ones followed us everywhere with their eyes. We were invited inside the house, into a reception room with a hard-packed dirt floor. There was little furniture except for two wooden benches with long flowered cushions and a small table where a tray of tea magically appeared. Egyptian tea is served in small glasses and is very strong and very sweet as sugar is usually added in the brewing stage. Abdu had told us that most of his village worked on the land, a farming community where money and luxuries were apparently scarce. Hospitality however was not scarce and we were made to feel very welcome. Abdu spoke good English as he had worked for many years with tourists on his felucca and we had a translated conversation with his mother who was very sweet. She kept disappearing into a back room and coming out with photographs and small precious objects which she would proudly show us. We didn’t want to intrude for too long so we made a small donation for the tea and hospitality and said our goodbyes to Abdu’s family.

Sweets for the childrenNext we were taken to visit the local school. Lucy is a teacher and she was eager to see an Egyptian school. Again we were greeted very warmly by the principle and taken into a classroom, shown the blackboard and books and encouraged to have simple conversations with the children so that they could show off their skills in English. They were all extremely polite and well behaved and the whole experience was very enjoyable. Between us we managed to collect up a bundle of pens to leave at the school for the children and we left as the school day finished, the children pouring out on their way home. We had also bought a box of sweets to hand out to them, but found this task a bit daunting, so Abdu did it for us. It was a like feeding the wild animals, but great fun as they all shouted and laughed with us.

Esba was obviously a very poor community and the villagers had little in the way of modern amenities, but I will never forget the generosity and welcome shown to three strangers, foreign women, who to the people there, must have seemed very wealthy.

The Moulid of Abu l’Haggag

‘Come to the festival’, Abdu said one evening.
‘Where?’
‘Karnak!’
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.

Abu l'Haggag Mosque above Luxor TempleAs 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.

Dendera by Convoy

Last year the taxi ride to Dendera Temple was a nice trip and we thought we’d like to do it again, so booked our friendly taxi-driver Tayib for a 6.30am start. What we (or Tayib) hadn’t realised was that the police convoy had recently been introduced for journeys to Dendera. We all had to line up at a meeting point in Luxor and wait around until 8.00am. There were many coaches and taxis as we headed north towards Qena, but most of them turned off on the road to Hurghada and the Red Sea resorts.

The idea of the convoy was that all foreign tourists should travel together under the protection of armed police in case of any trouble. What this trouble was in 1996 was undefined. What it meant in reality was that there was a police truck, with sirens blaring, at the head and tail of a long line of vehicles all travelling at over 100km an hour. The convoy left at regular times each day, which to my mind meant that any sniper with half a brain would know exactly where and when to wait and be able to pick off as many tourists as he could. Just like a fairground shooting gallery. That’s if we didn’t have a high-speed traffic pile-up first. Any other traffic on the road had to quickly pull over to avoid being mown down. It was a terrifying and an uncomfortable journey and I know our driver was just hating it.

The Goddess Mut at DenderaAnother problem with the convoy was that we were limited to the time we could spend in the temple. We were allowed exactly two hours and anyone not back by the designated leaving time was in serious trouble with the police. Robin, Lucy and I tore around Dendera Temple like we were on a mission. Most of our time was spent in the rooftop Osiris suite, which was very similar to the structure at Philae Temple in Aswan. I also wanted to look at the carvings in the Ptolomaic birth-house as there were reliefs of the hippopotamus goddess Tauret I had read about. I did enjoy seeing it again but it would have been nice to spend quality time there like we had last year. On a positive note, it meant that the temple was once more officially open to tourists (though not many at that time) and the café and bazaar were open, enabling a few of the local people to scratch a living again. We left Dendera on time, only to sit in our taxi at the Qena checkpoint for an hour waiting for the Hurghada convoy to catch us up. All we could think about was the extra time we could have spent in the temple, had we been allowed.

Au Revoir Luxor

SmileI was sad. This was my last day in Egypt. I had been in the country for two weeks and it felt like months. Time in Egypt has a strange quality, the days rush by in a flurry of activity but seem at the same time to stretch on for eternity. I could not imagine leaving behind these endlessly bright sunny days (well – apart from the rain) and going back to a cold, wet, English winter and to work. I sat by the edge of the river looking across to the West Bank, a scene which will forever be etched in my heart, and thought about this trip. I had so enjoyed the cruise, lazy days watching the timeless countryside as we drifted by, interspersed with exciting visits to the Nile temples between Luxor and Aswan. I had learned a lot. This time I had known more about the monuments I was seeing, I could remember at least some of the names of the powerful gods and kings who once populated this land and I could recognise some of the recurring themes of architecture and hieroglyphic writing. I had been introduced to the god Seth and his violent storms, to Isis, Sekhmet and all their families. I had witnessed the horrors that storms in Egypt can bring with the sinking of the cruise boat at Esna. I had watched the rising waters of the Nile, still a red-brown muddy torrent the colour of blood. I had sailed peacefully a couple of times in a felucca on the river. They say that anyone who drinks Nile water will always return. Well, the closest I came was to cup my hands and wash my face in it, but maybe I drank it too, as the purified tap water must originally come from the Nile.

Most of all, this trip introduced me to the marvellous Egyptian people, always full of kindness and generosity and I had made several friends, who I would miss when I got home. I would miss the beautiful sound of the Arabic language, a few more words of which I had learned. I would miss the chattering children who magically appeared wherever we went, shouting ‘Hello, what’s your name?’ ‘Where you from?’. I would even miss the touts and felucca guys on Luxor or Aswan Corniche, with their twinkling eyes shouting, ‘Very beautiful, I love your smile, come for a sail on my boat?. I tried to imagine these felucca captains standing on the sea-front at home trying the same line of patter with the tourists. It made me laugh.

I had finished my packing and said goodbye to my hotel room at the Isis which had been a superbly comfortable home for the past week. I wished I could take the balcony home with me so that I could continue to wake up at dawn to a view of the Theban Hills and the sonorous sound of the early morning muzzein’s call to prayer from minarets all across town. It was time for my airport pick-up. What made it worse was that I was leaving, but my two friends who had come a week later, were staying on. I hated Luxor departure lounge which had not been modernised at that time. The waiting was endless on the rows of hard red plastic chairs, hundreds of tourists enclosed in the hall like cattle with no fresh air. I could see that the sun was setting but could not be out there to bid it goodnight. The plane was late and I knew that I had to spend the night at Gatwick Airport at the other end before I could continue my journey on to Cornwall next day. I wondered why we who love Egypt put ourselves through this. But I knew the answer – that every second of my trip had been worth it – and I knew I would do it again.

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2 comments on “November 1996

  1. I was reading your 1996 chapter (or blog) and you mention a taxi driver on the west bank at Luxor named Tayib.

    I was just wonderinjg if it is the same Tayyib as I always use. You’ll easily find him if you navigate to the Limousines section of my site.

    I’m finding your ‘blog’ most interesting. Mine started much more recently, in 2000.

    Brian Yare

    • Hi Brian

      Thanks for your comment. Could be the same Tayib, but I haven’t seen him for quite a few years now and can’t remember his surname. I think the phone number I have will be out of date. My Tayib’s a lovely friendly man. I love your Luxor West Bank site – a great idea!

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